Unlike most of my contemporaries, I simply hate the mafia. I hate everything that has to do with the mafia, including fictional representations of it in cinema, television, and video games. I am regularly forced to report ads for Mafia Wars on a certain social-networking site as 'offensive' (ads for KY Jelly, in turn, are dutifully denounced as 'irrelevant'). I hate so much as thinking about casinos, Teamsters, cocaine, construction firms, since these all invariably carry with them a further thought of the mafioso who makes them his business. I hate hearing imitations of Sicilian bosses doing their schtick (threatening to kill people in a funny accent), which are almost always imitations of Christopher Walken doing imitations of Sicilian bosses.
Most of all I hate it when earnest students of mine invoke omertà as an example of a moral code, as having a laudable principle at its core even if in its application it leads to regrettable consequences. Each time this comes up I think to myself: don't students read The Stranger anymore? Or do the 'classics' that inform their moral reasoning extend back only as far as The Godfather and Scarface (I admit I made it through the first of these, but only as a Coppola completist; I have never seen a single episode of the Sopranos, and the earliest memory I have of being repulsed by the whimsical representation of organized crime was Wise Guys, the horrid Brian de Palma film of 1986 starring Billy Crystal and Danny De Vito). I would greatly prefer to engage in a discussion about morality with a student contemplating the possibility of random, lone, unprovoked murder, than with one who thinks unquestioning group loyalty represents any sort of moral accomplishment at all. Omertà is for stunted cretins, I want to say, now get that Godfather poster off your dorm-room wall and start reading some Camus or some Nietzsche.
There was another big mafia hit in Montreal this week, as a major parrain montréalais was gunned down in his own home. Predictably the female enablers of the clan showed up in the newspapers looking indignant, flashing gold crosses around their necks, talking on cellphones in front of their bloated pre-fab mansions. Why anyone would find this culture worthy of glorification in TV and movies is truly beyond my comprehension (the TV romances portray these women as victims of fate, as born into it and thus unable to do anything about it; but they damn well can do something about it: they can run away, they can choose to construct their lives autonomously). I am unable to understand, but not at all because I have no appreciation for the power of violence in art and myth. I am right there with Ernst Jünger when he describes the sublimity of trench warfare, and I am no stranger to Gothic tales of torture and bloodsucking either. But these have to do with transgression against ordinary morality, whereas organized crime is about the redoubling of the very most ordinary morality: it's patriotism for people too small-minded and provincial to think about loyalty to the nation.
And this brings me to my real point. I mentioned recently that one of the concerns that often holds me back from publicly identifying myself as an anarchist is this: although I would very much like to see nation-states wither away, I am generally concerned that bands of thugs would move right into the vacuum of state power. But recently I've been wondering whether such bands are not rather the product --or, better, a by-product-- of the existence of more legitimate systems of rule with relatively more legitimate claims to a right to exercise coercive violence. We tend to think of organizations like the mafia as operating against the state, but what if they are in fact operating in imitation of the state, as a sort of trickle-down, derivative reflection in folk culture of a modus operandi that is exemplified par excellence by the state?
It's true that mobsters and warlords tend to thrive most where states function least. But this fact does not necessarily mean that human beings only ever have a choice between states and thugs. It seems to me that it's at least possible --and I'm sure there is plenty of scholarship both empirical and theoretical pertaining to this suggestion, about which less dilletantish students of politics might be able to inform me-- that the thriving of state-like violence cartels within certain states is a sort of jockeying for power in which the under-performing state is one of the players, not the eternal enemy and opposite of the sub-state players.
Would sub-state violence continue in a vacuum of state power? One thing we know is that there is a fairly tight connection between modes of production on the one hand, forms of social organization on the other, and, finally, characteristic expressions of communal violence on the third hand. Hunter-gatherer societies had no standing armies, and engaged in no wars of expansion; their 'wars' were limited to cyclical revenge-based raids on neighboring groups. Wars of expansion began with pastoralism; as many scholars have noted, the current ethnic make-up of Eurasia was determined by nothing more heroic than the cattle-rustling campaigns of steppe dwellers. Standing, professional armies only came with the rise of states, and the idea that a soldier should be a 'citizen' of the state for which he fights, rather than a mercenary, is a very recent development, and likely not a permanent one.
State violence develops in a continuous line out of clan-based violence as sociocultural complexity increases. The state does better and at a larger scale what tribal raiders and mafiosi seek to do at a smaller scale. Such groups would indeed probably keep doing this in the absence of state power, but I see no obvious reason why the absence of state power should be a particular boon for mobsters and warlords who are currently limited in their exercise of violence by pesky law-enforcement efforts. At present, we have mafia violence and state violence. Whatever we may learn from science and history about human nature, and about the sinister designs that groups of humans spontaneously come up with, it remains a fact that states are vastly more violent than sub-state actors like the mafia that they are officially charged with keeping in check. It is unlikely that thuggish violence would disappear in the absence of states (just as early cattle rustlers did not need state support in order to settle a continent), but in the present situation states do set a fairly high standard of coerciveness for mobsters and thugs to emulate.
Anyone who has seen the special paramilitary stations in Rome dedicated to 'antimafia' operations, with the word 'antimafia' carved into thick stone columns outside their gates, cannot help but notice that there is a certain structural pas de deux going on here, that the two sides need each other and legitimate each other. One also cannot help but think that any state that would think to immortalize its antimafia activity in marble columns is a pretty crappy excuse for a state: a state that permanently acknowledges the reality of sub-state violence cartels in its midst, and in this way sets itself up as merely one center of coercion among others. How much healthier is the state that has no need for such institutions! And how much healthier, to push this thought to the limit, is the 'state' that has no need for coercion of any sort.
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