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A reality that exists in parallel with the modern state

Mafia Politics
Forfatter: Marco Santoro
Forlag: Wiley (USA)
THE MAFIA / A new book explains why a political organization is more than a criminal network. It is a correct but dangerous thesis.


In April 2006, the mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano was arrested, after 40 years on the run. In the summer of 2006, in the wake of the arrest of Provenzano, many mafia cells were rolled up in Palermo and a number of small and big mafia leaders were arrested.

That same summer I moved to Italy. To learn the language, I pored over the newspapers almost every day, and some of the news from Sicily I remember better than others. One was a picture of policemen placing a mafia boss in a police car surrounded by a large crowd. In the middle of the crowd, a lady held up a placard saying "GRAZIE" ("thank you").

The other piece of news I latched onto was an excerpt from a press conference in which the head of the police force behind the many arrests stated that "Lo stato c'è."

The Sicilians

"Lo stato c'è" means "the state exists", or "the state is here", a punctuation mark which in state-fixated Norway seems completely wasted – no one doubts that "lo stato c'è". In Sicily, the power dominance of the central government is far from obvious.

The history buff will know that the Sicilians have been ruled over the centuries, not to mention the millennia, by everything from Greeks and Normans to Spaniards. When the northern Italians came from Piedmont to incorporate the island into the new Italian state, there was little difference between them and the conquerors who had come before them, and the new rulers had to prove their right to rule. To do so they had to defeat competing social structures.

The complicated legitimization process the modern Italian nation-state has been through, not only in Sicily, but also in many other places in southern Italy, is not yet complete. That is why the head of the investigation I saw in the newspaper needed to emphasize that "the state exists". The arrest of a mafia boss is a way to prove and legitimize the state's presence and exercise of power in Sicilian society.

The Sicilian social ties

It is precisely in the intricate historical-sociological landscape that is linked to the legitimization of the exercise of political power that Marco Santoro places his analysis of the mafia. Santoro takes the Sicilian mafia as his starting point, but believes his analysis can also be applied to other mafia organizations in and outside Italy. According to Santoro, the mafia is neither a business nor an organized criminal network, but "primarily a way of organizing and managing interpersonal relationships". A political structure, that is.

Like squeezing grapes from different trees to make the same wine.

To substantiate his claim, Santoro takes a long intellectual route. His text is rich in references to thinkers and researchers in many disciplines, from sociology and social science to anthropology and philosophy. Far from all are Westerners. However, all these references are like squeezing grapes from different trees to make the same wine: the Mafia arose as a result of special conditions in Sicily. These are conditions that are and partly remain different from the political and social realities of continental Europe, which gave rise to our cultural tradition's most important political and social theories. Such theories therefore have little explanatory power for the mafia phenomenon. Even to this day, the Mafia relies on techniques, especially the distribution of gifts, that maintain and perpetuate the ties that bind Sicilian society together. This society is a reality that exists parallel to the modern state, and which the latter is at pains to penetrate and dominate completely.

I think Santoro is right, but if his thesis is explanatory, it is also extremely dangerous. It is dangerous because it is legitimizing: an "organic" historical origin justifies the mafia's existence as a political structure, as Santoro claims it is. But the mafia can no longer be justified.

Protection money

I would argue that one of the most effective anti-mafia measures in Sicily today is Addio Pizzo, a voluntary organization that helps consumers choose goods from producers and retailers who do not pay the "pizzo" – protection money. According to the activists behind Addio Pizzo, the mafia survives because it is culturally accepted in Sicily. But, they say, we have to change culture, we have to stop the mafia here in our midst by changing cultural mechanisms. Because in Sicily, consensual practice has become abuse.

Regardless of how the mafia originated, we must never forget that today it is a violent regime that creates and spreads terror and fear and holds the local population hostage in a vile game of economic and political gain. Nothing can excuse it.

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