Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, is not so much a criminal organization, but a way of life. The Sicilian brand grew out of self-help to protect people against baronial rule. Based on creating fictional kinship, it works by doing each other favours.
Two elements are essential to Mafia. Partito is a way of helping useful people into positions of authority, where they can then protect Mafia itself. Omerta is a system of silence, where no one speaks to people in authority about Mafia.
We can see, here, that Mafia is simply the most well known expression of the natural way of the criminal gang or society. Omerta, for instance, is practiced throughout the criminal fraternity. But Sicilian Mafia became famous as immigrants moved to America.
Mafia first took hold in New Orleans. When they killed a police chief in 1890, nine hoods were arrested but acquitted. Enraged locals lynched them. The US authorities then paid out compensation to the families, which was used to get Mafia organized.
The protection racket was their first business, but as Prohibition came into force, Mafia went into the booze business. This was the time of the tommy-gun wielding Moustache Petes. Al Capone in Chicago epitomized the time, responsible for the 1929 St Valentine’s Day Massacre as rival gangs fought for supremacy.
Following Prohibition, Mafia began to move into the woodwork of American life. Jimmy Hoffa made in-roads into the Unions, taking them over, whilst other families moved into big business. Some, such as Lucky Luciano, organized murder squads, whilst others went into gambling and drugs.
Mafia became the dark side of American life, families working together, with only the occasional ‘war.’ People under their control were assisted for favours, the whole system held together by the Godfathers and their fictional families.
This says it all. Swap Godfather for King, and kinship for barons, and we can see that Mafia is, in reality, a survival of the feudal system. And for as long as people yearn to control others, Mafia will remain everywhere, just under the surface of society.
© Anthony North, December 2006