A blog by Barry Edelson

Sforza Italia?

As Italy stumbles towards its sixtieth-something government in almost as many years, it is not hard to imagine that most of its citizens long ago lost whatever confidence they may have had in the political process. On the other hand, the people's indifference may be at the root of the problem, making it possible for the political classes to make Italian democracy a bad punchline the world over.

Either way, Italy's perpetually falling governments can hardly warm the hearts of democracy's boosters, such as America's neo-cons, who no doubt choke on their morning coffee whenever they read the headlines from Rome. When Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all of the others that have been tried, he certainly didn't have the pandemonium of post-war Italy in mind.

It is easier to ponder the problem of Italy if we consider terminology for a moment. Democracy assumes a different form in every country where it has taken root, but Italy's brand of democracy differs from the norm to the same degree that a dialect differs from the mother tongue. Italy has evolved a unique governmental structure that we might call constitutional anarchy. A weak federal gravity keeps the various regions from hurtling away from one another entirely, but a deeply embedded disregard for law and authority prevents strong governments from holding sway for very long.

The very idea of anarchy sends shivers down the spines of orderly people everywhere, but Italians have turned it into an art form. Anyone who has tried to check in at an Italian airport or been caught in an Italian traffic jam knows precisely how this works: a total absence of rules or decorum, flaring tantrums and furious gesticulations, but — and this is the key — a complete lack of violence or the threat of it. Somehow, everyone manages to get to where they are going in the end. The Italians seem to have perfected the ability to vent their feelings in such a way as to prevent them from escalating into mayhem.

In many countries, the lack of central authority is devastating (see Iraq and Somalia), but while there are some sharp cultural differences among the Italian regions, there is apparently just enough of a common heritage and history to allow Italians to think of themselves as one nation. The Italians all share an ancient pedigree, a long struggle for independence from foreign occupiers, and (Sicily excepted) a common language that is not spoken widely elsewhere in the world. Somehow this has been sufficient for Italy to maintain its identity as a nation — if barely at times — without sacrificing its distinct talent for creative disobedience.

In his exceptional book, "Making Democracy Work", Robert Putnam uses Italy as an example of why democracy cannot simply be grafted onto societies without deeply rooted civic traditions. He took a map of Italy from 1,000 years ago, with the relatively civic-minded city-states in the north, the more autocratic papal states in the center, and the feudal kingdoms of Naples and Sicily in the south. Next, he superimposed over it a map of Italy's regions today, shaded according to the effectiveness of its respective regional governments.

Italy's unique governmental
structure might best be
called constitutional anarchy.

Guess what: it's the same map. Where there were horizontally organized societies in the past, as in the north, with trade associations, artisan's guilds and strong city councils, today there are regional governments that effectively provide services to a population that generally regards them as a positive force in society. However, where there were vertically organized societies, as in the south (the so-called mezzogiorno), with feudal lords controlling every aspect of life and everyone's personal fate tied to strength and success of the local chieftain, there are today largely ineffective and corrupt local governments which the people regard as largely superfluous to daily existence. (The mafia is a distinct product of this feudal system, in which loyalties to one's patron supersede all other social connections. Not coincidentally, it is the one part of Italian society in which violence is a commonly accepted form of dispute resolution.)

Italy is probably the world's prime example of how to unify and liberate a fractious people, riven by ancient rivalries and tribal divisions, without sacrificing their unique identities. But it is also an object lesson in how this cannot be achieved under the threat of violence or through a simple act of will. Yes, all people prefer to be free, once they truly understand what that means, but not every nation, with its own peculiarities and complexities, sits on a glide path to democracy. It took Italy a thousand years to get to the parlous state it enjoys today; others, like Japan, arrived at democracy a lot more quickly, but not without powerful, pre-existing internal forces holding the country together.

As another Italian government falls, it is tempting to ask why Italy bothers to have a central government at all. Well, they barely do, and they seem to like it this way. One may rightly argue that weak central authority makes a nation vulnerable to extremism and dictatorship. In most countries this would be true, but Mussolini's fascism of the 1930s was an aberration that would probably not have been possible without parallel movements in Spain and Germany, and Berlusconi's irritating but less menacing brand of authoritarianism is held in check in part by the historical memory of the disaster of that earlier period. The Italians have seen what strong central governments look like, and every time another prime minister loses a vote of no confidence, they are saying loudly: no grazie.

January 27, 2008

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