Nellie and Hector in the woods behind La Faula!
Every morning we take the border collies for a walk in the woods behind La Faula.
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.