When nation building goes south: draft evasion, government repression, and the origins of the Sicilian mafia

June 24, 2022 | Blog
Home > When nation building goes south: draft evasion, government repression, and the origins of the Sicilian mafia

by Gianni Marciante (University of Warwick)

This blog is based on a paper presented at the 2022 Economic History Society Annual Conference in the session NRIH (Political Economy).


Throughout the modern era, governments have often striven to increase cultural homogeneity within their respective societies, in order to improve political stability and mitigate the risk of social unrest. As pointed out by Charles Tilly in his 1975 book, The formation of national states in Western Europe, almost all European governments eventually took steps to build commonality among their populations through a large set of nation building policies, such as the adoption of state religions, the institution of a national language, and the introduction of compulsory military service.

When cultural homogenization was imposed by the ruling elite in a coercive manner, forms of cultural resistance often followed. Recent work in the economics literature has highlighted instances of identity backlash resulting from top-down policies aimed at cultural assimilation. However, the link between forceful assimilation policies and crime still remains a largely unexplored topic. This is surprising, as we might expect that anti-government sentiments coming from imposed homogenization policies could potentially give rise to deviant acts by the minority, breaking not only social norms, but also codified laws.


In my research, I show that one coercive nation building policy—military conscription in Sicily in the 1860s—led to backlash in the form of organized crime. From its establishment in 1861, the Kingdom of Italy’s central government introduced a range of nation building policies, including conscription, to strengthen internal stability. Still, in 1863, a key episode deeply compromised the state’s legitimacy in Sicily: a repressive military campaign ordered by the government to curb widespread draft evasion on the island. Prominent historians have argued that this campaign raised distrust in government and, in turn, helped the Sicilian mafia gain popular support across the region. In this work I empirically investigate this hypothesis using an instrumental variables approach and show that the Sicilian mafia was more likely to develop in municipalities victimized by the 1863 repression campaign.


In the main analysis I use original data from the Borsani-Bonfadini parliamentary enquiry on the conditions of public security in Sicily, held in 1875, to infer mafia presence at the town level; see figure 1.


Figure 1.   Mafia municipalities (in red) and non-mafia municipalities (in white) in Sicily, 1875

Source: Carbone S. and Grispo R., L’inchiesta sulle condizioni sociali ed economiche della Sicilia (1875-1876), vol. 2 (1969). Note: Province boundaries are in bold.


I combine this information with town-level data on the exposure to the 1863 military repression campaign, coded largely from archival material including military reports and notes written by Giuseppe Govone, the army general in charge of the military operations; see figure 2.


Figure 2.   Municipalities victimized by the 1863 military repression campaign (in blue)

Source: General Govone’s notes and Sicilian daily newspapers published in 1863. Note: Province boundaries are in bold.


Moreover, to generate exogenous variation in military repression, I rely on archival data containing information on the itinerary of the army. Using the pre-existing (1826) road network, I construct least cost paths connecting towns that had military barracks and were in the approximate path of the armies. I then calculate the distance from such optimal paths for each town in the dataset, to predict the respective exposure to repression. Finally, I remove the towns with military barracks from the sample, to identify the effect of repression in municipalities that were only treated incidentally due to their position along the shortest route between two given garrison towns.


Equipped with the dataset and identification strategy both outlined above, in the empirical analysis I document a positive and significant effect of the 1863 repression on the emergence of the Sicilian mafia in 1875, which persists until 1900 when using a different proxy for mafia presence. The results also hold after controlling for other determinants of the early spread of the mafia in Sicily, such as the presence of citrus groves and sulphur mines, as well as the rise of Peasant Fasci in the late nineteenth century.


In the mechanism analysis, I find that repression-hit towns experienced, on average, a lower trust in institutions in the short term, as measured by electoral turnout in 1867, compared to non-repressed towns. I complement these results with other qualitative evidence taken mainly from primary sources and indicating a decrease in state legitimacy following the forceful introduction of conscription in Sicily.


Overall, this work provides suggestive evidence that Sicilian towns directly exposed to a repressive nation building policy in 1863 were more likely to experience the presence of organized crime groups soon afterwards. I interpret this result as evidence of decreasing state legitimacy following the implementation of that policy. Although this work directly informs our understanding of only nineteenth-century Sicily, it provides an important reminder for current policymakers who have advocated (and sometimes also enacted, as seen for instance in the Kashmir region in India or in the Xinjiang region in China) forceful assimilation policies in recent years: nation building without state legitimacy can backfire.



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