Now, just to be clear, Italy is a Roman Catholic country and for very many of the inhabitants of our village, Ravosa, the Church is a key part of their life. The Ravosa church is a beautiful church. When the Priest from the nearby village of Salt comes by in December, every year, and says to me: "Is your brother here?" without missing a beat I call Luca and we donate wine to the Christmas Raffle which supports missionary work in Africa. In rural Italy Luca is quite often "my brother". And when Giuliano calls with the envelope for the annual Ravosa church appeal we always put the right-sized banknote inside - just right; neither too much nor too little. Besides, Giuliano is a really nice guy: he was a miner on a big New Zealand hydro-electric scheme in the 1960’s and he’s always ready for a chat and reliving things that happened in rural New Zealand 50 years ago. Plus he has seen a Kiwi in the wild which is more than I can say! And when the lady, whose hair is cut so severely short that she seems to be a religious sister, calls-by every year to sell us a raffle ticket for a raffle supporting missionary work, again in Africa, we always buy a book. She is always friendly and brings little treats for the dogs who remember her because she also brings us honey that they make from the hives in the field next to La Faula (and which we serve in the Agriturismo).
Of course, daily life in rural North-Italy means mixing with supporters of the Northern League who knowingly put every problem with Italy down to the malign influence of the malingering and mafiosi ’terroni’ - people of the earth or Southern Italians. They’ve got it in for the Chinese, of course. And the Communists. Since the Northern League has spent 20 years in Rome, the vast majority of which was spent supporting and calling the shots in the Berlusconi Government, they have been a bit more quiet about Roma-Ladrona - Rome-Thief. They did, though, push the State broadcaster Rai into investing in a film about Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor. The film was directed by a friend of the leader of the Northern League, cost €12 million to make and earned, in total, between 9 October and 22 November 2009, the period it screened in the cinema, €830,000.
So it was that this morning, I opened the local newspaper, Il Messaggero, and on the front page, in big, black letters was the Headline "Fontanini Shock About Gays" "At the Northern League Congress: ’They Are Not Typical Friulian’"
Now, Fontanini is a militant Roman Catholic. And he is currently the Northern League President of the Provincial Government of Udine. In his musical-chairs political career he has held numerous high positions in the Regional Administration of Friuli and, as well, he has been a Deputy in the national Parliament as well as a Senator! Not only, he credits being cured of a form a leukaemia by Padre Pio, a Roman Catholic Saint who may have been "an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people’s credulity." but who is revered in Friuli.
Taken literally, what Fontanini said was completely accurate and as such was just a statement of the truth which should be without controversy. As a percentage of the total, gays are a very small group so in this sense they are not typically Friulian. But the reason that the comment got on the front page of the newspaper is that the real meaning of what he said is that ’gays are not real Friulians’ and that is a different thing altogether in a nationalist context coming from a political party, holding legislative power, motivated by an ideology based on the supposed racial purity - and superiority - of one ethnic population - the original inhabitants of Padania, the Po river-valley plane - over others such a Southern Italians, Asians etc.
Often, in this Blog, I have written about the shame and disgrace of a generation of Italians, collectively, who consumed twice as much as they produced with the intention of leaving following generations to eat only the ashes of a bankrupt and decrepit State. And I have written about the unconstrained emigration of the young and the highly educated from Italy to other countries where they can find personal and professional fulfilment. And I have speculated on the links between Roman Catholicism and Italian culture; ’why we are the way we are’.
And so it is, that in this country facing economic ruin, morally and physically bankrupt, corrupt and exploitative, a noted and powerful politician takes time out to remind those young Friulians who remain, and who happen to be gay, that they are not real Friulians after all. And, if hearing his message, that there is no room for them in Friuli, they draw the obvious conclusions and emigrate, driven out by their own kind, one can only conclude that they were not needed, neither by the Region of Friuli nor by the Country, and that, in an Italy full of old, ignorant bigots and facing a demographic time-bomb, those that do remain must be sufficient to turn the country around, invigorate it, give it new life and ensure its continuation. But worse, Fontanini’s attack has echoes of older, nationalistic times in Italy even though we know that today the stakes being played for are much lower than they were in 1938 when the Fascist administration introduced the Italian Racial laws.
In our kitchen, in a cabinet, we have an Italian Postcard from 1943. On the back is printed in bold ’Vinceremo’ - We Will Win" . They know only how to lose.
Our friend Loris is unable to tell a lie. The maximum that he can arrive at is being evasive but when it comes to dissembling he just can’t do it. So if there is something I really want to know I just ask him directly and he tells me. Loris has lived his whole life in Friuli. But his father emigrated to Switzerland to work when Loris was a child and when he returned it was with another outlook on life. Loris’ mum is from the Slovenian minority in Friuli. Our friend Federico also doesn’t lie. But he is in a constant state of bemusement at the venality, cynicism and moral bankruptcy demonstrated daily by his compatriots. Federico lived for a period in London. Carlo, a friend who I worked with in Milan, is as completely honest a person as one may meet. Carlo had worked almost entirely for foreign companies in Italy. He is perplexed by the numerous examples of amorality exhibited constantly in his co-nationals.
So it is clear that there are many Italians who are honest and truthful.
But those of us who live in Italy know that we are surrounded by liars, cheats and con-men. And these are found amongst the people that we know directly as well as those, such a politicians, that we only know about. One cannot but confront the fact that there is a part of Italian culture and society where mendaciousness is normal, common, and practised as an integral part of life. This is not to say that all Italians are liars. But it is to say that in a country where mendacity has a following we are surrounded by a web of lies, falsehoods, half-truths, exaggerations, minimisations and distortions. To give an idea of this I need only mention the newspaper Il Fatto which is at the forefront of reporting honestly and accurately and without fear and favour. Unlike almost all other newspapers in Italy it doesn’t receive government funding. On its website it has the following titles "Politics & Palace", "Justice & Impunity", "Media & Regime", "Economy & Lobby", "Work & Precariousness", "Environment & Poisons". As these titles suggest, as practised in Italy even concepts like Justice, Politics, Media, Economy etc. are a lie.
The Monti Government is also showing itself adept when it comes to mendacious falsehoods. Probably the most grievous is to claim that what it is doing is for the good of Italian young people. This is a falsehood of the most wicked type: the Monti government has intervened to ensure the continued hegemony of the very generation that stole and borrowed and brought Italy to ruin. Under Berlusconi the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by the vast majority of this generation most probably would have been put at risk if Italy was forced by the markets into austerity. Monti has bought time for this generation but nothing more.
Monti has not touched, nor has shown any sign of touching the Italian public administration. Last Thursday I wanted to burn some fine tree branches that I had cut while pruning a hedge. Being near the woods I needed to get a permit from the Forestry Guard Station in the nearby village of Attimis. No problems with this so I went to Attimis to the Guard Station. There I was rather surprised to find that the office was only open to the public for three hours a week: 8-10 a.m. on Tuesday and 5-6 p.m. on Friday. So I returned on Friday but found the office closed as the guards were attending a forest fire. No problems with that but I thought that I might drop by on Monday- it was raining - to see if perhaps they had opened to make-up for the fact they were closed Friday. Nothing. So, this morning, being Tuesday, I got to the Guard Station at about 5 minutes after 8 a.m.- But the office was closed as the Guards were in a bar having a coffee. So I had a coffee too.
When, eventually the Forest Guards were in their station and the door was unlocked I rang the bell and was bidden to enter.
"Buon Giorno" said the Guard. "Signor Paul isn’t it"?
"Well yes" I said. I didn’t know the Guard but he knew me.
"I’m here for a fire permit" I said "I’ve some branches that I would like to burn and now after the recent rain it seems like a good time ... less risk of forest fire!"
"Certainly" said the Guard, "Please step over here"
The Guard went to a desk and sat down. The computer was on and he pulled-up a document on the monitor.
"Identity card" said the Guard and I produced my Italian Identity Card.
"M..a..c..k..a..y P..a..u..l R..o..b..e..r..t born in NZ - NZ is the abbreviation for New Zealand?"
"Yes, I believe so" I replied but in the back of my mind I remembered that for the Italian bureaucracy the code is normally not your country code but the two letters EE. Still, it was just a fire permit.
"But don’t you hold a British Passport?" said the Guard
"Well yes" I said "I’ve got dual nationality"
I was flabbergasted. Here I was in the Forestry Station, where I had never been before, seeking a fire permit from a Forest Guard I didn’t know and he knew my passport details. And no, he doesn’t read this blog!
"You take the dogs for a walk in the morning" the Guard said
"Yes" I said "When the Agriturismo is closed the dogs tend to get bored so I give them a walk along the river-bank in the morning" "Is there anything else that you would like to comment on?" I though but didn’t speak
So, eventually the fields on the screen were all filled-in and he printed numerous copies. All of them he took into the Inspector’s Office to be signed by the Inspector. Then he brought them out and laid them on his desk. I went to take what I assumed was my copy.
"No" he said. "They have to be stamped" and with that he took the official forestry guards stamp and stamped the forms on his desk.
"There you go" he said.
"Thank you" I said and left.
And I thought about the great lie that Italy is a democracy based on equal protection of the laws and the rights of the individual. Italy is a monolithic State serving the interests of those who work for it, those who control it and those who sustain in power those who control it. If you are outside these groups you are manipulated, regimented and channelled and controlled and, ultimately, exploited to sate the avariciousness of those other numerous Italians, equal but better, who have captured, for their own enrichment and ends, the mechanism by which all State authority is exercised.
It is obvious that in such circumstances the young will emigrate, people will tolerate or find accommodation with the Mafia and any vibrant spirit, alive to the possibilities of creation won’t bother. This has already happened: Italy is a country of old people living well from where the young have fled, where organised crime has infiltrated regular economic activity and politics and where economic activity and entrepreneurship is in decline.
Last Friday Bloomberg news reported that the Italian Government had paid U.S. Bank Morgan Stanley $3.4 billion to exit from a bet on interest rates that had gone terribly wrong. The report went on to say that Italy has lost more than $31 billion on its derivatives at current market values.
The Italian Treasury has refused to comment on the report.
But it did bring to mind an article from the Economist Christmas edition of 16 December 2004. In an article entitled:
Why didn’t I think of that?
Were these the best financial trades ever carried out?
Italy appeared twice as entrant in the best financial trades ever carried out stakes and emerged as the clear winner. As the article concluded:
"Fittingly, as the winner of the “greatest trade” title, it requires only brief description. In 1996 and 1997 Italy (yes, again) was desperate to reduce its public-sector deficit so that the country would qualify for entry into the euro. One unintended boost came from the sale of the postal bonds described above—bizarrely, because they matured after the euro deadline, they were not counted as current debt. But the stroke of genius by officials in Italy’s finance ministry was to enter into a secret trade that simultaneously brought in cash, took some debt off the books and deferred the repayment of the cash and the debt until after the euro deadline had been successfully reached.
Many economists were amazed when Italy defied expectations to qualify for the euro. And its admission into the system has been worth an incalculable fortune. It has brought huge savings via systematically lower interest rates and greater economic efficiency. Had Italy not qualified, its economy might have crumbled. Certainly, its public-sector finances would be in dire straits.
The trade itself was fairly simple, though complicated enough to ensure that it came to light only in late 2001, when Gustavo Piga, an economics professor, stumbled across it while studying public-debt policies. Essentially, Italy used a swap to defer interest payments on an issue of $1.7 billion of yen-denominated bonds that it had made in 1995, at the same time taking an up-front payment for the swap that was later repaid with interest. Thus was Italy able to make it into the euro, merely at the price of a big repayment on the swap in 1998.
Think of the various elements of the trade. It was bold and risky. It relied on secrecy. It was brilliantly conceived to solve a specific, and apparently insurmountable, problem. It was executed with great skill. And, for a fee, it gave Italy the opportunity to be part of the euro system, with its incalculable rewards. Part of its appeal is that the profits came not from the counterparty on the trade itself, but from the economic consequences of the trade.
Of course, it was also thoroughly dodgy—had it been done by a company, the management would probably be in prison for cooking the books—though the Italians have always maintained that it exploited weak rules, rather than broke strong ones. But there is no need to be churlish. This was, after all, the greatest trade ever. Bravissimo!"
That Italy cooks it’s books should come as a surprise to no-one (at least to no-one who reads this Blog).
But what might come as a surprise, and it came as a surprise to me, is that Il Fatto Quotidiano has reported that the Director General of the Italian Treasury at the time was no less than Mario Draghi and the current Italian Vice-Minister of Finance in the Monti Government, Vittorio Grilli, was Head of the Commission for Financing Analysis and Privatisation. The Fatto report concludes:
"To conclude, there were no less that eleven people who without doubt had to be aware of the contract with Morgan Stanley, or to have designed it or authorised it: Ciampi, Barucci, Dini, Amato, Prodi, Tremonti, Berlusconi, Draghi, Grilli, D’Alema e Fazio."
This is the list of those who have been responsible for Italy’s economy over the last 22 years. Six of them: Prodi, Tremonti, Berlusconi, Draghi, Grilli, D’Alema are still in key positions of power today, none more so than Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank.
Now, of course, being a simple wine farmer in Friuli I could not possibly know what other contracts might be out there that were used to manipulate Italy’s public finances to help Italy get into the Euro and get it’s hands on more cheap financing which at the time seemed to be guaranteed implicitly by the whole Euro project.
But, the very fact that people, key players in managing Italy’s current financial travails, were also perpetrators of, or complicit in, the manipulation of Italy’s public finances to allow the country to enter the Euro makes them unfit today to have any public pan-European financial role and, of course, should render them unfit to have any position of public financial responsibility in Italy but this is but a pipe-dream in such a country as Italy is.
More than once I have written that Italy has a primary surplus, that is, excluding interest payments on its debt, it takes in more than in spends. Normally, this would be a good starting point for a country to renegotiate its debts or begin to increase the surplus to enable it to begin to pay-down the debt. In a profligate country such as Italy with populist governments and a corrupt and inefficient public administration a primary budget surplus would indicate some significant success in tax compliance and recovery.
Currently the Italian government and tax authorities are attempting to whip-up a frenzy against tax evasion. But the President of the Court of Accounts - the body responsible for overseeing Italy’s public accounts - recently reduced his estimation of the amount of tax evasion that occurs (from 18% of PIL to 11% of PIL) and said that at the predicted official rate of 45% for 2012, the fiscal pressure was too much (fiscal pressure - the ratio of what the government takes in taxes to gross domestic product). Unofficial estimates put the predicted fiscal pressure for 2012 to be 54% if planned VAT increases for October are factored in.
And the Privacy Commissioner in a report covering seven years of activity since the founding of his office defined the current activities of the government and State in combating tax evasion as a "serious tear in a State based on respect for rights" and that if this state of affairs were not to be simply an emergency to be corrected rapidly ’the spread between Italian democracy and that of other Western Countries would grow."
I have already written that I suspect that Italy’s gross domestic product is smaller than officially recorded which would make the public debt as a percentage of GDP higher than the official figure. But I am starting to think that it may also be that Italy’s public debt may actually be higher than reported due to ’off-balance sheet’ financing. Off balance sheet financing got Enron, Worldcom and many other companies into a great deal of difficulty in the 1990’s. If Italy had resorted to such financing, the current recession plus the unexpected and unforeseen Euro crisis may be putting the whole public finance ediface under the most intense strain. My guess is that, unable or unwilling to come clean, the only way out, now that Germany has ruled-out the issue of Eurobonds, is to find the money from somewhere. Mario Draghi is one of the few people who knows where the bodies are. And he provided the banks with liquidity to keep on buying Italy’s public debt. But Draghi created money where there was none. For Italy, directly (i.e. not via Draghi) this is not an option. So it is squeezing the population in a desperate and mad effort to to keep the edifice standing.
But as I have argued previously, the Italian government and its accomplice the Italian State are destroying the real economy. And without a real economy there is nothing. Really nothing!
The Roman Catholic Church is a pure Dictatorship (infallible Pope) with the aim of bending the individual will to doctrine and through that to enable salvation of the soul. The individual will, as experienced by that individual - individualism, is of no interest to the Catholic Church. That will is by definition sinful and the soul must be saved through conformity to Catholic teachings.
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 led, eventually in Josef Stalin, and perhaps to some degree previously, to the establishment of a one-Party Dictatorship with the aim of bending the individual will to sustaining the original socialist state. The individual will, as experienced by that individual - individualism, was of no interest to the Soviet State except in as much as it would not accept the authority of the State.
The Catholic Church is fundamentally concerned with suffering: the suffering of Christ (in the wilderness, on the cross), the suffering of Mary Mother of God, the suffering of the Saints (for their beliefs) and the suffering of sinners souls in Hell. At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution Italian workers and peasants knew about suffering - it was a part of daily life. The life of poor Italians - the vast majority at that time - was misery: malnutrition, disease, substandard accommodation, exploitation. The Catholic Church functioned to convince poor Italians to accept suffering today in return for paradise tomorrow (if they behaved well, that is).
The arrival of communist ideology and its practical manifestation in the Soviet Union, however, gave a real alternative to these oppressed Italian masses for the first time. And it told them that they needn’t accept their suffering passively but could take their destiny in their own hands. They no longer had to accept the order of things as being divinely predestined. And, obviously, very many Italians found this to be an attractive proposition. In addition, being based on Marxism, communism and the Soviet Union were hostile to religion.
The forerunner of the Italian Communist Party was the Communist Faction which began in 1912. The Italian Communist Party came into being in 1921. Political Italian communism, until after the Second World War, was directly linked to Leninist and later Soviet ideology including, explicitly, supporting the overthrow of the bourgeois state and merging Italy into the international Soviet Republic.
As a political force, Italian communism frightened many. Of course, it terrified the aristocracy, the rich and the bourgeoisie who felt threatened by it. But it also terrified those Italians who believed in the propaganda campaign waged by the Catholic Church against it new rival. The village Mass became a potent and powerful force to try to nip the spread of communism in the bud. That communists ate babies was a fact and to a devout, poor, ignorant Italian Roman Catholic Communism represented the unleashing of all the devils of hell. But communism was also viewed sceptically by many who were starting to benefit from the increasing literacy and from the availability of paying industrial jobs in the industrialising big cities. This last group, for the first time, were selling their labour for a wage and were able to lift themselves out of poverty. Having destiny in their hands, perhaps for the first time in two thousand years, they were reluctant to hand themselves over to a collectivist ideology.
At least the Roman Catholic Church and Marxist-Leninism each had an ideology. Fascism, being a middle road between to inflexible dogmas, had no ideology at all. All know that Mussolini began his political life as a socialist. However, he was primarily an Italian nationalist and an extreme opportunist. He was also fetishistic and had catholic tastes in the way he collected ideas, symbols and signs that became what we think of as Italian fascism.
The creation of the Italian State - the resurgence of a nation existing but unformed - involved the removal of Rome and the Italian Papal States from the Pope. However, although the Pope no longer had his own States to rule he could, through his church, provide a counter-point to the power of the Italian State. And, at the time of the First World War the Pope did not recognise the new Italian State. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church was hostile to it.
And, the creation of the Italian State had been a major disappointment to virtually everybody. The new nation was continuously badly and corruptly governed and did little in itself to improve the position of the vast majority of the people. However, the poor were benefiting from the beginning of industrialisation and increasing literacy and, most of all by their agglomeration in the large cities, thereby escaping the control of rural landowners and the local Priest. In the large factories in the large cities they were, for the first time, exposed to ideas that placed their role in the universe in a radically different light. This light was not one involving the local village and the landowner who they share-cropped for or provided day-labour for. These people being literate and concentrated were the first mass Italian generation that could be swayed and motivated by ideas of Patria [Home-Land].
"Devoutly thank God every day because he made you Italian" is a saying attributed to Benito Mussolini
The Italian Government of Giovanni Giolitti opposed Italy’s entry into the First World War on the grounds that Italy was militarily unprepared. However, Italian nationalists, including Benito Mussolini, whipped-up a hysterical blood-lust for war and masses were brought onto the streets of the major cities demanding that Italy should fight the Austro-Hungarian empire to reclaim lands that were an existent but subjugated part of Italy.
The genius of Mussolini was to realise that he could mobilise the emerging literate working class and lower middle classes, those classes for which the link to village and region had been broken to further nationalist ideology and aims. Mussolini was not alone in realising this, a potential rival who wisely, later, removed himself from the stage was Gabrielle D’Annunzio. Along with others they increased the pressure for war. The Giolittian government fell, and its replacement went to war against Austria-Hungary.
Thus Fascism was a extreme form of nationalism. Constantly irritated by the need to reclaim lands it considered its own either by contiguity or history of sphere-of-interest, the pearl was the creation, probably for the first time of a State that most Italians recognised as theirs in one way or another. Fascism precluded communism however, lacking a real ideology, it realised that it had to come to terms with the Roman Catholic Church and the Lateran accords of 1929 between Mussolini and the Pope govern the relationship between Italy and the Church to this day.
Not being an ideology and neither having one, unless you were an Italian Jew or a Communist it was easy to be a fascist in Fascist Italy. And, when fascism fell it was just as easy not to be one.
The fall of Fascism lead to the re-establishment of the ’liberal’ democracy. Two forces struggled for control of that democracy. The Roman Catholic Church through the Christian Democratic Party and the communists through the Italian Communist Party. The leader of the Italian Communist Party was a man called Palimiro Togliatti. Togliatti passed the period 1939 - 1944 in the Soviet Union. Prior to this he had represented the Italian Party at the Soviet controlled Comintern.
Togliatti, had been deeply involved in the machinations of Stalin, especially against Tolstoy, and cannot have but known of the crimes that Stalin was committing against his own people. Perhaps because of this, but in any case, he was an Italian Nationalist and refused to support armed struggle in Italy to impose socialism. However, he remained determined to impose socialism democratically and under his leadership the Italian Communist Party grew to be the largest in Europe outside of the Soviet block.
However, history shows that notwithstanding the significant support the Italian Communist Party had and obtained in elections at every level, it did not have enough support to overcome the Church supported Christian Democrats buttressed by the United States.
So it was that until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 Italy had within it a large and effective political party committed to imposing soviet-style communism. The murderous crushing of the rebellions in Hungry and Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops showed this to be virtually inconceivable, however, the ageing leadership and party membership who held-on to power found themselves unable to enunciate, or even find, another idea capable of realistically addressing the increasingly obvious failings of the Soviet Model. And it became clear, as the 1970’s became the 1980’s, that the Italian communist party was existing just because it could - the Italian political spoils system gave it a comfortable existence but this could not lead it anywhere.
In 1991 the Italian Communist Party became the Democratic Party of the Left. Over subsequent years it rolled into the Democratic Party with a mish-mash of other left parties. The Democratic Party is the current party of the Italian left. If it stands for anything it stands for the unions. Unions are not workers. The Italian left is only leftist in the sense that it stands for the collective. Notwithstanding the passing of 100 years since the creation of the Italian Communist Faction, it has never been able to move-on from this.
And for this the Italian left is rightly despised. When Berlusconi talked of the Communist threat in modern Italy he was harking back to the times when communism was believed to be a real threat to many interests. And some people, probably older and with nostalgic memories of fascism, may have even believed him. But the vast majority of Italians knew that the truth was that the left had never had the courage in Italy to fight for what it believed in (thankfully) but had never had the courage to abandon those beliefs (shamefully). By remaining in play as a political party, supported by a conservative gerontocracy, the Democratic Party was morally culpable, at the least, of failing to provide any realistic alternative to Silvio Berlusconi and the Northern League, and at the worst of blocking the development of the Italian political system and the evolution of its culture and society. For this the party is rightly despised by those, appalled by Berlusconi, who would have been expected to support any viable alternative to him.
Finally, as a kind of closing-of-the-circle it should be noted that the Democratic Party is now the home of socially-conservative Roman Catholics. These Catholics find themselves at home in a party that respects the collective and not the individual and which has nothing to say about a modern economy and the freeing-up of individual enterprise and endeavour. Abhorring individualism and the free enterprise needed to put Italy in motion, these Catholics ensure that in Italy where the ’right’ will never support ’progressive’ social policies, neither will the ’left’.
Thus the Pope in Rome will never have to open his morning newspaper and find a photo of a newly married gay couple on the Spanish Steps!
Tonight, I’m going to explain how it was that Silvio Berlusconi managed to become and remain Prime Minister for so long in Italy notwithstanding his nakedly following his own self-interest, notwithstanding his alliance with the lunatic manipulative Northern League, notwithstanding the proven corruption and alleged mafia-links that swirled around his political party, notwithstanding the economic decline that he presided over and was responsible for permitting to proceed unchecked and notwithstanding just about every other form of decadence that you could ascribe to him with more than a dash of debauchery!
To understand this you need to remember that Italy is a Catholic country. At its heart is a man who is infallible and whose role it is to set-out the rules by which Italians (and others) must live. Historically this man touched the lives of every single Italian through the personal contact that each Italian had with one of the Pope’s representative: the local Priest, the Religious Brother, The Monsignor or Don, the nuns or fathers in the convents, schools, and orphanages.
The hierarchy of the church representatives mirrored the hierarchy of civil society. The village priest managed the peasants; the nuns and religious fathers educated and indoctrinated the children; the Monsignors cooperated with the landed aristocracy and gentry in controlling the peasants; the Bishops were the church interface for notables of the towns and the cardinals did the same job in the cities including Rome.
In this way the ethical, sexual and religious life was doctrinal and life for the poor, un-educated and low-status was rigidly circumscribed.
Italy, as a nation-state was born through the forceful incorporation of the various small states that occupied the Italian peninsular. What distinguished this agglomeration into one nation of the disparate and diverse peoples who occupied the new Italy was the ideology of Italian nationalism; the idea that this people formed one nation descendent of the Roman Empire and this was to be recognised in the resurgent Italian State.
"Fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gli Italiani": a questo motto - attribuito dai più a Massimo D’Azeglio, ma da alcuni anche a Ferdinando Martini - avrebbe ispirato tutta la politica successiva alla spedizione dei Mille
"We have made Italy, now one must make the Italians" This saying, attributed to Massimo D’Azeglio and sometimes to Ferdinando Martini - inspired completely the politics following the commencement [of unification]"
So, to maintain its legitimacy as a kind of ’racial state’, that is, a state springing-out of a people, Italy had to fashion its people into Italians. This didn’t just mean imposing Tuscan dialect onto the whole population and calling it ’Italian’. It meant defining every part of what it meant to be Italian. And history shows that this struggle continues today. At the beginning of Italy, nationalist social architects despaired at the laziness and cunning and cowardice of the people they found before them. They felt them to be unworthy descendants of their forebears, the Romans of the Empire. Italy entered into the First World War largely because it was felt that the people had to be forged into a nation through the sacrificing of blood and life for the homeland [patria]. And this struggle continues to this day. Now Italians are categorised as blatant tax evaders and this will no longer be tolerated and the Monti government is stamping it out. What it means to be an Italian is always defined by someone else, someone else in power.
So the media are an instrument of control not of education. And the Italians are used to top-down control and indoctrination: it came to them like this through the church. So it was that State and Church worked hand-in-glove to maintain themselves over the people of the Italian peninsular and bend that people to their will.
The thing is that Italians have been abused, controlled and dominated cruelly for the whole period following the fall of the Roman Empire. Some human beings respond to such circumstances by hewing ever more closely to their oppressor. Many poor Italians gave every spare part of their life left after labour and survival to the Church. They lived for Christ and the Catholic Church and gained succour in their suffering. Some human beings rebel and the challenge to the Catholic Church posed by Luther and Protestantism seemed to offer something else but in Italy there was the Counter-Reformation and inquisition to deal with them. Some humans escape; the Italian peninsular has always been a place to emigrate from. But most, individual enough to recognize injustice and unfairness and hypocrisy, but accommodating enough not to seek to resist or flee, sought space enough to live a life where they could express themselves and find space to live and breath and permit themselves enjoyment. For the very poor this meant escape into drink and the pleasure of companionship with their fellows. There was little else.
For the first half of the 20th century life for very many Italians was really very bad. Italy was late in eliminating feudalism so very many peasants were themselves landless until after the Second World War when land-reforms gave, for the first time, land to those who worked it. Italy was late to industrialise so the industrial cities were limited and didn’t guarantee paid work for surplus labour from the countryside. Not to mention two world wars that were in every way disastrous for Italy.
But after the second world war remittances from Italian emigrants overseas, Marshall funds from the United States plus liquidity and inflation freed-up the productive capacity latent in a young Italian population, awash in surplus labour and the economy started to grow. It was not born at the time but from what I am told it was a kind of wild west: if you could make money from it you could do it. Even in 1995 when I came to Italy I was shocked at the laxity in regulation and normal civil administration. There were no refuse dumps, for example, so fly-tipping on roads and river banks was common. Houses had no earth-circuit. People routinely drank and drove when extremely drunk. When the Carabiniere came to make a check they would take away wine. We even gave free accommodation to an official and his mistress. In a very short time these things have disappeared, and it is a good thing too!
In the 1980’s Italy was under continuous pressure from the EU to behave like a modern European state. It improved the speed at which it transferred European Directives into Italian law and the State itself made clear that it was time to run a tighter ship. The trouble is that the Italian State is unbelievably dysfunctional, mindless, inefficient, Byzantine and pitiless. The laws are badly drafted, ambiguous and arbitrary in their application. In the old Italy ’work-arounds’ could often be found the ameliorate interactions with the State and its rules and laws and requirements. But as time went on, for people without power or connections this became increasingly difficult and many realised that the State, which in Italy is tyrannical, could not be neutralised at the local level and, as such, the risk of official molestation was ever-present.
In a society such as Italy was becoming by the 1990’s everyone who actually did something, who produced something, who created something, who built something was criminal in some way. As Berlusconi once said at a meeting of business people: "put up your hand anyone who hasn’t anything to hide" Nobody put up their hand and everyone in the room knew what he meant. Berlusconi railed that Italy was a Police State where communications are invariably intercepted and retained by the State (and leaked to the press) and where the tax authorities went beyond anything acceptable in a civil society in rooting-out tax evasion. Of course, most, if not all people knew, that Berlusconi was a crook chaffing at not being able to get away scot-free with his illegality as he seemed to feel he should be able to. But many also knew that what he said was true. The Italian State criminalises the morally innocent and it makes criminals of those who are behaving legitimately in every sense. For those, Berlusconi seemed the best bet to keep the weight of the State from their backs.
And then there were others. Other people who simply felt that crook-or-not, what Berlusconi said was true. And as he was the only politician prepared to say these things, they also voted for him. For those people he represented the lesser evil between having a crook in charge of the State or having a crooked State!
My next diary entry will be on why the vast majority of Italians despise the old-leftists and why they are morally even more frightening than Berlusconi (and that’s really saying something!).
Dinos Funeral - Ravosa
Photos of Dino’s funeral
The photos of today and the subsequent few days are, and will be, of the funeral of Dino Foschiatto.
Dino was of Ravosa and the photos are of the people of my village. Dino was connected to La Faula in two ways. One was that he re-built it after it was damaged in the 1976 earthquake. The other was that until one year ago, every morning at 6.30 a.m. precisely he would drive over the bridge, turn left, go about 100 meters down the gravel road and visit the little cottage, now used by his nephew, but which Dino’s brother, called Ismaele, had built and loved and died in.
Luca was at La Faula when Dino’s brother had passed away sitting under the porch outside the little cottage. That morning the brother, as was his practice, walked from the village, across the bridge and down the dusty road. As he passed Ermes, a retired motor mechanic passionately restoring one of the many vintage motorbikes he had, Ismaele had stopped and chatted. He had complained about a heavy discomfort he had running up from his chest to his jaw. He had already had the heart attack. But he walked on, and reaching the porch of the cottage sat down. And there he died.
When Ismaele failed to return for lunch Dino went to find him and found his brother, quite dead, peacefully seated on a chair at the little cottage. Dino returned to Ravosa and as many had for centuries before him, he alerted the church-keeper. The bells of the church began to chime and, it being midday, word quickly spread that Ismaele had died at the cottage down by the Malina river. The villagers came from their houses and walked down the road and they came across the bridge, more than one-hundred strong, to pay their respects to a man who was respected and liked by all.
So it was, that ever since, and until his illness confined him, Dino would come every morning to the cottage by the river and in front of La Faula. And he would check that everything was alright.
Dino, like his brother, was also a gentleman. When we came to La Faula we opened a ’frasca’. A little bar where we could sell our own wine for three months of the year. Dino would come, from time to time, with his friends from the village. He was friendly and welcoming. He made us feel at home here.
Of course, Dino had known Luca’s father and had shared with him the heart-ache of the earthquake and the challenges of the reconstruction. Both of them would recount the story that more concrete had been pumped into the walls of La Faula than in any other house. This was a procedure to reinforce the stone walls with concrete. I don’t know if this is true of not but when we restructured the house in 1999 the builders found a significant amount of concrete had squeezed into cavities and spaces, and ceilings!
Dino had a good sense of humour. Once, when we kept peacocks, he asked us if we could give him one for his friend the Maresciallo at the local station of the forestry guards. When he came for the peacock we had prepared 4 in sacks. He took them away and the locals in the nearby village of Attimis, where the station is located, claimed subsequently to have been victimised by wild peacocks damaging their vegetable gardens! Then there was another time when Dino came with his truck to collect some bamboo canes for his and his nephew’s vegetable garden. Dino’s request stimulated us in removing completely a stand of bamboo which we struggled to keep contained. Chuckling, he took away a truck full of bamboo canes, having come for only 10.
Dino was a good guy. His son is a missionary in Taiwan but his daughter Lucia runs the small local supermarket and bar in Attimis. She is a gentle person like her dad. Friendly, warm and welcoming. I often go up to their little bar and take a cappuccino, mainly because I enjoy the atmosphere.
Coming to Ravosa as a foreigner not speaking Italian let alone the local language, Friulano, was a challenge. I knew when I heard about the funeral that I wanted to photograph it; photograph it because a funeral is a time when the whole village comes together. I wanted, in my diary, to show the people of Ravosa that I live amongst. You will see from the photos that the people are old. Of course, the kids are at school and the younger people, unless directly related to Dino, would not take time off work. But, in general, Italy is an old country. These people in the photos are the reality for Luca and I in Ravosa today. And they are tough. Most of these people have known, hardship, hunger, war and violence, occupation, subjugation and civil war. Many emigrated and returned to the village in better times. They grew up in houses where the warmest place was the cow-stall, where they didn’t starve but hunger was a reality. The people they knew were often constantly drunk and violence, often of a desperate kind, was a reality. They are, of course, minimally educated in a formal sense. But mostly they are not ignorant and few are stupid. Circumstance pre-destined them for the life they led. But many were acute observers of the condition they lived in and they carry an innate compass of common sense that when allied with the teaching of experience makes them good company and astute commentators on the country they live in. I say ’they live in’ because for most of the people in these photos, they are of Ravosa or Magredis (the sister-village attached). This defines them and they are Italian only in the most formal of senses!
I was afraid, to bring the camera to the funeral. Of course, I asked Dino’s daughter, Lucia, if she would mind. She was completely relaxed about the idea. But Ravosa is a small village. And it is my village too. And I must respect the ways of the place. So even as I may rail against the iniquity of Italy and its ways at any opportunity, I respect the people I live amongst, I enjoy their company, and so did not want to give the impression that by photographing them I was treating them as exhibits. Of course, in this blog they are exhibits. But I hope of something special, and rare, and something which is disappearing as time progresses. Still, as I chose the photos to put in the web-site, I caught the suspicious gazes of those that had seen the camera. I was relieved that the Priest had not seem me photographing him. He is a Priest of formidable principles and, not having any contact with the church, I didn’t know how he would react. But, luckily, maybe, he was engrossed in his ministrations so didn’t notice me. The photos I shot rapidly and sparely. I hope that you enjoy them as much as I do!
Somebody wrote a couple of days ago:
Hi Paul, hi Luca,
how are you? As we can see on your homepage, everything is fine and Paul is in his "communication - modus". Clara wanted to see la faula on the computer and we enjoyed your nice video. And for this we have a little proposal: Maybe you know the old tv-soap "Falcon Crest"? It is so funny to hear the sound from the trailer in the mix with your video! Try it!
I did mix the theme of Falcon Crest with the Faula fly-over video. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Falcon Crest is an american TV soap opera that screened from 1981-1990. Set in the vineyards of California it featured the conflict within the powerful Gioberti family, owners of the vast Falcon Crest Winery. Watching the video with the new soundtrack, for a second I was whizzed away to a life where all is possible, wine pays enough to make one rich ..... But then, well, there was the Gioberti family and their conflicts ...and, well, I was back in Italy again. Maybe, I actually prefer La Faula, a simple life with a tiny vineyard, five jolly dogs and a Luca Colautti to keep me on my toes!
However, this was just an aside. The reason I quoted this part of the message was because it rightly identified that I am - or have been - in ’communication mode’. But now, the days are long, it hasn’t rained for over 75 days so the days are sunny and clear and there is no excuse not to be in the vineyard. So we work outside all day, return to the house at dusk and by the time we have dined and listened to the radio it already seems too late to write a diary entry. I think they will be coming less often from now on.
However, I am still, at least this evening, in ’communication mode’ so here goes!
On 6 March the Financial Times reported that:
’Italy’s treasury is to offer bonds directly to small retail Italian investors for the first time with a four-year inflation-linked issue ....
The head of the treasury’s debt management office said the “time was ripe” to target a product directly at Italian families, sensitive to the security of their investments. The four-year bond is to be linked to the Italian and not European rate of inflation and coupons will be paid every six months, with a 0.4 per cent premium for those who hold them for the full duration. A television advertisement has been prepared for the launch later this month.’
The Italian Government, unsurprisingly, wishes to insulate itself, as much as it can, from the Sovereign Debt Markets. First, Mario Monti came up with the wheeze of getting the Germans and other North European countries to guarantee Italy’s debt through the use of Eurobonds. This would allow Italy to proceed as before borrowing at - more or less - Germany’s interest rate. This would have been nothing more than a reversion to the previous situation whereby Italy insulated itself from making necessary economic and social changes by accessing the low interest rates that the common Euro currency afforded. The German government didn’t buy this approach.
So, now the Italian Government will push even further to tap into the savings of Italians. It is likely that this new initiative is not aimed at older and retired Italians who tend to invest in Italian government debt through Italian banks and their subsidiaries. This cohort also exhibits low internet penetration and use so it probably is true that the Italian Treasury is targeting Italian Families. Their future is already tied-up in the Italian economy and so getting them to bet their savings on the same is a small additional step.
The Italian Treasury is targeting Italian families because they are easy to manipulate and they won’t hold the Italian economy under a magnifying glass as will (or should!) professional investors. But this is a big mistake. The bond markets were the canary that stopped singing when it became apparent that the Italian economy was on a path to being overcome by low productivity, low investment, low education attainment, low standards in political life etc. Now Monti is promising to ventilate the economy with the winds of liberalisation and the canary is singing again. But, just in case, the Italian government wants to reduce the significance of the canary. No matter what happens to the Italian economy, private Italian savers will be powerless to help themselves or discipline the State. Their attractiveness to the Italian Government lies in the fact that being atomised in numbers their influence will be negligible, especially when compared to the influence exercised by the multinational players in the Italian bond markets.
The overall strategy of the Monti Government is by now becoming clear. First, we should be cognisant of the fact that Monti has not undertaken any great liberalisation of the Italian economy. His government’s proposals were tepid and they have been subsequently diluted by the political parties. Without any doubt his government’s actions do not match his rhetoric. In this sense, it is a depressingly familiar Italian story.
And it is a depressingly familiar Italian story in another sense. Resorting to taxation instead of cost-cutting, using propaganda and methods of a Police State to quell resistance to paying taxes at that rate so as to keep income up and for the money that remains in the bank accounts of tax payers offering an unbeatable investment in Italian public debt on favourable tax terms.
In 1994 Silvio Berlusconi was elected to office the first time. He lasted only a year. He returned to office in 2001 lasting a full term until 2006. Romani Prodi formed a government of the left from May 2006 until May 2008 and then Berlusconi returned until 2011 when he was superseded by the Monti executive. The fiscal strategy Monti is following is exactly that which was followed by Giulio Tremonti, Berlusconi’s Finance Minister and Vincenzo Visco, Romano Prodi’s Finance Minister.
Not only, but Berlusconi and Prodi each had an advantage that Monti lacks. When Berlusconi first came to power in 1994 the export boom provoked by the multiple devaluations of the Lira when it exited the European Exchange Mechanism was still running its course. And the Prodi government wallowed in the speculative boom that was to end in tears in September 2008. Both governments enjoyed raised VAT and tax revenues due to buoyant exports. Monti is facing the opposite and yet he is pushing-on with the same destructive strategy. Monti is squeezing a private sector that has nothing left to give. Now, Monti is feted as a sage who in a few months has re-set all Italy’s prospects. In reality he is the pilot who when he finds that ice on the wings has provoked an aerodynamic stall pulls-up on the joystick, willing the plane higher until speed washes off the wings, and the plane ceases to fly and it falls destructively to earth.
Italy is currently undergoing a national emergency that will lead it inevitably to an existential crisis. And, in good Italian fashion, we are now here in Italy, through the TV and newspapers, congratulating ourselves that the spread between German and Italian debt is back to comfortable levels and that we can put the recession behind us and think about growth (Monti’s words). I can but marvel at the courage, chutzpah, audacity of a Prime Minister who is so secure in the country that he is able to raise VAT rates to 23% in October next. Or maybe the hubris of saving Italy in only 100 days has blinded him to what is coming.
In any case the Monti government is yet another example of the 1941 postcard that I have in our glass display cabinet in the kitchen. Stamped across the back in bold is "We Will Win" [Vinceremo] followed by the Royal Crest. It would be funny were it not so apposite and tragic!
The destruction of the Euro will be an Italian affair. Italian in the sense that the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, has provided Italian banks with effectively free money to load up on Italian public debt. Italian in the sense that the Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti who was permitted, effectively by the Country, to form a non-elected government to allow Italy to control the economic changes the sovereign debt markets were driving it to make, instead of having them forced upon it, has assured the continued destruction of Italian productive capacity. That destruction will, at some point in the not-too-distant future, expose that Italy is bankrupt and will never pay back its public debt in full.
At that point, to the extent that Italian banks are holding Italian sovereign debt, so will their balance sheets be holed as cleanly as the hull of the Costa Concordia. And history will note that not only was Italy unable to save its banks but that it was Italy, itself, that caused them to fail.
Many forget that the current Euro crisis ensnared Italy only because she was already dead-in-the water. Unlike the other PIGS countries, Italy for the period prior to the present Euro crisis ran a primary budget surplus, that is excluding interest payments the state takes in more than it spends. The joy of the ERM mechanism and then the Euro that followed it was that it enabled Italy to re-finance its borrowings at low interest rates due to the markets believing that Italy was implicitly guaranteed by the whole Euro project.
All recent Italian governments had decided that with anaemic growth being the reality, serious debt reduction would be too unpopular to implement so it was like a family with an interest-only mortgage at a low interest rate because the loan was also guaranteed by a rich uncle. Only that in the case of Italy there was no intention at all to repay the principal - instead it would be left to future generations. Italy’s number was called, however, when Greece got into difficulty and the sovereign debt markets started to reconsider the implicit guarantees that were believed to apply to Italy. Suddenly, with Germany being recalcitrant, it became a real possibility that Italy would not repay its debts and the self-fulfilling part of this prophecy was to drive-up interest rates to the point where they would become unsustainable.
At this point two things happened. One was that the Eurozone countries started to tackle the problem and to give calm to the markets. The other was a change of government in Italy with substitution of the Berlusconi executive for a non-elected one led by Mario Monti. No one should under-estimate the challenge facing Monti. His job was to convince the markets that he would reform the economy to the point where economic growth would permit a steady reduction in the public debt. He could, in fact, have begun talks with lenders to begin the process of an agreed write-off which would have been by far the least worst of the alternatives. However, he began by announcing that he and his government would be making a generational change in Italy. It should be noted that two generations of Italians had emphatically resisted making such changes and his government only has 13 months in which to make them.
Not only, but it should also be noted that all Italy has to show for a public debt of 120% of GDP is a rich older generation with numerous houses, generous pensions and overall a good quality of life. That is, the money borrowed was consumed and not put to productive use: for this reason Italy is seeing de-industrialisation and continuously declining productivity.
I have written previously that this will all finish badly for Italy when it becomes apparent to all that Italy in incapable of ever significantly paying-down its public debt and that the debt will become an increasing burden on a stagnant economy. So be it. However, in such a situation, the last thing that anyone would want to do is to encourage the Italian banks to load-up on Italian public debt. But Mario Draghi did it.
Now, it should be noted that a key - if not the key - function of banks in Italy has been to buy the public debt and hold it and to procure it and push it on to the Italian public (including businesses and institutions). For this reason a very large part of the Italian public debt is held by Italians. But this has grossly distorted Italian banks other banking functions and has led to them operating as an officially condoned cartel imposing usurious costs on their customers (here I should mention that Monti is in the process of addressing this particular issue).
Now, both Mario Monti and Mario Draghi know that growth will never come to Italy in such strength as to permit the public debt problem to be addressed. Monti is squeezing the country for cash and will be forced to do so ever-more as the economic slump in Italy eats into tax revenues. First at the Italian Treasury and then as President of the Bank of Italy, Draghi more than almost anyone understood the relationship between the Italian banks and the funding of the public debt. More than anyone else he knows the structural weaknesses of Italy and he must know that it is not up to the task that it has been set.
A prudent European Central Bank would push the Italian banks to repair their balance sheets and reinforce themselves for the maelstrom that is coming. A prudent European Central Bank would leave badly governed countries like Italy to affront the consequences of their actions. Yet Draghi has, in fact, imported into the European sphere, what the bank of Italy did in pre-ERM/Euro days when it created money to alleviate the symptoms of Italy’s economic malaise.
One can only hope that at the point that the sovereign debt markets turn again on Italy the Italian banks will have reduced their holdings. Otherwise Italy and its banks will go down together. A true maelstrom!