Political Animals and The Godfather






This published work © Colm Gillis, 2016


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Originally published in the UK by Colm Gillis

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An essay titled Democracy: Theory and Practice.

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Colm Gillis (this is he writing Caesar-like in the third person!) is an Irish-born author. He, ok me!, has written four books already. Three of my books are non-fiction and one is a collection of poems. I hope you’ll visit my website to find out more about my thoughts and new projects.

The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man ― José Ortega y Gasset


Favourite epic movies of all time? I’d have to say Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and then The Godfather. But which one of these three would I would bring to a desert island?: well, it’d have to be the last one. That I am sure of!

Granted, the first two are ground-breaking for their time, especially Lawrence, and they feature characters who – despite their vices and failings – ply their trade in the legitimate world. Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia showcase heroic and noble individuals; businessmen, soldiers, politicians, faithful slaves, managers, and tribal chieftains. By contrast, those who feature in The Godfather are almost exclusively criminals. Even some of those who try to ‘go on the straight path,’ like Bonasera, are pulled into crime. Because most of us would feel more comfortable dealing with a British warrior or American belle than with a cutthroat career felon, The Godfather represents a walk on the dark side. Furthermore, there are so many great scenes, so many great performances, and a high quality of artisanship on display in the Southern and desert classics. Why would I jettison them?

Before I offer an explanation, let me say that in spite of my nagging guilt, The Godfather is a three-hour journey I have undertaken on many occasions. I have enjoyed the Mafia showpiece to much greater degrees than the other two epics, and watched it far more frequently. I can honestly say that about once a year I like to sit down and relax in front of The Godfather, with a hot drink, a bit of food, and my undivided attention. And I am certainly not the only one!

Several things about the movie stand out. That cinematography!: how it brings out the stylish clothes of the post-WWII era. Those fedoras, the cars, the beautifully coloured taxis, the dresses, the sheer aura and sense of dignity that crystallise in the clothes and goods of the time. Even the plane that takes Tom Hagen to Los Angeles to see Jack Woltz looks better than our modern budget travellers.

A series of scenes that are particularly memorable are those where Michael goes to Sicily and courts the ‘thunderbolt.’ What a lovely courtship! What sweet and tender music! The memorable wedding scene, the brutal ending, Michael’s tense encounter with Sollozzo. Of course, there is the performance of Marlon Brando. And those delightful American-Italian accents which we’ve all attempted to copy at times. Yes, since I was an early teen, I have watched The Godfather. No, I have sat or lain down, riveted to The Godfather.

But I don’t want to sound like an amateur film critic or a movie obsessive. There is something more to The Godfather, I feel, than what has been stated up to this point that accounts for its impression on me and its overall global impact. What is the X-factor? Why would I pop it in the baggage to my desert island hideout ahead of other great movies?

I speculate that the appeal of The Godfather is this: we perceive the characters as free individuals, men who decide on their own terms the life they want to lead, men who aren’t content to fill in the numbers, men who make their own rules, who are honest about their own selfish ends, but who also are willing to submit to a code of honour, however hypocritical such a code may seem in the scheme of things. And there are also the close family relations, the sense of ‘us and them,’ where the saying ‘blood is thicker than water’ no longer appears as a cliché.

Although many of those qualities just listed are often not to be recommended nor to be taken to extremes in our day-to-day dealings, there are yet times in our lives where we refuse to play a role we seem to have been assigned; when we recognise that we should be more selfish; when we realise that life is about more than merely fitting-in while not rocking any boats. We don’t have to commit criminal acts to go for and grasp what we are entitled to in life. However, we may need a perspective that makes us realise that we are not simply someone else’s pawn. We are our own men. (If a lady) we are our own women.

Now, lately, I have become interested in politics. At times, my interest in politics and in The Godfather have coincided. This is natural. Some of the scenes in The Godfather series are overtly political, such as Michael’s discussion with Kay Adams after he comes back from Sicily, the Senate hearings in the second part, and the rebellion in Cuba, the latter also shown in Godfather Two.

However, I feel that The Godfather offers even deeper insight into political philosophy, insights that go deeper than clever allusions, or the staging of adopted or real events. I have felt this for a long time but it’s only now that I want to put my thoughts into print. My feelings have burst out into words, I guess you could say. Still, before I embarked on this project, the political metaphors of The Godfather were somewhat opaque because they remained in my heart and my head. Now that I have written them down, they have become clearer.

Colm Gillis























Politics is everywhere. If you play for a team, there will be politics. Participate in a band, there’s politics. Work, and there will be politics. In a church or mosque, there is politics. Even at home, politics enter into our most intimate dealings.

Compromising with others, putting forward our own views, setting aside our own feelings at times, joining with others, accepting decisions: the art of politics encompasses all these actions. Whenever you have a field of human endeavour you must also have a group. Once you have a group, there needs to be organisation. Organisation calls for hierarchies, for specialisation, for there to be leaders and followers, washed and unwashed, the elect and the constituents. Personal relationships aiming at a common goal must be structured in some manner and this involves politics.

So, politics is everywhere. But politics – as a public discourse that is studied, written about in newspapers, or watched on TV; politics, as in something that is the subject of current affairs debates on social media forums, and that excites passion, hatred, satire, or devotion on subjects that touch all our lives – this politics really only manifests in one ‘place.’

People understand that politics should occupy a supreme position over all the other ‘arts,’ over all those other areas of human endeavour that are not full-on political, those non-decisive and entertaining territories where people can make judgements and engage in conversations that do not touch on some vital aspect of our lives.

But even these seemingly non-political conversations can turn political. For example, a discussion about how to design a new solar panel is a scientific discourse. A discussion about some decision made by a king in the Middle Ages is a historical discourse. These two examples are strictly non-political. They involve scholarly expertise and academic freedom of expression. Yet, if a public figure says it would be a good idea to link solar panels to the national grid or if it is insisted that our medieval monarch should be on the school curriculum so as to allow us to appreciate our national story, then we enter the realm of politics. In reality, nothing that takes place in any society is off-limits politically. From the great questions concerning national foreign policy to what may be worn in public, there are an infinite number of topics that can become issues, hot potatoes or political footballs, although only a few things at any time do become ‘live’ and in needing of being handled.

Therefore, politics is the master science, as Aristotle righty insisted. A politician often has a power over others that, say, a manager in a company usually doesn’t have. When this is not the case, when the world is turned ‘upside down’ – when business or some other area of human life is the tail that wags the dog – this is widely seen as wrong.

The marquee art of politics is in a class of its own. But, to repeat, the art of politicking is not wholly unique to politics. Oftentimes, it seems as if the greatest politicians are not in politics at all, but are in the celebrity world, the sports world, or even the company we work for!

Maybe we could say the same for other fields of human endeavour, i.e., they all involve ‘something’ of ‘something else.’ Perhaps all business is an art, all art involves trade-offs as in engineering, managers have to come to verdicts on an everyday basis as if they are judges in a courtroom, habits that are quasi-religious in nature come to the fore in politics.

We could go on concocting examples. It is enough to say though that we need fresh perspectives so as to conceptualise. We must use our imagination and it’s always a good thing to change our perspective. Looking at ‘field X’ through the lens of ‘field Y’ is obviously useful. It’s like getting a good vantage point on a hill reasonably close, but also reasonably far away, from a city, so as to see the urban sprawl in its entirety. Distancing yourself from something can bring you closer to the same thing.

So in that spirit, we will use The Godfather movie to gain a unique perspective on politics. As of time of writing, the movie is well over 40 years old, the book nearing the 50th anniversary of its release. The Godfather is older than I am! Choosing this movie may make me look like a fuddy-duddy. In another sense, it is a good film to select because just about everyone will have watched it, it is an iconic work, and is not antiquated like, say, Casablanca or Gone with the Wind. Maybe there are better movies, movies which could summarise politics in a more fitting manner. Yet, to my eyes, The Godfather comes closest to being a political movie without being a political movie … if you get me! Certainly, the enduring image of the film, the hand holding the puppet strings, symbolises power and control. Power is one of the essential elements of politics, control a political disease which sadly often catches us in its web.

The story of The Godfather is one which draws on events that took place in the American underworld from around the time of WWI to the time the book was published in 1969. Characters are composites of real-life individuals or barely concealed allusions to actual notables (such as the singer-cum-actor Johnny Fontane’s resemblance to Frank Sinatra). However, the corporate structure of the Mafia, as it really was, and its infiltration into American society – this is portrayed in the series with a fair degree of faithfulness. The Dons and their acolytes were a lot more brutal in real life than in fiction but their basic modus operandi was captured quite well by Puzo.

Now, I am sure it has dawned before on many people that Mario Puzo used The Godfather as a general commentary on American society and global politics. A scathing early review of the film in the New Republic castigated Brando’s and Pacino’s performances, and called the beautiful score of Nino Rota’s “rotten.” It’s hard not to resist a chuckle when reading it and I’m reminded of Brendan Behan’s comment about critics: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves” (guffaw!). Political implications of the film were realised by the critic Stanley Kauffmann, nonetheless.

We’re getting the usual flood of comments that the Mafia is only mirror-image corporate capitalism. (All the killings in the film are said to be “business, not personal.”) These high-school analogies ignore, among other things, the origins of the Mafia and its blood-bonds of loyalty, which have nothing to do with capitalism. (http://newrepublic.com/article/101783/the-godfather-decline-marlon-brando)

Since this hatchet job, the word ‘Godfather’ has been frequently preceded by the adjective ‘political’ to denote a person of import in the world of current affairs. Undoubtedly, the movie is a major reason for this. There is a website called Godfather Politics (one of those awfully obnoxious American political websites where the tactic seems to be to cram as many distortions and lies into as little space as possible).

Perhaps of more relevance for this booklet is the observation by the British left-wing politician Ken Livingstone that The Godfather series offers a useful guide to international politics. A review of a biography of ‘Red Ken’ recounts the following anecdote:

Livingstone once said that Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was “a much more honest account of how politicians operate than any of the self-justifying rubbish in political biographies”. When Ken used his Chartist henchmen successfully to de-select the amiable Labour member Reg Freeson as the Brent MP it was nothing short of a political assassination. Freeson’s career never recovered.

When the author [of the biography] discussed the episode with the mayor, Livingstone reached for Puzo again:

“There’s that lovely bit in Godfather Two, where Hyman Roth knows Michael Corleone has authorised the murder of Moe Green, and he says to Michael, ‘Moe Green was like a son to me and when he died, I didn’t complain; this is the life we’ve chosen.’ “ (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/non_fictionreviews/3672733/Ken-Livingstone-unmasked.html)

Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; politicians are more like harem-girls. They observe the others, apply the lessons, and give it their own personal touch! I suppose I should also mention that the dictator Saddam Hussein was a great admirer of The Godfather. In the Iraq War Reader (2003), edited by Christopher Cerf, Judith Miller and Laurie Mylroie offer the following observation:

Saddam Hussein loves The Godfather. It is his favourite movie, one he has seen many times. He is especially fascinated by Don Corleone, a poor boy made good, whose respect for family is exceeded only by his passion for power … Family is everything, or “almost” everything, because Saddam, like the Godfather, ultimately trusts no one, not even his next of kin. For both, calculation and discipline, loyalty, and ruthlessness, are the measure of a man’s character (p. 18).


While The Godfather shines a light on politics, I haven’t seen any booklet that explicitly explains The Godfather as a political commentary. If I had seen such a treatise, I wouldn’t have written this! So, I will take it upon myself to ‘fill the gap in the market,’ so to speak, and hope to bring out in some detail the metaphors that elevate the movie out of the realm out of an ordinary gangsters story.


Before I begin in earnest, I should say that the purpose of this booklet is to elaborate on politics, not on the mechanics of the mob. Liberties will be taken with The Godfather story but I hope you will be patient with me!

Also, I would like to say that I genuinely do not see government as inherently evil or as something Mafia-like. My political views are very authoritarian compared to many, if not all, of my friends! Generalissimo Francisco Franco is held in high regard as a political leader by yours truly (don’t ask!).

While Mario Puzo may have disliked how government worked, I can assure you that I am far more of a realist. However, it does seem to be the case that governments behave like Mafiosi at times and a Don may be a better alternative to some politicians! Yet, as stated previously, and as I re-emphasize it here, the value of The Godfather resides in how it provides a unique perspective on politics.


organise (v.) early 15c., “construct, establish,” from Middle French organiser and directly from Medieval Latin organizare, from Latin organum “instrument, organ” (see organ). (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=organize)

Tom Hagen: Frankie, you were always interested in politics, in history. … You were around the old timers who dreamed up how the Families should be organized, how they based it on the old Roman Legions, and called them ‘Regimes’… with the ‘Capos’ and ‘Soldiers,’ and it worked.

Frankie Pentangeli: Yeah, it worked. Those were great old days. We was like the Roman Empire. The Corleone family was like the Roman Empire.

We have already noted how organisation is inherently ‘political,’ in the sense that human groupings require some structure. The Mafia’s strength lay in its structure, hence the term ‘organised crime.’ A chain of command gave it an advantage over other gangs, who relied to a greater degree on violent methods that were unstructured, inconsistent, and thus not conducive to generating confidence.

Organisation is also critical for governments, although as we shall see the modern State structure differs in some ways from the more Imperial Mafia structure.

Curiously enough, the criminal ethos of the Italian gangsters meant that their effective organisation was not appreciated by crime-fighters in the US until it was too late. Up until the late 1950s it wasn’t generally known in the US, even by many in federal law enforcement, that an organisation such as the Mafia existed. They did not even countenance the possibility. Tales of an organised crime organisation were often dismissed as conspiratorial. Possibly, there was an inkling of racial prejudice towards Italian-Americans.

Not only that, but the major threats to the US were thought of as coming from the USSR, their agents in the US (many of whom made it to the upper echelons of government), and the sympathizers of Soviet Russia, i.e. the Communist Party of the USA. J. Edgar Hoover, the crime fighter extraordinaire of the 20th century, summarily scotched talk of Mafia penetration into US society.

Senate hearings involving those like Frank ‘the Prime Minister’ Costello and Vito Genovese – both of whom headed the Genovese crime family at stages in their mob careers – as well as union boss Jimmy Hoffa, during the 1940s and 1950s, planted the thought in the minds of some Americans that there were powerful forces at work in the underworld.

However, two events finally stirred both the ordinary US citizenry and the federal government to the reality of a vast conspiracy existing within continental America. First, there was the raiding of a Mafia gathering in upstate New York in 1957. This impromptu gathering was called the ‘Apalachin summit.’ All the top-notch Mafiosi in the US had come for a conference, they were raided by the local police force, and post-haste had to scamper or were arrested.

Secondly, there was the testimony of a capo (a high-ranking crime member of the Mafia who had personal command over ‘soldiers’ in the Mafia) named Joseph Valachi at Senate hearings in 1963. Valachi, like Costello and Don Vito, was also part of the Genovese crime family. He gave detailed information on the Mafia which attested to its sophisticated organisation and he introduced America to a synonym used for the mob, Cosa Nostra, or ‘our thing.’ Subsequently, Americans harboured no illusions about the existence of the Italian-led criminal enterprise and they now knew how it operated. US citizens understood it was organised in a particular manner.

In The Godfather, we also witness the corporate structure of the various ‘families.’ We see the Don acting as boss, his caporegimes, Clemenza and Tessio, his consigliere Tom Hagen, and the soldiers.

In the movie and in real life, Mafia families were not running around like clueless chickens. They had organisation, but this was also because they had aims that their corporate structure would help them realise.

Clearly, the primary aim of Cosa Nostra was money which in turn underpinned power. Tom Hagen is fond of reminding anyone who will listen that money and its acquisition are vital to the Corleone destiny.

At the same time, despite the central role of finance, there was more to the mob than money. Birds of a feather flocked together in the underworld because of blood lines, friendships, and even circumstance. Yet while they may come together for normal, human, reasons, the metric of success remained the ability to grow the power of the Mafia financially and politically.

Organisation was in place to realise set aims and this concern with structure mirrors the technical and rational organisation of States. Now, technique and rationality: what do we mean by these? People have to reason how they are going to get from A to B and between A and B there are many sub-divisions. To traverser their journey, rational schemes are devised. The detail of these rational schemes is a technical matter. Rationality manifests itself in technical organisation.

Technical organisation, and even specialisation, is at the heart of the modern State. This wasn’t as true in the past for other forms of government. In ancient Rome, private citizens like Julius Caesar had their own armies. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon it was with an army that was supposed to stay outside certain limits. He precipitated a constitutional crisis by merely crossing a river because the army was under a personal command and not a command exercised on behalf of the State. Similarly, the Middle Ages were an exercise in personal rule and epitomized ‘irrationality,’ if you like, a lack of organization.

In the latter half of the Middle Ages, States began to organise more. Royal houses became more rational. They no longer housed the most powerful family in the realm but they were where the head of State resided. Legal minds justified the rule of monarchy. Political philosophers wondered about how things came to ‘be this way.’ Political scientists proposed ways to extend power. Engineers offered their services to militaries.

Political offices were developed (Cardinal Richelieu probably being the first bona fide prime minister). Subsequently, systems of electing leaders and dividing power in commonwealths were proposed. These measures were all designed to allow States to govern in what were perceived to be rational, even unquestionably logical, ways according to their authors. The aim was for the ‘appetite’ of the State, what is known as the ‘reason of state’ ethic, to be satisfied.

In The Godfather Part II, we see Frank Pentangeli and Tom Hagen reminiscing on the origins of the corporate structure of the Mafia and the extent of the mob’s reach. Indeed in 1931, a corporate structure of the mob was formed after the Castellammarese war. This war was chiefly between Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano but eventually both would become historical footnotes because they were sent to ‘sleep with the fishes.’

Yet, the war represented a watershed moment in the life of the Mafia. Subsequently, the feudal structure (or lack thereof) of the Italian gangsterism that had existed up to the early 1930s was abolished. Instead, a Commission was founded and this became the governing body of the American Mafia and this council is still in operation down to the present day.

As a result of organisation, Italian crime families came to have a distinct advantage over Irish and Jewish gangs, the former relying on brute force alone, the latter facing disadvantages in America because of their ethnicity. However, certain Jews like Meyer Lansky – upon whom Hyman Roth was most likely based – did find an exalted position in the new order.

So, a rational structure was put in place. In the real world, the crime families who made up the Commission had a structure similar to that of the Godfather, probably the one difference being that there was an underboss, a deputy to the Don, between the caporegimes and the boss.

Now, there is a major difference between the structure of the Mafia and that of modern States. The mob structure has an Imperial design; its intent is largely to plunder and, like the Roman Empire, certain territories are designated to what are effectively Mafiosi generals. Capos, the underworld field marshals, then take care of the boss, the underworld Emperor.

In contrast to this, modern States engage in technical specialisation, not territorial delegation. If the Mafia family was run like a modern State, there would be a committee with designated ministers administering certain areas of the Mafia’s operations. For example, you would have a minister for gambling, a minister for loan-sharking, a minister for procuring weapons, etc …

Yet both the Mafia and the modern State do have a chain of command. The modern State developed military type structures. A good example of this is the American executive. Orders are given and these are passed down the chain of command.

Orders are general prescriptions issued at the top, and the closer you get to the bottom of the chain of command, the more detailed become the orders. Each rung of the chain of command has specified functions. Those at the base of the pyramid are engaged in the rougher and mundane arts, those at the top the finer and more sophisticated arts. What permeates the chain of command is the executive order. The Don will issue a declaration that certain activities are to be pursued, others are to be eschewed; those at the bottom have to interpret his orders.

Likewise for the State, the executive (in the UK or Ireland, this would be the cabinet) pursue general policies. It is up to those further down – the civil servants in administration, the police, health services, social services, etc … – to get their fingernails dirty with the prerogatives of the Cabinet or of whoever sits in the executive saddle.

Police, in fact, offer an interesting analogy to the role of the lower echelons of a mafia outfit. It is the police and other security services who really get to interpret the orders that come from ‘on high.’ If the Cabinet say they want a tough line to be taken against racism, it falls to the police to interpret those commands. A soldier at the base of the pyramid of the Mafia may be under instruction to maximize the profits from loan-sharking operations, but does he press a claim against a poor recently-arrived immigrant and erode the Mafia’s popularity at street level? Questions of competence, interpretation, and practical wisdom arise throughout the chain of command.

The executive chain of command also helps to seal the upper echelons from responsibility for the activities of the minions. In The Godfather Part II, congressional hearings attempted to determine whether Michael Corleone had ordered acts of crime without any ‘buffers.’ Senators nearly got their wish, only to be thwarted by Michael’s craftiness.

Nowadays, Presidents and prime ministers are often careful not to give direct orders concerning operations in the field. General aims of a war are set by the head of the executive committee but the goals or sub-aims are left to the discretion of military officers.

In the mob, an overarching aim might be the reduction of a family’s power in a mob ‘war’ but the capos and soldiers will have to decide for themselves how best to achieve the Don’s policies ‘on the ground.’ Analogous to this in political terms would be an example like the following: an overarching aim of a government might be the overthrow of a dictator and his replacement by a military government that then eases the way for a transition to democracy, but military staff will have to discern how to make the big picture happen. For example, if a hill has to be taken for strategic purposes, they have to take the measures on the spot which will result in the goal being achieved. The lower echelons decide on the concrete measures, not the general policy. A good historical example of this is Germany’s general policy of winning a war on two fronts in WWI, but the more mundane strategy of implementing the von Schlieffen plan was a matter of military execution.


We are all honorable men here, we do not have to give each other assurances as if we were lawyers.

One of my favourite scenes in The Godfather is when the five + one (the one being the Corleone) families meet in the conference room of a bank in New York. A war raged between the families, only brought to an end when Sonny Corleone was killed at a toll bridge and the Don sent out peace feelers. Such ‘conferences’ were not the work of pure fiction on Puzo’s part; the Apalachin summit already mentioned was just one of such gatherings to decide on the future of the mob in the wake of gangland unrest. Many such meetings were held until this became impossible by the mid-1980s when federal law enforcement agencies could charge mobsters with belonging to a criminal organisation as opposed to merely committing crimes of a criminal nature. Therefore, a conference of Mafia heads could, in and of itself, lead to charges being brought against a Don.

In the halcyon days, meetings of the branches of the Mafia were an expression of the corporate structure of the mob. In New York City, the most lucrative urban area within the US, the bosses and their families divvied up the urban spoils between five clans (the Gambino, Lucchese, Bonnano, Genovese, and Colombo families). These outfits were the most prominent members on the board of the Commission. Many other major cities in the US were also under the control of the mob, although there generally was only one centre of command. Usually, these lesser families were not involved directly in the corporate governance of the mob.

Why were these meetings held? Policies were decided at these conferences. For example, in The Godfather a particular approach to the drug problem is agreed upon. There could be emergency measures implemented, such as the liquidation of someone (this was what happened to Paul Castellano, the head of the Gambino family who was gunned down and replaced by the media-hungry John Gotti in 1985). Lastly, ‘peace settlements’ could be the focus of Mafia meetings, and this is what also happened in The Godfather and at Apalachin.

The crisis meeting where Don Corleone and Philip Tattaglia embrace reminds one of the great conferences that have taken place in the modern world. Similar to The Godfather, nations are divided up like ‘families’ on the international stage.

Undoubtedly, the seeds of all nations lie in blood relations and intermarriage. Look at Russia and France. Those nations did not just naturally ‘pop up’ on the map. There would be a royal house, and over time judicious choice of both marriage partners and alliances (and I suppose enemies) meant that France developed from a rather small region on the map into the country we now are so familiar with, as did Russia.

At the same time, nations are not just families ‘writ large.’ They are far more complex than that. One can also see that with the Mafia. Some people in the Corleone family are high up despite not enjoying blood relations with the core family (like Tom Hagen) and some are lower down or of no significance because they are not suited to the exigencies of power (e.g. Fredo).

The more complex a ‘family,’ it seems, the less that family ‘proper’ seems to define the terms of membership, but at the same time the historical core of all international families remains that of blood, and probably even more fundamentally that of religion (a common Catholic religion was undoubtedly a critical bond for the Mafia, although they were no altar boys, either) [In the book version of The Godfather, Michael wants his family to become Protestant to fit in better into WASP life but Kay becomes a devout Catholic and prays for Michael’s soul, along with Michael’s mother].

Our modern international system whereby independent states meet with each other and decide on the terms governing their relations is very different to what had gone previously. Before the modern age (starting in the Renaissance) we had the Middle Ages and before that the Roman Imperial Age. In terms of structure the Middle Ages and Roman Imperialism were similar. Authority was highly centralised; in the Roman age, the authority was the Roman Emperor and in the Medieval period, the Pope and Emperor (seated in Germany) set the tone.

Of course, neither Pope nor Germany was all domineering and powerful; they did not micro-manage affairs across Western Christendom. However, they claimed dominion over all Western Christianity. Remember Henry VIII having to explain himself to the Pope over his divorce proceedings? Wouldn’t happen nowadays!

With the development of modern European state-hood, nations and city-states rejected the authority of the Pope and Emperor. Protestantism very much suited the ethic of the new states as it established national churches which were free of the centralised control of the Vatican. The last book of Thomas Hobbes’ 4-part classic Leviathan – one of the most famous works in all the history of political philosophy – is pretty much a diatribe against what Hobbes calls the ‘kingdom of darkness,’ i.e. the Papacy (Hobbes himself was what was called an Erastian, a now defunct Protestant sect who extolled the union of church and State. Even Catholic majority nations like France were affected by the trend towards independence from Rome. The absolute monarchy of France nominally accepted the authority of the Pope but in essence ministers like Richelieu did what they wanted and this did not go unnoticed by the Holy See. Richelieu was particularly hated by the Jesuits who historically have made the most extravagant claims for supreme Papal power).

So instead of territories where the writ of the Emperor and Pope (in theory, at least) was supreme, there came to be autonomous polities who did ‘as they pleased.’ We can say that their rule was ‘positive’ in nature, positive meaning that they did what was in their own corporate interests as opposed to being the instrument of an external source of morality like the Church or temporal authority like the Emperor.

As the new order of European affairs developed, there needed to be ground rules governing the conduct of nation-states. An initial attempt was made to come to an arrangement under the treaty of Augsburg in 1555. A famous motto emerged, cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, whose religion). Potentates decided which confession was allowed in their territory. Protestantism was no longer a fire to be extinguished but was accepted and tolerated. It was up to each Prince to decide which particular strand of Christianity was to be practised in his realm.

Europe yet witnessed brutal religiously based conflicts over the next century. Finally, around 1648 a new states system was inaugurated. This is the States system we have down to the present day, at least officially. It has been less clear since the Cold War whether this is still a viable international order. Under this legal internationalism – denoted the Jus Publicum Europeaum (European public order) or, alternatively, the Westphalian system – a new balance of power in Europe was to be maintained.

States no longer defined themselves in terms of a religious persuasion but within the framework of a national identity. A country’s territory was sacrosanct (territorial rule may seem natural to us now, but it was revolutionary at the time).

Perhaps the most important aspect of the new order was that concerning conflicts. Two States, or a system of alliances, in the Jus Publicum Europeaum could fight each other. Reasons for their quarrel could be not morally questioned. They were basically like two gentleman who drew swords (or later pistols) over some point of honour. As with the Mafia, what was important in these conflicts was not what being fought over, but whether those who were fighting enjoyed recognition from other ‘families.’ Recognition of State-hood was what was critical. A point of honour could only be understood by the combatants but their status needed to be legitimate. There were also rules of conflict, as with the Mafia where there were certain codes of honour, an example of this being Michael Corleone’s ability to move unmolested before he had drunk from the poisoned chalice of assassination.

Over the next few hundred years a series of marquee conferences were held. There was the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the Congress of Vienna (1815), the Congress of Berlin (1885), the Hague conventions (1899, 1907) and the treaties concluded in Paris after WWI, the most famous (infamous?) the Treaty of Versailles.

All of these were efforts designed to put inter-state relations on a legal and civilised basis. When these meetings came in the train of particularly brutal conflicts, there had to some new arrangement that replaced the old. For example, the Congress of Vienna strengthened the rule of absolute monarchies across Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic wars which had stoked nationalism. With the Congress of Berlin (often considered a very cynical exercise in international diplomacy) Africa was divided up into spheres of influence. Perhaps the Berlin gathering most of all resembled the initial setting up of the Mafia Commission in 1931 and the assignment of zones of influence to the various Mafia clans. The division of Africa was a massive land grab but was done in a ‘civilised’ and orderly way so that the well armed nations of Europe would not come to blows with one another over the valuable resources of the ‘dark continent.’ These arrangements also gave rise to other sub-arrangements such as guarantees of Belgian neutrality in 1839 (whether it was a guarantee that meant that the UK had to go to war in 1914 is another point). These types of guarantees are similar to the guarantee of the safety of Fredo Corleone by the Molinari family and of Don Francesco in California.

After WWI, the old balance of power politics was replaced by one of collective security. That is the more refined 2.0 version of the earlier system which we live with today. In this system, it’s no longer acceptable for a nation to go to war against another one without their actions meeting with approval of the big powers. All decisions on global security have to be made collectively.

Perhaps more so than the previous balance of power system, collective security mirrors politics in the real Mafia world. In The Godfather, the Five Families ganged up on the Corleone outfit after the shooting of Sollozzo and Captain McCluskey. The Corleones should have sought collective agreement for the hit. One could say that the Cosa Nostra collective security has worked far better than that of the current international order!


Tom Hagen: There is more money potential in narcotics than anything else we’re looking at now. If we don’t get into it, somebody else will, maybe one of the Five Families, maybe all of them. And with the money they earn they’ll be able to buy more police and political power. Then they come after us. Right now we have the unions and we have the gambling and those are the best things to have. But narcotics is a thing of the future. If we don’t get a piece of that action we risk everything we have. Not now, but ten years from now.

Drugs, specifically opium, sparked the mob war in The Godfather because of its lucrative attractiveness. We can use this war as a metaphor with regards to the British Empire and how it built its power in the mid-19th century. It did this via the East India Company. The opium poppy was grown in Bengal where the natives were worked to the bone and the Company then processed and shipped into the profitable Chinese market. Sales from the drug helped, in fact enabled, the UK to meet its balance of payments. Without heroin, Britain would have been in a poorer state. It would not have become the great Empire it did, or at least not in the way it did.

Such a historical example is similar as to how the ‘Turk’ grew opium in Anatolia and then shipped it across to the US via Sicily. Like the way the British government and exchequer basically relied on buccaneers – the East India company – to fatten its own coffers, the Tattaglia family used Sollozzo to improve their own stature with the profits the Turk brought in from drugs.

As with Solozzo, the British faced opposition, however. This was not as covert as Don Corleone, but in the formidable personage of Lin Zexu, a Chinese official who openly declared war on drugs. Lin greatly reduced the drug trade but the Chinese were pummelled into submission by the British, having to eventually open their doors to drugs and losing Hong Kong in the process. Obviously, this episode generated great bitterness in China towards Europeans, a wound that remains open down to the present day.

Curiously enough, drugs were always officially forbidden in the real Mafia world. They were an infamia. But bosses didn’t always inquire too much into the sources of their underling’s profits. Dons in the factual world yet showed themselves to be prudent and far-sighted; it was the trade in drugs which was one of the main reasons for the breakdown in the power of the mob. Drug-dealing and drug use engendered ill-discipline, had a knock-on effect with regards to crime that other industries didn’t have (junkies would steal to feed their habits and this didn’t happen with something like gambling) and it had the overall effect of turning the ordinary citizens against the Mafia … just as Don Corleone predicted!

But unlike in China, the mob met their match and the drug trade in the US passed into other hands. Today, non-governmental organisations like FARC in Colombia use the proceeds from drugs to finance their operations. This is often condemned but it’s not often commented upon that the great and civilised British Empire employed similar methods.

This ‘gunboat diplomacy’ related to the drug trade in China later became somewhat the norm for European powers in the 19th century. There was another Opium War commencing nearly two decades after the start of the first and Commodore Perry famously opened up Japan to US trade with the threat of bombardment. Places like Zanzibar in Africa also faced the mouth of a barrel. While it was not shown in the movie, in the book version of The Godfather Don Corleone forced stores in New York City to take quantities of the olive oil he imported from Sicily, the legitimate ‘front’ he ran for his other illicit operations.

While such dramatic incidents as the Opium War have not happened in recent years, it probably is understood by smaller nations that they must provide markets for the bigger countries or face the consequences. Episodes like Iran’s nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian oil company or that of Arbenz’s overthrow in Guatemala after nationalising the banana industry there show that when it comes to business, powerful governments often make lesser nation-states offers they can’t refuse.


Michael Corleone: Where does it say that you can’t kill a cop?

Tom Hagen: Come on, Mikey.

Michael Corleone: Tom, wait a minute. I’m talking about a cop that’s mixed up in drugs. I’m talking about a dishonest cop – a crooked cop who got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming to him. That’s a terrific story. And we have newspaper people on the payroll, don’t we, Tom? And they might like a story like that.

Tom Hagen: They might, they just might.

In probably the most dramatic scene in The Godfather, Michael guns down Virgil Sollozzo and his police captain bodyguard McCluskey. Before he carried out the dramatic assassination Michael proposed the operation in front of Sonny, Tom Hagen, and the other caporegimes. The major problem with regards to executing the hit was not the mechanics of gunning down the Turk and the crooked cop, but the public perception of a New York police captain being taken out by a Mafia hood.

Michael suggested that newspaper people ‘on the payroll’ could be fed stories about how McCluskey was mixed up in the rackets so as to relieve pressure on the Corleone family that was bound to follow in the fallout from the pre-emptive strike. It’s also worth mentioning that in the book version of The Godfather, movie producer Jack Woltz was said to have manufactured propaganda for the US government during WWII.

Both these cases illustrate the need for power to make a play for the levers of public opinion in a democracy. Democracies are supposed to be superior to absolute monarchies because they allow the free play of ideas. Nevertheless, it was during the height of absolute monarchy that manipulation of public opinion was perfected by one Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu used the best minds in France at the time to ‘get his message out’ so as to promote his own agenda and thus thwart the ambitions of his rivals.

In the Enlightenment, which ran roughly from Richelieu’s death until the turn of the 19th century, a rational approach to problems was held to be a critical element of good government. Rationality involved that free inter-play of ideas and a free press was necessitated. So, in theory, there was to be no control of public opinion emanating from the royal house. Effectively, a free press was to act as a guardian of the public conscience.

In practice, it proved difficult to isolate government from the media and also media could even manipulate government to follow its agenda. A famous example was the US-Spain war of 1898 where the newspaper proprietor William Randolph Hearst used false stories about a Spanish navy fleet off of Cuba to prod US public opinion into war. A test for open democracy came in WWI and to be honest, democracies failed, faring no better than their autocratic rivals and allies. A new term entered the lexicon after WWI, however, ‘public relations,’ although its exponents like Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays were under no illusions that it was the old wine of propaganda in a new bottle.

In the US, particularly, there was stringent control exercised over the media in both WWI and WWII. Later in Vietnam, the US opened up the conflict to media scrutiny. Practically no control was exercised over what was shown on TV or discussed in print. This proved to be a disaster for the US and down to this day, wars are more properly ‘managed’ from the perspective of the government.

Despite the promises of openness, close links between the media and government are maintained in just about every country but these ties only become openly apparent in a crisis. Is this a case of ‘government typewriters’ or legitimate balance being afforded to the government of the day? It is a difficult question to answer but it does seem clear that – just as in the mob war of 1946 presented in The Godfather – direction will be given to media outlets by the powerful with regards with what to broadcast in times of conflict.


Behind every successful fortune; there is a crime. (de Balzac; epigraph that opens The Godfather book)

Don Corleone has returned home from hospital after being shot and Sonny Corleone mentions that blacks in Harlem are driving new cars because of the Mafia policy banks (policy, or ‘numbers,’ is a type of daily lottery racket that is run on American streets). In The Godfather Part II, we regularly witness the ailing figure of Hyman Roth, who is involved in financing Mafia operations in Cuba and who has been a long time associate of the mob.

While in The Godfather parts I and II, much attention is given to illicit Mafia operations like gambling and union rackets, the real power of the Mafia lay in its financial operations. This aspect is given more attention in Part III.

All the illegal Mafia activities, whether related to construction rackets, drug-dealing, game-fixing, prostitution, or any other vice, were all designed to bring in money which could then be used to make loans. These loans then had exorbitant interest rates and invariably the debtors were unable to pay. Subsequently, loan sharks exerted leverage over their clients. With businesses, they often turned the indebted entrepreneurs into serfs who worked the enterprises for the profit of the Mafia chieftains.

This is a book that is largely about politics. If we were to pick out two things central to political developments over the last several hundred years, there first there would be the growth of the State and secondly there would be the mushrooming of banking. A quote I am very fond of by the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt runs as follows:

The first thing everywhere is the desire of the rulers themselves to get money; the merchants and industrialists are supposed to be chiefly tax channels. The Islamitic states of the Middle Ages and the Italian states from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries laid the groundwork for this; fiscal management has been developed into a science.

Real property gradually ceases to be the sole basis for existence, although it is still enormously predominant and safeguarded. There arise great fortunes and businesses that are independent of it. Trade and commerce gradually lose their rather local character and there begins a greater concern with distant places.

With the oceanic peoples there is added the exploitation of their colonies; these are still regarded entirely as the possession of the mother country. However, it takes a long time for the so-called normal cycle to occur: importation of colonial raw materials and forced consumption of the products of domestic industry by the colonies.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries colonization increases. Great French territories are created in North America and later in India; in addition to this are the Dutch occupations in the East and West Indies. Only England establishes larger English populations in distant areas, because they do not settle in tropical regions and many more Englishmen than Frenchmen emigrate.

Spain fades away, not only because of taxes, the mortmain, the monasteries, and other things, but because of its completely unindustrial mentality in a Europe which was otherwise becoming industrial.

France has its miseries. There rules a king who is terribly wasteful and eager for conquest and devours more than his Colbert can supply him, with the utmost overstraining of the country; and yet he is an envied model for other dynasts. The Colbert system which conceives of industry as an enriching force gains European validity. However, the industrialists are not as yet the ruling class here, nor are they in England.

The French Revolution and its monarchic continuation by Napoleon have pointed up the model of Louis XIV and his system; before and alongside them there existed the imitating states. At the same time, after 1815 the model of England begins to be effective.

Europe becomes the mill for all five continents; industrial and political superiority are regarded as going hand in hand. Through the confiscation of church property, the abolition of mortmain, a huge mass of energy and property as well as the people living there become available to industry.

Machines and mass production gradually rise. The great capital needed for them is accumulated and there is a progressively smaller number of people governing their destiny. Competition and mutual throat-cutting set in.

At the same time, however, with J.-J. Rousseau and the French Revolution ideas of equality and human rights as well as the expression “existence worthy of a human being” begin to have an influence. The greatest political freedom is combined with the largest measure of economic dependence; the middle class declines perceptibly.

An absurdly lamentable addition to this is the fact that the state incurs those well-known debts for politics, wars, and other higher causes and “progress,” thus mortgaging future production with the claim that it was in part providing for it. The assumption is that the future will honor this relationship in perpetuity. The state has learned from the merchants and industrialists how to exploit credit; it defies the nation ever to let it go into bankruptcy.

Alongside all swindlers the state now stands there as swindler-in-chief. (Judgement on History and Historians, pp. 201-203).

As can be seen, the two things, the State and banking – whose relationship was mediated through the collapse of landed property and the rise of industrialism – complimented each other.

Now, of course, finance has always been important to rulers and governments, but the relationship between the two really blossomed because of modern war and the high demands of fighting such conflicts. In all ages, war represents the most serious drain on the public exchequer. However, the raising of taxes for war was often very haphazard in the past. In the last few centuries, finance increasingly became much more efficient and effective than it had been previously.

Coupled with this increasing financial efficiency was the idea that rulers should not just defend their realm (which was initially viewed as merely kingly private property) but that they should also provide comforts and material security to their subjects. This idea took root in Italy but came to perfection in France, especially under Colbert, the French State-builder who said the “art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.”

At the same time as France was dominating its neighbours, European finance was being revolutionized. The Low Countries were the focus of banking, especially the Netherlands where the close alliance of governments and big business in developing colonial markets was key. The UK began to tinker with high finance and the Bank of England was founded in 1694. Over the next several hundred years there were financial crashes, wars, economic bubbles, scandals. All of these were related to the encroachment of private banks into the public sphere.

One country resisted central banking for much of its early history, the USA. In 1913, it once and for all joined those European nations for whom central banking was part and parcel of politics for centuries (The Wizard of Oz is about the conflict in the US between the promoters of silver currency and central government). At the same time as the Federal Reserve was founded, income tax was introduced into the US and this is significant. Taxes typically underwrite the losses of banks in much the same way as the profits of legitimate enterprise secure Mafia loans.

With the growth of central banking came a more activist approach to government by the US. The British economist John Maynard Keynes was more popular in the US before he became the economic guru in his home country. ‘Deficit spending,’ promoted by Keynes, was a staple of government policy in the post-WWII era, and the perpetual rolling-over of debts was manna for the banks.

Central banking meant that individual banks were now effectively guaranteed by the State. This modern phenomenon has been on display in recent years, with banks being ‘bailed out’ to the tune of sometimes hundreds of billions of dollars by governments, i.e. by taxpayers. Not only have the banks profited favourably domestically. Banks who loan to foreign countries have often been protected by governments where their operations are based. In recent years, the Asian crisis of 1997 was a notable instance of how governments (in this case, the US) would come out to bat for banks if needs be. Several Asian countries had to ensure that financial institutions were ‘taken care of’ and a particularly dramatic example was in Indonesia where the dictator Suharto was deposed, with crippling economic hardships the lot of the native population.

This tragic example and others from history are suitable analogues for the way that Mafiosi used finance to gain control of businesses and of individuals. In another variation of ‘gunboat diplomacy,’ weak and indebted governments are made offers they can’t refuse in the political world if they can’t cough up money for debts.


When Clemenza is preparing Michael for the hit on Sollozzo, they speculate on the possible consequences. Michael asks: “How bad do you think it’s gonna be?” Clemenza has little doubt about the consequences: “Pretty goddam bad. Probably all the other Families will line up against us.” Nonetheless, the old capo is fairly sanguine about the whole thing. He says: “That’s all right. These things gotta happen every five years or so, ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten years since the last one [war].” Then he goes on to muse: “You know, you gotta stop them at the beginning.” An example is proffered: “Like they should have stopped Hitler at Munich, they should never let him get away with that, they was just asking for trouble.

Clemenza saw the upcoming war as necessary, a cleansing of the tension that was building between the various families in New York City. He essentially makes two points. First of all, the Corleones must act before things go too far for them and secondly that there is some primal state, a ‘proper’ state of affairs, that needs to be returned to every now and again.

When hearing Clemenza talk, it is difficult not to think of one name; Machiavelli. Of course, the entire Godfather series is an exercise in Machiavellianism, the unabashed ethic of acquiring and sustaining power. No outrage, no ruse, no subterfuge, no plan, seems too immoral for the Mafia bosses.

Yet, Machiavelli wrote his books for a political audience. Although, truth be told, there was not much difference between many of the Renaissance ‘bosses’ and their spiritual heirs in the Italian mob. The Medici clan, who were a powerhouse in Machiavelli’s hometown of Florence, had made their fortune via banking (see what has been said earlier). They lost power for about 20 years, before returning in 1512. In the aftermath of their victory, Machiavelli – who had been an official in the previous regime – was tortured. Subsequently, he offered his knowledge of the ‘dark arts’ to the new rulers of Florence.

As most people know, Machiavelli’s most famous work was titled The Prince. He had another famous masterpiece titled Discourses on Livy. But it is the easy to read style of The Prince, its user-friendly function as a technical manual for political leaders, and not least its condemnation as a wicked, perverse, and un-Christian exposition (it was placed on the Index by the Papacy and the thinly veiled criticisms of Christ [Chapter VI, “…all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed”] were unlikely to curry favour with the Pope, either), that earned the latter a unique place in political history.

Machiavelli wasn’t that much of a literary revolutionary. There had been many works written like The Prince; books written by someone particularly knowledgeable in the theories of politics for the benefit of someone else involved in the practice of politics. The tradition may have started in Persia and Machiavelli certainly wasn’t the first person in Europe to publish these types of books.

But Machiavelli, as evidenced by his reputation and excoriation by the ecclesiastical authorities (he actually had a very high regard for religious forms of government, by the way), delighted in proposing schemes for growing a power base. Such plans often involved the liquidation of opponents, but could also be manifested in somewhat cynical acts of generosity.

Whether he proposed being ‘naughty’ or ‘nice,’ the aim was always to put yourself in a stronger position. Here is a passage from Chapter XVII, the translation taken from Marriott:

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women. But when it is necessary for him to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony. Besides, pretexts for taking away the property are never wanting; for he who has once begun to live by robbery will always find pretexts for seizing what belongs to others; but reasons for taking life, on the contrary, are more difficult to find and sooner lapse. But when a prince is with his army, and has under control a multitude of soldiers, then it is quite necessary for him to disregard the reputation of cruelty, for without it he would never hold his army united or disposed to its duties.

We can see here the psychological theories of Machiavelli at work. He views men as selfish creatures who are cynical but who, at the same time, a ruler must placate them to maintain the effectiveness of his rule. While a cleric might say that one should not commit injustice because it is sinful, Machiavelli says that one should not commit injustice (in most circumstances) because it affects the military prowess of a leader. He should “disregard the reputation of cruelty, for without it he would never hold his army united or disposed to its duties.

Machiavelli also realises that men are creatures of habit and that one crime leads to another and so human appetite needs to be checked. It is a moot point whether such personal aggrandizement really is a good and effective way to operate politically. Nonetheless, the influence of the work endures.

Machiavelli wrote the book for the incumbent ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici. While the Medici clan were no strangers to power, they effectively had to re-learn the art of rulership and of course there is no harm in old foxes learning new tricks. What also often emerges in all Machiavelli’s writings is the idea that there needs to be a return to ‘beginnings.’ States tend to become corrupt over time, the rulers wax decadent, the rot sets in, people forget their civic virtue. In this regard, great weight is given to the founders of principalities, particularly to religious founders.

As an example of the importance given to beginnings in Machiavelli’s most celebrated oeuvre, The Prince commences on the topic of founding new principalities. In just one example taken from The Prince, Machiavelli discusses rulers such as Moses and Romulus who “by their own ability … have risen to be princes.” Their ability greatly impresses him.

Founders start out from a blank slate, moulding their new charges in their image. Founders are hampered by the fact that they have not become established and are assailed by enemies of the old order who have the “laws on their side.”

However, it was when there was a job to be done that the founders displayed their mettle and “opportunities, therefore, made those men fortunate, and their high ability enabled them to recognize the opportunity whereby their country was ennobled and made famous” (taken from chapter VI). Clemenza favoured a return to beginnings and of course, he assisted the Corleone founder in his rise to the top.

The other point that Clemenza made concerned that of prudence. In fact, Machiavelli’s entire writing career can be seen as one which hammered home the necessity of prudence. Prudence, or applied wisdom, was seen by Machiavelli as absolutely vital to the art of politics. A leader should be able to predict the consequences of his actions, he should implement sustainable policies, he should recognise opportunities, he shouldn’t be imprudently greedy even where there is plunder to be had because such selfishness might lead to his ultimate ruin, he should always consider possibilities and make plans based on what he knows. For example in chapter XXI, Machiavelli gives advice concerning alliances:

… when those who fight are of such a character that you have no anxiety as to who may conquer, so much the more is it greater prudence to be allied, because you assist at the destruction of one by the aid of another who, if he had been wise, would have saved him; and conquering, as it is impossible that he should not do with your assistance, he remains at your discretion. And here it is to be noted that a prince ought to take care never to make an alliance with one more powerful than himself for the purposes of attacking others, unless necessity compels him, as is said above; because if he conquers you are at his discretion, and princes ought to avoid as much as possible being at the discretion of any one. The Venetians joined with France against the Duke of Milan, and this alliance, which caused their ruin, could have been avoided. But when it cannot be avoided, as happened to the Florentines when the Pope and Spain sent armies to attack Lombardy, then in such a case, for the above reasons, the prince ought to favour one of the parties.

One can see here that the ultimate reasoning which Machiavelli applies to the question of allying with a stronger power (a practical concern for a city-state like Florence) is with prudent regard as to whether the city-state will be in a better or worse position afterwards. One thus has to say that Sonny’s time in charge of the Corleone family may have met with Machiavelli’s disapproval as it weakened the Corleones in the short term and for a time Don Barzini was in the ascendency.


In The Godfather Part II, Vito Corleone assumes the reins of power from Don Fanucci in Little Italy. The contrast between their methods is stark, but the lessons drawn are also important. The tale of Vito Corleone and Don Fanucci helps illustrate the distinction between authority and power.

To most people, authority and power may signify the same thing. However, this is not quite true. When someone has power, it merely means that they are in a position of hegemony over others and can avail of some method, either military, political, legislative, judicial, or otherwise, to impose their will. Authority shouldn’t be confused with power, although someone with power will often have authority.

The critical difference is that authority is dependent on legitimacy. A legitimate ruler or public official is seen as having a rightful title to their authority. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will be powerful. For example, there are often governments in exile who are seen as legitimate but who do not have the power to enforce their will. On the other hand, there may be a military governor who is not viewed as the rightful authority by the subjugated populace.

Authority and power may also be dependent on perceived roles within a political order. A judge has authority and power in the legal world, but may be seen as over-stepping his authority if he offers opinions on some political matter; a politician may be seen as a legitimate representative of the people but may be powerless to overturn the decision of an administrative body.

In terms of The Godfather Part II, the important thing to note is that force does not equate to authority. This was the mistake of Don Fanucci. He ran his organisation purely on the basis of intimidation or blackmail. Fanucci threatened the daughter of someone he was ‘shaking down’ in one scene. He removed Vito Corleone from a job he held, thus making himself an enemy. He wanted to ‘wet his beak’ in the proceeds of crime that Vito Corleone and his friends were acquiring and was seen to be overstepping his ‘jurisdiction’ by Vito. All in all, his manner was brash, aggressive, and imposing, but it was not politically astute.

As a consequence of his violence, Fanucci assumed a temporary sense of power. But his power – like all power – is illusory. It ultimately rests on the goodwill of others. People are not likely to rise up if they are being treated gently and fairly but chafe if they feel they are getting the short end of the stick. Goodwill necessary to further his power and make himself a figure of authority; this Fanucci did not cultivate. Perhaps Vito sensed this and realised that he might be able to do away with Fanucci with little opposition: Mario Puzo would know best!

When Vito does take power, we can see that he deals with people with far more subtlety than the man he replaced. A woman about to be evicted from her home because she kept a dog appeals to Don Corleone for help. He quietly talks to the landlord, not in a threatening manner, but he allows his power to ‘speak for itself.’ The landlord is instructed to ask around the neighbourhood about Vito. As a result, the landlord reverses his dismissive and demeaning attitude, begging Vito for terms on which to continue the tenancy.

Throughout The Godfather, we see that Don Corleone is loath to use force. Even Sollozzo reminds Tom Hagen at one stage that he doesn’t like to use violence because blood is a big expense. While for Sollozzo, the question of ‘walking softly and carrying a big stick’ is more to do with the method of gaining power so he can pursue his drug peddling, for Don Corleone it is a habit that he knows is vital for securing his rule at the head of the Corleone family.

A good example in The Godfather of the need for maintaining authority is related to the discussion that takes place around the conference table midway during the film. When framing a policy on drugs, Don Zaluchi, a mob boss, says that he is against drugs being sold near schools or to children. Instead, drugs should be sold to the “coloureds” because, he says, “they’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.” The rationale behind this policy is that the constituency that supports the Italian gangsters must not be made into a source of enmity. Legitimacy of the Mafia bosses is key.

In Mafia history, a firm but gentle approach often worked far better than outright brutality. The most powerful Mafia Don we know of, Carlo Gambino, was a very quiet and unassuming character. In Philadelphia, the ‘gentle Don,’ Angelo Bruno, ruled over organised crime in that city for decades, all the while demonstrating benevolence to his constituents. By contrast, violent figures like John Gotti and Sam Giancana, fared worse by adopting a more gung-ho approach.

Politically, we know that a policy of aggression – even with seemingly overwhelming force – is usually counterproductive. A famous example is that of the Nazis, whose constant acquisition of territory beyond what they were acknowledged to be entitled to, ultimately won them far fewer friends and gained them enemies. Napoleon’s conquering spirit eventually led to him being exiled in disgrace. Saddam Hussein’s cultivation of a ‘hard-man’ image worked against him in the end.

At times, though, force and cruelty seem to pay dividends. Mao-Tse-Tung said that power “grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Certainly, he reaped the rewards of violence, as did Stalin. What are we to say to this? It seems to be the case that force must be completely brutal if it is to perpetuate power. However, at the same time, the argument up to this point holds; power doesn’t generate authority. No one would claim that Stalin or Mao were rightful rulers, but at best (if someone was to make an apologia for them) that they were necessary to transform Russia or China. Certainly, their strategies were risky and not to be commended. If authority is to be united with power, then a gentle approach – albeit backed by force – is recommended.


In The Godfather, one full-scale war is fought and a coup executed by Michael towards the end of the movie. The former is drawn out, the latter is a ‘quickie.’

But both are military operations; they involve strategy, planning, staffing, goals, aims, execution, and purpose. In other words, they entail the same characteristics as military operations between nation-states.

War may be diplomacy by other means, but war can’t be said to be politics as usual. Yet war is a vital and existential element of politics. It is definitely no exaggeration to say that politics would have an inherently altered character if not for the possibility of war. On the international stage, some countries are big enough to defend themselves. Others need patrons. Much, if not all, of Europe currently relies on the US for protection. If (or when) someday the US is no longer able to protect Western Europe, either the Europeans themselves or another major power will have to step into the breach.

After the two conflicts in The Godfather, a new dispensation emerges. Rebirth often goes hand in hand with war.

Yet, in the public mind, this is not so. Often we are trained to think of politics as something that evolves over time.

When I say ‘evolve’ I specifically emphasize that change is gradual and – for wont of a better word – ‘natural.’ There is a sort of providence at work. Less efficient ways are replaced by more progressive ones, superstition is replaced by rationality, people obtain more freedom, power is diffused. This all happens rather like a person maturing.

While things do change, the process by which change comes about – if it can be called a process – is more of an earth-shattering one than an evolutionary development.

Politically, the most profound changes occur via war. Take ‘women’s rights’ in the West. At the turn of the century, the suffragette movement was considered a hare-brained gathering of the coarsest and most radical females. They were branded as terrorists who were reckless and uncivilised. Aristocratic women like Lady Curzon thought ill of the suffragettes.

Come midway through the century and the women’s rights movement was an established force. As late as 1914 there were no signs that women were on the verge of a new dawn. By 1945, the public dialogue was about realizing aims which only two generations before were dismissed out of hand. What had happened?

What had happened was that there had been two world wars. Women had been needed, particularly on the domestic front. They had driven buses, formed home guards, worked in heavy industry, ploughed the land. In return, they had been granted political rights. The two world wars, between them coming to a decade in length, had achieved for women what the suffragettes may not have ever been able to achieve. An eternal symbol of the alliance between bloodshed and women’s rights is the We Can Do It propaganda poster designed to motivate wartime production in the US during WWII.

Another example of the transformative nature of war concerns the welfare state. In the UK, a welfare state was promised after WWI. Obviously, it must have been necessary for many more hundreds of thousands of dead and many more wounded for the welfare state to become a reality. Churchill, who had led Britain to victory in WWI, was summarily ousted in 1945 by Clement Attlee. The main reason for his electoral defeat was his unwillingness to promise the welfare state, a promise that Attlee had made. Many more examples could be offered of how war transforms existing political conditions.

While the outcomes of war may be hard to predict, often wars are fought with definite transformative aims in mind. The famous Prussian general Clausewitz said that war is “the continuation of politics by other means.” His fellow Prussian Bismarck made an art of achieving political aims through well planned and executed acts of war.

Perhaps more importantly, Bismarck won the peace, refusing to jeopardise his most coveted gains by cheap land grabs, a lesson not learned by those who followed his footsteps in Germany. While his legacy was not continued, Bismarck remains as an exemplar with regards to the arts of war and peace. He was someone who was clear about what he wanted, could evaluate how best to achieve his aims, and when an opportunity arose he executed his design. A suitable forerunner to Michael Corleone!


All my people are businessmen; their loyalty is based on that. One thing I learned from my father is to try to think as the people around you think…and on that basis, anything is possible.

There is plenty of realpolitik in The Godfather series. Alliances are always temporary. We see many dramatic examples of this. Tessio is ‘loyal’ to the Corleone family until the Don’s death. Then he throws in his lot with the Barzini family, something he pays dearly for. Fabrizio guards Michael in Sicily until he is ‘got to.’ Paulie betrays the Don and is summarily executed. Carlo betrays the family. Again he is tried and found guilty, Michael the judge, jury and executioner. The five plus one families are in a state of peace at the start of the movie, are warring for most of the first half of the film, and then make peace again on suitable terms. This peace is only a prelude to further betrayal. Sollozzo tries to form an alliance with the Corleone family but is rebuffed. He forms a fruitful alliance with Captain McCluskey and the Tattaglias. Luca Brasi feigns going over to the Tattaglia family. The long-term friendship between the Corleones and Moe Green ends in bloodshed. A similar pattern is repeated in the sequels. Loyalty and betrayal: perpetual themes of The Godfather series.

Alliances are temporary because the business of gangsterism is one of life and death, power or political bankruptcy in the underworld. People have a permanent interest in their own self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. When everyone has the same idea and operates on the same basis there is conflict.

This is also par for the course in the political world. The beginning of the 20th century offered a perfect example of realpolitik (or perhaps it was an example of crazypolitik!). The Imperial alliance built up by Bismarck fell apart; Russia joined Britain and France, the latter two colonial rivals who were content to put aside their differences to counter the rise of Germany.

When war came, Turkey threw in her lot with the Central Powers while Italy reneged on her alliance with Germany and the Habsburg Empire. Undoubtedly the most astonishing alliance was between Germany and the Bolsheviks. A radical party, an outright and sworn enemy of the Kaiser’s Reich, now got train tickets to Russia to start a revolution to knock the Euro-Asian power out of the war. Such a story, if bandied about at the time, must have seemed like a conspiracy theory. What was at stake for Germany was so great as to call forth the phrase: ‘desperate times call for desperate measures.’

In the inter-war years there was then a dizzying, revolving door, system of alliances. Once more Germany and Russia entered into a ‘devil’s pact,’ one that was as shocking as the earlier support for Bolshevism by the German Empire. Japan was now an enemy of Britain and the US, whereas formerly she had been a loyal friend, one who had helped the Allies through the perilous straits of WWI. Italy reluctantly threw in her lot with Germany, a fateful decision. Then, the Cold War came and this had some stable alliances but many countries switched allegiances.

Down to the present day, we still see the shifting tectonic plates of alliances throughout the globe. In the current civil war in Syria it is difficult to keep peace with the constantly changing alliances. As in The Godfather, what is at the heart of all this loyalty and betrayal is the desire for people for self-preservation and a wiliness to execute power plays.


Virgil Sollozzo is a small fish who wants to avoid been eaten. Therefore, what does he do? He does what any small fish would do; he piggybacks on a bigger fish. When he meets Don Corleone above the Genco headquarters, Sollozzo confirms he has the backing of the Tattaglia family. He is looking for the insurance that the protection of Don Corleone would give him. Later, in his conversation with the kidnapped Tom Hagen, it seems he has the backing of other families in New York. He also has the protection of McCluskey.

Throughout history, and especially in the present day where there is one major superpower and two relatively powerful nations, smaller countries have sought protection from larger ones. When I say ‘from’ it is meant that they (1) get protection from their bigger brothers and (2) are protected from their bigger brothers by other bigger brothers. There are often states that are fully independent on paper, but whose ability to act as they want either internally or externally is greatly limited. This is in contrast to larger political units who have full autonomy over internal affairs and whose foreign policy is only a matter of prudence with respect to other major powers or to political realities.

Many legal terms have been coined to denote the status of lesser political entities. There are protectorates who have limited autonomy, particularly over their foreign relations, but who have a free hand in many affairs. Nazi Germany established a protectorate over the rump of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 after it had annexed the Sudetenland in 1938.

Similar to a protectorate is a dependency: Greenland is a dependency of Denmark. Dependencies reflect far more power exerted by the stronger party than a protectorate.

Where there is considerable control by a major power over a smaller state, we can also speak of satellite states, vassal states, or even puppet governments. Many of these types of governments were in evidence during the Cold War and not all were at the behest of the Soviet Union!

All these – protectorates, dependencies, and satellites – are examples whereby a powerful country can be said to exercise suzerainty over a weaker one.

There were also of course colonies, which were regions of an Empire that were not fully admitted into the political and legal system of the ‘mother country,’ but which were administered as political units. In the Roman Empire, these would have been called provinces. Later, in the UK, sufficiently Anglocentric colonies became dominions.

After WWI, the mandate system of the League of Nations was instituted. Mandated regions were from the former German and Ottoman Empires. They represented a half-way house between colonization and independence.

In the Mafia world, these vassals were associates and were drawn from many other ethnicities like the Irish and Jews. Like Roth, they were not fully integrated in the ‘mother family’ but yet were important enough to merit protection (for a time). But if associates were Italian, then, like Anglocentric colonies becoming dominions, they could attain to full independence.


Michael: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.

Kay Adams: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.

Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?

Assassination, whether attempted, successfully prosecuted, or otherwise, occurs often in The Godfather. Don Corleone is shot, Sonny is killed, Bruno Tattaglia likewise. Michael carries out a purge of the New York underworld and others at the end of first part. Vito Corleone returns to Sicily to avenge his father’s, mother’s and brother’s death in The Godfather Part II and this movie ends with a similar purge to the first part. Michael himself is assassinated at the end of The Godfather Part III.

Of course, assassinations were a normal part of the Mafia underworld. The last noteworthy assassination amongst Italian mobsters was the 1985 killing of Gambino crime boss, Paul Castellano, outside Sparks Steak House in Manhattan. This murder paved the way for John Gotti’s ascent to Gambino crime boss but also ultimately led to his downfall and precipitated the decline of the mob in America generally. There were numerous other mob assassinations and there was even a feared murder for hire outfit at one stage called Murder Incorporated which served as the Mafia’s assassination squad for a time.

I suppose one difference between an assassination and a murder is that the former excites more attention than the latter. Perhaps there should be the same fuss made over a killing, regardless of who it is, but an assassination also exerts a major psychological impact. Someone seemingly impregnable is shown to be mortal and that greatly disturbs the public. Certainly, an assassination is a case of a ‘shot heard around the world.’

As with mob assassinations in The Godfather, the shocking event of a political assassination is preceded by a host of other less spectacular but noteworthy events, all of which have the effect of providing the background to the main event. The marquee assassination of the 20th century was the shooting of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne. His shooting pre-empted WWI, although it would be a mistake to say that it caused the war. And, a bit like the shooting of Don Corleone in The Godfather, there was a period after the slaying of the Archduke where it seemed that a war would be unlikely.

Assassinations excite the imagination. They do not occur often, but they represent a direct attack on an enemy or they give hint of civil discord.

An attack on a dynast is an attack on the dynastic house itself. When an elected leader is gunned down, it is an attack on the will of the people.

If a leader or if a notable has been killed, it usually stirs panic amongst the populace. If such a high-ranking figure can be assassinated, who is next? We witness massive confusion in the wake of Don Corleone’s shooting. Media figures will tend to hype the news because they would have enjoyed a personal relationship with the slain figurehead. Depending on how distinguished the person is, there may be a period of political uncertainty.

In The Godfather, we see newspapers reporting on rumours surrounding the condition of the wounded Don. We have all seen iconic news headlines relating to, for example, the assassination of JFK. Just as with the Don, JFK’s shooting set minds racing; who did it?, why?, what should be done?, what will the new leader be like?

Just to digress a little, during JFK’s tenure, the Mafia and the American establishment came close to executing a plan to assassinate Fidel Castro. Approaches were made by the CIA to the Chicago mob. While the plan came to nothing it is an example of the uncomfortably close links between organised crime and politics in the US during the 20th century.


Tom, don’t let anybody kid you. It’s all personal, every bit of business. Every piece of shit every man has to eat every day of his life is personal. They call it business. OK. But it’s personal as hell. (From Mario Puzo’s The Godfather).

Remember Tessio telling Tom Hagen that he liked Michael personally but that he only intended to lead him into a trap for business reasons? Recurring themes throughout The Godfather are those of professionalism and rational calculation. Nothing is done out of malice, or at least that is what the protagonists claim. Those who can keep a cool head undoubtedly enjoy an advantage and we see characters like Carlo or Santino led to their destruction because of their inability to keep their wits.

The evolution of the modern State has been touched upon in several places in this booklet. One feature separating the modern State from earlier forms of government is the de-personalised nature of rule. Particularly in the Middle Ages, personal bonds were crucial. Curiously enough, it seems to have been the Papacy who first began rationalising, i.e. depersonalising, politics. Theorists justifying and promoting the Papacy spent considerable effort in removing the personage of the pope from his official functions. What they were drawing attention to was their theory that the seat of Peter was eternal, despite the mortal appearance of the incumbent.

Later, kings and emperors found that they could better integrate their realms by making rational claims to power, i.e. depersonalising their rule. The king was no longer a feudal overlord who was bound to other powerful lords because they enjoyed good personal relations. He became a ‘head’ of a wider body politic and there were various arms that he controlled.

In Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651) the sovereign has become a fully authorised representative, entrusted with an agency by all the subjects who have freely entered into a social pact. He was no longer a usurper or conqueror (which Hobbes knew he was likely to have been).

At an even later date, absolute monarchy lost legitimacy. What gained political currency was the idea that there should be a system that worked in the interests of all citizens, that subjects should be managed as opposed to being ruled over, and that all personal ties should be flushed out, thus putting the State on a completely business-like footing.

It became unseemly to vie for power; someone had to show that their policies and programs were more effective and efficient, and thus more in the interests of the State than someone else’s. No benefit or harm done to anyone’s political career could be personal; it was just all about business!


What’s the matter with you? I think your brain is going soft with all that comedy you are playing with that young girl. Never tell anyone outside the Family what you are thinking again. Go on.

Throughout The Godfather, we occupy a privileged position. Members of the Corleone family discuss business matters and we listen in. Within the family itself, Don Corleone talks to Michael warning him about possible betrayal by other members of the family. Carlo’s murder is plotted right behind his back. Although we don’t see Don Barzini plotting, we can detect by his respectful but sly acknowledgements of the Corleone family at Don Corleone’s funeral that he is scheming.

Secrets are also a crucial component of the political world. Secrets are a mark of power. Those who can keep secrets from others and who know what others are doing are often those who dominate.

A good example of this is the Austrian statesman Metternich. After an alliance of European powers defeated Napoleon, a new dispensation was hammered out at the Congress of Vienna. The Hapsburg Empire had emerged as the leading power in Europe and would remain so for about fifty years. Metternich placed much store in his intelligence gathering community and this gave Austria a distinct advantage at the Congress.

There is a special word for political secrets, arcana. The celebrated German jurist Carl Schmitt wrote an interesting passage on this topic in his 1921 book Dictatorship. He based his analysis of the arcana largely on the works of Arnold Clapmar (1574-1604). Clapmar said that there are arcana imperii, a phrase translated as ‘secrets of power/secrets of state.’ These are tricks that are meant to “conjure the impression of freedom, simulacra, or decorative occasions,” and their purpose is to “pacify the population.” Then there are arcana republicae (secrets of the republic): these are the inner ‘drives’ of the state and are those general plans and policies only known to an inner circle. Then there are the arcana dominationis (secrets of rulership): these concern what is to be done in extraordinary situations, and Schmitt cites the example of setting up a dictatorship in an aristocracy (Dictatorship, [Hoelzl & Ward translation], pp. 11-12).

Secrets are a major political issue at present, heightened by episodes such as Edward Snowden’s defection to Russia. Governments and ruling elites want to know as much as possible. They do not want to leave anything to chance. Like Metternich and Don Corleone, they are aware that you are in a stronger position if you know both your cards and those of your opponents.


So, that is that off my chest! I am glad to have fused two things I love, The Godfather and politics, and hope you have enjoyed this booklet. As was said at the start, metaphors for politics from the movie series really had to be explored before they became clearer to me. Still though, I’m surprised I was able to milk the film for it’s worth! If you, like I am likely to, sit down in the near future and watch The Godfather, maybe one of the analogies presented herein will spring to mind. Just remember though: politics isn’t entertainment.


Did you enjoy this book?

Just to remind you again.

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An essay titled Democracy: Theory and Practice.

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Political Animals and The Godfather

This is a book that explains politics in terms of the classic Godfather movie series. Do you want to know how the five families and Corleones meeting is similar to the big-power politics of the last 400 years? Or how Pete Clemenza is a scholar of Machiavelli? Ever heard of political arcana, which have their analogues in The Godfather? Many more metaphors are explored in a book where the underworld and government meet.

  • Author: Colm Gillis
  • Published: 2016-09-14 18:40:19
  • Words: 15710
Political Animals and The Godfather Political Animals and The Godfather