Louis Proyect on The Sopranos
“A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as commodities. . .The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.; and all these different lines of business, which form equally many categories of the social division of labour, develop different capacities of the human spirit, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them.” —Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value
HAVING JUST COMPLETED ITS FIFTH SEASON * on premium cable station Home Box Office, “The Sopranos” has garnered well-deserved accolades for innovative writing, directing and acting. Along with other HBO series such as “Sex and the City” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it is continuing evidence of premium cable’s ability to rise to the standards of golden era television. Before rampant commercialization took over in the early 1960s, network television pioneered breakthrough weekly dramatic series such as Playhouse 90 that drew upon gifted playwrights, many of whom like Walter Bernstein had been blacklisted from the film industry.
HBO shares the social and political vision of television’s early days. “The Sopranos” offers up sharply observed insights about American class society reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser’s naturalistic novels. Revolving around the character of New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano and his friends and rivals, the series makes clear that criminality is deeply engrained in American society. It also reveals that Tony Soprano has the same hunger for social acceptance as any other ‘nouveau riche.’ Ironically, his criminal mystique seems to open up more doors for him in polite society than the barbecues and church donations he lavishes on his New Jersey bedroom community.
“The Sopranos” can be categorized with other post-Romantic and post-Affluent Mafia narratives. By post-Romantic we mean the following: As in the case of Mike Newell’s film “Donnie Brasco,” the main characters lack the Corleone family’s charisma. Rather than appearing as a sort of chivalric order with the sense of noblesse oblige of Coppola’s “Godfather,” Soprano and his crew would steal from their own mothers. In addition, like the character Lefty Ruggiero played by Al Pacino in “Donnie Brasco,” they are always under constant pressure to make ends meet. In the post-affluent world of “The Sopranos,” just as is the case in any small proprietorship today, sales quotas in a framework of declining market share have to be met. But the gangster has the added complication of being continuously hounded by the feds. When an underling cannot come up with Tony Soprano’s share of gambling profits, he might get a broken nose. In the straight world, the consequence might be a loss of a job and economic collapse. Who can say which is worse?
Lorraine Bracco plays Dr. Melfi. Some of the irony of what she represents may be lost on more than a few real-life shrinks.
“The Sopranos” shares the central conceit of the comedy “Analyze This,” in which a mob boss played by Robert DeNiro is psychoanalyzed by Billy Crystal. Although “The Sopranos” has the reputation for sharp observations about organized crime, it is also impressive for satirical insights about psychotherapy. After suffering debilitating panic attacks, Tony Soprano goes to his initial session with Dr. Jennifer Melfi, played by Lorraine Bracco. Bracco, best known for playing the wife of Mafia gangster Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas“, is perfect as the formula-spouting shrink who has about as much chance of “curing” Tony Soprano as she has in understanding the futility of her profession. The notion that exploring early childhood traumas and dream analysis can cure Tony Soprano of his panic attacks is rich comic material, especially when played straight. It reaches the height of absurdity when Dr. Melfi sits down with her supervising psychiatrist, played by veteran Hollywood director Peter Bogdanovitch. When the two of them exchange psychobabble about the ape-necked Tony Soprano, any mental health professional viewing the exchange would cringe — that is, in the unlikely event that they were capable of seeing themselves objectively.
Another “Goodfellas” veteran in The Sopranos’ cast is weaselly-looking Michael Imperiale, who plays Tony Soprano’s nephew and henchman Christopher Moltisanti. Playing the lowly waiter Spider in “Goodfellas,” Imperiale gets a bullet in the foot from Joe Pesci for just looking at him the wrong way. As the out-of-control Christopher, he is now in the position to shoot other people in the foot. While Tony Soprano’s dream is to get a membership in the country club alongside his physician and stockbroker neighbors, Christopher hopes that his crudely written screenplay “You Bark, I Bite” will get him a ticket to Hollywood and out of the Mafia. When he discovers that Jon Favreau, director of the minor comedy film “Swingers” and playing himself as a director looking for “realistic” elements in his own crime movie, has cribbed details from “You Bark, I Bite,” Christopher goes to his hotel looking for vengeance. He is stopped in his path by Favreau’s ivy-educated assistant who tells him that his screenplay was crap. After this class-inflected rebuff, Christopher rededicates himself to the family’s business with new vigor.
In Tony Soprano’s first session with Dr. Melfi, he represents himself as a waste management consultant. Since she is Italian herself and a New Jersey native, she knows right off the bat that he is a gangster. In New Jersey, waste management and organized crime are practically synonymous. Although Tony Soprano and his cohorts lack Don Corleone’s romanticized benevolence, they never reach the level of malevolence that would repel the average viewer.
Mostly, they come across as bumbling, hot-tempered rascals prone to malapropisms of the sort uttered by Shakespeare’s clowns. During one session with his shrink, Tony tries to explain how old-school gangsters took their time with vendettas: “You know what they say: Revenge is like serving cold cuts.” Another gangster Little Carmine complains, “We’re in a fucking stagmire.”
While all of this is certainly entertaining, the reality of waste removal in New Jersey is a far more serious business. As most people know, there are cancer alleys in New Jersey where abnormally high incidences of the disease are clustered.
In 1985, the International Journal of Epidemiology reported that “Clusters of cancer mortality were observed in 23 municipalities in 10 counties [in New Jersey] in which a total of 98 age-adjusted cancer death rates were at least 50% above the national rate, and each of these municipalities had at least two race-sex-specific cancers in which the observed number of cancer deaths was greater than the expected number of deaths at the p less than 0.0005 level. Of these 98 excessive cancer death rates, 72% involved the gastrointestinal tract. Most of the municipalities are located in the highly industrialized densely populated northeastern part of the State.”
What did all of these municipalities have in common? They were all located in proximity to toxic waste disposal sites. One of the biggest toxic waste removal firms in New Jersey is Browning-Ferris, which is based in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a town that provides many of the on-location backdrops for “The Sopranos.” Key officers and participants of Browning-Ferris have been identified as organized crime figures, especially with ties to Teamsters Local 813 and 945. It would be a challenge to the writers of “The Sopranos” to come up with an episode that features one of the leading female characters coming down with breast cancer. A confrontation between such a character and Tony Soprano over his responsibility for her illness would make for some gripping drama, although I doubt that this subject will ever be broached.
For both Tony Soprano and his real-life counterparts, the key to gaining control over the waste haulage industry and other sectors traditionally dominated by organized crime is seizing control of the trade unions beforehand. Indeed, the political and social retreat of the CIO after WWII can partially be explained by the rise of criminal elements in the trade union movement who shared the anti-Communism of the bosses and the government.
However, we should not stereotype bureaucrats in mob-dominated unions. Often they were clever enough to adopt “progressive” coloration to mask their criminal connections. Patrick Gorman of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen is a prime example. In “Vicious Circles,” a first-rate book on organized crime by the late Jonathan Kwitny, we learn:
“Gorman was a strange creature. He put the union in the forefront of some broad liberal causes over the years, lobbying in Congress for higher minimum wages and aid to the poor (particularly government subsidies, which would not so coincidentally increase jobs for his members). He even, to George Meany’s consternation, lobbied against the Vietnam war.”
In the May 1, 2003 Nation Magazine (“Labor’s Cold War”), Tim Shorrock provides additional information on the Meany-Gorman clash:
One of the saddest things about the Chile files is the absence of any statement condemning Pinochet’s coup. The AFL-CIO’s indifference comes across in Meany’s response to an October 3, 1973, telegram from Patrick Gorman, then president of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters International Union, beseeching him to protest the pending execution of Luis Corvalan, one of Chile’s leading Communists and a prominent member of the CUT. “A trade union leader in Chile could, with the present reactionary progress of the world, be a trade union leader of the United States tomorrow,” Gorman wrote.
While all this is well and good, it is also worth mentioning that Gorman once bragged that he maintained peace with the bosses of a sort that might have been envied by Chile’s generals. In a 1977 interview, he bragged, “We haven’t had a strike against Oscar Mayer in thirty-five years. Swift, in twenty.”
The most mob-infested local of Gorman’s union was based in Brooklyn and run by two Jewish immigrant brothers, Max and Louis Block and their Mafia associates. Kwitny’s portrait of the Block brothers captures the incestuous ties between big business, the trade union bureaucracy and the state. It also demonstrates that despite Gorman’s willingness to speak out for Communists in Chile, he had no problem with his own union officials cozying up to Joe McCarthy:
At least as important as what the Blocks did at union headquarters was the socializing they did on the outside. On an almost nightly basis, the Blocks brought together the meat industry and the underworld. To accommodate their varied friends, and their own taste for the sweet life, the Blocks acquired a steakhouse in New York, which they dubbed the Black Angus, and a country club in Connecticut, the Deercrest. Scalise and Pisano were regular diners at the Black Angus, as were many other ex-convicts, Mafia murderers, meat dealers, and supermarket chain executives who stopped by the restaurant to greet friends and make payoffs. As Scalise and Pisano faded in power, their replacements as colorful Mob dominators of the meat industry also showed up at the Black Angus. These included the aforementioned John “Johnny Dio” Dioguardi and his friend from the Genovese Mafia family, Lorenzo “Chappy the Dude” Brescia. Another powerful figure, however, Paul “Constantine” Castellano of the Gambino family, seemed to regard the public drinking and dining sessions as indecorous and avoided them. Moe Steinman, the mole-like meat dealer and partner in the Daitch-Shopwell supermarket chain, tended by nature toward indecorousness and relished his role as key middleman in the bribery transactions. He could almost always be found at the Black Angus bar in the evenings. Jimmy Hoffa and Paul “Red” Dorfman–the Meyer Lansky of Chicago–went there when they were in town. Albert Anastasia’s personal bodyguard rented the apartment upstairs.
Another who showed up at the Black Angus on occasion when he visited New York was the late Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, the Communist witch-hunter the Blocks successfully wooed. Like some other corrupt labor leaders, notably in the Teamsters, the Blocks jumped on the anti-Communist bandwagon of the 1950s as a way of winning public sympathy and knifing their honest opposition. Left-wingers in the labor movement tended to be dedicated unionists and were philosophically disinclined to live in luxury off the members’ sweat. This made them the strongest natural barrier to the encroachment of racketeers. So over and over again the racketeers used the anti-Communist movement as a device to seize the upper hand.
With the domination of organized crime by recent Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants to the United States, it should come as no surprise that the Democratic Party would be riddled with mob-friendly politicians. Although most people might be familiar with the Kennedy administration’s ties to the mob, mediated by JFK’s father and ex-bootlegger Joseph Kennedy, there is ample evidence of the same kind of affinity going back to FDR.
The most exhaustive account of these connections can be found in Gus Russo’s “The Outfit,” a 550-page history of Al Capone’s mob. At the 1932 convention that pitted Franklin Roosevelt against Al Smith, the role of organized crime was crucial in ensuring FDR’s victory, an important step toward the repeal of prohibition.
Citing “Lucky” Luciano’s authorized biography, Russo identifies the unofficial mob delegation to the Democratic Party convention held during the depths of the Great Depression: Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Longy Zwillman, Moe Dalitz, Phil Kastel, and Frank Costello. The group also included Kansas City machine boss and mob cohort Tom Pendergrast, who would later be instrumental in Harry Truman’s accession to the presidency.
In a gesture reminiscent of corporate parties at the Democratic Party convention this summer, the mob threw bashes for the delegates where drinks were free. According to Luciano, “Liquor was for sale openly to any delegates at stands run by the heirs of Al Capone. In the hospitality suites run by the Outfit, liquor was free to all comers, and it was poured steadily and unstintingly all hours of the day and night. The bar was never closed and the buffet tables were constantly replenished.”
In a dogfight of the sort that is never seen at the carefully orchestrated conventions of today, Al Smith was leading a “Stop Roosevelt” faction. FDR’s aides then turned to the mobsters and asked for their help. As Luciano recalled, “We waited until the very last second, and we had Roosevelt and Smith guys comin’ out of our ears. They all knew we controlled most of the city’s delegates.”
A deal was hammered out with the Democratic Party bosses. If the mob would instruct their Chicago-based delegates to back FDR, he would in turn instruct New York Judge Samuel Seabury to call off a civic corruption investigation. Frank Costello was put in charge of brokering the deal. Luciano said, “When Frank got the word that Roosevelt would live up to his promise to kill the Seabury investigation — I mean like tapering off so he could save face — it was in the bag for him.”
As Karl Marx pointed out, the criminal creates the need for cops and criminologists. With such a symbiotic relationship, one might legitimately wonder if organized crime will ever be eradicated. A year does not go by without some big “breakthrough” which lands the Mafia celebrity of the moment in prison. John Gotti, the “dapper don” who dominated the headlines a few years ago, died in prison two years ago. (His daughter Victoria, who has a gift for self-promotion almost as powerful as her late father’s, now has a reality-based TV show which trades on Mafia mystique.)
Although capitalism probably would function better without organized crime, it seems utterly incapable of wiping it out once and for all. Whenever politicians put forward new crime-fighting programs, ranging from stiffer prison sentences to stepped up wiretaps, they never once consider eliminating the profit motive–for, after all, there is no greater crime than attacking profit itself.
To its distinction, “Godfather, Part Two,” one of the great masterpieces of Mafia popular culture, tackled this question head on. When Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, visits Cuba on the eve of the overthrow of Batista, he observes a revolutionary taking his own life and that of the soldiers arresting him with a concealed hand grenade. This leads him to speculate that organized crime had no future in Cuba. If men and women were so willing to sacrifice their lives for a higher calling, then the Mafia would have to look elsewhere.
When the House of Representatives was investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy in September, 1978, they heard testimony from Santo Trafficante. Along with Mafia bosses Johnny Rosselli and Sam Giancana, Trafficante had been hired by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro. All of them had grudges against Castro for closing down their gambling casinos. As Michael Corleone correctly anticipated, revolution and organized crime would turn out to be deadly enemies.
In explaining his decision to take the assignment, Trafficante made it clear to Chairman Carl Stokes that patriotism and good old-fashioned greed went hand-in-hand:
Trafficante: Well, I thought I was helping the U.S. Government. That’s what my reason was. And as far as the gambling and monopolies of this and that and all that trash about dope and prostitution, that’s not true. If things were straightened out in Cuba, I would liked to have gone back there. If I could gamble, I would gamble; if I couldn’t gamble, I wouldn’t gamble. But the reason was that I thought that it was not right for the Communists to have a base 90 miles from the United States. The same reason when the First and the Second World War, they call you to go to the draft board and sign up, I went and signed up. That’s the reason. And we all like to make money.
Chairman Stokes: I don’t quite understand.
Trafficante: I mean, we all like to make money in case there was a thing I was doing it for money, for this and for that, about going back to Cuba and gamble and have casinos or cabarets, stuff like that.
It has also been speculated that the Mafia had Kennedy killed on the orders of Jimmy Hoffa. Until the secret files of the CIA and the FBI are opened, we will never know for sure who killed Kennedy and his brother Bobby, also hated by the mob. One thing is certain, however: The level of depravity contained in those files will beggar the imagination of any of the writers on “The Sopranos.“
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* This piece was originally written in 2004.