Can Italy Change?

This is the fifth in an NYRblog series about the fate of democracy in different parts of the world.

Italian barber.jpg

Herbert List/Magnum Photos

Naples, 1949

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 appreciate the sort of difficulties it creates. Circumscribed collective identities (families, political parties, work associations, local pride, religious groups), while admirable in themselves, undermine the nation’s capacity to establish a hierarchy of priorities for the common good, if only because government itself is rarely more than a patchwork of factions. It is never easy to legislate against vested interests; in Italy it is well nigh impossible: there are simply so many groups whose existence depends on things remaining as they are. To a greater extent than in other countries, individual Italians feel diminished and despondent if those groups are put in jeopardy.

All the same, the world is constantly changing and sooner or later we have to change with it. For the Italians, then, the anxious question is, how can we accommodate change in such a way that everything remains essentially the same, in other words, in such a way that my community of reference continues to survive? In macroeconomic terms, the pattern in Italy over recent decades has been as follows: restrictive practices, red tape, and generous but by no means uniform or fair social policies (notably pensions), led to low productivity, rising public debt, and trade imbalances, negative effects that were then “corrected” throughout the 1970s and 80s by regular devaluation combined with inflation-indexed wages and pensions; in this way exports were given a boost while all major trade associations maintained their respective positions.

Then came European Monetary Union and eventually the Euro. To remain at the heart of a privileged group of European trading partners, Italy would have to accept a currency over which it had no sovereignty, a currency that could not be devalued. Some new way of squaring the circle would have to be found. In the early 2000s labor laws were reformed in such a way that all acquired privileges were left intact, above all rock-solid job security for employees with regular contracts, while employers were now free to offer short-term contracts and very low wages (or none at all) to the young entering the market. The new arrivals, that is, would offer the flexibility and productivity that the status quo were not willing to accept. The consequence, ten years later, is 30 percent youth unemployment and a generation whose experience of the workplace has been one of constant frustration if not humiliation. Even so, their sacrifice wasn’t enough. No sooner had the international credit crunch begun than Italy was identified as a risky borrower, with a stagnating, low-productivity economy, and above all as a nation that had lost its way.


In November 2011, with things looking increasingly desperate, the aging ex-Communist president, Giorgio Napolitano, called in the Jesuit-schooled economics professor Mario Monti and a great experiment began: a government supported by cross-party votes but whose ministers are not politicians or members of parliament but simply experts in their fields—and who hopefully, since not seeking reelection, are immune to the lobbies. In short, the plan is to do something for the public good.

None of this is new. One of the pleasures of spending all your adult life in a country you hardly knew on arrival is the slow accumulation of history and culture necessary to get a handle on the world you are seeking to adapt to. Reading, translating, teaching, writing, you begin to sense of how it all links up; at the same time you become so involved yourself that you can no longer pretend to be an objective outsider. Doing the research to write Medici Money (2006), a book about the Medici bank in the 15th century, I discovered how many of the patterns in contemporary Italian society were already present in Republican Florence: brief and divided governments, extreme ambiguity as to the real centre of power, an obsession with sharing out patronage equally between different trade guilds and geographical areas, extreme difficulty collecting taxes, and so on. Later, translating Machiavelli, I came across the principle that unity in Italy is only to be achieved when the country as a whole faces a serious threat from without. In August 1480, the Papal States, Naples, Florence, and others, broke off their internal wars to face a Turkish attack on the southeast coast of the country that left 12,000 dead and 10,000 in slavery. Such unity, however, is always understood as short term and must not be exploited by one group to assert power over others after the emergency is over. Many of Italy’s politicians have demanded that ministers in the present government of experts pledge not to stand at forthcoming general elections.

Will the trick work this time? Monti has about a year and a half before the end of the current legislature’s term and an enormous amount to do. He began with the kind of cuts and fiscal action that might calm the markets: robust pension reform and a tax on home ownership. Now he is seeking to break down a score of cartels—needless to say, lawyers, doctors, truck drivers, taxi drivers, and pharmacies are all announcing strikes. Then there will be the more radical and deeper reforms: labor law, the electoral system. All this is to be accompanied, we are told, by a serious attempt to make people pay their taxes. At present huge numbers of the self-employed are clearly declaring less than a third of their income; so evident is the gap between lifestyle and declared earnings that the situation could only have developed with a certain official collusion. Monti seems determined to do something about that.

What all this amounts to is an invitation to Italians to change mentality, to commit to the state. In Io ti assolvo (I Absolve You) published in 1993, Giordano Bruno Guerri collected the responses of priests to his confession of a wide variety of sins, including tax evasion. On more than one occasion priests suggested that he could make up for his crime by donating some money to the Church. This perception that if I keep my money from the state to give it to some other good collective—my political party, my trade association, my family (though evidently much just goes into the individual’s pocket)—then I am not in the wrong is one of the core beliefs that the government is seeking to change.

Could that happen? Is it possible, for example, that a meritocracy could develop in Italy? That one might begin to a believe that a colleague has been employed because he or she is good at his or her job, that the whole process of trying to figure out who each person’s “protector” is might one day come to an end? I’m fascinated. And even if that doesn’t occur, an equally fascinating question arises: how can Italy compete in the increasingly open world if it remains attached to these patterns of relation?


Those who have read my recent articles on world literature and translation may think that this piece is entirely unconnected. Not so. In a work of literary criticism, Romanzo mondo (The World Novel), published in 2010, Professor Vittorio Coletti speaks of a homogenization of the novel across Europe in the second half of the twentieth century coming as a consequence of the fact that “the similarities between many nations gradually became greater than their differences”; he goes on to claim that “the moment was approaching when a story told in Berlin wouldn’t be very different from one set in Lisbon.”

My own suspicion is that such homogenization as has occurred arises more from the authors’ desire to address an international public than because events and personalities in the Parliament in Rome, for example, are truly similar to those in Paris or London. Italians have their own form of individuality and their own ways of relating to each other and to the groups they move in.

So will novelists be telling how Italians were changed by globalization, the debt crisis, and the Monti revolution, or indeed of how they resisted change and continued to behave as they always have? And will any such novels be addressed to Italian readers as part of an ongoing national debate—as was, say, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Gattopardo—or will they rather use the national Italian narrative to entertain an international public, who can then smile and wonder at Berlusconi’s harem, or at the townsfolk of the notorious Francesco Schettino, Captain of the Costa Concordia? Responsible for one of the most stupid shipping accidents of all time, not to mention the death of thirty or so passengers, Schettino was nevertheless greeted in his home town of Meta di Sorrento (on the south side of the bay of Naples) by a crowd waving banners in his favor and complaining, priest included, that the man’s bad press was the result of a general prejudice against their community. “Every Italian,” Giacomo Leopardi dryly remarked in 1826 “is more or less equally honored and dishonored.”

The question of address in a novel is important: Italians will understand the sentiments of Schettino’s fellow citizens, their own local allegiances are challenged; readers in other countries may simply be amused.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in