December 9, 2013
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.” Read the rest of this entry »
November 27, 2013
This is an article of mine published on The North Star.
There is a certain depressing circularity about certain arguments on the left. Those having to do with what is often termed ‘identity politics’, more particularly when expressed in the language of privilege (or lack thereof), tend to divide into two mutually hostile camps. For the one, privilege is the bread and butter of critical analysis, and what could be called traditional Marxism has been replaced, or at least complemented, by a perspective based in the body of critical theory on identity, discourse, and the concept of privilege. These arose out of a certain meeting between attempts to theorize the intersectionality of oppression – initially mainly race and gender, but later extended to many other subjects – on the one hand, and on the other the political critique of discourse and discourse analysis of French poststructuralism. Here, privilege often becomes the key concept binding together the experience of individuals and the discourses and structural forces that determine these experiences. Building on some feminist critiques of Marxism, this ‘privilegetalk’ could be read as an attempt to overcome the dichotomy between exploitation and oppression in the traditional Marxist approach and to integrate this with the tools and mentality of ‘critical theory’ and discourse analysis (including those of largely anti-Marxist thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida).
In the other camp are those for whom the above is anathema, and who insist on the clear separation between class and all other identities, or even reject reading class as an identity at all. Here, exploitation and oppression are either systematically distinguished – as in more classic Marxist views – or are seen as varieties of working class experience. In the latter case, the class relationship is nonetheless still seen as central. What distinguishes this camp is its dislike of any talk of identity, privilege, or similar terms at all. Where the first decry the economism of the second, the latter fire back with equal vehemence against the idealism or liberal individualism of their opponents. For the former, identities; for the latter, the working class – this is how the distinction is often presented by the partisans of this view. And never the twain shall meet.
Of course, this is a crude caricature, and in reality there are a great number of diverse positions on both sides, making the camps as I have portrayed them more akin to a family resemblance or ideal type than a true description. Nonetheless, the crude arguments it produces are sadly all too frequent. One problem here is a sense of essentialism pervasive to both: either essentializing identity and experience into tokenism and purely psychological struggle, or essentializing the ‘true working class’ as an undifferentiated agent whose exploitation is more ‘real’ than any mere oppressions of the marginal could ever be. To my mind this is completely unnecessary, given that both views can perhaps be bypassed by creative application of the insights of the Marxist feminism associated with the ‘social reproduction perspective’. But perhaps at least as importantly it seems fruitless because the relevant insights both of the Marxist theory of exploitation and of its ‘critical critics’ should be carefully unpacked, not lumped together in these great opposing forces that they have increasingly become. As I have argued in other contexts, to distinguish analysis and strategy is essential here. Within what is crudely called ‘identity politics’, there are many different views and positions, and so there are within the actual social groups in question, whether within the working class or among certain genders or races or what have you. It is exactly the unwillingness to engage the arguments in their own right, rather than the mutual fight against straw opponents, that is so annoying about this whole discussion.
Entering the Vampires’ Castle
It is here that I want to focus on a critical reading of Mark Fisher’s article in The North Star entitled “Exiting the Vampire Castle“. Though written in a UK context – where those who criticized celebrity comedian Russell Brand for his sexism after he called for revolution in a political interview with Jeremy Paxman drew Fisher’s ire – it is clearly intended for more general consumption. The argument of the article is depressingly familiar: Fisher illustrates all the errors of the second camp, which is precisely why it is worth examining. Though it is too long for a complete close reading, some important elements stand out. Firstly, Fisher accuses the British left, especially on Twitter, of a certain miserablism: “an atmosphere of snarky resentment”, in which the calling out of individuals is more important than establishing some popularity for left-wing ideas. Here, he calls on the frequent left criticisms of Owen Jones, as well as the tendency for the radical left (outside Counterfire c.s. at least) to dismiss the People’s Assemblies as yet another top-down adventure in entryism from a Trot sect. Then, Fisher goes on to defend Russell Brand, whom he insists is precisely so worth defending because he defended leftism on public television while being working class in background, and moreover did so with humor and verve, something the left profoundly lacks. This all forms the leadin: the main section of the article is to describe the two “libidinal-discursive configurations which have brought this situation about”. Those are, in order, the Vampires’ Castle (plural this time) and the anarchist tendencies of the UK left.
The latter is easily described: for Brand this is simply the rejection of united or popular fronts, those shibboleths of Trotskyist organizing, and the equal rejection of Labour Party support or attempts at ‘reclaiming Labour’ through one or another form of entryism (we can put Jones in this category). For Fisher, “there’s a strange implicit rule here: it’s OK to protest against what parliament has done, but it’s not alright to enter into parliament or the mass media to attempt to engineer change from there.” This he decries as an anarchism that will render the left irrelevant. But more important is the analogy of the Vampires’ Castle. This occult phenomenon is his favored phrase for a series of sweeping generalizations about what is clearly identifiable as the first camp of the polarization of the left described above. The Vampires’ Castle, Fisher tells us, “individualize and privatize everything”. They make humour impossible, seek to create guilt everywhere, and most of all essentialize the enemy, which is to say their opponents on the left. And here’s the kicker: they do all this as a strategy to pass themselves of as left-wing, when they are in reality liberals, and of an “invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background” at that. Sounds terrible, no? Time someone went in with a stake!
Des Pudels Kern
Unfortunately, not a single one of these arguments is persuasive, and quite a few are downright unfair or absurd. Let us therefore enter Fisher’s Vampire Castle, stake and garlic in hand, and see what monsters we encounter there. Some may be oddly familiar to us – especially those who look at the castle from the viewpoint of the introduction above. In the entrance hall, things are still going well. It is certainly true that – both online and offline – the radical left has long been characterized by a venomous atmosphere, in particular a refusal of any charity of reading or interpretation to those deemed oppositional or those that have previously caused offense, and good faith efforts are not much rewarded and therefore rarely in evidence. Sometimes, this leads to incredibly vindictive, personalized, and emotional disputation that does little good to solving any problems or advancing any cause, but does cause much more hurt and isolation than was already present at the start.
Nonetheless, this observation is somewhat covered in cobwebs, like an old suit of mail opposite the central staircase. It must be treated with charity in its own right. The internet, which combines a very direct and personal means of communication with a very limited possibility of nuance, body language, and context, contributes much to this problem. But even offline, the often hostile atmosphere is at least in part caused by the very importance of the politics themselves to those involved in them. One of the classic arguments of the privilege-talkers is precisely that it is much harder to abstract or disengage from arguments when your wellbeing, your sense of dignity, or your very life may be at stake in the outcome of a particular political dispute. Under such conditions, it is very difficult (though not impossible) to not take it personally. Here, the personal is indeed political. If this attitude is to be criticized, it can’t be for stating this obvious reality – at most that it sometimes overlooks that if the personal is political, that is not necessarily a good thing, and making the political as personal as possible is not necessarily the right response.
When we press onward, however, we soon start running into the occult obstacles Fisher’s castle presents to us. The hagiographical treatment of the likes of Owen Jones and Russell Brand looms at us, like the remarkably large shadow cast over the balustrade by a remarkably small cat. Why should we think that Jones is “most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”? I am not as hostile to him as some of the UK radical left perhaps is, but I doubt even Owen himself would recognize himself in this description. Class consciousness is, after all, by definition a collective and a political process of self-awareness and self-mobilization – not something brought about by a well-meaning individual with a column in the Independent. Indeed, Owen may have helped some to raise morale, by making the hegemony of neoliberal ideas seem less complete, but that is not the same thing as the political becoming of a class.
The same can be said for Russell Brand. Perhaps his interview with Paxman was an unusually left-wing discourse for the staid political television of Britain. But there is no reason why this should mean his gratuitous sexism should be accepted, nor does the working class of the UK really need Russell Brand to tell them that they exist, or to provide them with left-Labour banalities that inequality is too large or that revolution would be a nice idea, in the abstract. If Fisher thinks that this is both necessary and sufficient for class consciousness, so “fragile and fleeting” it needs comedians on Jeremy Paxman’s show to sustain it, he has a much lower idea of the working class’ intellectual capacities than do his vampiric opponents. (The People’s Assembly I won’t even bother dealing with – it is in our terms like the papier-mâché skeleton made by a primary schooler menacing in the wardrobe: irrelevant, incapable of frightening anyone, and easily disposed of.)
Let us ignore such small scares and proceed into the very inner chambers, where Fisher’s ‘laws of the Vampires’ Castle’ await us. Fisher’s first claim is that the politics of privilege, which is clearly the vampires’ life-blood (or unlife-blood?), is not a legitimate expression of the struggles of the oppressed, but a bourgeois-liberal perversion of them. Indeed, the theme of perversion can never be far off where vampires are present, and if this is so, then the Twitter left appears as a veritable Boris Karloff of repressed gothic sensuality. The argument nonetheless follows some lines as ancient as the castle itself: “rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.” Now here I think Fisher does have one point: I have long been skeptical of the assumption of some (not all) writers on privilege that it is impossible to relate to others unless one shares their same identity and experiences. If this were true, then indeed nobody would be able to ‘speak to’ the issues of anyone else at all, to use this jargon; the reality would be that, due to the irreducability of human diversity, all political solidarity and indeed all communication would be impossible. This is perhaps a reductio ad absurdum, but some of the stronger versions of this argument are not far off, and I share with Fisher a hostility both to the implicit misanthropy and the political implications of this argument.
Some of Fisher’s points are not uninteresting, and could lead to some more exciting directions: less explored wings of the building. One thing he points to is the conflation on the part of some privilege-talkers of the act of (say) homophobia and being a homophobe. Now this is a double-edged sword, to remain in the sphere of the gothic, as it is often used as an excuse by those who both are and do to avoid the consequences of their attitude. But among radical activists it has also been remarked that this conflation can be quite unhelpful, precisely because it is an example of a false essentialism that the politics of identity was – at least in some versions – intended to undermine. If you call someone a homophobe, they are in a sense forever branded, and yet no alternative is concretely offered. Whereas calling an act or a statement homophobic allows for correction and change, and it is therefore at the least more strategically constructive in those cases where there is no need to move from the one to the other. Indeed, some would abuse the charity and good faith offered to them in this case, and there are many who lack the self-reflection to merit it. But it is a good policy, in my opinion, to err towards giving someone you criticize a way to correct themselves. The cultural repertoire of shame, dignity, and standing can so effectively be mobilized positively, rather than – as is now often the case – being a one-way street in a direction against the oppressed. This is something that calls for a case-by-case examination, and people’s character and circumstances will differ sufficiently that attempting any general rule would be unwise. At most, here one could invoke once more the benefits as well as moral discipline of charity of interpretation, and to give people a certain leeway (but hardly an unlimited one) in phrasing things the way they see it.
But that is not to say that the argument as Fisher poses it is much better. It is simply not true that the ‘identitarians’ try to keep people in their identities. There is always a risk of essentializing, and indeed tokenism is not unusual, strongly reinforced by this notion that you can only talk on topic X if previously approved by the representatives of topic X, those who share a politically mobilized identity on that basis. But even in such cases the purpose is to overcome oppression, not to maintain it, and the voicing through identity and the policing of its boundaries comes from a need to protect the humans that are ‘carriers’ of these identities in the post-structuralist sense. However flawed in individual cases the strategy and assumptions about human communication may be (and more on those below), protect the humans from oppression is not at all the same intent as to protect the identities themselves from emancipation or change, and Fisher’s conflation of the two does a great injustice to – and is in fact very uncharitable towards – those he aims his barbs at.
The same thing is true when we encounter the first vampiric lackeys of the master vampire, the lord of the castle. This lord, it turns out halfway our adventure, is in reality academia and the bourgeoisie in general. Fisher suggests his privilege-talking opponents are either wilfully accumulating ‘academic capital’, or are simply deluded by those that are doing so. But here he reveals one major mistake in his thought, when he writes: “The VC, as dupe-servants of the ruling class, does the opposite: it pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold.” But this is precisely the fundamental insight that the first camp has and the second camp lacks – namely that however much one may wish it otherwise, these individualist categories imposed by power do really hold. If Fisher at all understood the subject he was talking about, he would realize that those identities are not like a cloak that one dons at will, but like the very skin branded black or white, male or female, gay or straight and so forth.
This is why, ad nauseam, so much of the writing of poststructural and feminist theory has been about the body, its sufferings, and its agencies: because the adscription of identity is as much something one undergoes as it is something one does to oneself. Fisher in fact has already implicitly acknowledged this when he points out he is prone to forgetting he is male and white as ‘identities': it is precisely this forgetting that the oppressed identities can never do, and that is what makes these identities salient in a political sense. If indeed the discourse of identity is the lackey of the bourgeoisie, it is not because of its self-awareness, but rather because it is simply a consequence of the reality of capitalist society. Its self-awareness, even when wrongly expressed, is a potent weapon against the invisibility of some forms of the reproduction and rule of this society – and thereby a weapon, however blunt at times, against the true lord of the castle.
The Vampire Is In Another Castle
What remains so curious about Fisher’s whole gothic structure is nonetheless how inadequate it is to its subject. He accuses his opponents, without otherwise naming or identifying them, of being bourgeois, academic, posh, and privileged – yet he is by his own acknowledgement a white male academic and a commissioning editor at a left-wing vanity press. If he therefore does not recognize himself in this image, it must be because, like the vampire, he has no reflection… Similarly, his chatter about ‘witch-hunts’ maintains his sense of victimhood. But aside from being a rather inappropriate historical analogy, given the witch-hunts were systematic cases of the reassertion of patriarchy and religious order and mostly against women, it is difficult to sustain this reasoning when Fisher can’t give any real examples of the power of his opponents or of his own suffering at their hands. It seems he certainly has major disagreements with their interpretation of social structure and discourse, and also with the political strategies some on the left draw out of these. This is legitimate, and should remain legitimate: nothing is free from criticism, and that includes the language and politics of privilege.
But sadly, while an interesting argument could be had about these (and has been had many times before, not least among the ‘identitarians’), Fisher does not engage in this. Rather, he throws the whole of M.R. James at his opponents in an attempt to depict them as terrors of the night. The effect is akin to the puppeteer holding the bogeyman doll in front of us. It assumes we are children, both in thinking we cannot see that he is really moving the bogeyman about, and in assuming we would be scared of it. This is a shame, because it is perhaps overdue that the various camps of the left talk to each other seriously and productively about the problems of communication that must be overcome if solidarity is to work practically between its various sections.
Finally, before we exit the castle in despondence at the lack of action – the villagers so promised us we would find monsters! – something must be said about the gothic imagery itself. It is striking how badly Fisher’s vampiric metaphor fails. But what is interesting is not that it does so, but how it does so. Fisher’s image of the Vampires’ Castle fails in two ways. Firstly, because he wishes to ascribe laws to this castle. But laws of a castle are laws that hold within the castle, or insofar as the inhabitants of the castle can enforce them beyond the walls. Fisher has no desire to go into the castle, that much he makes clear, but he does not tell us what powers of enforcement it has, beyond criticizing celebrities and creating a bad atmosphere on Twitter. Now I say this not quite jokingly – I have personally witnessed various occasions in which both online and offline the use of privilege-talk played a major role in causing enormous personalized conflicts between participants and activists who had otherwise (and also afterwards) been able to communicate productively even where disagreement could be considerable. This question of atmosphere is a practical one, not just a matter of whining about how mean it is to say bad things to a university professor. But if the exact dynamics cannot be clarified, and if it cannot be explained what in talking about oppression in a particular way causes unnecessary strife – as opposed to justified oppositions to bigotry – then the problem is not addressed. Fisher’s blanket dismissals and empty workerism do not solve this problem at all, as a rudimentary knowledge of social reproduction theory or writing on intersectionality could have made obvious.
This is compounded by the second way Fisher’s metaphor fails: namely, in the vampiric. Vampires presuppose that vampirism is going on, in other words, that one feeds off another’s life-blood in some way. But Fisher’s vampires are posh, they accumulate academic capital, they are lackeys, they produce guilt, they do all sorts of things; but suck blood they do not. And this is not a simple flawed analogy. What it reveals is that underlying Fisher’s argument is a deeper sense in which he implies that there exists a kind of hidden establishment that leeches off the real or legitimate left by ‘perverting’ or perhaps diverting its processes of class activism and class consciousness. Precisely by ascribing to his opponents all sorts of bad identities, he engages in identity politics in his own right – such as calling them posh, or their views alternately bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. His workerism, too, is essentially identitarian. So the talk of identity itself cannot be the problem. Rather, it is this sense of a hidden parasitic establishment that pervades his writing, and gives it its creepy atmosphere. Fisher refuses to tell us who They are, rather producing his gothic imagery as a way of cloaking the They in a convenient manner. But this is both dishonest and sinister. If one were as inclined to guilt by association as Fisher, one need but look at the similarities between this style of caricature and those of the ‘neo-reactionaries’ and their Cathedral, or the mysterious all-swallowing dark Other in the racial/orientalist tropes of Conrad or Lovecraft – both of which in turn owe much to simple anti-semitism.
If one may use one gothic novel against another, where Fisher thinks he is writing Dracula, he is actually writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Dr. Jekyll of our story is Mark Fisher who wants to protect the left from the anarcho-bourgeois individualism, misanthropy, and strategic self-destruction. I have many disagreements with him, and some minor points of agreement. More generally, there is an argument there that is worth engaging with, although it needs serious reformulation on the basis of a more serious inquiry into the theory underlying the narratives of privilege and identity, something that far too many critics (again, rather uncharitably) neglect to do. However, there is also a Mr. Hyde in this story. This Fisher is a disturbing figure, one who inhabits a castle of his own and sallies forth against all who rebel by branding them vampires and traitors – indeed shades of witch-hunting, but with himself as the knight inquisitor. As in Stevenson’s story, this is probably not how Jekyll-Fisher intends it; it is rather that the Mr. Hydes both inside and outside the left find this more amenable – being able to depict all those who talk about identity, privilege and so forth as merely bourgeois saboteurs attempting to divide the left, when quite the opposite is the case. Here, Jekyll-Fisher should restrain the Hyde within him.
What I would recommend Fisher is to do some reading. Firstly, to read some of the writings on intersectionality, privilege, social reproduction Marxism, and so forth, much of which rightly or wrongly serves as the main inspirations for those people he so stridently dismisses, and of whose arguments he understands little. Secondly, he should read David McNally’s excellent Monsters of the Market. From that, he can learn how a gothic Marxism is properly employed, free from the crypto-fascist undertones of his current moral imagination. The vampire, he will learn from McNally, are not the ‘identitarians’, but it is capital itself, and if the working class has a gothic referent, it is in the figure of the zombie, labouring without will or direction at the behest of others. The zombie, which must be brought back to a state of real life or be destroyed, confronts us with the real choices involved in class consciousness: much as I dislike that phrase, the consciousness of a class always already constituted by race, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Without this awareness, any cure for the problems Fisher poses will be worse than the disease.
And the same applies not just to Fisher, but to many who would criticize without the burden of due care to understand their opponents. Indeed, it is telling that neither of the two camps involved can grant the other understanding or charity in the least, while both are always ready to demand it for themselves. I suspect this is the result of both positing a false universality: either a negative universality, a rejection of the universal based on irreconcilable difference of lived discourse and identity, or a false positive universality based on the super-emergence of the subjectivity of the working class above all forms of life. I will not elaborate further on that here, as that requires its own treatment. But if we are to overcome the hostilities and the circular firing squads of the left, online or offline, a good starting point is in our common desire to acquire a real knowledge of the other – where this desire exists, misanthropy cannot. That is the first law of gothic politics. De te fabula narratur!
November 6, 2013
“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 : 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).