The Mafia and the Class Struggle

Still from “The Octopus.”

Recently I had the opportunity to watch season one and two of “The Octopus” (La Piovra, another term for the mafia, just like Cosa Nostra), an Italian TV series that ran from 1984 to 2001. All ten seasons of this outstanding drama about one cop’s determination to take on and destroy the Sicilian mafia can be seen on MHz Choice, a VOD website devoted to European film and television and mostly focused on what the French call policiers and well worth the $7.99 monthly subscription fee. If after having seen my CounterPunch article about Swedish, Marxist-oriented detective series on Netflix, and moreover have appreciated such fare, you’ll be motivated to subscribe to MHz Choice since it has a sizable offering of Scandinavian crime fiction. For my money, literally speaking, this is the only genre on Netflix that is worth my while in recent years and if your tastes are similar to mine, MHz Choice is well worth the price of a subscription.

Having seen at least a half-dozen Italian films about the Sicilian mafia over the years, both narrative and documentary, the main takeaway is that the Italians would never dream of making the sort of films that established the reputations of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Scorsese tends to portray his characters as morally deficient but even with the worst of them, like Joe Pesci’s Tommy De Vito in “Goodfellas”, you are likely to find them demonstrating a raffish charm. As for “The Godfather”, it depicts the Corleone family as the good guys sustaining the “honor” of a virtual benevolent society against the bad gangsters, no matter that no such family ever existed. The “Sopranos” on HBO was obviously made in the same spirit and helped to convey the impression that with their malapropisms, Tony’s gang was just a modern version of Shakespeare’s clowns but with a violent streak.

To some extent, an American filmmaker can get away with this sort of flimflam since, for the average person, the Octopus tentacles of the mob don’t affect them personally. For example, does it really matter to someone whether Sheldon Adelson or a mafia boss runs a Las Vegas hotel? Probably not unless you are aware that Adelson has done more damage than a thousand John Gottis.

On the other hand, Sicily, as well as Italy as a whole, has been ravaged by the mafia for over 150 years. Under both right governments such as Berlusconi’s and Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party, the mafia was able to exercise an influence over state policy that was beyond the grasp of figures such as John Gotti. For example, the mafia is very involved with toxic dumping in Italy that has left a legacy of childhood cancers for decades as I pointed out in a review of the documentary “The Toxic Circle” last year. It should be clear that Donald Trump with his mob ties is already moving to replicate Italy’s health disaster.

“The Octopus” was made just around the time that the Italian state began to move decisively against the mafia. In early 1980, a top police official Giovanni Falcone opened up a major offensive against the mafia that led to major breakthroughs using a novel technique of following the money trail. He subpoenaed bank records that revealed how the money from heroin sales was being laundered in Italian and Swiss banks. Falcone had replaced the prior chief investigator Cesare Terranova who had been killed the year before. Falcone would meet the same fate in 1992, the result of 881 pounds of dynamite being detonated as his armor-plated car passed over a culvert.

Like Giovanni Falcone, the star of “The Octopus” is a cop named Corrado Cattani (Michele Placido) who is replacing the former investigator who had been killed in a small city near Palermo. Episode one of season one begins with a funeral procession for the dead cop who supposedly committed suicide after killing his lover in a domestic dispute. As is the case in other European nations that never completely liquidated feudal remnants, his lover was a Countess living in opulence.

Cattani subsequently learns that the Countess’s daughter, who shared the same title, was an eyewitness to the killing. Nicknamed Titi (Barbara De Rossi), she is a heroin addict whose drug connection is a mafioso named Sante Cirinná (Angelo Infante) who runs a local car dealership and is utterly loathsome. He killed both the former chief investigator and Titi’s mother when they threatened to reveal that he is supplying the heroin that is ruining the life of the young aristocrat as well as ordinary citizens. As Titi’s lover and drug supplier, he uses a combination of seduction and intimidation to warn her to go along with the story about a lover’s quarrel turned tragic.

Like Falcone, Cattani’s strategy is to follow the money. He begins using the power of his office to obtain bank records that would implicate the city’s ruling elite who are bankers, lawyers and real estate developers. With his Adonis-like features and quick wit, Cattani manages to inveigle himself into the city’s high society until it becomes clear that he will not be satisfied with arresting small-time operators like Cirinná. He is after the giant octopuses whose tentacles reach deep into Sicily’s economic and political depths.

“The Octopus” is not an action-packed melodrama. Instead, it is a series of conversations and interactions between its hero and the city’s elite who view their illegal activities as necessary for Sicily’s development. They parry back and forth as if in a chess game with the stakes being justice rather than a cash prize. There has never been anything in a drama, TV or film, that comes close to the depth and the intelligence of “The Octopus”.

That is probably because one of the scriptwriters was Nicola Badalucco, who also wrote the screenplay for Luchino Visconti’s anti-fascist “The Damned” that told the story of how a wealthy family supported Hitler, a writing project that clearly prepared him for “The Octopus”. Ennio De Concini also wrote some scripts. With dozens of screenplays to his credit, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1957 “Il Grido”, De Concini—like Badalucco—was part of Italy’s filmmaking elite.

As a follow-up to this article, I plan to write a survey on Italian films about the Sicilian mafia in a future edition of CounterPunch. In conjunction with these articles, I want to provide some historical background on the mafia that people on the left should be aware of. With organized crime being nurtured by these various rightwing populist states, including Italy’s ruling Northern League Party that has been accused of being funded by the Calabrian mafia, it is knowledge worth being shared.

Let me start with the mafia’s origins leading up to Mussolini’s crackdown on Sicily. In a subsequent article, I hope to cover the post-WWII era until today. My analysis borrows heavily from John Dickie’s 2001 “Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia” that can be downloaded here. Dickie is a Professor of Italian Studies at University College in London who writes in a lively journalistic style and with a clear understanding of the class contradictions that led to the birth of the mafia.

Essentially, the mafia came into existence in the 1860s as the revolutionary struggles of Mazzini and Garibaldi undermined feudal institutions but stopped short of creating a strong state that could lead a very backward society into the 20thcentury. As the duke in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s put it, “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”

In the 1860s, western Sicily was a major exporter of lemons and other citrus fruits. In addition to their use in cooking, with their vitamin C they also helped sailors avoid scurvy. The region around Palermo was studded with lemon groves that belonged to the country’s agrarian gentry who relied on wardens to prevent theft. For large-scale cattle ranches, such wardens were also necessary to prevent rustling. Like the Old West in the USA, private armies were key to protecting private property when lawlessness prevailed.

Unlike the straight-laced gunmen of the USA who could be counted on to capture rustlers, the Sicilian wardens were not above stealing lemons and cattle as the opportunity arose. To some extent, their appropriations were inspired by the general feeling of resentment toward Sicily’s agrarian bourgeoisie that kept peasants immiserated. As a middle-class formation, the future mafioso would gravitate toward the rich or the poor depending on who had the initiative.

In addition to the wardens, the gabellotti also oscillated between the two social classes. The gabellottiwere farmers who leased land from the wealthy landlords, who preferred to live in the city, and then subleased them to peasants living on the edge of starvation.

For the wardens and the gabellotti, there was a need to coordinate their activities in the event that the landlords were cobbled together a police force that could protect their interests against those who were simultaneously guarding and pocketing their wealth. This led to the formation of a secret society that was based on family ties, practically a tribal organization. The basic unit of the new criminal syndicate was the cosca, a word for family. Such blood ties could ensure that infiltrators had fewer openings for a police investigation.

New members went through an initiation rite that exploited the Sicilian’s deep Catholic beliefs. It certainly wasn’t anything ever seen in an American film about the mafia. Someone up for membership would have blood drawn from an arm or hand. Afterward, he’d be instructed to smear the blood on a sacred image, like the Virgin Mary. Then he recites an oath of loyalty once the image was burned and the ashes scattered, thus symbolizing the annihilation of all traitors. Ironically, the initiation rite was based on that of the Freemasons who were activists in the bourgeois revolutions of Europe.

As an indication of the flexibility of the mafia, you can study the case history of Bernardino Verro, a peasant leader of the early 20th century who was passionately committed to the socialist revolution. The peasants had begun to form fasci, which had nothing to do with Mussolini’s movement. It was only a bundle of wheat that symbolized their solidarity against both gabellotti and landlord. In speeches to the peasants, he emphasized cooperation, discipline, and women’s rights. Despite Verro’s radicalism, the fasci actually presented moderate demands, an even split of produce between the gabellotti and the peasants who rented small plots of land.

One night, Verro was awakened by the sound of gravel being thrown against his window. It was thrown by a man who prevailed upon him to come to the home of a gabellotti who he was acquainted with. Once there, he discovered that he was being asked to go through the initiation rite described above. Rather than being told that he was becoming a “made man” in the mafia, he was instead joining the Fratuzzi (“the Brothers”). They told Verro that in order to be recognized by other Fratuzzi, he was to touch his incisors and complain of a toothache. And why would the mafia want to recruit a socialist peasant leader? Dickie offers this explanation:

Verro’s initiation is easy to explain from the Corleone cosca’s point of view. Men of honour never set themselves square against change—their aim is to steer it in the direction they want—and in 1892–3 the situation was highly unpredictable. The Fasci could end up turning the peasants into a new force in the Sicilian countryside, changing the way land was owned and worked; or they could fail and be sucked back into clannish local politics. The gabelloti affiliated to the mafia were unsure whether to oppose the Fasci or use them to get better lease terms out of the landlords. By approaching the Fasci leaders, the mafia was trying to make sure that it would be able to maintain its influence whatever the future held.

In other words, the mafia was intervening in a peasant’s union in the same way they would intervene in the Teamsters years later. If it was to their tactical advantage, they’d grab it. As for Verro, he was murdered by the mafia when they no longer had a need for him.

Not long after Mussolini seized power, he was determined to wipe out the mafia. Unlike the rotten bourgeois democracy of the late 20thcentury, the fascist state could not tolerate a criminal gang that made its own rules. He appointed one Cesare Mori to lead a military assault on Sicily that led to 11,000 arrests and many casualties. Mori saw the need to “forge a direct bond between the population and the state, to annul the system of intermediation under which citizens could not approach the authorities except through middlemen…, receiving as a favor that which is due them as their right.”

Many of the top mafioso fled to the USA to avoid Mori’s war. In my follow-up article, I will discuss the role of the mafia from the end of WWII to today.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.