What would it mean for a country to change profoundly? What real news would we get of that and how would it feel to its citizens? Would it necessarily be a good thing? A few months ago, when the Greek crisis made it clear that being a member of the Eurozone did not mean having access to unlimited credit on equal terms with countries like Germany and France, Italy was suddenly in trouble. Snoozing for years in a debt-funded decadence, all at once the country found lenders demanding unsustainable interest rates, as if this were some shaky third-world economy trying to borrow in a foreign currency.
Very soon something would have to give. The consequent change of government and drastic budgetary measures have been described well enough in any number of newspapers. What interests me more than the numbers or the markets is the question of how these developments might actually change, over the long term, the way Italians relate to each other and to the state.
When I first came to Italy thirty years ago, there was a lot of talk about change. It was always located in the very near future, but never quite in the present. The paradigm almost everybody accepted was that of an “abnormal” and in some respects archaic society on the brink of becoming normal and modern, falling into line, that is, with the powerful democracies of Northern Europe—as if there were something natural about their models.
We can list some of the qualities that made and still make Italy seem “special”: a tradition of regional rather than national loyalties (exacerbated by the fact that government is actually strongly centralized); a high level of organized (but not ordinary) crime; the power of the family in every sphere of life, but notably the economy; the melodramatically assertive tone of the labor force in all professional, commercial, and unionized sectors, whether they be taxi drivers, pharmacists, or steelworkers; a flair for making life complicated through bureaucracy and then for overcoming complication through evasion and petty corruption; a multitude of political parties with strong ideological or regional leanings; a church with a propensity to undermine rather than reinforce people’s loyalty to the state; a tendency in general to foment and then thrive on a gap between the official version of events and their actual course, between rules and practice, appearance and reality. A foreigner seeking to participate in Italian life—buying a house, starting a career at the university, bringing up children in the state school system—soon appreciates that this is a country for initiates. It is never enough to read the instructions on a form to understand how it should be filled in. You need someone with inside knowledge beside you.
Looking at our list as a whole, it’s not hard to spot an underlying pattern and …
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