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Book Review


by Leitizia Paoli
Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003

It seems that with the proliferation of both popular and academic literature dedicated to Italian organized crime, it would be a daring feet to claim that one's work deals with this topic in an innovative fashion. Latizia Paoli's Mafia Brotherhoods makes precisely such a claim and not without cause. Paoli's book is an insight into the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta. The primary sources for her insight are the confessions and testimonies of former mafia members who co-operated with judicial authorities. Paoli states that despite the volume of literature on the Italian mafia, it is difficult to investigate this phenomenon, for the obvious reason that fieldwork, as a means of data collection, is not a real possibility. Thus, confessions of former mafia members present one of the best direct sources of information. Paoli acknowledges the need to view such confessions with a healthy dose of scepticism, and to take into account the underlying reasons why such confessions were made in the first place. However, the multiplicity and dissimilarity of informants, as well as the high number of law enforcement officials and independent observers who gathered the confessions, combined with different historical points at which such confessions were gathered, lend a certain degree of credibility to this source of information. The reluctance to use mafia confessions until recently stemmed, in Paoli's view, from the inconsistency of the defectors' statements with the established academic paradigms that have dominated the postwar scientific debate on organized crime. Thus, despite the recent acceptance of these confessions as a valid source of evidence, they have yet to be analyzed in a systematic fashion. Paoli's book is a pioneer of such analysis. Paoli claims that the "insiders' view" paints an accurate overall picture of the structure, culture and actions of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and the Calabrian 'Ndrangheta. The book does not attempt to analyze the logistics behind specific criminal transgressions.

From her analysis Paoli concludes that both the Cosa Nostra and the 'Ndrangheta are formalized and longstanding mafia groups, which create ritual brotherhood ties among their members through rites and symbols. These mafia brotherhoods are separate and distinct from the blood families of their members. Both the Cosa Nostra as well as the 'Ndrangheta systematically rely on violence and secrecy to defend themselves from the state as well as to pursue their aims. Paoli points out that the secrecy surrounding the two associations is directly tied to the vigour of the state's anti-mafia actions, and hence varies with the times. Finally, the goals of both the Cosa Nostra and the 'Ndrangheta are not strictly limited to the pursuit of profit. One goal in particular has been virtually ignored by twentieth century commentators - the goal of exercising political dominion both over their members as well as over their particular territories of operation, frequently as an alternative to the state's mechanisms. However, Paoli does point out that in recent years the "official goals" of the mafia associations, such as political dominion, honour, and the obligation to place the needs of the organization above personal concerns, have been slowly replaced by "operative goals" that are more economically oriented. She seems somewhat reluctant, though, to fully acknowledge this re-orientation of values in the two organizations. Instead she is quick to point out that the Italian mafia in America adopted economic gain as its aim in the 1920's, while a similar shift did not commence in Italy until the 1960's. Paoli states regarding the American Cosa Nostra that "ever since the 1920's, in fact, violence, brotherhood ties, and organizational reputation have been primarily employed by members of Italian American mafia groups to fulfill a major goal: making money. Mafiosi and other gangsters have thus adjusted to the materialistic nature of American society, which preaches honesty, virtue, and hard work, but places value on the possession of money, no matter how it has been acquired." However, it is arguable that the re-orientation in values of the American Cosa Nostra had less to do with the inherently materialistic nature of American society, but rather was a result of the more rapid cultural, social and economic modernization processes that occurred in the United States in the early 20th century. Paoli herself acknowledges that "following the processes of economic and cultural modernization that occurred all over Italy after the Second World War, the mafia 'subuniverse of meaning'...has progressively lost its attractive and explicative power." Thus, it is modernization that ultimately led to the decline in the influence of the mafia in both the United States and Italy. Both the Italian as well as the Italian American mafias experienced difficulties in attracting new recruits into their ranks. Moreover, the whole complex structure of the mafia, based as it is on ideology best suited for backward rural settings, clashed with the new ideology of entrepreneurialism. In a society where money, rather than power and honour, is the new currency, the more successful criminal enterprises frequently consist of small, frequently changing alliances, the main orientation of which is profit rather than political power.

Paoli, despite acknowledging the complexities of the organized crime phenomenon and pointing out the futility of superimposing the Italian mafia concept on other groups, remains critical of the increasing "entrepreneurial" conception of organized crime (i.e., focusing on the provision of illegal goods and services regardless of the degree of organization). While it is hard to argue with Paoli's critique of various definitions of organized crime, such as the one contained in the Palermo Convention, perhaps the definitional shift, despite its imperfections, better accounts for the new realities of organized criminal entities. Paoli herself recognizes that "despite its literary and film success, the mafia heyday - at least in the United States - seems to be over." Thus, concentrating on the profit-making goal of organized crime is inevitable when studying the nature of this phenomenon in modern society.

York University
Toronto, Ontario

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