TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Thinking of Italy, where the Present is strictly tied to the Past

There seems to be a need for a book like this amid the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Pensare l’Italia (2011, Einaudi) is the title of a tightly organized and explosive dialogue between Ernesto Galli della Loggia and Aldo Schiavone, two conversationalists who relate to each other like night and day. At times their dialogue seems to be a conversation between the deaf or a juxtaposition of two monologues. Although they rarely agree, it may benefit the reader to have access to two books instead of one.

The book seeks to “think about Italy,” and to do this seriously. Without rhetorical flourish, it is brought home to us that such thought may depress anyone who thinks of himself as belonging to this country and who knows how difficult it is to abandon it. The present is the heart of the confrontation, but the history has roots and a genealogy.

It is widely believed throughout the peninsula that Italy has taken a downward turn from which it may be hard to climb back up. Thus writes Galli della Loggia, who notes that there are two reasons for this creeping and overwhelming depression in public opinion. On the one hand, we are aware that the mistakes of the past are always present within us and likely to reappear. We speak about the failure to carry out needed reforms, about mounting public debts caused by an irresponsible political class always searching for electoral consensus, and the acquiescence of civil society, which has already been corrupted by favors. (Isn’t democracy in any case supposed to be popular government?)

One may cite many other cases, like hasty, scatterbrained attempts at privatization, or a school or university devastated by the rhetoric of equality and trying to select students and teachers on the basis of inappropriate “democratic” standards. The former communist Schiavone admits: “A school that seeks to inculcate democracy and equality will not succeed in transmitting wisdom or learning.” On the other hand, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is clear that we have exhausted those most favorable geopolitical conditions that allowed us to focus our economic and political choices within a national or local sphere and to spend and waste happily at the expense of future generations.

By now it is evident that the generation gap makes itself every day greater and more irritating. No longer unbearable because of traditional family structure and benign familial traditions, even if the influence of the family continues to dwindle, social tensions may also be growing more acute. Not so much in terms of the destruction of the social peace, from which Italy benefited for the last thirty years, as in terms of aggravating the rending of the communitarian fabric that once marked our existence but which has grown more serious in the last century. In sequence the “lacerations of the twentieth century” have been: the First World War, the Red Biennium, the fascist dictatorship, the Second World War, and the ensuing military and moral defeat, with the aftermath of a civil war that was not universally considered to be concluded in 1945 but which reopened in the 1970s, wearing itself out more by exhaustion than by the victory of one side over the other, and then a well-being drugged by the public sphere, which itself was abused by the “party system.” One must add to this list an Italian South defied by its own problems and always drained by systematic compromise with its atavistic weakness and its own good-for-nothing classes, as Angelo Panebianco described them in Corriere della Sera (October 16, 2010). According to this view, “democracy has been made subject to the South, less to be cured of its vices than to expand its power in relation to the central state and more well-developed regions.”

The Southern question is perhaps the least well examined point in the confrontation between Galli della Loggia and Schiavone, even if the former underlines as the daily Italian characteristic, perhaps the predominant one, the anthropological contribution of the South to the Northern Italian identity. The civil society of the South would always be marked, according to Galli della Loggia, by a strong inclination toward illegality and, in certain social strata, toward violence. The impact of this characteristic has created problems for the central powers in the Italian South. Public institutions have never held a monopoly of legitimate force; they have been an appendage to private institutions that have made varying use of force, often particularistic and illegitimate. These private subjects, extrastatal and antistatal, were once feudal lords, then great landowners, while today they are the Mafia and the Ndrangheta. (The Camorra has a peculiarly urban origin and has been tied to badly flawed or absent political leadership.)

The lateness of Italy’s development as a nation state is nonetheless a historic defect of the entire peninsula. Galli della Loggia cites it several times, in contrast to Schiavone who views this deficiency as a relative problem, which today is on its way to being solved through processes, however difficult, of being integrated into Europe and becoming part of a global economy. This is a major reason why the former asserts that the absence of an absolute monarchy with a national reach has led to an “anthropological structure with a strong urban, familial matrix, with a pathologically individualistic setting, but successful at becoming national-individualistic in the modern sense.” What is lacking is a habit of subordinating oneself to a universe of general and abstract rules but for this reason conducive to liberty and equality to whatever extent rights cannot operate in corporate or familial structures or, to put it more precisely, in a clannish or egotistical ways. The civic sense does not arise from the distribution of philosophical tracts but from social discipline with strong and well-motivated political entities. In this respect North, South, and Center distinguish themselves little in the face of the impending threat of financial collapse of the unitary state, in which everyone is screaming, “Save yourself if you can!” The ultimate position of the Lega Nord would confirm this, as it returns to evoking “secession,” its totem-word, which in this situation makes the “Padano” quite similar to the old-time representative of the worst Italian anthropological stereotype: one who undertakes a flight into his own particularity when things go bad.

Comments are closed.