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New Left Review I/118, November-December 1979


Pino Arlacchi

From Man of Honour to Entrepreneur: The Evolution of the Mafia

The conclusion reached by sociological research on the subject of the mafia can probably be said to consist in the claim that the mafia—in the commonly accepted meaning of the term—does not exist: ‘. . . most people, particularly those outside Italy, have a fairly precise image of the mafia as a centralized, criminal association whose members are strictly bound to each other by initiation rites and a distinct code of behaviour. The public has never lacked for information to endorse this view, whether its source be specialized literature on the topic, the press, detective and horror fiction or television gangster movies. But anyone willing to explore the facts in greater depth, and to trace back the chain of sources of this information, will arrive at a quite different picture . . . at the conviction, in fact, that when Mini (one of the accused in a mafia trial), on being questioned about his association with the mafia, replied: “I don’t know what that means”, he was not lying. What was true was that he was acquainted with a number of individuals said to be “mafiosi”, not on account of their membership of a secret sect but because they conducted themselves in a certain way, because they behaved in “mafioso” fashion’. [1] H. Hess, Mafia, Rome and Bari 1973, chap. XI. The present essay forms part of a research project, ‘The Mafia and Types of Society’, undertaken at the University of Calabria and financed by the Regione Calabria. What is meant by ‘behaving in mafioso fashion’? It means ‘rendering oneself respected’, being a ‘man of honour’, someone capable of himself exacting revenge for any offence committed against his person, and of inflicting such harm as he might choose upon his adversary. Even though the use of violence is an offence against the laws of the state, the particular cultural milieu in which the mafioso lives not only endorses but actively encourages and idealizes such behaviour, whether aggressive or defensive in character. Indeed, a significant component of the prestige and power conferred by any such instance of mafioso behaviour derives precisely from the fact that it is an act performed in open defiance of legal rulings and institutions.

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