Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’): An Introduction

the secret


Cosa Nostra (Our Thing) has inspired innumerable publications[1]. It attracts the attention of the public opinion for several different reasons. First and foremost, it is the secrecy that surrounds the Cosa Nostra that fascinates the public which, in essence, equates it to the amoral cooperative character (‘amoral familism’ as described by Banfield 1958). Cosa Nostra is seen as a ‘secret society’ of criminal like-minded people established to survive in a difficult and mostly ruthless world. Cosa Nostra also attracts the attention of the national and international audience for the romantic image portrayed in Hollywood movies (such as The Godfather) and TV series (such as The Sopranos) (Beck 2000). Cosa Nostra is, however, also a transnational plague. In this case, it catches the interest of the public as, simultaneously, a sui generis national and transnational criminal entity. It does business in the global economy, it contributes to the global economy by increasing economic transactions, but it also exploits the global economy with its criminal practices.

Yet, despite the relevance of the topic, in national and international forums, the debate on Cosa Nostra has, far too often, been structured along the lines of science fiction. Cosa Nostra is, in fact, far from a loose confederation of organized ‘self-made’ criminals[2]. It is an extremely complex ‘human product’[3] able to create a set of formal as well as informal institutions. These include a unique political regime, governance mechanisms, type of capitalism, structure of taxation, and welfare state as well as a peculiar system of ideas, norms, values and culture.

This article aims at addressing this issue, investigating the fenomeno mafioso (mafia phenomenon) from a sociological, political science and political economy perspective. A multi-disciplinary approach here is necessary. Hessinger (2002) described, for example, Mafia as a ‘total social phenomenon’ in the sense of Marcel Mauss (2000), that is, an economical, juridical, moral, religious, mythological and esthetical multidimensional phenomenon.

Among the most disturbing aspects, one could, perhaps, cite that contemporary Cosa Nostra’s cultural repertoires are, sometimes, horrible. Women of contemporary Cosa Nostra are understood as ‘Our Thing’. They become ‘Women who belong to a specific clan or family’. If they’re not ‘the wives of someone’, they can be traded as a gift by the new ‘men of dishonor’ (for the definition of ‘men of dishonor’, see Arlacchi 1993). Instead of being treated as subjects with full human rights, they are objects which can easily be shared, passed to another more powerful ‘goodfellow’, rent, sold, and passed to another ‘goodfella’; and rent, sold and passed over again. Used and abused.

This set of blogs attempts to highlight the institutional, political, economic and social mechanisms that have contributed to its success, power and electoral support over the centuries. To use Jon Elster’s (1998) terminology, these represent the ‘cogs and wheels’ of the internal machinery that makes Cosa Nostra work. The main question that this set of blogs aims to address is whether Cosa Nostra should be regarded primarily in terms of a ‘criminal organization’ (see, for instance, Catanzaro 1988; Pezzino 1990; Gambetta 1993; Paoli 2003; Lupo 2004), a ‘shadow state’ (Dickie 2004) or a ‘state within the state’ (Caselli 1993), or rather whether it should be seen as an ‘integrated criminal system’ (Scarpinato 2016) that has succeeded to establish powerful international criminal ties. Even though this statement could sound excessively provocative, there are, at least, three good reasons for this. First, during the centuries, Cosa Nostra has succeeded to develop its own political regime able to function properly thanks to a complex system of governance. Second, Cosa Nostra has established also its own transnational variety of capitalism with its own system of taxation and social protection from which it derives its source of subsistence and legitimation. Last, but not least, Cosa Nostra has also succeeded to develop its own (mafioso) system of ideas, values, norms and culture which confers to this entity the normative and moral basis for its continuation.

In order to elucidate these arguments, this set of blogs is constructed as follows:

  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



[1] See, for instance, Banfield (1958), Hess (1973), Biagi (1986), Pizzorno (1987), Pezzino (1990, 1992, 2003), Falcone and Padovani (1991), Arlacchi (1988, 1993), Gambetta (1993, 2009), Paoli (2003), Dickie (2004), Lupi (2004, 2007), Tranfaglia (2008), and (Chiara 2009) just to quote few of the most notable examples.

[2] Interestingly, the Mafiosi in the United States refer to themselves as ‘made members’ or ‘wiseguys’ in contrast to ‘men of honor’ as in Sicily (Paoli 2003, p.5)

[3] State prosecutor Giovanni Falcone defined Cosa Nostra as a ‘human fact’ doomed to have a beginning, an evolution and an unavoidable end (Falcone and Padovani 1991).

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