Albert Neri, American Literature, Book review., Books, Capitalism, Crime, Don Corleone, Drugs, Gangsters, Jack Woltz, Justice, Literary criticism, Mafia, Mario Puzo, Michael Corleone, Sonny Corleone, The Godfather, Tom Hagen
Vito Corleone appears to be the founding father of an alternative model of America, in which the power of money, the means and end of a bourgeois economy, is negated. It is not merely that the wealthy are stripped of power once the Godfather has intervened, for a man can make nothing of his talents if he is not endorsed by the Godfather. Even a man with no particular talents may succeed with his backing. But does this patronage signify a retreat into feudal certainties, a lapse into the sort of cartels and syndicates which capitalists use themselves to master capitalism, or the dawn of an entirely new social system? Admittedly, a thwarted Jack Woltz will resort to the word only out of temper:
People didn’t have the right to act that way. It was insane. It meant you couldn’t do what you wanted with your own money, with the companies you owned, the power you had to give orders. It was ten times worse than communism.
One may doubt that Don Corleone’s enterprise can be realistically regarded as a retreat from capitalism, or some sort of ideological alternative, because its established monopolies, family-based hierarchy, and corrupt influence over judges and politicians render it the model of a successful American corporation. Woltz and the Godfather both exert a massive influence over the lives of others, but Woltz continues to adhere to the laws and social conventions that the Don disdains, such as the prohibition upon murder. The only discernable divergence between the mafia and the average American boardroom appears to be one of means rather than of ideology.
Vito Corleone places the highest of premiums on justice, and he imagines that, merely in exchange for a declaration of “friendship,” he can identify fully with another’s suffering. The Don is adamant that, “in this world there comes a time when the most humble of men, if he keeps his eyes open, can take his revenge on the most powerful.” He will receive anybody, “no matter how poor or powerless the supplicant” with “an equal show of love,” and even if the supplicant had “no means with which to repay him.” He requires only “one thing” – “That you, you yourself, proclaim your friendship.” His whole organisation has grown like a tree from such apparent exchanges of pleasantries, and with a happy symbolism the Godfather will eventually retire from the mafia to spend more time with his garden.
As in the existing capitalist economy, however, the invisible hand remains self-interest, and perhaps the Don’s insistence upon friendship and justice is merely a droll fiction, the concealing of self-interest in kid gloves. Most of those who profess their devotion to the Godfather do so only pragmatically, rather like the Dubliner who “believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions.” The Corleone Family may seem to be too nostalgic and traditional to form the vanguard of a new social system, but, paradoxically, their Italian traditions and nationalism, for want of a better word, are in many respects a pragmatic response to the hostility of America.
Michael Corleone will learn that in Sicily, “the word “Mafia” had originally meant place of refuge,” and that this name had been taken by “the secret organisation that sprang up to fight against the rulers that [sic] had crushed the country and its people for centuries.” The people “learned that society was their enemy and so when they sought redress for their wrongs they went to the rebel underground…” They looked to their “local capo-mafioso for help in every emergency,” to be “their social-worker, their district captain ready with a basket of food and a job, their protector.” But just as the state is supposed to govern for everybody and it invariably falls short of this ideal, the Sicilian mafia eventually becomes “the illegal arm of the rich.”
In Sicily the mafia essentially replaces the police as “a degenerate capitalist structure, anti-communist, anti-liberal, placing its own taxes on every form of business endeavour no matter how small.” Vito Corleone fled from this corruption as a child, only to find it flourishing on the other side of the Atlantic, where the mafia and the police had become practically indistinguishable. The parish gangster Fanucci predominantly extorts money from “elderly couples without male children to defend them,” whilst we later encounter the law enforcement bandit Captain McCluskey, a privatised public policeman, who levies his own personal tax in exchange for “protection.”
If most of the police are crooks, and vice versa, then the logic is paved to the figure of Albert Neri, a decent cop who chooses to become an honest gangster. Neri’s entrance into the mafia is negotiated by his father-in-law, to atone for his daughter’s failure to fulfil her marital obligations, which caps the emerging definition of the Corleone Family as a “refuge” from society anarchy. Neri learns that the Family “valued him, society did not… he would be happier in the world the Corleones had created than in the world outside.”
The Godfather’s leadership will inspire talented men such as Tom Hagen, Johnny Fontane, and Albert Neri to fulfil their potential in ways which may not be possible out in American society. The Don assumes that he can personally cultivate the necessary qualities in any man, however unpromising they may initially seem, so long as his beneficiary remains loyal in return. Whilst many people would write off Johnny Fontane as a pathetic has-been, the Don will provide this croaky crooner with a brand new career. He will keep faith in Tom Hagen, defying the general assumption that a non-Sicilian cannot be a Consigliori. Nino Valenti is launched on a sensational singing career even though, in Johnny’s professional opinion, “he just hasn’t got enough talent.” Carlo Rizzi initially offers an example of the degenerating influence of mafia welfare dependency, although the Family’s intervention can even improve his character. With his gift for making men, the Godfather will restore faith in American society:
Everywhere in the city, honest men begged for honest work in vain. Proud men demeaned themselves and their families to accept official charity from a contemptuous officialdom. But the men of Don Corleone walked the streets with their heads held high, their pockets stuffed with silver and paper money.
The wily old Don condemns American society for not being brutal enough, in entangling ordinary people in effeminising laws and social obligations, whilst he simultaneously teaches that this society is so brutal that its citizens can only succeed by fleeing to him for protection. The “negroes” here provide a cautionary example: they were “considered of absolutely no account, of no force whatsoever” because “they had allowed society to ground them into the dust…” The Family grows from the grassroots, capitalising upon the mobilisation of an outraged and aspirant people. The Don “did not believe in advertising” and he instead builds his empire by relying democratically upon “word of mouth” and “the force of his own personality.”
Informed by the grand tradition of American superheroes and their sentimental anti-capitalism, the Godfather cannot help recalling the figure of the Depression-era Superman who went over the heads of useless cops to fight the machinations of villanous businessmen. Vito and Clemenza believe that, “they shoulda stopped Hitler at Munich, they should never let him get away with that…,” leading Michael to imagine that, “if the Families had been running the State Department there would never have been World War II.” This contempt for appeasement applies just as readily to democracy, and it may be unhelpful to note that the Family suffers its own minor world war soon after the official one has ended.
If the Godfather has built his organisation from countless individual declarations of loyalty, he has embedded his place within the existing capitalist system with a supplementary economy in which “loyalty” acts as an alternative to the formal transactions of the market. One may fancy that if the Godfather was dislodged from the top of this system, then it would become an agreeable neighbourly organisation, with everybody doing each other favours, from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. But the Corleone “business” grows from the Godfather’s principle of taking every transaction “personally,” and it otherwise appears that necessity is the parent of his tyranny. If the Godfather profiteers from the war, for example, it seems that the only alternative to this treachery is to agree to the injustice and exploitation of a “defeated life,” a life in which one’s child may die “for strangers.” Michael will teach Kay Adams what is at stake:
“He refuses to live by rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn’t really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime he operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal structures of society.”
Far from being a heroic individual, a superman striving beyond the confines of society, the Godfather is questing for security, and his every action is careful and defensive, determined by the need to eliminate any threat. He may refuse the “dominion of other men,” but the consequent “free will” is achieved only within an elaborate system of mutual dependence. It is implied, but not specifically stated, that tyranny grows naturally from America’s free soil, that men cannot live together in freedom and equality unless within the sort of social structure cultivated by the Don. Whether feudal or progressive at heart, there seems to be no alternative to the mafia, and it may be ultimately regarded as an inevitable response to natural conditions. Unfortunately, however, the Corleone Family will be almost destroyed by human misjudgements and some decidedly dodgy ideological assumptions.
Sollozzo is fobbed off with the excuse that the Don’s “friends in politics… think narcotics a dirty business,” but as the Don is himself such a “straight-laced” character, we may suspect that he thinks the same. A moralising paternalist such as the Godfather will hardly allow drugs in his neighbourhoods – even though his family has long grown accustomed to, as Phillip Tattaglia would put it, cutting throats with a song on their lips – or rather, the Godfather would not allow people the freedom that they otherwise enjoy as consumers within American society. The consequence of this snobbery towards narcotics will be a vastly destructive mafia war.
The gangster chiefs view narcotics in apocalyptic terms, as if they might have to defend established reality from destabilising new substances at some point in the future. When the chiefs put their heads together over drugs, they do not merely disapprove of a dangerous new vice, but of the free market. The Los Angeles Don declares that, “we can’t have everybody running about doing just what they please like a bunch of anarchists,” whilst the Detroit Don agrees that, “we can’t let people do as they please and make trouble for everyone.” If the chiefs meet as individual businessmen who at best find narcotics distasteful, they unite as a cartel which has taken control of the industry, protecting themselves from the growth of unpredictable new markets and competitors. The Don may be receptive to individual suffering in his own neighbourhood, but his organisation as a whole does not differ from the rest of America’s capitalist machinery.
Indeed, it is vaster, more oppressive, and practically a monarchy. Like all patriarchs, Vito Corleone turns men into children. His henchman Tom Hagen will describe, “a pattern he was to see often, the Don helping those in misfortune whose misfortune he had partly created…” The Sicilian mafia similarly deny men their freedom and independence, leaving a society in which merit, talent and hard work count for “nothing” because the mafia “gave you your profession as a gift.” In the Corleone Family, your profession may be simply your birthright. Just as the Don imperils the Family through his paternalistic disapproval of drugs, he equally jeopardises its fortunes by equating his “business” with an actual family and putting his real and adopted children into important positions when they are not equal to the fight. When the Don names himself after his hometown, we are told that, “it was one of the few gestures of sentiment he was ever to make,” but sentiment strikes to the heart of his organisation.
The Godfather confesses too late that, “I have a sentimental weakness for my children and I have spoiled them.” One cannot claim that the Don has not been warned about his firstborn’s weakness, as during a crucial negotiation with Sollozzo, Sonny, “made an unforgivable error in judgement and procedure,” undermining his father and providing “a chink in the Don’s fortress.” The Don should have known better than to include such a liability in his top level meetings, and yet the dopey Sonny goes on to lead the Family after his father is incapacitated. It is purely down to luck that the previously aloof Michael ends up coming to the rescue. Michael is only fortuitously on the spot when Sollozzo’s men prepare to raid his father’s hospital and when the Corleones need an assassin who can win Sollozzo’s trust.
Vito Corleone discovers in the end that his most American son, Michael, will become the most ruthless and uncompromising of Sicilians, even with his drippy American wife and a slick American lawyer for a Consigliori. Out of all of the Don’s children, Michael has been rewarded the most generously by American society, decorated as a military hero and even featured in Life magazine, and he has also seen first-hand the degenerating influence of the original mafia over Italy. Yet after Sollozzo’s attack, Michael’s father fades into a gardening peasant, he is left with the effeminate Fredo rather than the lusty Sonny for a brother, and he has to settle for a “washed-out rag of an American girl” rather than the gorgeous Apollonia for a wife. His world is transformed by powers which are beyond his control, and he perceives that America can offer no redress.
But perhaps no red blooded American would look to the nation and the state for help in the first place. Far from being a dark, alien force within American society, like Lovecraft’s idol-worshipping immigrants, or the pioneers of a fairer and more democratic social system, the Corleones are the most perfectly and completely American family, in relying entirely upon themselves and their own resources. If the Italian mafia returns home in New York, these resurgent old world Italians teach an erring new world how to be American. As Michael concedes, “maybe I’m just one of those real old-fashioned conservatives they grow up in your hometown. I take care of myself…”
[Previously on Tychy: “A Feminist Reading of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.” Ed.]