Italy Against Itself

La paura e la speranza (Fear and Hope)

by Giulio Tremonti
Milan: Mondadori, 111 pp., €16.00

In late April, Gianni Alemanno, a former neofascist, was elected mayor of Rome, two weeks after Silvio Berlusconi and a right-wing coalition had come back to power with a sizable majority in Italy’s national elections. Following the mayoral contest, the international press made much of the crowds of neofascist youth giving the Roman salute on the steps of the Campidoglio. But perhaps more significant was the parade of Roman taxi drivers triumphantly honking their horns nearby. They were jubilant not so much at the election of a former right-wing bully boy as at the defeat of a center-left administration that had tried to expand the number of taxi licenses. Cabs have become notoriously hard to find in Rome; but the attempt to improve city transportation ran afoul of the lobby of medallion owners, for whom the licenses are a valuable nest egg in an uncertain world.

The taxi drivers’ celebration suggests a country deeply at odds with itself, paralyzed and dysfunctional, angry, fearful, intensely dissatisfied but unwilling to undertake any changes that threaten the fragile privileges of this or that protected group. It is a country that is sick of high taxes but sits by when Berlusconi blocks the sale of the national airline, Alitalia, even though it is hemorrhaging taxpayer money; a country that hates government but expects free education and free health care and takes advantages of the opportunities of a vast government patronage system; a country that clings to its high standard of living and generous welfare state but fantasizes about kicking out millions of foreign workers who now produce close to 10 percent of the gross domestic product and whose presence in the workforce is the only realistic hope for maintaining a national pension system for Italy’s aging population.

That Italians could reelect Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister who they rejected as an incumbent only two years ago, is not as surprising as it may seem. When Romano Prodi’s center-left government was elected in 2006, Italy had endured five years of close-to-zero growth. Berlusconi’s endless self-aggrandizement and myriad conflicts of interest in his various roles as Italy’s richest man, largest media owner, most famous criminal defendant, and prime minister had paralyzed the country and many assumed that with Berlusconi out of the way, the economy would get moving again. Instead, the Prodi government, with a tiny one-vote majority in the Italian Senate and a fractious, heterodox coalition, was hardly able to offer better. When Prodi tried to introduce market reforms in Italy’s economy, the Communist members of his coalition threatened to revolt. In response to his attempt to pass a law allowing civil unions for gay (and non-gay) couples, the Catholic party on his right flank mutinied.

One of the few things Prodi managed to pass was an amnesty for criminals that had been pushed heavily by Berlusconi and that was designed quite clearly to keep Berlusconi’s chief corporate lawyer, Cesare Previti, who had been convicted of bribing …

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