February 29, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Ma cosa vuoi?

By |2018-03-21T18:46:51+01:00November 24th, 2011|"Notebook"|
Eliminate political parties. They cost a lot and get in the way.

ne of the biggest criticisms of Mario Monti is that he wasn’t elected. Well of course he wasn’t. That’s the point. He’s supposed to make Italy become productive again. He’s supposed to tackle just the sort of nasty problems elected people try to avoid — the same ones everyone thought Silvio Berlusconi was going to repair back in 1994, including pension and labor market reform, and (let’s dream a bit) electoral reform.

The reasons these problems remain unsolved is that Italy’s underlying social conditions produced them. They are habits, assumptions and beliefs that pre-date Berlusconi, and probably even created him. They’re what singer-songwriter and humorist Giorgio Gaber meant when he said: “Non temo Berlusconi in se, ma Berlusconi in me.” [I’m not afraid of Berlusconi as such, but of the Berlusconi in me.]

Italy can rightly be wary of having an unelected leader in times of economic turmoil and social unrest (remember fascism?). At the same time, lurking deep Italian psyche is a belief that only an outside authoritarian hand can untangle the mess. In 1992, the hand was called Europe. In 1994 it was Berlusconi, the businessman who could shape up the politicians. Now it’s back to the EU (and Germany) and Super Mario.

Instead of worrying, maybe Italy should just embrace its dark side but update it. It could develop a new authoritarian figure, only this time more in keeping with the globalized world, maybe taking a cue from the Asian model.

China and Singapore understood how entrenched social orders or destructive habits could hold a country back. And they weren’t afraid to do something about it. Mao and Lee Kuan Yew called a spade a spade. They went head on against “feudalism,” “backwardness” and the “Four Olds”: old ideas, old customs, old habits, old culture.”

What advice might Chairman Mao and Lee Kuan Yew give Monti? I have some thoughts:

1. Manage newspeak I: Language control is a classic kick-starter for reformers. Ban phrases such as ma cosa vuoi? or fare una bella figura. These encourage resignation and whitewashing. In school, substitute truffare for copiare. Modern countries call it “cheating” not “copying.”

2. Manage newspeak II: No more “left” and “right” in the political context. Keep it clear and precise: “bourgeois running dogs,” “slackers,” “thug,” or “sell-out.” Reinstate use of right and left in the traffic context, as in “use your right/left signal when planning to turn.”

3. Make “Cleanup” a mantra: Embrace Mao’s “four cleanups” from the 1960s Socialist Education Movement, in which urban professionals and the wealthy were sent work to in rural areas. In Italy, send Umberto Bossi and the Lega Nord to Calabria. Let ’em see what it’s like to live down there. Send southerners north to see “Northern superiority” in real life.

4. Apply “Redirection and rehabilitation”: Send Lapo Elkann or other cossetted slackers from Italy’s upper classes to work at their local A.S.L., the post-office or a bar on Milan’s outskirts.

5. Make national exams count: From the Mandarin bureaucracy to Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, these can really shake up a social order and eliminate the raccomandazione.

6. Eliminate political parties. They cost a lot and get in the way.

7. Eliminate parliament. Ditto as above.

8. Liven up the rhetoric through posters: “Fornicating patonza circulators” or “running dogs of crony capitalism.” Substitute TV’s boob-job babes with billboards of rosy-cheeked female PhDs, waving diplomas. “Join the future of fairly-paid women.”

9. Use dunce caps: Remember those consciousness groups where enemies of the people were publicly shamed during the Cultural Revolution? Make corrupt officials wear humiliating hats with slogans: “I spent funds for the day-care center on a Ferrari.” “I supplied B with girls.” Or tax evaders: “Declared €9,000, lived on €9 million.”

10. Manipulate the press. China and Singapore do it all the time. Monti shouldn’t be shy. Italy’s used to it anyway.

11. Throw money at universities and research; force the brain-drainers home.

12. Eliminate religion. This is another handy tool available to unelected regimes. Eliminate the “8 per mille” levy. This is the .0008% of taxpayers’ declared income that — unless the taxpayer opts out — the state gives to the Roman Catholic Church.

13. Emphasize politeness. What about a National Courtesy Campaign like Singapore’s? Encourage civil servants to treat the public nicely. Punish irritable bus and taxi drivers and rude mobile phone users. The 1996 Kindness Movement got young Singaporeans to do a good deed daily.

14. Monitor cops. No more police who look the other way. Singapore fined offenders caught chewing gum — and made them pay.

There are risky downsides. But hey, isn’t that what the EU and NATO are for?

The Asian example might also help Monti win support from some of Italy’s more notorious progress-blockers, including Giuliano Ferrara and members of radical trade unions. They might even still have their Little Red Books.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."