“Hunting non-existent wolves”

Edward Luttwak has argued (registration/subscription required) that in Mafia Republic, University College professor John Dickie misunderstood the nature of the Sicilian mafia, also known as the Honored Society. The Mafia, if I interpret Luttwak correctly, is a social network and hierarchy whose purpose is to secure and distribute a share of certain rents resulting mostly from Sicily’s special position within the Italian economy and state. The most obvious of these are state funds allotted to the island, which is kept chronically uncompetitive by Rome’s economic policies. A tentative parallel would be Russia’s Northern Caucasus, which consumes inordinate amounts of federal money but remains corrupt and underdeveloped. The mafia’s social role and reliance on modern financial parasitism makes it unlikely that violent criminals like Riina and Provenzano – touted as “super-mafiosi” – were anything but “errant corporals” of the organization.

Dickie counters by emphasizing the key word, violence. Indeed, men willing and able to resort to violence may claim a high enough position in an alternative hierarchy, which needs its own enforcers and must be ready to reward them with status. Yes, Riina may have been a general – but hardly a commander-in-chief. One does not need violence to siphon cash to offshore accounts or rig construction tenders. Old-time extortionists and racketeers are becoming dangerous to the Honored Society.

Indiscipline aside, the need for tough guys was rapidly diminishing because the society’s business model was changing, from extortion – the pizzo exacted from all businesses, whether fruit pedlars or wholesalers – to the direct tapping of the Sicilian region’s large and rapidly growing healthcare budget; and from heroin distribution in slums with its meagre returns to money-laundering for the cocaine smugglers of Calabria.

Surrendering Riina to the authorities might have been a smart move by the mafia’s true leaders, who “warmly welcomed the emergency troop deployment” after the murder of prosecutor Falcone as “an easy way to get rid of the undisciplined tough guys who were defying the hierarchy by emulating Riina”. Note that most of Russia’s oligarchs have not been directly involved in violent crime, either, although Craig Murray disagrees on account of a particularly prominent one.

But Luttwak is concerned not only with Dickie’s conclusions but with his sources of information. More on this in the next post.

My own concern with Dickie is this reference: “The Sicilian mafia is a secret society modelled on the freemasons and, like the freemasons, it recruits from up and down the social hierarchy.” Every time someone brings up freemasons, I grow suspicious of the speaker. There was nothing sinister about Italy’s old masons, whose principal role was to counter the reactionary influence of the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the most pervasive organization for those in or near the political world was Freemasonry, membership of which long remained all but mandatory for the military and for the civic professions. Liberal Italians held an array of religious attitudes but the first and most menacing institutional enemy against which leaders of the new state long rallied was the Catholic Church.

So writes R. J. B. Bosworth in Mussolini’s Italy of the pre-WWI republic.

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