Italy again. A few weeks ago I saw the film Gomorrah, a study of the extent to which the Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia, the Camorra, literally poisons and controls the lives of those who live in that region. It is based on the book of the same name written by Roberto Saviano, an extremely brave author who has been living under constant police protection since October 2006 as a result of his writing the book and cooperating with legal efforts against the Camorra. Saviano has recently gone almost completely to ground, partly because a small group of 6 to 10 Camorra members that has been killing almost one person a week for six months has been discussing killing him. He now plans to leave Italy in the search for a normal life led by someone in their late 20s. The film of the book won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
I have to say that I didn’t find the film all that great. It tells a number of stories that reflect how the Camorra affects the lives of various groups within Neapolitan society – those who produce clothes for high fashion, petty criminals, drug users, the ultra-violent Camorra members themselves and their families, and the victims and beneficiaries of the incredibly lucrative trade in the disposal of toxic waste, mostly from the north and centre of the country. Each of these stories is interesting in and of itself, and acts as a window into the impact of the Camorra on society, but I didn’t think they were properly tied together, and they left me feeling slightly unsatisfied.
The bare figures given at the end of the film in many ways struck me more powerfully than the film itself. 4,000 deaths in a thirty year period; the Camorra investing in legal business around the globe, including in the project to replace the Twin Towers. The movie website (linked above) contains further details. Italian organised crime’s estimated turnover of 158 billion Euros per year dwarfs that of Fiat at 58 billion Euro, and makes it a hugely significant player in the Italian economy. Nor should we forget the proof that Italian prime ministers have effectively been mafiosi, and that many current politicians are deeply tainted by their links to organised crime, not least Silvio Berlusconi, who has abused his control of Parliament to pass laws protecting himself from prosecution. The political element was one that was missing from the film, possibly reflecting the fact that the Camorra has seemingly been less interested historically in political power than its equivalents.
One of the main themes of the film, and the one aspect of the Camorra’s activities that have attracted the most international attention, is waste disposal. Attempts to reform the collection of rubbish in Naples resulted in violence from the Camorra, and the rubbish lying uncollected for months. Eventually, the army was sent in to ensure the rubbish was collected. If the illegal waste dumped by the clans was piled high, it would be 14,600 metres high, and almost three hectares wide – Mount Everest is “only” 8,850 metres high. As well as poisoning farming land and the water table, the toxic waste secreted on farmland and in the most unlikely places is responsible for exponential growth in tumours among the population. Illegal waste is poisoning the people of Naples, and often its poorest and most vulnerable such as small farmers who give over their land for waste disposal for a pittance – 100 Euro per shipment according to the film.
The film does a good job of showing the lengths the Camorra goes to to win contracts, and how it employs sophisticated, educated middlemen to interact with the businessmen who know full well what the situation is but turn a blind eye to it. In other words, large elements of so-called respectable society are firmly in bed with organised crime, placed there by the profit motive that is the bottom line of capitalism, and also hatred of progressive politics that would challenge their domination of society. The attacks on the old PCI by the mafia began shortly after the Second World War, and the rhetoric of Berlusconi and his cronies against the judiciary probing the links between organised crime and politicians as Communists shows that this mentality is alive and well. As long as the violence and suffering is restricted largely to the working class and away from the industrial centres of central and northern Italy, then few voices are raised in protest among the Italian right. This is a stinging indictment of the Italian elite. In fact, it is not too far of a stretch to suggest that for much of the last 50 years, Italy has been a mafia state; and that with Berlusconi in power in alliance with the extreme right and hostile to the judiciary, the gains of the early 1990s are being reversed, and that organised crime is becoming more entrenched and dominant.
We all know that there was only one regime in Italian history that successfully tackled the mafia, and none of us advocate that a democratic state in the early 21st century adopts the tactics of Mussolini. Nevertheless the political will must be found to tackle this level of corruption that has perverted the Italian body politic, and is destroying the lives of so many. How can that will be found? Difficult to see. We cannot look to the leading political elements, and there no longer exists a serious political alternative. There have been elements of a popular revolt, but with the government at war with the judiciary which is the most dedicated element against organised crime for political reasons, there seems little hope of that feeling finding an institutional outlet. It will require a change in political leadership, and in the business culture of Italy, to even make a start like the serious pursuit of laws like the US RICO statutes. Citizens must themselves try and steer clear of activities such as drugs and counterfeit goods that fund organised crime. It is hard to see how such a top to bottom change is likely to come soon.
The themes here – corruption of the body politic, violence and organised crime, fake goods – are not unfamiliar to Irish readers. I don’t want to suggest that Irish society and politics are as corrupt as that of Italy, though sometimes I do wonder. And I certainly don’t want to be seen to be adopting a Jim Cusack the paramilitaries are everywhere, super-rich, and are about to overthrow the state line. I don’t believe that is true, not even in Northern Ireland, where some of them are in government. Nevertheless, when we can see illegal fuel, fake dvds, perfume, washing powder, and other counterfeit goods sold all over the place, as well as smuggled drink and cigarettes sold by paramilitaries in every working class housing estate in NI, we have to acknowledge that there is a danger here of organised crime taking a serious grip, and the blind eye turned to it for political advantage could corrupt the whole legal and political edifice (Pete Baker has been working hard to document this over at Sluggerotoole for several years, as has Newton Emerson in his Irish News columns). Even the dumping of rubbish illegally can be seen in Ireland, with waste from the Republic regularly dumped in NI, and fish kills often the result of toxic waste poured into rivers. The links between big business and the political elite in the Republic need no elaboration. We on the Left must find ways to fight this corruption. As Italy shows us, the main political losers of a corrupt society are the Left. I certainly plan to read Saviano’s book.