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Feature Articles


July 2016
Mafiocracy

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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In the field of mafiology, mafiocracy is a neologism, a new concept, a form of governing. The ending – cracy- is a noun termination meaning "rule," a governing body such as in democracy, autocracy and bureaucracy. In this case the governing body has come to be called mafia, from the Sicilian mafiusu, a term that once introduced into the Italian language took on a negative connotation after the nation of Italy was formed in the early 1860s.It's one of the most famous (or infamous) terms, bruited about with abandon, now used around the world in so many contexts its meaning has become a blur. Referencing my old Italian dictionary (the 1893 edition), we find "mafia" listed for the first time: "The name of a secret association in Sicily that has as its goal to engage in illicit activities." The origin appears to be from the Arabic maehfil,meaning "place persons assemble for meetings." Nothing sinister there.

It is a given that Sicily is well known for its turbulent and complicated history and the many ethnic groups, from the early Siculians, Greeks, Romans, and others, who made the sunny and productive island their homes. There arose population centers on the coast, while the interior remained sparsely populated with a scattering of agricultural villages, isolated and, shall we say, impervious to change. Those village paesani were insular, distinguishing outsiders into two categories: the forestiere, from a neighboring village, and the straniero, the outsider. There was mobility and marriage among those in the first category, and distrust of the others. The villages were cult-like, suspicious, and tribal, bound by blood ties and valued tradition. They were one, the world another.

Sicily was largely left out as Italy moved into the modern age. Each village had its "strongman" who by personality and persuasion ruled the village. A small cohort dedicated to him could be called mafiosi. Criminals as such? Not necessarily, or difficult to define if you are talking about a sustained gang or something less. But the main man, the pezzogrosso or pezzanovanta (Big Shot), was the guy to go to. He was the fixer, from him you could get justice, or grief; the problem solver, the broker. He was someone to be looked up to, for good and for evil. This was the village administration that we call a Mafiocracy.

From the formation of the nation of Italy in the early 1860s to the rise of Fascism in the 1920s Sicily was considered among the Roman elite as a festering problem with no feasible solution. Was it Italy or was it Africa? Northern Italy was undergoing a period of urbanization and industrialization. The South, especially Sicily, remained underdeveloped and with lingering elements of Feudalism. In the 1920s Benito Mussolini ("Duce, in your hands we place our faith and Fascist devotion.") took a gamble, marched on Rome and grabbed the reins of government. Quickly and efficiently he imposed a dictatorship on the nation, his support largely in the Northern provinces. The Sicilians? Well, Rome was a faraway place. For Mussolini, Fascism was based on the premise that state control was absolute: "Everything inside the state, nothing outside the state." Anti-Sicilian sentiments were well entrenched. Il Duce had a good one: "Sicily is a cancer at the toe of Italy." One famous political cartoon depicted the Italian Boot kicking the Sicilian "soccer ball".

When Mussolini crossed the Straits of Messina to present his credentials he no doubt, despite all, expected a reception equal to his status, flowers strewn before his path, and that sort of thing. It was not to be. The intractable Sicilians were anything but deferential, the village mayors with confidence, if not a whiff of arrogance, assured him that they had everything in hand—thanks for dropping by. The dictator was not amused. There was only one pezzogrosso in Italy and that was His Royalness! Italian troops were ordered in to deliver the mafia a mortal blow. Villages were surrounded, invaded, the population herded and sent elsewhere. The mafiosi were pulled out of their hiding places, arrested, and imprisoned on offshore islands. The cancer was obliterated. We hear no more of mafia during the 1930s.

During the Second World War the Allied forces began their invasion of Fortress Europe by landing in Sicily. In fairly short order, after many battles, and the flanking of the enemy, they routed the Italian and German forces. (The Allies landed on 8 July 1943. They completed the job of clearing the Island on 9 August 1943.) A major task was to remove all elements of Fascism, and restore social and political order after the chaos of war. The task of transitioning in the villages was given to Allied military governors, many of whom were Italoamerian officers, who had the appropriate skills. A central question was who would ultimately be the Sicilians who would govern the population once the Allies departed. Would there be a vetting process that would weed out the non-qualified? Apparently not.

After the sounds of war ceased there was much to be done in all sectors of the society. The fall of Fascism created a yawning political vacuum that needed to be filled. That was a tall order given the problems of reconstruction, the transition to peace and order, and the many political factions that existed before and remained still. All kinds of equipment lay about, thieves ran amok at the opportunities before them, and a black market flourished. The military governors were given a challenging task, one that required the cooperation of the Sicilians and the knowledge and cooperation of the village pezzanovanta, the men who carried respect and upon whom the Allies relied. Political factions were deeply imbedded in Sicilian society, politics a competitive game. Post-war reemergence of the mafia became an issue. Many Italian critics were quick to take issue with the Americans, blaming them for placing back in authority the "men of honor". The villagers, given their local traditions, had a different view: Mafiocracy worked for them.

AFTERWORD In 1944,a book by John Hersey," A Bell for Adano", was published to public acclaim. It is a fictional account of the experiences of the real life Major Frank E. Toscani (1911-2006), who was the military governor of the fishing village of Licata in southern Sicily. He was part of the postwar governing authority named AMGOT (Allied Military Government Authority). The book was quickly followed by an equally popular film, in 1945, starring John Hodiak as the Major and the Hollywood blond bombshell Gene Tierney as Tina, a Sicilian "bottle" blond. There is a suggestive scene where the two have a prolonged tet a' tet. Mrs. Toscani, the Major's spouse, back in The Bronx, viewed the film. It was reported on good authority that she was not amused.


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