Book Review: Adam Tooze, “The Deluge”

“Liberalism is the only thing that can save civilization from chaos – from a flood of ultra-radicalism that will swamp the world…” These are the words of Woodrow Wilson aboard the SS George Washington in December 1918, reflecting on the tasks confronted by the United States and her allies after their victory in the First World War. It is also the fundamental thesis of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge, the long-awaited followup to his brilliant discussion of the political economy of Nazi Germany (for a discussion of which, see here and following). Applying his profound talent for combining political economy with international relations, Tooze’s central subject is the aftermath of World War I and the challenge of creating a new world order amidst the ruins of the old European powers. This challenge, as he presents it, was a dual one. On the one hand it involved the recognition by all European powers, victors or vanquished, that the United States was now the pre-eminent economic power in the world, with the potential of translating this tremendous advantage into equivalent military and political power on the world stage; and on the other hand it involved the attempts by Woodrow Wilson as American President to effect this transformation of the world balance of powers while simultaneously disentangling the United States from a war alliance that he had never wanted in the first place, and which threatened to perpetually constrain the freedom of action the Americans needed to make this potential a reality.

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Book Review: Jonathan Sperber, “Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life”

Does the world really need another Marx biography? As a fan of the man as thinker and (to some extent) as historical figure, normally my answer would always be ‘yes’. However, recent years have seen a spate of new Marx and Engels biographies that have been thorough and substantive on all aspects of their lives. Tristram Hunt’s irreverent but sympathetic biography of Engels (The Frock-Coated Communist, 2009), Francis Wheen’s fine overview of Marx’s life and thought (Karl Marx, 2000), and especially the brilliant study of the intersection of the private lives and public convictions of the whole Marx-Engels clan (including children and domestic servant), Mary Gabriel’s commendable Love and Capital (2011) have provided well-researched 21st century retrospectives on the lives of the great revolutionaries. Add to that the solid biographies I would consider the ‘standard classics’ from the previous generation, David McLellan’s Karl Marx: His Life and Thought (first edition 1973, now on the fourth) and J.D. Hunley’s underappreciated study of Friedrich Engels (The Life and Thought of Friedrich Engels: A Reinterpretation, 1991), and it becomes a truly daunting task to add much new content to our view of either man.(1)

Nonetheless, Jonathan Sperber has persevered, and while the work is not an overall success, it certainly has some merit of originality of approach. Sperber’s speciality is 19th century German history, especially of the various mid-century radical factions and figures around the 1848-1849 revolution, and this shows. The subtitle “A Nineteenth Century Life” puts his cards directly on the table, as does the introduction to the book: Sperber is convinced that Marx was fundamentally a figure of that period, never escaped the limitations of the mid-19th century worldview, and has very little to offer to anyone living in later times. This is the burden of his biography, quite contrary to virtually every other biographer (friendly or hostile), and Sperber throughout portrays all developments with an eye to making this case. Unfortunately, the argument is simply not plausible, and it leads to not just an at times rather contemptuous treatment of the subject, but also to some very odd shifts of emphasis and context.

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Luciano Canfora and the Question of Democracy

This is a repost of my review of Luciano Canfora and Amadeo Bordiga’s concepts of democracy, first posted on The North Star.

In The North Star, and the left more widely, the question of democracy is one avidly debated. While many of the classical distinctions within the radical left remain valid, such as about whether or not one should participate in parliamentary elections and what the attitude towards voting should be, this is only part of a larger problem. One of the biggest issues that distinguishes the different ‘strands’ or ‘tendencies’ of the left is precisely the underlying question of what each mode of socialist thought thinks democracy is, and whether this is a good thing — in short, what does it mean for something to be democratic? Are the ‘liberal democracies’ of our time simply stunted democracies, or are they not democratic at all and should they become so? And what of the left communist critique of democracy, as found in the works of Amadeo Bordiga and similar writers?

Luciano Canfora’s book Democracy in Europe1 is essentially a history of the concept of democracy within European political thought and practice, and therefore gives a good opportunity to explore this question a bit further. Written with much wit and a certain historical flair, befitting an iconoclastic scholar of Greek history as Canfora is, the book identifies as the central problem for any left discussion of democracy the question of what is actually meant by that term. Indeed, more often than not socialists tend to proclaim their support for democracy, the need for more democracy in society (especially economic democracy), and criticize the inadequate democracies of our time. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, adherence to ‘democratic socialism’ (or sometimes ‘socialism from below’) has become something of a watchword for entry into the ranks of the homines bonae voluntatis. But what does this ‘democratic’ mean, and what should it mean for us?

Canfora approaches this question through a kind of reasoned history, a rough chronology of political forms that, in each case, posited the question of democracy in a new way. One must of course begin with classical antiquity, for it is there that ideologically the notion of democracy began: even now, many ‘Western Civ’ textbooks and the like promote the idea that democracy is a quintessentially Western invention, and that it originates in ancient Greece, more specifically in classical and archaic Athens. This view has been criticized by a good deal of classical historians, and Canfora is of course no exception. As we know, the ‘democracy’ of the Athenians was based on mass slavery (four or five slaves to every freeman) and on the exclusion of foreigners and women citizens from the political process. Moreover, what Canfora does not mention as much, the Athenian community was constituted in religious and tribal terms in the same way that the Roman was and its medieval European heirs, and therefore democracy as a secular sovereignty of the people was wholly absent. The frequent use of sortition by lot for the most important positions, including the executive power, had a strong religious significance. It presupposes the equality of citizens; but for the ancient Athenians it followed that therefore the candidates among them were chosen by the gods, not by men.

More important and useful perhaps than this familiar critique is Canfora’s main approach, which is to examine the uses of the concept of democracy in these times. As Canfora shows, democracy (demokratia) was almost always used negatively, by the opponents of the Athenian system during the period between the Tyrants and the defeat in the Peloponnesian War: a term to describe something akin to our concept of ‘mob rule’. Even some of its defenders, such as the commander Pericles, are hesitant about using the term too readily — for the opposition between democracy and liberty was the argument of the classical aristocracy, and to accept the former appeared to concede the latter. Equally, the concept of democracy in Athens and in the classical world generally was predicated on a narrowness of citizenship, and any attempt to actually extend it — such as in the emergency of the impending defeat by the Macedonians — to slaves, outsiders, and so forth, was immediately rejected by the Athenian assembly precisely in the name of democracy: it could only exist by sustaining a wider elite than the oligarchy, but not by abolishing it.

It is these oppositions and meanings of democracy, Canfora argues, that have structured the concept up to the period of the rise of socialism. Democracy was for most reform-minded philosophers and intellectuals a negative term, so that even as Enlightened a figure as Kant rejects it in his Perpetual Peace, and De Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy is predicated on the concept that the slow victory of democracy is the death of liberty. There is here, as Canfora shows, a kind of double irony. One is the opposition between democracy and liberty, whereas in the modern West these are generally concepts claimed to go together. But there is also the vigorous opposition by aristocracies and elites, Enlightened or reactionary, against the ‘democratic’ movements of their time, when these democratic movements themselves could only be democratic in the Athenian sense: that is to say, democratic in the sense of extending oligarchy to a wider (middle) range of people. Yet often there were also people who sought a democracy in a different sense, one not based on oligarchic rule at all, with a totally new formulation of citizenship — democrats against the democracy. This is the central conflict of Canfora’s history.

The opposition between popular-democratic movements and the aristocratic-oligarchic movements in the early modern period then appears as something like the struggle between the Roman populares and optimates, where both were essentially factions of elites fighting over the control of a captured Roman plebeian clientele. The real secret of the Roman ‘proletariat’ was that it ultimately could play its client role and act due to its reliance on the exploitation of slave labor and the conquered territories abroad (especially Egypt) — and the same is true for the revival of this democracy in the early modern age. The victory of the Parliamentarian party in the English Civil War was a defeat for the old oligarchic faction, but was a victory of the oppressors of Ireland and the gentry class, not a victory of those who took democracy in our modern earnestness, like Diggers or Levellers. The Puritan and Parliamentarian notion of democracy is again one of the Bible, and of the equal but limited citizenship of those in the ‘English nation’ that were not dependent on others for their income — whatever Rainsborough and others tried to argue.

A similar phenomenon holds for the revival of classical democracy and its virtues in the garb of the French Revolution, as Canfora shows. Rightly, he pays much attention to the often too easily overlooked significance of the Jacobin faction’s view of democracy: namely, that despite their adaptation of classical garb, they understood it radically differently from the traditional view of what democracy meant. Indeed, as Canfora suggests, their reading of the classical period was worse compared to their counter-revolutionary colleagues, the more they moved beyond the classical meaning of ‘democracy’ — especially in their firm conviction that liberty and the equality of democracy could and should co-exist.

This is shown by the great events of the 18 Pluviôse, when Danton, Robespierre and others got the Convention to pass a decree abolishing slavery not just on French soil, but in the colonies — something unimaginable in Britain or the United States, the bulwarks of ‘liberty’. For the Jacobin speakers at the Convention, it was impossible that slavery should continue in the colonies, for this would mean they had failed to “raise themselves to the standard of liberty and equality”. For the Jacobins, maintaining slavery was the policy of l’aristocratie. Canfora suggests it was this, more than anything else, that aroused wide hostility towards the Jacobin wing of the revolutionaries and precipitated their downfall.

The Thermidorean counter-revolutionaries, who would eventually culminate in the dictatorship of Napoleon I, were imbued with the classical view of liberty, and therefore saw a democracy that would go beyond its sense of ‘extended oligarchy’ as insupportable. It is equally no coincidence that the revival of the aristocracy after Thermidor also sees a revival of slavery and a revival of the religious basis of citizenship, which the Jacobins had sought to destroy. When the celebrated philosopher Benjamin Constant then inaugurates the modern view of liberalism, its Whiggish history, in his Comparison of the Liberty of the Ancients with that of the Moderns, he praises the liberty and peace that exists in that time — the year 1819, after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, a year before the alliance of absolutist powers in the Congress of Vienna! Such is liberty against democracy.

Of course, the traditional Western view then depicts all these as tragic moments in our distant past, but democracy as a system ‘returning’ in the 19th century, with the extensions of the franchise. However, Canfora gives us much material — if very ambivalently argued — to undermine this depiction. For the victory of democracy in the 19th century is much exaggerated, and has much more in common with the oligarchic notion of democracy than with the positive. The late 19th century certainly sees the rise of mass politics, in particular with the formations of the first political parties in the modern style, integrated organizations with political and electoral strategies inherent in their programme, rather than loose alliances between elite individuals and ‘notables’ following their own sense of liberty or their moral compass. These arise especially there were universal suffrage became a real potential, the first sense of a democracy that would go beyond the classical form: in the German Empire after its founding, with the rise of the social-democratic party (SPD), and briefly in mid-19th century France, around the person of Napoleon III in his use of referenda against the oligarchic, ‘constitutional’ democracy of the 1848 revolution. Of course, in the latter case this false universality did not last, for Napoleon III immediately got rid of it.

But in none of these cases was a form of democracy found that would go beyond the oligarchic structure underlying its historical concept. What’s more, this remained true even into the 20th century. This manifested itself in two ways. One was the restrictions on the basis of wealth or education that prevailed within the widening scope of suffrage, such as in the UK, despite its two Great Reform Acts. When the great imperial powers went to war in WWI, a war Michael Gove assures us was a fight for democracy, the only country among all the combatants with universal male suffrage was Germany. In Italy, France, the USA and the UK, the suffrage was limited by either wealth or race. (In Russia and Japan, there was only a derisory imitation of elections.) Over time, however, these restrictions proved exceedingly vulnerable to attack, because they made explicit the oligarchic restrictions on a now increasingly positively depicted concept of ‘democracy’. They were of course justified in each nation according to the self-evident needs of the national interest, of liberty, or of the Germanic need for leadership, but after the carnage of the war and the revolution in Russia, this proved difficult to maintain.

Therefore, Canfora argues, a different approach was taken in response. The vote and the conception of citizenship was extended much more widely, now finally incorporating also the full half of citizens that are women — although it is no coincidence that this took the most ‘bourgeois republican’ nations and thus defenders of the classical legacy, France and Switzerland, the longest to do. This made ‘mass politics’ an inevitability, and meant the death of the old loose associations of notables constituting the friends of liberty. These mass politics then increasingly incorporated also the socialist parties, whether split into their Communist and social-democratic halves or not.

But, as early critics such as Bordiga noted, this sense of democracy as mass politics was by no means the overcoming of its oligarchic nature in effect. It would never have been possible without revolution if that were the case. Rather, what happened according to Canfora is that the major powers increasingly sought other ways to restrict the meaning of universal suffrage. Here Canfora’s own analysis becomes increasingly superficial, but we can attempt to extend its implications. One was by the genesis of mass media and the usage of it by economic and political oligarchies to influence public opinion, especially in the form of limiting the ‘range of the possible’, known as the ‘Overton window’. More importantly, and often underappreciated by the left (and here I think Canfora is quite right to give it a central role) is the use of electoral systems that are inherently oligarchic in nature. The replacement of proportional representation systems with one or two round majority vote systems guarantees wild distortions of the actual distribution of opinion, generally at the expense of ‘radical’ parties and of political or social minorities widely distributed. Gerrymandering, the reinvention of the ‘rotten borough’, which especially in the United States is a widespread and accepted practice, should be added to this.

The left has traditionally ignored these issues or minimized them, seeing them as minor problems of liberal practice or simply part of the scam that is voting anyway — but they mistake here the real nature of such restrictions. It is no coincidence that the most oligarchic countries, the one with their revolutionary content dating furthest back, are the most wedded to single district systems. The nature of such restrictions is precisely equivalent to those of ‘direct’ restrictions on voting by wealth, race, and so forth. In the United States, white conservative (or liberal) supermajorities are manufactured by aggregating all the black voters into one or two districts. In the UK and other countries with first-past-the-post voting, often a majority of the votes cast never has any effect on the outcome: a result no different than that of the ‘elections’ in the Roman Republic, where the aristocracy had so many votes that there was little point for most of the lower ranked citizens in even showing up. The ever-increasing rates of nonvoting are a clear sign of the nature of such voting systems. Add to this the constant threats of intervention or repression, whether McCarthyism or the American plan of invasion and sabotage if the PCI won the elections, or even De Gaulle’s quasi-coup and the West German ban on the KPD. If the form of democracy cannot be restricted outright, it will be restricted in other ways.

However, is all this to say then that the problem with liberal democracy is that we do not have enough of it? Canfora is unclear on this issue; for him, the legacy of the USSR and Eastern Europe is no more indication of the direction of democracy in the modern age than is the Western experience. But this is in some sense, as I indicated in the beginning, perhaps thecentral question dividing the left organizationally. Indeed, Canfora at least clarifies, through his historical analysis, two things. First, that democracy has always meant an extension of citizenship beyond the elite, but still on the basis of the oppression of others; and that liberalism, in the sense of the defenders of liberty as the highest value, has historically been hostile even to this. (A modern confirmation of this can be found in the hostility of neoliberal thinkers as well as the Austrian School economists to anything but the most superficial democratic forms.) Against both of these options, the third historical strand, the radicalism of ‘substantive democracy’ with a new formula of citizenship, also always makes an appearance wherever it can, but is generally defeated.

How then to solve this riddle? Even for Bordiga, it is clear that the first opposition, between the narrow oligarchs and the equalizers, and the opposition of both these factions to the third one, the radical democracy, cannot be conflated. “In its statements of principle, Marxist communism presents itself as a critique and a negation of democracy; yet communists often defend the democratic character of proletarian organizations… There is certainly no contradiction in this, and no objection can be made to the use of the dilemma, ‘either bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy” as a perfect equivalent to the formula “bourgeois democracy or proletarian dictatorship’”, says Bordiga in The Democratic Principle. But the confusion between democracy in Canfora’s classical sense, and democracy as a critique of this democracy, has often led the left astray:

In order to avoid creating ambiguities, and dignifying the concept of democracy, so entrenched in the prevailing ideology which we strive relentlessly to demolish, it would be desirable to use a different term in each of the two cases. Even if we do not do this, it is nonetheless useful to look a little further into the very content of the democratic principle, both in general and in its application to homogeneous class organs. This is necessary to eliminate the danger of again raising the democratic principle to an absolute principle of truth and justice. Such a relapse into apriorism would introduce an element foreign to our entire theoretical framework at the very moment when we are trying, by means of our critique, to sweep away the deceptive and arbitrary content of “liberal” theories.

Our task, then, is to defend democracy against The Democracy, including the alliance of liberals and bourgeois Radicals (in the technical sense as referring to people like J.S. Mill or the left of the French Republicans — hence the capital letter) that until 1848 appeared to be willing allies of the democrats in the radical sense. It is in the split of bourgeois Radical liberalism from the socialist movement, as the embodiment of the radical democracy against the classical democracy, that the problem of left politics presents itself. In the West, where this split is complete, Bordiga’s critique is fully applicable — which does not solve more exact questions of electoral participation, etc., which can only be decided in each specific case and conjuncture. Outside the West, this alliance still exists to some extent, insofar as the conquest of democracy in the classical sense is — as both supporters and opponents of the subaltern project agree — itself a project that is either incomplete or has failed to get off the ground entirely.

Completely in conformity with Chibber’s critique of the subalternists, it is true both in the West and outside it that, as Bordiga says, “the socialist critique of democracy was in essence a critique of the democratic critique of the old political philosophies. Marxism denies their alleged universal opposition and demonstrates that in reality they are theoretically similar, just as in practise the proletariat did not have much reason to celebrate when the direction of society passed from the hands of the feudal, monarchical and religious nobility into the hands of the young commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.” However, the form of democracy has changed rapidly since he wrote this in 1922 (just as fascism was coming to power in Italy), and ‘liberal democracy’, as a carefully balanced mixture of real democratic elements and of oligarchic democracy, has become a completely dominant political form in the West where it has not in the rest of the world. Where we have the indirect oligarchy of district systems, Potemkin parties and the buying of votes, much of the world has these as well as the traditional impositions of the opponents of democracy altogether, the narrow oligarchy rather than the wide oligarchy — this changes the nature of their struggle compared to ours.

For us, then, a more ‘left communist’ posture is permissible in our strategy towards democracy than people in much of the world can afford. But ultimately, as Canfora and Bordiga both make clear in their own way, the form of democracy is less important than its content. The use of ‘democracy’ as a single concept has too often historically hidden that — through its many different forms — there have been two kinds of it: democracy as the equality of limited citizenship based on exclusion, and democracy as a radically new foundation of citizenship. Liberalism has been forced to make itself, against its will, compatible with the former, but only socialism is compatible with the latter.

1. Luciano Canfora, Democracy in Europe: A History (tr. Simon Jones). Oxford 2006: Blackwell.

Mandela and Socialism

The passing of Nelson Mandela, undoubtedly one of the greatest national liberation figures of the 20th century and one of the world’s great inspirations in the struggle against white supremacy and other forms of oppression, has naturally led to an outpouring of commentary and analysis. It is hardly necessary to add to this yet another overview of his life and accomplishments: his forging of the alliance between the ANC and the SACP – of which he was a Central Committee member when he was imprisoned for treason – is well known, as are his roles in the founding of the militant anti-apartheid organization Umkhonto we Sizwe and his heroic resistance against all attempts to bribe or suborn him during his long imprisonment. These accomplishments have nothing to do with the image of Mandela as a hero only of pacifism and reconciliation. While Mandela and his comrades rightly did not choose lightly to engage in violence, they did not spurn it when the needs of the day required it either.

That Mandela has undergone a process of modification akin to that long ago achieved with Martin Luther King, that is to make both seem as much more friendly, conciliatory, and moderate than they really were, is precisely a testament to the strength and effect of their actual militant efforts: these have been so powerful that even their very enemies are unable to simply oppose them, but must pretend that their own aims and those of Mandela or King were always reconcilable. As Bob Herbert writes in Jacobin, “the primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. Their goal was nothing short of freeing their people from the murderous yoke of racial oppression. They were not the sweet, empty, inoffensive personalities of ad agencies or greeting cards or public service messages. Mandela and King were firebrands, liberators, truth-tellers – above all they were warriors. That they weren’t haters doesn’t for a moment minimize the fierceness of their militancy.” Continue reading “Mandela and Socialism”

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).