Crony Capitalism: The Sicilian Disease goes Global

The Americans and British are doing a lot of talking about Crony Capitalism. The economic woes of Italy, Spain and Greece are blamed on the cronyism they seem addicted to. Meanwhile the indignant Americans and British are gradually realising that their own politicians and businessmen are chronic cronyists too.

Who’s in your back pocket?

In the UK, being one-time Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown means you can pay your own brother for being your char lady (yes really!) and then claim the £6,000 back from taxpayers as ‘work expenses’.

“I had to clean the whole flat myself today!”

Meanwhile in the US, the political lobbying system is pure institutionalised cronyism, isn’t it?

In these countries, being caught out in blatant cronyism is a source of shame, and a career-damaging or sometimes-career-ending blunder. It can harm one’s reputation as badly as, say, getting up to some extra-marital hanky-panky with a podgy intern and a cigar.

So how does it all work in a country where cronyism is nothing to be ashamed of?

Firstly, I can tell you it starts young.

In my son’s class at school there is a huge poster on the wall, made in proper primary school fashion out of glued-on wool and bits of cut out paper. Its title, in fat red marker pen, is La Rete Sociale – “The Social Network”.

This is not a project to introduce six-year-olds to Facebook. It shows cut-out human figures with randomly chosen names: Giuseppe, Marco, Anna, Danilo, Maria. Among them are important figures, whose importance is denoted by being coated in glitter glue; a lawyer, a politician, a construction engineer, a priest, a doctor, and so on. Lines of wool randomly connect each figure to various others in a kind of cobweb.

These are Sicilian citizens….
This is the fabric of Sicilian society

Underneath is the explanation that we all know various people in our community. Then come the questions: How many of her friends will Anna have to ask before she finds one who knows the politician? How many of Danilo’s friends know the construction engineer? This was explained to me by a girl of eight called Cecilia, who was holding a lollipop in one hand and a stuffed toy Tweetie Pie in the other.

“You see, all these people will need help from someone else one day,” said Cecilia. “When he’s a grown-up Danilo will need a job, and that construction engineer may be able to give him one, if enough of the contacts they share recommend Danilo.”

“Recommend” is a special word in Italian. Raccomandazione means a special endorsement from a powerful person which guarantees you a certain job, whether or not you are qualified to do it. So the lines of wool represent, quite literally, the strings each person can pull.

“What about Anna?” I asked Cecilia. She sucked thoughtfully on her lollipop, then said,

“Oh yes, I remember! One day, the politician will be canvassing for votes and, if Anna can get near him and ask him to stop her landlord kicking her out of her flat, she’ll give him her vote.”

Then she ran off on her scrappy little legs, waving Tweetie Pie in the air.

An expert on social networking: your go-to person if you need any strings pulled

The lesson for the kiddies is that you need to make as many contacts as you possibly can, starting immediately. Make friends with everyone. Whether you like your friends or not is irrelevant. You’ll probably hate most of them. That doesn’t matter. As you grow up, you MUST have some glitter-glue coated people included in your network, the more the better. The more strands of wool coming off a drawing pin through your head, the better. If you don’t work hard at this, you might as well roll over in the gutter and die right now because you will never survive adulthood in Sicily without them. Failing maths? There are ways round that. Flunking Italian? It doesn’t really matter. A flop at social networking? You’re doomed.

The glittery people are the ones who can give out the most favours. Therefore they can call in the most favours. They are the ones who can receive the most bribes. In Sicily, joining the Mafia is one of the easy routes to coating yourself thickly in glitter glue.

You’ll need truckloads of this if you want to be influential in Sicily

Back in the mid nineties, when I was new in the finance industry, my bank sent me on a half day course called “Networking.” “Networking” had become a business buzz-word and it was being taught as a business tool to “Anglo-Saxons” (as the Italians collectively call Americans and northern Europeans), to those of us dummies who had grown up thinking that having top grade qualifications on your staggeringly impressive CV was all you needed to glitter through life. They told us how to accumulate potentially useful contacts and make full use of them. I was told this would “give me the edge.”

Looking at what investment bankers have done to the world economy in the noughties, it is quite shocking to reflect that they were actually sending their employees on costly training courses on how to descend into Crony capitalism back in the nineties.

Even so, we were such a bunch of pathetic amateurs compared to Sicilian eight-year-olds.

Back then, Facebook and LinkedIn did not exist. In fact the Internet did not exist unless you were a science nerd at Cambridge University or Harvard. So social networking took a lot more hard work. You had to phone people, meet them for a drink, invite them to lunch, catalogue their business cards and remember who they knew. It was exhausting. Besides, most of my colleagues and I never threw ourselves into it wholeheartedly as it all seemed a bit unscrupulous. Making friends just in case we got an opportunity to use them? Phoning people specifically to ask them to pull strings for us? Wasn’t that cheating? Wasn’t that just rude?

Nowadays, the Anglo Saxons have Facebook. Social networking is cool, not only for investment bankers, but for everyone. Anyone can do it, and it’s not even hard work any more.

Here in Sicily, and I suspect in all the other places where life is about who you know, where the economy is pure crony capitalism, networking is still hard work, though. Real social networking still takes place in the bars and on the streets in Sicily. For, here, it is a survival skill as essential as knowing how to put food in your mouth and swallow it. You cannot just hand it over to a computer programme. You can’t cut corners. Here in Sicily, cronyism is not just for corrupt politicians and businessmen, it’s for everyone.

When you do business in Italy, you cannot cold-call people. Well, you can, but all they’ll do is try to think of ways to rip you off. Oh no, you have to go through all your contacts till you find someone who will introduce you, with a verbal guarantee of your good character. That way, it is safe to do business with them. If you want a job, you’re unlikely to get very far sending your CV/resumé around. Most of the good jobs never even get advertised anyway. The potential employer asks around his contacts and hires whoever gets most strongly recommended, by the person with the most glitter glue.

When I first moved to Sicily I witnessed my husband going about his daily life, doing his networking thing non-stop. When our car got towed and impounded because we hadn’t noticed the (microscopic and rusted) no-parking sign, he proceeded as follows:

  1. Swear fluently in florid Sicilian
  2. phone 49 people in his cell phone memory, asking them all if they knew the official who worked at the car pound where we were supposed to pay a 300 Euro fine
  3. Eventually make the magical connection. The essential mutual contact had been found! He promised to make a call
  4. Arrive at the car pound on foot
  5. Car pound official in luminous yellow boiler suit greets my husband like a long lost friend
  6. Car pound guy fines us 32 Euros (apologetically, as there were technical reasons why this part of the fine could not be waived)
  7. Car pound guy hands us a large fancy cake which we must drop off at his mother’s house as a favour, since it happened to be on our way home.

Hubby gets phone calls periodically from young deaf people asking if he knows anyone who might be able to employ them, as he used to do volunteer work with the deaf. The routine goes something like this:

  1. Hubby and I are in the sea, snogging
  2. Hubby’s phone rings 20 metres away, on a beach towel. Like a dog reacting to a dog whistle, he can easily distinguish its ring from the other 367 cell phones on the beach
  3. He leaves me in the water and sprints up the beach like David Hasselhoff ready to give Pamela Anderson a private lesson in artificial respiration
  4. Hubby shouts so loudly that deaf old ladies can hear him in Milan or possibly Paris, telling deaf kid what to say when phoning his contact
  5. He texts relevant phone number to deaf person
  6. He phones the contact, telling them they are about to get a call from a really good kid, actually a close friend of his, in fact his second cousin/nephew/godson, and can they hire another employee?
  7. He scampers back into the sea
  8. A month later a young lad turns up at our house with a Christmas-type hamper full of stuffed olives, sun-dried tomatoes, rare wines and exotic types of pesto, signalling with his hands that it’s for us, to say thank you.

Whenever my husband meets someone new, the two of them rush through their curriculum vitae verbally, looking for connection points so they can find out any mutual contacts they may have: and they always do find someone eventually.

The thing that I find most amazing about all this is that my husband never forgets any of it. He remembers every place all his many hundreds of contacts used to work, where their mother lives, where they went to primary school, who their best man was. What is the point of all that networking if you are going to forget essential data?

Here in Sicily, people often ask me about the meritocracy in England.

“Is it really true that anyone can apply for jobs, and they choose the one with the best qualifications and experience? Even if they don’t know them?” people ask me.

“Yes, really,” I tell them.

“You mean, they would even hire a total stranger?” they ask me.

“Yes.”

“That’s amazing,” they say. “I can’t really imagine it, but it must be wonderful.”

In Sicily, cronyism is the only way. Once this corrupt behaviour achieves critical mass in a population, it becomes the only way to do things. When everyone else is doing it, you cannot unilaterally opt out.

This system of patronage, of turning to people coated in glitter-glue to sort your life out, was established as the basis of the legal and political system of the Ancient Romans. It started at the top, and filtered down. It has been the foundation of Mediterranean society ever since. Most of them tell me they don’t like this system. They see its weaknesses. They look at the Anglo-Saxon system of meritocracy with deep admiration and a little envy.

Yet how can these people suddenly throw away two thousand years of culture and tradition? How can the garlic belt of Europe stop operating like this? How can they start to be more like the “Anglo Saxons”?

They don’t know how to make that happen, and neither do I.

All I can tell you is, if the Anglo Saxons don’t find a way to reverse their terrifying trend towards cronyism, it will gradually filter down to all levels of society. It won’t be just the politicians and the bankers. The Anglo Saxons could also fall into the abyss.

Once you’re in there, I fear, perhaps, there really is no way to climb back out.

What do you think? Is there a way for them to change?

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12 thoughts on “Crony Capitalism: The Sicilian Disease goes Global

  1. Great post!
    You know, I have many thoughts on the things you have written so well about here, but I must tell you, a few years ago a good friend’s mother needed a liver transplant. My friend , an attorney worked for a very, very powerful politician. Her mother had her transplant in short order. Everyone whispered that they knew why her mother was pushed to the front of the line. She knew people were talking, She said to me one day “If your mother had three months to live and someone you knew had the power to get her a transplant what would you do?” I knew then, and I know now, I’d accept any help I could get from anyone that would help me. All over the world, I suspect, these are the ways of things.

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  2. I think you’ll find that at the tops of most industries cronyism is alive and well in anglo-saxonia. In my ex’s industry (advertising) jobs and contracts are won and lost in late night bars over a few grams of coke. All the top level staff are related to each other. My ex hasn’t got very far because he wanted to come home for dinner in the evenings and not schmooze his bosses in a bar everynight, he’s the best employee they have,,certainly the most drug and alcohol free, Yet he’s passed over for promotion left right and centre.

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  3. I grew up in Chicago (1950’s & 60’s). It was mostly a city of working class immigrants. When you wanted something done in your neighborhood – like new swings in a park or an eyesore of a fence torn down – you called your local (voting) precinct captain. He (it was always a “he” back then) somehow got it done. In return, you were loyal in voting for whatever political party (always the Democrats in Chicago) he was loyal to and from which he had received his job. Pretty much, everyone thought this was a great way to get stuff done.

    But I am reminded by your post that it was the Sicilian half of my family that constantly said things like: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” There were many other sayings with the same thrust. But I never heard such from the German half of my family. Those folks were self-reliant to a fault. There must be a happy medium in this somewhere!

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    1. So it seems cronyism has long been alive and well in America, then?
      Does it work negatively there, too?
      I mean, in Sicily, you can turn to the “network” for help, but woe betide you if you offend someone. Or if a high profile connection of yours puts a foot wrong. Then you’ll find people stepping in and thwarting you at every turn. You’ll never get a job. Your landlord may kick you out of your flat. Your kids will mysteriously fail every exam they take, that kind of thing.
      We don’t have a free press in Italy – it’s all controlled by ex President Berlusconi. When he was president, some journalists tried to expose the truth about him and they lost not only their jobs, but their careers and families’ lives were ended – they had to emigrate just to survive.

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      1. All that was quite a while ago. Things are not so negative in America. We have lots of laws and enforce them so things don’t get out of hand. We also now have a very diverse population, making it unlikely that any one way of thinking can take over. We have a very free press. I sometimes think it is too unbridled. But then I remember what happens elsewhere when people lack freedoms of speech, assembly, press, etc. Democracy is not a perfect system because people are never perfect. It is a constant push and pull in an attempt to get things right, which we call “checks and balances”. Again, very imperfect, but better than most.

        (And rather great for the law profession, because it requires lots of laws and lawyers!)

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      2. Very interesting observations. I think that may be the key that is lacking in Sicily – all Italy actually: legal checks and balances. I wonder if an alteration of the legal system, some move away from Roman Law to the more common-sense approach used in the British and US legal systems, might be part of the solution? And freedom of speech may be the rest of the solution.

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  4. A serious topic, this. I love your illustration of the point you’re making with the everyday examples of your husband’s work and the 8-year-old’s insight.

    I have never experienced cronyism here. Doesn’t mean Sweden is devoid of it, just that I’ve never witnessed any examples of it. I remember reading a comparative study many years ago on corruption in different countries, where Sweden ranked second (after Finland) as the most corruption-free country. I wonder how much things have changed in the 15 years since I read that. Quite a bit, I suspect, but then I am not a particularly optimistc person… 😉

    I am still in awe of your writing skills: The flow of the text reminds me so much of your book. It takes you to another place entirely; draws you in, entertains, enlightens, and enriches you. It’s a gift.

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