Reversible Destiny: Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo

By Borneman, John | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Reversible Destiny: Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo


Borneman, John, Anthropological Quarterly


Jane C. and Peter T. Schneider. Reversible Destiny: Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. pp. 339

Reversible Destiny is about the Sicilian mafia, and about the antimafia struggle in Palermo that radically unsettled the cold war social consensus, refiguring political parties and politics generally in Italy. It is the product of fieldwork in Italy spanning three decades, two in Palermo-fieldwork that has involved nearly yearly visits of various duration. The book's many accomplishments-historical, ethnographic, explanatory-were made possible only in the context of this ongoing engagement and face-to-face fieldwork. Above all, Jane and Peter Schneider seek to explain the culture of the mafia-often taken as a metaphor or explanatory variable for Sicily or Sicilian culture as a whole-as a product of the particular economic and political forces of nineteenth and twentieth century Italy.

The Schneiders (forgive me for this shorthand) argue that the mafia parallels and in some ways is constitutive of changes in Sicilian political economy, but that the mafia does not generate these changes. This thesis is consistent with arguments in their previous work, which questions assumptions about the stability and integrity of culture, or the ability of culture to act as an independent variable. In this move, they take to task the popular stories of the other two eminent American scholars of Sicily, Edward Banfield and Robert Putnam, who blame Sicilians and Sicilian culture for the vendettas, the violence, tribalism, clientalism-for everything that seems to form the basis for mafia activities. The appeal of culturalist explanations is so strong and influential in American policy circles, especially among political scientists, that the Schneiders's counter-argument, while not new, is nonetheless an extremely important counterweight. And a timely one, given the current U.S. occupation of Iraq, where American G.I.s and government planners no doubt make erroneous assumptions similar to Banfield and Putnam about an unchanging culture of violence and tribalism among Iraqi Arabs.

Instead, the Schneiders' primary concern is to demonstrate exactly how, during the cold war, the mafia came to interact with the state, how the mafia became not an arm of the state but constitutive of its patriarchal power and its field of operations, particularly the fields of building construction and drugs; how the mafia worked hand-in-hand with other elements of elite (or legitimate) Italian society; and how, following the end of the cold war, there arose a social movement, the anti-mafia struggle, largely spearheaded by women who employed domestic symbolism, a reformist movement whose most pubic face has been prosecutors and judges within the Italian state's justice system. This reform movement sought to change the fabric and texture of Sicilian society, namely to replace forms of local authority that were predicated on clientalism, extortion, and violence, with more meritocratic forms of authority and legal accountability.

This work interests me greatly, as my own research has followed the construction of authority, its dissolution and reconstruction, in East Germany during and after the cold war, and now follows similar processes in Lebanon. I have been particularly interested in the relation of legal accountability to democratic political form: how, in other words, does one construct a democratic authority-of the sovereign "people"-that also limits its own exercise of power, limits the power of the people and the power of the government acting in its name. In addition, my own work has interrogated the relation of kinship to the state, about which the Schneiders present a great deal of fascinating material, on which I will focus.

Although the book contains a concise historical account, the primary narrative begins in the 1950s, with the rebuilding of the society and authority in Italy following WWII and the end of fascism. …

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