According to some theorists, most of America’s woes began with the arrival of big government in 1932. Before that time, so the story goes, liberty was the rule, the work ethic was alive and well, God was in the classroom, and all was well with the world. As with all ideologies, this one presents an incomplete picture of reality. Organized crime, a major presence in American life well before 1932, was not exactly a showpiece of free-market capitalism.

In Organized Crime, Howard Abadinsky has written a lucid and comprehensive account of a type of criminality that, in its rationality and structure, stands in marked contrast to ordinary “street crime.” With roots in both American and southern Italian culture, organized crime developed in the moral climate created by the robber barons of the late 19th century. These “captains of industry” became folk heroes by their ascent from rags to riches, and many used their money for philanthropic ends. But many were willing to use any means, fair or foul, to achieve their power and wealth. Many of the hallmarks of later organized crime—extortion, violence, bribery of political officials—were commonplace activities with the robber barons.

In the decades following the Civil War, thousands of immigrants swarmed into our large cities and helped to build the urban political machines. The numerous street gangs of the period engaged in many legitimate political activities; they also used intimidation and violence to secure votes for their patron, the ward boss. In exchange for votes, the ward boss protected a wide range of illegal activities. Immigrants from southern Italy were already part of Old World organizations (the Mafia being the most infamous example) that were secretive, strongly hierarchical, and violent.

It is tempting to speculate on what might have happened to organized crime had there been no Prohibition. Would it have dwindled as the urban machines declined and as the various ethnic groups became assimilated? We will never know. Prohibition did little to advance “traditional” morality, but it did create unprecedented opportunities for organized crime in the United States. Before Prohibition, gang activity was largely under the control of ward bosses. The huge profits of the speakeasies brought gangsters to the top of the heap. With the repeal of Prohibition, organized crime contracted and regrouped. Its hardy practitioners survived the crisis and are still very much with us.

Abadinsky discusses several reasons for the long prevalence of organized crime. For one thing, the propensity of American lawmakers to outlaw a variety of popular products and activities has created a natural and lucrative setting for criminal activity. Abadinsky also observes that the “‘American way of life’ places undue stress on economic success, while its means of achievement are not readily available to large segments of our population.” Organized crime provides a quick way up the social ladder for the poor: Consider The Great Gatsby. Cultural characteristics of some ethnic groups have also fostered organized crime. Jews were once prominent in organized crime, but the emphasis in Jewish culture on educational attainment soon opened a different means of social and economic ascent. Because Italian families had never placed the same value on education, many Italian young men continued to move into organized crime, while their Jewish counterparts were becoming consultants, psychiatrists, and yuppies. In making his policy recommendations, Abadinsky urges vigorous law enforcement coupled with an acute awareness of the historical backgrounds of those groups that still control this murderous underworld.


[Organized Crime, 2nd edition, by Howard Abadinsky; Chicago: Nelson-Hall]