[Debate] How Italy Is Adjusting
Riaz K Tayob
riaz.tayob at gmail.com
Mon Aug 22 15:37:25 BST 2011
How Italy Is Adjusting
By LUCA RASTELLO and STEFANO PAROLA
"MY friend, the only true fortunetellers are the judges: when they send
you down for 30 years, you can be sure they've made a pretty accurate
prediction of your future."
El Viejo laughs and asks for only his nickname to be used. He is nearly
70, has been convicted of crimes linked to drug smuggling for one of the
most powerful criminal organizations in the world and has three
passports --- Italian, American and Venezuelan. In other words, he has
all the right credentials for talking about the so-called informal
sector, which, to many Italians, is the fundamental cause of our current
El Viejo mocks the Italians' newfound passion for predictions. As stocks
fell, politicians (our Parliament members are the highest-paid in Europe
and our prime minister is, perhaps, the most farcical) fumbled, and the
country risked a fate comparable to that of Greece, Italians discovered
a hitherto unknown interest in analysts, agencies and financial oracles.
We've been leafing through newspapers and punching remote controls in
search of news about the spread between Italian government bonds and the
German bund, even if we have only the vaguest idea of what it all means.
As so often happens in Italy, anxiety manifests itself in
individualistic survival strategies. People turn away from government
and broader society, fall back on family and clan loyalties and the
informal sector. Sociologists call the result "amoral familism," a term
Edward C. Banfield coined in the 1950s.
There are upsides and downsides to this phenomenon. Italians have a
great capacity for reconstruction after hard times --- as after the
Second World War, when the country emerged from ruins to become one of
the most industrialized in the world. We tend to associate those
resurrections with what we call the "art of muddling through," of which
we are masters. It's the capacity to be flexible in the face of change
--- something families tend to do better than governments.
But this is allied to a deep mistrust of government and the public
sector. As many sociologists have pointed out, localism and clannishness
are the enemies of an open and meritocratic society. Access to the
professions is considered almost a hereditary privilege here. And tax
evasion is seen as a legitimate defense against an inefficient state.
Reducing the debt, balancing the accounts and stimulating growth seem
distant objectives in these conditions. We are only now admitting there
is even a problem. For 10 years, our society has imposed a rose-tinted,
optimistic view of things --- we have told ourselves that there is no
crisis, that Italy overcomes every difficulty. Whenever the facts
happened to burst rudely onto the scene, the reflex has been to shift
the blame onto unspecified others: the markets, speculators, the
European Central Bank. Moreover, the perception of individual well-being
is still strong. Italians don't feel poor; our public debt is alarming,
but our private debt is not, unlike that in the United States. But the
downside is near-zero growth: the economy is expanding at a rate of less
than 1 percent per year.
And when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dons the robes of rigor and
demands sacrifices, he is no longer credible: he even tried to avoid a
confrontation with the facts by spreading the recovery measures over
four years, so as to leave the most unpopular task to the government
that will succeed him after the 2013 elections. Europe intervened, and
the premier was finally forced to introduce more immediate budget cuts
and new taxes, with the typically melodramatic comment, "Our heart bleeds."
As it should, particularly for the young, who are at the mercy of a
labor market consisting increasingly of temporary jobs, which has
abolished protections without creating opportunities. Routinely
dismissed by the left and right as "layabouts" and "overgrown babies,"
they draw little comfort from emergency legislative measures like the
reform of pensions they expect they'll never receive.
The crisis will push them deeper into the informal sector and the system
of clan and family welfare, or force them abroad to find jobs. In other
words, the very society that led to this will be strengthened.
Perhaps that means we'll muddle through again. Organizations like El
Viejo's, with their capacity for rapid accumulation of cash and their
investments in every sector, will do fine. And as always, there are some
who make a small profit out of the crisis --- like the cross-border
workers of Lombardy, who receive their salaries in Swiss francs
increased in value by the weakness of the euro.
But we are reminded of that saying: we don't inherit the world from our
forebears, but receive it on loan from our children. How can we
resurrect Italy this time without that generation?
Luca Rastello, the author of "How to Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton, in Five
Easy Lessons," and Stefano Parola are journalists at La Repubblica. This
essay was translated by Jonathan Hunt from the Italian.
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