Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy, by Donnie Brasco (pt 2)

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re looking at Joseph D. Pistone aka Donnie Brasco’s The Way of the Wiseguy. In case you missed the movie, Pistone was an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated the New York Mafia (particularly the Bonnano family) from 1976-1981. The Way of the Wiseguy is not Pistone’s most famous work, but a collection of anecdotes from his years undercover, perfectly suited to a study of the culture of crime.

But enough from me. Let’s let Pistone speak:

The Mafia could not exist without its rules and codes of conduct, which are rigidly enforced and never open to question. In life, you break the social contract–such as speeding… you get a fine. … But when you’re a wiseguy facing wiseguy justice, there is no lawyer to defend you, no procedure in place to protect your rights. … Wiseguys wake up every day, aware that this may be the day that they get killed… It is a simple fact of life in the wiseguy world.

Wikipedia has an interesting list of the Mafia’s “10 Commandments”:

In November 2007, Sicilian police reported discovery of a list of “Ten Commandments” in the hideout of mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo, thought to be guidelines on good, respectful, and honourable conduct for a mafioso.[133]

  1. No one can present himself directly to another of our friends. There must be a third person to do it.
  2. Never look at the wives of friends.
  3. Never be seen with cops.
  4. Don’t go to pubs and clubs.
  5. Always being available for Cosa Nostra is a duty – even if your wife is about to give birth.
  6. Appointments must absolutely be respected. (probably refers to formal rank and authority.)[134]
  7. Wives must be treated with respect.
  8. When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth.
  9. Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families.
  10. People who can’t be part of Cosa Nostra: anyone who has a close relative in the police, anyone with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn’t hold to moral values.

Back to Pistone: Why Wiseguys Will Kill You:

Wiseguys do not like rape. If you rape someone who is a relative of a made guy or someone with some ties to the mob, you are in big trouble… Wiseguys have a pretty low threshold for what is and isn’t decent, but the crime of rape is one of the few transgressions that does not meet that threshold. …

The thing is, wiseguys do not go around killing people for no good reason. Like I said, if you read in the paper about some guy getting whacked, it’s a really good bet he was either a made guy who somehow fucked up. or some poor guy who get in over his head with wiseguys… or … a guy who did something that is not tolerated in the orbit of wiseguys. It is very unusual for people with no mob dealings or no connection to the mob to wind up dead at the hands of a mobster.

If, however, you are a wiseguy or a guy with some association to the mob, and you do certain things, you will get whacked. …

Not sharing money from illegal activities will get you killed. … If you are a wiseguy, everything you gain illegally, all your extorted monies, must be shared with our captain and your partners in your crew. …

Talking to cops will get you killed. …

Laying your hands on another wiseguy will get you killed. It’s a pretty simple rule–you never go after another wiseguy without the full and clear blessing of the bosses.

So the Mafia and Radical Feminists have something they agree on. The word “rape” originally meant “theft,” and we may suppose that the Mafia does not look kindly on the theft of their women.

Mafia Economics:

There is no such thing in the Mafia world as a sluggish economy. You will never hear mobster say they had a weak fiscal quarter. This series of payment that mobsters make to their superiors is absolutely relentless and irrespective of the stat e of the legitimate economy. …

And so it goes–the money comes in, the money flows up. No Mafia boss is out there earning money and distributing it downward to his loyal subordinates. … this system keeps the hands of the higher-ups as clean as possible. …

So what is it that wiseguys do with all that cash they get to keep? Depends on the wiseguy. Some become degenerate gamblers and waste every dime betting on horses. Some are cheap bastards and save as much as they can. … Some of the younger wiseguys are drug addicts who spend a bundle getting high. Some are family men who take their kids to Disney World. …

So how do they make their money?

Of all the various scams and operations orchestrated by wiseguys, none is as profitable and as dependable as illegal gambling. … the world is full of degenerate gamblers. Absolutely crawling with guys who would bet their grandmother’s last set of dentures on the outcome of the Florida-Florida State game. … people who are addicted to gambling do it every single fucking day they can. … the gambling never, ever stops. There is always–always–something for a degenerate gambler to bet on. …

How come legal gambling establishments haven’t driven wiseguys out of the gaming business? … Sure, it’s nice to go to Atlantic City and take in a show and have a fine dinner and then play the slots… But there is a catch and a pretty big one–you got to pay taxes on whatever you win. …

You see, these sicko gamblers, in their warped and twisted minds, always believe that the next hand they play, the next game they bet on, will be the Big Score, and none of them want to pay taxes on the Big Score. …

Which brings us to another mob endeavor that is inexorably linked to gambling–the time-honored practice of loan-sharking. .. That interest–called the “vigorish, or “vig,” is not computed monthly, as with most loans. It compounds every single week. Many degenerate gamblers wind up with no option but to turn to a Mafia loan shark–better known as a shylock–to secure the cash they need to pay off gambling debts. … Gamblers end up owing thousands to their bookie and thousands more to their shylock. … You are flirting with all sorts of evil shit if you string along a bunch of bookies and shylocks for too long.

This is interesting for three reasons: 1. I don’t understand gambling. Back when I was 10 I spent a couple of dollars on lottery tickets, won dollar, spent it on another ticket, won nothing, and realized this was a waste of money. That was the beginning and end of my fascination with gambling.

2. Pistone’s “degenerate gambler”. What distinguishes a regular gambler from a degenerate? Indeed, what is degeneracy? I know people who enjoy poker, but they aren’t in debt to the mob and their lives seem pretty functional.

Degeneracy, I propose, is behavior which leaves you with less control over your life. Having a glass of wine (or beer) at supper is not degenerate; drinking until you cannot safely get home is. Eating food is obviously necessary for life, but excessive eating (or dieting!) can have terrible effects on your health. Buying the occasional lottery ticket is not degenerate; spending money you can’t afford on lottery tickets and ending up in debt to the mob is.

3. As we discussed back in Parsis, Travelers, and Economic Niches, the mob here isn’t just committing random violence and robbing people–these are shadier versions of real businesses. If people need loans or want to gamble, then chances are someone will find a way to offer those services–even if it’s illegal. (We can probably throw in prostitution.

So if you’re the government, and you’re trying to decrease the power of groups like the Mafia, perhaps even quicker and more effective than spending years on risky infiltration schemes is just legalizing whatever it is that people are trying to do. Prohibition, of course, is the textbook example of an outlawed behavior fueling mob violence and the motivation for that violence disappearing once Prohibition ended.

Back to Pistone: Wiseguys have fairly normal family lives:

Wiseguys tend to be respectful of and gentlemanly towards the women in their lives. …

wiseguys love their mothers to death. Making a crack about another wiseguy’s mother is an offense that might get you whacked. Even the most brutal wiseguy will be a teddy bear in the presence of the woman who raised him. …

Believe it or not, wiseguys also treat their wives with decency and respect. That might seem like a ridiculous statement, considering that nine out of ten wiseguys have a girlfriend on the side. … Whatever they do when they are at the club or out on the town, wiseguys make fairly decent husbands when they re at home. …

They are excellent providers. you will met very few mobsters who are deadbeat dads or husband. Father of the year, they ain’t but a wiseguy who allows his family situation to spiral out of control will not be viewed kindly by his superiors in the mob. …

I figure normal family lives are part of what makes the Mafia stable. If Mafia guys can provide for their families and raise lots of children, then they’ll end up with plenty of future mobsters. If Mafia guys were unstable and couldn’t provide for their families, then the Mafia would have to constantly recruit new members from outside its own kin networks, which could make it less stable.

That’s all for today; I’ll see you next Friday.

2 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: The Way of the Wiseguy, by Donnie Brasco (pt 2)

  1. I live in a town of maybe 6k

    A year or so back a house was raided. It was full of video poker machines and a little less than 300k in cash. I know a wealthy man who is on this poker tour where he travels to folks houses, pays an entry fee and enters underground poker tournaments. I say wealthy because the buy in ranges up to 25k and he will rave about the food, how nice the house is etc etc and his losses dont seem to impact his standard of living. Gambling is huge. Not sure about the addicted to it deal, I think my town is too small to have a lot of gaming junkies and have invisible wreckage but gaming is much bigger then most folks would guess. Much bigger then I would habe thought though that house being raided was an education

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s