Godfather Politics: The European Public Order

Without equating politics with gangsterism, the analogy of The Godfather movie is used to explain the European public order which lasted from the 17th to the 20th century. Carl Schmitt critiqued this order in his post-WWII masterpiece The Nomos of the Earth.

All politics is gangsterism … a tired and hackneyed metaphor. There may be points of convergence between organized crime and government. The use of force by governments often evokes accusations of criminal brutality and the German playwright Bertold Brecht tapped into this sentiment in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Brecht’s affiliation with the German Democratic Republic hardly put him on a high moral plane and the ascription of gangsterism to governments is usually inaccurate. Government is authorized and enjoys legitimacy in a manner that gangsterism lacks.

So with that rider I commence to draw an analogy (in a very limited sense) between The Godfather movie and what was called the European public order or jus publicum Europaeum (to give it its Latin name). The movie is well-known, the public order less so. The jus … was that framework of inter-State law which governed European nations in the modern era, modernity the epoch between the Renaissance and early 20th century.

The precise dates of the birth and demise of this public order are ill-defined. There was no coronation ceremony and although Carl Schmitt did deliver a eulogy in his Nomos of the Earth (1950), it is hard to pinpoint when the arrangement ended.

As a rough timeline it can be said that the European public order grew out of the religious wars of the 16th century, was inaugurated by the Westphalian treaty of 1648, and probably ended just before WWI. The public order terminated when there was a move to a more international order with countries like Japan covered by terms which used to apply to European countries. Conditions of the jus …did not apply to those outside of Europe which is why colonialism, and sometimes genocide, could be justified. Assumptions of the order still frame many parameters of contemporary international law.

So back to the analogy … in The Godfather, there are five families. Up until the end of the movie, the families carve up New York’s underground. They do so by agreement. At times, their code, that ‘honour amongst thieves,’ broke down and violence ensued. Of course, this reflected the true situation in New York from the 1930s onwards. Five families, headed by the Gambinos, controlled the underground and indeed were vital for the smooth operation of legitimate trade like the construction and clothing industries. It is perhaps coincidental that there were also five great powers at the United Nations at the time Mario Puzo’s book was written! Across the US, criminal ‘families’ – members and associates of fraternities – controlled the underground in individual cities and they operated within a criminal code.

Under the European public order, a similar system operated in this regard (again to re-emphasize I am not associating the legal order with gangsterism). Four key concepts underpinned the order:

(1) Corporate theory, the notion that organizations acted as persons. These were like mafia families. Corporate theory rang especially true for the burgeoning States in the early modern era, and nations were often headed by a monarch or emperor, a political Godfather, who personified their kingdom or empire.

(2) The Medieval duel. In a duel, the source of the dispute is not inquired into. However, the ‘quality’ of the duellers (between individuals they would need to be gentleman, between countries they would have to be ‘cut from the same cloth’) is not considered. This is like when mafia families hit the mattresses. Mafioso also denoted themselves as men of honour and the international duel, or inter-state war, was grounded similarly.

(3) The legal status, arguably even sacredness of territory, or ‘turf.’ By the 17th century, there was the idea of private property engraved on the public consciousness in many countries in Europe. Just as a man’s home was his castle, a king’s lands were his realm and what he did within them was beyond question.

(4) Recognition by other powers. Mafia families, composed of members who were ‘made,’ had to be recognized by other families.

At times of course, the order was disturbed or circumstances changed. Just as happened midway during The Godfather, after there had been a turf war, heads and officials of European States would meet to negotiate modifications to the order. Possibly the most famous of these was the Congress of Vienna of 1814-15 where the concert of Europe was launched.

The 19th century was the high water mark of the European public order when figures like Metternich and Otto von Bismarck bestrode the political stage. Later in the century, the jus … provided a framework for carving up the African continent. Similarly, in The Godfather, black neighbourhoods were considered ‘beyond the pale’ and places where the moral code governing Italian or European neighbourhoods could be relaxed.

Carl Schmitt spent the latter half of his career analysing the successes of the European public order. For him, the anarchy that it presented was outweighed by the fact that there were ‘political families’ whose lands were broadly respected even after a deadly war, where settlements such as Belgian neutrality could be accomplished, and where few judgements were made concerning the protagonists who entered into warfare. He lamented the over-legalization of conflict that occurred after WWI with the establishment of the League of Nations and the ill-fated attempts to completely abolish war. On the one hand such attempts were idealistic but they also destroyed the sense of gentlemanly honour (at the national level) that was so crucial to the success of the European public order. Whole nations or heads of state could be criminalized merely for making a power-play. While he appeared to be a chauvinist, enthusiastically supporting the depravities of colonialism, the one crucial point he made was that the legal order needed to be founded on common ‘cultural’ bonds between members. The mafia also understood this.

Currently, I am researching a book on Carl Schmitt. His work piqued my interest and it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. I have already authored one book Mysteries of State in the Renaissance. My Amazon page is here. 

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