The Mafia Tragedy
The other day Mercedes and watched The Irishman:
The Irishman | Netflix Official Site
Hit man Frank Sheeran looks back at the secrets he kept as a loyal member of the Bufalino crime family in this…
It’s not a happy ending. A tragedy is a story that doesn’t continue after it ends. And in the end, the title character, Frank Sheeran, is old and alone. His daughters revile him. He has no legacy.
I, like many people, am fascinated by the Mafia. The makers of movies and tv shows depend on that fascination to sell us their product. But after watching the Irishman I noticed something. The media glamorizes the mafia, but they also don’t give them fair treatment.
A Cautionary Tale
I am not going to do a complete evaluation of every crime movie ever, but for the most part they are tragedies like the Irishman, cautionary tales. Perhaps they are all like this out of a feeling of obligation not to represent the way of life as desirable. If you make a serious show about the mafia that doesn’t end in tragedy, you are not only glamorizing evil, you are glorifying it. The former is okay, but the latter is not acceptable in our society.
So anyway, after watching the Irishman I immediately went to Google to start reading about the real history (of course I did). Anyway, I eventually ended up on the Wikipedia page of Lucky Luciano. And I found something interesting. In 1931, Lucky Luciano helped organize The Commission, which was a group that helped coordinate the activities of Italian-American criminal families. And the interesting thing is that at that time, the main criminal families were pretty much the same ones that exist today.
Let me say that again. The same criminal organizations have lasted from 1931 to today. Now consider this quote about companies on the S&P 500 (found here):
1964, the average index tenure of an S&P 500 company was 33 years. As of 2016, tenure shrank to 24 years… By 2027, Innosight expects S&P 500 tenure to shrink to 12 years.
In other words, the Italian-American Mafia has had more staying power than companies on the S&P 500, with mostly the same families (mainly the 5 families of New York) dominating for almost 100 years.
If you squint, you might be able to see the contradiction here. In the Irishman, Frank’s isolation and ruin is represented by the fact that his favorite daughter rejects him. Similarly, at the end of the Godfather series, Michael Corleone wants to protect his favorite daughter from the business but she ends up being shot and killed. I think in both shows, losing their daughters is a symbol that crime doesn’t pay.
But if criminal families don’t leave a legacy, how have do the same families persist over generations? It seems like these families have created a sustainable culture that they have been able to pass on over the course of generations.
The Origins of the Mafia
The Wikipedia article on the Sicilian Mafia does a pretty good job of describing its historical origins. Basically, when modern government brought down Feudal landlords in Sicily, they didn’t have the capacity to provide sufficient police protection, so the private Feudal armies reformed as protection gangs that were actually pretty effective at doing things like retrieving stolen cattle.
As this article points out, one interesting aspect of this history is that the Mafia isn’t a product of ancient Sicilian culture so much as it resulted from the immature imposition of more modern government.
This brings me back to one of my recent favorite books, Rule of the Clan. That book talks about how clans used to provide services like protection and dispute resolution. In the absence of a strong central government, the rule of the clan returns. The Mafia is a good example of the the rule of the clan, and it emerged in Sicily because the prevailing government was removed without a satisfactory replacement.
In modern society, the Mafia makes most of its money from drugs. But it existed long before the emergence of lucrative drugs markets. It’s like the clan system always exists in the background, and emerges to fill whatever needs society has that are undeserved by the prevailing system of government. According to the Wikipedia article on ‘Ndrangheta (the Calabrian Mafia), that group’s activities amount to 3% of Italian GDP. That’s pretty substantial.
I would argue their are two prongs to the persistence of the Mafia. The first is the economic vacuum created by making certain activities illegal. The second is a set of cultural norms. This culture includes the infamous Omerta (i.e., the code of silence), but it isn’t limited to that.
Members of the Mafia often refer to themselves as Men of Honor. I am reminded of the description of the antebellum US South as an Honor Culture. To maintain honor in such a culture requires being very sensitive to threats to your reputation. Historically, the most consistent form of income for the Mafia has been protection money. And this money is easier to collect if you actually provide protection. If you have a reputation for being strong and ruthless, you can provide protection for a bigger territory using fewer actual resources. So maintaining honor is actually economically essential in that business.
But the main point is that Mafia families have a strong culture. I would argue much stronger than a typical US firm. And the strength of this culture goes a long way to explaining the persistence of Mafia families.
The Conservatism of Hollywood
I am going to engage in a bit of speculation, so be warned. There is this paradox that the Mafia is successful and persistent, and yet it is typically portrayed in the context of tragedy, which implies that the lifestyle will leave you isolated and without a legacy.
The easy way to explain this is simply that being the Mafia is risky. Live by the sword, die by the sword. That kind of thing. But I would like to present an alternate explanation:
The real reason we portray the Mafia in the context of tragedy is because the clan culture is inconsistent with Western individualism. The Mafia is a clan-based society, which offers the allure of being part of a tight-knit team, but it therefore represents a rejection of fundamental Western values (namely, individualism).
One of the reasons we are fascinated by the Mafia is that they make a covenant to each other. Yet in doing so they reject both the primacy of the state and of the individual. Their rejection of the state is reinforced by their commitment to illegal activity. Their rejection of the individual is evidenced by their willingness to spend long periods of time in prison rather than giving up their comrades.
If a movie were to represent the Mafia in any context other than tragedy, we would reject it as a society, and not simply because we are committed to the “crime doesn’t pay” mantra. It would fundamentally contradict our core value of individualism. As a result, it just wouldn’t feel right and we would feel a need to cast it out of our presence. We would not allow it to sully our our temples (i.e., theaters) with its unholy message.
Consider the following quote from a recent (and fascinating) article in the Atlantic arguing that Hollywood is really a conservative institution.
Hollywood, then, is like any other major institution: It reflects and reinforces its society’s assumptions, its economic systems, and its audience’s most deeply held beliefs.
And what is our most deeply held belief? The answer comes in their analysis of the moral values represented by Batman:
[W]hile the conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is by turns populist, fascist, misanthropic, and anarchistic, it is one thing above all else: radically, thoughtlessly individualistic.
Yet Another Contradiction
Ok, so suppose you accept the thesis that Hollywood is deeply conservative in the sense that it must always provide us stories that reinforce our core beliefs, and that individualism is the most central core belief of our society.
Then why do they represent tragedy by the loss of a daughter? In other words, if the individual is all that matters, why is losing your family the worst thing that can happen?
Here is where my answer gets really speculative. Basically, there is an inherent contradiction in telling a story about individualism, because individualism is not fully satisfying as a core value. On a very deep level, human beings see connection to community and family as the basis of identity. Western society has developed the idea that an individual person can have an independent identity, but the part of us that recognizes tragic stories (which is a very old and deep part of us) hasn’t caught up with this way of seeing the world.
So, when Hollywood tells a story, it needs to balance the conservatism of catering to Western values with the underlying need to tell a good story. And telling a compelling story requires using psychological archetypes based on implicit communalism.
So the typical Hollywood story is that a Hero achieves their legacy (which, paradoxically, must be measured based on their place among family/community) by being an individual. And a modern tragedy is when the Hero fails to be an individual (e.g., by joining the Mafia) and therefore loses their legacy (i.e., their place in the family/ommunity).