Thursday, March 19, 2015

PoliSci lessons in GoodFellas and the Godfather

The Martin Scorsese film GoodFellas, based on the account of a turncoat mafiosi, Henry Hill, contains the most insightful line I’ve ever heard about the nature of organized crime.  Much of the film features voiceover narration by Ray Liotta, who plays Hill.  Early on in the film, Hill speaks about his boss Paulie (based on the New York mafia kingpin Paul Vario, and played in the film by Paul Sorvino):

Your majesty.

“Hundreds of guys depended on Paulie and he got a piece of everything they made.  It was tribute, just like the old country, except they were doing it in America.  All they got from Paulie was protection from other guys looking to rip them off.  That's what it's all about.  That's what the FBI can never understand — that what Paulie and the organization does is offer protection for people who can't go to the cops.  They're like the police department for wiseguys.” (text taken from the shooting draft screenplay for GoodFellas, by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorcese, January 3, 1989).

Organized crime deals in illicit commodities such as booze (in Prohibition times) and cocaine in the present day.  But the “organized” part of all this crime is the “family”, or the syndicate, that grants protection, in return for “a piece of the action,” to other freelance thieves and contraband peddlers operating within a particular territory.  In the context of mid-twentieth century America, or in Sicily during the last few hundred years, a good part of this tribute was used in turn to subvert the legitimate authorities, through bribery or outright purchase of offices, such that (as in Sicily) the organized crime syndicate becomes the defacto government.  Organized crime exists precisely because certain activities and substances are illicit, and thereby, those involved in their production and distribution cannot turn to legitimate authority to resolve their disputes.  The syndicate becomes the guarantor of order, if necessary through the violent retribution against transgressors of the given. 

The early part of settled existence, must have been accompanied by constant strife between those who aimed to affix territory for farming and herding, and the remainder thereby alienated by settler’s enclosures from traditional gathering and hunting.  Some of those not bound to the soil, must have resorted to the earliest labour-saving device — theft — to survive.  Nomadic bands not willing to take up the hard work of farming, instead used their spears to prey upon fellow-human settlers, provoking retaliation in turn.  A spiral of violence was curtailed only when one or another group became too mighty to be defeated.  Or more realistically perhaps, the initial period of anarchy ended when two or several armed groups appreciated that none could best the others. 

These proto-syndicates decided amongst themselves the territorial spoils.  But each power was left with the difficulty of ensuring the loyalty of those over whom they had been granted sovereignty.  The resolution was the taking of tribute by the overlords, in return for the “protection” of settled populations.          

The exact circumstances under which the earliest Stone-Age polities came to be, will probably never be known for certain.  Yet, we can gauge roughly how political life originated, by observing the formation of states during the historical era.  In particular, the period before the emergence of any nation as sovereign entity is characterized by clannish strife that comes to an end when a single chieftain is powerful enough to declare himself king. 


This is, in essence, the history of Europe from the fifth to the tenth centuries AD – from the collapse of Rome through the so-called “dark ages”, onto the “Viking” or Norse invasions which began around thirteen hundred years ago.  This period of instability concluded when the various provinces and principalities of Europe coalesced into the countries and empires whose names are well known to history – England, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain, and so on.  The men who formed these vast polities – like Charlemagne, or William the Conqueror – were in effect the heads of well-organized syndicates — consisting of families almost always — that kept the peace (ideally), in return for a piece of the action. 

Organized crime thrives, too, where there is a vacuum in authority, either because of the prohibition of vice, or the actual collapse of governmental administration.  The mafia was able gain such status in Sicilian society, for example, because no authority was able to assert sovereignty in place of the former Muslim civilization that existed before the island was re-conquered by Crusaders.  A paper published by the Istituto per la Dottrina e l'Informazione Sociale in Italy, quotes historian Paolo Pezzino, who writes: “The mafia is a kind of organized crime being active not only in several illegal fields, but also tending to exercise sovereignty functions – normally belonging to public authorities – over a specific territory.”

By no means was legitimate authority compromised by organized crime only in the Old World.  As historian Stephen Fox writes in Blood and Power: Organized Crime in Twentieth Century America, the “organization” or “syndicate” was closely tied to the political machines that ran the large- and even medium-sized cities of the U.S. during the last century (this reality conveyed, to a greatly exaggerated extent, in the now-completed HBO drama Boardwalk Empire).  Involvement in organized crime was by no means restricted to the so-called mafia, the euphemism for the Sicilian cosa nostra, which means literally “our house”).    

Nevertheless, the Italian-American mob became the overlords of post-World War II organized crime at least, because they had kinship and ethnic solidarity that other groups (primarily Ashkenazim and Irish) did not.  

Fox observes (1989 edition published by William Morrow and Company, p. 62) that la cosa nostra “arose from medieval conditions in Sicily, and in America it succeeded precisely as a medieval anachronism in counterpoint to modern culture, each provoking and irritating the other.  Modernity broke society down into atoms of mobile, free-floating, unaffiliated individuals with ultimate loyalties only to the state and its laws.  The Mafia insisted on the enduring primacy of family, geography, ethnicity and ultimate loyalties to persons and the Mafia itself - the group over the individual.  Instead of contractual, legalistic, or economic ties, the Mafia bounds its men with personalized relations of reciprocal obligations, often paid in services instead of money.  While modernity presented endless choices and the option of periodically reinventing oneself, the Mafia required affective ties, birthrights that could not be chosen or altered.  The essence of modernity was change, or `progress’; the Mafia offered a rock of stability, continuity, and protection from swirling modern tendencies.”

I’ve long been intrigued by the opening scene of the original Godfather.  The first minutes of the film are taken up by a monologue of a completely minor character: Bonasera, an undertaker, who has come to see Don Vito Corleone on the day of his daughter’s wedding.  Supposedly, no Sicilian father can renounce a favour asked of him on such an occasion, and so Bonasera asks the Don to do away with the two men who raped and mutilated his own daughter.  The pair had faced legitimate prosecution, but apparently on account of their privileged background, they were given suspended sentences.

Famously, Don Corleone is not impressed with the undertaker’s pitiable story.  Given how Bonasera spurned the Godfather in the past, why should he extend his hand now? 

“You found paradise in America”, Don Vito says.  “The police protected you.  There were courts of law.  And you didn’t need a friend in me.  But now you come to me and say “Don Corleone give me justice.”  But you don’t come with respect.  You don’t offer friendship.  You don’t even think to call me Godfather.”

"I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to the lord..."
Getty Images, 2006

The Godfather is disgusted by this little man’s attempt to contract him as a murderer for hire.  Throughout the Godfather films, the characters excuse murderous scheming and betrayal by saying, “It’s just business, it’s nothing personal.”  Yet it is clear that the organization portrayed in the Godfather and Goodfellas, subsists on something more than shabby business concerns only.  La cosa nostra and other crime syndicates are structured on personal fealty, the sort of bonds of obligation familiar under feudalism, and in most societies throughout history.

Thus, Don Vito is saying in effect, “I am your sovereign.  You were mistaken for believing that legitimate authority could protect you.  My protection cannot be purchased in cash.  It comes only through respect, and the obligation you will incur from me doing you this favour.”

Bonasera is the embodiment of all the little people over whom the Godfather controls – the hand holding the string, in the film title was realized as an advertising logo.

Once the undertaker gives fealty, his brief moment in the spotlight is completed, the undertaker fades into the background, along with all the other puppets, seen briefly but not heard from again. 

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