April 8, 2011


Booted: What really ails Italy? (Tim Parks, 4/11/11, The New Yorker)

The idea of laying bare some persistent group dynamic that would explain the vagaries of Italian public life—Graziano’s aim—has haunted me throughout my thirty years in the country. I left England for Italy in the fall of 1981, having found myself a lovely Italian wife. We settled in Verona, where the Alps peter out in the north Italian plain, a small, elegant, conservative city, unquestioningly Catholic and immensely proud of its huge Roman arena and frescoed Renaissance piazzas. It seemed the right kind of place to underachieve in hedonistic peace.

The mood was bullish. Italy had accomplished an economic miracle in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, shifting from a rural to an urban and industrialized economy. Its G.D.P. was supposedly overtaking Great Britain’s. Verona in particular was a full-employment town, as confident and self-satisfied as you could imagine.

Even then, however, I recall being struck by how the interiors of homes and cafés and shops were so carefully cleaned and cared for, while the streets, as soon as one was away from the showcase city center, were often in a state of abject disrepair. The traffic was aggressive and choked, the pedestrian crossings deadly, the buses overcrowded, the train stations scruffy and underfunded. The bureaucracy was maddeningly complex (one stood in line for hours for residency papers only to hear that documents were required that you had not been told to bring); public-sector jobs seemed to be handed out mainly on a political basis (you’d hear bus drivers remark that the next job in the depot had to go to a Socialist rather than to a Communist or a Christian Democrat); public officials were often corrupt (I had to pay a considerable bribe to two tax officials who threatened to make my life unpleasant otherwise), and the lira was constantly being devalued, keeping Italian industry competitive abroad by nullifying concessions on wages and pensions.

Graziano’s book sets out to show that this mixture of apparent economic success and behavioral backwardness had its roots in the distant past. His argument is complex, and takes us back to the late medieval era, when Italy was ahead of the rest of Europe. In the power vacuum that accompanied the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, a number of large and efficient city-states evolved, all having an unusually potent sense of a separate identity. Venice, Florence, Milan, Naples, and Rome were aware that Italy might eventually be considered a territorial unit, and did everything they could to avoid being swallowed up in it: they were, as Graziano comments, “too weak to absorb others, too strong to let themselves be absorbed.” This proud disunity is exactly what allowed foreign powers to overrun and carve up the peninsula in the sixteenth century, a situation that, aside from the interlude of a Napoleonic invasion, remained largely unchanged until the mid-nineteenth century.

When unification came, it was led not by the major city-states of the past but by the half-French region of Piedmont, an area peripheral to Italian history and with a long record of rounding up and executing Italian nationalists. Nor had Piedmont planned to annex the whole peninsula. Exploiting wars between France and Austria to acquire the rich northern part of the country, the Piedmontese king was faced with a startling fait accompli when the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, initially leading an expedition of only a thousand men, quite unexpectedly conquered the whole of Sicily and southern Italy. Garibaldi then offered the territory as a gift to the now enlarged Piedmont, which, as much to avoid the spread of republicanism as for any other reason, sent its armies south to meet him. On March 17, 1861, Italy became a single state under the Piedmontese crown.

The new country’s prospects were not encouraging. The vast majority of Italians had not sought unity and many had fought against it; those who supported it were divided between republicans and monarchists, and some were not so much nationalist as internationalist, working toward a united socialist Europe. An estimated 97.5 per cent of the population didn’t speak the national language. (Most spoke one of scores of local dialects.) The Catholic Church, which before unification had governed territories in central Italy, remained implacably opposed to the new state and for decades instructed practicing Catholics not to vote in elections. Those in the north had little idea how to govern the economically backward south. In short, in Graziano’s view, it was a complete fluke that the country came into being at all. The fact that it survived, he argues, had far more to do with the fraught power games among France, England, and Austria than with any real will of the Italians to exist as a nation.

This lack of internal agreement or identity, coupled with an awareness that the unity of the country was assured by foreign powers, had dire consequences, Graziano says. It’s the reason that Italian politicians have always sought a fudged and fragile consensus that would maintain the internal and divided status quo, rather than clarify the truly national interest. Countries like Germany, France, and England periodically undertake painful socioeconomic reforms in order to adapt to changing international markets. Italy, unable to reform, has made a virtue of a low-wage, low-productivity economy, with little social mobility, a choice given respectability by the preaching of a complacently anti-capitalist Church.

How does Graziano’s assessment of the founding moment in Italian history hold up? Positions for and against unification—that it was the inevitable destiny of the Italian people, or a disastrous mistake—are a staple of Italian conversation, and, however cogently Graziano writes, one sometimes feels that he is loading the dice. Still, his analysis does shed light on the social and political dysfunction I’ve witnessed in the past thirty years.

Two months after my arrival in Verona, members of the left-wing terror group the Red Brigades abducted U.S. General James Lee Dozier from an apartment not three miles from our rented rooms. During the forty-two days he was held captive, fur-clad Veronese ladies crossing the town’s bridges in the freezing winter fog were obliged to submit their designer handbags to inspection by carabinieri with machine guns. The Red Brigades had targeted Dozier because they took him to represent Italy’s submission to America, the country that was preventing Italy’s Communist Party, which regularly polled thirty per cent of the vote, from ever holding power. Graziano notes that the two competing postwar visions of Italy’s future, Christian Democrat and Communist, were both subservient to foreign models and financed by foreign backers. If the American vision was dominant—as the Christian Democrats’ decades-long rule attested—it was because of Italy’s geographical position, the generosity of the Marshall Plan, and the image of material wealth that American films and television projected.

Graziano even suggests that Italian statesmen have deliberately played down Italian nationalism, insisting on the country’s Catholic-inspired internationalism or “European credentials,” in order to sell the country’s allegiance to the highest bidder. Foreign money could then be used to fund and facilitate agreements within Italy: new political players and contentious interest groups could be brought into the governing coalitions for a share of the spoils. This strategy of accommodation without unity of purpose is what Italians call trasformismo, an ethos that was still alive and well in 1983, when the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi was invited to become Prime Minister, despite the fact that his party was only a minor partner in the mainly Christian Democrat coalition. “Everyone bargains with everyone,” the finance minister in Craxi’s government remarked. “All procedural activity is a bargain, and at each bargain either we come to a halt or something goes missing.”

This is true of every area of Italian life, sports included. In 1985, Verona won the so-called scudetto, the national soccer championship. It is the only year in the past four decades that the competition has been won by a small provincial team. It was also the year that the league decided to select referees by lot rather than designation. Needless to say, the following season, the league went back to the old system. As the holder of a stadium season ticket, I quickly became aware of how much was decided off the pitch. In some games, referees were clearly seeking to influence the result. But, for the Italian crowd, this actually made the matches more exciting: you were playing against the referee but still winning! Or you had the referee on your side but still couldn’t score! Later, when I wrote about soccer in Italy and spent time with the players, they not only confirmed my impressions but expressed doubt that things could ever be otherwise. Big towns like Milan, Rome, and Turin had more influence than Verona, and Verona had more influence than many smaller places. No one was thinking of the sport as a whole, only of his place in the pecking order.

It's strange to an American to hear just how complaisant people are in the face of such corruption. This morning on The Football Show the hosts--Giorgio Chinaglia and Charlie Stilitano--were casually discussing how Manchester United won two games this week because refs would never whistle them for the penalties they deserve because they're such a big club.

Posted by at April 8, 2011 5:39 PM

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