Watching the film through Dainotto’s lens, “Many Saints” provides a timely update on the history of post-war American capitalism by focusing on who has been excluded from its embrace. Whatever the nostalgic qualities of the film, they are compromised by the added perspective of Harold, a black member of the team who is authorized to lead and violently enforce the numbers in black quarters. He beats and kills his own and gives the profits to a bunch of thugs who treat him like scum – an unfair arrangement that can only last for a while, and which isn’t exactly unique to Hiccup. It is on the eve of the riots that will eventually disperse the city’s working class whites, including the Soprano family, across Essex County and beyond. And after the Newark revolts, Harold follows suit: he begins his own numbers game.
Cinematic representations of the Mafia tend, for obvious reasons, to focus on the dramatic: the heist of Lufthansa, the contract killers, extortion plans, broken thumbs, infiltration by the federal government, wars between and within families. The reality of the crowd is of course much more boring. As Chase told me, “They spend all day sitting eating sandwiches and thinking about ways to outsmart government or big business. In New York City, the real power of the Mafia came from its infiltration into a wide range of industries in the city: commercial waste hauling, clothing manufacturing, the docks, the Fulton Fish Market, and construction. According to Selwyn Raab’s “Five Families”, the Lucchese family even had a racketeering in that same newspaper, through their control of the union that represented delivery men, which they used to get drop-in jobs and to steal and sell. copies of The Times.
The Mafia was a parasite of a dirtier economy – an economy more tactile and localized than containerized and algorithmic. It was a grotesque mirror image of the American dream that this economy enabled, a perverted form of upward mobility through hard work and enterprise. The key element enabling his industrial racketeering was control of unions, another choke point in an economy that had not yet become so totally manicured to meet the needs of business. Unions could serve as a two-way toll booth. Employers could be forced to give regular bribes, in the form of cash jobs or no-shows, by the threat of a strike – but they could also bribe assaulted officials into hijacking the look so they can hire non-union labor.
Around the time of the premiere of “The Sopranos,” NYU law professor James B. Jacobs wrote an article, along with a student, claiming that the Mafia, though weakened by decades of prosecution, could come back in force. In 2019, however, he had published a new article titled “The Rise and Fall of Organized Crime in the United States,” declaring the Mafia almost over. “The world in which the Cosa Nostra became powerful has largely disappeared,” he wrote. And he cites a litany of factors that contributed to its collapse, a mixture of technological advances, deregulation and financialization – many of the same forces that created today’s stratified economy.
The widened access to credit had cut in what the Mafiosi call the trade of the shylocks; you don’t have to go to a loan shark when the payday lender offers you equally competitive rates. Gambling has been legalized in many states and is flourishing on many reserves; almost every state in the union has a lottery, which has decimated the number racket. The Italian-American neighborhoods have emptied – as Jacobs writes, “radically shrinking the pool of tough teens with Cosa Nostra’s potential”; this is brilliantly dramatized in the last episode of the series, when a gangster from a New York family rushes into Little Italy on an important phone call and, when the call ends, looks around to see that he got lost in a crowded and bustling Chinatown. And, Jacobs notes, union membership has been decimated. “In the mid-1950s, about 35% of American workers belonged to a union,” he writes. “In recent years, only 6.5% of workers in the private sector were unionized. “
Although far from being a friend of the workers, the Mafia came to power in tandem with a post-war economy that was. It was an organization skilled in finding and exploiting crevices in a world that still had crevices. And it has been overtaken, both on screen and in reality, by a form of organized crime better suited to our times: the transnational drug cartels that mimic our huge global supply chain, corrupting governments of the world. developing world while helping the developed world slide into senescence.
The Mafia looted the Teamsters Union pension fund to build Las Vegas (as dramatized in “Casino”), then (likely) killed Jimmy Hoffa when he threatened their control (as dramatized in “The Irishman”). But they could never have accomplished what followed. The trucking industry was deregulated in 1980, crippling the bargaining power and membership of the Teamsters (and, by making freight trucking so cheap, gave us big box retail). In 1982, the Central States pension fund, which had been the Mafia’s piggy bank, was handed over to the management of the big Wall Street banks. In the 2000s, the fund faced deficits due to crippled union membership, and its Wall Street directors made risky bets to close the gap – bets that went south. In recent years, the fund has paid out $ 2 billion more than it received annually, a situation that could have drained it entirely by 2025, had it not been bailed out by Congress in March. Say whatever you like about the mafia’s handling of the fund, but at least they’ve left us a place to see Celine Dion and play craps.