Godfather-RingCults, gangs, and the Mafia are very similar. 

“Cults” and “Mafia” are just like religions and the state, without the widespread acceptance.

Cults are simply new religious movements. If they stick around long enough, they stop being persecuted in the same way, and are accorded the respect we give to mainstream religions. Likewise, the Mafia is a quasi-state which, if it were to overtake a whole country, would lose its “quasi” status as citizens, regional governments, and other nations were forced to deal with the Mafia to get things done.

A cult has three main features: a charismatic, authoritarian leader; a program of indoctrination or mind control; and exploitation. While the exploitation doesn’t seem obviously part of the cult, to the outsider, it is the feature that makes cults harmful. Idealism can very quickly turn to authoritarianism. The only difference between my infallible authority and yours, is that I agree with mine.

A mafia is very much like a cult, although you might reverse the order of its descriptors. The Mafia’s most fundamental trait is that it uses violence and threats of violence to achieve its aims. Those aims have changed over time: the traditional Sicilian Mafia sought control over a territory and personal respect, both more powerful currencies in the society where the Mafia arose. The Americanized “new Mafia” seen since the 1940s focuses on wealth and conspicuous displays of social status, and consequently, the two mafias reveal themselves through different methods: the original mafiosi modeled themselves on nobility, while the more modern version imitates American capitalism’s exemplars of success: the businessman, the Hollywood star, or the politician. 

All mafias—and gangs—have authoritarian leaders who rule on the strength of their personal traits—most especially, their reputation for violence. A gang is like a Mafia without ethnicity, or a cult without ideology. What all three share is the sense of belonging they offer to members. This is a powerful feeling for any of us, but particularly for people who are poor, marginalized, or in a tumultuous period in their lives. 

This takes us to the other defining attribute of both Mafia and cults, which is a program of indoctrination. The Mafia has belief systems that are widely disseminated through the subculture that gives it strength. The most widely known is omertà, most often interpreted as “silence,” but having its root, in fact, in a different concept: that of how to be a man. In the indoctrination system of the Mafia, a “real man” is tough and self-sufficient. He handles his own problems, and never turns to the state. You might say that other gangs have a similar ideology, known to the general public through the adage, “Snitches get stitches.”

Cults, like the Mafia, find fertile ground in the beliefs already held by the broader culture that they target for enrollment. Just as many successful cults are offshoots of Christianity, the Mafia’s values are rooted in the Sicilian(-American) subculture. Agricultural workers in central-western Sicily shared experiences—working on large plantation estates, having few police and an incessant banditry problem—that generated some of their distinctive cultural traits. Sicilians put their trust in family first, before neighbors, politicians, or employers. They are also strongly bound together by the Catholic Church, whose institutions were second only to the family for their permanence in Sicilian life.

The dangers of cult membership are becoming a more widespread problem. The ease of creating isolated communities of the like-minded online, greater penetration power of false messages through social media, and anonymity of the internet, have breathed life into hate groups. These online rage circles cause real violence, through harassment campaigns conducted online, and in the real world, including murder.

Even the old cult of the Mafia lives online. Communities that share stories and memes about the Mafia, both real and in popular culture, send messages that range from the relatively neutral, i.e. that the Mafia is newsworthy, to the cultish, such as polls of membership as to their “favorite” mobsters. The Mafia is undoubtedly a fascinating subject, and I’m hardly unbiased in saying so. The danger in the fascination, is in falling victim to their messages: excusing and justifying Mafia violence, and thereby weakening pressure for its prosecution. The Mafia is no more an honorable society than cults are made up of the anointed. If enough of us forget that, we make room for the quasi-state to rule, and the cult to become dogma. While the “strong man” leader might look good now, the time will inevitably come when you and he will disagree.

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