The Economics of the Mafia: Capitalism and What It Means to Italian Organized Crime

Throughout the course of history, the country of Italy and specifically its southern region and Sicily, have cultivated and spawned large organized crime syndicates, known to many as the Mafia, that have attained global reach over the world’s capital through illicit markets and extortion. By using brutal force tactics and gruesomely symbolic assassinations, the Mafia have immersed themselves into the cultural fabric of the people of Italy, along with the implication that it is a mere response to the ultimately failed attempt of the post 19th-century unification of the Italian state to properly incorporate its southern region. While the Italian people themselves have been subject to political and economic turmoil for the better part of the last millennium, it is important to understand that the roots of the Mafia and Italian organized crime ultimately lie in the battle of socio-economic ideology over history, which has led to its vast political, economic, and cultural prominence in the region and around the world. The Mafia operates and conveys itself as a business, and ultimately functions as a degenerate machine of capitalism. By examining the history of the Mafia’s roots in Sicily, beginning with the unification of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century to its ‘transformisimo’ movement in the late twentieth century, along with its eventual expansion to the United States and other parts of the world, we can begin to comprehend why such a massive criminal organization can be so successful and thrive in societies and economic climates where free market and capitalism is encouraged and legislated for. Additionally, by examining our own perceptions of the Mafia in our media as free market entrepreneurs, we are engaged to analyze our own intrigue in the Mafiosi and his exposition of our own desire to create wealth and maintain our own economic destiny.

While the origins of what we know today as the Mafia are particularly unclear, it is accepted that its formation is rooted in Italy’s unification in the mid 19th century. After the government’s annexation of Sicily, the feudal landowners began to rebel against the state’s plan of Risorgimento, where it began seizing back these lands to redistribute them to private landowners, churches, and other public institutions, while also taxing the people of Sicily to pay for the reconstruction of its economic and political infrastructure. [1] The feudal landowners, along with the people in the areas they controlled, ultimately began to reject the taxes and regulations imposed on them. Allegiances of the people rested in these small clans of feudal landowners who were able to gain to effectively challenge the state as a provisionary body for the people of Sicily. These clans were often linked through blood ties, which strengthened the roles of the nuclear family in an already instilled patriarchal society. The familiarity and proximity of these entities proved to be realistically more valuable to the peasant workers of southern Italy, as they themselves identified with the ability to be capitalists. Being able to provide these people with an alternative to the suppressive nature of the regulatory and inept Italian state, the Mafia crucially was able to grow itself into a solidary tool of feudal landowners supported by a working peasant class who could effectively attain prosperity from the fairly-new and developing nation state through illicit business practices and violent, sometimes murderous means.

The post-unification struggles of the new Italy were augmented by the rise of the Mafia’s new-found power in organizing the peasant class into groups of labor. The various clans and families in the south who wielded the control and allegiance of the peasant class could assemble workers to vote in favor of whatever political party that could effectively promote and amplify the inner workings of their organizations. Towards the end of the 19th century, crime in Sicily had become rampant leading to the Left coming to power in Italy for the first time.(Stille 15) [2] The government, which effectively dealt with the Mafia by working with some outfits in order to arrest other, more violent and threatening ones. The facist regime of Benito Mussolini would eventually take on the Mafia itself, conducting mass arrests among the region and effectively driving it back until the liberation of Sicily during Wolrd War II. When Musollini’s regime fell, the Mafia was prepared to re-emerge and be as powerful as ever. There is even belief that the Mafia aided the Allies themselves in disposing of the Facists, in return for granting prominent positions of power to men of influence in the organizations. When the united Left of the country, made up of Communists and Socialists, won thirty percent of the vote in Sicily compared to twenty-one percent for the rival Christian Democratic Party, a group of communist farmers celebrating the victory were fired upon at Portella della Ginestra, where Salvatore Giuliano and his group of bandits killed eleven people. The massacre gave new meaning to the emerging Cold War, as the Mafia were now determined to align with the new Christian Democratic Party in an attempt to combat the new influx of communism and socialism. Mafiosi and outlaws, like Giuliano, took on the role of military enforcers for the new right-wing DC, while the party inherently accepted the Mafia as a necessary tool in the battle against the evils of communism and leftist ideology. (Stille 19)

As we briefly interpret the history of Italy and its ongoing socio-political relationship to the south and Sicily, we can infer that anti-Leftist sentiment and is shared amongst the Mafia clans and the newly formed right-wing Christian Democratic Party. Less interference and regulation from the state effectively gives the Mafia and its culture a means to flourish and attain power. But the Mafia’s real power in the economic sphere is attributed to their ability to deal in industries which are vulnerable to being exploited. Businesses which contain small units, high costs devoted to labor, low profit margins, next-to-nothing product diversity, high failure rates and the overall pressure associated within demographics to compete against many other entrepreneurs give a virtual hotbed for the Mafia and organized crime to flourish in the areas they control. [3](Schneider 14) While many of these businesses provide great sources of wealth and power over their operations, its in illegal and state suppressed ventures which garner the Mafia huge profits and monopolization over its industries. Generally, these illicit businesses lack the regulation imposed by a state or government in protecting the fair, but competitive nature of business, while allowing the Mafia and other organized criminal groups to gain control and cash in. The Mafia, in effect, presents itself as “a protector” of these commodities that aren’t offered by the state. Additionally, the Mafia operates as a “protection racket” for these businesses and territories under their control by offering the empty promise of a safe-net from state or other interference. While this protection may or may not be enforced by the inherent brutality and violent force of the Mafia’s soldiers and members, it is important to realize that the Mafia acts as a “state within a state” offering economic alternatives for particular businesses to operate without regulations and limits. While their actions and conductions may seem predatory and menacing, the Mafia seems to perversely mimic the Capitalist resurgence during the height of the Cold War. However, the Mafia and other Italian organized crime groups sought new opportunity in the United States, where the Volstead Act of 1919 eventually gave birth to a new Italian-American Mafia.

While Prohibition ultimately ushered in a new, profound era of immense power for the Mafia in America, it is hardly when the cultural phenomenon first arrived in the United States. The mass exodus of southern Italians to the United States began roughly twenty years after the unification of Italy, due to the failure of the Risorgimento movement to properly satisfy the needs of the region. Mostly unskilled workers of rural origin, most of whom were illiterate even in Italian, the new immigrants only way into assimilating to America was to work as hard as they could for the benefit of their families. Many Italians who had already established themselves in America would wait at the docks for the emigrants to arrive and recruited them into labor gangs, whom would be sold as a package to an American business, collecting from both the employer and the paesani, otherwise known as the padrone system.[4](DeStefano 23) Serving as an early model for the earliest form of the Mafia in America, the padrone system essentially thrived off of traditional Italian tendency of allegiance to one’s family and its progression in the economic climate. When alcohol was made illegal by the United States government in 1919, the old padrone system was able to develop into highly organized families who wielded control over the new Italian immigrant population and the cities they occupied. Because the goods of liquor and beer were no longer offered and criminalized by the state, the Mafia was able to take control of and monopolize the black market industry through territorial control and competitive but tactical bloodshed. While Irish and Jewish gangs dominated the early Prohibition criminal activities, Italians like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano brought a new taste of Italian-American flavor to the organized crime stage in the United States, ushering in the creation of the American Cosa Nostra. Author and anthropologist, Francis Ianni, saw the Mafia in the United States as “an integral part of the American social and economic system”, which includes portions of the American public who demand goods and services deemed illegal by the government, organized groups of criminals willing to take the risks to be suppliers, and the corrupted public officials who effectively protect the criminals for their own monetary gain. (DeStefano 57) The result of the United States government outlawing a particularly demanded commodity and failing to provide it to the populace, cohesive and hierarchically organized crime syndicates like La Cosa Nostra, who’s ideological roots lied in Sicily’s past struggles of power between the government and latifondisti, were transferred the monopolization illegal trade markets like prostitution, gambling, racketeering, and eventually more lucrative and forcibly controlled liquor and drug trade. The influence and overall power of the Mafia has peaked and diminished in the United States since the Prohibition Act, ever since the sacred code of omertá was again and again challenged and ultimately dissolved from various pentito avoiding massive prison sentences under the RICO Act of 1970. However, a neo-millennial replication of Italian organized crime still operates and thrives back in Naples, Italy, which also mimics the free market capitalism ideology of the Mafia.

While it is usually the Sicilian Mafia, or La Cosa Nostra, which attains the household name when it comes to Italian organized crime, Italy itself has additionally given birth to other offsets of the Mafia that have reached out from Sicily and into the mainland areas of the country. One of these organizations, the Camorra, originated in the Campania region claiming similar culture and tactics to its Sicilian counterpart, but have distinguished themselves by containing individual clans and families who act independently of one another, rather than be subject to the decision of a board or committee at the top. In his gripping, investigative account of the Camorra and its operational control over the city of Naples, “Gomorrah,” Roberto Saviano gives his readers an in-depth, often depressing glimpse at how far the reach of these powerful familial entities is. However, according to Saviano, the Camorra has extended its power and control over both legitimate and illegal markets around the globe, virtually making Naples the base of operations for the strongest and wealthiest criminal organizations in the world. In the very first chapter of “Gomorrah”, Saviano examines the port of Naples and how hundreds and boats come and in and out everyday and night, secretly unloading merchandise at sea in order to avoid taxes and import fees on goods from all over the world.[5](Saviano 14) Everything from bootleg cigarettes to designer sneakers ends up on the black market in Naples due to the demand for these products being ever-constant. While the government regulated trade and business laws add costs and hassle for distributors to profit legally, the black market in Naples controlled by the Camorra gives an avenue to all of the leftover supply in which manufacturers around the globe can receive fast and profitable turn-around. While the commodities being imported may be cheap, they are typically identical to brand name merchandise, which the consumer who makes a meager wage cannot decipher where it came from or why it matters. Essentially, bootlegging has become a type of welfare system in Naples for around 20,000 people in Puglia and Campania whom the government fails to properly care for. (Saviano 15) As the Italian government fails to enable and progress the working class to higher standards of living, the Camorra clans take on the role as the entrepreneurial entity for citizens to embrace in order to attain better economic standing. In addition to bootlegging, the Camorra in Naples have also sought to control both legal and illegal trade markets around the world with the assurance of greater reward and profit for those who engage in the untethered free market, despite its obvious risks.

While offshoots of the Mafia like the Camorra wield similar power and control over the economics of the territories in which they operate and around the world, many scholars and law enforcement agencies have attempted to reveal how and why the Mafia and like-organizations can continue to operate successfully as they have for so many years. Pino Arlacchi, a sociologist from Calabria, spent most of his adult life working in Italy with law enforcement to try and factually disprove the common mythology that perceives the Mafia as a a group of neo-Robin hoods who live under their own codes of behavior and respect.[6] In his revered and respected book, “Mafia Business: The Mafia and the Spirit of Capitalism”, Arlachhi poses that the old, noble ways of the Mafia are long gone, ushering in a new era of entrepreneurial organized crime which is well versed in the rules of international finance and uses that to its advantage.  After a the government, and more distinctly a group of Christian Democrats had succeeded in centralizing power into their own hands after World War II, the Mafia effectively became a client group of the state, giving the Mafia a complete monopoly over the industry of violence. Now, the Mafia could invest its proceeds from illicit activites into entrepreneurial ventures, many of which required state funding. What gave the Mafia the leg up on its competitors for state-funded labor projects was the fact that they could uniquely deal with “market competition” by actually eliminating or intimidating them, in addition to their crucial and long-running relationship to manipulating labor groups. Arlacchi’s whimsical comparison to Max Weber’s famous sociological understandings of capitalism and the Protestant Reformation has challenged the belief that the Mafia is just a criminal enterprise which exploits the laws already legislated by the state. This particular assessment attests to the fact that those very economic laws are ones that actually keep the wheels spinning on the relationship between the Mafia and the state. Proposed is a quagmire in which the very principles and ethics around economics which people who live in democratic societies seem blindly accept. Capitalism and the profit-driven business model can easily be compared to those of the Mafia, in which the spirit of competition somehow evolves into the complete eradication of competition altogether. While the Mafia has and will continue to use its immense power and influence to assure that their business ventures cannot be competed with, the government is making it easier for them to do so by lifting state regulations and supervisions of businesses. When it comes down to it, the Mafia is in fact a business just like any other which acts and abides by a code which normal people don’t: actually eliminating human life in the effort to maximize profit. But who is to say that products of our own capitalistic society don’t conduct these practices, just under the guise of legitimate business?

While the true inner workings of Italian organized crime is mostly based on the testimony of various pentiti openly breaking omertá, the image of the Mafia proposed by our own mass media reflect some of economic principles of capitalism that captures the very same desires of those who consume it. Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” trilogy portrays Michael Corleone’s infamous evolution from college graduate and war-hero to the inheritor of his father’s kingdom and enterprise in the underground world. For Michael, like many products of the post-war period in America, taking the place of his father and building on his crucial legacy as a powerful and respected businessman of the underworld which ended in his demise.[7] Coppola, who attests to the fact that the film is exactly a metaphor for capitalism, tells the story of the common American tragedy, where the main character who meagerly works his way to the top and gains everything, then eventually losing it all.[8] Throughout the films, Michael is consistently trying to pass himself off as something he is not and goes at lengths to shed the cultural characteristics and values of his father and evolve the family business into a product of the modern capitalistic world of post-World War II. While the epic of the Corleone family continues to rivet our imaginations about the Mafia and the culture of people bound to codes rooted in southern Italy, mass media and films like “The Godfather” embody and convey our own sense of modernity as it pertains to economic ideology.

As the power and prominence of the Mafia has declined in recent years due to public awareness and increased law enforcement efforts, the common truth we as scholars and students can attest to is that these organizations thrive and survive for one thing: capital. As most organized crime groups do, the Mafia practice and enact the very same principles a “business” of a capitalistic economy would use, only resulting in the use of more brutal, unethical, or even deadly means. Because the Mafia and Italian organized crime groups notoriously follow their own codes based on Sicily’s history with the state over history, they perpetually have unlimited means of advancing the social and economic ladders of society. Ultimately, this potentially leaves the definition of modern business practices and capitalism up for debate, as the mystery and myths surrounding the Mafia blur the lines between legitimate and illegitimate.

[1] Dainotto, R.M. (2015, Reakiton Books Ltd.) The Mafia: A Cultural History (Hereafter cited by page number)

[2] Stille, A. (1995). Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic. New York: Pantheon Books. Hereafter cited by page number.

[3] Jane Schneider, Peter Schneider, The Mafia and Capitalism. An Emerging Paradigm, in “Sociologica” 2/2011, pp. 1-22, doi: 10.2383/35873

[4] Stefano, G. D. (2006). An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America. New York: Faber and Faber.

[5] Saviano, Roberto. Gomorrah. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Print. Hereafter cited by page number.

[6] Dionne, E. J., Jr. “Let The Buyer Beware.” The New York Times 3 Aug. 1986. The New York Times. Web. <;.


[7] The Godfather. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. By Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Gordon Willis, William Reynolds, Peter Zinner, and Nino Rota. Prod. Albert S. Ruddy. Perf. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, and Diane Keaton. Paramount Pictures, 1972.


[8] Pardini, Samuele F. S. “In The Name Of The Father, The Son And The Holy Gun. The Godfather And Modernity.” Americana: E-Journal Of American Studies In Hungary 11.2 (2015): 13. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 May 2016


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