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Italy’s Dirty Linen

Getting the Boot: Italy’s Unfinished Revolution

by Matt Frei
Times Books, 273 pp., $23.00


Fifty years ago the collapse of Mussolini’s authoritarian regime left his country in chaos, out of which emerged a new parliamentary republic. The achievements of this republic have since then been widely discussed, most recently by two of the more perceptive foreign observers now living in Italy. Matt Frei is an always well-informed journalist who reports for the BBC, and his new book contains a wealth of fascinating comments. Patrick McCarthy writes as a professor of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center and treats the subject more analytically than Frei, with an even greater accumulation of detailed and persuasive evidence. From quite different perspectives they reach broadly similar conclusions. Both describe the enormous changes for the better that have taken place in Italy since the dark days of military defeat in 1945 and show how, after casting off the incubus of fascism, Italy moved with impressive speed from being predominantly agricultural to becoming one of the major industrial nations in the world, with a great increase of individual prosperity. In fifty years its people have also made notable contributions in virtually every field of Western culture.

Yet the main theme of both authors is not these undoubted successes. It is rather the more difficult story of how Italy’s political practices have been corrupt, self-destructive, and often more hindrance than help to social or economic development. Although the main Italian parties have all produced a few politicians of stature and integrity, in general “the political class”—the active politicians and civic leaders—has not measured up to the sophistication or to the enterprise and intelligence of ordinary citizens.

Admittedly the historical setting was not propitious. Fascism had its origin and classic manifestation in Italy after 1922: the word “fascism,” like “mafia” and “vendetta,” has come into universal currency from the Italian language, and the Fascist heritage has lingered beneath the surface of political life. Another divisive impediment has been communism, which as a consequence of Mussolini’s ham-fisted politics, found far more support in Italy than in other Western countries. Further back in history, many centuries of foreign occupation and authoritarian rule encouraged qualities of rebelliousness and individualism which, however admirable at the time, attenuated any sense of allegiance to the state or the community.

Such ingrained habits are not quickly changed. Italy has been a unified state for not much more than a century, and loyalties even today are sometimes as much regional as national. Some Italians continue to blame the Risorgimento for having created an artificial union of disparate peoples that allowed prosperous northern Italians to exploit an impoverished south. Others have put some blame on the Vatican which, after many years of refusal to recognize the existence of an Italian nation, was subsequently, Frei writes, “responsible for some of the worst aspects of modern Italy”; McCarthy claims that it was “the prime cause of the new state’s weakness.” Pius IX and Pius X both issued anathemas against liberalism and democracy. Pius XI tried to persuade the Christian Democrats to ally themselves with fascism after 1922; so did Pius XII favor an alliance with the neo-fascists in 1952, though such an arrangement would have forfeited Italy’s liberal credentials in Europe and handed victory to the extreme left in the perilously balanced elections of 1953.

Unlike other West European countries, the left in Italy has never won a national election, with the result that the Christian Democrats dominated fifty successive governments after 1945. This lack of any rotation in power was an anomaly and obviously unhealthy for any democracy; but it was supported by voters out of fear that a change from Christian-Democratic dominance would mean a victory for communism. What justified this fear was that the Italian Communists received subsidies from Soviet Russia until the 1980s and continued to talk favorably of revolution and proletarian dictatorship. Moreover, Palmiro Togliatti, their first leader, had been associated with some of Stalin’s worst crimes. McCarthy, however, argues that Togliatti was no longer a genuine revolutionary after 1945 but merely feigned toughness in order to disarm the Leninist faction inside his party. Frei, while not going quite so far, writes that where the Communists held power in local government, as in the city of Bologna, they set an unmatched example of good administration, aiming to create “not so much a socialist workers’ paradise” as “a monument to bourgeois good living and civic values.”

This suggests an awkward comparison with the national administration, since the permanent occupation of central government by the Christian Democrats led to corrupt practices on so huge a scale that they eventually destroyed their party and greatly damaged the republic. One possible judgment in retrospect is that anti-communism, however expedient at first, persisted too long, both as an excuse to please the Americans and a convenient pretext to keep corrupt Italian politicians in power. Many foreign observers have forgotten that Togliatti’s party, after playing a useful part in drafting the republican constitution, gave indispensable help to conservative governments in the daily business of legislation and supported the conservatives in crushing left-wing terrorism. One level-headed Christian-Democrat prime minister, Aldo Moro, defied American advice when he tried in the 1970s to bring the Communists into his coalition; in doing so he made what McCarthy calls “the postwar order’s only serious attempt to reform itself.” But this caused Moro to be unpopular with powerful interests at home as well as abroad, and after his tragic assassination by left-wing terrorists of the Red Brigades in 1978, the politicians of the old order made sure that the experiment was not repeated.

The background to these events remains partly mysterious, and some of Italy’s dirty secrets have been uncovered only by the much greater freedom of information in the United States—for example, American information about bribes of Italian officials by the Lockheed company led in 1978 to the ignominious resignation of an Italian head of state. The Communists were revealed to have accepted Soviet money, for which they were attacked as unpatriotic; but Washington turns out to have paid considerable sums to anti-Communist parties, including the neo-fascists. In 1990, Italian ministers and members of parliament were astonished to learn not only that for forty years a secret paramilitary force in their country had been trained and supplied by NATO and the United States in order to resist a possible Communist coup, but that some of the extracurricular activities of this undercover force seem to have had more dubious objectives, including personal profit, and were a grave threat to liberal government. The parliament has had difficulty in discovering whether the Italian secret services ever performed a useful and acceptable function: they are now known to have maintained disreputable links with both the mafia and right-wing terrorists, and their deviant behavior in repeatedly frustrating judicial investigation of terrorist crimes was a disgrace.

Another Italian anomaly was the preponderant size of the state sector in the economy, an imbalance inherited from Mussolini but further extended after 1945, when additional increases in state-controlled industries became an invaluable source of political patronage as well as of payoffs to politicians. Private industries such as Fiat, Pirelli, Olivetti, Benetton, Gucci, and Armani were admired and envied abroad for their success, whereas Italian state industries became a byword for inefficiency, featherbedding, and profligacy. All the major banks were inside the state sector, and they were often managed by party hacks who had absolutely no experience of banking.

McCarthy, in his best but most complex chapter, describes how Eugenio Cefis, a talented but dangerously power-seeking industrialist, used political intrigue and financial juggling with state-owned resources to fuse ENI, the energy conglomerate, with the Edison electricity firm and the giant Montecatini chemical combine. In doing so he damaged three major industries; his successors, seeking to recoup some of the huge losses he incurred, then spent a hundred million dollars bribing politicians to use vast amounts of taxpayers’ money to dissolve the partnership.

Political bribery can be found in every country, but in Italy it was allowed to proliferate almost unhindered, in part because the electoral system worked to prevent any alternation among the parties in power. According to Frei, no contracts for public works were signed with private or public companies unless a substantial bribe, or tangente, had been paid to the politicians involved; the naive assumption was that the lucky recipients would at once turn over the whole amount to their party. Even the Communists, though they denounced such illegal payments, yielded occasionally to temptation by accepting them when local administration was in their hands.

The bribe was not only used as a lubricant for business,” Frei writes, “it was often its sole purpose.” The result was that the Italian landscape became littered with unfinished motorways, unused canals, abandoned hospitals, and building sites whose completion had sometimes never been intended. This systematic extortion of funds through public contracts was as harmful as the extorted “protection money” that supported the mafia. Both led to increased prices for consumers and losses to the government. Yet without these bribes the parties and politicians would have had to reduce lavish styles of life they had come to take for granted; McCarthy suggests that as a result the whole political system might have collapsed.

At the same time, social services were in effect taken over by politicians, who freely and corruptly distributed state-paid disability pensions in return for electoral support. Frei explains that in a country of fifty-eight million people there were four million disability pensioners, “about whom the most invalid thing was their ailment”; he might have added that in 1993 they included 150 members of parliament, one of them because of his “obesity.” As many as a quarter of the population enjoyed some kind of index-linked pension because many people became legally qualified for retirement before the age of forty. Such retirement payments accounted for a quarter of the national budget. Any amateur economist might have foreseen that such extravagance could not continue without disaster, but ambitious politicians continued to outbid each other in the competition to buy votes. The public debt rose from 55 percent of gross domestic product in 1981 to 92 percent in 1987, and to over 120 percent in 1994—far beyond what Italy promised to maintain under the Maastricht treaty. Worse still, the example of their elected representatives reinforced the belief of taxpayers that politics had no connection with moral obligation or civic duty, a lesson that encouraged people to react in kind. In fact, without the wholesale evasion of taxes, the astronomical national debt would have been contained. Half of the value-added tax seems not to have been paid, and in some regions the figure rose to almost 90 percent. An investigation by the leading financial newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, found that

the worst tax dodgers are economists and statisticians, followed closely by furriers, accountants, and stockbrokers. Those who dodged least…were doctors, who failed to declare, on average, only 20.5 percent of their annual income.

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