There are severe shortcomings in accounts of the Mafia that focus exclusively on individuals, families and genealogical trees. These may convey a notion of organised crime as a close-knit structure whose undertakings are the result of the social pathology characterising its members. They obscure the fact that organised crime reproduces itself not only through the internal transmission of a criminal subculture but also, and crucially, by virtue of an external environment that facilitates its expansion. There is also a risk in explaining the recent successes of the Italian authorities in their anti-Mafia fight through the talents and moral integrity of some prosecutors. Again, this may overlook changes in the external environment.
Alexander Stille is aware of these risks and hence combines individual biographies with broader social and political analysis. His is an accomplished investigation of the way a specific system of power survived for decades and became extremely stable, while giving the impression of permanent instability. This is intertwined with the life stories, the rise, success, failure and ultimate murder of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two prosecutors who add to the list of "excellent cadavers" punctuating the postwar history of Italy.
The new judicial course advocated by Falcone and Borsellino has caused controversy. According to some commentators, for example, the recent successes in the anti-Mafia fight are the result of harsher measures, tougher prison conditions for defendants and streamlined procedures in Mafia trials. The sending of army troops to Sicily completes a picture that echoes similar measures adopted during the fascist period, when "crime cleansing" strategies appeared to have eradicated the Mafia. But the causes of its existence and potential prosperity were bound to re-emerge.
What are the conditions that favoured the turning of hundreds against organised crime and triggered their willingness to co-operate with the police? Here the book offers its most interesting analytical points. Italy has been one of the victims of the Cold War because the presence in the country of the largest Communist party in the western world determined the features of its domestic politics and the pressures of international forces. In 1947 the Truman Doctrine was announced, with its commitment to fight communism worldwide. Until then, the Communists had participated in government coalitions with other parties, including the Christian Democratic party, but these arrangements met with the strong disapproval of the United States and other western countries. "With the fate of democratic Europe at stake, and Stalin swallowing up entire nations whole, the excesses of local thugs in rural Sicily seemed a minor problem." As a result, the Christian Democrats remained in power for 47 years, thus making alternation of governments impossible.
The stability of this power was due to its ability to defuse conflicts through all available means: patronage, clientelism, corruption and finally tolerance of unorthodox forms of economic activity and social control, including organised crime. With the Cold War's end a dream widely shared by Italians came true: a government without Giulio Andreotti, corrupt politicians who are being arrested and mafiosi who are talking.
Vincenzo Ruggiero is reader in criminology and social studies, Middlesex University.
Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic
Author - Alexander Stille
ISBN - 0 224 03761 7
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £20.00
Pages - 467