So we’re sitting there having a few drinks and talking about this and that, when it occurs to me to ask Lefty what I think s a pretty good question.
“Hey, Lefty? What’s the advantage for me in being a wiseguy?”
Lefty looks at me like I’m the world’s biggest moron. He gets excited and jumps out of his chair and starts yelling and waving his arms. “What are you, fucking crazy?” he says. “Are you fucking nuts?” When you’re a wiseguy, you can steal, you can cheat, you can lie, you can kill people–and it’s all legitimate.”
Pistone’s The Way of the Wiseguy was exactly what I was looking for: an ethnography of organized crime. Oh, sure, Pistone isn’t actually a trained anthropologist–he’s just an FBI agent who managed to learn enough about Mafia culture to infiltrate the mob without getting killed.
Reading this back-to-back with Jay Dobyns’s account of infiltrating the Hells Angels, several differences between the organizations stand out. First, while the point of the Hells Angels is unclear (are they a criminal organization, as the FBI believes, or just an association of people who like riding motorcycles together, as they assert?) the Mafia’s point is obvious: making money. Second, while the Hells Angels exist on the edge of society with few normal, functional familial relationships, mobsters appear to be socially normal: they love their moms, have wives and girlfriends (usually at the same time,) and provide for their kids. The Mafia and the Hells Angels have very different ideas about family responsibility and the general treatment of women. Third, ironically, the Hells Angels probably kill far fewer people and have more scruples about murder. And finally, while the Hells Angels enjoy each other’s company, the mobsters, it seems, don’t particularly like each other.
They also have things in common: both groups control territory, are obsessed with respect, and live outside normal laws and boundaries.
But let’s let Pistone talk: What makes a wiseguy?
“The wiseguy does not see himself as a criminal or even a bad person; he sees himself as a businessman, a shrewd hustler, one step ahead of ordinary suckers. … Wiseguys exist in a bizarre parallel universe, a world where avarice and violence and corruption are the norm, and where the routines that most ordinary people hold dear–working good jobs, being with family, living an honest life–are seen as the curse of the weak and the stupid. …
“And yet I was not naive enough then, nor am I now, to believe that we came anywhere near to destroying the mob and ending organized crime. … The mob and mobsters have been around for centuries, and they will almost certainly be around for many generations to come. As long as there is money to be made illicitly and with minimal investment, there will be wiseguys ready and willing to make the score. The fact is that the Mafia in particular is one of the most enduring and successful organizations in the history of the world. … What’s more, the Mafia has never had a single year out of decades when it ran in the red. The Mafia always makes a profit. There is a strong incentive for wisegys to keep things running in the black: deficits mean death.”
EvX: According to Wikipedia, the Sicilian Mafia has only been around since the late 1800s, making it younger than Twinings Tea Company (1706) and probably younger than the Pinkerton Detective Agency (1850). (The list of the World’s Oldest Companies–including Kongo Gui, founded in 578–is fascinating in itself, “According to a report published by the Bank of Korea on May 14, 2008, investigating 41 countries, there were 5,586 companies older than 200 years. Of these, 3,146 are in Japan, 837 in Germany, 222 in the Netherlands, and 196 in France.”)
But I don’t expect Pistone to be an expert in the ages of Japanese corporations nor do I necessarily believe Wikipedia on the age of the Mafia, which is a rather secretive organization that doesn’t keep a lot of official records of its activities. (This is also in contrast to the Hells Angels, who are an Official Organization with copyrighted and trademarked logos and have actually sued people for violating said intellectual property.) The fact that the Mafia has persisted for as long as it has, despite the best efforts by people like Mussolini to stamp it out, despite the enormous technological and social changes that have swept Sicily during the past century and a half, despite many mafiosi moving to the US, suggests that its roots may lie deeper than “social changes in the 1800s.”
(Wikipedia also notes that the Mafia doesn’t call itself the Mafia, which is just a Sicilian word for a “swagger,” meaning a bold or proud man. Rather, the Mafia tends to refer obliquely to itself as just “our thing,” “this thing of ours,” etc.–“Cosa Nostra” is just Italian for “our thing.”)
Regardless, Wikipedia claims that the Mafia began in Post-Feudal Sicily:
Modern scholars believe that the seeds were planted in the upheaval of Sicily’s transition out of feudalism beginning in 1812 and its later annexation by mainland Italy in 1860. Under feudalism, the nobility owned most of the land and enforced law and order through their private armies. After 1812, the feudal barons steadily sold off or rented their lands to private citizens… After Italy annexed Sicily in 1860, it redistributed a large share of public and church land to private citizens. The result was a huge boom in landowners — from 2,000 in 1812 to 20,000 by 1861. With this increase in property owners and commerce came more disputes that needed settling, contracts that needed enforcing, transactions that needed oversight, and properties that needed protecting. The barons were releasing their private armies to let the state take over the job of enforcing the law, but the new authorities were not up to the task, largely due to their inexperience with capitalism. Lack of manpower was also a problem; there were often fewer than 350 active policemen for the entire island. … In the face of rising crime, booming commerce, and inefficient authorities, property owners turned to extralegal arbitrators and protectors. These extralegal protectors eventually organized themselves into the first Mafia clans.
Most of the world seems to have made the feudal transition without spawning mafia-like organizations, so what’s so special about Sicily?
HBD Chick is, of course, the go-to person for anything related to “families” or “clans,” and here’s an excellent map she made of First Cousin Marriage Rates in Italy in 1961:
below is a little chart i worked up of the percentages of first cousin marriages for all the regions for the first (1910-1914) and last (1960-64) of the time periods at which they looked. i included only the first cousin marriages since first-cousin-once-removed (1 1/2C) and second cousin (2C) marriages were not included for sicily and i wanted to be able to compare all the regions. note that the reason cavalli-sforza, et. al., didn’t include 1 1/2C and 2C marriages for sicily is that sicilians are exempt from having to get dispensations to marry those family members, so presumably the rates for those marriages are pretty high! …
HBD Chick has a chart that gives the exact numbers for each region in 1910-14 and 1960-64. Overall, first cousin marriage rates fell during this time, but in Sicily and Calabria in the 60s they were still very high–48.74% in Agrigento and 48.49% in Reggio Calabria.
and that’s just first cousin marriages! those rates are like the rates for saudi arabia and pakistan today!
Pistone has something interesting to say on the Mafia and genetics:
For the next several years, I did not exist except as a close associate of several members of the Bonanno crime family. … I will not deny that I became pretty close to a lot of these wiseguys, and that I felt a pang of remorse about doing things that I knew would get them killed. But it was only a pang. The truth is that I did not feel sorry for the wiseguys I helped put away. Had they discovered that I was an undercover FBI agent, they would have put two in my head and chopped me into ground beef. …
This one poor bastard, he did something to make wiseguys think he was a rat. So they stuck a meat hook up his ass and hung him from a warehouse wall. …
I tell you this to drive home the most important observation I ever made while working undercover: Wiseguys are not nice guys. … In fact, wiseguys are the meanest, cruelest, least caring people you’ll ever meet. They have zero regard for other people’s feelings, rights, and safety. …
Consider the poor bastard who ran afoul of some members of the Gambino crime family. They cut some holes in him, hung him over a bathtub, and drained all the blood out of his bodies. These are not rare occurrences or unusual crimes. Wiseguys routinely commit acts of nauseating grisliness. …
Wiseguys don’t throw up or even gag when they butcher people. They have had any decency and sense of revulsion bred right out of them.
Perhaps he did not mean this literally, in the way that I take it. But perhaps he did.
There is an ironic part in Frank Lucas’s biography, Original Gangster, in which a man who had literally tried to get a job killing people for money and had caused the deaths of thousands of people by selling them heroin opines that abortion is immoral, at least when it’s his kid being aborted (after he abandoned his wife to go have sex with other women for a week immediately after she told him she was pregnant.) Most people seem to have some kind of circle inside of which are people whom they love and do not really want to hurt, and outside of which are people who are not even human beings to them. Because the people outside this circle are not recognized as people, people deny that they are doing any violence at all to those other people. For example, Americans get quite upset when Muslims terrorists kill Americans, but we hardly pay attention when our country drops bombs on Muslims. Here’s a smattering of US military operations that haven’t gotten much press:
- 2000: Nigeria: Special Forces troops are sent to Nigeria to lead a training mission in the country.
- 2002: Philippines: OEF-Philippines, As of January, U.S. “combat-equipped and combat support forces” have been deployed to the Philippines to train with, assist and advise the Philippines’ Armed Forces in enhancing their “counterterrorist capabilities.”[RL30172]
- 2003: Georgia and Djibouti: “US combat equipped and support forces” had been deployed to Georgia and Djibouti to help in enhancing their “counterterrorist capabilities.”
- 2004–present: The U.S deploys drone strikes to aid in the War in North-West Pakistan
- 2010–present: al-Qaeda insurgency in Yemen: The U.S has been launching a series of drone strikes on suspected al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and ISIS positions in Yemen.
- 2011: 2011 military intervention in Libya: Operation Odyssey Dawn, United States and coalition enforcing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 with bombings of Libyan forces.
- 2011–present: Uganda: U.S. Combat troops sent in as advisers to Uganda.
- 2015–present: In early October 2015, the US military deployed 300 troops to Cameroon, with the approval of the Cameroonian government, their primary mission was to provide intelligence support to local forces as well as conducting reconnaissance flights.
It’s nigh impossible to love everybody equally (nor do I think you should) and the vast majority of people love their own families and children far more than everyone else. How much you preference your own family over everyone else, however, varies a lot from person to person and culture to culture, and may have a lot to do with things like whether people in your culture traditionally marry people from within their own families, creating a system where you have very little contact with people on the outside or if they seek brides from neighboring villages, creating a system where people have far more contact outside their own families.