Global Dialogues

Italy: Still the Sick Man of Europe

In the early 1990s, the political scandal “Bribesville” led to the emergence of a new political class in Italy, headed by Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing party Forza Italia (“Go Italy”). Bettino Craxi’s political protégée promised the Italians a “clean, reasonable and modern country.” Instead, the media magnate turned Italy into the “sick man of Europe”: “a country still struggling between modernity and backwardness, between the need/will to change and the fear of losing some local or specific privileges.” Twenty years on, a new corruption scandal has emerged, and the country seems to have returned to its point of departure, in spite of Berlusconi’s dismissal as Prime Minister.

This is not just Berlusconi’s fault, as I discussed in an earlier post . After all, he was voted in by many Italians, even if his control over the media (the Berlusconi family owns several TV channels, a publishing house and national daily) suggest a certain degree of political manipulation. The problem is that there is a mindset where getting away with (bad) things is a kind of national sport. It relates to the diffidence of Italian citizens towards the state, as historian John Foot explains in Italy’s Divided Memory:

“T]he Italian state has been in the throes of a semipermanent legitimation crisis ever since its inception. The basic ‘rules of the game’ have never been accepted by many Italians in terms of a ‘rational’ management of the state and the political system. They have, instead, been partly replaced by other, unwritten ‘rules’ that have institutionalized patronage, clientelism, and informal modes of behaviour and exchange.”

This legitimation crisis is evident, for example, in tax evasion but also – on the part of the state – in the use of excessive violence against citizens during social conflicts. The most exemplary case was the G8 summit in Genoa, in 2001, when police killed a student activist, savagely beat up activists and journalists during a police raid in the former Diaz school, and indulged in forms of torture at the Bolzaneto prison, where the nightmare continued for some 100 victims of the Diaz raid. Although the movie Diaz – Don’t clean up this blood (Daniele Vicari, 2012) gives an accurate account of what was defined as a “Mexican-style massacre,” it fails to take a real stance on the matter as responsibilities are split between the police (one of the police officers inside the Diaz school symbolically apologizes to one of the wounded activists, the view of a girl bleeding from her head clearly generating a sense of guilt) and the provocative and violent “black bloc” youth, the pretext for police to raid the Diaz school in the first place. In the movie, a couple of them find a hideout in a bar across the former school, on the night of the massacre: when – the following morning – they explore the abandoned building, traces of blood and debris unveil the horror that had taken place there. One of them penitently cries out that it was their fault.

The Genoa incidents are among a long list of traumatic memories, which remain controversial also because of a corrupt judicial system in Italy: earlier in 2012, ten Genoa activists accused of damaging property risked prison sentences of 10 to 15 years each, whereas the excessive physical violence used by the police in the Diaz school, on the other hand, was left unpunished. The trials for a series of dramatic bomb massacres that occurred between 1969 and 1980 had similar outcomes: 35 years after the 1969 Piazza Fontana massacre in Milan, for example, the main suspects were identified as the culprits but received no prison sentences, for bureaucratic and legal reasons. On top of this, the families of the 17 victims were summoned to pay the trial expenses.

So Italians have some reason to not trust the state and its legal system. To be “bad,” in Italy, is a virtue, and this might explain the country’s infinite troubles with corruption. Throughout 2012, a series of scandals involving political parties from various ideological backgrounds followed each other up like a tragicomic sitcom. It started with the centre party La Margherita (“Daisy Party”), whose treasurer Luigi Lusi has been arrested for embezzling party funds. Next, it was the turn of the xenophobe Lega Nord (“Northern League”), which for years boasted of being corruption-free, and even built its very identity on the idea that Rome was full of thieves, as opposed to the clean North. Now it turns out that the Lega used party funds to buy leader Umberto Bossi’s son his university degrees, in Albania.

The most recent scandal, finally, involves the heir to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the People of Freedom party (PDL). Italians were plunged back into the ancient Rome of the Satyricon as news came out of PDL members from the Lazio regional council spending taxpayers’ money on luxury holidays, expensive cars and extravagant dress-up parties. Regional chief Franco Fiorito has been arrested for embezzlement of party funds of over $1,500,000, whereas a councilor spent nearly $40,000 on a toga party attended by 2,000 people – including Fiorito, nicknamed Batman – dressed up as Roman centurions or wearing pigs masks, while fondling women and feeding on oysters and champagne.

Ironically, Fiorito has tried to defend himself by claiming to have been among the angry crowd that had symbolically thrown pennies at Craxi, during the “Bribesville” investigations in 1993, one night when the Socialist leader left his residence in Rome. This historical moment came to represent the political demise of Craxi. Today, Fiorito has become the new face of political corruption in Italy.

This is the social context of the satirical TV show Blob, which I analyzed in an earlier postBlob brilliantly hit right on the spot when it opened its episode of 26 September 2012 with the “Mr Creosote” sketch from Monty Python’s satirical movie The Meaning of Life (1983 ). Mr Creosote is a surrealistically obese man who literally stuffs himself with food in a fancy restaurant. As he eats and – at the same time – coughs up his food, the man reaches his limit when the waiter (John Cleese) convinces him to have his final “wafer thin mint chocolate.” Mr Creosote accepts and literally explodes, but we don’t get to see that in Blob: just before the explosion, the scene switches to a shot of the equally obese Fiorito, and we cannot but imagine him on the various nights out, stuffing himself with oysters and champagne.

But it’s not just the fact that – in times of austerity – these people feed both on oysters and other people’s misery (in 2010 the Lazio region introduced prescription charges for disabled people). The real problem is that they don’t seem to be bothered with their lack of ethics and sense of propriety. Lazio governor Renata Polverini is exemplary here: according to Fiorito, Polverini was well aware of the misuse of funds within her council, and pictures showing her at the parties have been circulating in the media. Yet she denies that she knew anything of the embezzlements. Indeed, Polverini has been on a kind of media tour to exonerate herself from the accusations, pointing her finger at other parties and their scandals, as if to say that, in the end, everyone has been “bad.” She has also had posters put up all over Rome, where she looks straight into the camera, with pride and determination, as she firmly states that she will “send these people home.” This is, I think, the most outrageous outcome of the scandals: the lack of decency and responsibility among those who are in charge. For, even if Polverini really didn’t know anything, what is her ($15,000 monthly) job about then? For had this happened in Germany, Denmark or the Netherlands, Polverini would have stepped down instantly, quietly and ashamed for not having been more vigilant. Instead, she arrogantly claims to be a victim in the whole affair.

Indeed, the attitude of Italian politicians reflects a symptomatic problem in Italy: that of trying to get away with anything. As a number of Italian journalists have observed, the likes of Fiorito simply and sadly reflect Italian society at large.

  • Felipe Pait

    I find the timing of this article odd. The current crisis in Europe is not caused by people who do not take politics seriously. Much the contrary, it is caused by very serious people forcing a destructive austerity upon Italy, Spain, and the rest of Europe.

    No one would argue that Italy cannot be run better, or should not. However the biggest economic crisis in the European Union has nothing to do with corruption or other flaws in the Italian political system.

  • Felipe Pait

    I find the timing of this article odd. The current crisis in Europe is not caused by people who do not take politics seriously. Much the contrary, it is caused by very serious people forcing a destructive austerity upon Italy, Spain, and the rest of Europe.

    No one would argue that Italy cannot be run better, or should not. However the biggest economic crisis in the European Union has nothing to do with corruption or other flaws in the Italian political system.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeffrey-Goldfarb/34603203 Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I agree with your account of the crisis in Europe. Austerity packages are the problem, not the solution. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that this post does describe a serious long standing problem in Italy, which must be addressed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeffrey-Goldfarb/34603203 Jeffrey Goldfarb

    I agree with your account of the crisis in Europe. Austerity packages are the problem, not the solution. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is that this post does describe a serious long standing problem in Italy, which must be addressed.

  • Andrea

    That’s exactly it, Jeffrey: the article doesn’t talk about the CAUSES of the crisis in Europe, but points out a long standing problem in Italy, one which was addressed in the early 1990s, with the massive anti-corruption investigations Mani Pulite (Clean Hands), which however didn’t ‘clean up’ the country at all. The corruption has remained in tact and is costing the country millions of euros, so I don’t agree that corruption has nothing to do with the crisis: as long as there are politicans wasting public money which Monti then has to compensate for by cutting health care, education, raising taxes, etc, the country will not get out of the crisis. The timing of the article is related more to the culmination of a series of scandals which are symptomatic of Italy’s problems over the past decades and which are obstructing a solution for the crisis. Thus the austerity measures are killing ‘ordinary’ people, culture and economy: just this week the government anounced another tax increase, which will hit hard mostly on those individuals and families who have to get by with 800-1000 euros per month, not to mention the ‘precarious’ younger generations: yesterday I heard about a call center in Rome which was paying its employees €2 per hour…In the meantime, the proposal to bring down the ‘maxi salaries’ of
    managers and company directors has been dismissed, and politicians are
    consolidating their luxury pensions of several thousands of euros per
    month (Nicole Minetti – aged 27 – appears to have manged to consolidate
    her pension from age 60 onwards instead of 67 for ‘normal’ Italians). All this in spite of alarming figures about consumption going down: obviously with less money in one’s pocket and prices rising every six months, people are spending less and this is bad for economy. So corruption and political scandals are very much related to the duration of the crisis.

  • Andrea

    In addition to what I wrote in my previous comment, only today Monti’s Minister of Justice Severino – who is putting together anti-corruption measures in this very period – declared that corruption is ‘an important obstacle for the country’s competitiveness’, i.e. the country’s economy. So again, I’m not saying at all that the crisis is caused by corruption in Italy, but that corruption is seriously obstructing a way out of the crisis.