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November 13, 2010



You might actually like The Sopranos, which is sort of the anti-Godfather -- it deflates the romantic image these thugs have of themselves and reduces them to the petty guys from New Jersey that they actually are. Of course, it also makes them the protagonists of a five-season-long television series. The creators of the series had a constant struggle between getting the audience to empathize with the characters while tearing them down.

"...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"

A key moment in the series comes when a psychiatrist tells Carmela Soprano (wife of the boss, female lead of the show) exactly that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vwkeJFNFJJE

"...that there is a certain structural pas de deux going on here, that the two sides need each other and legitimate each other."

I think this is an instance of a more general phenomenon, where elements on both sides of a conflict use the existence of enemies (and inflate their strength) to strengthen their own position. You can see it in the US where the defense/security industry used the supposed threat of al Qaeda to bloat itself by hundreds of billions of dollars. Charles Tilly (I think) coined the useful term "violence entrepreneurs" for such people; I talk about it sporadically on my blog, like here: http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com/2009/05/nonviolence-entrepeneurs.html

ben w

Tilly also wrote about war-making and state-making as organized crime, and there is (or so I believe) a lot of literature on the state-like role of organized crime. (One could easily flip your imitation and have states be imitators of bands of thugs.)

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.

People will still want the things the state provides, and mobsters (whose goals aren't simply to be violent for its own sake) will step in and provide them.

South Asian

There was an interesting book on this topic: The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government by Thomas N. Bisson (Princeton University Press). It was reviewed (Lords of ‘Pride and Plunder’) by Robert J. Bartlett (New York Review of Books, June 24, 2010).

A relevant excerpt:

"The rulers of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were trained in, and glorified, war, and expected to live off it, as well as off the tribute of a subjugated peasantry. If such rulers formed “the state” of their day, what are the implications? The state engages in violence; it takes away our property. How then does it differ from a criminal enterprise? This was a question that went back at least as far as Saint Augustine in the fourth century:

What are robber gangs, except little kingdoms? If their wickedness prospers, so that they set up fixed abodes, occupy cities and subjugate whole populations, they then can take the name of kingdom with impunity.

Augustine’s ponderings stem from the worrying doubt that states and kingdoms, indeed all lawfully constituted governments, are just the most successful of the robber gangs. This idea, that the state and the criminal gang are but larger and smaller versions of the same thing, was one recurrent strand in medieval thinking."

We used these ideas to explore the social patterns in South Asia today:


Kai Matthews

"I want to say, now get that Godfather poster off your dorm-room wall and start reading some Camus or some Nietzsche."

Or off the wall of the office of the Concordia Student Union president. (It's probably gone now, since the last student elections in which I participated.)

Perhaps of a kind with Che Guevara t-shirts? (I'm generally unpopular with doctrinaire leftists on the few occasions when I point out the relish with which Che, after the revolution, personally executed enemies.)


I think it is pretty clear that organised crime wouldn't do very well under anarchy. But that is because it is parasitical on the organisation of a state rather than an imitator of the state. Parasites can of course be competitors with their hosts for resources - like tapeworms in the gut - but they cannot prosper alone.

Organised crime makes vast amounts of money by cheating. That requires some generally followed rules that they define themselves against (through their alternative omerta system?) and thereby create profitable economic niches. The way to success is to get 2 billion dollars worth of garbage disposal contracts from various municipalities across the EU and then dump the garbage for free in the countryside around Naples.

PS I'm not sure about your socio-political theory of war - Margaret Meade for example pointed out that there are lots of counterexamples to it (see her "Warfare is Only an Invention -- Not a Biological Necessity")


The state and the thuggish band are both developments in the history of human social organization. It is good to deflate their propaganda about themselves, but the fiendish next stage is probably being prepared as we speak....And since nothing ever disappears, some mutated forms of these evils will also continue to hang around.

Jonathan Halvorson

Justin, I share your detestation of the mafia and organized crime in general. The same visceral dislike extends well into the corporate world and the organized corruption and exploitation of the unorganized or uninformed.

The mob, in whatever form, is criminal only in relation to the laws of a state. Without the state, the mob simply is the de facto authority, if it can dominate a region. If it cannot, it engages in warfare until it is defeated or becomes the de facto authority. I am still in the camp that says political power abhors a vacuum. At least, as long as homo sapiens yet walks the earth.

It is true that if the nation state disappears for a time each individual successor organization is likely to have domain over a smaller population and have fewer resources with which to oppress, but there will also be more such entities and the control exercised may be just as strong on a per capita basis. If technology and access to mechanized instruments of power decline, then (and here I think Foucault was right) the mob-state will engage in greater displays of power in order to maintain control where it cannot surveille. The mob loves a massacre to show who is boss.

Even if it is true that in general the scale of warfare and organized mayhem would decline, don't forget that it is extremely likely that so would the quality of life as measured in things like access to technology, medicine, global travel, food choices, etc. That may be a price you are willing to pay, but it is a price.

For an alternate model that retains nation states, you might want to look at the least corrupt societies to see what social and political elements seem to inoculate the best against organized crime. The following is a start, though its focus is on governmental corruption so doesn't really get at what you're talking about. http://www.worldbank.org/html/prddr/trans/j&a96/art8.htm.
What the nations at the top of the list all share is that they're kind of boring. Within the US, I'd bet my home state of Minnesota is near the top.


Similar to the comment by South Asian, I have tended to think about states more as evolved gangs, different in scale and sophistication but not so different in nature.

Works of James C. Scott and Peter Leeson come to mind on this question. Both have participated in interesting conversations at Cato Unbound that are worth checking out. Scott's was just a couple of months ago and can be found at http://www.cato-unbound.org/archives/september-2010-seeing-like-a-state-a-conversation-with-james-c-scott/.

Leeson's was back in August 2007 and can be found at http://www.cato-unbound.org/archives/august-2007/. His entry titled "The Feasibility of Anarchy" might be most pertinent.

Nonetheless, the idea of gangsters reflecting the order of the state is compelling. It occurs to me that there might be a bit of a feedback loop wherein gangs developed into early iterations of states, which evolved they're own idiosyncrasies, which gangs in turn emulated and so on over the centuries.


@Jonathan Halvorson:

"Even if it is true that in general the scale of warfare and organized mayhem would decline, don't forget that it is extremely likely that so would the quality of life as measured in things like access to technology, medicine, global travel, food choices, etc."

I would go farther than this. I have a great deal of sympathy for anti-statist sentiments, but this sort of anarchist social theory is so profoundly speculative that one should probably take a close look at the historical and anthropological data on violence in stateless groups when forming a position. These data, unfortunately, paint a grim picture: hunter-gatherers tend to die violent deaths at vastly higher rates than people in industrialized societies. Despite the mass genocides and scorched-earth warfare we've seen in the last 100 years, the numbers suggest that rates of violent death have in fact declined dramatically over time. Living outside of state regulation seems to be a recipe for blood feuds, raiding parties, fatal brawls, and general instability and insecurity caused by inter- and intra-tribal aggression.

Perhaps some anarchists argue that the genius of the state is its ability to apply violent coercion without killing too many people, and that the rates of violent death therefore don't reflect the actual levels of violence experienced by industrialized man; this certainly seems like a plausible argument. But in the absence of any empirical support, the actually avialable data on violent deaths should be soberly considered by any prospective anarchist.

All of this is to say, yes, the state is not different in kind from organized crime families or the ethnic community mutual aid societies who serve as their public faces. When existing in parasitism with the state, the mafia can jettison its community-regulatory functions and be more exclusively predatory; if the state were to evaporate, the mafia would no doubt find itself doing a much higher volume of legitimate business and regulation like any other feudal structure. This is exactly the reason I'm not a hard-core anarchist: whatever you want to call it, some sort of tribal structure is going to govern you as long as you're a member of homo sapiens, and the numbers suggest that the current structure actually kills fewer people than the older ones. This might not be an airtight argument in favor of the status quo, but it's a pretty good counterargument to reflexive anti-statism in the absence of any data supporting the other side.


I have the same sort of thinking with many of US´s cultural products. Not only mafia but another topics in movies, rock songs´ lyrics, etc.


The worst part of any popular depiction of the "mafia" is that it never hits the mark with how poorly educated and irresponsible people involved with it in real life truly are. You are correct to use the term "cretin" in your article. Having grown up around such people that took that daily drive home as depicted in the opening to each Sopranos episode, I can say that none of them were fashionable or even interesting but quite the contrary. I mean we're talking about pitiful people with less that a high school education beating people up for the payment of debts related to prostitution and gambling. The notion that this brutish endeavor involves some kind of code of ethics that is to be objectified, marketed, and imitated is terrible. These people had no code of ethics; they just did whatever they could not to get caught. I doubt any of them could enunciate any principles whatsoever.

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