Is the Mafia Back, Or is There Just a New Mafia?

A couple days ago, 46 people were indicted on charges of racketeering.

The offenses included extortion, arson, health care and credit card fraud, illegal gambling and the sale of illegal firearms and cigarettes.

Oh, and a bunch of the people were members of the Genovese, Gambino, Lucchese and Bonanno crime families.

You could read that and think: the mafia is back.

We should only be so lucky.

I have thought a lot about the mafia a lot in recent years, not because I have any particular affinity for it beyond watching gangster movies, but because I can’t help but think that some of the unchecked craziness in America these days — income inequality, gentrification and a hallowed out middle class — has to do with the mafia’s decline.

Some of that was even explored back when the Sopranos was on television, when Patsy Parisi tries extorting a Starbucks-like coffee shop which has opened up in his neighborhood.

“Look, every last coffee bean is in the computer and has to be accounted for,” the manager tells him. “If the numbers don’t add up, I’ll be gone and someone else will be here.”

Hearing this, Parisi walks out, dejected, and says: “It’s over for the little guy.”

In New York, where construction and development seems to have gone unchecked for nearly fifteen years, and there’s a bank and corporate chain store displacing small businesses on every corner now, you can’t help but wonder if one organized crime group got swapped out for another.

Think about it: predatory credit card companies replaced loansharks, aggressive collections agencies replaced foot soldiers, and banks replaced Godfathers.

Corporations are the new mafias.

I don’t mean to defend the mafia, for obviously organized crime was and still is a drain on society. But large corporations get around paying taxes just like they do; rarely do bottom-level employees make livable wages (witness the ridiculous minimum-wage debate); and perhaps most importantly, large corporations have done everything to stamp out unions, the only protection employees have.

That the top percent of this country has gotten incredibly rich, while the bottom has been exploited — and that the mafia’s influence has been tamed while this has happened — is no coincidence. For mafia’s primary stranglehold throughout its history has been a) non-taxable goods/services b) small, independent businesses and c) unions.

Beyond that, just look around New York, see how the neighborhoods have changed — many for the better, I’ll give you that — but think about what made that possible, and how if the buildings and storefronts were still under mafia control, if the rent would be jumping 100 percent every 6 months, thus making it a place only livable for the 1%.

I’m not saying the mafia is amazing. I’m not even saying the mafia is good. I’m just saying that the mafia in decline is partly what has allowed things like this to happen. The mafia is kind of a lower to middle class operation. Of course, as it declines, so do the lower and middle classes.

Something to think about.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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