- Interview by
- Michał Pytlik
Jamie Mackay’s The Invention of Sicily is a rich, critical history of an island that is alternately demonised and romanticised as a mafia-ridden dystopia or a delightful cosmopolitan province.
Its history is, he argues, much more interesting – a place that has been effectively colonised by the unified Italian state and then corrupted by organised crime and Christian Democracy, which has nonetheless managed to defy the otherwise highly successful campaign to demonise refugees from far-right parties like the League and the Brothers of Italy.
How does Sicily fit in relation to modern Italy?
That’s a good question. The last time I was on the island I asked a friend of mine from Palermo exactly this, and they replied in a rather funny way: ‘Sicily is like Italy, just everything is slower here.’ I think one would be hard pressed to put it any better.
Many years after Sicily was incorporated into the Italian state, Antonio Gramsci wrote that the island had managed to maintain its separate, almost ‘national character’. Many people still think of Sicily this way – as a unique, somewhat exotic place on the map of Italy.
I would disagree with Gramsci that Sicily has managed to develop some distinctive national characteristics or came close to uniting its people around the idea of a Sicilian nation. Sicily has been conquered by many foreign powers over the centuries. Until 1861, there were moments when members of the liberal elite tried to create an independent state here. But it didn’t work. In the book I try and present Sicily as a place that makes one ask serious questions about Italian identity, yes, but also about the nature of the nation-state more generally. There’s just something about Sicilian culture, and the history of its class relations, that did not allow the political formation of a nation to happen.
What was it?
During the long period of occupation by the Spaniards, the Habsburgs, and later the Bourbons, a very stratified class society developed in Sicily, formed by extremely poor rural working class and peasantry and very small but rich elites protecting their interests. There were some similar moments in history, for example in France, when the bourgeois middle class was able to create the conditions for the development of national ideas. In Sicily this class was simply too small.
So the inequalities in Sicily were too large for the national idea to hold sway?
To a certain extent, yes, that’s what happened. But even once the Italian state was created, Sicily again played a somewhat odd role in it. Nobody was sure what to make of it: partly Italian, partly not, European but to some extend a bit non-European, too.
Italian meridionalists (a field of study on the economical and social issues of Southern Italy) such as Pino Aprile or Lorenzo del Boca would probably argue that Italy—just like the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, and Spaniards—is just another coloniser for Sicily.
I find the work of the meridionalists thought-provoking. It challenges the way we view the origins of the Italian state, which was built largely on violence against Southerners. The Risorgimento era, though it is called unification, is marked precisely by colonialism and terror directed against the South. In the book I write about how Garibaldi suppressed spontaneous uprisings in Sicily and the rest of the South even as the new state was being born. Rediscovering these historical threads is extremely important.
Because it turns out, for example, that the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies—spreading over the majority of southern Italy—was the second richest region before it was incorporated into the new Kingdom of Italy. One might therefore reasonably deduce that the real motive of the Savoy dynasty was not to unite the Italian people under one banner, but rather to seize the gold reserves of the South in order to build railroads in the north and develop greater military capacity against the threat of Austria-Hungary.
However, 160 years have passed since then, and few people think about it that way. In Sicily, too, the national political history of the Italian state is at work.
Sicily’s identity has of course been infused with Italy over the years, but again in a typically Sicilian, somewhat hybrid way – the island remains partly Italian and to some extent non-Italian. So at the level of historical diagnosis I would agree with the revisionist view of the meridionalists. Nevertheless, I think that after 160 years understanding Sicilian identity demands asking modern questions, related the events of the last two or three decades and especially the nationalisation of the mafia.
Sicily is one of the poorest regions of Italy. At first glance this seems rather strange: it is the largest region in the country and the largest island in the Mediterranean. It has three international airports. Palermo, Catania, and Messina are among the largest cities in the country. Millions of tourists flock to the island every year, and its rich culture is celebrated globally.
When asked why it has the status of an economic province, then, most people would generally respond ‘the mafia.’ Is that really so?
I wish I could answer in a more original way, but I’m afraid the mafia is indeed the most important single factor. That said, we do need to understand that the mafia is not (only) some groups of hoodlums involved in murder and seeking profit from drug trafficking: they are part of the economic fabric of everyday Italy. In the book, I write about the post-war period in Sicily, when the Italian state, under the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno programme, pulled huge resources into developing the industry and infrastructure that would allow Sicily to fulfil its potential. The brutal truth is that a great part of this money was seized by the mafia – it is estimated to be as much as one third.
When the local elites are so corrupt, the authority of the state so undermined, and the money that is supposed to aid its recovery strangely disappears, people who are forced to live and work in such conditions inevitably become poorer and less productive.
How strong is the mafia’s influence in Southern Italy today?
First of all, we have to remember that mafia organisations have long ceased to be strictly Sicilian, Southern, or even Italian. Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorra, followed the Camorra’s finances and showed that they more often lead to Berlin or New York than to Naples. The same goes for Cosa Nostra – it has become one of the most globalised criminal organisations in the world.
There are still remnants of traditional mafia culture in Sicily, but they’re not as strong as they once were. Unfortunately, there are still attacks on journalists here, blackmailing and racketeering (pizzo) is still going on, and in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, we found that drug traffickers were able to buy new recruits by providing them a protection fund.
But I think that nearly 30 years on from the watershed assassinations of Falcone and Borsellino the mafia is no longer such an integral part of Sicilian life. An assertive and democratic society is being born here.
So why is it that in pop culture mafiosi are often depicted as outlaws who look after the poor? After all, the actual history of the mafia has always been about the opposite, about defending the interests of the big landowners. The mafiosi have killed workers and suppressed their uprisings.
In the nineteenth century the legends about banditi and briganti, who in the popular view defended the working class, started to merge with legends about mafiosi, who defended the interests of landowners. Banditi and briganti stood up against the colonial policies of Spain, which ruled Sicily. Many Sicilians still have sympathy for them today.
And the mafiosi?
Many of them gained power and money later, during the unification of the Italian state. It is during this time that the modern mafia established itself as a distinct class, separated from the people and social problems of the South.
For many years the mafia, with its mouth full of conservative values, has been defied by the Left. But it seems that the Left lost that battle. Sicily is considered to be a part of the conservative South of Italy. Catholic saints, holy figures, and crosses are omnipresent; you can find them in virtually any grocery store. On the other hand, it was the socialist bloc that won the first local parliamentary elections here, and Sicily provided conditions for the birth of some of the first co-operatives and mutual aid organisations in Italy. What do we get out of this mix?
Every time workers’ solidarity has managed to manifest itself on the island—and there have been many such occasions since WWII—some armed mafioso or compromised policeman has appeared to suppress demonstrators. The Portella della Ginestra massacre in 1947, perpetrated by thugs commissioned by the Mafia and (probably) Christian Democracy, was a key event in the history of post-war Sicily. The Mafia, from this moment on, acted as the armed wing of conservatism and was meant to suppress potential working-class uprisings. For many poor people, the mafia began to replace the failing state by guaranteeing welfare and providing food or electricity. Many people were forced to take advantage of this benevolence.
Today the traditional socialist aesthetic is pretty much dead in Sicily. You can still find various social centres, or parties like the Communist Revival or Potere al Popolo. But they are incapable of gathering much public interest. Instead, a large part of the Sicilian electorate since 2011 has moved towards the Five Star Movement, the party that is synonymous with nationalistic populism for many commentators. In my opinion, this is a serious misunderstanding of what the movement represents.
The Five Star Movement has gained widespread support not only in Sicily but throughout the South of Italy. The aforementioned Pino Aprile said that this means that the Mezzogiorno, as the Italian south is referred to, is demanding more political representation.
I am not sure that the Five Star Movement was aware and prepared to carry the weight of its role as a political representative of southern Italy. In the various conversations I’ve had with mayors from the Movement and its local politicians, I’ve never heard anything about this.
However, if we look at the political programme of the Five Star Movement itself, we will find that their key interests include ecological transformation, the fight against corruption, which is widespread in Sicily, and the precariatisation of labour. Whatever we may think of the Five Star Movement, and I have many reservations about it myself, its popularity in Sicily shows that there is an appetite for democracy on the island. The question the Left should be asking itself is this: what can be done to harness that energy?
Until 2017, the president of Sicily was Rosario Crocetta, a declared gay man. Palermo’s Mayor, Leoluca Orlando, regularly participates in the Equality March, which is organised under his official patronage. The city hosts LGBT+ friendly clubs, such as MoltiVolti or Porco Rosso. This stands in contrast to the popular macho image of the Sicilian man, as recently represented in the Netflix production 365 Days.
On the LGBT+ issue, we are indeed witnessing an unexpected tension: on the one hand, we have a southern Italian machismo in Sicily, but on the other, it is met with quite strong opposition. Not only has Palermo been organising one of the largest Love Parades in the South, it also claims Italy’s first social centre dedicated to people who define as LGBT+. Arcigay opened here in the 1980s.
It’s surprising, isn’t it? If you were to ask someone where the first Arcigay club was founded, most would probably point to Milan or Florence rather than Palermo. Tolerance and cosmopolitanism have never been entirely eradicated in Sicily, but often re-emerge unexpectedly. The same happens around the issue of refugees.
Orlando, who is extremely popular, likes to say that anyone who finds themselves in Palermo can belong to Palermo. To what extent are these just words, and to what extent is Sicily really open to refugees?
A few years ago Orlando introduced the Palermo Charter, one of the most important initiatives giving undocumented immigrants in Palermo access to health care or affordable housing, and which circumvented some of the anti-refugee provisions of Italian law. It was an important initiative. But this is about more than him as an individual.
I was living on the island in 2014-15. It was the peak in terms of the number of refugees arriving in Sicily and the deaths in the Mediterranean. I was there to report on this grim, bloody, and difficult situation. I had previously lived in the North for years and had seen the hostility and racism that non-white individuals faced in northern Italy, especially around Milan, in cities like Brescia, where Salvini’s League or Meloni’s Brothers of Italy now enjoy considerable support.
I remember one day I was sent to write a report from Augusta, a fishing port on the east coast of the island. It was a time when the EU was promoting Frontex and kept changing the terms of border protection to reduce the maritime area where refugees could be rescued. During my stay there I met dozens of individual fishermen who were rescuing people at sea in their spare time, then accompanying them ashore or sometimes even taking them home.
I was struck by how much this conflicted with the image of the selfish, individualistic, crime-soaked Sicilian. Certainly, it was a different narrative than the one created by northern Italian nationalists. That is not to say, of course, that the situation for all refugees in Sicily is good and that they are universally accepted there. This is not at all the case.
Usually alongside the tales of the mafia and the chaos of the South comes the idealisation of Sicily as a tolerant, almost idyllic place to live.
Attempts to idealise Sicily as a place of ubiquitous hospitality are mostly based on analogies from the island’s distant history. One of the reasons I decided to write a book about the entire history of Sicily was precisely this: to draw attention to utopian fragments but also to demonstrate that these moments of harmonious coexistence between different cultures were brief and lasted only a few decades. What we see in Sicilian history is what we see in other places: violence, wars, death, and class-based antagonisms. I am a materialist historian, and I do not believe that there is some spirit of cosmopolitanism in Sicily that is transmitted through the centuries in some transcendent way to manifest itself today.
I never attempted to create a ‘theory of Sicily’ either, especially as a foreigner trying to force it into some scheme and prove that Sicily serves some higher purpose. Nevertheless, I do think it is an inspiring political example in the context of the Italian nation-state’s failures in terms of modernity and efficiency. As an autonomous, somewhat distinctive creation, Sicily remains an inspiring place. Especially if we want to think of an alternative to nation-states in the future.
We are standing on the threshold of another refugee crisis. Do you think Sicily will once again play a key role in this process? And how important could it become in the future of the entire continent, in the context of climate refugees, for example?
Climate migration has already begun. In Sicily I’ve met many such refugees from Bangladesh or India fleeing floods. But one reason why Sicily and its myth are so important is that they ask us to resist the temptation to build new walls. The Sicilian myth, whatever we may think of it, teaches us that we can stop seeing reality in terms of nation-states alone and turn to more liberal, less nationalist and identity-based paradigms in terms of what Europe can be. In this sense, I think Sicily can play an important role and is therefore a place worth investing our political efforts.