Over the past six years or so, several ini­tia­tives have sought to expand the reach of the Anti­mafia criminal justice project beyond the strictly-defined realm of criminal orga­ni­za­tions of the mafia type. As that strict def­i­n­ition con­sti­tutes one of that criminal justice project’s fun­da­mental achieve­ments of the 1980s-90s (Puccio-Den 2008; 2012; 2015), this recent turn poses intriguing anthro­po­logical dilemmas. Specif­i­cally, several leg­islative and political ini­tia­tives have pro­posed to crim­i­nalize asso­ci­a­tions that promote or coor­dinate inter­ference with public admin­is­tration. These ini­tia­tives share two things. First, a new approach to the political potential of “deviated” Freemason lodges. Second, they attempt to reframe cor­ruption as an asso­ciative crime, rather than as either the trans­action between gain-seeking indi­viduals (mafia-related or not) or as the “organic inter­weaving of mafia and not mafia” best cap­tured by the term “intreccio” on the other hand (Schneider 2018, S19). This shared approach to cor­ruption as an asso­ciative crime sug­gests a new anthro­po­logical imag­inary of the power of ritual broth­erhood to motivate or oblige persons’ action.

The orga­ni­za­tional potential of ritual broth­erhood for political mobi­lization has a long history.[1] The political potential that fra­ternity holds as a kinship metaphor for political rela­tions well pre­dates the French Rev­o­lution and hold a promise more uni­versal than that of any one polity (Mahmud 2014; Pitt-Rivers 1977). As others have amply shown, modern political thought is founded on the assumption that the only kinship idiom that has sur­vived political modernity is fra­ternity (Anderson 1991, 6–7). Familial real­ities apart, among all the popular kinship cat­e­gories (cousins, sis­terhood, in-laws, milk-kin, god­parents, etc.), fra­ternity has come to pos­tulate the closest, strictest, most equal bond (Minicuci and Palumbo 2001). In European, Middle Eastern, and North African imag­i­na­tions, brothers are sup­posed to be similar, close, equal, mutually trusting, and so forth, and should beware of divisive com­pe­tition, or so go various ide­ologies of fra­ternity (Sahlins 2011). This pos­tu­lated strictness is his­tor­i­cally related to the emer­gence of brotherhood’s ubiquity as a vehicle of political mobi­lization: invo­ca­tions of fra­ternity entail a binary, sit­u­a­tional, flat­tening view of the social world, and produce either reifying exclu­sions or no divi­sions at all.[2] Hence the men­acing potential of exclusive ritual broth­erhood that are smaller than, wider than, or tra­versing estab­lished political communities.

The Italian State has mis­rec­og­nized and peri­od­i­cally monop­o­lized this thread of claimed sameness, parity and shared fate (e.g. in monastic orders, masonic lodges, and the “Aquile randagie” during fascism). The political assump­tions about the illicit potential of ritual broth­erhood shaped the official per­ception of Freemasons and mafias, which sub­stan­tiated their crim­i­nal­ization as orga­ni­za­tions assumed to be binding, mobi­lizing, and con­ta­gious enough to pose a per­ceived threat to “public order.” Nev­er­theless, accu­sa­tions of various types, which cast on the same stage these two ritual broth­er­hoods, usually reserve the terms “asso­ciative bond [vincolo asso­ciativo]” to the mafia. This dis­tinction retains for the mafia the anthro­po­logical imag­inary according to which people act because they are com­pelled (“vin­colati”) as members to do so, not nec­es­sarily because they see it in their own indi­vidual interest to do so (Pipyrou 2014, 12). In this judicial line of rea­soning, Mafiosi, unlike Masons, do what they do because they are who they are—mafiosi. In other words, the social fact of mem­bership “sticks” – it becomes a per­se­vering char­ac­ter­istic of a person.

The anthro­po­logical imag­inary of mafia, masonry, and the rela­tionship (pos­sible, actual, general) between the two dra­ma­tizes ritual brotherhood-based asso­ci­ation at the inter­section of kinship, friendship, and the law. Fra­ternity may well be an ele­mentary building block in uni­ver­sal­izing projects, but its rise to promi­nence is a par­ticular Mediter­ranean story. The leg­is­lation of friendship val­i­dates “any hor­i­zontal alliance with political purview” through its ver­tical medi­ation in the sov­ereign (or seat of juris­diction; Velasco 2019, 121). Such leg­is­lation con­strues licit friendship (hor­i­zontal) as legal sub­jecthood (ver­tical) through the idioms of fra­ternity and brotherly love: for it “con­sti­tutes the purest way to present a rela­tionship of affinity as if it were a rela­tionship of con­san­guinity” (Velasco 2019, 119). In doing so, friendship as quasi-fraternity becomes the hinge of the rela­tionship between kinship at large and the law. In the process, broth­erhood becomes “broth­erhood,” and it does so in two ways. In the first, people enter one rela­tionship – friendship – shaped in the form “just like” another rela­tionship (in this case, broth­erhood). Whatever shape any one rela­tionship takes, the friendship that is modeled after it is said to assume that shape. In itself, this bor­rowing is not rulers’ (nor monothe­istic reli­gions’) inno­vation. In the second, that rela­tionship is poten­tially and often scaled up. Dif­fer­ently from social insti­tu­tions like dyadic blood-brotherhoods (Evans-Pritchard 1933; Bei­delman 1963), which only model one kind of rela­tionship (friendship) on another of the same scale (broth­erhood), in leg­is­lated friendship the law­maker mediates ver­ti­cally not just the friendship of any two or more friends, but all friendship.

The leg­is­lation of friendship con­se­quently ille­galizes some of its forms; at times crim­i­nal­izing them (recently more fre­quently). What is being crim­i­nalized is not kinship as such but kinship “in law,” or certain forms of friendship. Law­making seeks to draw a boundary between two similar reartic­u­lating uses of kinship, that is, between legal and illegal friendship, not between kinship and friendship. It might be worth reit­er­ating. Friendship under law and kinship are not fun­da­men­tally opposed, because each side of the dyad is already informed by its opposite. Various forms of kinship already reartic­ulate other forms of kinship (e.g., milk-kinship and co-parenthood; Parkes 2004; Mintz and Wolf 1950) and friendship incor­po­rates the forms of relat­edness of its social sur­rounding (Pitt-Rivers 2016). So when states crim­i­nalize certain forms of ritual broth­er­hoods and the asso­ci­a­tions that are based on them, they crim­i­nalize earlier or emergent com­peting forms of asso­ci­ation and the idioms of kinship (or, more broadly, the terms of relat­edness) that they rearticulate.

This kind of crim­i­nal­ization therefore differs sig­nif­i­cantly from the way in which the term has been increas­ingly used by stu­dents of the rela­tionship between states and soci­eties. For it revolves on sameness, not oth­erness. As soon as it caught the attention of legal anthro­pol­o­gists, crim­i­nal­ization took the shape and assumed the function of oth­ering more broadly. For example, for Sally Engle Merry (1998, 15), the target pop­u­lation of “the crim­i­nal­ization of everyday life […] is often envi­sioned as degraded, indolent, vicious, and licen­tious as well as racially dis­tinct and inferior. […] Racial fears and social images of dis­order take solid form in a pro­cession of con­victed and incar­cerated bodies.” Against this view, the crim­i­nal­ization of ritual broth­erhood appears to unfold between law­making projects and those social for­ma­tions that they view as similar and treat as men­acing because of that sim­i­larity, not those the dif­ference of which they cun­ningly rec­ognize (Povinelli 2002, 17). I out­lined at the outset the process of the gradual dis­tinction of broth­erhood as the para­mount polit­i­cally charged term of relat­edness. Nev­er­theless, the political tra­jectory of broth­erhood is only one in a sequence of moments in which emergent insti­tu­tions reartic­u­lated, scaled up, and then sought to monop­olize each time a dif­ferent term of relat­edness; levirate, for example (Goody 1983, 64–68). These moments pave the history of Mediter­raneanists’ attempts to imagine the arc of change from an ancient world imagined as resem­bling exog­amous mar­riage famous in anthro­pol­o­gists’ work on places con­sidered rad­i­cally dif­ferent from Euro-American 19th-20th Century soci­eties. A first phase sees the emer­gence of endogamy and the grouping sense of identity and supe­ri­ority that justify it. Here, most famously with Moses’s appearance on scrip­tural stage, “brothers” is used for the first time metaphor­i­cally (Exodus 2:11), yet still only within the bounds of a group that is taken as expandable only through repro­duction. In the second phase, broth­erhood attains a more spir­itual essence, and can thus be mediated no longer through this or that ancestor only. At a later stage, the insti­tu­tions of spir­itual broth­erhood seek to scale up and monop­olize the devices of relat­edness (like mar­riage, god­par­enthood, levirate, and adopting) and the political eco­nomic moves these permit.[3] At the con­tem­porary end of this chain of monop­o­lizing attempts stand con­tem­porary states. The same reartic­u­lated broth­erhood that sub­stan­tiates their national cit­i­zenship as gen­er­alized friendship has served other asso­ci­a­tions, which at times predate their states, and at others claim to survive (if not promote) their demise.[4]

While states seek to monop­olize friendship-as-brotherhood, they only recently joined a long his­torical chain of such insti­tu­tions, some of which still thriving. The rela­tionship between kinship, friendship, and the law con­se­quently par­takes in “the detailed political processes through which the uncertain yet pow­erful dis­tinction between state and society is pro­duced” (Mitchell 1991, 78). The state appears neither as “as having a monopoly on vio­lence,” as Weber is often mis­quoted (Martin 2020, 657), nor nec­es­sarily as “a human com­munity that (suc­cess­fully) claims the monopoly of the legit­imate use of physical force within a given ter­ritory,” as the English trans­lation puts it (Weber 1919, 78). Instead, perhaps it would be more helpful to see states as claiming monopoly over the legit­i­mation of the use of physical force (official and other). What con­di­tions that attempted monopoly is the state’s ability to nego­tiate with the various other “political asso­ci­a­tions” their own claims to use both physical force and the terms of relat­edness – scaled up and reartic­u­lated – to legit­imate it.


  1. I refer here to any­thing from the role of scaled-up broth­erhood in monothe­istic reli­gions’ con­tri­bution to the cos­mo­logical con­di­tions of cap­i­talism, through the emer­gence of spec­u­lative fra­ter­nities in the enlight­enment and the role of clubs and asso­ci­a­tions in the for­mation of modern statehood, to the role and menace of orga­nized ritual broth­erhood in present-day repub­lican states (Schneider 1990; Mahmud 2012; Lagalisse 2019; Koselleck 1988).[]
  2. Most famously, in tribal feuds, however people describe their rela­tionship, they call each other “brothers” when the time comes to bear arms. But the call is made (and taken) as a sit­u­a­tional mobi­lizing gesture, not a description of political rela­tions (Dresch 1986, 311; Shryock 1997, 77).[]
  3. That is, from the world of “the fate of Shechem” through that “of vig­i­lance and virgins” and “the republic of cousins,” to the 19th Century north­western European family (Pitt-Rivers 1977; Schneider 1971; Tillion 1983; Goody 1983).[]
  4. See Michael Herzfeld’s forth­coming mono­graph on Sub­versive Archaisms.[]