In Florence in the 14th century began a change in human thought and perspective that led to what we now call the renaissance. What was involved was a change in how humans perceived themselves and the world around them and this led to a flowering development in most aspects of human endeavour. While the renaissance had the Greek and Roman classics as a font of know-how and inspiration, the changes that occurred in Florence we self-generated and they added significantly to human development.
On Sunday 4 December, a referendum was held in Italy permitting its citizens to vote on a series of proposals to change the Italian constitution that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had guided through the legislative phase and which now required popular confirmation. Seventy percent of those entitled to vote, voted, and 60 percent of them voted “No” to the changes. In the aftermath of the vote it became plain that very many Italians who voted “No” voted out of personal antipathy for Matteo Renzi himself.
Matteo Renzi came from Florence. Prior to becoming Italian Prime Minister he was mayor of that city. He became Italian Prime Minister by presidential appointment. He was elevated to the highest executive role in the government without having received a single vote. He was a 100% Tuscan politician. He spoke no English and his experience of the world outside Italy was extremely limited. And yet he was a politician of a type that Italians had never seen before. And many Italians hated him for it.
A number of years ago I taught English language classes, on a voluntary basis, for local pensioners. At the time, in this diary, I mused on the lack of Italian language equivalents for the english words “right” and “wrong”. So Italian Politicians could never be heard saying, as Barak Obama did:
"You know you don’t have to be a husband or a father to hear what we heard just a few days ago and say, ’that’s not right,’" Obama said while campaigning for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Greensboro, N.C. "You just have to be a decent human being to say ’that’s not right.’"
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” the president said. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
And lacking the apposite language, Italian parents don’t say to their kids “Don’t do that, it’s wrong” instead they say to them “If you do that I will call the Carabiniere”. It is common to hear Italian parents use phrases like this to their kids and it reveals that instead of instilling in their kids an internal sense of ethical behaviour, many Italian parents teach their kids that correct behaviour is determined by the intervention (or not) of an authority figure. Recently we were invited out to a restaurant dinner with a family that had two young and boisterous - but generally well behaved - boys. As we sat down the mother quietly said to us as an aside “I’ve told them that they have to be well behaved because you are both policemen”.
For the 20 years that Luca and I have been running our Agriturismo the relationship between firms and the Italian State, at every level, from the National, to the Regional, the Provincial and the Municipal, has been one of unannounced inspections, controls, oppression, warrantless searches and the like. Mario Monti was a particularly good exponent of this approach and it was during his government that the complete luxury ski town of Cortina was raided oneday by the tax authorities and military tax police.
When Matteo Renzi became Prime Minister this all changed. He made it clear that his government would not be a soft touch on tax avoidance but that treating the private sector as a priori criminals and tax evaders was not acceptable in a civilised society and it would ultimately be suicidal in a country that was in economic crisis.
But more importantly he tackled the Italians themselves. He asked them how they could justify the pension system that enriched one generation by making later generations pay for it. He asked how employees could think it fair that they held jobs for life and that they were largely immune from dismissal no matter how egregious their behaviour. He asked how politicians who had clearly failed managed to be continuously reelected. In short, he identified a whole series of elements of society that were not right and which were egregious wrongs and he asked the Italians how these things could be tolerated in a modern society. And here, he made a fatal assumption: he assumed that the vast majority of Italians saw things as he did, that there were these series of wrongs to be righted, but, in fact, the referendum result showed that the vast majority of Italians didn’t see things that way at all.
Renzi had broken with the narrative that the Italians are suffering victims of their politicians. When he challenged them about the gross injustices in the pension system, those who were retired didn’t care, and those about to retire just wanted their benefits to vest. When he asked employees under old style contracts how they could justify a system that rendered them unsackable by law while other people without those contracts had no legal protections at all, all they heard was that he was going to take those protections away. When he asked how the same old failed politicians carried on, year after year, he forgot that it was those same failed voters who voted them in year after year knowing full well their corruption, venality, self serving and self enriching proclivities. In short, this unelected politician from Tuscany knew right from wrong and he implicitly assumed that his compatriots were also, like him, for that which is right. The referendum showed that a vast majority were not.
And this is the great favour that Renzi has done this country. The Italians themselves, not their politicians, voted to keep a system that is the font of all wrongs. Renzi gave them a choice between right and wrong and they chose selfishness, self interest and self enrichment over any kind of common good.
(continued from 30 November)
So one of our neighbours dropped in a week or so ago. This neighbour often drops by. He is a skilled factory worker but the firm has been facing some tough times. He is quite a few years away from pension age. He has two great, smart and hard working kids who have finished their studies but have struggled to find good, continuous employment. He would like to have emigrated but it is too late to now. Over the last twenty years his earnings have dropped and his disposable income reduced. He has run up a bit of debt over the years. When he drops by, he invariably complains about how bad things are in Italy and how rotten the politicians are and how badly the firm he works for is run. This time, the referendum was very much in my mind. It was only weeks away. When he started complaining I said to him, “well, now you can vote for change!” “you can vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum”. His reply floored me “I’ll never vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum” “I hate Renzi” “I hate him, that communist” he said. I have to admit that my reply was less than civil and I could have handled myself with more dignity and decorum. I exploded “ever since I’ve known you, you’ve complained incessantly about Italy, the way it’s run, the dishonesty and self interest of the politicians. Now that you can do something about it you’re going to vote for things to stay the way they are” I shouted. “And whatsmore” I continued “You know that if this referendum fails there won’t be another one. That will put the lid on reform for a generation” He didn’t reply. His position was fixed. “Look” I said “I’m shocked! I’m going to put it to you this way. You know that having a business in Italy is a nightmare. The bureaucracy is oppressive, the rules mad and the taxes impossible. You know that without this referendum passing the chances of this changing are nil. And you say to me that you will vote against reform because you hate Renzi and he is a communist, even though he was a Democratic Christian and never a communist. Let’s put it on a personal level” I said. “What am I to think of the fact that you augur me years more of running a business in such a hostile environment? Where is the concern for what is right and just and, on the personal level, for us?”
I carried on “You have come here so many times and have complained about the general state of affairs in Italy and the particular state of things where you work. When the firm you worked for was in difficulty, I really empathized with your plight when you thought that you might be laid off. “Ah no, things have changed” he said. “We’ve got more work than we can handle. The firm is running three shifts daily and has taken on extra employees. “Yes” I said. “Now that things at your work are alright ….” and he finished the sentence “yes, when I’m alright, like all Italians, we couldn’t care less about the others.”
So that’s how things stand in the Friuli countryside now one week away from the referendum. Unlike the Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, change in Italy will be sunk, if sunk it is, by pensioners, workers and white males without a university education. For most of the last 20 years, Italy has been run for the absolute benefit of these people and their conservatism. Of course, keeping the status quo in times of such great global and economic change has imposed massive economic costs on Italy. But those who support conservatism and resist change are obliged, a fortiori, to sustain and support those politicians who block change even if it is to their eventual detriment.
(continued from 28 November)
And here, it is necessary to mention an important cultural overlay that primes an enormous number of the Friulani to resist any change and it is the Cult of Mussolini. If you go into almost any newsstand in Friuli at this time of the year you will find Mussolini Calendars and other objects of fascist nostalgia. It is possible to buy bottles of wine in Friuli adorned with images of Mussolini and Hitler. Of course, most people alive today do not recall Mussolini but the strange development of the second world war in Italy left very, very many Italians who loved and admired Mussolini with a sense of grievous injustice at his deposal. Shortly after the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943, the Fascist Grand Council voted Mussolini out of power, following that, the King of Italy told him that, the war being all but lost for Italy, he, the King, would be appointing a Military General as Prime Minister. Shortly after the meeting with the King, Mussolini was arrested. For many in the North of Italy, and particularly in Friuli, this came as an unexpected development for which they were completely unprepared. Prior to Mussolini’s deposal, Friuli was a pro-clerical, pro-fascist region, allied to the Germans. Fascism had supplanted democratic institutions and so mayors and municipal council were suppressed in favour of the local Fascist leadership (Podesta). In many villages, the hierarchical and militaristic nature of fascism was appreciated as it gave a sense of security and certainty. But information was rigidly controlled by the fascist authorities and most of the populace, following years of positive propaganda concerning Italy’s prosecution of the war, were unable to make sense of Mussolini’s downfall. And worse, Italy’s exit from the war, the transfer of the King and military high command to the Allied Zone in the Italian South and the closing of the Italian military in its barracks rendered the Italian regions as vulnerabilities so Germany was forced to occupy them.
The occupation of Friuli by the German military and later by pro-Nazi Cossacks triggered resistance from some Friulani who were incipiently anti fascist but who had so far not resisted the Italian fascist authorities. These partisans who were not great in number mounted a guerilla war against the occupying German army. The Germans responded with reprisals: the destruction and burning of villages and the killing and executions of young men, women and children. Many Friulani, who still defined themselves as fascists and fascist supporters, bitterly resented the partisan activity and the violence that it brought to Friulano territory. Worse, as the Allies pushed up the Italian peninsula, the war came closer to Friuli, food became scarce and the repression by the German military more intense. Friuli’s position as a border region with Yugoslavia involved it in a mini civil war as communist Italian partisans allied with Tito’s communist partisan forces pushed for Friuli and Venezia Giulia to be incorporated into a communist Yugoslavia. Friulano partisans hitherto fighting the germans found themselves also fighting mixed Italian-Yugoslav communist partisans pushing in from Yugoslavia.
Eventually, New Zealand troops under the command of General Bernard Freyberg pushed up the Adriatic Coast and reached Monfalcone just outside the great port city of Trieste. There they blocked the incursion of Yugoslav partisans into Italy and for Italy and Friuli Venezia Giulia the war was over.
For the Friulani, in slightly less than two years, they had gone from being participants in the greatest Italian undertaking since the height of the Roman Empire to losing their Duce (Dux - Roman Commander) through betrayal, seeing their military retire to its barracks and their land invaded and fought over by foreign troops. For these people Fascist Italy didn’t lose the war. For them Mussolini was sold out and Italy sold down the drain.
At the end of the Second World War Italy was unstable. Italian communist partisan forces, especially in Emilia Romagna and Tuscany had been very active in resisting the German forces. The Italian communist party was strong and the nature of post war Italy was in the balance. But Italian nationalism trumped international communist ideology and in 1946 all the political parties agreed that to achieve national pacification and reconciliation there should be a general amnesty for all crimes relating to the war. In total, over a number of years, there were six amnesties, pardons, absolutions and exonerations that had the effect of relieving all Italians from the risk of prosecution or punishment for any act related to the war, including war crimes.
The generosity of blanket forgiveness gave an incentive to all Italians: fascists, communists and common hoodlums, to move on and it removed an obvious incentive to continued conflict and violence. But it didn’t create a blank slate. Rather like Italy itself, which neither won nor lost the second world war, within Italy no-one won or lost. So time moved on leaving everyone where they were in 1943 when Mussolini was deposed.
The effect of this state of affairs at the end of the war in Friuli was that the fascist regime had fallen, and it was recognised would not be returning in the post war order of things. Although the fascist overlay of civil society had disappeared and democratic institutions returned, bureaucratic structures and office holders remained almost unaltered from fascist times providing another incentive for the holders of powerful office to buy-in to the post war settlement. So, Italy and Friuli moved on. Those who had been fascist remained fascist and with a great sense of nostalgia. They remembered with fondness the State development that fascist governments brought in the 1930’s. The improved roads, schools, draining of swampland for fertile farms and the elimination of malaria. The peasants also remembered that for the first time they could sell surplus grain for cash. The1930’s had been a time of great structural development and many Italians gave credit to the fascists for it.
Of course, now, few people are alive who can remember the second world war. Those who can were those whose memories were formed towards the end of the war when chaos, fear and uncertainty stalked Friuli. We know many of these people and they have little nostalgia for war and fascism. But there was a generation of fascists from before the war who had their children following the war as post war development was beginning to improve the lives of all Italians. These people looked back on fascism with great nostalgia while enjoying post war incremental but constant improvements in their standard of living. These people kept their houses and families fascist. They regaled their children with stories of how great Italy was under fascism and how destructive the betrayal of Mussolini. They taught their children that the allied soldiers who occupied their fields with their camps were invaders. These children are now adults in their 50’s and 60’s and they are fascist nostalgics even though Mussolini was but a memory by the time they were born.
Many of these fascist nostalgics are our neighbours. They are not neo-fascists. They are old style fascists. They are a social anachronism of the 1930’s in the present time. They believe in a strong, directive, State. They believe in strong “forces of order”. They believe in the greatness of Italy and Italian culture above all. Harking always back to a previous time, they believe strongly in conserving the present and resisting change. They hate communism reflecting the fact that since 1849 Popes had been teaching against communist ideology. In 1949 the then Pope approved a decree against communists which excluded professing communists from Communion. In Friuli, this decree forced communists to choose between their beliefs and social exclusion. The exclusion was imposed by the Priest, but it was sustained by their neighbours in the village church, centre of all major social events, a lesson not lost on anyone.
These fascists recoil from anyone who is different from the fascist Italian ideal. They are racist in the sense that Italian fascists were racist: coloured people being different are obviously inferior to the greatness of the Italian man or woman. Being from the north of Italy, they tend to see dark skin as a sign of inferiority. They hate perceived effeminacy in men and for them gay men are, by definition, effeminate. They dislike the English perceiving that the English don’t take them seriously and perhaps look down on them. And they like Vladimir Putin, and now Donald Trump because they are strong men.
To the fascist nostalgics this is the world as they know it. Being from a Catholic culture they know nothing of the reformation but they have imbibed the beliefs of the counter reformation. They loath liberalism although they don’t know what it is because they perceive that in some way it is the antithesis of what they believe. They know without doubt that Italian food it the best in the world and that proof positive of the greatness of Italy is that the whole world comes to see it. And for most of the last twenty years these people were governed by people that left them feeling right at home.
Berlusconi and the Lega Nord were reactionary forces that existed to resist, in Italy, liberal changes that were washing over the developed world. Berlusconi, with his black shirts and polo necks, his jaw-jutting poses, his macho behaviour and denigration of powerful women and gays assured Italians the he would be conserving the world as they knew it. Owning the principal television network and controlling the state broadcasting network perfectly placed him to be narrator in chief of where Italy would be going in times of such change. Berlusconi guaranteed no change and he delivered it. His core constituency of pensioners and workers knew that what they had obtained thus far would never be reformed away for so long as Berlusconi and the Lega Nord were governing.
So Renzi, for very many, Friulani provokes hatred and hostility. He talks about a world they don’t understand in a language they don’t understand. He talks about loosening things up, about the necessity for reform and unlike most before him he really means it. He pushed through a Civil Unions law for gay people which was an anathema to the Catholic Church and very many Italians. Renzi, himself, seems to them to be the very incarnation of the forces that Berlusconi and his government’s kept at bay so successfully for so long.
And this has been the shocking revelation to me: that the Italians who are so quick, so ready to complain are so determined to resist change. I suppose that it shouldn’t be a surprise that a people, living in a peninsular, exclusive territory of a religion that for 2000 years has demanded obedience to its dogma and doctrine, its hierarchy and which placed its leader as the earthly representative of God Almighty, should find it difficult to construct a personal world in which they must work it all out for themselves and cannot rely on some dictator or other human being to tell them how to behave. For when a people is required to follow a clerical religion such as Roman Catholicism or a political religion such as fascism that claim absolute monopoly in determining how they should behave it absolves them of having their own right and wrong and lifts from them the individual responsibility they, personally, owe their fellow citizens. For centuries in Italy, It was enough that the people committed allegiance to the authority that commanded them and followed its rules. So in Italy people can show the “bella figura”, be good Catholics in the sense of lauding the religion even if they are not regular church attendees and not care two hoots about their neighbours or other Italians.
So what has this all meant for me, personally? As I wrote, during my twenty years living in Italy, I have been a sympathetic listener as numerous Italians, I would say almost all, moaned, complained and bitched about the state of the country, the venal politicians, and the high taxes that inflicted them. Luca and I started a business from scratch in 1995, probably the point at which the Italian bureaucracy was reaching its apex. It was not pleasant and we have had to confront and accept many official unfairnesses and indignities, not to say humiliation, as the price of running a simple agriturismo. We too would complain and bitch about the state of affairs in Italy. But for most of that period there was no prospect of any change. In fact, as the economy got into increased difficulty, the burden of the State laid on businesses, in the form of taxes and unannounced inspections that could end in swinging fines augmented dramatically. By the end of the last Berlusconi government it was clear that the Italian bureaucracy was oppressing business in the absence of finding any other way to address its chronic overspend and ever growing public debt. Politicians of the left and right were convinced that businesses were sitting on an undeclared hoard of wealth and they were determined to have it. That most businesses in Italy declare themselves to be marginally profitable was taken as proof positive that they were evaders. Fines for non compliance of laws or regulations, of every level of government, national, regional, provincial and municipal, were increased massively to the point where they could cripple a business. It was a very rum state of affairs that was continued with even greater vigour by Mario Monti, the Prime Minister following Berlusconi. No reasonably informed person in Italy, or Europe or probably the whole world could not have known that running a business in Italy was a sisyphean task.
So, after 10 years of recession during which industrial production shrunk 25% and the overall size of the economy reduced 10%, youth unemployment reached 40% and the Italian public debt climbed to 136% of the national economy, Matteo Renzi presented the Italians with a national vote on whether to overhaul the political system or keep things as they had been since 1948. I imagined that our friends, acquaintances and colleagues would leap at the chance to vote for renewal. After 20 constipated years of whingeing and complaining, I imagined the cork being popped from the bottle of change. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We live in the countryside in Friuli, a part of North East Italy. For most of the time since the fall of the Roman Empire, Friuli has a very backward and poor region. In more recent times it was under the domination of the Venetians who used it to supply wood for their ships and as a protective buffer to Venice.The venetian nobles or those owing allegiance to them dominated the towns. The Roman Catholic church was dominant and by the 18th century most of Friuli’s inhabitants were sharecroppers living and working at the pleasure of the local landowners. They were a miserably poor and ignorant people managed by the church and agents of the landowners to whom they had to hand over between half and two-thirds of what they produced. They held little property with the lands, buildings and livestock belonging to the landowners. Malnutrition and pellagra were common. Every village, no matter how poor, had a church and the Priest had de facto daily authority and management over the villagers who were themselves mostly illiterate and superstitious.
The population of Friuli was pro-clerical, anti communist and enthusiastically adhered to Fascism. With the fall of fascism, Friuli became noted as a stronghold of the Democratic Christians, the anti communist party aligned to the Vatican. Unlike in some other regions of Italy where socialist or communist ideology led to cooperative models of economic activity supplanting sharecropping, the Friulani generally rejected cooperative models of organisation restricting themselves to family farms and firms. Thus farming and artisanal activities remained mostly small and localised.
Friuli remained an underdeveloped and poor region of Italy until 1976. In that year a part of the region suffered a series of serious earthquakes focussed at a point where the Friulano plane met the Julian Alps. The villages in that area comprised houses and dwellings constructed of stone mortared with lime and they were completely unable to resist the tremblors. Slightly under 1000 people were killed in the earthquake. While the effect of the earthquake was devastating for the dead, their loved ones and those whose property was damaged in the quake, the overall effect for Friuli was the creation of a massive economic stimulus. Money poured in from Italy and overseas. Apart from the immediate need to rebuild damaged property there was an additional need to render existing structures more resistant to earthquakes. A building boom unlike any seen before or after took off in Friuli and lasted for well over 10 years. A shortage of labour in Friuli resulted in workers arriving from all over Italy. Many builders were self taught and became rich overnight. Other activities connected to the reconstruction took off. Makers of steel reinforcing, woodworkers, window and door makers, kitchen and furniture makers, tradesmen such as electricians and plumbers, ceramic makers boomed. Restaurants and trattorie flourished serving the working population flush with cash. And a wealthy middle class developed eager to eat and drink and leave behind them their memories of poverty and suffering of childhood. But most strikingly, the economic boom during reconstruction provided unlimited low skill jobs that paid very well and gave an overall poorly educated population a quality of life they could never have dreamed of previously. So children whose parents had been sharecroppers with virtually no property of their own and who had left school aged 12 years having learnt more or less only to read and write could have their own home, an apartment by the sea, one or more fine cars, fine clothes and the ability to eat out when they wished without regard to money. The pension system allowed them to retire on their final salary once they had paid 30 years of pension contributions so they could retire in their ‘40s with a guaranteed income for life. Notwithstanding an opulent lifestyle, their income exceeded their expenditure and, remembering poverty, they were careful to save what they didn’t spend.
But by the late 1980’s the boom was starting to taper off and firms that had grown with the reconstruction after the earthquake were being forced to find new markets. At the very point when the Italian North East was being lauded by foreign economists as a model of economic organisation to imitate, industry in Friuli was becoming uncompetitive and firms with the ability were forced to look to exports to sustain their business model. As I wrote previously, in 1992 Italy was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism and the Lira was devalued three times. This proved to be the tonic that many struggling firms in Friuli needed. Firms poured into woodworking, the production of furniture, kitchen units and chairs for export relying on the weak Lira to make up for their high cost base and poor productivity. By 1997 it was claimed that Friuli was producing two-thirds of the world’s chairs. This hubris peaked with the creation of a massive wooden chair, three stories high which was positioned in one of the principal squares in Udine.
Unfortunately, beautiful as what Friuli produced often was, it was low tech, was produced with an oversupply of expensive manpower and it was vulnerable to cheaper foreign producers and an increase in the strength of the currency. So when Italy swapped the Lira for the Euro, at a time that coincided with China’s entry into world markets as a low cost producer of low tech products, including chairs and furniture, the Friulano economy took another hit. Firms found themselves uncompetitive in markets that they had once dominated or sat comfortably in. Some businesses survived but many failed. Those firms that survived were often those that had discovered the golden side to Euro entry which was that while the strong Euro made exports less competitive, it gave firms access to bank loans at low German interest rates. Italy was grossly overbanked and many firms were linked by personal relationships to their provincial or regional bank. A kind of a lending frenzy developed as banks encouraged firms to load up with debt at historically low interest rates. Many firms, unwisely, did this and when the recession of 2008 hit they found themselves unable to service their loans.
So this is the Friuli in which we find ourselves. And who are our friends and neighbours? Well, those who have managed to retire on fine pensions are content and satisfied with their lives. Their working lives were brief in relation to their whole life expectancy. They earned and saved well and retired in their ‘40’s and ‘50’s. They have generous pensions guaranteed by the State for life. They live like millionaires and their only real fear apart from risks to their health is that the State may reduce their pension benefits. They mainly supported Berlusconi who explicitly favoured pensioners and they resist any change whatsoever to the status quo. They mostly will not vote for the changes being proposed in the referendum.
Then there are those who work for companies that have managed to navigate the recent years of economic crisis and who have legacy employment contracts rendering them unsackable and who will still benefit under generous, if less generous than before, pension provisions. These workers are furious that the Monti government tightened the pension rules. They loath Renzi for creating less protected forms of employment contracts, even though they don’t apply to them. They will, to a man and woman, vote against any change whatsoever hoping beyond hope that they will reach retirement age without the firm they work for failing and without employment and pensions law being modified to their detriment.
Then there are others such as the tradesmen who do work for us: the stone mason, the plumber and the electrician. They are careful not to get into political discussions and so it is hard to know how they will vote. Then there are, of course, our neighbours who are cereals and dairy farmers. Their holdings are small and they depend on Agricultural subsidies to keep them going. Mostly they are culturally conservative and regularly attend the Catholic Mass but, running a low value added, subsidy sustained business, they are governed and managed by the agro-bureaucracy and so tend to resent the rules and interventions that come with being a farmer in the European Union. Some will vote yes, but most will vote against the referendum. Other neighbours who have vineyards and who make wine benefit handsomely from European Union subsidies and, having a high value product that finds a market both in and outside Italy, they tend to be more satisfied with their lot. Culturally conservative, most of them will vote for the status quo and so will vote against the referendum.
(Continued from 26 November)
The last Berlusconi government having fallen, the President of the Italian Republic then invited a grandee and ex EU commissioner, Mario Monti, to form a new government. As Monti was nothing more than a private citizen, the President appointed him “Senator for Life” thus giving him a political fig-leaf. But he had no democratic mandate to govern. Monti formed his government, the financial markets calmed, and knowledgable comment fantasised that Italy had finally broken free of the hallucination of the Berlusconi years and would now enter the real world of soberly living within its means and putting right years of misgovernment and national neglect.
Monti faced a real problem which was that Italy was living chronically beyond its means. Productivity in the economy was in inexorable decline and the economy had been mired in recession for years. Putting this entanglement drowned in a quagmire right was clearly for the long term so Monti went for two easy hits. First, the State was spending more that it received, so he decided to increase income. For a good number of years, commentators had identified one of Italy’s key problems as tax evasion. Increasing productivity and economic growth was too hard but squeezing more money out of firms, large and small, was something that the State could do through an exercise of will. And it did. Firms were characterised as evaders and economic criminals. High publicity raids were mounted by the military tax police; sometimes whole towns were raided. Normal business people found themselves treated like mafia dons. To categorize the private sector as economic criminals alienated business which already found dealing with Italy’s bureaucracy and tax laws an almost insurmountable challenge. But Italy is a heavily policed state and what the State wants the State gets. Tax receipts initially grew. But then, as businesses closed or failed receipts began to decline. The State sucked out more than much of the private sector could produce and and economy tipped into a vicious recession and by 2016 the economy had shrunk by 10%. The second easy hit of Monti was a cut into the generous pension system that allowed workers to retire on their final salary after 35 years of paying pension contributions. The pension system was wholly unfunded and in deficit. So, surrounded by much emotion, the government rebalanced the system so that gradually (very gradually) pensioners would retire later and on less. Eventually, Italian pensioners will get virtually nothing but this is in the really long term and young Italians today are not thinking about that. The Italian pension system does no longer need to worry about long term unfunded liabilities because there effectively won’t be any.
In the first instance of these actions, Monti was lionised and lauded by commentators and the European Commission for finally having taken bold steps to sort out Italy’s finances. Fear of the financial markets became just a memory. It seemed that the exercise of such boldness and courage by Monti had set him up to create a political party and actually run for office. And so he did. But rapaciously pillaging Italian firms to pay for the inadequacies and deficiencies of the country pushed Italy into a vicious economic death spiral for which he was justly rewarded by receiving a pitiful number of votes.
The President of Italy eventually invited Enrico Letta, a member of the left democratic party to form a government as it seemed that he would be able to form a governing coalition. The Letta government was sworn in but it seemed frozen in front of the mad, roiling economic catastrophe that had enveloped Italy. Eventually this blind stasis gave Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence the chance to mount an internal party coup and he did so becoming Prime Minister of Italy in February 2014.
Mario Monti’s government proved two very important things. One is that even though tax evasion is, by definition, empirically an unknown, a determined modern technologically advanced State using all means can suck as much money from the private sector as it wants. It also proved that the effect of this in Italy’s case was to remove resources that would have been applied productively to economic activity and retire them in unproductive expenditure. It also proved that in Italy if a government announces a reform (in this case pensions reform) which will have a significant impact on the economic well-being of mid-to-low earners, but defers that reform, passing the burden onto a subsequent generational cohort, those whose position remains protected will be incentivised to resist any changes that may imperil economic rights that they feel have already vested to them.
So Matteo Renzi inherited a comatose economy, a dispirited and despondent private sector, and a working class suddenly fearful that benefits and protections until then taken for granted could be removed. He decided to take the hard road. A road that no Italian politician had taken in modern times, if ever. He announced that without economic growth, Italy’s economic and social health could not return to normal. And economic growth could not come without significant institutional and social reform. He announced that it was no longer acceptable to treat entrepreneurs as presumptive criminals and lawbreakers and that without them in a modern economy there was no hope. He also announced that he intended to set in movement reforms that would remake the Italian parliament currently consisting of two houses with equal powers, each with the power to block legislation. He explained that his aim was the creation of a lower house of elected members of parliament with broad legislative supremacy, overlaid by a smaller Senate, largely representative of the Italian Regions and with limited overseeing role.
Renzi explained that remaking the legislature was the most important of all reforms as it was the perfect parity of the two existing houses (which the Italian constitution treats as fungible) that stymied most reforms, led to bad laws resulting from poor compromises and legislative hostage taking and allowed unrepresentative forces to stymie laws necessary to reflect actual social change. A second and related change sought by Renzi was to bring back to the centre powers that had been spun off or tacitly allowed to go to the regions. Renzi saw that the problem with the Italian system was that national laws in many areas of economic life are passed by the national government. These laws are full and complete in and of themselves. But then, regional assemblies overlay the national laws with regional restrictions. In Italy, obviously, the national government is sovereign so regional governments cannot abrogate or defenestrate national legislation. But what they can do is add and encrust the national laws which means effectively adding restrictions to them, restrictions that the national legislature deemed unnecessary. Thus economic activity is hobbled from the beginning.
Revisions to the Italian Constitution were purposefully designed by its drafters to be difficult following the experience of the dictatorship of Mussolini. Substantive and significant revisions are very hard to achieve and three parliamentary commissions convened since 1948 to significantly modify the constitution failed for lack of political consensus. At first, it seemed highly unlikely that Renzi would be able to convince the upper house of the Italian Parliament to reform and reduce itself, effectively voting itself out of business as it knew it. But he succeeded in doing that although, unable to obtain a super-majority, the reform required confirmation in a popular referendum. This referendum will take place on Sunday, 4 December 2016.
In 1994 the first Berlusconi Government (sustained by the nativist “Northern League”) was sworn in. I arrived in Italy in 1995 and have lived here ever since. In 1992 as the result of speculative attacks, the Italian Lira was forced to leave the European exchange rate mechanism. Italy faced a debt funding crisis, the Lira was devalued three times and gdp fell sharply. In 1996 Italy was having difficulty coming out of recession but the Prodi government, which had followed the short-lived Berlusconi one, decided that it was imperative to insert Italy into the forthcoming European common currency, the Euro, from the currency’s beginning. In 1997 the Prodi government passed a budget aimed at allowing Italy’s return to the European exchange rate mechanism, a precursor to entering the Euro. This was achieved in great part by the one-off levy of a highly regressive “EuroTax” which had the effect of temporarily bringing the deficit down to less than 3% of gdp, a key criteria. In 1998 the Italian finance minister gave an undertaking that Italy would reduce its public debt to 100% of gdp by 2004 and 60% of gdp by 2010 and Italy was accepted as one of the founder members of the Euro.
In 2001 Berlusconi returned to power, again with the support of the Northern League nativist party, and he governed with them for most of the following time until 2011 when an Italian debt funding crisis was threatening the existence of the Euro itself and he was effectively made to step down as allies, looking into the looming abyss, deserted him.
From the first day that Berlusconi was in office until he was forced out, non-Italians asked how the Italians could repeatedly vote him as their prime minister. Lots of reasons were given. It was said that he was a businessman who had promised to bring business methods to government to the benefit of the country. That he was a liberal who wanted to bring anglo-saxon liberalism to Italy, such that he likened himself to an Italian Margaret Thatcher. He was a “straight talking” politician who made a pact with the Italians to simplify the tax system, halve the unemployment rate, finance and develop a massive new public works programme, increase the minimum pension and increase the number of police to address fears regarding public safety in the cities. Others said that with his black shirts and polo necks, determined jaw and right handed salute he signalled his support for fascist currents in Italian society. But the truth was that he was a complete failure. The Italian economy stagnated, unemployment increased inexorably, no massive public works campaign was undertaken and key public works projects were rife with corruption. He did, however, look after the pensioners who had benefitted from one of the most, if not the most, generous pension system in the world.
Berlusconi himself lamented that it was impossible to do anything or make any changes in Italy. But it seemed an enigma that a politician who, while not responsible for many of the structural distortions and cultural deficiencies that left Italy poorly and corruptly governed, amplified them and used them to his own private advantage, should be so favoured at the ballot box. To me, it was particularly perplexing because all of the people I know here, in Friuli in our little part of the world, were perpetually and consistently complaining and lamenting about the state of Italy, the State of Italy and Italy’s bureaucrats and politicians. One asked oneself, “if these people are so hungry for change, how does Berlusconi go on and on?” So when people visiting Italy would ask us “Why do the Italians vote for Berlusconi?” the rather lame answer was that he controlled all the television channels, was a massive player in print media, looked after the pensioners so probably the old people, who vote religiously, voted for him under all circumstances. It was probably true but as an explanation it was ultimately unsatisfying because despite an calamitous aged and aging demographic were there really that many old people to keep Berlusconi running the country?
In 2011 the Euro was in crisis and bond yields in Italian government debt were climbing reflecting increased appreciation by the financial markets to risk inherent in Italian government debt. It was felt by those that govern us that Silvio Berlusconi gave Italy a credibility problem that would have real effects on Italy’s ability to fund its public debt. This was not an unreasonable position to take. In his time in power Berlusconi had shown a marked reluctance to reform the economy, he was believed to be corrupt and motivated by favouring his personal and business interests over those of the country and he came to be seen as a poor interlocutor for Italy with the rest of the world. Under pressure from the French and German governments and with the active connivence of the President of Italy, Berlusconi realised that he was being abandoned by allies alert to the way the winds were blowing and with his parliamentary support evaporating he eventually resigned. He claimed that a coup had been mounted against him, personally. And so it had.
So in 2011 after having been voted into office three times over 17 years and still exercising a popular mandate, Berlusconi found himself against a wall and forced to swallow the bitter pill of resignation. He had not lost his popular mandate but evaporating support in the lower house, engineered through outside pressure, had forced him out. It was, in some way, antidemocratic.
This morning I saw a strange thing. I was on my way to the OBI, a big Do-It-Yourself store, taking the wide newish road that runs from the Salt roundabout to the State Highway #13. It was a beautiful morning, sunny, limpid and warm. The broad sky was luminescent blue over the plane and the Alps gleamed white to the North. Ahead of me, I saw a small cluster of vehicles, each car almost clinging to the one in front. It was clear that the leading car was going slowly and the drivers behind were impatient and positioning themselves to overtake. Finally, coming out of a curve, a large black BMW overtook the car in front and powered away. Before the next car could move up and manoeuvre itself past, I caught sight of a roe deer coming from the left. It bounded across the road just in front of the cars and disappeared into the woods to the right. I thought to myself, “well there you have it. How fortuitous that the group of cars had been slowed by the one in front. Any faster and there would have been a collision with the deer”. It seemed a lucky event, both for the deer and the drivers and it reminded me that being stuck behind a slow driving pensioner is not always a bad thing!
But fate had not renounced the destiny awaiting the speeding BMW that had accelerated away just before the deer crossed the road! About 1 mile further up the highway I saw ahead of me, and on my side of the road, a roads authority tractor with grass cutting arm. It had clearly been cleaning the banks abutting the road but now was stopped. The tractor was peppered with flashing orange lights and was well defined with day-glo signs. Opposite the tractor, on the other side of the road, was a car that had driven nose-first directly into the grass-covered bank. In front of the tractor was the black BMW. Nobody seemed to be hurt but it seemed pretty clear that the BMW had passed the tractor into the path of an oncoming vehicle which, to avoid collision, had driven off the road.
By now, I was behind the slow driver who everyone had wanted to pass. As we traversed the scene of the accident another car pulled up behind me, almost pushing its nose into the back of our Ford Courier van. It seemed that the slow driver was provoking unwarranted road rage on this wonderfully clear and invigorating morning. Notwithstanding that we were passing the scene of an accident, the impatient drive behind gave a good honk his horn. But the pensioner in the car in front of me, two plush cushions on the rear parcel tray separated by a fluffy mouse with pink ears, carried on sedately and serenely. Maybe he was deaf or a bit absent minded so was unaware of all the effervescence he was creating in his wake! As we turned into a corner, the driver behind me could stand it no more and so passed both of us on the blind corner we were taking. Luckily for all of us, no traffic came in the opposite direction at that instant.
I suppose that most people would know that driving in Italy has a reputation for chaos, speed and ignoring road rules. When I lived in Milan in the mid 1990’s it was certainly like that but the plus side was that traffic lights were an optional which could be ignored when there was no opposing traffic. But Italy has changed much since the 1990’s and my guess is that drivers in Milan now generally obey the road rules. In Friuli they certainly do. But undoubtedly it is the case that when one sees cars overtaking on blind corners, which is not at all uncommon, one prays not to have the misfortune to be the blighted car coming in the opposite direction that finds itself occupying in time and space that of another!
being written - not yet completed
Today a new Italian Government was sworn in by the very President who had levered-out the elected Silvio Berlusconi from the Premiership in November 2011, who had then inveigled the Italian people into accepting an unelected executive government for a year, and subsequently, when the elected Silvio Berlusconi judged that the Italians had had enough of the unelected Prime Minister, Mario Monti, and withdrew his party’s support for the executive thereby triggering elections which Mario Monti, seriously overestimating the esteem in which he was held by the Italians, contested and lost, but the outcome of which was three mutualistically antagonistic parties with about 25% of the vote then, following a very brief interregnum when his mandate was expiring and his powers circumscribed by law, at the age of 87, managed to get himself re-elected President for another 7 year term by the morally and ethically bankrupt political class distinguished in its venality only by its incompetence, worked-up the eventual creation of a "grand coalition" Government between the party of Berlusconi and its enemy for twenty years, the principal party of the Italian left, being the very same politicians who were unable to agree on any other person for President (out of a population of 60 million) other than the current one, Giorgio Napolitano.
These are the very people who are to save Italy and whose government, the BBC reports has been greeted with "optimism".
It was reported today that six ministers, including the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister (who respectively belong to the Democratic Party of the Left and Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party) have their political roots in the Democratic Christian Party which imploded under the weight of its own corruption in the early 1980’s and that two ministers belong to the muscular Catholic Organisation "Communion and Liberation" in which Rick Santorum is a fellow. This last organisation has recently run into difficulties of its own in Italy as leading members, such as the ex-President of the Lombard region, have been charged with corruption, and Investigating Magistrates have executed search-warrants at the Organisation’s Rimini headquarters following fraud enquiries.
It’s not very good really. And it’s not logical. How can anyone realistically expect the very people who have been responsible for Italy’s decline, who are so tenacious in sucking on to power at any cost, who are so unprincipled and so incompetent, now to put things to rights?
to be continued ... this is going to be a long one!
To understand Italians and their society one has to be of them. If one takes them at their word one will never understand them as how they are, and how they present themselves, are two different things. In the way that they face the world Italians are directed by two obligatory cultural norms. The first is that they are bound to present the "bella figura", literally "beautiful figure". It is an Italian imperative that in their relations with the world, any world, Italians must present themselves in a winning and admirable light. To do otherwise is to display weakness, lose respect and risk opprobrium. But the bella figura is a relative concept and what is a winning and admirable light depends upon the ambient norms in which the Italian finds him or herself. Thus, the Italian is a chameleon recognising the colours of the environment it finds itself in and reflecting them back. But the chameleon itself is thus invisible.
The second is that they, the Italians, both together and individually are required to believe that they are by definition "brava gente" or "good people". And they do believe this. Being thus per se good people they can perceive their motives as being just even if the means by which they achieve their ends may be morally suspect.
And so non Italians outside Italy can find Italians to be persuasive, cognisant of non-Italian concerns and empathetic. Thus only a few short months ago the "Two Marios" (Draghi and Monti) were being hailed - by the cognoscenti no less - as the saviours of the Euro zone while the contrasted Silvio Berlusconi was seen as nothing more than a cunning, if buffoonish, crook who had led his country to ruin!
But an Italian knew that this wasn’t true. Because as all Italians know "l’apparenza inganna" "appearances deceive" and that Italians have amongst them very many "furbi" "sly one’s", "cativi" "bad one’s" and those who will often "fregarti" "screw you".
So the Italians knew that as Mario Monti was reaping pundits from the international cognoscenti (but not Wolfgang Munchau in the Financial Times) he had in fact declared war against the private sector demonizing entrepreneurs as inveterate tax evaders and racking-up the application of force against them by instruments of the State such as the Finance Police, the Inland Revenue and the State Revenue Applied Collection Agency (Equitalia) such that businesses were obliged to pay State-assessed taxes on income not earned. Increased excises and taxes were also applied to energy, assets and houses and land. But - and here is the real nub of the issue - not a single bureaucrat - not a single member of the bureaucracy that has since the inception of the Italian State suffocated and restrained the application of private initiative to capital to create growth and thereby wealth - was sacked. Two groups were protected. Pensioners with good pensions (those with poor pensions have seen their purchasing power eroded) and State employees.
And so the hero of the hour, Mario Monti, saviour of Italy and the Euro, deluded himself into thinking that the Italians also loved him their having being fooled by his lies and manipulation and he created a political party in alliance with the party of the Catholic Church and he plunged into the national elections of February past. But he foundered on the rock of truth. For the Italians, being Italians, know the other Italians. And they knew him for the moralising, manipulative, dissembling coward that he is. And Mario Monti went from hero to has-been in the space of 12 hours (whining that he now "can’t wait to get out of politics").
And this brings us to Silvio Berlusconi. Silvio is "an Italian’s Italian". Silvio Berlusconi knows nothing of the world outside Italy and Spain. He knows the cultural norms of his own country - through his TV channels he has helped to create them - and when outside Italy he has shown numerous times that he believes that other peoples have the same cultural norms as the Italians. Thus, coming across to foreigners as buffoonish and a clown he is in fact a much more interesting creature than the chameleon Monti because Berlusconi opens a door on what Italians are actually like. And very ,very many Italians believe that Berlusconi is like them and fights their corner. And one cannot say that this is not so even if he, as the result of having governed Italy for most of the last twenty years, is responsible for the state that Italy now finds itself in because what he did, as Prime Minister, was what a large number (if not a majority) of the Italians wanted.
Berlusconi, buffoon to the world, is at one with very many Italians. Monti just reflected back to the European and International cognoscenti what they wanted and so, a man without balls, he delivered the coup-de-grace to Italy, a country of 60 million people, in the process. And here I should say, aside, that Italy is finished. And not metaphorically but actually. Italy has been hollowed out from the inside and is no longer capable of supporting a rich-world life style. Italy is a dead man walking. But that is a diary entry for another day and one that I am reluctant to explore because it might - erroneously - give readers the idea that Italy is not a good holiday destination!
So today, following the political stalemate that resulted from Italy’s national elections a bigwig in the Italian Democratic Party of the Left, the principal leftwing political block stated:
"And [we must] quit this superiority complex, widespread within our camp, such that we pretend to choose the opponent [to try to find political accommodation with]. Whether we like it or not, Italians have established that the head of the [political] Right, a Right that has taken practically [the same number] of votes as us, is still Silvio Berlusconi. And with him we must talk. "
And so it is that the intellectually superior Italian political left has been reduced to negotiating, from a position of weakness, with the very man that they have spent the last twenty years denigrating and demonizing. And they have been forced to do this because enough Italians voted for Berlusconi to give him equivalent political power as the left. And the Italians voted for Berlusconi because the Italian left were intellectuals of nothing using the name of an ideology that they did not adhere to or believe in to cover their avarice and plunder of the State and of subsequent generations. Because the great winners of the last fifty years in Italy have been employed workers, civil servants and pensioners who were employed workers or civil servants. Berlusconi never, not even once, moved against their privileges sustained and defended by a corporatist union structure. He said it was impossible to move against the "Communists" because political power in Italy is too diffused to permit decisive and determinate action. But those very workers, expensive and unproductive, and those very State employees, incompetent, lazy and destructive of economic growth and those very pensioners, sucking-up the resources of those working to sustain their comfortable retirement, brought, in their totality, the Italian economy to ruin and suffocating under a mass of debt.
Berlusconi is a snake-oil salesman. But in a society where private initiative is distrusted and thus to be heavily managed by the State and regulated by the bureaucracy, he was the only game in town for those not wanting to adhere to the Italian tribal "Left". Berlusconi did nothing, and will do nothing, but promote his own business and private interests. But the Italians all know that. They know that he changed nothing. They also know that it is also probably true that real change is probably impossible in such a geronto-bureaucratic society comprised of competing, wary and distrustful fiefdoms of every kind, public and private.
Italy has its back to the wall and the only way out is to smash the wall. The question is whether the comic Beppe Grillo will be able to smash that wall. He can’t do it alone so he has to rely on Italians to help him do it. The real question now is whether there will be enough Italians with courage and clarity of purpose to bring that wall down even if it means crushing many vested interests whose only aim is to keep that wall standing!
So, at the end of the Second World War Italy flirted with civil war. The Italian Communist Party had an armed wing of Partisan fighters but partisan resistance in Italy was characterized by numerous partisan groups with multiple and sometimes opposing political orientations (communist, "actionist", monarchist, socialist, catholic, liberal, republican, anarchist). In Friuli the communist Garlibaldi Brigade partisan group was under the aegis of Tito and was working to ensure the absorption of Friuli into the foreseen future Yugoslav State. The Tito-directed Garibaldi Brigades were resisted by local "Republican" partisan groups. Civil war, if it had come to Italy would have been between those wanting a communist Italy and those determined not to have it. As Italian communism was Stalinist, a victory by the Communist faction would likely have seen the abolition of private property and the creation of a State modelled on the Soviet Union. Following the fall of fascism all was to play for in Italy.
There was no doubt, however, that a large portion of the Italian populace would have bitterly resisted communism, the Catholic Church saw resisting communism as an existential struggle and the United States and Great Britain were not prepared to have Soviet domination pushing down into the Adriatic. Civil war was averted when leaders of the Italian Communist party were incorporated into the government of national unity formed after the fall of fascism, were involved in the constituent assembly and writing of the Italian constitution and in return they renounced violence, embraced democratic means to achieve their ends, their "Garibaldi" partisans were disarmed along with the others and in June 1946 the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, as Minister of Justice promulgated a General Amnesty for crimes committed during the war.
In the first general election following the Second World War the communist coalition lost to the Catholic Church sponsored Christian Democratic but it took 31% of the votes. In 1946 Winston Churchill stated that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." But in Italy the opposing forces that were separated in Europe by the iron curtain were forced together in a narrow peninsular. Just as on the intercontinental scale, the risk of mutually assured destruction ensured that conflict was sublimated and restrained. The Italian Communist Party did not renounce its Stalinist views and thus retained the power to frighten capitalists, the middle classes and the petite bourgeoisie. Lacking the power of a contrarian libertarian ideology anti-communists were either forced into the logic of the Catholic Church or were left with their instinctive hostility to a collectivising ideology. Having just escaped a collectivist existence they were viscerally hostile to those who would propose its return. At this level resisting communism was, as for the Catholic church, an existential struggle conducted with real hatred for those who would take away a liberty so recently attained.
But in addition, there was a personal element to the hostility between the left and the others in Italy. Marshal fund aid and economic growth after the Second World War was a rising tide that lifted all ships. Thus Italian Communists started doing well and they themselves comprised their own petite bourgeoisie and workers who were earning well. Their involvement in the unions and presence in Parliament, the accommodation of them by the Christian Democrats and the willingness of the Christian Democrats to extend social protections to workers when prodded by those very communist unions led to them being seen as hypocritical. They didn’t practice what they preached and were despised for it. But worse, they occupied the secular moral high-ground in Italy. For a large part of the second half of the twentieth century Europe, and Italy, was awash with leftist intellectuals. The left in Italy saw itself as the secular intellectual elite. And it was because, putting the dogma of the Catholic church aside, the left was the only intellectual game in town. Italy upon its creation had to share space in the narrow peninsular with the Roman Catholic Church that it had defeated but not vanquished. Thus it inherited two thousand years of static Catholic dogma. The Americans of 1776 were able to claim that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," For the Italians deference and obeisance to the Church and the Landlord were all that was required of them along with exertion of their labour.
Thus non-communist Italians felt deprecated and disdained by left-wing Italians who were living and benefiting from the system like everyone else. And as those not of the left had no historical standard bearer for liberty and the pursuit of happiness by making money, and were subject to being categorised by the left as self-interested, common and ignorant by those no different to themselves they saw in Silvio Berlusconi a saviour when he came onto the political scene. In Silvio Berlusconi for the first time there was someone, a "bigwig", who spoke like them and reflected their aspirations and their fears.
to be continued ....
["When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."]
In the recent Italian elections Silvio Berlusconi made a comeback. It had seemed, when his removal from the post of Prime Minister was engineered by the Italian President in a soft coup, that Berlusconi would simply disappear. Italy was in trouble when Berlusconi left and it seemed that he had, perhaps, got off lightly considering that he had governed for much of the last twenty years and bore much responsibility for Italy’s continual decline.
Berlusconi was replaced by a non-elected executive headed by Mario Monti who, it can safely be said, delivered the coup de grace to the Italian economy. The damage to the Italian economy inflicted by the Monti government cannot be understated. Monti was imposed theoretically to liberalise a sclerotic and corrupt economy lighting a resurgent economic vigour that could allow Italy to grow its way out of its financial problems. It was clear that if he was to be successful in this Monti would also need to deliver deep cuts to the State bureaucracy that has been culpable of suffocating Italian economic growth over decades.
There is no doubt that this would have been a herculean task. Taking on entrenched interest groups in the private sector, with their links to the political parties of left and right, could perhaps have been seen as futile from the beginning. And taking on the bureaucracy that comprises the Italian State would have involved real risks as it is the bureaucracy that runs Italy while the politicians enrich themselves and pass populist laws and laws that favour, partially, the interest groups that sustain them.
If Monti was unable to fulfil his mandate he should have resigned. He was not popularly elected and only had the mandate to govern that he had been given at the beginning. Instead, Monti decided that there was an easier way to calm the international financial markets. His government launched a propaganda campaign announcing a break with the illegality of the Berlusconi era with its tax amnesties and amnesties for breaches of planning laws. He declared war on tax evaders which, of course, was essentially entrepreneurs and artisans as employees pay payroll taxes. I believe that he really thought that there was a pot of gold to be found in every self-employed persons garden. Under his aegis raids were made by the tax police on the basis of geography such as those executed in Cortina and Porto Fino and economic activity such as those executed on Agriturismi on the May holiday of 2012.
People who were not Italian breathed a sigh of relief. Italy was being relieved of the pervasive illegality of the Berlusconi era and would return to the normal community of European nations. But as the recent election showed it didn’t turn out like this at all.
And to understand this and why Berlusconi did so well in the last elections one needs to understand the Italian left and how so much of the Italian right is a reaction to it!
Italy industrialised only at the beginning of the 20th century. The feudal system only left Italy completely after the Second World War. Before industrialisation began, the vast majority of Italians lived in abject poverty working for local landlords, aristocracy or the Pope. Prior to the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, and for a period after, the Italian peninsular was a patchwork of principalities, states and regions, often poor and, apart from those ruled by foreign powers such as Austria, generally weak. Lacking the reformation but being subject to the Catholic Church’s response to it, the thought of normal Italians was dominated and controlled by force of the dogma of the Catholic Church. The Italians were seen, by their own countrymen, as passive and accepting, so much so that their passivity was seen as inimical to the creation of the Italian state. Italians were abject, exploited and ill-treated but the instinct to rebel had been cauterized from their psyche by their Church leaving to them only the resistance tools of cunning and slyness.
During this time normal Italians, apart from those in domestic service, had little contact with their landlords. Their principal contact with authority was the village Priest. The other was the overseer of the landlord whose role was to ensure that they met their obligations to produce and that they didn’t take or keep-back anything to which they were not entitled. The Italians were a beaten people, held down, and this created in some deep resentment and hostility at the nexus of Church and landlord. A people lacking the ability or will to rebel, ill-treated and exploited, resentful but trained from infancy to accept authority and revere with all their heart and soul God’s representative on earth, direct spiritual descendent of the Apostle Peter, the Pope, contained within it large numbers of individuals ready to change their allegiance to another infallible leader, Joseph Stalin.
The First World War saw the development of Italian industry on an enormous scale and the creation of large industrial companies from what had effectively been artisan-al activities. Large numbers of workers were required by the factories and so, for the first time, Italy saw the creation of an industrial working class. In parallel, the war created a capitalist class and denuded Agriculture of labour as enormous numbers of young male peasants were killed and maimed in the conflict with Austro-Hungary. Communism gave an ideological framework to the working class and it promised emancipation for agricultural labourers. The new capitalists and the old landlords, and the Catholic Church, were threatened. Communism promised to destroy the economic basis underpinning agriculture until that time and to remove the gains so recently obtained by the new capitalist class. Failure of the capitalist class threatened the middle class that was growing up around an industrialising economy. The time was right for fascism to redefine the Italy that had emerged changed following the First World War.
The communism implemented through revolution in Russia implemented the Marxist-Leninist ideology of, amongst other things, common ownership of the means of production. Rapidly, Stalin was the dictator at the pinnacle of the society exercising powers of life and death. The creation of the Soviet Union was deeply disturbing to many Italians and they had no competing ideology of their own to justify Italian social structure and maintaining a capitalist/landlord lock on resources.
Nationalism created Italy where no Italy had previously been. But having obtained a State it begged the question of whether this was enough and what it meant to be Italian in Italy. Fascism, an idea thrown-up by Benito Mussolini attempted to put flesh on the bones of Italian nationalism but it was dressing, not an ideological skeleton. Fascism has no ideology. It is a state of being. It was invented constantly on the go drawing fundamentally from the experience of the "Arditi" storm-troopers in the First World War infused with the glory of the Roman Empire. So it involved uniforms, great rousing rallies, a drawing-in of the people to the State, a State justified by the greatness of the Italian people and thus Great itself and deserving of the rewards that should thus attain (such as empire).
But as it was the greatness of the Italian people that justified the State the Fascist State did not see itself as being at war against its own population. Private enterprise was respected and this, of course, first attracted the landowners, capitalists, artisans and the middle classes to it and cemented their support. Conveniently, once fascism was established it would take over failing businesses often with the payment of generous recompense to the owners. Fascism became a practical, but not ideological, challenge to the communism that was sweeping Europe and which was finding fertile ground amongst the Italian masses. Fascism was a particularly Italian thing: impressive to look at, wonderful design and spectacle, a great dose of nastiness but not unrestrained and infinitely malicious but, in the final analysis, underlayed by a dodgy justification and operating in a chaotic and disorganised manner that placed a block on true excess. Fascism, of course, did not tolerate challenges to it but economic and social power remained diffused and there were other poles of power that the fascists had to consider including property owners large and small, the Crown, the Bureaucracy, powerful families and the Catholic Church.
Fascism then was the game in town as Italy continued its industrialisation and its transformation away from being an agricultural economy. Fascism had as one of its aims the improving of the lives of ordinary people and families and it marshalled the resources of the State to eliminate malaria, turn marshes into farmland, provide workers housing among other things. It also involved itself in the welfare and self-improvement of workers. For this reason fascism still gets credit for development that improved the lives of many ordinary people in Italy.
The Italian Communist Party (originally the Communist Party of Italy), however, was Stalinist, its leaders were Stalinists and, in particular, Palmiro Togliatti, one of the Communist Party founders and General Secretary had a close personal relationship with Stalin and during his time in Russia (when the fascists were in power in Italy) he rose to the leadership of the Communist International (in 1935 when Stalin began his first purges). There is no doubt that the Italian Communist Party sought to further Soviet interests. Togliatti entered government in Italy in 1944 as Minister without portfolio and in subsequent governments went on to become vice-premier and Minister of Justice. In the General Election of 1946 the Italian Communist Party received 19% of the votes and 104 seats in the Constituent Assembly.
Thus Stalinist Communism was a feature of Italian politics both before and after the Second World War. It survived fascism and it frightened many Italians. The problem was that Italians who turned to communism were primed to accept it unreservedly, they revered Stalin as they had been taught to revere the Pope. They replaced one religion with another and so even though the Italian Communist Party renounced violence as a means to its aims and supported democracy very many Italians remained suspicious and hostile to it. The fact that Italian communists adhered to Marxism-Leninism and Stalinist dogma gave them an intellectual structure and organisation that other Italians lacked. Italy had never been a liberal society sustaining private property and free markets as a matter of political philosophy so entrepreneurs, artisans, and citizens who valued their property, no matter how meagre, felt vulnerable. Most of these people had come from nothing, through hard work they had attained something and they were afraid of it being taken away. The ability to earn from ones labour and capital was for very many Italians a benefit only recently attained; previous to this they had worked as share-croppers giving the benefits of their labour to others.
to be continued ...
Beppe Grillo received one quarter of the vote in Italy’s recent elections. Today Time Magazine published an interview with him. Whether you are interested in Italy or not it is worth reading. Italy is 60 million volatile human beings. It played a key role in the development of European nationalism in the 18th century, an extreme form of that nationalism developed into fascism, it was a belligerent in two World Wars, the weakness, corruption and illegitimacy of the Italian State created fertile ground for criminal organisation like the mafia and camorra. It will probably bring down the Euro and it is a running experiment on how one generation can steal all from those following and kick the ladder away undermining their material prospects and denying their aspirations. It is inconceivable that there could be a generational civil war that would pit children against their parents but the inequity of the current situation and the desperation of the disenfranchised could well find expression in chaos and violence.
Given that Grillo is a political actor in Italy and his comments are intended for wide dissemination I think that it constitutes fair use to repeat some of them here:
"The county is divided in two. Those who voted for [the other parties], they’re people who don’t want to change things. Because they have high pensions. With the crisis, the prices are low. Maybe they have two houses, and you take away their housing tax. We have 18 million pensioners, 4 million state employees, that’s 22 million people. Not all of them, but a big part, don’t want change because they’re surviving. The state is their employer.
But the discussion will change, because soon there won’t be public salaries or pensions. No money. The big industry is gone. From computing, mechanical, chemical, there’s nothing left in this country. The small and medium enterprises were holding on, but they’re closing by the thousands. How do we go forward?"
[Read more: http://world.time.com/2013/03/07/italys-beppe-grillo-meet-the-rogue-comedian-turned-kingmaker/#ixzz2MsK7O6eY ]
"I channel all this rage into this movement of people, who then go and govern. They should be thanking us one by one. If we fail, [Italy] is headed for violence in the streets. But if we crumble, then they come. Everything started in Italy. Fascism was born here. The banks were born here. We invented debt. The mafia, us too. Everything started here. If violence doesn’t start here, it’s because of the movement. If we fail, we’re headed for violence in the street. Half the population can’t take it anymore."
[Read more: http://world.time.com/2013/03/07/italys-beppe-grillo-meet-the-rogue-comedian-turned-kingmaker/#ixzz2MsKTGBA1 ]
I discussed this with my friend Loris. They’ll "copâlu" he said to me in Friulano. With a chill I realised that he is right. Grillo is taking on a complete generation and threatening to remove their spoils illicitly and illegitimately obtained. He’s taking on a generation without scruples or morals. They won’t let him. It’s a bad story. Grillo has been compared erroneously to Mussolini. This is slander. I hope that any comparison with Giacomo Matteotti never comes to pass.
On 13 February, I wrote a diary entry reflecting on how behaviour within the small confines of the Faula Golf Club could be seen on a larger scale in the behaviour of Italy’s enduring political class. Those of you who read this diary will know that I believe that it is a great error - the greatest error that a country can make - to treat popularly elected politicians that, as a class, are incompetent, corrupt, venal, mendacious, and worse as an aberration, a type of cancer in an otherwise healthy body politic. Joseph de Maistre wrote that “Every nation has the government which it is fit for" and my argument is that as the Italians are governed by Italians that they elect - "people like us" - until there are enough Italians that have had enough of "furbizia" ("slyness") and are prepared to live in reality, face facts, reason with their own mind instead of having their thoughts provided by others, demand accountability for incorrect behaviour by others and take responsibility when they do wrong" there is no possibility of Italy improving and it faces inexorable decline.
To pass the blame for the national disaster on the politicians, as very many Italians are wont to do, deflects them from having to look at themselves. It is all too convenient. In the diary entry subsequent I wrote about how stimulating it can be to spend time in the company of the old farmers, artisans and factory workers, all retired, around our village of Ravosa, because many are smart, astute, have a clear eye, and a healthy scepticism and they bring a keen personal analysis to what they have experienced and what makes up their society and country. These people tend to tell it like it is! Many Italians, however, see themselves, intrinsically and per se, as fine people and without need to judge themselves by their own behaviour and motivations. Thus many Italians behave in ways that are wrong and, seemingly, without limits. I ascribed this in large part to the manipulation of the Italian people from birth, by the Italian State to form and maintain a populace quiescent and nationalistic and identifying with being Italian, an idea invented only 150 years ago. Italians are not taught to question authority, the State or the nature and functioning of their social organisation. They are not encouraged to reason lest that reasoning bring them into conflict with the beliefs and stories that underlay their national existence. But they are taught that what they do have in common is something very special, that is that some of their progenitors were the truly great Romans of antiquity and others by their creativity led to the renaissance of Western culture at the end of the Middle Ages.
In addition, Italy, is a Roman Catholic state and Roman Catholicism requires that its dogma and authority be followed and not challenged. This religion, as practised in Italy with its extensive network of churches in every community and the binding ties between Church and State, does’t accept challenge and doesn’t encourage Italians to think for themselves. Thus, in total, Italy is an extremely conformist society where the populace are used to being directed and guided. With its nationalism and Roman Catholicism it was a State primed to invent fascism just as much as it was ready to be manipulated by Silvio Berlusconi through the medium of TV. [See Il Conformista - The Conformist - by Bernado Bertolucci]
Now, there are very many fine Italians, honest, hard working, generous. But there are too many who are crummy. At the beginning, when we started La Faula, we had real difficulty accepting the Italian system of continual inspections and controls of businesses by layers and layers of police and other State officials. At the beginning, I would complain to the inspecting officers. Very early on an officer of the Guardia di Finanze [Finance Police] said to me "Look its no use your complaining. The Italians are "furbi" [sly] and if we didn’t continuously inspect they would do what they want." And he was correct.
When the new President of the Golf Club got professional advice he was shocked to discover that all the structures that they had put on our land were in contravention of the criminal law ("penale") - not misdemeanour’s - and that there could never be the possibility of an amnesty to regularise them and that they would have to be removed tout suite. Not only, but as the owners, we i.e. Luca and myself, were liable. So after four years of assurances that everything was in order it turned out that nothing was in order.
What happened then was heartening. The new President and a member of the Golf Club committee got into action and removed one of the portakabins (Porta-camp) immediately. We provided some storage space and they emptied the other portakabin and this was also removed. In the next days they will dismantle the covered roof of the driving range. By the end of next week everything will be legal and in order and the Golf Club will re-launch.
I don’t wish to push the allegory too far but it did somewhat remind me of Beppe Grillo and his 5 Star Movement that seemed to come from no-where and got one-quarter of the vote in last weeks election. The undeniable truth is that the two main parties, the Democratic Party of the Left" and Silvio Berlusconi’s "People of Liberty" have given Italy nothing but stagnation based on self-interest, dishonesty, corruption, disorganisation and lack of imagination cemented together by a rigid stasis - the inertia of Italy at rest. All they had to offer us was more of the same which is decline into entropy. They reflect the stasis present in Italian society, a generation of haves determined to maintain the status quo at the cost of disenfranchising the young and large swathes of the middle aged.
Beppe Grillo has said that he should be seen as a force for stability not the opposite because he gave the disenfranchised in Italy a way out other than radicalism and perhaps terrorism (which has happened before - the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was killed by the Red Brigades terrorist group). Nobody knows how the Grillo 5 Star Movement will behave in exercising its power. But in this election, just passed, it did give the disenfranchised a home. And here I should tell you that amongst the disenfranchised are not only the usual suspects of students, people without work and those lacking social protection. Under Monti, in particular, but also before under the governments of Berlusconi and Prodi, businesses, all businesses, were pumped dry to support the style of life of those already retired and to pay for the debt they left behind and to keep those already in the public administration in the manner to which they are used. Businesses lost the right to enjoy the fruits of their labour. This has been at the cost of destroying the economy. Berlusconi gave the private sector his sympathy and promises but only looked after his own interests. The Left slandered entrepreneurs as serial tax avoiders and exploiters of labour, seeing them as a necessary evil in society but bereft of intrinsic interest or estimable social value.
My guess is that the Italian economy is in a much worse state than it seems. So much of the economy is fed by the Italian State - pensioners, State employees, workers on stay-at-home schemes - that it has a momentum of its own, sustained by incurring debt, even when the productive sector that should be fuelling it has dropped away. I am sure that the productive part of the Italian economy is both smaller and weaker than the official statistics suggest and the collapse when it comes will be sudden and shocking.
To be continued!
Last Sunday, as every Sunday while the Agriturismo is closed, I went for a cappuccino at the trattoria Ai Cons, just down the road from La Faula, run by our friends Alcide and Elda. After the early Mass finished, the usual crowd arrived. The tiled stove was lit and the atmosphere was warm, cosy and friendly. Everyone present had been born in the 1930’s. Most went to work after finishing primary school when they were 12 years old. These people experienced, in their lifetime:
- share-cropping poverty
- Italian fascism
- occupation by Nazi and Cossack forces when Italy in 1943 switched to supporting the Allies
- the civil war at the end of the Second World War when Italian communists tried to create the reality on the ground for Friuli to be absorbed into Tito’s Yugoslavia and were resisted by those wanting the North-East of Italy to remain Italian
- the economic collapse at the end of the second world war and the depreciation of the value of the Lira
- forced emigration to find work
- the economic boom that began in the 1960’s
- more money than they could have believed it was possible to have
- a secure old age with assets, money and a pension allowing even the poorest of them to live in dignity without fear.
These people, before they retired, were farmers, artisans with small businesses, skilled factory workers. They are able, brave and to be admired.
In "Why Nations Fail" by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson the authors state:
"The price [that] nations pay for low education of their population and lack of inclusive markets is high..... They have many potential Bill Gates and perhaps one or two Albert Einsteins who are now working as poor uneducated farmers ...."
So it is that if one spends time with the older folks around Ravosa, where I live, it is possible to learn amazing things about the way Italy was and is as keen intelligence is applied to broad and deep experience. Most of the folks around Ravosa don’t have even a high-school diploma but they have seen and experienced enough to know that they must proceed through life with a keen and powerful common sense and a healthy cynicism about what they are told and have not experienced directly.
So it was that while I was at the trattoria Ai Cons last Sunday my friend Gino got my attention, and that of everybody else, by saying:
"Eh, we know that you think that Italy has no future .....
it’s true, but we know how to die well!"
I wondered what he meant.
Gino continued: "Mussolini went to visit Hitler in Germany. It was time for Mussolini to review the German troops. At the end they stopped near a tall tower upon which was a German soldier. ’Now’ said Hitler to Mussolini ’ I’m going to show you that we Germans know how to die unflinchingly and with courage. ’Jump’ said Hitler to the soldier. The soldier jumped without hesitation and was killed.
By this time, everyone knew the joke and crowded around making little corrections and ensuring it was accurate.
Gino continued: "Sometime after, Hitler came to visit Mussolini in Italy. They were in Milan. The troops were being reviewed by Hitler. ’Now’ said Mussolini I’m going to show you that we Italians know how to die!’ ’You’ he said indicating a soldier in the ranks. The soldier looked at his watch. "It’s 9.00 a.m. and I’m already drunk!" the soldier thought.
Everyone roared with laughter at the idea of the German pointlessly sacrificing his life whereas the Italian had already enjoyed his first drinks of the day
"Look!" Gino said waving his arm. "It’s true, Italy is a disaster. But we really know how to die!" and it was hard to disagree. The place was warm, there was a communal feeling and everyone had a glass of wine!
These people grew-up under fascism, in poverty, but fascism brought them schools and roads. They lived in a country that justified going to war as part of a German-Italian Axis and for most of them the mobilisation and excitement of the period 1940-1943 was the best thing they had ever experienced. But then in 1943 they were told that it was a mistake and suddenly the German troops were occupiers and they brought Cossacks who had fought against Stalin as their proxies in Friuli. And then the communist partisans started provoking and attacking the German troops to no benefit except that it led to reprisals against the civilian population, principally women, the old and adolescents. The men were gone. Then the Germans and Cossacks retreated and in the void before the Allied Troops reached Trieste and blocked Tito’s forces, the Italian communist partisans tried, by force of arms, to prepare the subjugation of Friuli. A small civil war broke out and atrocities were committed principally by the communist partisans. The Allied troops arrived. Near La Faula by the Malina river the American troops were encamped. Amongst them were many Italians, they had chocolate and cigarettes and they were friendly to the kids that hung around the camp. A couple of kilometres further along the Malina river, in Magredis, the British troops were encamped. They were hostile and sometimes taunted the hungry kids. There was a lot of prostitution.
In the period of profound social disintegration following the break with Germany of 1943 many vendettas were settled and created and many things happened that people don’t do in normal circumstances. The kids saw where the bodies were. And those kids of those times are our neighbours today. They know what it means to be manipulated and they know, with a clear mind, the level of degradation that humans are capable of. They know what happened and they know that Italians are not a master race and this forms the basis of many of many of their jokes.
In the Northern Italian cities, however, the situation was different. During the First World War the cities had ceased to be simply administrative centres for an agricultural economy and had become centres of industrialisation. If Italy was still primarily an agricultural society between the First and Second World Wars, the cities were centres of industry on large and small scale. They had a population density obviously higher than the countryside and they needed a more educated workforce.
Italy was only put together 150 years ago by the Kingdom of Savoy. Its creation involved the conquest and integration of many smaller states, principalities and regions belonging to other states including Austria and the Papal States. It was a conquest with a nationalist justification, that being that the Italians as descendants of the ancient Romans should live in a nation coterminous with the Italian peninsular. A constant preoccupation of those who governed the Italians was that the Italians themselves don’t identify themselves as such, defining themselves by their location, dialect and culture. This was particularly true when the Italian State was still nascent and it led to Italy unnecessarily entering the First World War in the hope of creating the rebirth of the nation in blood. During the fascist period Mussolini became preoccupied by the fact that the Roman Catholic Church continued to deny the legitimacy of the Italian State and so he obtained, by bribery, the support of the the Holy See with the Lateran Accords of 1929.
Thus, one of the key objectives of education in Italy is, and was, nation-building and the moulding each individual into the model Italian. This was much harder to do in the countryside where the people had little formal education and where the unorganised nature of their work made them less subject to formal moulding. It was in the cities, however, with their mass of labour that the creation of the ’real Italian’ actually happened. In general city kids attended school longer and were thus subject to nationalising influences through education for longer. The organisation of classes of workers into groups, or social factors, also served the purpose of locking them into the idea of being Italians in an Italian nation-state. And, fortunately, there was a glorious story to teach children who were fortunate to find themselves living in the society that was the reincarnation of the Roman Empire and which had let to the rebirth/renaissance of Europe after the fall into the dark ages.
After the Second World War, Italy again risked a crisis of illegitimacy: the fascist regime of Mussolini had fallen, but many Italians felt this was a bad thing and although the partisan struggle, supposedly by a populace wanting to throw-off the fascist yolk, served to justify the new State many in Italy did not believe it. And in any case most of the State institutions, with their actors, carried on as before with no change. During this period nation-justifying propaganda reached a fever pitch. There was real fear among many Italians of a communist takeover. The role of the State fundamentally in this time was to guarantee stability in a nation that had not exited the Second world War with a unified view on what had happened while avoiding succumbing to a communist takeover. Luckily, the Italian communists at the time were more nationalist than communist so agreement was found in which there were to be no trials or witch-hunts. After the summary executions of fascists in the last days of the war, everyone was eventually pardoned, no matter how horrific their war crime. The war was to be blamed on the Germans as the Italians, by nature, are ’brava gente’ ("good people"). The Italians, communist, ex-fascist, republicans, Christian Democrats would get on and avoid putting at risk the severely weakened nation. And the Americans lubricated this with Marshall Fund money and the Italians found that the "Dolce VIta" was much more enjoyable than anything that had come before.
In 1954 a potent tool arrived to keep Italians thinking Italian: television. Television in Italy took as its principal idea that of the village, or quarter, where family and friendship relationships prevailed in warm intimacy but on a bigger scale. TV was an organ of the State but it convinced Italians that it brought into their homes (and restaurants and pizzerie) the shared experience of the "real Italy". Thus it was, and is not, seen as rude to leave the TV on when guests call by. The TV is one of the family and favourite presenters go on longer than the Pope, until death, as their familiarity is taken as friendship and their presence in the home as connectedness to others. The genius of Silvio Berlusconi is that he understood this early and realised that such an audience was voluntarily and enthusiastically captive and in a nation of conformists he could control a big part of the populace simply through his television channels.
Today, as I write this the national TV channels in Italy are divided between the State broadcaster RAI and Berlusconi. There is only one other national channel and that belongs to Telecom Italia and is on sale. TV for a certain generation of Italians represents continuity, reassurance of their conformity, participation in the national life and confirmation of the Italian narrative. As such, there is absolutely no demand for plurality and diversity, in fact change would be resisted. Change did come, but to another, younger generation, and in the form of the internet. But this is another story and involves Beppe Grillo!
In summary I think that it would be true to say that the vast majority of Italians would say of themselves that they, the Italians, are good people ("brava gente"), to the extent that they have defects so do other peoples ("tutto il mondo e paese") but they have the superior qualification in that their ancestors were the progenitors of Western Civilisation, and they deserve respect from other Europeans for this.
On the 27th February of this year the Italian news media reported that the Italian President:
"Cries. Is moved. He says: "We demand respect for our country." Giorgio Napolitano from Germany defends the pride of the nation ...."
President Napolitano was responding to the report that German politician Peer Steinbrück, of the Social Democratic party (SPD) had referred to Berlusconi and Grillo, two winners in the recent Italian, election as "clowns". Napolitano has in a previous visit to Germany referred to Italy as the source of Western civilisation.
And this is the heart of the matter. Probably most Italians don’t view themselves as anything less than brava gente with an illustrious past. They consider it absolutely unacceptable that they should be judged by non-Italians for their present state, mafia, chaos, disorganisation, corruption, dishonesty, which they see as recycling offensive and derogatory national stereotypes by those who would do them down or treat them with contempt.
And the nub is that Italians expect to be judged on who they think they are (think Romans, renaissance) and not what they are (think chaos, dishonesty, corruption etc). In many other societies one is judged not on who one is, or thinks one is, but what one actually is. The insistence that one should not be judged on what one is leaves Italians unable to confront the reality of themselves, their behaviour and the consequences flowing from their actions. If one is in a State of Original Perfection it is difficult to confront the dark heart that beats within!
A bit more than a year ago the Euro was in crisis. Greece was near an exit and the cost of borrowing for Italy and Spain was reaching unsustainable levels. The Italian Government of Silvio Berlusconi was frozen immobile, transfixed by the economic crisis that seemed imminently would break over and engulf Italy and absorbed by Berlusconi’s personal legal travails. It seemed that Italy would soon drown in a wild sea and would drag the Euro and Eurozone down with it. In the face of this real and present danger the Italian President, Georgio Napoletano, organised a soft coup to force Berlusconi from the Prime Ministership and replace him with a non-elected grandee who could form an executive government of non-elected specialists able to smash through the paralysing inertia and, harnessing the drama of the moment, force on the country a series of reforms necessary to free the economy that in normal times could never have been made. It was a make or break moment for Italy. It turned out to have been a break moment but at the time the account was never rendered. Very soon the account will fall due and Italy will be out of the Euro, unable to pay its public debt and will decline into poverty. It will become the third-world country that it always has been but which it has been able to hide by unsustainable borrowing.
In two weeks time there will be an election in Italy. Berlusconi is back with his usual strategy of identifying with perfect accuracy the problems and telling the absolute truth about the others, promising to put right that which is wrong and meanwhile positioning himself to do nothing more than further his own interests, personal and business. The leader of the party of the Left, Bersani, is straddling so many fences that one awaits his win with delicious anticipation to see exactly in what way his lies will see him tied down, then hung-up, drawn and quartered. The outgoing Prime Minister, Mario Monti, technocrat turned politician, fruit of an opportunistic power-grab by the Roman Catholic Church, is mendacity incarnate and has probably done more than Berlusconi to remind Italians of the double-dealing, untrustworthiness of those who would claim to represent them. The protest vote goes to the Comedian Bebe Grillo who talks of trashing the old order. But the old political order won’t be trashed and, in any case, true power in Italy is held by the State, not the deep-State, just the State. And Grillo will never get a grip on the Italian State and, in any case, his protest movement is made up of Italians and that is where the true problem lies, with the Italians.
In 2003 the author Sebastiasno Vassalli published a book entitled "Gli Italiani Sono Gli Altri" (The Italians are the others) in which he chronicled the normal Italian habit of ascribing Italy’s malaise and woes to the Italians, but always the others. Italians are adept at complaining about other Italians and illuminating and enumerating their defects. But the blank refusal to accept individual responsibility and accountability for one’s actions and the desire to obfuscate the truth by confusion and duplicity runs deep in Italian culture and thus in the psychological make-up of individual Italians. Of course, not all. But enough to render Italy what it is today and what it has been in history. And this is what I want to write about. A little story about the Faula Golf Club and how it came to resemble Italian politics!
In the winter of 2006 we were approached by the husband of an acquaintance and introduced to an Italian Golf Professional who had just retired from the professional circuit and was looking to create a golf club and needed a modest amount of land upon which to create a driving range and a minimal number of holes to train fledgling golfers.
We were open to the idea and were happy to provide the land without asking for a rent. It seemed to us that creating a small golf facility would be anything but simple and that, in the long term, it would be in our interest to see the club flourish and become financially independent and that this would be easier if they were free from having to pay for the use of the land. In addition, I foresaw that at the beginning it would not be easy for the club to accumulate funds and so to avoid the risk of having moments of non-payment and stress we preferred to give the use of the land free.
The club was established and the husband of our acquaintance became President. He remained President of the club until last week when, along with the Vice-President, he resigned. The Golf Pro worked hard to get the fields into some kind of order. It was a tough undertaking. He was lucky to find near the driving range a portacabin, a portable building of the type used on building sites. When we were building our barn and restoring the main house, we had moments when we had nowhere to store our tools and machinery so we had purchased a portable building to provide temporary storage. In 2006 we no longer had need of the building and we decided to sell it. As the building was, at the time, near the driving range, the Golf Pro decided to use it to store his golf implements and range tools. We warned him that the area of the driving range fell within an area of protected natural beauty and that he would have to regularize the building if he intended to keep it there, but the Golf Pro was fully occupied trying to get his club up and running, keep the fields and greens in order and provide golf lessons and the issue of the legal status of the portable building went by the way.
After two years, the Golf Pro found the running of the whole shooting-match to be too much and so he passed the lease of the land to the Golf Club itself who took over the responsibility for the property of the club and links. The Golf Pro remained with the club as the club professional and things progressed well. After a short period the President of the Golf Club brought in his friend and neighbour as Vice-President. We were pleased at this as this fellow was a specialist draftsman / planning consultant whose job was to prepare planning permission applications. He was also a jolly fellow and did a great grill. We explained to the Vice-President/draftsman the position with the portable building and he was very reassuring that we didn’t need to concern ourselves with these matters as he would take care of them. It seemed terrific that the club had the services of a planning professional to assist them. Our swimming pool is located in the same protected area of natural beauty and getting all the relevant permissions to construct it had taken six years.
Fairly quickly, the club built a covered wooden structure to allow the driving range to be used in inclement weather. The Vice-President/draftsman had prepared the documentation that Luca as legal representative of La Faula had signed and everything seemed just fine. A couple of years passed and there were discussions in the club concerning the desirability of having a building they could use to prepare coffee and take shelter in if the weather turned bad. I strongly pushed them in the direction of a wooden building as I assumed that it would have to pass the body responsible for planning applications in protected zones of natural beauty: the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts. But it seemed that a wooden building, even if portable, would be too expensive for the club and the Vice-President/planning consultant secured, for free, another portacabin or portable building of the type already present at La Faula. This building was placed behind the driving range near the entrance to La Faula. The club, under the aegis of the specialist Vice-President, expert in all matters concerning planning permissions, then connected the building to our electricity and water supply!
By this time we were becoming concerned. I knew that Luca had not signed any documentation requesting official permission for the siting of the building so I started asking why. I was reassured, in a very convincing way, that everything was OK and I didn’t need to worry. I raised my concerns with the President but he assured me that everything was legal and we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with worrying. But I was worried because as the owners of the land we bore ultimate responsibility for any breaches of planning laws. When I heard that the club was about to sink two tall steel ex-electricity poles each into a cubic metre of concrete and mount a sail-like cover I knew that things were getting out of control as the land is zoned also agricultural and it is a crime to cement agricultural land without permission which is invariably never given away from farm buildings.
At this point I called the President and told him that I was sure that planning laws weren’t being respected. "No, no, don’t worry" he said "Everything is being done correctly". "In that case", I replied, "I want a letter from the club giving us a warranty that all legal obligations relating to the siting of the covered structure and the portable cabin have been respected and all necessary permissions obtained". Of course, the letter was never forthcoming.
Now the difficulty was that this was all taking place in a climate of jollity and friendly cooperation such that the President and Vice President of the Club had only to make light of our concerns. I attended two of the club committee meetings and raised my concerns but they just couldn’t see them. It was explained to me that the Vice President was specialist in these things, more than any of us, so we shouldn’t be second-guessing him. It was a real problem because in such a climate of reasonable friendliness and whole-hearted reassurance it was very difficult to ratchet things up to a level of confrontation. And I didn’t want confrontation with the club so I decided upon another strategy.
Italy, historically, and currently, has a real problem with people not respecting planning laws and houses have been built in many areas of natural and archaeological importance. This is a live and on-going problem so one of the ways that it is combated is that it is impossible to get an electricity or water connection to a structure that is not on the land register or which doesn’t have a valid building permit from the council.
During a meeting with the President and Vice-President of the club I said that I felt that it would be better if they had their own electricity and water connection instead of using ours. I said it would keep things clear and they could then decide how much they wanted to consume without reference to us. The request was so completely reasonable that the President affirmed it without a moment’s hesitation. The Vice-President knew where things were going, however, and resisted, suggesting that it would be much better if we kept things in our name and they simply reimbursed us. But the idea that the Golf Club should have its own account with the electricity and water companies was just so obvious that after being agreed there was no going back for the two of them and when the documentation eventually arrived for the connection of electricity and water directly, the Golf Club was, of course, unable to furnish the necessary building permissions!
Now, at this point you would think that things would have become clear. Structures had been sited on protected land without planning consent. But nothing was clear. The Vice-President said he would go to the local Council and find out what to do. He duly reported that there were no problems with the Council and we would simply have to submit a declaration of "initiation of works". Of course, when we read the documentation that the Vice-President/planning consultant had prepared for us, it contained a declaration on the part of Luca, as legal representative of La Faula, that the land was not subject to any protected area restrictions. This was false. And in any case, when Luca went to clarify this with the Council employee responsible for planning he was given a map detailing the extent of the area of protected natural beauty and told that the Golf Club would have first to submit a request to the "Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts". Luca duly reported this back to the Vice-President who undertook to have the request prepared. At this point I called the President of the Club and said that I felt that we had been saved at the last minute but that I felt that they should get a specialist in the field (other than the Vice President, obviously) to manage the matter as it is a rule in Italy that unless there is an amnesty one cannot get planning permission retroactively for structures already placed illegally. The reassurances and entreaties not to worry were warm and effusive but I knew that the request to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts would have to be accompanied by accurate certified photos showing empty fields and I wondered how they would manage this.
We were handed the pack of documents containing the request to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts at the Golf Club Committee meeting we were invited to to clarify, among other things, the issue of the structures. The meeting was warm and friendly and the President apologised to us on behalf of the Golf Club saying that they hadn’t behaved as good and respectful guests and, in retrospect, they had rather taken advantage of our good nature. He handed over an envelope containing €300 as partial compensation for the domestic-supply water they had used to water the golf greens and promised, when their finances allowed, another payment in compensation for the electricity they had used. Eventually the discussion moved onto the question of the two portable buildings and the wooden structure. The Vice-President/planning consultant explained that everything was OK, that the request to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts had been prepared and he had it with him for us to sign and that it was covered by a law called the "free construction derogation". I felt obliged to say that this seemed very unlikely and that I felt that all the constructions were likely to be illegal and as there was no current amnesty for abusive construction I didn’t see how things could be rectified.
One of the committee members asked me if I was saying that the Vice-President/planning consultant didn’t know his profession. Of course I demurred but reiterated my opinion. It was ignored. The meeting completed in a good-natured and friendly fashion with the Vice-President asking Luca if he could immediately sign the documents. Luca, of course, promised to look at the papers and sign them later and so the pack of documents sat on a table for a couple of days until my curiosity got the better of me and I decided, finally, to see just how the Vice-President / planning consultant of the Golf Club was planning to manage the planning request to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts having already sited the structures, in breach, I imagined, of the law. I expected something more sophisticated than what I found. There were the obligatory photos and declarations that these were an accurate, true and complete reflection of the real situation. But they weren’t. All the structures had been photo-shopped out to reveal empty fields. The job had been done badly and in one photo the entrance gates had been removed as well and in another the telephone pole. Trees were in different order in the different photos. The declarations prepared for Luca to sign included one that no work had been begun prior to the request and others relating to the veracity of what was being requested. Luca was being instigated to present a false declaration, an act, in and of itself a crime in Italy!
It was a Saturday afternoon when I examined the documentation prepared for submission to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts and they revealed their falsity. I called two of the Golf Club committee members and the Golf Professional and asked them to come around. They all arrived at La Faula at the same time and I gave each a copy of the doctored photos. I explained that we would not be able to sign the documents and, moreover, the documentation proved, unequivocally, that the buildings and structure should not be where they were and that they would all have to be removed.
One of the committee members called the President and explained that the documentation presented by the Vice-President / planning consultant was deceptive. They agreed that they would talk about it the following week. On the Sunday afternoon the Vice President dropped by to ask us again to sign the paperwork. He stated that it was the only way to regularise the situation and that it was normal to doctor photos in such a way. He talked vaguely about a "protected natural beauty commission" in the local Council who would be able to deal with it. It was all rubbish and I refused. He asked for the documentation back and so I gave him what I still had, keeping a copy for ourselves.
A few days later the President and Vice President of the Golf Club, claiming over-taxing commitments, resigned.
Now, the most interesting thing is the position of the Golf Club Committee Members following the resignations. Only one of them, who is not ethnically Italian, was shocked at the attempt to get around the planning laws labelling it as "a typical Italian rip-off". For the others this was a non-event not worthy of moral calculation. Apart from one, the non-ethnic Italian, not a single one of the committee members was prepared to judge or hold accountable the Vice-President. Of the ethnic Italians, not a single one was prepared to concede that the vice President of the club might have done wrong. Rather the Vice-President was exonerated with his claim that he was only following the law and local Council advice being taken at face value and without applying a discount for probability. More tellingly, although the committee members were, in fact, jointly responsible for the decisions of the whole committee they saw themselves as wholly extraneous to the situation, without responsibility for the way things proceeded and without accountability for how things turned out either to the club members or to us. The fact that they were also responsible for ensuring that the Golf Club obeyed the law eluded them.
So it is that the perpetrators of the problem, instead of having their feet held to the fire and instead of being forced to take responsibility to put right what they had broken have slipped away in good humour and spirit. Those committee members remaining have accepted the burden of dismantling and removing the structures and explaining this to the golf club members who have already paid their subscriptions for 2013.
And so it is that although a series of physical structures were sited on land of protected natural beauty in contravention of the law, and notwithstanding repeated challenges by us as to the legality of what was going on, in the end when it became clear that they had to be removed no one was responsible and no one was accountable. Everyone good friends as before.
And, in some ways it is a good solution. No one loses face. No value judgements have to be made. No one is responsible and no one accountable. No one has to render account either morally or practically for what occurred. No one gets judged. Life can go on peacefully as before.
And so it is that Italian politicians lie and steal and destroy their own country, they negate responsibility and accountability for their actions and those who sustain them, in their various tribes, refuse to expect or demand from them the responsibility and accountability that should run concurrently with the exercise of any power no matter how great or how small. For if a golf club committee, in the exercise of a power so trivial, so minor and so restricted, asserts that exercise to be without responsibility and accountability to the law, to the golf club members and to others, it is futile to expect any other Italian to hold themselves to a higher responsibility. Unlike how most Italians like to portray themselves, the Italian politicians are a mirror image of those they represent. It is the Italians that set the tone and they vote into power those that reflect them, don’t challenge them and who comfort them. A vast number of Italians, even if not all, know that just as they themselves will, instinctively and habitually, avoid assuming responsibility and taking accountability for their actions and will resort to mendacity and dissembling when the truth is problematic so too will other Italians. So just as they don’t expect to be held accountable neither do they expect others to be. Viva Italia!