Judith Chubb, The Mafia and Politics
Cornell Studies in International Affairs, Occasional Papers No. 23
Copyright, Judith Chubb, 1989

Part I: The Mafia and Politics: The Italian State Under Siege 

     In the 1970s and the 1980s the Italian state came under 
direct and violent attack on two fronts: terrorism and the mafia. 
By the early 1980s the left-wing terrorism of the Red Brigades 
had been isolated and defeated by an increasingly efficient 
police operation backed up by a broad coalition of political and 
social forces in defense of democratic institutions.  In 
contrast, the struggle of the Italian state against the mafia 
continues to be characterized by a strikingly lower level of 
commitment not only in term of men and means but, most 
importantly, in terms of political support.  How can the very 
different behavior of the Italian state in response to these two 
quite distinct, but equally deadly, attacks on its 
representatives and its institutions be explained?  This 
monograph will argue that the key to understanding the 
distinctive nature of the mafia lies precisely in its 
relationship to political power and political institutions.  Even 
at its height terrorism remained essentially an external enemy, 
politically isolated, and after the assassination of Aldo Moro in 
1978, increasingly deprived of even the limited social support it 
had initially enjoyed among some sectors of intellectuals, 
disaffected youth, and the working class and undermined by 
growing defections among its own ranks. 
    The relationship of the mafia to dominant elites and 
institutions is quite a different one.  The difficulty of the 
Italian state in combatting the mafia arises fundamentally from 
the fact that the mafia is not, like terrorism, an external enemy 
but rather one which has succeeded in penetrating deeply into the 
very institutions which are supposed to be fighting it.  It is 
this presence of the mafia within the very structure of the 
Italian state which renders it a much more insidious and 
ultimately a much more dangerous threat to democratic 
institutions than was the more openly subversive but more 
vulnerable and exposed phenomenon of left-wing terrorism. 
    In order to understand the nature of the threat which the 
mafia poses to the contemporary Italian state, it is necessary 
first to analyze the nature and functions of the traditional 
agrarian mafia and then to examine the transformations that took 
place from the mid-1950s on both in the socio-economic functions 
of the mafia and in its relationship to political power.  This 
monograph will base its analysis on the Sicilian mafia as it has 
evolved from Italian unification in 1860 to the present. 
Although other forms of organized crime in southern Italy (like 
the Neapolitan camorra and the Calabrian 'ndrangheta) have 
achieved notoriety, their origins are quite distinct.  Not only 
is the Sicilian mafia much better documented; most importantly, 
it presents in a much sharper form those characteristics which 
distinguish "mafia" from other forms of criminal behavior--in 
particular its organic relationship with the political system. 
It is only in recent years, as a process of interpenetration and 
homogenization of these three forms of organized crime has taken 
place, that it makes sense to think of them as parts of a single 

The Traditional Mafia: The "Man of Honor"

     As a point of departure it is essential to define what is 
intended by the term "mafia" and to make clear those features 
which distinguish "mafia" from other forms of criminal activity. 
First, the term "mafia" as used in this article does not refer to 
a secret and unified criminal society, with rites of initiation, 
statutes, and a hierarchical chain of command linking each level 
of the pyramid to the one below it.  The issue of the 
organizational structure of the mafia has long constituted an 
important point of debate among scholars and publicists.  Popular 
literature has tended to present a picture of the mafia as a 
tightly organized criminal association.  Scholars, on the other 
hand, have argued that such a conception of the Mafia (with a 
capital "M") represents a distortion of reality; studies of the 
traditional agrarian mafia have used the term "mafia" to refer 
not to a formal criminal association, but rather to the sum of 
the activities of individuals and groups whose mode of behavior 
rather than their membership in a secret criminal society is what 
defines them as mafioso  The obvious parallels among the 
activities of various mafiosi are seen as reflecting not the 
existence of a central headquarters coordinating the activities 
of a far-flung criminal empire, but instead a fundamental 
identity in the values, in the goals pursued, and in the social 
functions performed by each mafia boss and his subordinates in 
each local setting.  Although the single mafia family or cosca is 
strongly centralized, this takes the form of a series of diadic 
relationships between the capo-mafia and each of the individual 
members.  The mafia as a whole is thus seen as a complex of 
social networks, held together by traditional bonds of honor, 
kinship and "instrumental friendship."   Typically the activities 
of the cosca are limited to a well-defined territory, over which 
it enjoys a monopoly of protection and control.  To the extent 
that a structure going beyond the cosca exists, it is a loose 
"federal" structure in which each cosca, autonomous in its own 
territorial or sectoral sphere of influence, enters into 
alliances or coalitions with its neighbors in the pursuit of 
larger-scale economic interests. 
     However, the judicial investigations preceding the opening 
of the major mafia trial in Palermo in 1986 reopened the debate 
over the organizational structure of the mafia.  In their 
preparatory documents, the Palermo magistrates argued that, as a 
result of the large-scale entrance of the mafia into the 
international drug trade, the organizational structure of the 
mafia has been revolutionized.  Traditional "family" and 
territorial structures, no longer adequate for the scale of the 
economic transactions involved, have been replaced by a tightly 
centralized, unitary organization, corresponding quite closely to 
popular images of a secret criminal society.  Individual families 
have become non-autonomous units in a large bureaucratic whole, 
with all major decisions being made by a single ruling "Cupola" 
or "Commission" (Stajano 38-63).  A closer look at the evidence, 
however, suggests that such a conclusion may represent an
oversimplification.  The Palermo trial evidence itself documents 
alternate phases of the constitution and breakdown of the 
Commission, of coordination and of conflict, the latter 
exemplified most recently by the unprecedented violence of a 
bloody intra-mafia war for supremacy during the early 1980s 
(although this pattern of alternation between a relatively stable 
pax mafiosa and violent competition among and within families 
recurs throughout the history of the mafia).  Because of the 
highly personalistic nature of mafia power, founded on the fear 
and respect inspired by the single capo-mafia, there is never a 
stable passage to forms of peaceful competition; violence remains 
the ultimate source of power, with new contenders constantly 
emerging to challenge the institutionalization of the status quo 
imposed by the dominant groups.  This suggests that a more 
accurate image of the contemporary mafia might be that of a 
confederation of competing sovereign states which have entered 
into a mutual security arrangement in order to pursue affairs in 
their reciprocal self-interest. 
     What we see, then, is not a unified organization, but rather a system of shifting alliances based on changes in the relative balance of power among the various families or coalitions.  While there is an interest in 
maintaining a higher body in order to regulate competition and 
limit destructive conflicts, the intense rivalry among the 
component groups, given the magnitude of the interests at stake, 
periodically becomes so intense as to break down the 
organizational arrangements intended to confine it, leading to 
unrestrained warfare like that which wracked metropolitan areas 
like Palermo and Naples in the first half of the 1980s.  It 
could also be argued that, despite tremendous changes in the 
nature and scope of mafia activities, the territorial base of 
mafia families remains an important element in their success, 
creating a foundation of social support in areas where a dominant 
"criminal subculture" has come to predominate, providing 
protection for certain illegal activities (e.g., contraband, 
extortion, drug refining), and constituting the basis for solid 
linkages to the institutions of local government. 
     A second analytical problem is that of distinguishing 
"mafia" from other forms of criminal behavior.  Very briefly, the 
following traits have historically demarcated the mafia from mere 
corruption on the one hand and from other forms of delinquency on 
the other: (1) the use of violence or the threat of violence to 
acquire illicit gains and to build up and maintain a position as 
a "man of honor;" (2) the existence of a broad base of social 
support and legitimation--within the local community the mafioso 
is not branded as a criminal, but is rather regarded as a leader, 
admired and respected as well as feared; (3) organic linkages 
with the political system--the development of a network of 
political ties that allow the mafioso and the interests he 
represents to penetrate deeply into legitimate institutions and 
that guarantee him immunity from prosecution.   These traits 
apply most fully to the traditional mafia as it developed in 
central and western Sicily in the period between 1860 and the 
mid-1950s.  The mafia of the 1980s differs in some important 
respects from the model set out above.  These changes can be 
traced to the breakdown from the mid-1950s on of the traditional 
agrarian mafia and of the cultural and socio-economic context 
which sustained it.  The profound transformations in the nature 
and role of the mafia from the 1950s to the present will be 
discussed in the second part of this monograph. 
     A central focus of much of the literature on the mafia, both 
scholarly and popular, has been the existence of a set of 
traditional subcultural norms which have, as noted above, created 
a basis of social support for the mafia which distinguish it from 
other forms of criminal activity.  In a classic inquiry into the 
social, economic, and political conditions of Sicily carried out 
for the Italian Parliament in 1875, Leopoldo Franchetti and 
Sidney Sonnino emphasized that the power of the mafia was based 
not so much on fear as on moral authority, rooted in the mafia's 
congruence with the dominant cultural norms of Sicilian society 
(Franchetti and Sonnino 127-128).  These norms revolved about the 
pursuit of honor and the legitimacy of individual violence as a 
means for attaining it.  In this sense, many observers have seen 
"mafia" as a set of positive attributes deeply rooted in popular 
culture, as illustrated in the following definition by the 
eminent Sicilian ethnographer, Giuseppe Pitre, at the end of the 
19th century: 

  Mafia is the consciousness of one's own worth, the 
  exaggerated concept of individual force as the sole 
  arbiter of every conflict, of every clash of interests 
  or ideas (Pitre 289; cited in Hess 16-17). 
A similar definition of the mafia was voiced by Vittorio Emanuele 
Orlando, parliamentary deputy from western Sicily and Prime 
Minister from 1917-1919, who owed his own political success in 
large part to mafia support.  Questioned about the criminal 
activities of the mafia, Orlando denied that the mafia as a 
criminal phenomenon existed.  Instead, he equated the mafia with 
all that was best in Sicilian culture: 
  if for mafia one intends the sense of honor carried to 
  the extreme, intolerance for every form of arrogance 
  and intimidation, generosity that confronts the strong 
  but indulges the weak, loyalty to friendships; if for 
  mafia one intends these sentiments and attitudes, then 
  in this sense they are individual manifestations of the 
  Sicilian soul, and I declare myself mafioso and am 
  proud to do so (cited in Antimafia Commission 1972, 
  Vol. 1: 267). 
Franchetti and Sonnino noted that in Sicily violent actions 
carried with them no stigma of immorality, that might was 
accepted as the criterion of right.  This they linked to the 
personalistic basis of Sicilian society: 
  There is absent in the majority of Sicilians the 
  sentiment of the law as being above all and equal for 
  all....The personal bond is the only one they 
  understand....Thus, in Sicilian society, all 
  relationships are based on the concept of individual 
  interests...to the exclusion of any social or public 
  interest (Franchetti and Sonnino 36). 
     The same principle is embodied in a Sicilian proverb: "Cu dinari 
e cu amicizia, 'nculu a giustizia" ("With money and with 
friendship, you can screw justice").  The clearest expression of 
this disregard for the law and the dependence on private forms of 
power and justice is the principle of omerta or silence, the 
refusal to cooperate with legal authorities in the pursuit of 
someone accused of a criminal action.  Again, the point is 
succinctly made in a popular Sicilian proverb: "Cu e surdu, orbu 
e taci, campa cent'anni 'mpaci" (He who is deaf, blind and silent 
will live a hundred years in peace").   Students of the mafia debate whether omerta should best be understood as an expression of social consensus surrounding the mafia or whether it is instead a pragmatic response based primarily on fear.  While the "mafia spirit" 
described above may have developed over the centuries in Sicily as an expression of revolt against outside domination, it developed after 1860 into a "Sicilianist" ideology, a rhetoric of self-justification against 
the Italian state and against outsiders who identified the source 
of Sicily's ills in presumed flaws of the Sicilian character. 
The Sicilianist ideology reacted against such accusations by 
exalting (like Pitre and Orlando) the Sicilian code of honor, 
identifying the mafia with broader subcultural values, and 
thereby denying its existence as a distinct criminal phenomenon. 
Pre-existing cultural codes were thus manipulated in a self-serving 
fashion by the mafia itself to justify its existence and 
obscure its ultimate reliance on violence and intimidation and by 
local elites to deflect attention from their own complicity. 
It is a mistake in any case to see the mafia purely as an 
expression of the Sicilian character or of pre-modern cultural 
     To understand the development of the mafia in the 19th 
and 20th centuries, it is necessary to place the mafia in the 
context of the economic, social and political arrangements within 
which it emerged and thrived.  Recent scholarly analyses of the 
origins of the mafia depict it not as a residue of a feudal past, 
but rather as a product of the disintegration of the feudal 
system and the penetration of the market and the modern state 
into the Sicilian countryside in the 19th century--a situation of 
transition in which traditional relationships of economic and 
political power were breaking down but not fully replaced by the 
impersonal structures of the market and the state.   These 
processes were set into motion by the attempts of the Bourbon 
rulers of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies beginning in the 1820s 
to undermine the feudal structure of landownership and the power 
of the barons by passing reforms intended to encourage the 
creation of a new class of smallholders. 
     This process of breaking up the vast feudal estates or latifondi was continued after the Unification of Italy, in 1860, through the sale of 
Church and communal lands.  Unlike the rest of southern Italy, 
however, the process of breaking up the feudal estates proceeded 
much more slowly in Sicily and with consequences quite different 
from the original intention of creating a small-holding peasant 
class.  Land did change hands, but the structure of land tenancy 
was not significantly altered; in fact, with the sale of Church 
and demanial lands, the weight of large-scale private property 
further increased.  The main effect of the reforms was to create 
a new bourgeois landowning class (a prototype of which is found 
in the character of Don Calogero Sedara in Giuseppe Tomasi di 
Lampedusa's novel, The Leopard) alongside the landed aristocracy 
while further increasing the number of landless peasants and the 
pressure of population upon the remaining available land.  This
rising bourgeoisie perpetuated a semi-feudal relationship between 
the landed elite and the peasantry.  Thus, despite the 
destruction of the legal basis of feudalism and the emergence of 
a new landowning bourgeoisie, the latifondo as an economic and 
social system continued to dominate central and western Sicily 
until the end of the Second World War. 
     The 19th and 20th century latifondo system which prevailed 
in the interior of central and western Sicily has been described 
as a form of "rent capitalism" specialized in the production and 
export of grain for international markets and profitable as a 
result of exploitation of land and labor rather than of 
productive investment in the agricultural process.  Most of the 
landowning elite, both aristocratic and bourgeois, preferred life 
in the great urban centers of Palermo or Naples to existence in 
the desolate Sicilian countryside.  The large estates were leased 
out to long-term tenants or gabelloti, who ran the estates in the 
owners' absence, dividing them into smaller plots for sublet to 
peasant sharecroppers.  These "rural entrepreneurs" thus 
effectively controlled the livelihood of the peasants, who 
depended upon them for access to the land and who, given the 
pressure of overpopulation and the scarcity of available land, 
could be squeezed to the limit of survival.  At the same time 
they accumulated wealth as well at the expense of the absentee 
landlords whom they cheated at the other end and who, finding 
themselves in financial difficulties, could often be persuaded to 
sell off parts of their estates at advantageous prices.  Many 
mafia bosses began their careers as poor peasants or shepherds, 
then, having distinguished themselves by their capacity for 
violence and prepotenza (the rule of the strongest), became 
gabelloti on large estates and eventually landowners in their own 
right.  In addition to land ownership, many mafiosi also became 
involved in the transformation and commercialization of 
agricultural products, as well as illegal activities such as 
cattle rustling, and acquired a leading role in rural banks and 
cooperatives, thereby reinforcing their position as privileged 
intermediaries in the economic transactions between the village 
and the larger society. 
     The mafia thus emerged in response to the breakup of the 
feudal system and the increased possibilities for 
entrepreneurship and upward mobility which that breakup 
engendered.   With the abolition of feudalism, 
  both wealth and the capacity to prevail through 
  violence became accessible to a larger number of 
  people, and the ruffians, who before had been in the 
  employ of the barons, became independent; thus, to 
  obtain their services, they now had to be dealt with as 
  the industry of violence [thus] came to have an 
  independent existence and organization....[In Sicily] 
  the criminal class is in a special situation, one that 
  bears no resemblance to that of delinquents in other 
  countries, no matter how numerous, intelligent, and 
  well organized.  One could almost say that it has 
  become a social institution.  In addition to serving 
  the interests of pre-existing social forces [i.e., the 
  absentee landowners], it has become, as a result of the 
  special conditions brought about by the new order, a 
  class with its own interests and industry, a social 
  force in and of itself (Franchetti and Sonnino 72, 90-91). 
     The mafioso can thus best be understood, in the words of Anton 
Blok, as a "violent peasant entrepreneur," specializing in a role 
of economic and political mediation between traditional social 
classes and between the countryside and the outside world.  One 
of the most acute students of the traditional mafia, Blok defines 
the mafioso as a "political middleman or power broker, whose 
raison d'etre lies in his capacity to acquire and maintain 
control over the paths linking the local infrastructure of the 
village to the superstructure of the larger society" (Blok 7). 
He plays a key role in managing the processes of conflict and 
accomodation among the state, the landowning elite, and the 
peasants, as well as monopolizing the critical junctures between 
the countryside and the larger economic and political systems. 
First of all, the mafioso performed functions of economic 
intermediation.  In the course of the nineteenth century, 
mafiosi, through the exercise or threat of violence, came to hold 
monopoly positions in a series of markets, both legal and 
illegal.  In the countryside, through their position as 
gabolloti, they controlled access to the key resource, the land, 
managing the gap between the peasants and the absentee landowning 
class, and between production and commercialization of the main 
crop, grain, which was transported to and sold in urban markets 
through networks monopolized by mafiosi.  In addition to such 
intermediation in legal transactions, the mafia also organized 
its own illegal activities, the most prominent being protection 
rackets and the entire cycle of animal rustling, clandestine 
butchering, and the transport of the meat to urban markets. 
     While most studies of the traditional mafia have focussed on 
the interior latifundial zones of central and western Sicily, it 
is important to note that the mafia was from the outset an urban 
as well as a rural phenomenon.  In fact, early accounts of the 
mafia emphasize its presence not in the latifondo but in the 
intensive agriculture (primarily citrus groves) of the fertile 
and prosperous coastal plain (the Conca d'Oro) surrounding the 
city of Palermo--both before and after Unification the center of 
economic and political power in Sicily.  The historian Pasquale 
Villari wrote in 1875, 
  the largest number of crimes are committed by the 
  inhabitants of the outskirts of Palermo, who are not 
  poor, but instead often property-owning peasants 
  successfully cultivating their orchards of oranges.  In 
  the Conca d'Oro agriculture prospers; large-scale 
  property does not exist; the peasant is well off, 
  mafioso, and commits a large number of crimes (Villari 
 It is probably most accurate, then, to see the mafia not as 
a product of backwardness but of possibilities of enrichment and 
mobility, not of the latifondo system alone but of the 
relationship between the city of Palermo and its agricultural 
hinterland, be it the desolate expanses of the interior or the 
flourishing orchards of the Conca d'Oro (Catanzaro 1988: 20-24, 
109-116; Lupo).  In the rich and diversified agricultural economy 
of the coast, the foundation of mafia power lay in the 
institution of guardiania, a system of oversight and protection 
of the citrus groves similar to that provided by the gabelloto in 
the countryside.  As in the countryside, this also placed the 
mafia in a crucial position in the marketing of the produce, the 
wholesale markets of Palermo being cited already in reports of 
the 1860s and 1870s as bastions of mafia power.  Finally, in 
addition to controlling transportation and commercial networks, 
mafiosi also monopolized the supply of irrigation water critical 
to the success of the coastal agriculture and owned many of the 
mills and presses for grain, wine and olive oil. 
     Some scholars have suggested that the distinguishing 
characteristic of the mafioso is that he is a vendor of trust - 
utilizing subcultural values of honor, instrumental friendship, 
and the legitimacy of private violence to guarantee stable 
economic transactions in a fragmented and highly competitive 
market situation characterized by the absence of the impersonal 
contractual or legal guarantees of the fully developed capitalist 
market and modern state (Catanzaro 1985: 38-41; Gambetta; Lupo 
479; Schneider and Schneider 107-109).  But the mafioso was more 
than a middleman regulating the interactions among distinct 
economic actors and markets.  Through the use or threat of 
violence, he established and maintained monopoly positions in 
both legal and illegal economic ventures of his own, often moving 
back and forth between the legal and illegal sectors.  What 
distinguishes the mafioso from other forms of entrepreneurship is 
the ultimate recourse to violence as a means of regulating 
competition and of acquiring both social status and wealth - a 
kind of "primitive accumulation" which will be utilized in the 
post-World War Two period to launch the mafia into new and even 
more lucrative economic activities. 
     The economic bases of mafia power are reflected in its 
social composition.  The sources are not unanimous as to the 
class basis of the mafia.  While some observers have argued that 
mafiosi are to be found among all social classes, others have 
argued that the mafia is above all a middle-class phenomenon (see 
Catanzaro 1988: 16-19; Lupo 476).  The latter explanation is the 
more persuasive.  Examination of its key economic, social, and 
political functions shows the mafia to be positioned 
strategically between the peasants and the traditional landed 
aristocracy.  The peasants were most often either the instruments 
or victims of the mafia, and the large landowners its accomplices 
or protectors.  The mafia in the strict sense, however, was 
characterized already by Franchetti and Sonnino in their 1875 
inquiry as "ruffians of the middle class": 
  In Palermo and its hinterland the industry of violence 
  is above all in the hands of members of the middle 
  class.  In general this class is considered an element 
  of order and security, especially where it is numerous, 
  as is the case in Palermo....But this is only an 
  apparent contradiction.  In fact, where the middle 
  class does not have the size and influence to insure 
  the dominance of the law over private power, it no 
  longer views the rule of law as a means to conserve its 
  property and status....Thus when, due to social 
  conditions on the one hand and the impotence of the 
  authorities on the other, the risk of using violence is 
  not greater than that of not using it, any reason for 
  the members of the middle class to sustain law and 
  order ceases (Franchetti and Sonnino 97). 
     This middle-class status is reflected in the professions 
typical of mafiosi.  In the countryside and in the semi-rural 
towns and villages of the Conca d'Oro mafiosi, while often of 
peasant origin, rose to become estate guards, gabolloti and 
eventually landowners in their own right.  Other typical 
professions were muleteers and carters (eventually mechanized 
transport firms), animal herders, wholesale and retail merchants, 
as well as middle-class professions such as doctors, lawyers, and 
pharmacists. Not only was the gabelloto cum mafioso a "violent 
entrepreneur" and a broker between the local economy and external 
markets; he performed important social and political functions as 
well.   Critical to the emergence and persistence of the mafia 
was the absence of effective state power in the Sicilian 
countryside under both the Bourbons and the unified Kingdom of 
Italy.  Except for the tax collector and the conscription 
officer, the state was distant and was viewed less as a 
legitimate source of authority than as a hostile and alien 
occupying force.  In the vast empty expanses of the Sicilian 
countryside, the state as a guarantor of law and order simply did 
not exist.  Thus, in the absence of one of the fundamental 
defining characteristics of the modern state--the territorial 
monopoly over the legitimate use of physical violence--private 
forms of violence and justice filled the gap.  In such a context, 
it was not surprising that the abstract rule of law should carry 
little weight when confronted with quite concrete and immediate 
forms of power and coercion or that omerta, seen by many 
outsiders as a tragic flaw of the Sicilian character, should 
prevail as a rational response to the total inability of legal 
institutions to provide protection and redress. 
     In the absence of state power, a kind of Hobbesian universe 
was created where individual violence and prepotenza reigned and 
gained greater popular legitimacy than the formal institutions of 
the state.  The predominance of informal mechanisms of power and 
influence like the mafia was reinforced by the terms upon which 
Italian Unification took place.  The relationship between the 
newly created Kingdom of Italy and the Italian South is the key 
to understanding the central role played by the mafia in Sicilian 
society and politics after 1860.  It is precisely the 
relationship of the mafia to political institutions and the 
legitimacy that the mafia acquired through that relationship 
which most clearly distinguish the mafia from other forms of 
delinquency (e.g., banditry) and organized crime.  Unification 
was based upon a tacit alliance between the northern industrial 
bourgeoisie and the southern landed elite, an alliance which 
shaped the fundamental outlines of the Italian political system 
until the Fascist takeover in 1922.  The terms of this alliance 
were perpetuation of the social and economic status quo in the 
South, complete freedom of action for dominant elites at the 
local level, and access to government patronage by southern 
deputies in return for their unquestioning support in Parliament 
for any government majority, regardless of its program.  Such an 
alliance removed the central government as a meaningful political 
actor at the local level at the same time as, through the 
institution of elections and the gradual extension of the 
suffrage,  it greatly strengthened both the autonomy and the 
national political leverage of local influence brokers. Thus, the 
new Italian state formally proclaimed a monopoly of violence, but 
at the same time delegated to local elites the power to govern in 
its name--those same local elites who were either the 
perpetrators or the protectors of the system of private violence 
which ruled de facto in the place of the state. 
     Given the physical absence of both the central state and of 
much of the propertied class from the countryside, the local 
elite came in many cases either to be identical with the mafia 
or, at the very least, to protect it.  In this context, these 
"violent peasant entrepreneurs" assumed a series of essential 
functions in social and political life.  One set of functions 
revolved about the maintenance of order and social stability in 
the countryside.  One form this took was "protection"--in return 
for the payment of tribute--of life and property against attack 
by thieves or bandits.  Although, given the endemic insecurity of 
the countryside and the inability of the state to provide its own 
form of protection, such a service was certainly necessary, in 
reality it was often an extortion racket in which the mafia 
skimmed a profit off peasant and large landowner alike.  If 
anyone refused to come to terms with the local capo-mafia, he 
would soon find himself subject to thefts, fires, and destruction 
of property until he saw fit to pay for the necessary 
     While protection rackets placed the mafia in an ambiguous 
position vis-a-vis the dominant classes, other aspects of 
their social role placed mafiosi more squarely on the side of the 
established order.  As we have seen above, central to the 
mafioso's raison d'etre was his role as mediator--not just in the 
relations between the village and the outside world, but also 
with regard to conflicts within the local society.  In a 
Hobbesian universe where an intense and unbounded competition for 
individual honor and wealth would otherwise prevail, the mafioso, 
once having achieved a position of prestige through violence and 
aggression, then began to seek ways to regulate the intense war 
of all against all, which would otherwise tear the society apart 
and threaten his own position.  As Calogero Vizzini, one of the 
last of the "old-style" bosses put it, 
  The fact is that in every society there has to be a 
  category of people who straighten things out when 
  situations get complicated.  Usually they are 
  functionaries of the state.  Where the state is not 
  present, or where it does not have sufficient force, 
  this is done by private individuals" (Corriere della 
  Sera, October 30, 1949). 
In addition to the typical conflicts concerning land rights, 
debts, the honor of women, and the like, one form of intervention 
in which the mafia was particularly successful was the 
restoration of stolen property.  In the exercise of this function 
the mafia proved much more efficient than the police.  Some 
interesting data in this regard were reported by the Fascist 
Prefect of Palermo, Cesare Mori.  According to Mori, in 75% of 
thefts in his district the official authorities failed to achieve 
any result; in 15% of the cases they succeeded in finding the 
guilty party; in only 10% of the cases did they also recover the 
stolen goods.  By contrast, still according to Mori, in 95% of 
the cases the mediation of the mafia met with full success (data 
cited in Arlacchi 1986: 34). 
     A final aspect of the mafia's role as guarantor of order and 
social stability regards the repression of both common crime and 
political deviance.  In effect, the central government delegated 
to the mafia the function of maintaining public order in the 
territories under its control.  In this role the mafia became not 
so much an enemy as a collaborator of the state.  It is in this 
face of the mafia as a guarantor of public order and social peace 
which illustrates most clearly the contrast with other endemic 
forms of delinquency such as banditry.  The bandit or brigand was 
a marginal figure, in constant and open conflict with both the 
state and the dominant classes.  The mafia, on the other hand, 
was at the same time both a competitor and a collaborator of the 
state and the dominant elite, seeking to preserve and profit by 
existing structures of power rather than rebelling against them. 
It is precisely in this ambiguity that the uniqueness of the 
mafia as a social and political phenomenon lies. 
     Not only did the mafia effectively curb banditry and common 
crime in areas under its control; it also served when necessary 
as the armed agent of the state in the repression of political 
deviation.  Although this face of mafia power emerged as early as 
the 1890s in response to the formation of the Fasci Siciliani (a 
socialist reform movement), it assumed its most virulent form in 
the immediate post-World War II period.  The period from 1943 to 
1950 in Sicily was marked by widespread peasant unrest and mass 
occupations of large estates, led primarily by the Communist and 
Socialist parties, in order to put pressure on the government to 
enact land reform.   This mobilization of the peasants helped 
the Left to win a plurality of the vote in the first elections 
for the Sicilian regional assembly held in April 1947.  During 
this period the mafia, allied initially with the Sicilian 
Separatist Movement (dominated by the large landowners fearful of 
left-wing influence at the national level) brought many bandits 
into the Separatist "army" to be used as front-line troops 
against the peasant movement and the left-wing parties.   The 
threat posed to the traditional social order by large-scale 
peasant mobilization, combined with the broader international 
context of increasing Cold War tensions, led as well to contacts 
with representatives of the Christian Democratic Party, already 
emerging as the dominant political force at both the regional and 
national levels.  An exemplary illustration of the way in which 
the mafia used bandits to serve its own ends, as well as broader 
poliitical interests, is the case of Salvatore Giuliano. 
Initially an enemy of the great landowners and the mafia in the 
tradition of the southern Italian brigand, Giuliano was coopted 
by the mafia to terrorize the peasants who were organizing to 
occupy the great estates. On May 1, 1947, two weeks after the 
electoral victory of the Left, Giuliano's band attacked a 
peaceful gathering of peasants celebrating Labor Day outside the 
town of Portella delle Ginestre, leaving 11 dead and 56 wounded. 
     The massacre at Portella delle Ginestre marked the peak of a 
campaign of terror in which the mafia, either directly or through 
intermediaries like Giuliano, assassinated scores of peasant 
leaders and trade-union organizers.  This campaign of violence 
and intimidation successfully decapitated the peasant movement 
and seriously undermined the electoral base of the left-wing 
parties.  When Giuliano's usefulness had been exhausted, however, 
and he threatened to become politically dangerous, he was in turn 
eliminated through a joint effort of the mafia and the 
carabinieri--testimony once again to the ambiguous relationship 
between private and official violence.  During the 1951 trial of 
the surviving members of Giuliano's band for the deaths at 
Portella delle Ginestre, the role played by the mafia and 
national political leaders emerged clearly; as Giuliano's 
lieutenant, Gaspare Pisciotta, announced at the trial, "We are a 
single body--bandits, police, and mafia--like the Father, Son, 
and Holy Ghost" (Antimafia Commission 1976: 131).  However, no 
judicial action was taken against those to whom the finger of 
political responsibility pointed.  As for Pisciotta, who swore 
that he would eventually reveal the truth about those responsible 
for the crimes committed by Giuliano and his band, he died a 
suspicious death of poisoning inside the high-security prison of 
     The political role of the mafia, however, went beyond the 
maintenance of order in the countryside and the repression of 
political deviance through violence and intimidation.  It also 
served the critical function of political mediation, linking the 
local society to broader structures of political consensus and 
democratic representation.  In a situation where politics was 
dominated by personalistic ties, where neither mass parties nor 
broader structures of interest representation had penetrated, 
mafiosi, as the holders of significant positions of local 
influence, quickly became great electors, mobilizing support for 
candidates in both local and national elections or, in some 
cases, went beyond the function of brokerage to assume local 
elective positions in their own right.  As Franchetti and Sonnino 
put it in their 1875 report on conditions in Sicily, "The primary 
responsibility for the disorder in many local administrations 
lies with the mafia, which has penetrated all the parties and 
prospers there at the expense of the public interest" (Franchetti 
and Sonnino xxv).   In a similar vein and in the same year, the 
magistrate Diego Tajani proclaimed in a speech to the Chamber of 
Deputies, "The mafia ... is not dangerous or invincible in and of 
itself, but because it is an instrument of local government" 
(cited in Catanzaro 1988: 109). 
     This direct link to the institutions of local government gave the mafia access to public funds and to a wide range of patronage resources which allowed it to further consolidate its wealth and power and its hold over the local population.  In addition, because of its control of many 
local administrations and its crucial role in the election of 
many parliamentary deputies, the mafia in turn received 
protection, recognition, and legitimation from national 
authorities.  In the words of the Sicilian historian, Francesco 
Renda, what distinguishes the mafia from other forms of 
delinquency is that "it commits crimes with the almost total 
certainty of impunity from justice, being able to count on 
complicity, connivance and support in order to throw sand into 
the machine of justice" (Renda 1983: 153).  The combination of 
omerta (the code of silence) among the population and the 
complicity of high-ranking politicians and public functionaries 
insured the almost certain acquittal of those mafiosi who were 
brought to trial.  In fact, a long record of acquittals for lack 
of sufficient evidence came to be one of the hallmarks of the 
"true" mafioso. 
     Despite the recurrent use or threat of violence which 
distinguishes the mafia from mere corruption, the mafia boss 
within his own community was considered not a criminal, but 
rather a community leader--prestigious, influential, and 
respected as well as feared.  The career of the typical mafioso 
passed through two distinct stages.  The first was the 
competition for honor and wealth in a Hobbesian universe without 
social or legal constraints and the affirmation, through the 
commission of acts of violence, of the mafioso as a "man of 
respect."  The second stage could be considered one of 
"institutionalization."  Domination through physical force was 
translated into authority, and the status of the mafioso rose 
from criminal to respected member of the local elite, recognized 
and legitimated by the representatives of legal power.  This 
required the passage from self-affirmation through violence to 
the containment and management of conflict within the mafioso's 
territorial domain, as well as the creation of networks of social 
and political relations to sustain his position; in this stage of 
his career the mafioso was seen by the authorities as a "man of 
order."   The mafia thus served as an important channel of social 
mobility in an otherwise rigid class structure.  The traditional 
mafia boss would be seen in the company of the mayor, the local 
parliamentary deputy or cabinet minister, the priest, and the 
carabinieri - he was on intimate terms with the entire local 
elite and at times even formally a part of it. 
     Emblematic of the traditional mafioso are the careers of 
Calogero Vizzini and Giuseppe Genco Russo, reputed to be the most 
powerful mafia bosses of the 1940s and 1950s.  Vizzini, of 
peasant origin and semi-literate, became gabelloto of a large 
estate as well as a sulphur mine in central Sicily; as a 
representative of a consortium of sulphur mine operators, he even 
participated in high-level meetings in Rome and London concerning 
government subsidies and tariffs.  When the Allies landed in 
Sicily, Vizzini's reputation was such that he was nominated mayor 
of his hometown, Villalba; in the postwar period, he initially 
supported the Separatist movement and subsequently joined the 
Christian Democratic Party.  Upon Vizzini's death in 1954, his 
successor was Giuseppe Genco Russo.  Like Vizzini, Genco Russo 
was of peasant origin and, through a career of violence 
stretching from the 1920s to the 1940s, established his position 
as a "man of honor;" during that period he was arrested 
repeatedly on charges ranging from theft and extortion to 
membership in a criminal association to murder and, with one 
exception, regularly acquitted on grounds of insufficient 
evidence (the mark of the successful mafioso).  In 1944 the court 
granted Genco Russo a decree of rehabilitation for his one conviction, thereby allowing him 
to recreate a moral and social virginity, acquiring a respectability which will permit him to undertake even political activity. (Antimafia Commission 1972, Vol. 1: 379)
This political activity consisted initially inupport for the Separatist and Monarchist causes (he was awarded the honorific title of Cavaliere della Corona d'Italia in 1946), and then for the Christian Democratic Party, of which he became a local leader and town councillor in the 1960s.  Genco Russo's description of himself and of his role in the community provide 
an eloquent illustration of the self-image of the mafioso in the 
second, "legitimate" stage of his career - the mafioso as a 
public benefactor rather than as a dangerous criminal: 
  It's in my nature.  I have no ulterior motives.  If I 
  can do a man a favour, no matter who he is, I will; 
  because that's how I'm made....I can't say `no' to 
  anyone.  The trouble I'm put to is not so great that 
  I have to refuse people in need....Very often warm- 
  heartedness will win a man gratitude and friendship, 
  and then the time comes to ask for one thing or another 
  in....Folks come and ask how they should vote 
  because they feel the need for advice.  They want to 
  show that they are grateful to those who have 
  worked for their good; they want to thank them for what 
   they've done by voting for them; but they are 
  ignorant, and want to be told how to do it (Dolci 121-122). 
Vizzini and Genco Russo also illustrate another essential 
characteristic of the mafia--its capacity to adapt to changing 
economic, social and political circumstances.  Although the mafia 
often employed violence to resist change, it also proved capable 
of manipulating popular movements or progressive reforms for its 
own ends.  We have already seen evidence of such adaptability in 
the mafia's reaction to the breakdown of feudalism, Italian 
unification, and the introduction of democratic institutions. 
During the socialist movement of the Sicilian Fasci in the 1890s 
and the peasant land occupations in the aftermaths of the First 
and Second World Wars, the mafia responded with a dual strategy. 
     On the one hand, as shown above, the mafia served as an 
instrument of armed repression against leftist movements; on the 
other, it took over the new organizational forms and turned them 
from vehicles of class mobilization into means for perpetuating 
traditional social values and relationships.  Both Vizzini and 
Genco Russo organized peasant cooperatives during both postwar 
periods, through which they deflected the appeal of the left-wing 
parties, maintained their hold over the peasants, and guaranteed 
their own continued access to the land.  When land reform was 
finally enacted in 1950, mafiosi were in a position to perform 
their traditional role of brokerage between the peasants, the 
landlords, and the state.  They were able to exploit the intense 
land hunger of the peasants, gain concessions from the landlords 
in return for limiting the impact of the reform, and make 
substantial profits from their mediation in land sales.  Once 
again, one sees the fusion of economic gain with functions of 
social and political control. 
     Raimondo Catanzaro has argued that the essence of the mafia 
and the explanation for its persistence in the face of dramatic
changes in economic, social, and political conditions lies in a 
process of "social hybridization: 
  mafia groups are not relics of the past, but were 
  formed as a result of a specific combination of ancient 
  and modern, a mixture of private violence and the 
  legitimate violence of the state, of competition for 
  economic resources in the market and the absence of 
  regulatory standards for economic activities other than 
  violence....[O]ne of the fundamental models of 
  behaviour for the mafia consists in resistance to 
  social changes but, when these changes appear 
  inevitable, to exploit them for its own ends....One of 
  the consequences of this model of behaviour is that new 
  institutions come to be utilized for the fulfillment of 
  traditional values.  A double process thus occurs: on 
  one side, the modern institutions are modified and 
  employed for ends other than those for which they were 
  originally intended.  On the other, the traditional 
  values do not disappear; they are not replaced by new 
  values, but are adapted to make traditional use of new 
  institutions (Catanzaro 1985: 34, 45-46). 
Thus, far from falling victim to processes of modernization, as 
many observers of the traditional mafia predicted, mafiosi 
emerged instead as protagonists of change, as will become 
dramatically evident from the mid-1950s on. 
In conclusion, the traditional mafia should be seen as a 
system of violent clienteles, an integral part of a chain of 
patron-client relations linking the Sicilian peasant to the 
holders of national political power.  In return for his vote and 
for other potentially less savory services the peasant received 
protection and a variety of small favors from the mafioso, who in 
turn received protection, legitimation, and access to public 
resources from more highly placed patrons among the dominant 
political and economic elites in return for the key social and 
political functions which he performed.  Far from challenging the 
power or status of the dominant elite, the successful mafioso 
became part of that elite. 
     Far from substituting itself for the state or constituting an autonomous state within the state, as many analyses of the mafia have suggested, the traditional mafia functioned in a symbiotic relationship with the state, depending on the state insofar as a substantial part of its power was 
rooted either in the delegation of certain functions from the 
central government or in privileged access to critical levers of 
state power and patronage.  It was precisely this relationship of 
mafiosi to the dominant classes and to public authorities which 
rendered them immune to any state-based action against them. 
The successful mafioso became an integral part of the power 
structure, a solid pillar of support for the forces opposing 
transformation of the existing social order.  In the words of the 
Antimafia Commission of the Italian Parliament, a source which 
cannot be suspected of political bias 
One can conclude that the mafia was in its origins not a phenomenon of the subordinate classes, as such excluded from any power agreement, but, on the contrary, a phenomenon of those classes which at the moment of
Unification already dominated (and continued to dominate) the 
political and economic life of the island--the feudal nobility 
and the great landowners" (Antimafia Commission 1976: 112). 
back to syllabus