Book Review: Aaron Benanav, “Automation and the Future of Work”

Does automation mean the end of work? In this relatively brief essayistic work, Aaron Benanav – fellow Berliner and sociologist – engages critically with one of the main topics that have found new and fruitful engagement in Marxist theory over the past two decades or so: the topic of automation and its relation to freedom. Advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, computing (or at least computational power), and algorithmic coordination have advanced so greatly in recent years that they have led to a reconsideration of the future of labor under conditions of strong labor-saving technological change. For many, not least in the Western labor movements, this has been a cause for concern and even fear. But others have seen in these developments the unfolding of the potential required to make a qualitative leap into a new kind of relation to work, and therefore a new relation to human freedom.

The tendency to see potential in these developments, rather than merely threat, is primarily found among the intellectual thought of the contemporary left. Certainly, for some reactionaries the thought of pesky labor organizations and demanding First World workers being shunted out by automation and being relegated to cowed serfs depending on a new corporate-feudal oligarchy for handouts is an attractive proposition. Among some liberal economists, there has been worry about the implications of shifts in the labor market for social stability and for the ability to contain ever-rising inequality. But among those engaging with real-world developments, it is primarily the left that has drawn attention to this process and its implications in our times. (Certainly the theme as such is not new, but this orientation was true in past iterations of automation discourse as well: examples are such figures as André Gorz, James Boggs, and Herbert Marcuse, as Benanav points out.)

Moreover, an important strand of Marxist thought, with its pedigree in writings of Marx and Engels themselves, points to automation and the labor-saving process as the foundation for the potential to reduce the total workload of society, and thereby to free up humanity for its true development. The development of the productive forces makes much human labor objectively unnecessary, even if under capitalism only labor has the ability to add value and is therefore essential to the system’s reproduction. This contradiction can be blown up with capitalism itself in order to free up humanity from its unneeded toil, leaving the machines, robots, and computers to do most of the work when humans no longer depend on such work for a living. In recent years, this has found a new impetus with among others the work of Srnicek and Williams in their Inventing the Future (Srnicek and Williams 2016) and sometimes ‘semi-ironically’ referred to by the loose slogan “fully automated luxury communism”, associated with the left media network Novara.

It is with this tendency that Benanav’s book critically engages, marshalling both economic-historical and theoretical arguments. His core thesis is that automation, which he defines as fully labor-saving technology as opposed to technology that merely increases productivity of existing labor, appears as a sense of crisis or a tipping point because of a persistently low demand for labor. This low demand is not just in evidence in the rich countries, but across the globe. However, against the automation utopians, Benanav argues contemporary automation is not the actual cause of that low demand for labor. Instead, he locates the causes of this low demand in the long term of secular capitalist stagnation that set in after the boom period of capitalism was over, i.e. in the 1970s. Since then, as Benanav shows, rates of output growth have slowly but systematically declined throughout the world.

The crux of his argument is not this familiar observation, however, but to point out that rates of productivity growth have also systematically declined since then, quite contrary to what the bullish talk of the automation theorists would suggest. During the boom period of capitalism (1950s-1970s) and as part of the process of economic development and reconstruction in the postcolonial era, manufacturing output enormously increased. Because the world market is a capitalist market, this tremendous increase in output caused significant and persistent overproduction at the global level (tempered only somewhat by population growth). This overproduction has not only hindered the possibilities of economic development through industrialization in much of the Third World, but it also caused rates of growth in manufacturing to plummet, causing deindustrialization. Indeed deindustrialization has been such a potent process that it has not only stripped much of the Western world of its industrial workforce, but even such ‘workhouses of the world’ as China have seen declining shares of manufacturing employment. Manufacturing output growth rates have over time become so low that productivity growth in this sector is consistently greater than the rate of output growth, implying the systematic shedding of employment.

This absolute surplus workforce has been shunted off into the service sector. But the service sector has the peculiarity that it is particularly unamenable to significant growth in sectoral productivity. (Indeed, as Benanav mentions, the primary way this tends to happen is by a process one could call ‘reindustrialization’: instead of launderettes you have washing machines, and fast food has subjected cooking to a factory mode of organization.) This leads to even lower rates of output growth and an even more sluggish accumulation rate overall, with declining rates of return inducing enormous financial bubbles for want of places to invest.

So as overproduction in global manufacturing has crashed output growth rates and taken productivity growth with it, it is not rising productivity rates but falling output rates that are the real drivers of global stagnation. The result is widespread underemployment and increasing inequality, as organized labor has been unable to adjust to the new feedback loop of stagnation and has found it harder to organize in the service sector. Meanwhile many governments have pursued neoliberal austerity policies aimed at reducing the costs of labor, both to remain competitive in the global market and to force workers into accepting an absolute increase in the rate of exploitation. Underinvestment resulting from the lack of returns for private capital – and almost as poor prospects of improvements in productivity across the economy as a whole – lead to technology hypes and huge speculative inflation of fixed assets like real estate as capital seeks a way out of the cycle of stagnation.

Seen from this vantage point, Benanav proceeds to critique some of the more utopian or at least optimistic solutions proposed by the automation theorists, in particular his comrades on the left (whom he repeatedly avows sympathy with, even as he disagrees on the analysis). Based on the preceding analysis, he critiques the proposals from the left (and some of the libertarian tradition) for a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI), as well as more traditional Keynesian and social-democratic amelioration strategies. What these have in common, Benanav argues, is that they essentially ignore that the power of capital over the production process and over investment and distribution of resources is the basis for the political power of capital, and that in order to counter the ‘rational’ decisions of capital in the pursuit of profit under conditions of stagnation an enormous amount of political force and power will be required.

Essentially Benanav’s critique of these approaches is in line with the traditional Marxist critique of social-democracy (in the post-1918 sense): if you have enough power to force capital to accept a UBI that supplements workers’ bargaining position rather than undermining it, or to accept something like the Meidner Plan, then you also have the power to overthrow capital as such, and should rather do so. In the conclusion, he points in that same direction: a regime of social relations based on maximizing free time, equal distribution of burdens, and rational collective control over economic decision-making is a matter of political will and strength, and does not depend on any particular level of automation or the coming of the Great AI.

Indeed the great strength of the book is precisely this: to remind the left automation theorists that while their Marxist analysis of the potential of liberation from work is quite correct, what they should not neglect is the other part of the Marxist theoretical legacy, namely the critique of capitalist production. Although Benanav mostly eschews using Marxist economic jargon and uses mainstream authors like Leontieff and Baumol wherever possible, in essence his argumentation is based on a demonstration of the operation of the falling rate of profit: capitalism’s own success undermines its conditions of accumulation, and this causes stagnation and bubble formation until sufficient value is destroyed to reboot the cycle. Benanav’s emphasis on the particular significance of manufacturing as the “engine of economic dynamism” is a reflection of the role of commodity production for the production, and therefore possible accumulation, of surplus value. Although large ‘service sectors’ are often portrayed as a sign of a modern and mature economy and therefore desirable, from a Marxist point of view it is ultimately the regime of surplus value generation and accumulation that determines the ‘health’ of the beast, not the distribution of this value across all other sectors. (Needless to say, the health of the beast is not the same as the health of the workers trapped in its belly, in either case.)

The point of all this is not to hammer one over the head with theory, but to point out that left engagement with automation and other forms of qualitatively striking technological change should not forget what Kliman (Kliman 2011) has aptly called the failure of capitalist production. Even for left theorists it can be tempting to take capital in a sense at its word, to be led to the mountaintop and shown the dazzling vistas that lie ahead and to think what we could do with all those tools and riches. But not all that glitters is gold. For all the hype generated by the tech billionaires and the slow but not negligible rate of improvement in global living standards from increased output (which the author acknowledges), capitalism is reminiscent of the man who sticks a bar between the spokes of his own bicycle: sooner or later it brings itself to a fall, and then looks around indignantly for who might have sabotaged its great promise. But it is its own mode of production and accumulation that does this, and it cannot help but do it, again and again. No amount of machine learning or robotics can alter this fate of its own power, whatever other potential the computers and robots may have.

That said, Benanav’s own suggestions for the norms of a noncapitalist world are in the foundations not very different from those discussed in such left automation theory works as Srnicek and Williams’ or Peter Frase’s Four Futures (Frase 2016), also premised on a fully automated future. Indeed, with its discussions of collective distribution of work and its slightly blithe argument that the denizens of the future socialist world should just agree with each other on how to solve economic challenges, it reminds one a bit of the slightly older tradition of such postcapitalist social design like Parecon (Albert 2004).

On this basis, I would suggest it is not so much to be read as a critique of left automation theory as a supplement to it, one that more systematically incorporates the Marxist critique of capitalist production as not just wasteful of its potential, but also as subject to (irrational) secular tendencies to stagnation and unemployment. Insofar as the book has weaknesses, it is mainly in this latter sphere, the discussion of the low global demand for labor. Benanav tends to treat the First World and the global South as fairly equivalent and subject to the same processes in this regard, but thereby tends to elide the structural differences between them. After all, the vast majority of global inequality is inequality between nations, not within them, and structurally huge unemployment and underemployment are characteristics of poorer nations more than of richer ones. Premature deindustrialization is certainly a matter of the world market, as Benanav rightly says, but that world market is not born equal, and likely his argumentation works all the more clearly and transparently in countries with an educated but wildly underemployed workforce like Syria or Egypt than in the Western metropole.

This also raises the question of what to do with the traditional Marxist argument of the need to develop the productive forces to achieve the necessary potential for a postcapitalist future – a cornerstone of both Marxist and non-Marxist state practice in the 20th century in the form of the developmental state, but an issue not much addressed by Benanav. This is slightly curious since precisely this insight is at the heart of the (so to speak) ‘left optimists’ in the automation discourse: it is precisely the appearance of a very advanced state of development of the productive forces that invites the suggestion that the potential for utopia is around the corner. This may not be justified, and others have historically hewed closer to Benanav’s apparent approach that the leap to freedom is a matter of political will more than of technological capacity. But a further discussion of this theme would, I think, add to the filling out of Marxist theory that the left automation theorists are so fruitfully and – dare I say – productively engaged in.

Overall, Automation and the Future of Work is a remarkably lucid and sharp argument made in hardly a hundred pages. It fits well together with the previously mentioned works of Srnicek and Williams as well as Frase as part of a larger (and very welcome) exchange of thoughts among left theorists on the implications of modern automation technology and the systematic restructuring of the global workforce since the 1980s. It adds to this discussion a firm rooting in the Marxist theory of capitalist production and accumulation as well as more neoclassical interpretations of the ‘secular stagnation’ thesis, which point in the same direction. Most importantly, by emphasizing declining output growth rather than increasing productivity growth, it provides an important empirical and theoretical check on overly bullish interpretations of capitalist Promethean power.

Benanav, Aaron. Automation and the Future of Work. London 2020: Verso.
Frase, Peter. Four Futures: Life after Capitalism. London 2016: Verso.
Kliman, Andrew. The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession. London 2011: Pluto.
Srnicek, Nick and Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London 2015: Verso.

Book Review: Bas van Bavel, “The Invisible Hand?”

One of the most positive trends in the social sciences in the last 30-40 years or so has been the renewed interest of economic historians in long-run analysis. Under various monikers such as ‘global history’, ‘world history’, and even ‘deep history’, the comparative study of economic and social change in the long run has offered some profound perspectives on the origins of our times. Generally, however, the guiding question has been the one at issue in the ‘rise of the West’ debate and the adjacent topics of Eurocentrism, imperialism, technological progress, and colonial ideology. That is to say, much of the discussion has been primarily concerned with the question “how did Europe come to dominate the world?”, and to some extent also the followup question, “when did, whatever it was that allowed this to happen, begin? “.

Bas van Bavel’s recent book, The Invisible Hand?, asks a very different kind of question. This book is not concerned with the rise of the West, but with the underlying economic framework that most mainstream economic historians use in understanding the long-run socioeconomic patterns that they study. Although the specifics differ by author, of course, most of the economic historical mainstream still presents the story of economic history, and with it the difference between poor and rich today, as that of the ‘unfolding’ of the free market. The main disagreements consist of what kind of institutional order was necessary to make that free market flourish in Western history, and to what extent such an order as the Western world has could be adopted by developing nations as a matter of policy. Although there are exceptions, for the most part the working assumption is still that more markets, freer markets, and strong property rights – read: strong enforcement of the power of property owners – were the core ingredients that the Western nations achieved and by which they prospered. Whereas others, failing to achieve such an institutional order, suffered and still suffer stagnation and poverty. It is in this light that these economic historians also read such historical sources on markets and merchants as we have: as analytical and political defenders of what Adam Smith called the ‘commercial society’. Continue reading “Book Review: Bas van Bavel, “The Invisible Hand?””

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.

Continue reading “Book Review: Adam Tooze, “The Deluge””

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).