The Honoured Society
- BuyMafia Republic: Italy’s Criminal Curse: Cosa Nostra, Camorra and ’Ndrangheta from 1946 to the Present by John Dickie
Sceptre, 524 pp, £25.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 1 4447 2640 4
I was infuriated by the title before I started the book. The problem is not with ‘republic’, though ‘oligarchies’ would be more accurate, but with ‘mafia’: an ugly word used only by ignorant continentali. As a child in Palermo, living in the via Villareale, a few steps from the stylish Piazza Politeama, twenty minutes by car from the splendid beach of Mondello (my father had a car, few did), I knew exactly who the continentali were: the non-Sicilians of the mainland whose inability to understand our ways was incurable, as exemplified by their belief that the members of the honoured society, l’onorata società, were mere gangsters and protection racketeers, as if the lawyer N. who lived across the street, the notary C., his cousin, and our own doctor S. would ever dream of extorting a few lire from tavern-keepers. The lawyer, the notary and the doctor were all members of the honoured society, each with his own mandamento – the command of a given quarter of Palermo. They did have strong-arm underlings to keep everyone in line, but that mostly meant clamping down on petty crime by common thieves or street-corner toughs. They were colleagues of the police on that front, parting ways only when particular outrages – the violent rape of a woman, the robbery of a protected business, or worse, acts of overt defiance towards or disrespect for the honoured society – called for much more drastic punishment than the law would have prescribed. And of course no statute outlawed the mancanza di rispetto, the lack of respect that only swift and harsh punishment could expunge. Even in these cases, however, no firearms were used and there was no outright killing: for that there was the corpo armato, which received its orders not from lawyer N., notary C. or doctor S. but from the top leaders in conclave, the cupola. I don’t remember hearing that word at the time – it could be a journalistic fabrication like so much else – but I knew there were people senior to the people I knew.
Those who are still taken in by the ‘maxi-trials’ that preceded and followed the murders in 1992 of the prosecutors (near enough for procuratori) Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, and which identified two near illiterates, Salvatore ‘Totò’ Riina (convicted with another villager, Giovanni Brusca) and Bernardo Provenzano, as successive ‘chiefs of the mafia’, are left to puzzle over the peculiar inversion that has lawyers, notaries and doctors obediently taking orders from wretched peasants hiding out in the countryside. Naturally, that is just another continental fantasy, as are many beliefs about Sicily and its peculiar criminality: none is more revealing than the clichéd depiction of the mafioso as a rustic who kills with his lupara. The continentali believe this is some special Sicilian gun for hunting non-existent wolves (lupi), but the correct term is colpi di lupara, which merely denotes shotgun slugs as opposed to birdshot.
Unsurprisingly, the social status of the top leaders has never been lower than that of lawyer N., notary C. and doctor S. In my Palermo childhood there was very occasional talk of a particular prince and a prominent politician being top leaders, but no one was eager to find out more. I don’t doubt that Riina and Provenzano, who are now elderly prisoners, were guilty of many crimes. In Riina’s case that included the murders (with Brusca) of the endlessly commemorated prosecutors Falcone and Borsellino (tourists now fly into Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino Airport). But I am equally certain that they were never more than corporals in the honoured society, and errant corporals at that. It is telling that each was arrested after a denunciation, Riina 23 years after he was first declared a fugitive from the law, Provenzano after a fantastical 43 years of nominal outlawry. It was very nominal: each lived perfectly normally with their families – Riina in Palermo, Provenzano not far from Corleone – until their superiors shopped them.
Vol. 35 No. 20 · 24 October 2013
Edward Luttwak’s review of my book Mafia Republic begins with two startling propositions: only Sicilians can understand the mafia; and only ‘ignorant continentali’ (non-Sicilians) ever use the word ‘mafia’ – Luttwak prefers the long-obsolete ‘honoured society’ (LRB, 10 October). It seems that he qualifies as an expert on the mafia because he learned all about it during his years at a Palermo elementary school, whereas Italy’s judicial system, which uses the word ‘mafia’ as a matter of routine, is entirely staffed by ignorant mainlanders.
Luttwak tells us that mafia bosses – at least those identified as such by the courts – are petty extortionists at worst; they are mere puppets in the hands of an invisible super-elite that pulls the strings of the honoured society in Sicily and perhaps nationally. How do we know this super-elite is really in charge? Because they never get arrested, and nobody has ever identified them.
The best argument Luttwak can muster is an appeal to plausibility: how is it possible that illiterate peasants like Totò Riina and Bernardo Provenzano could dictate terms to the business and political classes? The answer is simple: violence. Riina and Provenzano never handled a pitchfork in their lives. Even their defence lawyers would blush to hear them described as peasants. They are professional criminals. It was ultimately their ability to kill and kidnap with impunity that earned them the right to negotiate at the highest table.
If Luttwak had read my book more carefully, he would have found abundant evidence to support the only good point he makes: that the mafia contains doctors, lawyers, politicians and businessmen. The Sicilian mafia is a secret society modelled on the freemasons and, like the freemasons, it recruits from up and down the social hierarchy. However, that doesn’t mean that the mafia’s internal hierarchy exactly mirrors the hierarchy in the society outside its ranks. Moreover Sicily, and Italy more widely, have always had predatory cliques among their political and business classes. Some but by no means all are mafiosi. The idea that they are united in a criminal super-elite is infantile.
Luttwak’s article is littered with other mystifications: that in the old days the honoured society functioned as a kind of informal police force, making sure rapists got their just deserts; that the ultimate blame for the mafia rests with the wicked North, which has exploited Sicily since unification, and so on. This sort of nonsense has been wearily familiar since it first emerged into the Italian public domain in the mid-1870s, at precisely the moment when the Sicilian ruling class, heavily compromised by the mafia, first entered government. If the mafia had a political ideology and an official interpretation of Sicilian history, Luttwak’s article would represent an excellent summary of it.
University College London
Vol. 35 No. 21 · 7 November 2013
John Dickie is unhappy with my review of his book, and as a sometime author myself, I understand his feelings (Letters, 24 October). But the fact remains that he is an industrious outsider wholly reliant on published literature about a phenomenon that remains almost entirely undocumented but for the deeply flawed documents that emerge from Italy’s system of justice – or, more accurately, of institutionalised injustice. I cited the case of Calogero Mannino, a former deputy, senator and minister, who was tried and retried over a period of 18 years on the impossibly vague charge of ‘external association’ with organised crime (buy an espresso in a bar that pays protection money and you too are externally associated). When that failed, he was prosecuted again on a hyper-political version of the same charge by the magistrate Antonio Ingroia, who then left his post to form the ultra-left Rivoluzione Civile political party for the 2013 election, which attacked Mannino’s politics, and who was allowed to become a prosecutor again after his crushing defeat at the polls. Prosecutorial abuse is fuelled by Italy’s parody of Catholic forgiveness, whereby prisoners willing to testify as prosecutors wish are freed to enter a well-paid career as ‘repented witnesses’; naturally they spin wondrous tales.
Politicised justice can be found all over the world, but Sicily’s version is extreme, and it fatally deforms the information generated by the legal system on which outside researchers such as Dickie must rely. One of the strengths of his book (duly acknowledged in my review) is that he fully recognises the fatal defects of Italy’s justice system, yet he still relies on it for information. I do not, hence my very different perspective. I am surprised at his intimation that my own information is derived from (obsolete and fabulistic) childhood memories, merely on the basis that I mention my Sicilian childhood. In fact I have never been away from Sicily long enough to lose my personal connection with Palermo and its surroundings.
Finally, Dickie’s contemptuous dismissal of the contention that annexation was economically disastrous for Sicily contradicts the consensus of economic historians who have published on the subject.
Chevy Chase, Maryland