MISHA GLENNY reviews Mafia Life, The times Literary supplement, January 9, 2018

In the name of the Godfather


For much of the twentieth century, organized crime was only rarely the subject of serious academic and journalistic research. Films and novels seemed to deal with the subject in a much more sincere fashion. This was especially true of the United States in the 1940s and early 50s when Hollywood, inspired by writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, developed the noir genre to explore the relationship between crime and politics. Later on, films such as The French Connection, The Godfather and Goodfellas not only succeeded at the box office but triggered a new wave of books and films dealing with this subject.

And yet this popular interest in the Mafia appeared to hold little attraction to sociologists, political scientists or economists. Eric Hobsbawm had opened up the subject to historians as early as 1959 with his study, Primitive Rebels, which proposed that, in many parts of the world, brigands were an expression of pre-industrial class struggle, critical in curbing feudal power; they later evolved into what we would today recognize as mafia organizations. The continuing relevance of Hobsbawm’s book today points in part to how few historians have built on his thesis.

Things changed dramatically in the 1990s. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was accompanied by a drastic weakening of the state, unable and unfit to cope with the dramatic shift from a planned to a market economy. Those people engaged in Soviet and East European studies had no choice but to write about the emergent mafias of the late 1980s and 90s because they comprised one of three constituent parts of a new polity, along with the new class of oligarchs and what remained of state institutions. Ignoring the Russian mafia would have been akin to writing a history of the United States in the 1970s without mentioning the CIA, big business, the FBI or the Supreme Court.

As coherent policies started to melt in Russia, another equally important one was already coming into being elsewhere. The Big Bang of 1986, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s most important joint initiative, lifted restrictions on corporate capital movement. This persuaded the political elites of countries such as India, Brazil, China, Indonesia and South Africa to adjust and accept more open markets. To varying degrees, the commercial law systems of these countries found accommodating these changes a difficult challenge.

The conjuncture of these two historical moments with a specifically criminal development injected immense vigour into the business of organized crime. This was supercharged by Reagan’s affirmation of the disastrous War on Drugs at a time of rapid growth in cocaine consumption in certain markets during the 1980s, and later by an upsurge in heroin production and distribution in the first half of the 1990s as Afghanistan’s security situation deteriorated.

Federico Varese was among a number of young students in the 1990s whose doctoral research coincided with these events. He went to Perm, located halfway between Moscow and Novosibirsk, where he recorded in minute detail the emergence of the local mafia organization, eventually leading to his seminal work, The Russian Mafia (2001). Others were undertaking similar work in various countries including South Africa, China, Brazil and India. Most framed their research with some reference to The Sicilian Mafia: The business of private protection (1993) by the Italian social scientist Diego Gambetta. More than anyone else’s, Gambetta’s work has changed our fundamental understanding of mafias and organized crime groups. Mafias usually emerge, he argues, at times of social or economic upheaval when the state finds itself unable or unwilling to regulate markets. In order to ensure the smooth running of commercial activities, mafias, or “privatized law enforcement agencies” as another researcher named them, assume the role of arbiter.

This role has confirmed the enormous political, economic and social importance of mafias, as anyone who grew up in post-war Italy, Japan or 1990s Russia will tell you. They are not just made up of romanticized gangsters. They compete seriously with the state’s claim to a monopoly on violence. Once they have established themselves as the arbiter of, say, the drugs or restaurant market in a particular area, they often but not always choose to enter that market themselves.

Varese has been taking the subject of organized crime with the seriousness it deserves for a quarter of a century. His latest excellent contribution, Mafia Life, examines the structures of the world’s most prominent mafia organizations by looking at how mafiosi lead their lives from cradle to grave.

In his opening chapter, “Birth”, Varese compares the initiation rituals that are common to almost every mafia organization. He draws from interviews, autobiographies and police wiretap transcripts in which the gangsters do most of the talking. It is remarkable how close in style, substance and imagery the initiation ceremonies are across cultures – the religious symbolism, the use of tattoos, the omertà, the misogyny and sealing of membership through blood are present among the Yakuza of Japan, the Russian mafia, the Chinese triads and the Sicilian Mafia.

Each chapter shines a new light on a fundamental aspect of mafia activity, whether it concerns managing and laundering profits, how to conduct a marriage or affair without revealing one’s profession, or how most effectively to dispose of a body. Varese’s chapter on “Self-image” in which he looks at the complex relationship of mafiosi to filmic or literary portrayals of their business, is superb. Unsurprisingly, The Godfather is the film most mobsters love above all others.

Varese concludes on an unexpectedly upbeat note. The digital revolution, the global depression and a more savvy police strategy, he suggests, are eroding the power of mafia. The internet is fundamentally altering the nature of crime. A mafia cannot survive without the ability to deploy or credibly to threaten violence. But that logic does not apply to a cybercriminal gang. You do not need a virtual baseball bat to succeed – one reason why cybercrime attracts people with more diverse backgrounds than traditional crime ever can. This is a profound shift. Equally important is the slow but steady progress in drug law reform in South America, the United States, Canada and some European countries. This in part reflects a belated understanding of the damage caused by treating drugs as a criminal rather than a social and health problem. But it has also come about because the production of narcotics is shifting from its traditional loci, such as Bolivia and Afghanistan. Instead, synthetic drugs are being manufactured in laboratories rather closer to the consumer (i.e. Western Europe and the United States), and this is proving hard to police. The growing decriminalization of marijuana is a first step in reducing the extent of the challenge. And yet I wouldn’t write off established mafias quite yet. Their primary role in organizing markets, legal and illegal, which the state are unable or unwilling to police, is still evident across the world. Policing techniques are undoubtedly improving, but the impact of the financial crisis of 2008 has led to severe cutbacks in law enforcement’s ability to assert its authority throughout its jurisdiction. From the United Kingdom to Brazil, from Japan to Egypt, mafias are alive and kicking.

"Un'analisi profonda"

Roberto Saviano, Repubblica

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