Cosa Nostra - the mafia

Cosa Nostra – rebranding the Mafia.

An interview with Professor John Dickie
Andrew Lawless


“The mafia, in the strict sense of Cosa Nostra, the hierarchical criminal organization based in Sicily, does not ‘run Italy’ as you sometimes hear people rather glibly say,” explains John Dickie, senior lecturer in Italian at the University of London, and author of Cosa Nostra – a history of the Sicilian Mafia. It’s in response to the question, to what extent is an understanding of the Mafia crucial to an understanding of the history of modern Italy? “It is no coincidence – though, he continues – that the mafia was born at the same time as the modern Italian State, in the middle of the nineteenth century. Since then, the Italian state has co-habited with illegal forms of power based on an ability to use violence (that is, with the mafia in a looser meaning). Still today, some areas of southern Italy are not under the full control of the legal government, in the sense that criminal associations create their own ‘legality’, their own shadow state. Understanding how that situation has evolved tells us a great deal about Italy, and about the State’s difficulties in establishing its right to rule.”

Dickie’s work, which is amongst the first serious academic studies on Cosa Nostra published in English, dismisses many of the accepted myths about the organisation, propagated by its own members, as well as through art, literature and film over the last century.

Let’s talk about the name. Do we know what the origins of the name are? When it first came into use? Do ‘mafiosi‘ actually use the term referring to themselves?

Men of honour, as initiated members of Cosa Nostra are called, do not use the word mafia about themselves. That fact alone is enough to tell us that all the etymological speculation that has gone on around the origins of the word is missing the point. That said, the best guess we have is that the word existed in Palermo dialect in the middle of the nineteenth century: it meant a kind of self-confidence and beauty–’cool’ is an approximate English equivalent. The story of how it then came to have criminal connotations, and came to be a powerful political weapon at the same time, is told in an early chapter of my book.

Cosa Nostra exists to protect the credibility of its brand. In other words, to make sure that the threats its members issue are never made in vain. A bit like the Volkswagen brand and its reputation for reliability. Only in the case of Cosa Nostra, protecting your brand identity means being able to kill people and get away with it, rather than just being able to start your car on a damp morning.

Many books on the mafia have been written by journalists and commentators, but relatively few by historians (certainly in English). What are the challenges facing the historian approaching a topic like the mafia?

The first and most serious problem was only overcome remarkably recently. Until 1992 we didn’t know for certain what the Sicilian mafia was! It was in that year that the existence of Cosa Nostra was finally confirmed by the Italian courts. Before then, historians couldn’t be confident that they knew what they were looking for when they went back through the records to research the mafia. That is why the first genuine history of the Sicilian mafia ever written in Italian only came out in 1993–a brilliant work of scholarship and analysis by the Catania historian Salvatore Lupo. It’s a great shame that his book has never been translated into English.

The other, obvious, problem is documentation. The Sicilian mafia is, and has always been, a secret association of murderers and criminals. By its very nature, it does not leave written records. However, because it has always lived in close contact with political power, it has left a great deal of secondary evidence about itself.

What sets Cosa Nostra apart from organisations like the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria, or the Sacra Corona Unita of Puglia? How is it that the mafia has come to be seen as the template for organised criminal activity worldwide?

Cosa Nostra is quite simply far more organized than the other southern Italian criminal associations. None of the others has anything like the provincial Commissions that act as parliaments and courts for the mafia in western Sicily. None of the others has a boss of all bosses as Cosa Nostra does. The close links with the United States, where the Sicilian model came to dominate over the other criminal associations exported from Italy, has also helped Cosa Nostra become prominent.

One review of your book described it as a “precise and necessary work of rebranding”. Would you agree? What drew you to the subject?

 

The reference to branding is interesting. It derives from a fascinating sociological analysis of the Sicilian mafia by Diego Gambetta–another one of the breakthrough studies on the subject that came out in the early 1990s. He pioneered the idea that ‘mafia’ could be thought of as a brand–either of trust, or of intimidation, depending on how you view the extortion rackets that are at the basis of Cosa Nostra‘s power.

Cosa Nostra exists to protect the credibility of its brand. In other words, to make sure that the threats its members issue are never made in vain. A bit like the Volkswagen brand and its reputation for reliability. Only in the case of Cosa Nostra, protecting your brand identity means being able to kill people and get away with it, rather than just being able to start your car on a damp morning.

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