Cosa Nostra’s Systemic Problems

A woman sits in front of the artwork  "Zwei Brennpunkte"  by Adolf Luther at the Cologne Fine Art 2015 fair










The history of Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’) is a tortuous history of power relations and reconfigurations, of competing interests and needs, of institutions (both formal and informal), of criminal practices as well as of transnational ties. It comes then as no surprise that there have been several definitions given to the Sicilian Mafia, over the centuries. In 1864 Nicoló Turrisi Colonna, Baron of Buonvicino, described Cosa Nostra as a ‘sect of thieves that has ties across the whole island’ (quoted in Dickie 2004, p. 40). Something has changed. Thieves have expanded overseas. Since then, for the majority of the observers, Mafia has remained, first and foremost, a ‘criminal organization’. For Arlacchi (1988, 2007) and Gambetta (1993, 2009), Cosa Nostra should be better understood in terms of an ‘economic enterprise’ or, to be generous, a highly organized multi-tasked industry of the crime. Also for Paoli (2003, 2004, 2007), Cosa Nostra should primarily be seen as a ‘criminal enterprise’, even though, during its long historical development, it has always aspired to acquire models typical of a state (see also Catanzaro 1988; Pezzino 2003; Lupo 2004, 2007). For Dickie (2004), by contrast, Cosa Nostra is a far more complex, state-like organization. It is a ‘shadow state’ which has succeeded to establish its own ‘shadow government’. The most common definition of Cosa Nostra is, however, the one provided by the state prosecutor Giancarlo Caselli, who described it as ‘a state within the state’ (Caselli 1993). More subtle psychological definitions of Cosa Nostra have also been developed since its very early inception. In 1889, Pitrè ([1889]1993), for example, defined the fenomeno mafioso (mafia phenomenon) as an ‘attitude’ – a ‘state of mind’ – intrinsic in the Sicilian culture, thus, involuntarily providing to a human product, a metaphysical character. More recently, Hessinger (2002) even described Mafia as a ‘total social phenomenon’ in the sense of Marcel Mauss (2000), that is, as

an economical, juridical, moral, religious, mythological and esthetical multidimensional phenomenon.

The picture portrayed in this article could, at first glance, seem to exaggerate its scope and content. Cosa Nostra as a state that lives not simply within another state, but also able to transcend its national borders, exporting its political regime, system of values and business well beyond the boundaries of local communities. This should, however, not be an issue of concern, but of reflection. According to Skaperdas (2001, p. 173), ‘Mafias and gangs are hierarchically organized and can be thought of as providing primitive state functions, with economic costs that are typically much higher than those associated with modern governance’. As it has been shown, these state functions are, in reality, less ‘primitive’ than one could expect. Despite its political, economic, cultural and symbolic power, Cosa Nostra still suffers from several systemic problems (Strukturprobleme in the words of Claus Offe 2006) which derive from the difficulties of finding a long-term system of stability and legitimacy. As like other political institutions, Cosa Nostra suffers, for example, from an endemic and perennial ‘legitimation crisis’ (see Habermas 1975) caused by the necessity of finding a stable consensus under constantly changing socio-economic, cultural, juridical, moral, religious, mythological, political and esthetical circumstances. This also results in a growing ‘identity crisis’, caused, on the one hand, by the need to continuously obtain the direct and indirect support of citizens in absence of a pervasive system of global mass communication (see Habermas 1981), while, on the other, by the necessity of constantly finding the self-legitimizing means for the survival of its system.

Cosa Nostra suffers also from an endemic ‘fiscal crisis’ (O’Connor 1973; Offe 1984) caused by the necessity of simultaneously expanding its system of production, allocation of goods and of social protection, while finding the necessary resources to keep the system alive.

If we look at Cosa Nostra from a sociological, political science and political economy perspective, the weaknesses and shortcomings of its system of governance and support maintenance, thus, become immediately apparent. As for other criminal state-like organizations, as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Cosa Nostra has developed during the centuries several inter-connected, vital sub-systems (political, economic, familial, cultural, etc.) whose successful adaptation to changing circumstances is an essential prerequisite for the stability of the overall building (Luhman 1984). As Talcott Parsons (1949; see also Parsons and Shils 1951) has correctly emphasized, in absence of a system-stabilizing and system-legitimizing capacity induced by continuous evolving forms of national and transnational social sharing, the institutions of Cosa Nostra are doomed to disappear and this, in spite of the set of vested interests, self-reinforcing mechanisms and lock-in process already created (see North 1990; Hall and Taylor 1996; and Pierson 2000).

  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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