In the field of economics, valorization is anything done to increase the value of a product. In economics “value” is, of course, measured in dollars, so whatever you can do to get people to pay more for something is technically “adding value.” The value added might seem unethical, subjective, or appealing only to a small subset of people, but it doesn’t matter, as long as the people who find the product most valuable pay top dollar for it. Beanie babies, NFTs, fine art, old cars, real estate, reclaimed waste, mineral rights: it doesn’t matter. People will pay for something what it’s worth to them, and part of an estimation of value comes from the belief that it can be resold at the same price or a profit. Its continued value rests on there being more people who will buy it at those prices in the future.
For centuries, it made sense for Sicilians to put their money on local power. The island was sparsely policed by the king’s forces. Justice was impossible; at best, a judicial win might be bought with an expensive attorney who could argue in any of the several courts. By the end of the 18th Century, the landowners were likewise untrustworthy. One family might own thousands of acres in the country, be responsible for the employment of hundreds, but they lived in the city and never met any of them. For a peasant who might literally have never seen a wheeled cart in their entire life, getting to Palermo to visit their employer with a grievance was only slightly more realistic than going to the moon.
Any sense of continuity or security Sicilians had, came from themselves. Their kings and landlords personally ruled over them in theory, but in practice it was the gabellotti who determined who worked and who starved. Gabellotti were estate managers, hired from among the most notorious criminals. Thieves who could be relied upon to negotiate with or limit the damage done by other thieves were like an attack dog with whom a relationship is cultivated. The thief, whatever the arrangement, remains dangerous to deal with. Their compensation packages, intended to domesticate them, only made them more formidable. Gabellotti were handsomely rewarded for managing estates. They used their earnings to buy land, and their powerful positions in the social networks of their towns to enrich themselves, materially and by reputation.
Gabellotti hired and fired, gave opportunities to ambitious and violent young men to rise in power behind them (but not too high), extorted, inserted themselves as middlemen, fenced stolen goods, and performed a variety of functions of use to the good citizens and the criminal elements in his neighborhood. Today they might be subjects of Austria, tomorrow of Spain, but regardless if you were a nobleman or a beggar, you knew that the most powerful man in your village was still the mafioso.
The mafioso acts like a force of nature, as if his community would grind to a halt without his counsel, and catastrophe would descend without his direct intervention. His actions, combined with the beliefs of those around him that he is capable of even more than they’ve seen, quite literally make a man into a mafioso. He doesn’t call himself by that label and doesn’t want to be called one. The people who fear him won’t even think of him with such a derisive term. To them, he is an honorable Sicilian gentleman. He does what they would do, if they were able.
The mafioso makes himself indispensable to every segment of society. His neighbors live in terror of offending him. Obedience requires that they focus on the mafioso’s demonstrated generosity, and turn a blind eye to his disagreeable actions. He can broker peace between warring bandits, underwrite Church festivals, and allows half the town to break the law in ways generally regarded as harmless and desirable, such as gambling, or avoiding taxes.
By sending the unemployed youth of the town to clean the piazza twice daily, he makes friends of the shop owners, and the middle class shoppers who will patronize a tidy piazza and avoid a dirty one. Like a capitalist, the mafioso uses his power to increase his power. The public face of it looks like public works and charity, but his “boys” could show up with their brooms at someone’s house, late at night, to complete another kind of chore for their don.
This is the other side of the coin, the part his neighbors have to simultaneously fear and blot out of their consciousness, because to fight back or oppose the mafioso must be unthinkable for his reign to continue. His public image is molded to the values of Sicilian society, until he represents the rugged self-sufficiency of countrymen and their extended families, obedience to the family patriarch, and indifference bordering on apathy to the state.
Admiration of the mafioso as the epitome of masculinity, Sicilianità, and entrepreneurship valorizes the Mafia’s brand. Every borgesi couple who comes home from shopping to sing to their neighbor the praises of the man who keeps the piazza so clean, increases his value. So does every thief who finds a ready buyer for his goods, the housewife who cannot afford a tax on her flour and so does not pay, because she buys from the mafioso’s grocery, and the parish priest who beams upon the young men of his town, sent by the feast’s sponsor — none other than the don — to hoist a saint upon their shoulders for the procession.
They tell the stories the mafioso wants to hear, because it makes life easier. Maybe they will win a little favor, or at least avoid being singled out for abuse. It’s the price people pay for a bit of security, when there is only one purveyor. The mafioso maintains a monopoly on protection so long as no one can do better. And for a long time in Sicily, no one even tried. The state didn’t care enough about the safety of peasants to provide a police presence the equal of the don. It was more than a matter of training and deploying law enforcement professionals. They would have to accomplish something no one ever had in Sicily before. No official police force had ever won the trust of the majority of Sicilian people.
People taught their children to fear and obey the mafioso and people close to him, but never to speak ill of them, because they were dangerous and vengeful. Never to share any details about their families with strangers, and especially with the police, because information, however harmless it seemed, could be used to extort or blackmail, and you couldn’t put it back in the bag again: whoever you told could pass it along as a kind of goodwill currency to the Mafia, who would convert it to cash.
The Mafia kidnaps for ransom. They burn crops and steal cattle. They charge for protection from their crimes, and for the privilege of working and the honor of working for them again next season. There is always some new way they could take even more. The only defense against a strong Mafia is constant vigil, an obsession drilled into the children, for their own protection and the safety of the family. The reasons are lost, because they’re complicated, particularly for young children; but the directives remain and, since they are shared among one’s peers, are enshrined in the social unconscious. We don’t talk about family matters in public. We don’t criticize the Mafia.
It becomes ingrained in the personality and psychology of the Mafia victim as well as the future mafioso. They accept it as the natural order that violent people achieve formal power and become many times more dangerous. That it’s deadly to oppose the Mafia, and the gravest threat is to their image as the rightful possessors of civic authority.
The mafioso can never say he is a mafioso, because the Mafia is the original Fight Club. The first rule of the Mafia is we don’t talk about the Mafia. Ask a Mafia boss whether the Mafia exists and he will say that it doesn’t. Asked if he is a member, the mafioso may laugh and say of course he isn’t; how could he belong to an organization that doesn’t exist? The work of inventing, naming, and promulgating the mythology of the Mafia is left to its victims and enemies. La Cosa Nostra? The name is an invention of the three-letter acronym-loving Federal Bureau of Investigation. No, the mafioso might say, he is a member of an Honorable Society, made up of gentlemen like himself. The farthest thing from a brigand, he is a civic-minded community leader who has enjoyed some modest business success. The people respect him out of love and admiration, not fear. That is the story that those who live in fear of the Mafia are compelled to repeat. They tell of safe streets, fathers home for dinner, a clean and thriving downtown. The mafioso is a bootstrapper, a natural born leader destined to rise, and entitled to his success. Propaganda paints the Mafia in tones of loyalty, not betrayal; leadership, not intimidation and murder; the natural order, not oppression.
When propaganda echoes a trusted narrative, it’s accepted more easily. This contributes to more widespread acceptance, which reduces pressure on the state to fight corruption and organized crime. The Mafia “fan” believes most people are evil and lazy; that only an industrious, principled, and physically potent man can lead an orderly society; that he must be given free rein to do so, using any means necessary; and that he is owed a generous reward for his leadership, because the alternative for the masses is tragic: chaotic lives, full of meaningless suffering. Mafia propaganda makes a heroic case for itself: the killer is a natural leader, and the thief is more deserving than the farmer. Everyone who isn’t the Mafia is dehumanized by this narrative.
Propaganda was first deployed to fight the Mafia’s most significant battles—to disarm their opponents, and for social and institutional acceptance. I can see why the stories had to come into existence, from the perspectives of both the perpetrators and their victims, how they save face in the presence of an implacable foe. The amygdala says submit, and survive, but the higher mind needs an explanation to survive the humiliation and carry on the necessities of life.
It’s different for those of us who have never truly feared a violent criminal. We didn’t grow up in their territory, we’re not in competition with them, we’re just people who enjoy a little violent fantasy every now and again. For an hour or two, the gangster is our ally, or our avatar. He never looks at us in a way that makes our guts turn to water.
When someone’s first mental image of the Mafia isn’t Toto Riina blowing up a highway, but Al Capone grinning around a cigar, they don’t feel incensed at what has been stolen from them; instead, there is a sense of recognition and desire. They are tricked into doing free labor for a small class of criminals. Cheering on the family that only loves itself—especially when it’s someone else’s family—is not just wicked, it’s foolish. People who “like” the Mafia fail to correctly register the level of danger, because they do not look at the stories the Mafia tells through any other lens but the Mafia’s. When they start to fall for the propaganda, believing they’re part of the “we” in “Our Thing,” Mafia fans forget everything but their own fear and greed.
From an economic perspective, Mafia fans are children clapping for a malevolent Tinkerbell. They’re courtiers sighing over the Emperor’s new clothes. They identify with the fantasy of near-absolute power, and don’t understand why a benevolent authoritarian regime can never be realized. Politics, economics, psychology, and history are all outside the Mafia worldview. Fans maintain their illusion of strength today, at the cost of their freedom tomorrow. By giving consent to gangsters, everyone loses the most fundamental human freedoms imaginable—to think, believe, feel, and hope without fear or restraint.