May 29, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Notes from Oz

By |2018-03-21T18:41:20+01:00August 11th, 2010|Essays|
Emerald City is hardly seen as emerald by those who live in it.

mong the world’s old-school industrialized nations, Italy remains the most visceral, the most feral, the most brazenly suspicious of the larger community of economic powers whose respect it depends on for international credibility. The paradox has generated decades of often bewildered foreign newspaper reports that portray Italy as a kind of quirky, broken Oz, a gifted but obstinate state that resists change and as a result is either unwilling or unable to carry out the revisions necessary to run a big league economy.

The latest such dispatch came in the upscale business pages of The New York Times that used a snapshot of a struggling designer business to introduce a more detailed analysis of Italian economic shortcomings, largely a rehashing of old clichés (“Is Italy too Italian,” asked the headline).

Italian business culture, said the paper, “was highly idiosyncratic” and defined “to a large degree, by deep-seated mistrust — not just of the government, but of anyone who isn’t part of the immediate family — as well as a widespread aversion to risk and to growth that to American eyes looks almost quaint.”

Carlo Altamonte, an economics professor at Milan’s management class Bocconi University, starkly explained the consequences of such “quaintness” in American-friendly terms: “There is no sense of what a market economy is in this country. What you see here is an incredible fear of competition.”

Based on Western media portrayals, most major states are lumped into two categories: The smug and the hounded. The smug ignore their blemishes to emphasize girth and mission; the hounded use their warts to show how far they’ve come in spite of them.

As a leading member of the club of the hounded, Italy attracts trenchant domestic critiques from its entitled classes, who gladly throw stones in glass houses, so long as the house is their own. Altamonte’s reprimand fit perfectly into the Groucho Marx gag line “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member,” which the Italian intelligentsia embraces whenever convenient.

By contrast to hounded Italy, the smug United States — at least the version conjured by most educated Italians — is a nation addicted to and sometimes victimized by its emphasis on competition. In an idealized American construct, change is good, the static bad, and efficiency a mantra. This is the club to which the Italian elite wishes to belong, and pretends through criticism to admire more than it actually does.

THE TIMES‘ latest volley didn’t end with Italy’s allergy to competition. It also mocked the country’s agglomeration of associations (“Even babysitters have an association.”) and deference to deflating tariffs, limiting guilds, insular management, and an overextended bureaucracy.

A more typical kind of condescension came via another Bocconi economics professor, Francesco Giavazzi. “If you’re a notary public in this country,” he said, “you live like a king.” Notaries are peripheral figures in the United States. Giavazzi couldn’t resist bashing cheating cabbies. “Italy,” the Times summed up, “is a haven for artisans, but is in a lousy position to play the global domination game.”

Translation: Check out Sistine Chapel, ogle Armani, eat the pasta, and forget the rest. It’s a predictable if hackneyed view of a country chronically averse to looking past the ways and means of the day-to-day.

While Italy’s stylishly multilingual business class seeks American-style anointment, the country’s less entitled citizenry resists competition based on its potential to infringe on and disrupt the known, an approach that may lack flexibility and ambition but not lucidity. Italy has no modern tradition of renovation and reinvention. Its last such experiment was fascism, which ended badly.

Moreover, even those who glibly condemn Italy have little interest in overhauling it. The same Bocconi professors who decry the hounded country’s clannish, meritocracy-killing tendencies also reap its fruits and often prefer reams of censure to change. Criticism, like charm, conceals self-interest. While a smug society sees paradox, contradiction and cheating as absolutes, a hounded one perceives them as variable, relative, circumstantial; the same with law.

As a result, the strident insider criticism that would seemingly invite Italy’s loss of face saves it instead by rehashing unconsciously agreed-upon clichés. Domestic detractors end up fulfilling a backhanded social function by reinforcing accepted caricature. Even the criminal underworld gets a break, perceived less as a malignancy but as an adjunct of all else that doesn’t work.

THEN THERE’S the matter of the “lousiness” of Italy’s global approach, which is at the core of The New York Times‘ analysis.

Based on the rule of norms and data, the American perspective outlines the goals of an industrialized state as social and political self-improvement facilitated by robust industry, strong exports, the diligent exploitation of natural resources, and a desire to evidence and manifestly promote the ideals of democracy and affluence. While a severe recession can dent these the aims it doesn’t mar them.

By this advance-first doctrine, potency is moral and national logic reflects both a plan and a way of thinking. A boom is part of both because it helps mark the transformation of potential into power. The long-term absence of a boom, or the systematic creation of circumstances that seem to work against one, evidences defect or defeatism, even national morbidity.

But Italy’s languid sense of self, informed at least in part by Roman Catholic principles of patience, endurance, and an active component of worldly woe, doesn’t see itself, or its social obligation, as belonging to such rigidity (or any rigidity, for that matter). Despite modernist boasts, it is no more capable of marshalling American (let alone Chinese) discipline than the U.S. is of copying Tuscan olive oil on home soil. Choosing to prefer the terms of the known in favor of making room for the innovative is Italy’s age-old apple pie, social protectionism that policy can’t undo. While north and south differ in approach, with “top” Italy relentlessly assassinating its bottom parts, like an informed head barking at the wanderlust of its own genitals, the idea of severance comes ahead of that of a compact, leaving visions of a disconnected whole.

After World War II, for example, thankful-to-America Italy contented itself with a subaltern role in the Soviet-American feud, busying itself instead with self-preservation, domestic refurbishing (much of it state-fueled) and the refinement and packaging of Italian style, applied successfully to design, cuisine, and tourism. Efforts to assist the south faltered predictably, with laziness and greed laying the groundwork for a resilient anti-modernism that tainted both politics and politicians. These governmental shortcomings also honed a more general self-deprecatory streak that could be pre-packaged and exported to foreign skeptics as a kind of national vaccine against resignation.

This idiosyncratic cynicism has always remained at the beck and call of foreign correspondents; and the latest Times report is no exception. Students of the Italian economy, the paper reported, worried about a society “whose best and brightest are leaving and not being replaced by immigrants, because Italy has so little upward mobility to offer.”

Over time, goes the subplot, hounded Italy could become dead-in-the-water Argentina, immigration-swelled and inflation-addled with nowhere to go, its mood defaulting to the melancholy of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 “Bicycle Thieves.” “We are just going to decline, slowly, slowly,” Giavazzi told the Times, “and I’m not sure what will turn that around.”

Nothing will. Then again, Italy is not a turn-around nation, and the kind of core optimism often linked to New World-style resilience has relevance only in the country’s smaller and more vibrant provincial centers, which, in city state style, have little patience for urban defeatism.

But submissiveness is as old as secularism. Mussolini’s coercive nationalism struggled to outpace farce. In general, Italians lack America’s plush sentimentalism when it comes to personifying nation in terms of collective accomplishment. Its many-times cited mistrust is in fact a contrived defense mechanism against owning up to national responsibility, which if embraced would also include taxation and wider civic involvement. Its resistance to national holism makes it forever available to dire portrayals that portrayed it as at risk of disintegrating into something else, something worse, something crippled, even a failed state, a hyperbolic way of categorizing an established territory that refuses to play by a single set of rules, or successfully pretend to.

But a hounded nation is also a shrewd one. A master at crying wolf, it contributes to its own villainies only to extricate itself, diva-like, often no worse for wear. The leftist terrorism and union unrest that marred the 1970s and 1980s represented a greater risk to Italian social stability than today’s economic stagnation. But based on 21st century reporting, few remember those edgy times ever existed.

Fears of a new exodus are also inflated. Modern Italy has seen two periods of mass exodus, one in the late 19th century, the second immediately after World War II. The first group numbered poor and largely illiterate southerners who envisaged America as a promised land. The second group, more nationally mixed, also rushed south to north, most into booming West Germany, planting roots and sending money home.

Then as now, before world wars and after, Italy offered little in the way of upward mobility. Its great minds were always destined to leave. A motherland could offer solace, even comfort, but not promise; Fermi, Toscanini, Bertolucci opened the doors to others, most of whom fled the hounded for the smug. Then as now Italy was positioned on the brink of breakdown. In the 1970s it was labeled Europe’s caboose, a laughable place headed nowhere fast. But a decade later, the country’s GDP had overtaken that of the strike-addled UK.

Moral of the story: Italy sets itself up to fail so it can consistently defy a doom of its own making. It produces and orchestrates success and failure on its own terms, one that is inimical to traditional perceptions of global goals or progress. Uninterested in domination, hounded by itself and others, content to remain beloved by the likes of Albania and Russia while aware it is envied by Germany and loved on the sly by the United States, it hunkers down, protects, flourishes between the lines, while shrewdly and infuriatingly juxtaposing European Union doctrine with the ethics of the Arab bazaar, flirting with both and adjusting rules to suit itself. Laughter soothes hurt feelings. Self-deprecatory cliché exasperate the injured into smiling.

NOR IS THE inertia of the Italian political scene an accident. Leaders come and go and are revived in much the same way as economic tidings swing from bleak to less bleak and back in the general spirit of damnation and resurrection. Party members enjoy the same protection as workers, to the detriment of national progress but satisfactorily when it comes to literal social security, which Italy understands better than advancement.

The “Yes We Can”-style populism that swept Berlusconi to power in the corruption-purging early 1990s has since receded, reviving the rule of a fatalistic citizenry that can’t decide whether to covet what it has or bid for more and better, finally favoring the status quo lest change cause unmanageable social and financial upheaval. In fairness, the country’s shucking off of abject poverty and illiteracy is less than a century old, a reality that’s insufficiently factored into generalized reluctance.

Post-Mussolini Italy is rare among Western nations in that it has little interest in being portrayed as uniformly confident. It prefers the scrapes and bruises of domestic and external criticism because it can at least identity the source, fickleness, which Italians still consider a truer measure of both the national and human condition than ambition, which is fleeting and likely to be disappointed.

Even national depression makes more sense than promoting a nonexistent collective confidence. Installing pessimism as a constant is an Italian variation on hope. To each an escape hatch.

“The surface of Italian life,” Luigi Barzini wrote nearly half-a-century ago, “has many characteristics of a play or show: entertaining, moving, animated and engaging. The people are even more aware of this when they know they are being observed.”

And when observed, they talk, usually about what doesn’t work, can’t work, demoralizes, and makes life generally unlivable.

Only when Italian mock themselves do they really exist, a quaintness of the hounded that Americans either can’t fathom, or resent if they do. At the same time, those who underscore Italy’s “lousy position” on the global scene do so at their own smug risk. It’s a 2,000-year-old red herring.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.