Why do we like mafia films?

“Bolshevism is knocking at our gates, we can’t afford to let it in… We must keep America whole and safe and unspoiled. We must keep the worker away from red literature and red ruses; we must see that his mind remains healthy.” – Al Capone

The genre of the mafia film, and related media such as mafia-related thrillers and so forth, remains one of the fixed stars at the firmament of popular culture. Movies like The Godfather, Scarface have become all-time classics, while television series such as The Sopranos rival with them for the considerable audience interested in such works. What characterizes many of the most successful media in this genre is not so much having the mafia as a subject, but that more often than not they are seen from the point of view of the gangsters themselves. Portrayed as flawed, greedy, but witty and inventive fighters against establishment and order, bound by an idiosyncratic but honest honor code, the mafiosi seem to figure as ideal anti-heroes. Of course, that the life of the mafia boss gives plenty of opportunity for filmmakers to incorporate high doses of violence and sex in their films is also an important part of the deal. This fits perfectly with approaches such as HBO’s standard formula for successful television series, which is simply repackaging sex and violence into a thin intellectual wrapping so that people don’t feel unsophisticated or vulgar for watching it.

In principle, there seems nothing wrong with this. After all, the mobsters in question are rarely portrayed as particularly good or nice, and antiheroes are a common and appreciated trope of scriptwriting. Moreover, for good reasons few people identify strongly with the FBI or other police organizations dedicated to maintaining the law and order against which the mafia supposedly rebel in vain, so that the latter can appear both as antihero and as underdog – certainly an irresistible combination. However, it seems to me that especially on the left, the politics of this genre is not sufficiently examined. Of course, there is a considerable amount of writing on the notions of masculinity and outward aggression. For example The Sopranos explicitly plays on the theme of the fragility of masculinity and the absurd lengths to which the mafia members will go to sustain it. Similarly, much has been written on the nature of the mafioso as a self-made man, as a social climber, and the mythology of the rags-to-riches dimension inherent in the criminal career, but this remains focused on the level of the mafioso as individual. In this narrative, the mafia film is an example of how the criminal story of ‘bootstrapping’ becomes the anxious dream, an object of jealousy as well as a source of repulsion, for Western audiences in times of diminishing social mobility.

In a different interpretation, Fredric Jameson’s famous essay on The Godfather in his article “Reification and Utopia” focuses on the mafia as a cypher for the essentially criminal and pervasively parasitical power of capitalism itself, this is still robbing the mafia as protagonist of its historical and economic origins. Put differently, for Jameson “mafia movies thus project a “solution” to social contradictions – incorruptibility, honesty, crime fighting, and finally law-and-order itself – which is evidently a very different proposition from that diagnosis of the American misery whose prescription would be social revolution.” This means the mafia protagonist is merely the ‘dark side’ of capitalism to play off against the fantasy of the Party of Order, the possibility of a restoration of order and moral values within capitalism that would free us from its negative, destructive forces and restore a sense of Gemeinschaft. The mafia film is for him therefore an exercise in moral judgement on the ‘illegitimate’ side of capitalism, ignoring that capitalism is always criminal.(1)

But what is less examined is the position of the mafia genre from a historical and comparative perspective. That is to say, while the structure of the mafia honor code and its significance – and of course the talents and techniques of filmmaking itself as they are expressed in Scarface or the like – are familiar points of inquiry, this still takes the concept of the mafia film with the mafia as protagonists for granted. Instead of this, I would suggest the political implications of the mafia film can be understood differently if we focus on the economic historical function of the mafia as an institution. In that case, the seemingly self-evident acceptance of the mafioso as antihero protagonist should be seen by any radical politics in a much more negative light than Jameson and the other psychological readings suggest. For what is at stake is more than just an ambiguity towards capitalism as a whole: the mafia as antihero protagonist is itself a politically reactionary instrument.

Few people seem very aware of the origins of the mafia beyond a conception of them ‘coming from Italy’ as a peculiar kind of organized crime, and then with Italian settlers in North America taking up root in the big cities of that continent. However, the mafia was always more than just a simple gang, or even a confederation of gangs. Such a thing does not come about naturally; neither do their strict hierarchies, honor codes, and the clan-like structure. We must not naturalize this, but examine it historically. What we find then is that the origins of the mafia lie in Italy, but in a particular context: namely in the struggle between the landlords, often absentee landlords, and the peasantry of the Mezzogiorno. From the high Middle Ages onwards, after the establishment of serfdom in the Kingdom of Naples (which also controlled Sicily) and its maintenance under the rule of Aragon, the interests of absentee landlords were protected during the periodic risings of peasant rebellions or foreign invasions (such as by the North African muslim states) through organized groups of guardians of their fiefs. It is in this that traditionally the origins of the mafia are found: representatives and guardians of the interests of the feudo, the large landowners, from the period of serfdom up to the 19th century or so.

So the mafia from the get go are an outright reactionary organization serving the interests of the large landowners, the latifundists.(2) This also explains their ongoing hostility, up to the present day, towards the political and social organizations of the poor rural populations in Italy and towards the political left (the PCI) and its trade unionists, whose members they often sought to assassinate. However, we should not simply project the feudal origins onto present-day mafia activity. In the course of the 19th century, southern Italy became subsumed to the rule of capitalism, and with it, the structure of its social relations changed, and the mafia along with it. As Salvatore Lupo describes in his History of the Mafia, feudalism decayed into fragmentation of landownership and urbanization plus export-based agriculture and mining became economically dominant trends in Sicily and elsewhere.(3) This meant that the raison d’être of the mafia shifted along with it. Partially, with the various rounds of redistribution of land in southern Italy, the mafia interposed itself effectively between the large landowners and the peasantry, controlling the process of distribution to their own advantage. As Lupo writes: “they [the mafia] were organizers of cooperatives and won much of their power base by serving as intermediaries in the transfer of land from the large landowners to the peasants, and therefore by placing themselves firmly astride the collective movements precisely in the postwar years following the First World War and the Second World War.”

Similarly, with increasing export orientation of tenant farming, for example in citrus fruits, and with the development of urban markets linked to the rising world market of the capitalist era, it is precisely in the interstices between rural production and urban marketing that the mafia found its strongest foothold.(4) In Palermo, Lupo identifies their base of operations as the suburban and rural terrain belonging to the city proper: “In particular, in what in the nineteenth century was called the agro palermitano , or Palermo territorial countryside, midway between city and countryside, in the borgate and in the villages of the hinterland, the Mafia groups established a system of control over the territory that set out from the dense network of guardianìe (custodianships). They ultimately seized control of both legitimate and illicit business, cattle rustling, smuggling and contraband, and the early commercial intermediation of citrus fruit and other products of the area’s rich agriculture. In a more recent era, the same area proved to be the more or less natural marketplace for the expansion of real estate and for speculation in that field—age-old locations and age-old power bases finding new op­portunities for profit. The Mafia’s introduction into a transoceanic migratory network and its involvement with long-distance trade, such as the citrus fruit business, simply laid the groundwork in terms of mentalities and abilities well suited to smuggling tobacco and narcotics.”

It is important therefore, as always with such phenomena, to not simply ascribe the persistence or nature of the mafia to quaint and romantic holdovers from the feudal era. Their utterly reactionary role in terrorizing the peasantry of the Mezzogiorno and acting as guardiani of the latifundists is clear enough. But in the modern period, capitalist relations have not caused them to wither away, but rather to strengthen their operations. The role of the drug trade and other activities immediately related to the world market, and their operations in land and housing speculation and in protection rackets, are all examples of how the mafia’s traditional role as intermediaries have taken on new forms in the capitalist period. This is no different in New York than in Palermo. Whereas previously they operated directly in the interests of the agricultural ruling class, with the slow disappearance of this class and its significance, they became intermediaries of the new ruling order in a more abstract way – intermediaries wherever money was to be made, licitly or illicitly, always by interposing themselves between producers and the realization of the value of goods.

In other words, they now act as intermediaries on behalf of the ruling class not as a sociological phenomenon, but to the driving force of capitalism in a more abstract sense, intermediaries on behalf of capital in general. This clarifies on the one hand their mixture of clan-like structure with a strongly entrepreneurial focus, and on the other hand the ambiguity inherent in the much vaunted honor codes of the mafia, the omertà. As Lupo describes, and the mafia films invariably portray with great seriousness, the mafia always like to conceive of themselves as bound by ancient honor codes which require them to support the weak and attack the strong. More often than not, they see themselves as good, traditional Catholics and are quite insistent on enforcing its religious principles, including its inherent homophobia and patriarchal attitudes.

But it is impossible to comprehend why both the makers and the viewers of the mafia genre take this at its word. In a classic example of Hobsbawm’s ‘invention of tradition’, the more the modern mafia appears as an agent of capital, and pursuing the most violent and regressive forms of capitalism imaginable, the more the mafia is keen to present itself as defenders of traditional values. As Lupo notes: “In that ideology there is a certain degree of self-persuasion, a great deal of overweening ambition, and an even greater degree of propaganda destined to clash in the great majority of cases with a far different reality… Greed and ferocity, as will be documented in the pages of this book, are intrinsic characteristics of the Mafia of both yesterday and today, and both Mafias are and were capable of slaughtering innocent people, women and children, in defiance of their codes of honor… Sicilian and Italian American mafiosi continue to declare their hostility to drugs, which destroy the sociocultural ties of the community, even when they are caught red-handed dealing narcotics.” And so forth.

Similarly, this kind of hypocrisy of the mafia code, a lie and misrepresentation at its very base, also applies to the mafia’s relations with the state. In reality, the mafia is not so much anti-state nor a protector of traditional communities against state interference as it is, once again, a mediator between state and citizens, in its own interests. The history of Italy during fascism shows that the mafia and fascism could find a lot to agree on and to respect in each other’s work: they were really not so very different, and many of the mafia’s main figures were enrolled into the official fascistic militias, against the partisan activities of the resistance of the left based in workers and peasants’ movements. Equally, after WWII Italian politics has seen a consistent corruption and collusion between mafia and state figures, especially but not exclusively among the parties of the right and center. Occasional bursts of arrests of leading mafiosi then appear as the state’s means of keeping the mafia in the place where they want it: enablers of the political programmes of the Italian right, but not too much of an independent power outside its own sphere. The mafia have often chafed under this yoke – leading occasionally to outright war with the state, always with the mafia as the losing side – but on the whole accept the deal in return for their increasing, rather than decreasing, dominance through terror over the producers and small capitals of southern Italy in the course of the 20th century. The same is true in those places in North America where the mafia was and is sufficiently established to undertake the same role, such as in some parts of Canada and in cities like New York and especially Boston.

Here I must additionally say something on the role of the mafia in the specific context of migration to North America, because it is in this context that the mafia genre is almost always situated. It is frequently portrayed in the more historically oriented depictions as the equivalent of a ward boss, as power-brokers protecting poor migrant communities of Italian-Americans from petty criminality and the aggressive intervention of the WASP state establishment. While there is some basis of truth in this, this once again reinforces the mythology of the mafia as protectors of traditional communities, and ignores the fundamentally negative role the mafia plays even so. Gangsters throughout modern history, up to modern-day Mexico or Russia, defend themselves ideologically by the claim that they act as the real source of order and justice in poor communities and that they eliminate the many petty thieves and lenders and so forth preying on the population. But in reality, what this means is not the elimination of such small criminals, but their incorporation into the mafia sphere.

Like any capitalist enterprise, they seek to eliminate the competition and to obtain a monopoly: a monopoly on parasitical violence against the workers and against smaller capitals. It is a fundamental political inconsistency, and a mistake, to take their ideological justification of the search for this monopoly at its word. This justification is fundamentally analogous to the claims of the capitalist class that without its monopoly of economic rule, no production could take place, or the way the Party of Order representing its interests justifies the need for a police force to ‘restore order’. Precisely because these goals are, within capitalism, fundamentally analogous, the mafia is in practice ready to collaborate with the forces of the state whenever it suits them. Contrary to the mythology around the iron code of omertà, in reality mafiosi constantly betray each other once they have been arrested in order to obtain reduced sentences. There is no political principle here, only the formation of a petty ruling class within a larger capitalist formation in those cases where the state itself is unwilling or unable to enforce a monopoly of property against the workers. The mafia is less than a ward boss, because it does not deliver services beyond the elimination of its rivals. But it is also more than a ward boss, because it mediates the rule of capital through violence: namely in those situations where the latter’s usual means to terrorize the workers into accepting its exploitation by a parasitical class are inadequate.

The determining factor here is their hostility to the independent activities of organizations of workers and peasants on the basis of class or on the basis of rural resistance, unless such could be co-opted into a moral and individualistic programme. (Here, some of Jameson’s analysis is certainly sustainable.) The collusion between the mafia, the parties of the right and centre, and the Catholic Church is therefore (among other things) an alliance against the left, particularly trade unions and Communists, and is founded on its hostility towards this. That is the real meaning of the mafia today and throughout the capitalist era, and it is not just limited to the Italian case: much the same can be said of the Mexican cartels, of the Russian mafia, and so forth. Similarly, we find the mafia always on the side of the Italian-Americans or the Irish-Americans as a ‘community’ in the historical portrayals of its role. But in reality this means precisely the enforcement of the integration of these respective groups into the establishment of capitalism, reinforcing its existing order – including the role of this community in rigidly enforcing the oppression of black Americans, a prerequisite for its acceptance into the larger ‘white’ state.(5)

Now what is the point of all this history? It is to establish the curiously indulgent and positive attitude towards the mafia as genre protagonists, even if in the form of antiheroes. If one compares for example the treatment of the mafia given the above knowledge with the treatment of the Ku Klux Klan in American media, there is a striking difference. The KKK, although a Protestant organization, had much the same kind of role in protecting the interests of landowners against the potential independent organization of the rural and even urban workforces in their specific region, and equally claimed to be bound by the honor codes of their ancient genteel traditions in the style of Gone With the Wind, and equally combined terrorizing the producing population as intermediaries between state and society, and equally ultimately served the purpose of maintaining a particular order of property convenient to the supremacy of a small historical elite (including its racial dimension in America). Yet it is inconceivable that an HBO series or a whole range of commercially and aesthetically successful films would be made portraying KKK members and their organizations as flawed but dignified antiheroes.

Of course, the racial dimension plays a big role here, but this only reinforces the point: while those films successful in the early 20th century, such as Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation are now uniformly discredited and never shown because it is recognized that their very premise is tacitly based on the oppression of black Americans – both as workers and as blacks – such awareness is rarely if ever exercised against the genre of mafia films, which even among the left enjoy a great popularity. Of course, some people better versed in the genre will no doubt accuse me of misunderstanding it in the details of the specific films. That may be so; but if I misunderstand them in the specific, it is exactly by understanding them in the general, and therefore refusing to recognize this genre’s romantic idealization of an institution that both under feudal and capitalist conditions has always shown itself as the worst enforcer and mediator of the conditions of exploitation of these economic systems. Just like there is nothing heroic about the KKK, not even anti-heroic, the same is true of the mafia.

1) Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture”. Social Text 1 (1979), p. 146.
2) From the Latin latifundia, the large landholdings of the Roman aristocracy, generally worked by slaves. This system of large landownership of a narrow class of slave-owning aristocrats formed the basis for Western European feudalism with the decay of the central power of the Roman imperial state. See e.g. Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London 2013 [1974]: Verso), p. 75-103.
3) Salvatore Lupo, History of the Mafia (New York, NY 2009: Columbia University Press).
4) See also: Dimico et al., “Origins of the Sicilian Mafia: The Market for Lemons”. University of Göteborg, Working Papers in Economics 532.
5) Noel Ignatiev, How The Irish Became White (New York, NY 1995: Routledge).


don’t you think that the belief system surrounding the Mafia (in public fantasy) helps to legitimate the idea of a split between “legitimate” business and so-called “dirty business”, thus helping to uphold the idea that normal businesses are okay? Normal big business produces such wonders as the auto industry, the oil industry, big pharma, chemical companies, agribiz, etc., etc. None of it has any “legitimacy” for me.

“today 16:24:46

i am disappointed that he did not examine the long history of solidarity between black hand/la cosa nostra and italian radicalism/anarchism/galleanism/etc”

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