February 29, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Quo Vadis, Italia Nostra?

By |2023-12-13T22:29:40+01:00February 1st, 2008|Essays, Other Works|
Political campaigns are good for a party, but Italy is stalled.

very January the Italian think tank Eurispes issues a state-of-Italy report based largely on economic statistics compiled over the previous 12 months. This year the organization caught a bum day, the 25th: Down came the center-left government of Romano Prodi, its second collapse in two years.

His definitive ouster arose from poisonous bickering among the overpaid and mollycoddled party chiefs who for decades have formed the truculent backbone of Italy’s ruling class.

Eurispes statistics generally pay little attention to the country’s rich and famous. They instead reflect the country’s lower middle class and its distended underbelly, the millions of workers on and off the public books.

It establishes trends and sets mood through numbers. While the opening sentence of last year’s report offered backhanded optimism — [“Italy] seems anxious to put behind the atmosphere of decline that has accompanied it in recent years.” — this year’s account was the statistical personification of misgiving.

Italian citizens and its governing class, the report said, had become estranged from one another. “They’re like a separated couple living under the same roof with nothing in common,” said Eurispes President Gian-Maria Fara. Forty-five percent of Italians felt poor. Nearly 80 percent worried about the economy. Prepared before the latest crises, Eurispes’ Italian snapshot was merciless:

  • 38.2 percent of Italian families can’t cover monthly costs. Half its members borrow to get by. On average, gas, water, and electricity cost 25 percent more than in 1997.

  • Five million Italian families live barely above the poverty line. Only a tenth can save anything.

  • Twenty million workers, half the work force, are underpaid. Italian workers earn 25 percent less than French workers, 10 percent less than Germans.

  • Off-the-books labor brings in 35.5 percent of the nation’s gross national product. Criminal activities bring in 11.3 percent. The €725 billion total is more than half of what Italy produces annually.

  • Italians are in debt. Loans have doubled in a year. Outlet store and sale purchases are up. Paying medical bills in installments is commonplace. “There’s no economic vibrancy, only necessity,” said Eurispes.

  • More than seven million men between 18 and 34 still live at home. Forty percent are employed, “but have a lifestyle close to that of someone who’s unemployed.”

  • Nearly five million Italians, 8.4 percent of population, keep a gun at home. They fear burglars.

While foreign media have dwelled on the word “malaise” to describe Italy’s surging misfortunes, Eurispes delivered a more ruthless verdict. It found little to like in Italy’s “imprisoning” political system, which it blamed in part for the country’s intellectual, moral and spiritual shortcomings. “The political class casts an ever-thicker web over society, impeding social movement as well as the desire to change and modernize,” said Fara.

The entwining of political allegiances and priorities in social affairs “progressively restricts democracy’s elbow room and mortifies the vocation, talent, merit … and aspirations of millions.” Politicians, in turn, were captive to so-called “strong powers” which Eurispes identified as banks, insurance companies, big media, and “the thousands of corporations that characterize Italy’s history.”

The history in question includes fictional Don Rodrigo, the villainously cruel Sicilian nobleman of Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th-century novel “I Promessi Sposi” (The Betrothed). “Today’s politics and politicians,” said Fara, “are to strong power and big business what yes-men were to Don Rodrigo.”

Though Fara’s take on his organization’s data is provocative and at times conspiratorial, it nonetheless affords insight into a country where exasperation prevails over melancholy. Alternative politics, glued for now to Beppe Grillo’s Internet populism, has displaced support for mainstream parties and their leaders, even with the likelihood of early national elections.

Italians ordinarily untouched by domestic affairs have found themselves sickened by the ongoing Naples garbage strike, with many presuming systematic collusion between organized crime and politics, the darker side of Fara’s “strong power” connection.

Widening dismay toward “evanescent legality,” as the newspaper La Repubblica dubbed it, mars public perception toward law itself. Capricious, tax-evading Italians are increasingly (if somewhat paradoxically) outraged by the gap between crime and punishment. They have begun doubting their legal system, its magistrates and judges, some of whom are alleged to favor the left. It’s a shift from the early and mid-1990s, when members of the judiciary were hailed as white knights. Confirmation of the swing would seem to augur well for rightist forces led by aging former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who has long blamed biased prosecutors for a potpourri of plots intended to undermine small and large businesses. Tracking down tax evaders, which Prodi did well, is not a Berlusconi priority, nor a national one.

Yet Berlusconi must answer for a much-disputed electoral law passed shortly before he left office two years ago. The law gives the winner of a general election a boost in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, but pads small party representation in the lower body, the Senate. Since both houses are needed to govern, the current law cripples multi-party coalitions, such as the one Prodi ushered in narrowly in 2006. Berlusconi has self-servingly rebuffed efforts to change it. Since the left lacks a heir to the once-powerful Communist Party, it must reconcile reluctant bedfellows. By giving smaller parties more heft in the Senate, and with it potential veto power, Berlusconi shrewdly encrypted the seeds of left’s self-destruction.

Seeing these machinations in terms of the Eurispes data is chastening.

Even the low-keyed Prodi, a good-natured scold, knew better than to try to put together a reform government. Unusually hateful rhetoric stained his 20-month stint. His third government was Italy’s 61st since World War II. Enough was enough, he said. He preferred to be a grandfather.

Prodi has no sure successor because the left is suspicious of strong figures. Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni, the head of the newly-formed Democratic Party and by far his side’s most sellable candidate, has already been vilified out of envy. (Part of the cause was a pro-Veltroni op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal by Il Foglio‘s Giulio Meotti published under the headline “The Left’s Berlusconi”: “Against the tired, dusty model of a dying social democracy, and in a country saddled with unionized corporatism, Mr. Veltroni has introduced new economic ideas,” Meotti wrote.)

Whether Italy can develop a professional state from acres of self-loathing is a water-to-wine leap. So is gauging the desire to do so. Giuseppe De Rita, the unusually astute sociologist who heads a Brookings Institute-style think tank called Censis, weighed in on the subject last year. Italian political and economic society, he wrote, had become “a giant henhouse” that nurtured busywork “oblivious to ends and objectives.” Italian society could no longer fathom national destiny and took worst case scenarios for granted. Stripped of national pretenses, Italy was a “mucilage” of personal interests, agendas and emotions ruled by “minor league” ethics managed outside coherent institutional jurisdiction. It had become a non-country country, agglomerated id posing as a modern democracy.

Italian intellectuals have long speculated nastily on the fate of their country. What distinguished De Rita’s report was not so much its cutting skepticism as its detail. Italy’s “big players” in energy, oil, banking, and insurance exert near-monopoly control on markets, undermining efficiency and competition, De Rita noted. Eight percent of company chiefs were over 70 years old, 42 percent over 50, and only 6.6 percent under 30. Some 2.5 million Italian families had mortgages that cost them 15 to 30 percent of their annual income. The mortgage numbers seemed gleaned from U.S. sub-prime storylines and lend credibility to Eurispes’ concerns about increases in credit and personal debt.

Such day-to-day concerns, not political posing, would seem sure to lie at the center of any future election campaign. Yet, as Fara points out, the relationship between daily life and the conventional view that political promises mean anything may be gone forever. Voter turnout, high in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, has dropped off dramatically in the last two decades, reflecting both a disaffection with politics and the growing distance from memories of totalitarianism.

Berlusconi’s latest antidotes tend as always toward the populistic. He says he would all but abolish real estate taxes. He would also limit the rights of investigators to wiretap, which is liberally allowed and has damaged him personally. He insists this is necessary to rein in rogue prosecutors. Much of his posing depends on big-fist demagoguery, a billionaire’s prerogative in a still-impressionable nation.

But demagoguery might work at a time when parts of a cranky, exhausted citizenry would prefer to associate with stoutness, however illusory. Prodi’s government was weak, though through no fault of his own. Unsophisticated Italians deplore weakness, which leaves them vulnerable to rehashed populism. And populism based on immigration and taxes is a powerful tool. Though charitable, Italians can be tempted by bigotry. The rape last year of a middle class Rome woman by a Romanian immigrant triggered deep and mean ethic defenses the right tried to exploit. De Rita sensed this stirring. “Rom, Romanian, nomads, gypsies, immigrants, ‘irregulars,’ ‘illegals’ — these words are stirred into political and media debate to make an impression on the views of common people,” he wrote. Prejudice is very much inside the De Rita “henhouse,” nor is it confined to “common people.”

When Nuccio Cusumano, a senator from the Catholic Udeur party, broke ranks with Justice Minister and party leader Clemente Mastella, who in turn brought down the Prodi coalition by himself breaking ranks, he faced the ire of allies. While booze-proof, Italy has the mouth of a slut. The BBC reported that Cusumano’s colleagues “set upon him with calls of ‘traitor’ resounding around the chamber.” Traitor was the least of it. On the floor of the not-so-august Senate, Cusumano’s colleagues called him a “pezzo di merda,” a piece of shit, a “stronzo,” an ass, and finally a “froscio,” or a homosexual. Spat on, he fainted. He left the chamber on a stretcher. Mastella, a Bohemian Catholic of overriding ego, tapped his inner Don Rodrigo and fired Cusumano on the spot.

The sexual invective shouldn’t go unnoticed because it substantiates, if only in passing, Italy’s enduring gay-hatred (the left supports both gay rights and pro-choice positions). Even the Udeur’s impulsive pullout, set in motion by Mastella’s rage at his inclusion (with his wife) in a corruption probe, morphed into a Vatican plot to cut down Prodi’s progressives. After all, hadn’t Prodi’s woes gained momentum after the pope withdrew from a speaking engagement at Rome’s La Sapienza public university following objections from teachers and students? The La Sapienza incident embarrassed both the German pontiff and church-loving Italian politicians, who are unaccustomed to such rebuffs.

Unlike the 1980s, Italy lacks internationally successful secular figures to moderate the hysteria. Olivetti’s Carlo de Benedetti once calmed tempers, as did Fiat Chairman Gianni Agnelli, who was tempted by politics but finally opted for the role of northern wise man, an influential male dowager removed from the fray.

Agnelli’s rhetorical heir is Italian business guild chief Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, whose public pedigree is Ferrari and Fiat. The Cusumano incident, he said, reminded of the hawking clatter of the suk, the Arab market place, typical north-south scorn. Like Agnelli before him, Montezemolo spends considerable effort urging political and business leaders to dismiss vindictive vanity in favor of an entrepreneurial approach to leadership. He has warned and cajoled. He has reiterated the perils of falling behind major European Union nations in terms of social and economic progress. The peril now extends to some of the EU’s newer, more enterprising members.

To his credit, Montezemolo speaks bluntly, as if to convey admonishments prepared by the likes of Fara and De Rita. He knows the importance of image. Without tourism, Italy stalls altogether. He stops short of saying that Italy is on the wrong side of losers and crooks, but he’s close. “International investors are increasingly less inclined to come to Italy,” he told a gathering of industrialists in Siena, mentioning the garbage collection crisis. “The political class is looking the other way, refusing to take its responsibilities and preparing for a [national election] with the usual accusations, conflicts, easy promises, and various coalitions … this must be said aloud to a political class that is more and more self-referential …”

And so it is, time and again. By Montezemolo and others. So far to no avail.

Ironically, Prodi served an efficient if abbreviated term. The budget deficit fell. So did public debt. Tax evasion dropped off. Unemployment is eight percent, the lowest since the early 1990s. “We need continuity of action,” he pleaded to the Senate before it cast him out. Too late.

At the beginning of “I Promessi Sposi,” novelist Manzoni introduces Don Abbondio, a curate who is later revealed to lack morals. “Not born with the heart of a lion,” Don Abbondio does what he must to survive. He defers to a ruling calls whose privileges are “partly recognized by law, partly borne with envious silence, or decried with vain protests, but kept up in fact, and guarded by these classes, and by almost every individual in them, with interested activity and punctilious jealousy.”

The Sicily of 1825 is familiar because it is embryonic Italy. “Impunity was organized and so deeply implanted,” wrote Manzoni, “that its roots were untouched, or at least unmoved.”

Then as now, unmoved is Italy’s favorite word.

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.