The Corner

Italy: Illusion & Reality

Writing in the New York Times, here’s Tim Parks with a thought-provoking take on what is going on in Italy:

…Mr. Berlusconi’s political instincts mesh perfectly with the collective determination not to face the truth, which again combines with deep fear that a more serious leader might ask too much of them. One of the things he has promised is a pardon for tax evaders. Only in a country where tax evasion is endemic can one appeal to evaders at the expense of those who actually pay taxes.

The mirror image of Mr. Berlusconi might be the caretaker prime minister Mario Monti, an unelected professor of economics, who took over in late 2011, in the middle of the euro crisis. Foreign observers are convinced Mr. Monti did a great job and deserves re-election; this is naïve. As many Italians see it (and I agree), the professor merely bowed to pressure from Berlin, cut spending where there was least resistance and taxed everybody without regard to income. His election campaign, based on a rhetoric of dour seriousness, has been disappointing. As a colleague remarked, if one is to be fleeced by the government anyway, better the entertainer than the pedant.

One entertainer seeking to capitalize on the situation is Beppe Grillo, a rowdy ex-comedian-turned-political blogger whose Five Star Movement proposes to sweep away the corrupt political order and promises a utopia of salaries for the unemployed and a 30-hour workweek. Mr. Grillo’s style is so demagogical and his party so dependent on his inflammatory charisma that the 20 percent of the electorate supposedly planning to vote for him must surely have decided that it simply does not matter if the country is ungovernable after the elections…

Even if Italy does vote “sensibly” today and tomorrow, there can be little doubt that there is something very broken about its politics, and that that has been the case for a long, long time. Indeed (contrary to what Mr. Parks might say) a clear-eyed realization that this has been so explains the country’s long-standing enthusiasm for what has evolved into the EU, an entity that was widely seen in Italy as something that could save Italy from itself.  It is only now, as Italy comes to terms with the destructive consequences of signing up for the vampire single currency that some sort of euroskepticism has begun to emerge.

Trying to understand the source of profound (and seemingly permanent) political dysfunction in a country (Argentina, say, or Russia) can sometimes be a relatively straightforward process, but in the case of Italy the answer always seems to be a long way out of reach. In his list of suspects Mr. Parks includes “centuries of Catholic paternalism”, a tradition of reckless electoral promises and the sense that the level of EU control over the country has made any vote inconsequential. And a case can be made for elements of all three. But there has to be something else. I cannot help wondering whether Italy’s original sin might not have been united Italy itself. Naples is not, so to speak, Milan. Not now, not ever. Did the Risorgimento go too far, encompassing within it some lands and peoples that should never have been made to share one state? And, if it did, is that uncomfortable fact (and the effect of either trying to fix or ignore it), the underlying source of the problem?

And yes, there is a lesson there for those now so intent to creating a “united” Europe. I don’t expect them to pay any attention. 


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