The Sicilian Mafia

Gambetta, Diego. 1996. The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Diego Gambetta’s hugely important book conceptualizes the Sicilian mafia as not an organization but as an industry that’s in the business of producing, promoting, and selling private protection. As many mobsters have claimed, “There is no mafia.” Gambetta would agree, but he would be careful to add that there certainly are mafiosi. The commodity that these men peddle—and they are men—is not violence, but protection. Violence is one of many means used to achieve the end of protection. The need for private protection emerges in a context of economic exchange in which trust and guarantees of some kind in the last instance are unavailable. Forms of private protection are particularly prevalent in illicit trades, which are by definition beyond state sanction and regulation. Gambetta says such practices are buttressed in Sicily by an ideology based on a “relativist approach to the relationship between the state and the law” (5). This ideology produces reliance on bargaining with rather than fighting against mafia.

One of his central claims is that in practice there is no fine line between extortion and genuine protection. Gambetta also has a stern critique against analytical parallels that are made between mafia and the state—a parallel he says can only be taken so far. And he’s adamantly against popular conceptions that present mafia as a legal system in its own right. But, above all, his point is that “mafiosi are not entrepreneurs primarily involved in dealing with illegal goods, nor are they entrepreneurs in the sense of handling violently the production of legal goods. Mafiosi as such deal with no good other than protection” (9). Although Gambetta makes an excellent case for these arguments, the claim does not always line up with his own evidence (e.g. the section on drugs), though it does in most cases. All I’m saying is that in some cases I don’t think “protection” quite encompasses the complexity of relationships forged by mafia.

One would expect that mafia-dominated areas would be relatively crime free—at least, in terms of petty crime—but Gambetta shows that in some cases the protection being provided is actually to criminal activities (32). More commonly, however, the protection is indeed being sold to customers engaging in licit activities. In many cases, customers make these payments are made willingly because they provide a more level economic playing field or otherwise provide an absent guarantee. So, again, “the mafia is best understood as a set of firms specializing in the supply of protection” (53).

Unlike Anton Blok’s take, Gambetta wants a much more reduced identification of mafiosi in terms of “characters who specialize in protection, not for violent entrepreneurs but for entrepreneurs of violence” (77). Working with this more reduced definition, Gambetta implicitly argues that the emergence of mafia cannot be reduced to the violent landed relations of the countryside that Blok emphasizes. Absentee landowners, latifundia, and the end of feudalism were certainly key factors, but Gambetta points to a much more diverse group that more clearly straddles the urban-rural divide, whereas Blok focuses on the gabelloti (leaseholders) (88-89).

From these examples it is possible to derive an alternative account of the origins, autonomization, and diffusion of the protection industry which has no immediate connection with the latifundia. This view of the mafia as originating in prosperous agricultural areas, in lively commercial environments, and among a variety of traders is not only empirically founded but theoretically convincing, since healthy markets are naturally associated with opportunities for commerce in many commodities, including protection. (89)

Gambetta is also skeptical of the claim that Mafiosi emerged as a repressive force against dispossessed peasant laborers (also made by Blok). Instead, he presents a much more scattered pattern of repression and alliance over time and space. Although Mafiosi did help enforce highly unequal property regimes, Gambetta writes: “Only if the power and reputation [the gabelloti] acquires in the process serve a wider purpose can his position evolve into that of a mafioso” (95). This is one instance in which the lines of distinction that Gambetta wants to draw are particularly faint (e.g. when does power and reputation in Sicily not serve a wider purpose?).

Some of Blok’s claims about the role of landowners and especially the state seem acknowledged when Gambetta tries to account for why the western side of the island was much more mafia-heavy than the east. “The new state found it difficult to enforce its authority [in the west] since landlords had an incentive to resort to local protectors who could apply private violence to resolve their differences. Conversely, where the elites were united in exercising power, the state … managed to penetrate with relative ease” (98). Nonetheless, Gambetta’s point is entirely well taken and an important corrective to Blok’s account: “the mafia [did not] spring fully formed from the latifundia, nor did it simply appear where commerce was liveliest; it evolved where the two worlds met. In this encounter of rural and urban, force and cunning, lower and middle classes lies the secret of the mafia’s origin, the energy that turned it into an industry” (99).

For Gambetta, mafia is all about protection, which is what gives independent mafia families a common denominator and identity. “The shared fundamental ingredient is neither a centralized structure nor a well-defined and permanent organizational arrangement. It is rather a successful commercial identity as suppliers of genuine protection” (153). And when it comes to the protection of illegal activities and industries, protection can take a particularly violent form.


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