The Mafia have been glamorised in film and TV, but their dominance in Sicily, Italy, has been opposed by grassroots movements, says author Tom Behan
The Sicilian Mafia and its US cousin are no Robin Hoods robbing the rich to feed the poor. They are all about personal enrichment. The Mafia were and remain a bunch of selfish, violent murderers.
The Mafia in Sicily emerged with capitalism. The Italian national state only became united in 1861. The various states that had existed prior to that across the Italian peninsula were very weak and they had little interest in remote places such as Sicily.
Feudalism in Sicily was only ended in 1812. Under the feudal system the landowners had their own private armies to manage their estates and were a law unto themselves. Peasants had a very harsh existence.
The landlords were not interested in their estates, apart from as a source of rent. They did not live there or even visit them, but instead resided in the city of Naples or Palermo, Sicily’s capital.
The landowners’ enforcers imposed the collection of rents. The Mafia started to emerge from these people. They began to get money, buy land and to become capitalists on a small scale, inserting themselves into the local state.
Even after unification the new Italian state was weak and reliant on regional powerbrokers. The Mafia benefited from this weakness.
The ruling class tolerated lawlessness and there was as yet no organised working class. This period is brilliantly captured in the 1963 film The Leopard, directed by Luchino Visconti, which is based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel.
The Mafia acted as a cushion for the ruling class, allowing it to rule in a situation of intense poverty where people were desperate for any tiny improvement in their lives.
Instead of making demands on the political system they went to the local Mafia boss to ask for help in getting a job, a pay increase or even furniture.
The Mafia were seen as the most immediate, powerful force that could help people. For the Mafia’s powerful backers it was very convenient that ordinary people did not fight against the system.
When working class people did fight, the Mafia faced a huge crisis – the best example being the Fasci Siciliani movement of 1892-95. This was a popular movement that threw up democratic organisations. These were finally broken by the state.
But they were so powerful that the Mafia didn’t dare attack them head-on. Indeed many low-level Mafiosi joined the movement, abandoning their gangs.
At the beginning of the 20th century hundreds of thousands of poor people emigrated from the Italian south to the US, where capitalism was expanding rapidly without much regulation.
To some extent the system they left behind in Sicily was reproduced. There was still deference to people “on high” and fear of people who were quick with a gun. Italian migrants were subject to racism and exclusion.
US authorities were relatively happy to allow organised crime to operate on its behalf and to act as an enforcer within the emigrant community.
On the other hand there was also the mass involvement of Italian workers in the great labour struggles and the Industrial Workers of the World militant union in the years before the First World War.
During the Second World War the US military used the Mafia when it invaded Sicily in 1943. The US and Britain wanted to replace the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in Italy. There was democratic resistance to fascism, but it was left wing and so was opposed by Britain and the US.
They saw there was another structure that was not democratic or left wing and with which they had contacts – the Mafia. US agents admitted meeting Mafia boss Don Calogero Vizzini – who was made mayor of his hometown by the US army.
Charles Poletti, the head of the Allied administration of the island, was very aware of who he was dealing with. His interpreter, Vito Genovese, was a Mafioso who had been deported from New York before the war.
He had made large donations to Mussolini’s fascists and entertained Nazi leaders in his castle in Italy. But he was quick to change sides when the invasion began.
Genovese even gave Poletti a Packard sedan car. He was arrested in 1944 for running a huge scam out of Naples’ docks where US fuel and food sent to feed the civilian population found its way to the black market.
The Mafia in Sicily and the Camorra in Naples resurrected themselves during the Allied occupation. They offered order in opposition to growing left wing forces.
The first regional elections after the war took place in Sicily in April 1947. The joint Communist-Socialist ticket, promising land reform, won 29 seats in the Sicilian parliament to the centre right, pro-US Christian Democrats’ 19.
Ten days later, on 1 May, peasants assembled at Portella della Ginestra, a vale between three villages, to celebrate their election victory and May Day. As the first speaker began addressing the crowd shots rang out.
People scrambled to the ground but there was no cover. Twelve people were killed, including four children. It was a message from the ruling class that the people may have won the elections but they had not won the class war.
In the wake of the massacre the left was intimidated, suffering a severe defeat, although it was not entirely annihilated. The Christian Democrats would rule the island for decades, just like they would rule Italy for 50 years, with Mafia support and involvement.
Seven times Christian Democrat prime minister Giulio Andreotti is deeply implicated with the Mafia.
He was tried for organising the murder of a journalist. At one point he was even found guilty of meeting a senior Mafia leader in his Rome office.
But because of Italy’s statute of limitations this man, who was found to have lied 27 times in court, was let off. The court decided that the charge of involvement with the Mafia had lapsed because of the time involved in the court case.
Andreotti who, as the Italians say “smells of the Mafia”, is still sitting in parliament as a life senator and offering his support in key votes to the centre left government of Romano Prodi.