Book Review

David's Book Club: Cosa Nostra (Part 2)

08.15.12 3:45 PM ET

This is Part 2 of a review of John Dickie's "Cosa Nostra". Click here to read Part 1.

In John Dickie's telling, the Mafia is a product of Sicily's modernization, not the ancient past. It appeared in the 1860s, in Sicily's richest farming region, as a direct consequence of Italian unification.

The overthrow of the Naples monarchy in 1860 disrupted the traditional governance of Sicily. Suddenly nobody had the job of keeping order on the island: not the departed Bourbon kings, not the alienated and disempowered local elites, not the distant and weak government of the new kingdom of Italy.

In this vacuum of power, local criminals, disbanded Bourbon soldiers, and unemployed youth discovered a sudden opportunity.

The opportunity was lucrative. Forget the images you may have in your head of dusty, impoverished Sicilian hill towns. The Mafia was born in the 1860s, in Palermo and the area immediately surrounding, at a time when the region was enjoying an agricultural boom. Western Sicily in the mid-19th century dominated world production of citrus fruit while newly affluent consumers in northern Europe were demanding new luxuries—and the British Royal Navy was buying limes by the ton to ward off scurvy.

Preparing the land to grow fruit, then planting trees and waiting for them to bear, together put substantial capital at risk. Even after the trees began to produce, lemon groves remained highly vulnerable to sabotage. In an environment lacking effective law enforcement, blackmail possibilities burgeoned: protection rackets, kidnapping, and so on.

All of that could have happened anywhere. In post-unification Italy, however, criminals brought a special history to their work: a 50-year legacy of secret societies and political conspiracy. When caught and sentenced to Palermo prison, they taught each other this new criminal technology—and swore each other to "omertà," Sicilian slang that (Dickie hypothesizes) originated in the local word for "humility," the appropriate attitude of "men of honor" to each other. There was born what Dickie calls, following the lead of a late 19th century Italian investigator, Sicily's "violence industry."

Interesting as this backstory is, thus far we are not hearing anything that has not happened in many places at many times.

What was uniquely Italian was the failure of the new state to assert its power against this "violence industry"—and the ultimate decision by leading figures in that state, dating back to the 1880s, to use the Mafia as an agency of local government on the island. The Mafia would deeply interpenetrate the national state, and gain the complicity of the leaders of the Catholic church as well.

From time to time the state would crack down, most spectacularly during the fascist epoch. The end of civil liberty in Italy empowered Mussolini's deputy in Palermo to arrest Mafiosi and hold them indefinitely without trial. Although a cure even worse than the disease, that method worked, at least for a while. Post-1945, however, Italy's new Christian Democratic governments—heavily dependent on money and votes from the South—relaxed the anti-Mafia campaign and allowed Mafia-associated politicians into the central government itself, ultimately even the prime minister's office.

Only when the Mafia began to commit murders on the Italian mainland in the 1970s did the state crack down—and the crackdown did not become serious until after not one, but  two senior anti-Mafia magistrates were assassinated. Only very belatedly has Italy adopted the kinds of laws that have done so much to break organized crime in the United States: laws against membership in a racketeering organization, laws that held organized crime bosses responsible for killings committed by their subordinates, and laws imposing forfeiture of property as a penalty for organized crime activity.

Italy is now quite a rich country, yet the Mafia remains active: a beneficiary of the chronic internal squabbles of Italian politicians and their unwillingness to act jointly for broad national interests like crime suppression. From time to time, "moral minorities" gain power in the state and strike at the Mafia. But when they tire or falter, or when they are eventually eliminated by politics or murder, the old indulgent ways reassert themselves.

As John Dickie tells it in his riveting and convincing Cosa Nostra, Italy's Mafia problem is not a problem born of culture. It is a problem born of political and institutional failure. It is Italy that has made the Mafia; not the Mafia that has made Italy.