une the static out of Italy’s fix-it government and you’re left with a class society trying to pretend it’s not. It’s a country of ushers, secretaries, chauffeurs, and assistants, beige-collar bureaucrats who do the bidding of better-educated or more privileged higher-ups. Politics, banking, law, academia, it doesn’t matter: Leadership means lording over underlings, the same underlings who then propel the economy, shortcuts included.
Bosses condescend benignly or less so to those who serve them. With college degrees as limited as professionalism, anointed upper echelons demand humility in exchange for salaries, leaving a high school level male citizenry to divide its time between soccer loyalties and hatching conspiracy theories in which castes and cabals manipulate everything from the European Union to underworld garbage collection.
Silvio Berlusconi emerged from this system. Abusive but linear, he never hid either his entitlement or his boisterous disdain for a legal system he saw as just another maker of opportunism. His untouchable swagger suited an animal arrogance with which Italians have a love-hate relationship. They are an envious people reigned by family civility alone.
Berlusconi finally rebuffed, Italy’s latest monotone is an agnostic SWAT team led by a former banker applauded for his Anglo-Saxon-ness (he speaks English and advised Coca Cola) and appreciated by Europeans who can’t help but love pasta but frown on Latin messiness.
Urged to do something by panicked France and panicked Germany, panicked Italy recruited a coterie of wealthy and influential men to make it more palatable (something many believed would happen as soon as Berlusconi stepped down; it didn’t).
With Europe’s central bank a fiction and financial unity a mirage, austerity is salvation’s only castor oil, which means imposing on a citizenry notorious for complaining about or eluding such impositions, or both. A hackneyed Italian word, responsibility, will soon make way for a more incendiary one, sacrifice.
It’s here that things get murky, at least in a class society predisposed to think in terms of castes and cabals.
When Mario Monti was elevated to the position of senator-for-life, paving the way for his nomination as prime minister, he instantly got a €25,000 a month salary. Pocket change in the world of cabals, but more than a U.S. president makes in a year.
Then there’s Monti’s chief fixer, corporate banker Corrado Passera, long at home with multi-million euro annual bonuses. Few male members of Monti’s apolitical cabinet know financial modesty. Even self-made tycoon Berlusconi could make a stronger claim to once having sweated.
Yet Monti’s senatorial bonus offered a rare opportunity for an un-Italian gesture.
He might have told parliament, and the public, that in light of Italy’s woes he could not in good conscience accept the stipend. His man Passera, tasked with making Italy lean and mean, could have followed suit by choosing to accept only a quarter of own ministerial salary. Sacrifice made personal acquires sudden meaning. Since Italian parliamentarians earn sizable lifetime pensions after age 65 (the state shelled out more an a billion euro in 2009 alone), austerity’s faint heart could have used an emblematic downsizing.
None of this happened, of course, and in fairness Italy’s political class couldn’t let it. Even Italy’s most urbane leaders, Monti among them, won’t vex party leaders lest they undermine the system that allows them to rule unelected.
Sacrifice annoys both the privileged, who consider it a violation of privilege, and the working class, who see cheapness as the destroyer of social safeguards. That easy money is irresistible and honest living means occasional dishonesties are working truths. All the more so in a Catholic country with a church that preaches self-effacement but has multinational resources. The paradox, commonplace in peripheral EU states (to bloated Brussels’ chagrin), isn’t going anywhere.
Occasionally, though, symbolism can jump-start the most unlikely of “Yes We Cans,” and a bit of sacrifice on Monti’s part might have gone a long way.
Better luck next year, or next decade, but by then the country’s new leaders will very likely be professional politicians elected by a restive population that on the one hand demands systemic change but on the other won’t surrender the very cleverness it decries.