Cosa Nostra: System of Values and Norms

Cosa Nostra, as a state, does not stop its activities only in the establishment of formal institutions, such as those linked to the establishment of an interdependent market economy with transnational criminal ties, but it also creates its own set of informal institutions, which help to keep the system together. Cosa Nostra promotes (or promoted), specific ‘social norms’ to which its members must adhere (or must adhered), as well as developing alternative ideas and discourses on how a different, once primarily men-driven (Pizzini-Gambetta 2008), societal order should look like (Tarrow 2006).

For example, according to ex Mafia boss Antonino Calderone, The ‘Men of Honor’ had to respect ten commandments which, more or less, resembled, the ten commandments of the Bible. These were:

  1. No-one can present himself directly to another of our (‘their’, to be precise…) friends. There must be a third person to do it.
  2. Never look at the wives of friends.
  3. Never be seen with cops.
  4. Don’t go to pubs and clubs.
  5. Always being available for Cosa Nostra is a duty – even if your wife’s about to give birth.
  6. Appointments must absolutely be respected.
  7. Wives must be treated with respect.
  8. When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth (like the Freemasons – the ones who don’t lie, at least).
  9. Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families.
  10. People who can’t be part of Cosa Nostra: anyone who has a close relative in the police, anyone with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn’t hold to moral values. See BBC NEWS Friday, 9 November 2007 .

In doing so, Cosa Nostra established, on the one hand, an alternative system of values and norms necessary to ensure the continuation and legitimation of its territorial and institutional structures, while, on the other, it also influenced the culture of its members through the artificial creation of a local and regional collective identity and memory. The relationship between Cosa Nostra and culture is, therefore, circular. Cosa Nostra is ‘embedded’ in the society in which it lives (Pitrè [1889]1993; Lupo 2007), but, simultaneously, it ‘embeds’ this society creating new spheres of mutual dependency.

The development during the centuries of an alternative system of norms and values based on honor, respect of authority and ‘morality’ has, in fact, resulted in the production of a collective memory made of romantic and, to some extent, heroic symbols. This also included feelings of nostalgia for a ‘Mafia’ society in which the members of Cosa Nostra (both Italians and Americans) lived once. The image of a ‘man of honor’, who, as a post-feudal ‘signore’ (lord) with a sawn-off shotgun on his shoulders (the ‘Lupara’) ruled unchallenged in the land, is not only present in innumerable ancient paintings of Sicily[1], but it also found its legitimation in the law of omertà (conspiracy of silence), which is supported by the anomy (Durkheim 1984) present among the poorest strata of the Sicilian population.

As noted by Giovanni Falcone, however, it is a characteristic of the Sicilian society to communicate in ‘significant silences’ (Dickie 2003, p.6). The concept of ‘omertà’ should, therefore, not be confused to a tacit support of a criminal system. Rather, is has to be attributed to an impossibility of the population to fight against a system of oppression through conventional linguistic codes.

Seen from a Weberian perspective ([1922]1968), the charismatic image of the ‘man of honor’, as an extraordinary man among a plethora of supposed ordinary men (the same characterization could here apply to the American ‘wiseguys’), provided an additional value to the bureaucratic structures established by the landlords and by the Mafiosi. These also encountered the requests for security and social reproduction of some parts of the population, and, ultimately, provided power and legitimacy to the system established by Cosa Nostra. By finding themselves unable to survive, first, in a feudal and, subsequently, in a post-feudal system incapable of providing them even with minimum subsistence, Sicilians ended up asking for help to the same individuals that contributed to their misery. Unsurprisingly, for utilitarian and strategic objectives, being the ‘Robin Hood’ was a task that the local Padrino (Mafia boss) was very willing and able to accomplish (or forced to accomplish). Here, it is interesting to note how almost all Padrinos, from Calogero Vizzini to John Gotti and Bernardo Provenzano have described themselves as people who have always worked for the welfare of their population.

Needless to say, this situation could not be more distant from the reality and nothing of the glorious image of the ‘man of honor’ really applies. The ‘man of dishonor’, as described by Arlacchi (1993), has not simply, and from the very first beginning, been a man who has supported the most powerful landowners (now politicians and important businessmen, national and transnational) to ensure his daily survival or that has helped the allies for convenience and not for faith in democratic values, but it has also been a man that has helped the population (assuming s/he has) for utilitarian and not philanthropic objectives. Giovanni Brusca, the so-called ‘scannacristiani’ has, for example, ordered the murder of a twelve years old child, son of one of his enemies (later dissolved in the acid). When asked how many murders he had committed in his life, his response was a disturbingly vague ‘more than one hundred, but less than two hundred’ (Dickie 2004, p. 11). Despite this inconsistency between an ideal and a real Cosa Nostra, ideas, discourses, values, norms, collective identities, memories and new forms of nostalgia persist even today contributing to the electoral support of an idealized, never existing Mafia.

Sicilians and clan members, more in particular, are socio-centric. They give a particular importance to their status and status-differentials in the community. As in the case of Iraqi clans and tribes (see Raymond Hames‘ course lectures and powerpoint presentations), the ‘politics of revenge’ plays here an important role. For clan and tribe members, and Sicilians, more in general, seeking revenge is seen as a crucial and a compulsory act for the maintenance of power and status. Every insult or affront must, in some way, be avenged. It is, in fact, not a case that the origins of Cosa Nostra can be traced back to the sect of the Beati Paoli, also referred to as the ‘setta dei vinnicusi’ (sect of revengers).

Modern Sicilian society is still divided into castes and characterized by new forms of fuedalism. As in the past, nobles/notables (the Sicilian ‘Noblesse‘) rule, members of clans extort money. People accept these divisions. Both actors pay salaries.

In fact, over the last centuries, feudalism has been the main characteristic of the Sicilian lands’ division. The noble was the ‘lord’ of the feud. The barons and princes, also named ‘galantuomini’ (gentlemen), as in the ‘rotary gentlemen’ clubs, bear responsibility as well as the moral and discretionary obligation and authority for penal and civil justice. The barons and princes, mostly linked to the Bourbons of France and the Aragons of Spain subcontracted the management of the feud to the ‘gabelloti’ (subcontractors), who started to acquire authority over the collection of agricultural revenues. Peasants (or ‘servi della gleba’) worked the agricultural fields like beasts of burden. In order to make sure that the peasants continued to carry out their tasks without revolts, the ‘gabelloti’, together with the nobles, recruited local brigants and criminals, who committed all possible atrocities over their subcontracted ‘slave-workers’ (Source: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latifondo_in_Sicilia). These crimes included beatings, killings, extortion of money, of food and of beverages, kidnap and rape of women (through payment or not). With the advent of Giolitti in 1892, barons and princes became politicians strictu sensu in the new Kingdom of Italy (and Sicily). They slowly turned the control over the land into control over the votes. Governance by royal mandate of the nobles, for the nobles, and by the nobles was, in fact, slowly democratized, coopting through the possibility of continuing to work in their feud over 30 years old male constituencies in 1912 and over 21 years old male constituencies in 1918.

Another important aspect to note in the Sicilian society and clan community is the gender-dimension of, broadly understood, Cosa Nostra’s wars. In Sicily, women are not only affected to higher unemployment, illiteracy rates and other vulnerabilties. Also they are subjected to rape, harassment and abduction. As described by Kaya (2016, p.11) for the case of Iraq, violence against  women can also be used as a weapon ‘to humiliate rival communities and settle scores in the sectarian war’. If applied  to Sicily, the above-mentioned violence among women is used inter- and intra-clan battles, where women ‘escorts’ play a leading role. Not rarely, this happens with the direct supervision of some members of the state apparatus (on conflict-related violence, see also United Nations 2016). Similar considerations apply to human rights abuses to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, whose members are the objected to constant harrassment due to the chauvinist understanding of Cosa Nostra’s norms and values and, often, forced to prostitution or pandering.

[1] For a literary portray, see, for instance, Sciascia (1998).


  1. Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’): An Introduction
  2. Historical Legacies of Cosa Nostra 
  3. Cosa Nostra’s Political and Governance Mechanisms: National and Transnational Ties 
  4. Cosa Nostra: System of Values and Norms
  5. Cosa Nostra’s System of Taxation and The Transnational Criminal Integrated System
  6. The Political Regime of Cosa Nostra: Between Independentist and Consociational Pressures
  7. The Transnational-Based Criminal Market Economy
  8. Cosa Nostra’s Criminal-Fare Regime 
  9. Cosa Nostra’s Systemic Problems 
  10. The ‘Anti-Mafia’ Organization: A Historical-Institutionalist Approach
  11.  List of Sicilian ‘Noblesse’ (Noble Families) A-Z
  12. Reference List

     

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