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Italy’s Concrete Boots

September 30, 2014

The lore of the mafia in Italy is nothing new. Mob bosses, bootleggers, machines guns, and deceivingly innocuous-sounding nicknames had long ago become staple ingredients of the stereotypical package of Italian corruption. In America, the early twentieth-century threat of the mafia turned from pressing public concern into modern-day legend and hot material for blockbuster films. In Italy, however, “the Godfather” isn’t the former heartthrob Marlon Brando and the corruption is not just a best-selling Hollywood storyline. BBC correspondent Antonia Quirke briefly tackles this subject, taking a look at Sicily, the home of the mafiosi, for an update on the current role of the mafia in Italian life.

According to Quirke, the changes of the 21st century have begun to erode the iron grasp of the mafia bosses on the brazen little island, but have not succeeded in eradicating them. Bold burly men may still be seen collecting protection money on street corners, and locals are still weary of discussing the topic of the mafia. The locals interviewed by Quirke acknowledge that the mafiosi are all around them, but state that they do not know them. Although not as common as they used to be, abandoned half-built high-rises and bridges may still be found in incongruous locations, creating jarring images on the otherwise picturesque Sicilian landscape. For the majority of locals, these are just unalterable facts of life—and their distressingly lethargic attitude towards the ubiquitous corruption seems to be a reflection of the general Italian attitude on the subject. According to Quirke, 16 out of Italy’s 20 regions are undergoing investigations for charges of having misappropriated public funds worth around 60 million euros, and more than half of the country’s population is employed by the government, perpetuating bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption—but what more to expect from a country whose previous twice-elected figurehead was Silvio Berlusconi?

While the stereotype of Italian corruption has, like most stereotypes, been overstated, it nevertheless continues to be based on a very large kernel of truth. With dishonesty, back-room deals, and nepotism as the order of the day, there is little chance for the once-great Italy to regain its footing on the top tier of the European power structure. In fact, this now centuries-old tradition of corruption and public apathy could very well sink Italy to the bottom. Furthermore, the issue of the Italian mafia brings up questions about corruption in Eastern Europe, where countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are not only consistently stigmatized for having high levels of corruption, but also actively kept on the political peripheries of European governance as a punishment for their dishonesty. But is this fair, when a country that is the home of the mafia gets a reserved seat at the table of Europe’s major powers? A comparison between Italy and Romania is particularly interesting, not only because of the cultural, historical, and linguistic similarities between the two countries, but also due to the fact that a 2013 corruption index study by Transparency International shows Italy and Romania being tied with a score of 43 on a scale of 0-100 (0 being highly corrupt and 100 being very clean).

While this certainly raises questions about the hypocrisy of the EU’s leaders in their treatment of East European nations, it is more imperative that this discussion bring about a concerted effort to put a stop to rampant corruption. This comparison proves that this is by no means an issue symptomatic of Eastern history and mentalities, but rather a chronic malady that affects even the more advanced countries in Europe—a malady that will only be fixed by EU sanctions that do not favor some countries over others, laws and good practices that sanctify government transparency, and, perhaps most importantly, an awakening of civic engagement that will shake the public out of its apathy.

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