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One of the reasons why statists call for more government is the belief that communities can’t get together to solve problems. Individuals, the argument goes, are powerless to improve their communities, so they need to turn to government.

But get people together and they can do quite a lot. Jesse Walker, the books editor of Reason, explains in this article describing the Italian Addiopizzo movement, in which law-abiding businesses in Sicily have successfully banded together to fight the Mafia.

Walker’s article is an extended review of Curtailing Corruption, by Shaazka Beyerle, a report by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict on ways people are organizing themselves to fight crime. In India, for example, someone printed fake zero rupee notes that can be handed to government inspectors who want to be bribed. But Walker’s article-- along with good reporting by Philip Jacobson in Newsweek  and Joshua Hammer in Smithsonian-- give English-speaking readers a good sense of what the Italians are doing.

Pizzo in Italy means “bribe,” and in Sicily it’s long been known that you can’t start a business without paying off La Cosa Nostra multiple times. A 2008 study from the University of Palermo estimated that the Mafia makes about a billion euros a year from these bribes—and that’s just in Sicily.

But in 2004 seven friends in Palermo wanting to open a pub decided they weren’t going to pay off the mob. They first plastered the city with stickers saying, “Un intero popolo che paga il pizzo è un popolo senza dignità” —“An entire people who pays pizzo is a people without dignity.” They also convinced reluctant witnesses to testify against the Mafia.

In 2007 Addiopizzo member Rodolfo Guajana discovered that someone had left a bottle half-filled with gasoline and a lighter outside his home. A few months later, a warehouse Guajana owned burned down, and the police strongly suspected the Mafia was the cause.

The warehouse fire galvanized the Addiopizzo movement. The organizers collected the names of 2,500 people who said they didn’t want to patronize businesses that paid pizzo. They convinced some businesses to display stickers stating that they wouldn’t pay pizzo bribes. The slogan is Pago Chi Non Paga—“I Pay Those Who Don’t Pay.” The largest company to sign on is Benetton, the Italian fashion designer.

Since then the Addiopizzo movement has grown to around 10,000 people. They have an investigative arm to make sure that businesses that say they aren’t paying bribes are not secretly paying them. There is also a travel arm where Addiopizzo supporters can go on holidays making sure that their money doesn’t go directly or indirectly to the Mafia.

As the movement has grown, it has accepted some government subsidies from the Sicilian provincial government and from the European Union. In addition, the headquarters of the Addiopizzo movement was provided rent free to them by the Sicilian provincial government under a program called “Libera Terra,” which takes property formerly owned by the Mafia and transfers it to nonprofit agricultural cooperatives, many organized by the Catholic Church. (Think of these cooperatives as being in the same class of social enterprises as benefit corporations.) The largest of these, Centopassi, produces wine so good that a British wine writer in 2013 said that Centopassi’s vintages were “some of the greatest wine produced in Sicily.”

The Mafia remains well entrenched in Sicily, but Stuart Townsend provides one example of how irritating the mobsters have found their foes. Recently Italian prosecutors released a video in which they secretly recorded Italian capo Giovanni Di Giacomo ranting to his brother. In the tape, Di Giacomo said that the Addiopizzo movement was a “f***ing disaster” and that the activists combined with the ongoing recession in Sicily meant that ”it might not be worth the bother” any more to collect bribes. He added that younger mobsters might have to get “a real job” instead of remaining criminals.

The Addiopizzo movement shows the resilience of civil society. As Jesse Walker concludes, the story of Addiopizzo is “a tale about organized crime running head-first into organized disobedience. The criminals in question may still be active, but the refuseniks are standing stronger than ever before.”

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