Every weekend when I was 10 years old, I had to write an English composition for homework. It was 1978 and drawing on the daily news on my TV screen for source material I wrote one imagining I was the daughter of a wealthy Italian business family who got kidnapped in Rome and was held hostage for a large ransom.
It helps explain why I’ve been so unsettled over the past couple of weeks by reading John Dickie’s Mafia Republic: Italy’s Criminal Curse — his angry and moving new history of the power of the Italian criminal fraternities since the Second World War. The book made me realise how easily we accepted and normalized the terror of that bulletmarked decade from the mid 70s to 80s. Italians remember it as the Years of Lead – in which the Mafia launched a kidnapping and terrorist frenzy – an apparent all out war against the State which they had infiltrated and corrupted so successfully over the previous century.
An estimated 650 people were abducted in those years. We remember only the most famous, such as 16 year old John Paul Getty III, whose ear was severed by his kidnappers. But many children were held and abused; sometimes for years. Some hostages were murdered and their bodies never recovered. It’s a brutality we’ve seen more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria — nations where the breakdown of the civil state has created the space for criminal gangs to flourish.
And Dickie reminds us of something darker. That many people jumped on the kidnapping band wagon in Italy. Not just Corsican bandits and callous young communist revolutionaries such as the Red Brigades, but also “many ordinary delinquents latched onto the idea that taking a hostage or two was a short cut to riches. Kidnapping became a criminal craze that was profoundly damaging to Italy’s weakened social fabric.” In one case an 11 year old girl, Marzia Savio, was taken in 1982 not by a gangster, but by the local butcher who, when his get-rich-quick plan went wrong, disposed of her body in pieces from a flyover.
For decades Northern Italian politicians promoted the myth that the mafia was really a regional attitude, almost a genetic problem in the “backward” South. But Dickie points out that it was the strength of criminal networks combined with a weak and nepotistic state that enabled them to embed themselves in civic life. The Cosa Nostra and the Ndrangheta of Calabria were closely modelled on the same Freemasonry that dominated the Italian political and business elites. When I asked him about wider lessons, Dickie suggested the Italian Mafia Republic is the logical result of a state in which much of the economy is black, many “workers have no rights and the free market operates at its most savage. Where justice is slow to work, especially civil justice, the mafias were very good at coming in and imposing their own self-interested form of order.”
Dickie points to the hyperspeed mafia state created in Russia in the free for all after the fall of Communism in 1990. “There’s this myth that all you need to do is to take away the state and capitalism will blossom,” he says. It’s relevant to Britain too. British newspapers can be proud of exposing the noses in the troughs of the MPs expenses scandal and keeping up the pressure on the shamelessly aggressive tax avoidance of Google, Amazon and Starbucks. But Dickie sees a relevant comparison to the huge cuts being made to the state funding of legal aid in civil law and the attempts to withdraw workers’ rights and health and safety under the guise of hacking away business-harming “red tape”.
Italy’s mafias like the worst aspects of our banking system embody the distillation of our most selfish instincts – for macho elites to hold onto power, for the powerful to grab the largest share for themselves, at whatever cost to others; to make the most ruthless short term profits; to fail to protect civic values that have no obvious financial profit. It’s surely no coincidence that Italy is also the land that the Financial Times once dubbed “The land that feminism forgot”. It took decades to get this way. But we can see the result in modern Italy’s hideous unplanned concrete urban sprawl and the landfill and toxic waste dumped around Naples in the late 2000s as criminal-run organisations made their profits.
We shouldn’t forget the role of irresponsible journalism,too, in Italy’s curse. It indirectly helped the Mafias’ interests by feeding cynicism among the public that the authorities weren’t any better. That nothing could be done to break the power of the Mafias.
In 1986 a small dedicated team of police and law enforcers led by Magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paulo Borsellino, broke the silence around the mafia by holding the first “Maxi” trial of key figures in the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. Both Falcone and Borsellino were murdered 6 years later and rightly hailed as martyrs. But at the time of the maxi trial The Observer sneeringly compared the authorities’ landmark court case to a Fascist “show trial”. The Guardian said the whole operations had “overtones of a Barnum and Bailey production.” The Economist repeated the view that many right wing politicians had voiced for years – they dismissed the truth that the Cosa Nostra was a carefully structured organisation with a senior management as a fantasy, as “semi-mythical”.
In Britain cynicism about politics has led to record falls in voting, partly fuelled by sneering reporting that reports politics as a soap opera of battling personalities. There’s not a literal comparison with Italy, of course. But as maverick outsiders like UKIP rise on the tide of it all (check out what their website has to say about workers’ rights) Italy’s Mafia Republic warns us to value a state that is strong enough to protect the weak. And to be careful what we wish for.
This column first appeared in The Big Issue magazine.
You can follow John Dickie on Twitter