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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Authority, Discipline, Code, And Enterprise–Lessons From History And A Mafia Capo

Petey Brogna, a longtime soldier in the Newark Mafia, had just been promoted to capo.  Now he had his own crew, his own territory, and his own piece of the business.  Petey had been a good soldier, took orders without complaint, knew when and how to use muscle but rarely had to. His tact and charm were legendary and everyone in the family knew that he would rise high and quickly.   He understood the art of ‘insistent compromise’ – that balance of favors which ensured loyalty and obedience.  Of course there were times when friendship, loyalty, and mutual understanding did not work, and he had to resort to ‘discipline’, but these cases were few and far between.  The fact that he was so fair in his promises, so just in exacting his due, and so agile in balancing the two, made him unofficially anointed, a princeling, and accorded far more respect than anyone of his age or position.

Petey was proud of his Roman and Catholic heritage and felt the he, his family, and his institutional profession were latter-day legatees of it.  Both the Church and the Empire had ruled for two millennia.  Power, compromise, codes of honor, discipline, faith, loyalty, and appropriate punishment were the principles of successful civilization incorporated within a body politic.  ‘Government’ – the collective institution of liberal democracy turned overseer of today – was not even considered.  While the Roman Senate may have had its time during periods of Republic, Rome was never just a country, a geopolitical entity, but a purpose.  Rome, through its legions, provinces, and administration was to bring wealth, prosperity, development, and knowledge to the world it conquered.  The righteousness of Rome was never questioned, nor its purpose.

The Catholic Church was an even more remarkable empire, one which conquered without an army and ruled Europe and its colonies with the force of divine retribution and the prospect of eternal salvation behind it. 

Both the Church and the Roman Empire managed their provinces with the same disciplined administrative hierarchy which enabled governance by the few.  Priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals knew their place, the limits of their authority and independence; and learned quickly how to prosper while satisfying similar needs from above.  A highly-organized provincial administration enabled Rome to control its many varied, culturally and socially distinct provinces.  

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This provincial administration was directly linked to Rome and the Emperor, but was internally subdivided to enable efficient, disciplined control through the use of both civil and military authori8ty.

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The point of all this, never to be lost on Petey Brogna, was that the Mafia was no different.  It established and maintained a hierarchal order managed with strict discipline – one which rewarded respect, obedience, and proper execution; and which punished indiscipline, personality, and independence.  It was, like the Church and the Roman Empire based on principle and purpose.  Whereas it had none of the civilizing mission of either, it was as unique in its assumption of righteous power – its obligation to serve the public from which it profited.  In the early days of the urban Republic, the Mafia became protector, governor, and defender and did so by an absolute adherence to moral principles that were no different from those of any other successful empire.  Respect, absolute loyalty, family honor, religion, and tradition were the hallmarks of the Mafia and overrode any civil enactments of justice or morality. 

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Civil government was a nuisance, an efficient, corrupt, and venal institution to be avoided, compromised, and neutered.  While such government had to exist in a constitutional democracy, there was no compelling reason to accept it.  The Mafia’s balance of offering and acceptance, favor offered and favor returned, power and consideration were more relevant to Italian newcomers than any foreign, inexplicable rules of American behavior.

Even more than governance, rule, authority, and social structure, the Mafia meant free enterprise – an enterprise without the artificial and impractical rules of economic engagement created and applied by Congress and legislature.  Mafia business was the business of human nature – opportunistic, amoral, aggressive, and ceaseless.  Since the days of the Pleistocene, human society was self-regulated, divided naturally into strong and weak, intelligent and slow, intuitive and dull; and economic and political enterprise were no different than any other kind of conflict with winners and losers, advantaged and disadvantaged.

Machiavelli and the Medicis were on the same page.  Government was in the business of social control.  The Italian families of the Renaissance – the new centers of concentrated wealth and financial and economic power – were early examples of the institutionalization of such power.  Pre-government, acting in accordance with natural human intelligence, and the territorialism of human nature. The Mafia was the child of Rome and Florence.

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The Mafia has, not unexpectedly, lost ground in recent decades.  Its methods, raison d’etre, European traditionalism, and questionable enterprises were Old World, increasingly outmoded and archaic.  Its clients long assimilated into a democratic civil society, its patrons scrutinized and jailed.

Yet the lessons are there to be had.  Civilizations and institutions come and go but not expunged from history books or forgotten.  The Roman, Persian, India, Chinese, and Japanese Empires may be no longer but their inspiration remains.  It is no surprise that President Putin recalls and evokes the greatness of the Russian Empire of the Tsars – an empire with the same organizational principles, same moral, ethical, and religious codes of behavior and purpose as those of both East and West.   Often criticized as authoritarian if not imperialist, Putin insists on the decadence and decline of Western liberal democracy and the reestablishment of a more centered, principled society.  In so doing he has simply reiterated the loud lessons of history – strong, determined, well-organized societies clear and unequivocal  about their principles and unafraid to recognize the imperatives of human nature and the natural ordering of society will always prevail.

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Petey Brogna made his way to the top of the Newark Mafia until his retirement – another tribute to his ability to negotiate a very harsh, suspicious, and punitive world.  Petey was never a hoodlum like many of the soldier working Down Neck for other capos from other families.  He did what he had to do, often reluctantly but never regretfully.  His life was more honest than those entrepreneurs of the outside world who were far more devious, exploitative, and manipulative than he or his family members ever were.  Operating according the laws of nature would always be more honest than society’s laws.

The Angola Federal Prison (Louisiana), a maximum security institution known for its savagery was an example of how raw human nature lies just beneath the surface.  Once the need for traditional civility and morality were gone – there could be no worse punishments for murder, rape, and brutality within the prison than already apportioned – Angola became an inverse world, one more expressive of the way human beings actually are than what they should be.  Codes of civility meant nothing; and only domination, territory, and personal power mattered.  Death was no threat, imprisonment no intimidation.

Ironically or expectedly, the most advanced and complex societies have understood the inevitability of Angola-like behavior without codes; but have also understood how to employ or harness primitive anti-social behavior.  Nietzsche was right that most men travel with the herd while only few ride above it.  There is no other validation of human existence in a meaningless world than the expression of personal will, he said – words anticipated by Machiavelli centuries before.  The Mafia was the institutionalization of this behavior – a micro-civilization based on human nature but also on the recognition of those social structures which have always constrained it.

Government is irrelevant, said Mafiosi, supernumerary, insignificant.  While it imposes similar authority and regulation, it refuses to acknowledge and allow the more natural, instinctive motivations human activity.

Petey Brogna was a political and philosophical conservative, although he never considered the distinction.  Conservativism was the natural and quite understandable bridge between the world he lived in and the old underground world he managed.  It was a movement which acknowledged human nature, the right and legitimacy of power and empire, the need for foundational principles, and the necessity of some minimal form of governance.  Although Petey might have been happier in the laissez-faire Robber Baron era of early 20th century America, he knew his life had been a good, satisfying, and well-realized one.

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