Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Nasty, Brutal and Short

Writing in the Nation, Henry Farrell reviews Gomorrah, an expose of the Camorra crime syndicate, written by Italian journalist Roberto Saviano.

Roberto Saviano is a marked man. After writing Gomorrah and publicly denouncing the bosses of the Camorra, the organized crime network that dominates the Italian city of Naples and the surrounding region of Campania, Saviano began receiving death threats...Saviano's transgression in writing this savage and extraordinary book wasn't simply to identify the Camorra's bosses and their enablers. It was to break an unstated compact, a web of complicity that entangles politicians, businessmen, Mafiosi, judges and journalists and enriches many who participate. This unstated agreement has survived the corruption scandals of the 1990s, which centered on bribes paid to Italian politicians and destroyed the major political parties of Italy. It insinuates itself throughout Italian politics and business, not so much an active conspiracy as a tacit consensus that you shouldn't rock the boat by pointing at others' indiscretions and shady relationships. After all, someone else might in turn point their finger at you. And if you're honest: well, nobody's entirely honest, and even those who are can be smeared.
The whole thing is fascinating but, for now, two interesting points:

1. The Camorra and Neo-liberalism
Saviano indeed suggests that the Camorra's underlying logic is a kind of capitalism on overdrive. By his account, the clans of the Camorra take the lessons of modern business, the "post-Fordist" economy that provides flexibility without rules, and exploit them to their logical conclusion. The clans compete in a marketplace based on the threat of violence but also provide certain services more cheaply and effectively than law-abiding firms ever could...

In some ways, the Secondigliano clans resemble speculative capitalists--they are ruthless market operators who identify and seek to capitalize on gaps and potential efficiencies that other organizations have overlooked. Saviano describes how they pioneered new forms of drug market organization in southern Italy...

In describing the clan wars and how they were rooted in changes in market organization, Saviano sometimes seems to claim that the Camorra is driven by a simple desire for power and money. Yet Saviano also cuts against this interpretation, describing the ways the Camorra is hostage to its own myths. The kids in the lowest ranks of the Camorra, Saviano explains, don't "dream of being Al Capone but Flavio Briatore [a flamboyant and shady Italian businessman], not gunslingers but entrepreneurs with beautiful models on their arms; they wanted to become successful businessmen." Their bosses, in contrast, fashion a style based on American movies and borrow language from The Godfather. When Cosimo Di Lauro is caught by the police, he doesn't try to escape; instead he ties his hair into a ponytail (like Brandon Lee in The Crow) so as to present a bella figura for the journalists' cameras. The figures of the mobster and the businessman blend into each other; both are attractive not simply because they have money but because they have glamour, power and, most important, respect...

These stories, focused as they are on myths and the desire for victory and respect, are hard to reconcile with Saviano's image of the Camorra as a harbinger of an especially brutal and rationalized form of neoliberalism.
I'm not so sure. Granted this isn't the neo-liberalism of theory, but that doesn't exist anyway. And - violence aside - the Camorra as described don't strike me as being so different from quite a few of the people who I used to work among in finance. Sure there's a 'rational' desire for wealth and something very vaguely akin to market discipline. But there's also irrationality, vanity, striving for status etc. The Camorra sound entirely capitalistic to me. Depressingly so.

2. Hobbes
When the man who betrayed one of the Di Lauros was caught by his former comrades, he was tortured slowly with a spiked bat for hours, before having his ears cut off, his tongue cropped and his eyes gouged out with a screwdriver. He was finally done when his face was beaten in with a hammer and a cross carved on his lips.
Ever wondered what life without a social contract would be like? Hobbes famously thought it would be nasty, brutal and short. And I'd say that the world of organised crime provides good evidence that Hobbes was right. There is no Leviathan to oversea the rules of the game in the underworld - might is right. And might is violent.

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