I remember the one scene that always struck me as quite a good commentary on the state of things in the modern world is at the very end of the must-see Mafia cinema masterpiece Casino (1995). Its the end of the line for the old time mobsters that practically built Las Vegas into an entertainment mecca. As Ace’s commentary states over a montage of old casinos getting blown up, and the streams of tourists walking by: “After the Tangiers, the big corporations took over, today Vegas looks like Disney land….Back in the day, Dealers knew your name, what you played, what you drank, today its like checking into an airport, and if you order room service, you’re lucky to get it by Thursday. Today its all gone, if you show up with four million in a suitcase, some 25 year old hotel school kid is gonna want a social security number. After the teamsters got out of the box, the corporations tore down every one of the old casinos, and where did the money come from to build the pyramids? Junk bonds”.
The mafia has even become a facet of tourist attractions in Vegas, there are museums and displays everywhere. Even here in the Niagara region, where there are the Two Niagara casinos, and the mafia set up shop in various parts of Ontario during prohibition, there is the crime museum with an old school cop car in the front.
Another scene that always shook me about the Mafia’s place in the 21st century was from none other than the Sopranos. Patsy and another goon tries to shake down a coffee shop franchise that opened up in “the old neighborhood”. They try the usual racket of offering “protection”, that the local merchants want to handle things “on a personal, one-on-one basis”, to then be informed that every single spending decision, right down to every coffee bean being counted, is run through head office in Seattle. They then do the old hypothetical of “what if a brick went through a window, or a manager got assaulted” to then further be informed that “Corporate has ten thousand stores in North America, they won’t feel anything” and that if this manager is worked over, someone else will replace him.
Corporations are morphological and viral in nature, they change, adapt, grow like a parasitic entity upon a body of land. Corporations transcend boundaries, not just of geography and economies of scale, but of human boundaries as well. Organized crime had its roots in local networks of family, cultural, and ethnic relations, and operated within a localized economic ecology, being parasitic entities themselves. The difference however, is that the mafia used to stick to a code of honor, and truly thought of themselves as protecting their ethnic diaspora from corrupt outside influences (for example, the Italian mafia trying to get ahead without the same level of education and social connections as the American WASP mono-culture, as Tony Soprano bluntly explained to Dr. Melfi in one episode). This may be a romantic revisionist view of the very brutal and despicable reality of actual mafia life, but the point still stands.
A Mafia outfit knew who you were, your family, your unique concerns, etc. The corporations, in the same manner that Walmart, Amazon and others basically obliterated the small mom-and-pop stores and boutiques, so too has organized crime become improbable in the world of globalized consumer capitalism. Organized crime has adapted, becoming either more globalized and high tech, or ten times more brutal in their operations, choosing to forgo the classic mafia rackets like protection, laundering, racketeering, etc. for drug and arms trafficking. The Russian mafia is in bed with the oligarchs, in Italy and Japan, organized crime has ventured into semi-mainstream business outlets, and behind the scenes, still continue to operate on an international basis. The mafia, in so many words, whether they are cartels fueling the ultra-violent drug trade or going international by being in the pocket of corrupt governments and even corporations, have ceased to be these local folk anti-heroes.
Even the so-called sin industries have gone the way of mega-corporate monoliths; Back in the day, pornography, gambling, prostitution, etc. was run by various organized crime outfits. Today, almost all of the sin industries will be allowed to go “mainstream” or exist on the niche margin in some way or another, The porn industry is the leading example of a previously marginalized underground exploding outwards into a global multi-billion dollar corporate entity. The Mafia organizations that survived the great gutting and mass-extinction events during the 80s and 90s with the creation of new RICO laws have learned to further adapt in an environment of mass snitching, drug trafficking and corporate take-over; The corporate model itself has taken on similar structures of expansion from organized crime, right down to taking legal and government protections that the mafia used to enjoy, but on an international scale. The American government may have driven the mafia into semi-extinction, yet corporations enjoy “person-hood”, and certain sectors of the corporatocracy share a near symbiotic relationship with the American government. In some cases, the mafia lost power because of the shifting nature of the late-capitalist labor market, the biggest example being the control they exerted over unions. Now that unions in many labor markets are virtually a thing of the past, so too has a giant mafia revenue stream evaporated.
There can be whole genealogies in a Chomskyite fashion about how the modern corporation arose from the techniques of expansion and control over industries that the mafia innovated. But for now, here we have the perfect illustration of the state of classic mafiosi in America. The title image is from one of the last episodes of the Sopranos, with lonely old broken down Paulie walnuts, having everything that kept him together, and everyone he knew slowly slipping away, sunbathing in a place that used to be filled with friends and relations, next to the cat that he thinks is a reincarnation of Christopher. Such a sad image of desolation, but a fitting image for what the American mafia has become.