The Mafia and Capitalism: A Love Story

This is a translation of an article by Pierpaolo Farina, an anti-mafia activist and academic, originally posted on the website of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
The Mafia and capitalism have been considered in anthesis for a long time. For some they are even antagonists. Where the first was the bearer of backwardness, underdevelopment and civil and ethical degradation, the second was countered as the only exit from that state of material and moral immaturity to which the Mafia condemns whole regions of Southern Italy.
And yet the capitalist system’s portrayal as the natural antidote against the power of the Mafia and its ramifications for society has been revealed to be a great illusion: from its first manifestations, the murder of Emanuele Notarbartolo, mayor of Palermo who had decided to put an end to the embezzlements in the Bank of Sicily, the Mafia and capitalism have been secret lovers.
The great “liquid” reconfiguration of capitalism (to use Bauman’s words), begun by Thatcher and Reagan, has produced a cross-contamination of the so-called “mafia mentality” (which to posses one does not have to be criminal, as [the magistrate Giovanni] Falcone posited) and the “spirit of capitalism”; a contamination that neither “lover” expected.
Paradoxically, the fundamental values of economic modernisation have transformed the Mafia, which has incorporated consumerist mentality and adapted itself to the norms of the new modernity, but at the same time these values have given it new means to multiply its impact on society, the economy and politics. This casual or more likely natural contamination has allowed Mafia groups to reorganise themselves on the basis of a new organisational model that has made them more adept at facing the challenges posed by modernity.
The technological revolution, the era of the internet and of instant communication and the proliferation of multiple and complex nexuses of relationships through social networks (in particular through Facebook) have all shortened distances, allowing a relative ease of access to new social circles, but at the same time have produced a great loneliness in the modern man.
Bombarded by impulses from every direction, continually monitored in all their digital activity to satisfy their every desire and need, the individual loses that necessary critical capacity which they once were able to develop within collective identities like the great mass parties, parties which offered them secure anchors to protect against that which Max Weber called “the ethical irrationality of the world”. This solitude is at the same time the cause and the consequence of the emptying of both the public space and of democratic arenas. Fear, especially fear for the future, becomes the central element of the new society.
States, still formally possessors of the monopoly of “legitimate force”, are by now incapable of responding to the continual challenges that globalisation and the new modernity places in front of them. They are now constantly regressing into mere repressive apparatuses of financial capitalism which dominates the new networks of data and wealth. The emphasis on the politics of security is the most tangible consequence: with the excuse of having to respond to the 21st century’s individual’s fear, old and outdated references (to national identity, to the defence of national territory, to tradition) are being remodelled, stirring up hatred towards “deviants” who refuse to take part in the dominant cultural construct (that of the white western man who is a good family patriarch, with a career and in church every Sunday). The foreigner becomes the scapegoat for all of society’s defects.
In this socio-economic and cultural schizophrenia criminal organisations like the Mafia find themselves in their element. Having perfectly adapted themselves to the new paradigm, they have shaped it in their interests: the post-industrial, service-based economy, dominated by finance, has allowed them to become stronger.
Furthermore, the progressive emptying of the public space and its ancillary components (starting from the welfare state) has allowed them to strengthen their social legitimacy. Compared to the incapacity of the state, the Mafia’s pragmatism in the administration of justice, in the assurance of public services in the form of favours, in the creation of networks on solidarity at an organisational level and in the procurement of permanent contract jobs is the key to the organisation’s popularity in many different local social contexts. Far from being an antidote to their presence, the new modernity has exponentially multiplied the weight of mafia organisations both in society and in the legal economy. In particular, in this last context, beyond the winning of public procurement contracts and money laundering through legal economic activity, mafia enterprises has shown themselves to be extremely effective at legitimate business (we just need to think about waste disposal or debt collecting).
Moreover, in a society dominated by pervasive uncertainty, where everything is in constant flux and every achievement is fragile and precarious, family links (or better, the potential social capital these links can bring) are that which make the difference in the affirmation of ourselves: it is exactly the individualisation pushed by society that has led to a retreat to the family as primary asset at the centre of a web of connections which, as demonstrated by data on social mobility, allows children of the establishment to obtain better careers than anyone else, regardless of merit.
This explains why the research of Emanuele Ferragina conducted six years ago showed the highest levels of amoral familism where there was a relative economic prosperity, especially in Northern Europe, where we know mafia organisations have grafted themselves with ease.
Because in the end the greatest threat from this “love story” between Power and Profit is that the mentality of the Mafia is absorbing the spirit of capitalism, so much so that the President of the [Italian] Senate [and former magistrate] Pietro Grasso has said that the methods of the Mafia are more and more widespread among people that aren’t Mafiosi. And this is because the mafioso preserves something that the vast majority of society is lacking: a culture of belonging and a loyalty to fundamental values. In a social context and a historical era where there are no more reference points, they preserve their own identity, without giving up modernity and, most importantly, they present themselves as the only reference point in a society where everything is precarious.
The Mafia’s influence is a certainty, just like its efficiency and its power. Becoming a “man of honour” in more and more social contexts is the only way to redeem oneself from a life of hardship and poverty lived on the margins of society. This is a trend seen not only in the South of Italy, the place of birth of the phenomenon of the Mafia, but also in the rest of Italy and Europe. The situation is therefore serious. When will Europe decide to deal with it?