There can be only a few doubts that during the 20th century’s first half, the Italian (Sicilian) Mafia used to affect the socio-economic realities in the U.S. to a considerable extent. The Mafia’s influence on the domestic body politics in America’s Northeast remained rather sizable up until the late-eighties – the story of John Gotti illustrates the validity of this suggestion perfectly well. Nevertheless, as of today, this effectively ceased to be the case. Even though the affiliates of Cosa Nostra continue to take part in a number of the semi-legal moneymaking activities, associated with the American way of life (such as gambling, for example), the Italian Mafioso is no longer in the position to affect the functioning of this country’s legal system.
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Such a development appears to have been predetermined by the objective laws of history. After all, it was only the matter of time before the continual empowerment of the country’s legally legitimate corporate/banking sector, which continues to be dominated by the so-called WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), would naturally prompt it to aspire to take control of the most lucrative criminal enterprises in America – something that marginalized the Italian Mafia’s power rather substantially. In my paper, I will aim to explore the validity of this suggestion at length.
It nowadays represents a commonplace assumption that it was named the introduction of the so-called ‘Prohibition Law’ in 1920, which made the Italian Mafia an integral part of the discourse Americana, as we know it (Kelly 79). After all, the Mafia’s initial activities used to be concerned with bootlegging, as the way to make enormous profits without having to apply much of an effort. What came in particularly handy for the Italian Mafioso, in this respect, was their endowment with the primitively-rural mentality, extrapolated in what later became known as the Italian Mafia’s ‘trademarks’ – the code of silence (Omerta), the strongly defined sense of nationalism (only Italians can be made men), the highly hierarchic structure of each crime-family, and the fact the Italian Mafioso has always been known for their adherence to the traditional/religious values.
The reason for this is that, as opposed to what it used to be the case with American society of the time, in which people (predominantly Anglo-Saxons) were encouraged to believe that the relationship between the authority (government) and ordinary citizens was ‘vertical’, the Italian Mafia was able to introduce another kind of non-governmental ‘horizontal’ authority, enforced by the power that comes ‘out of the barrel of a gun’. In other words, the early successes of the Italian Mafia have been predetermined by the fact that, throughout the 20th century’s twenties and thirties, Italian immigrants in American large cities were able to create their own (essentially rural) society within the society, to which the American secular (urban) law did not apply. Thus, the highly romanticized Hollywood accounts of the Italian Mafia, which depict the heads of crime-families (Dons) being regarded benefactors by the whole communities of Italian immigrants, are thoroughly adequate.
However, as time went on, the Italian Mafia’s strengths, concerned with establishing the ‘horizontal’ links between the affiliates, began to backfire. For example, one of the reasons why throughout the fifties and sixties the Mafia’s power started to decline is that at the time several Dons refused to get involved in drug-trafficking – partially, due to these individuals’ genuine belief in ‘family-values’. As Reuter noted: “The (Italian) Mafia has failed to maintain control of the New York heroin market and has been a marginal player in the cocaine business everywhere” (91). What also contributed to the process is that, throughout the mentioned period, the number of Italian immigrants (from Italy’s rural areas) decreased rather drastically.
This created the situation when, as of the early seventies, the overwhelming majority of Mafioso consisted of the second and third-generation Italian-Americans, who were not quite as enthusiastic about observing the ‘old rules’ as their predecessors, on one hand, and of those who nevertheless preferred sticking to these rules, on the other. As a consequence, the intensity of internal tensions within the Italian crime-families continued to increase exponentially – something that had a strongly negative effect on the Mafia members’ overall ability to get away with committing crimes.
The Gambino crime family, which came to prominence during the seventies, illustrates the validity of this suggestion perfectly well. After having been appointed the Don, Paul Castellano began to alter the traditional ways of conducting business in the family, which in turn was met with fierce resistance, on the part of the family’s capos, such as John Gotti. The latter ended up murdering Castellano (1985) and taking his position, as the boss, while assuring the rest of the family members that he would be able to run the business as usual. In particular, the specifics of Gotti’s Don-rule can be outlined as follows:
a. The selection of the capos/underbosses was done in close observance with the so-called ‘prepotenza’-principle. As Bovenkerk pointed out: “Some people have a certain natural authority. It is something Italians call prepotenza. Anyone who has ever looked the Sicilian Told Riina in the face, even on a magazine cover, understands why people just do what he wants them to” (237). In its turn, this allowed Gotti to ensure that the family’s key-figures did have what it takes to exercise effective leadership. At the same time, however, this resulted in lowering the overall intellectual level of the family’s main functionaries – something that explains why most of these individuals (including Gotti himself) ended up falling easy prey to the legal traps, set for them by the FBI.
b. The practice of racketeering was elevated to account for one of the family’s prioritized activities. Gotti also used to pay much attention to what was a particular person’s ‘street reputation’, before deciding to promote him through the ranks. As a result, throughout the years 1985-1992, the rate of premeditated homicide in New York saw a steady rise.
c. Much effort used to be applied in ensuring Gotti’s positive publicity with New Yorkers, as well as with the rest of American citizens. Gotti has made it an unofficial order that the members of the Gambino family are never caught committing crimes that people find especially despicable, such as rape. Gotti used to believe that being in favor of New Yorkers would allow him to continue thwarting the FBI’s attempts to nail him (Lombardi and Capeci 29).
Nevertheless, the fact that Gotti strived to run the family in more of an old-fashioned way did not help him to avoid being sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison (1992), without the possibility to apply for parole. Quite to the contrary – it helped to seal his fate more than anything else did. The rationale behind this suggestion case can be formulated as follows:
Throughout the mentioned historical period, America has been set on the path of corporatization – all in full accordance with the provisions of neo-Liberalism, which calls for the abandonment/reduction of governmental control over the functioning of large transnational corporations/banks. However, as history shows, the lesser is such a control, the more these organizations strive to become the independent subjects of their own, which either overtake the functions of the government or exercise a heavy influence on the legislative/judicial processes in this country (Sionneau 331).
When it happens, the law ceases to be impartial – something that used to allow the Italian crime-families to proliferate in the past. After all, the line that divides the legally legitimate activities of transnational corporations/banks, on one hand, and the illegitimate/immoral activities of the Italian Mafia, on the other, is rather imaginary. In this respect, Bovenkerk came up with a good observation: “In the business world, legal activities can turn into illegal ones, and they are often carried out at the same time and by the same people. The only reason why the distinction has to be maintained is that different concepts and theories have been developed for business crime” (236). In plain words, the most powerful representatives of America’s corporate sector began to perceive the Gambino family as such that competes with them for essentially the same wealth-generating resources.
Given the fact that the amount of these resources is limited and also the fact that those who control the government (through ‘lobbying’) are also in by-proxy control of the secret services/the courts of law, it did not prove a particular challenge throwing Gotti and many of his cronies in jail for life. Once the corporate agenda is at stake, the law can be ‘bent’. This is the reason why, despite his admission of having committed multiple murders on behalf of Gotti, Salvatore Gravano (Gotti’s underboss) was sentenced to only three years in jail and allowed to apply for the Witness Protection Program – all in exchange for the concerned person’s agreement to testify against his former boss. The same explains why during the case hearing, the judge simply refused to take into consideration that there was a strong lack of legal soundness to the manner, in which incriminating evidence against Gotti was collected, in the first place – something that should not have been the case, had this hearing proceeded in strict accordance with the word of the law.
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After all, the annual income of the Gambino family used to account for $300-$500 million, at best – a joke, as compared to what accounts for the annual income of an average transnational corporation in America. This shows once again that in its confrontation with the legally legitimate and enormously wealthy ‘mafia’ of the country’s actual owners, any ethnic Mafia (such as the Italian one) simply does not stand a chance – especially if, due to the specifics of their ethnocultural background, the affiliates of the latter happened to be highly emotional but not particularly bright individuals.
I believe that the deployed earlier line of argumentation, as to the discursive significance of the phenomenon of the Italian Mafia, in general, and John Gotti, in particular, is consistent with the initially provided thesis.
Bovenkerk, Frank. “’Wanted: Mafia Boss’ – Essay on the Personology of Organized Crime.” Crime, Law and Social Change 33.3 (2000): 225-242. Print.
Kelly, Jack. “How America Met the Mob.” American Heritage 51.4 (2000): 76-85. Print.
Lombardi, John, and Jerry Capeci. “The Dumbest Don.” New York Jan 17 (2005): 26-33. Print.
Reuter, Peter. “The Decline of the American Mafia.” Public Interest 120 (1995): 89-99. Print.
Sionneau, Bernard. “Legitimating Corporate Global Irresponsibility.” Journal of Global Responsibility 1.2 (2010): 330-365. Print.