‘Ndrangheta: The Glocal Dimensions of the Most Powerful Italian Mafia

By Anna Sergi & Anita Lavorgna
London: Palgrave Macmillan. 2016.

Whether in their native setting or elsewhere, the Italian Mafias have served as the exemplar of organised crime in official and popular discourses, and, without much doubt, the model, which has informed or underpinned a great number of empirical and theoretical investigations of what is called ‘organised crime’. Is there really room for news or novelty in any new books about the Italian Mafia(s)? Sergi and Lavorgna’s concise but masterful account of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta suggests that the answer is a resounding yes.

The publication itself ‘Ndrangheta: The Glocal Dimensions of the Most Powerful Italian Mafia is an instance of the emerging trend towards shorter, sharply focused monographs. One must not be deceived, however, by the short length of the book: it is by no means a light read. The authors are making excellent use of the available space in order to construct a thorough account of the Calabrian mafia, on the basis of a wide but carefully assessed historical, sociological and investigative evidence.

The work is – in its simplicity – intelligently written. The book’s contents are organised in a rather straightforward fashion. Its two parts examine the ‘Ndrangheta’s organisational and governance structures and its activities, respectively. Following the introductory chapter, wherein the authors explain their theoretical approach to mafias as behavioural model and begin to flesh out ‘Ndrangheta’s distinctively Calabrian outlook, they investigate in chapter two the evolution of ‘Ndrangheta clans, the ‘ndrine, and their relationship with mainstream Calabrian society.

Chapter three takes the next logical step to look into the migration of ‘Ndrangheta to the centre and north of Italy. On offer here is a compendium of ‘ndranghetism around the Italian regions and an interrogation of the origins and development of ‘ndrangheta-style groups in each region. It is particularly in this chapter where the authors’ use of a wealth of official investigative data becomes highly visible and helps identify the ‘Ndrangheta clans and structures as well as their transplantation tactics and opportunities for profit around Italy. Then in chapter four the investigation is extended into other European countries, Canada and Australia.

In the second part, chapters five and six, Sergi and Lavorgna interrogate with the help of similar sources, the main enterprise of the ‘Ndrangheta, the drugs market, as well as the laundering of the proceeds and investments. Then they offer an account of its other activities and business endeavours so as to highlight the particular ‘mafia’s’ diverse portfolio and thus to substantiate their characterisation of ‘Ndrangheta clans as poly-crime groups.

One should not fail to notice what the authors accomplish with great fluency in these chapters. Firstly, they bring together studies of organised crime published in both Italian (their native language) and English (both work in UK universities), so as to benefit from the diversity of those works and to seamlessly and carefully construct the theoretical coordinates of their account. The book which has the most up-to-date international outlook is a virtual trip that starts in the 15th century with the ‘Honoured Society’ and continues as far as today’s Australia. Secondly, sound social science and carefully scrutinised official reports are interweaved to flesh out and document the social roots and organisational modalities of the phenomenon they purport to understand—not (the) ‘Ndrangheta but ‘ndranghetism: a set of behaviours embedded in a diverse set of social practices, rituals, and traditions in Calabria and beyond, something that is facilitated “through shared values and conducts that do not necessarily amount to criminal conducts” (p.3).

This theoretical viewpoint is spelled out clearly from the introduction of the book, and the authors are careful to point back to it throughout the rest of the book, particularly in the very useful short conclusion of each chapter, and they return to it in the concluding chapter. At this point, the reader has learned already a lot from a text that brims with relevant and useful information and discussion. But what essentially the authors also accomplish by this point is that they clearly point to the limits of paradigm battles in the study of organised crime. Their account leaves no doubt as regards the historicity and embeddedness of ‘Ndrangheta’s Calabrian roots – and thus of ‘ndranghetism as a projection of those roots into the vicissitudes of Italian and global capitalism.

The theoretical import of Sergi and Lavorgna’s understanding of ‘Ndrangheta as a ‘behavioural model’ should not go unnoticed. In the final analysis, if the argument is followed to its obvious consequences, that which we call profit making by any name it goes is as harmful. That is why our main complaint is that the key idea deserved to be fleshed out more robustly in the book—perhaps in the conclusion, where the authors feel the need to qualify their approach and justify their focus. To be sure, as the authors concede, a lot empirical ground had to be covered, as relatively little is known about the ‘Ndrangheta. But one may wonder whether the authors point to theoretical questions that loom large when they point out to the symbiotic evolution of Calabrian mafia and Calabrian society; when they realise how the reaction of civil society is relatively absent from their account; or when in their final word they spontaneously issue a warning that ‘Ndrangheta should not “shed negative light on the people and places of Calabria” (p.117). Such silences point to the need for explanations of entrepreneurialism rooted in history and a rich understanding of the dynamics of contemporary societies.

Given the limitations of space, we think it would be best to approach the book as an excellent point of departure for the authors. In this sense, not only we unreservedly recommend it to both expert and lay readers, but we also certainly reserve a very keen eye for the next instalment.

Teesside University, UK