Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy, by Donnie Brasco pt 1

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.[28] 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.[29] 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’s map of First-Cousin Marriage Rates in Italy in 1961

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!

Mafia presence in Italy at the municipal level, 2000-15. (Red is higher) H/T Francesco Calderoni Source (pdf)

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.[10]
  • 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.”[12]
  • 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.[20]
  • 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.

19 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy, by Donnie Brasco pt 1

  1. Most of the world seems to have made the feudal transition without spawning mafia-like organizations,

    Is that true? I have been all over the world and organized crime seems pretty common.


      • Could be. Could be those other organized crime traditions started much sooner or much later. Drug cartels are organized crime, often based around family etc but are pretty new.

        To your credit, you summed up tribalism better them anyone else, pretty much ever, on this post.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Mafia might just be more famous because someone made movies about them. They seem to have had more staying power than, say, the Irish organized crime, which I suspect was a bigger deal before Al Capone shot the O’Banion gang and took control of Chicago. (Though Whitey Bulger and his ilk were still active in Southie until quite recently. I just haven’t researched them, yet.)

        But at the same time, northern Italy seems not to have spawned much in the way of the Mafia. Did France? The English? I suspect Scandinavia is fairly mafia-free (native populations, not immigrant, of course.)

        I’m sure someone has done some good work explaining when, where, and why organized criminal organizations emerge.


      • All good questions….. All out of good answers for you but I have not yet visited the place without some version of organized crime, all most all loosely based on clan and kin ship ties. Which makes sense. When you can’t trust the law etcwho else are you going to trust but the nephew who damn near worships you not the cousin you grew up with etc etc

        I was told the mafia started much ealier though, kind of a protection racket against various successful invaders. No idea if that is true but most people have rather heroic myths that back up whatever bit of nasty they do. Helps mentally insulate themselves so to speak


  2. “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. …”

    I think that in general Whites have less of the “our guys” vs “their guys” than other races. It’s surely a huge mistake. We’re being colonized out of existence. A general warning of our plight is how that girl was shot in San Fransisco and they just let him go. If we had any intelligence at all about saving ourselves this would have never happen.

    Blacks are another race that seems to have this behavior that has no consideration for other people. Dehumanizing them. Even other Blacks just as long as it’s not their immediate family.

    Ok here’s a vignette on a much older group, a quote, “…“We are a cult. We’re the oldest cult in the world. What can we do? We can’t change. People who get close to us can get hurt. It’s a big problem.”…”

    It’s very odd and a little long but it fits my prejudices. Maybe it’s not worth reading but as I see it fits so many of the facts at hand it’s hard to see it as anything but the truth.

    Mountebank’s Monster and His Mom

    Very odd. No reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I assume lack of group identity is in part a side effect of being a majority. I bet if the average white American were teleported to China tomorrow, they’d notice their own “American-ness” pretty quickly.

      One of the first things I noticed when I first started reading anthropology literature was that many groups have a distinct word for outsiders (and for some reason all of the ones I know start with G: gringo, gadje, goy, gaijin.) As someone who didn’t really fit in with my fellow highschool classmates and was in search of the small group I did fit in with, I found this idea of distinguishing between groups I fit in with and groups I didn’t pretty useful. But people who fit in with most people they meet may be less likely to use such a concept.


    • This is a great book. Should be a cult classic. The plot is unique because the story is true. Highly recommended. Poison, psychosurgery, gaslighting, etc.


      • “…This is a great book. Should be a cult classic. The plot is unique because the story is true…”

        I wonder if it really is true. I would not be surprised if it was completely true. I’ve read others that attempted to become Jewish and how they got in trouble with them. They got in with one temple then on one of the more mandatory meeting days switched to a different temple where he heard some inflammatory speech that was confirmation that Jews are a “Us vs. Them” situation that is understood by all that were at the meeting and supposedly most any Jews who go to temple on these important days. They thought at this temple he was born Jewish, hence him hearing this normally guarded speech just for Jews. When they found out he wasn’t and had heard this speech they tried to poison him.

        Now this may seem to be just paranoid ravings but I KNOW that on 9-11 building #7, not hit by a plane, fell the same speed as a rock dropped in air. Pointedly if a rock falls only supported by air and gravity being the same on the building, and it is, then the building to fall the same as the rock was only supported by air also. They fell the same speed so their conditions were equivalent. There no other feasible way to look at the situation. Now if I can readily see this and millions of others can see this then why can’t the Jews see this? Why aren’t the Jews making a huge outcry about the surety of explosives or something used to take out all support from this building?? The obvious answer to this is they did it. If they would do this in front of everyone to see…well what would they not do?

        I think the Jews are very much like the Mafia. You can see the obvious parallels. It’s worked brilliantly for them until…it doesn’t. Until people have had enough and decide that they are just too much trouble to live with. They are too aggressive and too parasitical on society for society to stand the strain. This is of course where the Jews would say oppression starts. I see it as justice, but well we all have our own viewpoints. Mine being I don’t want to have my government be a subsidiary of Jewish interests and my Army used to fight their wars and my currency be totally at their whims and control.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I used to know a Jew who thought 9-11 was a conspiracy–combination of Leftist Jewish hatred of Bush and the Republicans + paranoia. You’re not going to find a lot of Jews into 9-11 conspiracies just because there aren’t that many Jews and those who are paranoid tend to channel it into anti-semitism conspiracy theories.

        Based on my anthropology work: Synagogues and temples don’t have required days. Typically only Reform Jews call their synagogues “Temples;” Conservative or Orthodox Jews call them synagogues. Reform Jews are like Unitarians–they tend toward atheism, have female & gay rabbis, don’t follow most of the Jewish laws about kosher food and things like that, and marry non-Jews at very high rates. In short, temples are assimilationist, don’t have mandatory anything and are full of people who aren’t particularly Jewish. This is a very strange place to share an “us only” bit of information.

        Even if it was actually a synagogue, “born Jewish” doesn’t mean much. I know someone who attends an Orthodox synagogue who was adopted and only discovered their birth parents were Jewish at the age of 30. Legally they were “born Jewish.” It would be very hard for him to be mistaken for having been raised Orthodox, even with lots of effort, because there are just so many rules/customs that Orthodox follow. Plus the Jewish community is very small (especially the Orthodox;) so people tend to know each other.

        There is a bit of an “Us vs Them” attitude in Judaism, but no more than what you’d pick up from reading popular Jewish magazines on the internet or talking to a Jew. It’d be nigh impossible for someone to get all the way into Judaism before noticing this.


    • That link is odd. I put in just the link to the address that when clicked goes to the text of the book but when displayed on your blog has a picture and buy at Amazon. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that kind of link before. A link that displays graphics and other links based on just the one link???? Not only that I have a plug-in called noscript. It blocks all javascript form any site as a general rule unless you allow it. All scripts are blocked form that site “” so any scripts are running on your blog and being sent to me for display. I wonder if I don’t see these because I normally have all javascript blocked.

      By the way noscript is a fantastic plug-in for Firefox and recommended for all. You have no idea how many scripts are sent for each page. It’s unbeliabable. I hope javascript is torpedoed into the depths of the Ocean to never be resurrected. Many times for the major news sites when I want to see a video I have to allow all scripts to display the page. So I’ll allow all the scripts “that are present on THAT page”. Unfortunately most of the time allowing those scripts brings up new ones. Sometimes as many as five “allow scripts” deep. So scripts are feeding pages of new scripts and new scripts five pages deep. I’ve seen 65 or more scripts to see one page. Mostly I just give up. I might allow once, maybe twice but if they can’t manage a page with two levels of scripts I figure it’s not important enough for me to see.


      • Here at the back of the blog, I just see the link. If I go to the front of the blog, I see the place where the image should be, but no image. I think some combination of wordpress+your browser is trying to be “helpful” and display an image for you rather than just a link.


    • One thing I learned after finishing this book is that a lobotomy can be done rather simply by “injecting alcohol (ethanol) into the frontal lobes” of the brain ( Obviously, this technique would leave little or no trace and no bruising as the surgical method does. With minimal training, an operative could perform this procedure in a few minutes. It is gruesome to contemplate but a large number of people could be functionally greatly diminished by a much smaller number of clandestine operatives using ethanol lobotomies to attack them.


  3. Could be. Could be those other organized crime traditions started much sooner or much later. Can’t say e8ther which way myself.

    To your credit, you summed up tribalism better them anyone else, pretty much ever, on this post.


  4. We need to stop all this bombing and killing of everyone around the planet. It going to come back to haunt us some day. Now mind you I’m all for bombing and killing the right folks as I’m hardly a pacifist but we’re driving the carnage and to my eyes only a small subset of the Oligarchs benefit from any of this. If I was President I would invade the offshore banks, the bank of England(it’s in a free zone not part of England), steal all their money and destroy all their records. That’s bombing I could get behind. There’s no telling how much we could mint off of this. I’ve heard any where form 20 Trillion to 120 Trillion. If we’re going to be evil odious people let’s at least make some profit off of it!


    • Oh man. It’s like we get into bombing habits and just can’t shake them. Why did we get involved in Vietnam and then bomb Laos and Cambodia? Eh, you know, something something France, something something spread of communism, etc. WWI was even less sensible. Net effect: lots of dead people, but I swear, we put more effort into arguing about whether enough people of different races and genders should win Oscars than about whether we should be spending trillions of dollars bombing people.


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