Compromised Italians

By Allston Mitchell, March 6, 2010

Supporters of Rome's Mayor, Gianni Alemanno greeting him on the steps of the Campidoglio

Supporters of Rome’s Mayor, Gianni Alemanno greeting him on the steps of the Campidoglio

A dramatic identity crisis or just reverting to type? A country where everyone is either being blackmailed or is hopelessly compromised.


Italy never tires of being a backward country. Italy will make any sacrifice, even resort to revolution, to remain old.”
Vitaliano Brancati

In 2007, when Gianni Alemanno became the first Fascist mayor of Rome since the war he was greeted on the steps of the Campidoglio in Rome by supporters openly giving the illegal saluto romano. Had times changed? There were many jaded and knowing shrugs but very little alarm.

Italy is not like other countries, some say it is not a country at all, just a “geographical expression” as Metternich called it, and others say it is a loose association of clans held together by campanilismo (home town allegiance), football, a sub-normal television culture that is setting an ominous media-cratic political agenda and a semblance of a common language.

Recent Italian history is confusing, the country (the government predominantly) seems determined to make a fool of itself, isolate itself from the international community with its high profile buffoonery and dismantle its democratic and economic infrastructure. If Italy were a human being it would appear to be on the verge of committing suicide. But why?

The instant reaction is to remind oneself that Italy is a very young country, prior to unification in the 1860s the country was the endless victim of pillage and tyranny by the French, Austrians, Spanish, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Church and was merely a group of small city states that just about managed to get along together when they were not busy waging war on each other.

It was everyone’s playground and by definition the Italians had to learn to protect themselves by developing their own sub-system of government, a sort of crypto auto-administration. So, the raw materials for a functioning democracy did not augur well, the future was likely to be dysfunctional.

Piecing together the collective Italian psyche is a thankless task; there are too many extremes, the arabo-byzantine culture of the baroque minded Sicilians have little in common with the punctilious Austrian northerners who even refuse to speak Italian. Nevertheless, there are some issues which if taken together do shed light on what is happening in Italy as they are all either part of a historical momentum or as it sometimes appears, the fruits of an endless repetition and recurrence of unresolved historical issues.

Blackmailed and Compromised

Foreigners, trying to gauge what is happening in Italy ask why Italians can let this happen. “How can they vote for Berlusconi?”, What about the opposition, what are they doing?” Opposition, what opposition? The centre left coalition the “Partito Democratico” has been far too busy committing hara-kiri rather than exploiting the endless scandals of the Berlusconi government.

To any other parliamentary opposition these scandals would be manna from heaven, the stench of prostitution and mafia, the clampdown on the media and the cult of celebrity fascism that is dominating the cultural scene and of course the endless conflicts of interest of the Prime Minister would have brought down any other government in just a few days, but not here.

Strangely, the opposition appears to be behaving like a group of blackmailed has-beens. Indeed, there are those that suggest that the scandal from a few years ago when the telephone company was listening in on the conversations of just about everyone in power was the beginning of the “silence” of the opposition, leading many to believe that their blackmailed status is not entirely metaphorical.

But be that as it may, give a left wing Italian the choice between stymieing a fellow party member or making a rational challenge for power to wrest it away from Berlusconi, he will opt for shafting his neighbour. The opposition may have been blackmailed into obedience but what about the electorate? Well, they are more compromised than blackmailed.

Back in 1981, the popular Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer gave an interview to the national daily newspaper “La Repubblica and its contents have now gone down in history as the perfect summary of Italy’s woes. I quote:

” First of all, many Italians, in my opinion, are perfectly aware of the “illegal trafficking” (mercimonio) that the State is party to, not to mention the oppression, the cronyism and the discrimination. But many Italians are being blackmailed. They have received favours (possibly favours due to them but administered through the political parties and their various factions) or they hope to receive such a favour, or are afraid that they may no longer be a recipient of a favour. Do you want confirmation of what I am saying? Compare how Italians vote in referendums as compared to normal national or local elections”

Berlinguer went on to say that when Italians vote in referendums (on divorce for example), their true selves emerge unfettered and they vote progressively and intelligently but in political elections they revert to their compromised state and are in search of favours or are attempting to pay back favours received. They therefore keep voting for criminally inclined candidates out of a distorted sense of self interest.

The political commentator and editor Giuliano Ferrara summed up this perfect control mechanism up a few years back in an interview with the magazine Micromega: “Chi non è ricattabile non può fare politica in Italia” (If you can’t be blackmailed, you can’t make it in politics in Italy).

The Constitution
For many in Italy the 1949 Constitution is the last constitutional barricade keeping the country from total anarchy but for others (just as numerous) the Constitution is a mere legislative hindrance that was tacked on to the political scene when the nomenclature’s guard was down, just after WW2 when exhaustion had set in and the search for food and survival was uppermost in everyone’s mind.

Many political commentators see an unbroken thread leading from 1949 when the Constitution became law and today’s political rivalries. It has often been said that the political divisions that split Italy during the war, roughly speaking, card-carrying fascists and communist partisans, with many people trying to scrape a living in between, have never really been resolved.

The Constitution was meant to unite the country under a respect for the law and civil society but even to this day the Constitution is felt to have been written by a small group of intellectuals and political visionaries who were hardly representative of the starving, tired and often illiterate post-war populace.

It is a straight jacket that does not fit the patient. It is too utopian, too optimistic and takes no heed of the inherent contradictions in the political makeup of the country, but above all bears no relation to the Italian national character. For that reason it has become a political football subject to significant mistreatment and disregard and is by no means the fulcrum of civil society as it is in France or the USA for example.

This unresolved issue of a disputed Constitution is a political flashpoint that keeps recurring and highlights the fact that Italy seems like a political throwback to the 1930s with communists and fascists at each other’s throats. This is partly due to the lack of reconciliation after the war. Unlike Germany and South Africa after apartheid, Italy, with the help of the Allied powers just swept the mess under the carpet and there it has stayed.

Italy was never quite sure if it won the Second World War or not. The country was bullied into changing sides mid stream, immediately after the war there were no major trials against the fascist hierarchy, the fascist civil service was left in place and the country trundled on, the playground of the Allied powers doing all in their power (often unscrupulously) to keep the country out of the hands of Stalin.

The unresolved issues left over from the war are still being re-enacted ad infinitum like an unresolved Freudian neurosis that keeps rearing its head and distorting the behaviour of the patient.

Return to Feudalism
What makes Italy such a chronic case of political and social malfunction? Some historians identify the problem in the country’s recent feudal past. For example, Sicily only abolished feudalism in 1812, many hundreds of years after the majority of its European neighbours, but even after its official abolition in Italy, the reality was that feudalism was very much alive and a central part of the social fabric, particularly in the south.

After the Second World War, Italy was catapulted into a world of post modernity, shepherded by allies desperate to keep the peninsular out of the hands of the Soviets but this trajectory into a post modern phase meant that the country missed out on the vital phases of social reform, intellectual enlightenment, industrial revolution and liberalism, all of which traditionally go towards the creation of solid democratic institutions.

This is what makes the current situation so dangerous. Social regression in Italy does not mean – as it might in other western European countries – retreating to an earlier phase of democratic development, but to a period of pre-democracy with a tribal social fabric – and there is no better example of a pre-modern and pre-democratic tribal network than the mafia. Pier Paolo Pasolini, the poet, film director and occasional journalist, as far back as the 70s was already warning of the Mafia-ization of the State. He called the government of the time a “mafia oligarchy”. He was not wrong.

La Partitocrazia and La Casta
Berlinguer, in the same interview quoted above, denounced the fact that Italian political parties had basically become machines for preserving power at all costs.

Italian political parties are no longer representatives of ideological factions but are ends in themselves, they are out to accumulate and maintain power. In 2006 Italian law was changed to abolish votes for specific candidates voti preferenziali which meant that now electors vote for a party symbol but who actually goes to Parliament is decided behind closed doors at party headquarters, frequently with preference given to candidates with legal difficulties (of which there are many) who could do with the peace of mind of parliamentary immunity from prosecution. This legal change had dramatic repercussions and has led to what has been dubbed the creation of a new “caste”, the untouchable politicians who endlessly turn up in parliament, an astounding number of which either have criminal records or are about to.

This has led to a near complete de-legitimisation of Italian politics with the help of Berlusconi’s party which openly heaps invective on “professional politicians”. He is of course the exception, he is sacrificing himself to save Italy from Communism. Populism has made an unwelcome return with parliamentary business having been reduced to a bare minimum, performing basically a rubber stamping operation, with the constant threat of taking the issue “to the people” as a populist override.

SMEs and the backbone of Italy
It is a truism of Italian political life that Italy runs itself despite the interference of corrupt government. As Lord Byron noted: “(In Italy) there is no law or government at all; and it is wonderful how well things go on without them”. The country keeps going because the backbone of Italy is made up of a few thousand small and medium sized enterprises usually family-owned who work themselves to the bone, create wealth, create jobs and pay taxes. But times are changing. “Competitiveness” (not style any more) is now the buzzword on every senior manager’s lips in Italy and with good reason. It is a concept that has been thrust upon them.

Prior to adopting the Euro, Italy carefully managed a cheap currency, the lira, and easily attracted buyers for its relatively under-priced goods. Now with the Euro the playing field has been levelled and a visitor can easily compare value for money amongst Italian, Spanish and French products and frankly the news is not good. While they were cheap Italian goods attracted buyers, but now, buying French and German becomes a clear choice. Italy can no longer compete. Unit labour costs are high, salaries are frighteningly low, taxes are strangling companies and households and the national debt is slowly edging the country towards a default.

The Untouchables
So what lies at the heart of Italian society, what keeps it going, if SMEs are no longer the backbone of the country? These SMEs used to be the sacred cows of the Italian economy, the ever present life belt that kept everyone else afloat (read liquid).

The answer is no one is at the helm.

Who can be blamed? The politicians? To some extent yes, as they are now involved in the wholesale rape and pillage of the country but in reality it would be simple to vote them out. The Catholic Church? Its power is limited, it is useful come election time to beat the church, family and fatherland drum but that is about it. The mafia? The general opinion is that the mafia is just the military wing of high level political criminality. The mafia is not an autonomous and all-powerful army of gangsters. Without state collusion it is nothing. The Freemasons? There may some truth in this as Italy has a history of secret lodges which have a destabilizing agenda and it is common knowledge that the only people in power who are constantly present, even through changes of government are freemasons. They are an invisible army and hence difficult to eradicate, as was the case of the P2 lodge. Nevertheless it is difficult to point the finger.

There may be no solution to Italy’s woes and when that is the case, some sort of auto destruct mechanism usually kicks in to wipe the slate clean. That may well be what is happening or about to happen in Italy, a national purification through moral and financial bankruptcy. It may be the only way. The national collapse may come from a financial crisis and unsustainable unemployment figures driving people on to the streets, an attempt to split the country into two or three federal states or there may be a return to terrorism which historically in Italy has achieved nothing but merely acted as a boon to the government in the long term.

It may not be clear who is to blame but perhaps it is significant that the country has never taken a collective look at itself and decided where it wants to go, what sort of a country it wants to be, unlike most other countries who have had their faces held to the mirror at some stage in their democratic development (albeit reluctantly).

There are too many dark corners and occult powers at work in Italy and only a fool cuts himself off from the source of power. A long term political strategy is almost unthinkable as politics in Italy has always been a last minute adaptation to reality. The chances are that the situation will get ugly.

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