GAITHER STEWART: IN SEARCH OF ITALY

Print Friendly

The dream and the reality are far apart and the chasm is growing bigger with each passing day, affirms our correspondent

Italy—at once anarchic, stubbornly individualistic and communitarian—is no longer everyone’s second motherland. Her warmth, her legendary charms and generosity, even her sense of humor captured in numerous postwar films, have been eroded by a crass capitalist modernity in which a bastardized, heavily colonized pop culture is ushering an era of impersonality. The old Italy is dissolving before our eyes…Does anyone care?

BY GAITHER STEWART

PHOTO (Left) Monicelli’s memorable Big Deal on Madonna Street — a neorealist comedy — captured the postwar generation’s struggle to eke out a living under impossible circumstances.

TWO CARS ARE AHEAD OF ME heading toward the row of a dozen or so trash bins serving my residential area. The bins are strangely empty today. The entire trash zone just opposite the fashionable tennis club that usually looks like Naples seems suspiciously clean. Almost inviting. The huge black Suv ahead of me turns the corner, slows, the darkened passenger window descends and out shoots a plastic bag of garbage which smacks down on the pavement and splits open at the feet of a bin labeled BOTTLES AND METAL OBJECTS. The Toyota accelerates and vanishes.

The car just ahead of me then stops in the middle of street, the driver gets out leaving the car door wide open, totally blocking my passage. so that I and now two cars behind me have to wait “Get the fuck out of the way,” someone yells from the window of the car behind me.

.

The fashionably dressed lady with long earrings and wearing a chic suede jacket dumps pell-mell sacks of bottles and cans and paper and food leftovers in plastic supermarket bags into a bin marked FOOD REMAINS. Clank crash clank kaboom, the sacks fall inside the flimsy bins. She turns and gives the “up your ass sign with her arm”, shrugs nonchalantly in the couldn’t-care-less manner expressed by the very Italian word (menefreghismo), and unhurriedly slides back into her Mercedes.

.

Not everyone is uncaring as that of course. Last night a friend told me he had borrowed 9,500 euros, about $14,000, on his apartment to pay for breast prostheses for his 17-year old granddaughter. She had so many accumulated complexes about her flat chest that her struggling parents had to go to extremes and ask for a loan.

“You’re all nuts,” I said spontaneously.

My friend shook his head sadly and explained: “Without good breasts Francesca might miss a TV chance. Anyway,” he added,” I’m not so worried. Artificial breasts today are guaranteed for life.”

.

THAT CHARMING EPISODE reminded me of someone’s observation that Italy is an enchantment to visit but hell to live in. For romantics of the world who in early life choose Italy as an act of love, the reality of the Bel Paese today is disillusionment. The spark of the first joy of love is extinguished, the former mistress listless, joyless, ugly and an object of regret. For not even nostalgia, an Italian archetypal quality, survives the sewers of modern, value-abhorring, TV-worshipping, woman-despising, gone-missing Italia.

.

“Where did it go?” Italians ask each other, they themselves sometimes stunned at the disappearance of an archaic Italy they believed they once knew.

“The fault of the European Union and the Euro currency,” one says.”

“The immigrants who take our jobs and rape our wives and daughters,” says another.

.

Most however just shrug (like) the bejeweled lady at the trash bin. They themselves don’t know what has happened in these last thirty years to make of this nation, once the ideal of lovers, the nest of cheap, malevolent and criminal vipers it has become. Where only money and seeming counts. Where success in business or politics is the acme of hope. Where the highest ambition of many of its emancipated women is to display and sell their bodies on Berlusconian TV in order to become successful starlets and marry rich soccer players. What made Italy, once the Camelot of Europeans, the ugly duckling of the continent?

.

I wanted to write a very subjective piece about contemporary Italy without mentioning Silvio Berlusconi. Illusion! Though it is as easy as shooting at the Red Cross to blame only the cheapening, coarsing effect of TV magnate-Premier Silvio Berlusconi (though he truly bears the major blame) for the degeneracy of a people who continue voting him no matter what loathsome acts he performs, it is also irresistible. For he personifies and acts out the national spirit as if according to a script written by the combined hands of the “sovereign people.” In a sense, he IS the Italian people in the same way as the beloved actor Alberto Sordi who portrayed every Italian characteristic of recent history..

.

“Now if ours was a normal country,” the opposition leader began his usual peroration on last night’s leftwing talk show, Ballaró. (Ballaró is the name of an open-air market in Palermo. The word derives from Arabic, the name of a village near Monreale, once the home of many merchants that sold their wares in Palermo.)

.

“But we will never be a normal country,” retorts his political ally, “It’s just not in our DNA.” He meant the peculiar dualism that marks the peoples of the Italian peninsula: the conflict of their desire for order and to be a normal country with their fatal attraction to anarchy. The consequence of this unresolved twist of character has long been Italy’s historical stumbling block: the necessity (and desire) of strong-armed authority—whether a home grown dictator or a powerful foreign ally-occupier—to provide the cement (to) for a cohesive nation.

__________

PHOTO (LEFT) Dino Risi’s irreverent 1950s classic, Il Sorpasso, reflected the traditional image of Italy as a country of easygoing, semi-comical anarchists. The hero (Gassman) is an irresponsible hedonist whose antics end in tragedy. Here Gassman signals his sentiments to a fellow motorist (“CORNUTO!!”).

.

Similar to Italy’s permissive, almost “careless” attitude toward Fascism last century, many Italians today perceive the Right led by authoritarian Silvio Berlusconi as a protective shield against its persistent and perverse disorder. Protection from themselves. Promises of more and more security, police and more police, backed up by bands of vigilantes, are reassuring to those who see today’s enemy in immigrants and crime and above all in rules limiting their puny individual freedoms such as scornfully tossing their garbage on public streets … and when he himself can bear the smell no longer or it blocks his passage on the way to the café for his morning cappuccino, he sets fire to the street trash.

.

When the necessary local authority to control their anarchic inclinations is missing, some form of escapism and servility to a higher power are invited in. Since Italy somehow continues to exist as a modern European nation this formula implies that the suggestive idea of salvation in escapism and servility has surpassed—if only by a hairsbreadth—the deep-seated intensity of their atavistic anarchic bent.  However that may be, the historic reliance on extraneous authority has left a mark of servility on the peoples of the Italic peninsula. A perverse stain. The servility reaching back to the roots of these peoples smacks of that of a colonial people, extremely sensitive to what foreigners think of them and forever both fascinated by and fearful of the foreign invader attracted to this land where the lemon trees bloom.

.

“Africa begins just north of Rome,” says a very rich friend, originally from Naples in the south, each time we meet in his adopted home in the sophisticated financial and fashion capital of Celtic Milan. Similarly the Turin writer Mario Soldati was “mathematically certain” that Italy’s problems are due to the choice of Rome as its capital when the Italian states united 150 years ago. Rome writer Alberto Moravia charged that “the capital city of Rome is the disastrous proof of the Italians’ lack of the sense of state.”

.

Modern Italy is after all the end result of two and a half millennia of rule by monarchy, republic and city-states, of foreign invasions and occupation (Greeks and Arabs, Huns and Vandals, Normans, Austrians, Spanish, French and Germans), and of the domination of the Roman Catholic Church, Fascism and the USA (Italy’s political fate was already sealed in 1947, when the CIA engineered the defeat of the left in that year’s elections; today the nation is often thought of by the Pentagon as a splendid supercarrier moored in the heart of the Mediterranean to control vital strategic lanes). Their complex history counts. For Italy is a land of many peoples, historically not even a nation. Peoples speaking Neapolitan, Sicilian, Catalan, Sardinian, Venetian, Friulian—each counts as a language—plus countless dialects and German, French, Greek and Slovene. Peoples who are never in agreement on anything, perhaps because they do not understand each other.

.

An ethnic and political potpourri made for anarchy.

A country surrounded by the sea and the Alps.

A country of peoples fearful of foreign interference if not intervention, yet servile because of their need of foreigners and a great power to defend them against their own divisions.

.

Little wonder then that its people are individualistic and wary and suspicious of authority, albeit accommodating and ready for compromise for short-term gain … or for survival. Each Italian is an entity. Each, a microcosm. One result of the divisions reigning since the start 2700 years ago is the social apathy and lack of civic spirit that degenerate so easily into anarchy. Director Lina Wertmuller may have captured some of the Italian essence in her classic tragi-comedy Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze, 1975), as the hyper-chauvinist Neapolitan anti-hero, a deserter from Mussolini’s army, survives a German concentration camp by seducing the commandant, a woman. Pasqualino, in Wertmuller’s eyes, is the ultimate survivor at the cost of all principles, except those closest to him in a personal sense. Even the Nazi bureaucrat of death is repulsed by Pasqualino’s indifference to ideology:

“You disgust me. Your thirst for life disgusts me. You have no ideals. You have found the strength for an erection, that’s why you’ll survive. All our dreams for a master race—unattainable.”

Italians like my wife instinctively oppose rules. This is not a reckless generalization, for their hate for rules is proverbial. On the other hand, except for gambling in a casino or driving habits, Italians do not like to risk in everyday life. Social mobility is limited. A steady lifetime job is the Italian dream. Someone said Italy is afflicted with listless passions. Torn by sterile emotions. Angry by default. A country of unresolved problems, incomplete governments, eternal emergences, eternal transitions.

.

A people of contradictions. Italians regularly clamor for new elections, aware that the vote will change nothing. Despite enormous garbage disposal problems, the majority of Italians prefer to pay three times as much for trash collection and run related health risks rather than submit to the humiliation of trash separation. Italians shake their heads, tsk, tsk, at the news of a million euro bank hold-up. And admire the robbers—“they did well!” Italian films in which the police are the good guys seem false. You watch a realistic Italian police film and side with those who in some way thwart authority. Like other old peoples, Italians understand reality and without complaint pay bribes in the usual bribery places … and they know which they are.(Sociologists and policemen) agree with sensible political leaders who charge that without popular consensus organized crime as a way of life could not exist. The success of the Camorra in Naples, the N’drangheta in Calabria, the Sicilian Mafia in the world at large and “most-wanted mafia bosses” living freely in the center of Palermo for 30 years exist on the back of popular indifference and anarchy. Italian lifestyle depends on the very Italian mindsets of menefreghismo (couldn’t-care-less attitude) andarrangiarsi (fix things as best one can).

.ITALY-PRESS-FREEDOM-large

Two homegrown authorities, either disputing or sharing power in the “land where lemon trees bloom”—organized crime and the nationalized system of corruption—hold people in acquiescent submission according to the particular rules of each power system. Bribes facilitate life and progress. On the other hand resistance and opposition to rules and police do not suffice to eliminate the inherent submission. For submission is a way of life. Submission to local power systems. Submission to the Roman Catholic Church. Submission to foreign powers.

.

You are led to conclude that Italy’s nemesis is itself. Its undoing is its childish arrogance, its gratuitous self-love, its gullibility before false prophets; its susceptibility to the glitter of the artificial, its ignorance of reality, its admiration for duplicity where honesty, candor and forthrightness are (considered) the qualities of the weak, spineless and vapid of former times. “Honor”–after all, in many Sicilian quarters, is still defined by an expedient, well-executed homicide by ambush or trickery, often with the victim grossly outnumbered. (The American West, for that matter, is also, thanks to Hollywood, hopelessly fictionalized. Most gunfights were not stylized rituals but messy confrontations or cold-blooded murders1).

.

Strong accusations? You bet they are. The observer has to acquire x-ray vision in order to see real reality. You only have to live in the hell of Dante’s last ring for a few years, before you too might see under the stage of superficiality, and you can begin to see its staggering reality. That reality is ugly as sin.

.

In my opinion it is reductive to say off-handedly that the populist Berlusconi succeeds because he also reflects the typical Italian a la Sordi. In general, as in epics, life functions from top to bottom. Grassroots seldom dictate mores and life style. Culture dictates nothing. What occurs at the top filters down, down, down through the troops, through the followers spending their lives in mimesis, in imitation of the top. International relations reduced to back-slapping bonhomie is contagious and works quite well also at the bottom rung of society. Bon ton is cheapness at cut-rate prices. If the Italian Premier and his ministers and his “appointed” parliamentary deputies entertain with cocaine and prefer prostitutes (no offence to prostitutes intended!), the childlike envious people applaud. He did good! He did real real good!

THE GOOD OLD TIMES

.

Question: Did the Italy described by visiting scholars, the grand tour voyagers d’antan and writers like Goethe and Stendhal ever really exist? No! That Italy is an imaginary country, an hallucination. That Italy was an illusion of what others believed they saw, what they believed should have existed. An illusion of what they had read from the predecessors. And that is the problem. Illusions are enduring but have no essence. Let’s not joke about a serious matter: Italy which claims to be the world’s eighth industrial nation, which is a leader in the European Union, a NATO member and the whole peninsula an aircraft carrier for the US military, its troops standing shoulder to shoulder with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, that entire country is a charade.

.

Italian Selfhood is a chimera no less realistic than statehood.

.

Meanwhile the poor Italian looking for the authentic country of his dreams, is uprooted and homeless. A homeless person from an illusory land.

PHOTO: (Left) In La Dolce Vita Fellini also captured the Italian fascination and sense of inferiority in regard to the foreigner, especially northern Europeans, or Americans, symbols of power and modernity. (Mastroianni and Ekberg splatter around in the Trevi Fountain.)

If it still exists, authentic Italy lies concealed on one side of an abyss. Italy as perceived by visitors or by its own rich in their earthly Eden live as if on opposite sides of an insuperable chasm. Between them, the chasm stands as deep as the gap between the false official Italy and the only authentic Italy which is a dreamworld. Two worlds. Two concepts of society. Two views of the world.

What did the diverse Italys have in common when its many diverse peoples were united in the middle of the 19th century? What could they have in common when 75 per cent of the population was illiterate and only eight of a thousand “Italians” spoke the national language of Dante? Where the Italian version of share-cropping latifondo reigned and women were zero who only achieved the vote after World War II?

HEROIC FRENZIES

When speaking of the Roman Catholic Church it is always refreshing to visit Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), the ordained priest who refused to renege on his anti-religious for which he went to the stake on Rome’s Camp dei Fiori about one mile from the Vatican. Today I look up at his hooded face topping the statue the Italian Republic put up four centuries later on the same square he burned on in order to ask him about the authority of the Catholic Church in the life of man today.

Even a superficial analysis of the state created by the Corporate Fascism-middle class symbiosis of three-quarters of a century ago shows clear analogies with the American form of Corporatism today. Though not yet widely identified as such, Fascism is already in place in power in this great and powerful Corporatist state. American Corporatism has created the bases of its police state as Corporatism did in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The American state relies on “terrorism” to create the threat from “external enemies” created by the state itself. Hitler’s burning of the Reichstag in Berlin for which Communists were blamed was Nazi Germany’s Twin Towers. The American corporatist state uses establishment media and acquiescent intellectuals for its mass propaganda a la Goebbels to maintain the runaway false consciousness and the American Exceptionalism image. Subservient media and compliant intellectuals serve to kindle and keep alive the myths of the elusive American dream and the mythical American way of life of comfort and ease—in sum, Americanism—and to assure the consent of the masses in the interests of wealth, power and privilege.

“A bunch of superstitions and nonsense contrary to all reason and nature,” he answers in his unequivocal way that must have infuriated his Inquisition tormentors so fearful of heresy and betrayal. “Moral life can’t be guided by traditional abstract formulas about things like the holy trinity. Instead we need a heroic frenzy … the heroic frenzy necessary to live a life worthy of free man. Why should a man-pope have authority over my morality? Why should his priests have to intervene for me with God. Enough of Christianity! It’s time for a spiritual renewal.”

Ah, Giordano, frenzied lover, frenzied seeker of truth, willing to burn in its name. Who could not love you? But not the pope. The pope of the time of the Church that had resurrected Rome and made it the Babylonia of the epoch. The pope said burn him and burn he did.

PHOTO (Right): The popular Don Camillo movies of the early 1950s pitted a resourceful village priest against a strict communist mayor and other authority figures. Guess who won. (See sidebar below.)

Ask a living secular Italian what has prevented the evolvement of Italians and the Italian state and he may very well answer as Bruno might today in his flowery renaissance language: “The Roman Catholic Church.” People have often wanted change but were terrified of upsetting the Church. “Oh, if the Vatican were just in .. in … where? Maybe Africa. Any place but Rome.” What a difference it would have made. Oh, Saint Paul don’t found your church here. Don’t! (It )is always astounding how a few persons, a spontaneous decision, a false step can change the course of human events.

Here, at this point, I will interject a word or two about the role of the Church in modern Italy. As Giordano Bruno would have done and as audacious Henry II in England did so before him, Napoleon boldly abolished the Church’s temporal power and, in his conquests, dissolved also the Papal States as natural rivals for power. Temporal power in Italy was then restored to the Church by the Congress of Vienna of 1815 when Napoleonic laws were abolished. Unhesitatingly and true to its nature, the reactionary Church back in power again burned Giordano Bruno, returning to the destruction of modern improvements, forcing society back to medieval days, banning vaccination against smallpox which promptly devasted Papal lands. The Jews were again locked in the Rome ghetto, while the Church’s neglect of the environment made of Latium—except for rich Papal estates—the most godforsaken and abandoned part of Italy of their times.

THE MOVIES REFLECT THE REALITY ON THE GROUND

Don Camillo is a fictional priest, one of the two protagonists in Giovanni Guareschi‘s gentle stories of a postwarItalian town with the Catholic priest and a Communist mayor locked in rivalry. The first Don Camillo story appeared in Guareschi’s satirical magazine Candido in 1946. During the 1950s, Guareschi wrote a series of Don Camillo novels, which enjoyed an international following. Several films were produced based on these. A decade later, during his last years, Guareschi came out with two more Don Camillo novels.  In the postwar years (after 1945), Don Camillo Tarocci (his full name, which he rarely uses) is the hotheaded priest of a small village in thePo valley in northern Italy.  Don Camillo (played by French comedian Fernandel) is constantly at odds with thecommunist mayor, Peppone (meaning, roughly, Big Joe, real name Giuseppe Bottazzi) and is also on very close terms with the crucifix in his village church. (Peppone was played memorably by noted Italian actor Gino Cervi.) Through the crucifix he hears the voice of Christ. What Peppone and Camillo have in common is an interest in the well-being of the village. They also appear to have both been partisan fighters during the war; and while Peppone will make public speeches about how “the reactionaries” ought to be shot, and Don Camillo will preach fire and brimstone against “godless Communists”, they actually grudgingly admire each other. Therefore they sometimes end up working together in peculiar circumstances, though keeping up their squabbling. Thus, although he publicly opposes the Church as a Party duty, Peppone takes his gang to the church and baptizes his children there, which makes him part of Don Camillo’s flock. If Peppone can be a Communist and a Catholic at the same time, Don Camillo, on the other side, gets labeled by local rich landowners and traditionalists as a “Bolshevik priest” because he’s not afraid to decry the avarice of rich people.

Finally, once more, the new Italian Republic which united the diverse states of the peninsula declared an end to the Papal States. Formally, the Church’s temporal power ended in 1929 with a treaty, the Concordat, between the Vatican State and Fascist Italy, according to which the papacy was to have no more political interests in Italy and the rest of the world.

.

But did the Church’s meddling in secular affairs end? Altro che! Not by a long shot. The influence of the Roman Church is worldwide. It has diplomatic relations with many nations of the world which maintain in Rome two embassies: one to Italy and one to the Holy See! Now what the hell is the Roman Church doing with embassies? And why should Argentina or the USA or China maintain diplomatic relations with achurch? Besides, from day to day, from year to year, from election to election, the Catholic Church continues to meddle in Italy’s and world affairs. After his election as Pope in 2006, one of the first acts of Benedict XVI was a triumphant cortege in “Italy”, just across the Tiber River from the Vatican. Since then the Bavarian Pope and his bishops pressure Italy on a spectrum of civil issues such as marriage and the role of the family, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage and all progressive legislation. Internationally, the Pope makes statements in favor of peace but refrains from serious criticism of the United States from where come substantial funds to pay for the huge Church bureaucracy. In ethics, the Church line is the “defense of life” in all its aspects. But during his recent visit to the USA, Pope Benedict didn’t dare take strong positions against capital punishment.

.

ESCAPISM: AN ITALIAN MALADY

Because of atavistic fears of invaders—Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Pisans, Spaniards and pirates—wary Sardinians, for example, do not live on their 1900 kilometers of magnificent seacoast. In the interior of the mountainous island they built the most unique houses-fortresses produced by European culture. Their windowless nuraghi, stone tower houses, date back to the Bronze Age. Finally obliged to accept Italian domination for survival, Sardinians retreated into themselves and into their nuraghi. Perhaps into their own brand of purgatory.

.

Also the Tuscans in central Italy are another race, irreverent and anarchic, albeit reflective and solitary, staring into their red wines. Even though Tuscany is the “in” place for rich foreigners, paradoxically there are few places in Italy where foreigners are more foreigners. For Tuscans, hell is just beyond the hill, a fine place, much like Tuscany, where people are bizarre and rebellious. Not by chance was Dante a Tuscan and his inferno in Tuscany. Yet, like Sardinians, in order to protect themselves from themselves Tuscans accepted centuries-long Austrian domination and its Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

.

Stendhal chose the city of Parma north of Tuscany as the setting to superimpose Italy’s escapist past on the present in his novel La Chartreuse de Parme. For the French writer, the Renaissance cour de Parme was symbolic of court life in general. Like Tuscany, Parma bowed to the foreign invader. For two hundred years it was marked by French influence, when the upper classes spoke French and Parisian manners prevailed. Parma still reflects that confusion of time, where the past seems contemporary and at certain times and places the present is absent. A bomb destroyed the city’s famous Farnese Theater in World War II but by 1962, Parma people, insecure without their theater, had restored it. But then they let it stand silent and abandoned in the center of rich Parma like some kind of toy for giants. Today it appears as an empty shell, a spirit from the past. In reality, it was born classical: actors occupied the stage, the arena in the center and the steps. It was a theater of illusions, a labyrinth where actors and spectators were confused, where painted figures of princes melded in with real ones, and images of actors painted on the ceiling looked down on themselves performing in the arena. A game of mirrors. One was both on the inside and outside. The confusion of theater and life, so typical of Italian escapism.

.

Escapism from their anarchic selves, escapism in imitation of successful and more powerful nations whose standards remain elusive to Italians forever engrossed in looking for models: today they look longingly at Sarkozy’s France for a new socio-economic model, or into German and French and Spanish electoral systems in search of a miraculous formula by which Italians too could elect efficient and durable governments.

Fascism too as escapism? Hmmm! Such an idea could have been just a slip of the tongue by another Italian revisionist. Yet, it was none other than philosopher Benedetto Croce who oh so reductively defined Fascism “a bad dream that vanished at the first ray of sun.” Like those Rome bourgeois who under the bombs during the debacle of the last days continued to define Fascism as a “revolution” and a “revelation of the Italian nature.”

Last February, at the same time the campaign for new political elections got underway, the 58th Festival of the Italian Song opened in the Ariston Theater in San Remo on the Italian Riviera. While Silvio Berlusconi was launching his bid to return to political power, the eternal kid of over 60 years of age, Gianni Morandi, opened the San Remo Festival singing, Volare, the song of Italian escapism.

Volare, oh,oh

Cantare oh oh oh oh

Nel blu dipinto di blu,

Felice di stare lassú

(Just to fly, oh oh, Just to sing, oh oh oh oh

Happy to be up there. In the blue painted in blue)

The most famous Italian song since World War —which made Domenico Modugno an instant celebrity—it served to introduce the pre-presenter, a noted comic, who in turn presented the Master of Ceremonies, himself however preceded successively by 13 clones 13 of the Master of Ceremonies. The 73-year old Pippo Baudo, simpatico, dyed hair and all, finally presented the singers. A peculiarity of Italy’s most traditional song festival is that the Master of Ceremonies plays the principal role. The cantanti, the singers of songs, are back up for the show’s central character, the Master of Ceremonies, who invites all Italians to escape with him into the spectacle. Roles are always confused in Italy. The seeming is more than being. Bad singers or good singers, the heart of the matter is the Master of Ceremonies who presents and represents the leads.

The next day, the San Remo show was panned, one might believe the proof that modern Italians don’t take escapist San Remo seriously. Oh, but they do! They criticize the now archaic formula of San Remo Song Festival but its elimination would be cause for revolution.

YOUNG ITALY

PHOTO (Right) Fascism and the painful dislocations of WW II  created an opportunity for the Left parties and a threat to the capitalist status quo which was rapidly neutralized by the establishment bloc—chiefly Christian democrats and the Vatican—aided by the CIA.  (Image: Scene from Bicycle Thief, DeSica’s masterpiece.)

More than other European countries Italy is split down the middle between an alliance of an immoderate Right, which calls itself moderate, and a Center Right and a Left divided over practically every issue. The Right rejects rules; the Left makes many rules, rules that are then largely circumvented by both Left and Right. The result is ordinarily the daily chaos which we have now seen Italians prefer.

The birth of the Italian Communist Party in 1921, twenty years of Fascism, alliance with Nazi Germany, and defeat in World War II deepened the split between Right and Left: the Communist one-third of Italy was barred from power by the USA during the Cold War, while Fascism was banned until Berlusconi unchained it. Meanwhile for half a century the country was in the firm hands of the Christian Democrats staunchly backed by the USA (and the Vatican, of course).

Looking backwards we see the Italy that for hundreds of years was a romantic place to escape to, a haven for lovers or scoundrels, a land isolated from the rest of Europe. Separated geographically from the rest of the continent by the Alps, Italy was always distant. Right up until 1970 it took two days to drive from Munich across the Alps to Rome. No wonder Italy is the least known West European country, the most mysterious and the most concealed. No rules in that Italy. Nothing verboten as in Germany or Switzerland. Foreigners at first love that freedom. All my adult life I have heard people say, “ah, to escape to Italy and live free like they do”. North Europeans still today retain the image of an Italy of wine, women and song, of little work and all play. Nothing could be farther from reality (for Italians have to be hard-working to make up for their disorganization.)

Isolated and distant, Italy is truly different from the rest of Europe. Whether cause or effect, Italians too are different from other Europeans who still don’t know what to make of Italy. Nostalgic Italians have held onto their past longer despite their yearning to be a “normal country.” Italians want to be like other people but in their hearts they know they are not. Because of that yearning they appear as super-Europeans in the European Union, embracing Europe with one arm, and repulsing it with the other: true to character they hate EU rules that force them to be what they are not. Berlusconi encourages that sentiment, however for the wrong reasons; he has little regard for the EU because of its rules.

Three-quarters of a century ago Italians voted for Benito Mussolini and for the glory of the newly unified state of Italy. Italians voted for Mussolini because of his promises of glory and a modern empire in imitation of imperialistic France and England—and victory parades on the Via dei Fori Imperiali leading however toward the blood and sand of the old coliseum.

Fascism interrupted the attempt to unite and modernize Italy. The making of modern Italians was about emancipating the people, of removing the strings from the hands of the puppeteers, of nation building, unfortunately interrupted by the Fascism that entranced the people, followed by devastating defeat in WWII, by American and Christian Democratic-Catholic Church-Vatican occupation and today, by Silvio Berlusconi and his cheap cheap cheap TV and its pervasive coarsening influence.

THE FASCIST INTERLUDE

PHOTO (Right): The end of some Fascist hierarchs. Many more escaped punishment, only to reappear in successive bourgeois governments.

________

Since, of all possible places, old romantic, archaic Italy was the home of Fascism, one can hardly speak of Italy without taking a hard look at Fascism.

First of all, one might recall that Fascism has not always been politically derogatory. Within a decade early last century the word Fascism came to be applied to a cluster of similar nationalist-militaristic movements in Europe, the most important of which were the original Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. In a wave of revolutionary nationalism, Fascism first emerged in an Italy ravaged by World War I. Though the swaggering strutting nationalistic movement of Mussolinian Fascism or Corporatism had no precise forerunners from the 19th century, as did Socialism and Communism, it was soon imitated by like-minded movements across Europe and in the USA.

William Dudley Pelly’s Nazi-supported Silver Shirts organized in the 1930s in the town of Asheville, NC where I grew up was an influential, violent, anti-Semitic, native American Fascist organization with allegedly some two million members and with whom today’s Right still has ideological bonds. America’s Fascists favored Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in WWII. Religion and intense hatred of minorities bond Christian Identity and rightwing extremists with the former Silver Shirt movement. TV evangelists of the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell have followed the same format—hate of Communism, Jews, gays, abortion, welfare, unions—in favor of the corporate-clerical state.

With the rise of the power of corporations came also the rise of the modern military-police profession. As did former monarchs, modern corporations need the military-police control mechanism in order to maintain order among the people. That marriage is the heart of Fascism everywhere. Fascism is thus the protective shield for Corporatism, aka capitalism, its naked fist, its unmasked face, especially when it feels its power slipping. For every Fascist-Corporate state inevitably erects a police state to regulate and finally enslave its people. Although the most striking historical examples of Fascism-Corporatism were the Italy and Germany of last century, today it is more and more the USA and its proxy puppet governments around the world.

PHOTO (Left) Il Duce, and his mistress, Clara Petacci, after execution by anti-Nazi partisans.

The term Fascism derives from the Italian fascio, or Latin fasces, in reference to the bundle of rods that symbolized the authority of the Republic of ancient Rome. The term was used in the late 19th century for new radical movements combining strong nationalism, aggressive activism, violence and “authoritarianism”, by the way, another term coined by early Italian Fascists, signs of which have reappeared today in contemporary Berlusconian Italy.

Italian nationalists after WWI used the word fascio for the movement that in 1921 became the Fascist Party. Wearing a black shirt, the color of Fascism, Benito Mussolini recruited a fascio di combattimento, or combat group. Mussolini became Fascism’s supreme Leader, Il Duce. His combat fasces and the drums of authoritarianism created an atmosphere in which Fascist dictatorship was wildly perceived as the only salvation of strife-ridden Italy, a strategy eerily echoed today in Berlusconian Italy. Mussolini became modern Europe’s first Fascist leader, Italy’s prime minister and dictator from 1922 to 1943.

In the post-World War I disenchantment, Mussolini’s revolutionary (actually, counter-revolutionary) spirit and his Fascist model spread over Europe and to the USA. Based on a corporatist and totalitarian vision of the state, Fascism then, as today, considered itself a third way between capitalism and Socialism-Communism. Benito Mussolini offered this authoritative definition of Fascism:

“Fascism is a great mobilization of material and moral forces. What does it propose? We say the following without false modesty: To govern the nation. With what program? With a program necessary to guarantee the moral and material grandeur of the Italian people. Let’s speak clearly: It’s of no import if our concrete program is somewhat convergent with that of the Socialists as far as the technical, administrative and political reorganization of our country is concerned. We work for the moral and traditional values which Socialists neglect and despise….”

Corporatism was so much the heart of Italian Fascism that Mussolini insisted that it be called Corporatism because it is a merger of the nationalist-military state and corporate power. His words struck a chord in the hearts of European and American capitalists in the 1930s and 40s, just as they do today. For traits of Fascism are highly visible in Corporatism. What are corporations anyway? Corporations are legally named persons, fictitious persons that have gained more rights than individual human beings. Politically and sociologically, corporations are bastions and generators of privilege.

By nature corporations are thirsty for power. Insatiable. Growth and more power are their mottos. As corporations acquire more power, they come to control also the puppet “democratic” governments and thus the real people of flesh and blood whose rights end up being eviscerated. The goals of corporations, their raison d’etre and the twin pillars of their existence, are growth and greater and greater profits. In the capitalist state the “government of the people” becomes a fiction—a contradiction— and morphs into corporate rule. In that sense US and European liberalism has considerable overlap with Fascism.

The word Corporatism fits well the social-political setup in the USA and most of Europe today and in that sense is an heir of Fascism. Mussolini would feel comfortable in the NATO-European Union-USA-European arena today. The merger of the military-industrial complex and the political world in the USA is the most contemporary example of the concept of Corporatism-Fascism. In their penetrating, pervasive and increasingly authoritarian interventions in socio-economic life today’s governments in America and Europe are clear examples of Fascism in action. Moreover, it should be noted, that while Fascism in its Mussolinian origins was nationalist, today it is global. Globalization is no less than (Mussolini’s) Corporatism-Fascism in action on a world scale.

It’s no wonder that from its inception Fascism violently opposed Socialism and Communism. Anti-Communism and anti-Socialism have been the US corporate-political policy since the rise of workers movements in the middle of the 19th century. Original Fascism itself was born in part as a reaction to the Russian Revolution, in part in opposition to the rise of the ideal of liberal democracy. From the start Fascism everywhere combined ideological aspects of the extreme Right such as nationalism, militarism, expansionism and meritocracy (the latter is much in vogue today in Berlusconian Italy, thus continuing to change (of) the nature of the country) and idealist elements borrowed from workers movements such as the primacy of labor, social and unionist revolution. And still today Italian neo-Fascists describe their movement as social and after WWII named their post-Mussolinian political party, the Italian Social Movement (MSI)

_____

Antonio Gramsci (Left)  described Fascism as an attempt to resolve production and trade issues with machines guns and revolver shots.  Gramsci saw society’s “hyperstructure” (culture as shaped by modern propaganda) as one of the chief instruments to control the populace.

“Productive forces have been ruined and wasted in the imperialistic war: twenty million men in the flower of youth and energy have been killed; the thousands of links that united world markets have been violently destroyed; the relations between countryside and city, between metropolises and colonies, have been turned upside down; the streams of emigration that periodically re-established unbalance between an excess of population and the potentiality of the means of production in single nations have been profoundly upset and no longer function normally….Yet there exists a small layer of population in all countries—the petty and middle bourgeoisie—that believes it can resolve these gigantic problems with machine guns and revolver shots, and this small layer fuels fascism, supplies manpower to fascism.”

The roots of Fascism are European, linked to the birth of mass society after WWI, especially in those nations in transformation, which were conditioned by political and economic weakness as in Italy and Germany defeated in the Great War. Labeled by Thomas Mann the “moral sickness of Europe” of the epoch, Fascism found particularly fertile ground in Italy where it drew support from all classes. It is the result of wayward moral conscience and drunken decadence produced by the horrors of war and it affected most countries that participated in the conflict—that is much of the world.

There is much truth to the claim that economic liberalism created Fascism. The Italian petty bourgeoisie provided much of the brawn and the brains for Mussolinian Fascism and still today, in 2009, the same petty bourgeoisie in Rome’s borgate, the poorer and workers’ districts, are the backbone of Italy’s neo-Fascism and Berlusconian populism. In Mussolini’s time, the wealthy upper classes abetted and encouraged Fascism’s emergence, confident that they could control it. To a certain extent and for a certain time they did. Until Fascism in power showed its true face and largely controlled the controllers—with one caveat: Fascism never went so far as to disregard class differences or move in earnest to “level” society because fascism was created to preserve the old privileges, not to root them out, even if in the moment many individual acts of “class disrespect” were recorded (especially in Germany). Yet Mussolini insisted on the name of Corporatism instead of Fascism. Today, similarly, capitalism is both partner and controller of American Corporate Fascism as were capitalists in Europe and the USA in the 1920s and 30s.

Even a superficial analysis of the state created by the Corporate Fascism-middle class symbiosis of three-quarters of a century ago shows clear analogies with the American form of Corporatism today. Though not yet widely identified as such, Fascism is already in place in power in this great and powerful Corporatist state. American Corporatism has created the bases of its police state as Corporatism did in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. The American state relies on “terrorism” to create the threat from “external enemies” created by the state itself. Hitler’s burning of the Reichstag in Berlin for which Communists were blamed was Nazi Germany’s Twin Towers. The American corporatist state uses establishment media and acquiescent intellectuals for its mass propaganda a la Goebbels to maintain the runaway false consciousness and the American Exceptionalism image. Subservient media and compliant intellectuals serve to kindle and keep alive the myths of the elusive American dream and the mythical American way of life of comfort and ease—in sum, Americanism—and to assure the consent of the masses in the interests of wealth, power and privilege.

Fascism is thus a product of capitalist society. It serves to protect the social [power] relations reigning in capitalist production. Neo-Fascism is the Phalange Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi speaks of today in order to break workers movements in the interests of capital. Mussolinian Fascism organized the nation spiritually by intense radical demagogic propaganda, military build-up, the creation of a mass social base and centralized government. In a similar fashion the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan governments of the 1980s marked the revival of the process of Corporatism, the crushing of any illusions of a welfare state in the USA and the weakening of the foundations of social democracy in Great Britain.

Once firmly in power Fascism always carries out a palace revolution in order to further regiment the masses while leaving capital free to dispose of surplus value as it desires. In this sense the corporate state guarantees the monopoly organization of capital. During the acme of his power in the early 1930s Mussolini repeatedly claimed that within a few years all of Europe would be Fascist. Mussolini believed firmly in the fascistization of the world as Lenin did in the world Socialist revolution. In that respect Fascism was –as previously noted–counter-revolutionary and reactionary despite its claims that it was social and revolutionary.

One question remains: the difference between Fascism and Nazism. Can one distinguish between them qualitatively, recognizing however the same essence in each? Or are they perhaps different movements also in essence? Mussolini believed they were different. Subsequent history has also differentiated between them. The Polish Pope John Paul II said at the end of his life that Nazism was the supreme evil of the century. Though history in general tends to consider Fascism a variation of other authoritarian regimes, one might add, closest to the USA today, I prefer to leave them together, wrapped in each other’s arms, one comforting the other. Today one hears mutterings that what Italy needs to get organized is another Duce.

Forty-five years later a majority of Italians flocked to the polls and voted for TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi who so recalls the former dictator. Silvio Berlusconi, who understands Italians, who is representative of Italians and responds to their looking backwards and their desire for old glories, (and who) incarnates many Mussolinian characteristics.

ON THE SENSE OF REALITY

Alberto Sordi (left) in An American in Rome. Fleeing their identity as “losers” with little dignity became a rather common occurrence among many Italians

In the aftermath of World War II, Italy began trying to turn away from its particular past in search of new realities in Europe. Yet it has proved to be impossible for Italians to put aside their Italianità, their Italianness to which the majority hold onto like a life raft. In dozens of films, the actor Alberto Sordi portrayed the Italian-false American, singing a popular song “vuoi fare l’americano, l’americano, ma sei nato in Italy.” (You want to act like an American, an American, but you were born in I ta ly) Today, actor- Premier Berlusconi personifies both the old and the new, his daily behavior underlining the reality that this is all in all a nation of playacting, a people well aware that their trying so hard to act and look American back then was comical, even though their act was endearing to non-Italians. Those times too have passed.

Here I will dwell a bit on the writer (who) showed in his fiction that the bored indifference of the Italian people as a whole facilitated the birth and twenty-year survival of Fascism, the same political indifference that marks Italian society today in the face of the modern form of reactionary extremism that is Silvio Berlusconi. In his sizeable literature the Rome writer Moravia emphasized the sad fact that Italians of the post-World War II era lost their identity provoking a gradual departure from their sense of reality. In Moravia’s interpretation this enormous change in Italian temperament occurred during the passage from the Fascist bourgeoisie to the neo-capitalist bourgeoisie of the post-war. To pinpoint the change, the mutation took place precisely in the era of US tutelage of Italy, during the Cold War when Italy was considered “the weak underbelly of West Europe,” when propaganda depicting Cossacks watering their horses in the fountains of Vatican City created a new “false consciousness” of danger that was continued by Christian Democracy, the Catholic Church, the CIA and today by Silvio Berlusconi.

The loss of both identity and sense of reality generated the alienation of individuals and society as depicted in Antonioni’s stark cinema settings. Moravia had already preceded the French existentialists with his novel, The Time of Indifference of 1929. In the post-war he paved the way for French sociologists like Jean Baudrillard with his depictions of the transformation of man into an object to be bought and sold, as if his life were an investment which must produce profit. In his collection of short essays, Mots de Passe, published in the year 2000 by Pauvert, Baudrillard repeats Alberto Moravia’s views on man as an object of exchange. The fundamental idea is that when material success—that is possession—is considered the highest value, relationships between men will also follow the same patterns of exchange controlling consumer goods and labor.

“In this sense, resistance is the key response. Resistance to being possessed. A person’s real value then is proportional to the resistance one puts up against being possessed.” (Giuliano Dego, in Moravia, Oliver and Boyd, London and Edinburgh.) Once in his apartment, Moravia, to underline that the crisis of the relationship with reality, said that “reality can be that table” and whacked it with the knob of his cane and knocked the microphone of my recorder to the floor. Then, after pondering his own statement, he repeated, “Yes, reality is this table. I’m not speaking here of our relationship with the social world. It is more philosophical than that. I mean our relationship with an object. The problem emerges from the idea that there exists something outside ourselves, despite the idealistic philosophy according to which nothing exists outside ourselves. The thing is people don’t realize this crisis but they suffer from it anyway.”

The fundamental theme of Moravia’s work became revolt and the difficulty of relationships with reality, admittedly, he said, an obsession. Communication, in his view, was the basic problem of man, and he always had the Italian firmly in mind. “Sex is the most primitive means of communication,” the writer said of the incommunicability infecting his characters. “Psychiatrists call this defect of our relationships with reality ‘de-realization.’ It’s a sickness. But there are various mediations between us and reality—like sex. We can relate to reality with our bodies. Like the woman asked if she preferred to masturbate or make love? ‘Make love,’ she answered. ‘That way you at least get acquainted with someone.’”

Moravia’s literary milieu is the bourgeoisie, which he hated with a passion … although he himself was part of it. In his work the proletariat and the intellectuals hovering around the fringes of his bourgeois world are his instruments for dissecting and analyzing that world which is Italy. The Italian working class yearns for the Eden of the bourgeoisie while intellectuals like Moravia and his invented characters who live within that milieu are suffering in their alienation. Since there is no escape, their anguish can only grow.

Moravia’s post-war Italian bourgeoisie must be understood in moral terms, not merely economic. As befits a well-structured class, it is a lifestyle. Moravia said clearly that it is better to be rich than poor. Moreover, his bourgeoisie must also be understood in European terms. The term originated in a century of social revolution in Europe terminating in the Russian Revolution. Uncertain in his artificial idolization of the proletariat as the natural opponent of the hated bourgeoisie, Moravia gravitated toward Communism, as did most of his liberal generation in Europe.

Indifference, Moravia’s theme, is not only an Italian story

As French chansonnier Serge Gainsbourg sang of his love for Brigitte Bardot: “What does the weather matter, What matters the wind! Better your absence than your indifference.” Or Gilbert Becaud’s words: “Indifference kills with small blows.” The indifference of one person to the other in a dwindling love affair is emblematic of the terrible impact of indifference in any field at all.

Indifference means “no difference.”Indifference, as Martin Niemöller wrote of the murderous 20th century, is the destroyer of whole societies. I have excerpted some lines from a speech on indifference by Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, delivered in the White House on April 12, 1999:

A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between … good and evil. Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue?

Of course, indifference can be tempting—more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims….In a way, to be indifferent to suffering is what makes the human being inhuman.

Indifference is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony, one does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative.…Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor.

In 2002, I “covered” the G-8 conference in Genoa, a phony show, which ended with the murder of a real little man dressed in black. An Italian, from the suburbs of this port city, he called himself an Anarchist. The Big 8 labeled him an enemy of globalization, of the free market, an enemy of progress. While representatives of the rich world were barricaded inside the safe zone and served sumptuous meals by hordes of servants, they exchanged expensive gifts that were/are slaps in the face of the poverty they had (supposedly) gathered to combat. Leaders of the world’s eight richest nations nonchalantly discussed poverty in Africa, issued casual sentences about the economies they do not control, imparted lessons they themselves do not observe, and finally budgeted the indifferent sum of 1.3 billion dollars to combat epidemics in Africa, a few pennies for each African dying of AIDS, a sum reportedly equal to one-eighth of the annual cost of only the tests for the US space shield project. As inhuman as it is, indifference to suffering is bearable as long as it is invisible. We all experience that each day watching newscasts. Indifference to war is something else; were it not for the enthusiastic way humans participate in war we could call it inhuman. Ignorant and deaf indifference is bad enough. But today, in Europe and the United States where information abounds, we have to call conscious indifference to war and injustice, and also its brother “indifference to indifference,” criminal and evil.

Here is an example of active indifference: the Chávez referendum in Venezuela. A former journalist acquaintance in Rome when he was the correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, today an editor and columnist of the New York Times, in his articles about Chávez on the eve of the 2008 referendum, was remarkably indifferent to what is really happening in Venezuela. A talented but ambitious journalist, he, like the newspaper he works for, is aware of but indifferent to the reasons that Venezuela and most of Latin America are striving for independence from the USA, whether its struggle is called “Socialism of the 21st Century” as in Venezuela, or “Agrarian Revolution” as in Bolivia.

Indifference appears in all places and at all times about every subject that has no direct, personal bearing on one’s own little life.

Indifference! It doesn’t matter!

Indifference about national health care.

Indifference about the abyss between rich and poor.

Indifference to the value of labor and the working man.

Indifference about a free press..

Indifference about public corruption..

Indifference about violence against women.

Indifference about arms controls.

Indifference about the government defrauding its citizens.

Indifference about the indifference granting the government license to defraud citizens.

Indifference about capital punishment.

Indifference about bombing civilians from the stratosphere.

Indifference about global warming.

Indifference about indifference.

ROME IS WELL WORTH A MASS

In the confusing period of great corruption scandals, trials and convictions, and new majority electoral laws resulted in the disappearance of the US backed Christian Democratic Party (DC) that had governed Italy since World War II and of its ally the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) of Bettino Craxi who fled to Tunisia (where he died) to escape prosecution. The second political force, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) with one-third of the electorate behind it, began dwindling and was finally disbanded in 1991 on the heels of the collapse of the USSR, initiating a series of name changes and splits so that no organized Communist party is represented in the Second Republic today.

THE BERLUSCONI PHENOMENON—GIFTED DEMAGOGUE OR LUCKY BUFFOON?

The Italian was again lost. No ideology to hold onto, wracked by alienation and indifference, living a false life of imitation The sultry pop singer, Patty Pravo’s song La Bambola (The Doll) of those years expressed the confusion of the Italian puppet without strings):

Tu mi fai girar come fossi una bambola

Poi mi butti giù

Poi mi butti giù Come fossi una bambola ….

(You play with me as if I were a doll,

then you throw me down, you throw me down

as if I were a doll ….)

At this point the wealthy entrepreneur and TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi, entered the scene and has subsequently led three governments and changed for the worst the face of Italy. Where did it go, I asked. Italians still ask. The TV aspect should be clear at the start in this country where TV is a way of life. Italy that produced the neo-realism cinema that changed the world of film has become a TV land.

______

Berlusconi’s (Left) multiple “weaknesses”–his constant philandering, innate opportunism, corruption, male chauvinism–are seen by many as endearing qualities. Like Pasqualino Settebellezze, Berlusconi is above all a professional survivor.

Italy has seven major TV chains, three belong to Berlusconi’s Mediaset Group and three to state RAI television which Berlusconi controls. Only one network remains relatively outside this group; owned by Telecom Italia, and it too however must walk the straight and narrow because of state influence and increasing indirect censorship. Television and Berlusconi’s expert use of it elevated him to power.

Silvio Berlusconi described his entrance into politics in 1994 with the sports terminology he loves, “he entered the game,” borrowing the Italian sorts expression, scendere in campo, with in mind his championship soccer club, Milan, “taking the field” to win another international cup. How much laughter and tears, consternation and gnashing of teeth Silvio Berlusconi has since provoked in Italy, in Europe and the world. In January of that first year his nine-minute message telecast simultaneously by all of Italy’s TV networks, followed by the creation of his own political party and a subsequent blitzkrieg campaign, swept him into the Premiership in elections two months later. Since then Italy has been on an ugly voyage with Berlusconi. A trip into the dark night with no sign of return and at the cost—to Italians—of huge penalty fees.

Berlusconi was aided in his media activities—the creation of three top TV commercial networks and a host of magazines and newspapers—by disgraced Socialist Premier Bettino Craxi. Berlusco’s political activity was at first limited to supporting the political aspirations of the neo-Fascists while campaigning for a political anti-Communist coalition, for which he then created “his” Forza Italia party (Let’s Go Italy).

Bizarre but true, voters blithely ignored the immense conflict of interests in his regard, the most likely criminal source of his wealth, the power of his TV networks, the conviction that he was “entering the field” chiefly in order to defend his business empire against judicial prosecution and enthusiastically voted him into office. That vote over a period of 15 years has changed the face of Italy, leading to the Italy of today that Radical Party leader Marco Pannella labels a “non-democracy.”

A very “Italian story” too, the relationship between Italians and Berlusconi. But at the same time it is a universal story. The big vote for a person that both the magistracy and thinking people in general consider a crook exemplifies the facility with which power manipulates the innocence and gullibility of electorates. For as we know the deadly combination of political scoundrels and naïve voters thrive in every climate.

Italians continue to vote for Berlusconi precisely because of his “lack” of any kind of ostensible ideology—to favor capitalism is rarely seen as an ideology in a regime of bourgeois democracy—in this heretofore highly ideological land. People claim to be sick and tired of political squabbles and the crowd of little men thronging for power. They take to Silvio’s presentation of himself as someone from outside politics even though at the same time he himself brags that he entered politics to save Italy from the Communists. Ready to bond with anyone, Silvio has penetrated into every nook and cranny of the world of power, Fascists or mafia or the infamous P2 Masonic Lodge. Part of his authority derived also from Bush, “my friend George”, and from Putin, “my friend Vladimir.” For Berlusconi no sacrifice is too great, no discrepancy too outrageous, no lie that can’t be denied the next day. Or the next hour. During his sleepless nights in one of his residences or on his world travels in his private plane he probably did utter his version of the famous words of that French king that also “Roma vale bene una messa.”

Italians love the expression of Henri de Navarre who, in order to become Henri IV, King of Catholic France in the year 1590, renounced his Protestant faith, converted to Catholicism and uttered the famous aphorism, Paris vaut bien une messe, Paris is well worth a mass.Berlusconi wants it all, religion and secularism, total authority and a façade of democracy. Though thin in ideology (even his anti-Communism is fundamentally shallow however fierce, as befits a businessman) TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi, at the most a crypto-Fascist and by any measure rogue capitalist, has become the face of modern authoritarianism as Mussolini himself would have defined it, and the force behind what (is) may be defined as “Italian style neo-Fascism.” Berlusconi’s only sincere belief is opposition to any rules that limit his personal freedom to become richer and more powerful.

Not only did he start out with the support of part of Italy’s capitalist oligarchy, which tends to be more concealed than its American counterpart. But he promptly made neo-fascists again “acceptable” by forming a government coalition with them. Today, illogically, he stands to their right—not ideologically to which he (is) immune but in his conduct of government—to the right of the Right, and thus the leader of Italy’s anomalous Right which for the political observer it is imperative to understand has little or nothing do with traditional European Conservatism.

Though defeated in 2006, tenacious Silvio remained at the helm of his party, omnipresent, shaking violently Rome’s marble columns to bring down the temple of more traditional power, capable of any misdeed, any lie, any alliance, any conversion in order to return to power. Which he did in 2008. For him Rome is truly worth a mass.

OUTRAGEOUS BERLUSCONI UNDERSTANDS ITALIANS

Berlusconian ideology does not exist. He has none. He has a personal credo and guidelines. Money is the guide. Power and control and the firm belief that anyone can be bought. He has proved it. You want a certain woman? You’re the Premier and the boss: you just promise her she can be a TV starlet, a deputy to the European Parliament or even cabinet minister. She will gladly creep under your desk on her knees. That is pure Berlusconism in practice.

In the beginning Berlusconi organized Forza Italia using the business tactics and even the staff of his huge company, Fininvest. He promised Italians the same glory and riches, the respect and admiration of Europe and the world which was to be achieved by running Italy like a company and obviating rules, while leaving intact the chaos schizophrenic Italians thrive in.

Sarkozy may have his Carla Bruni, but Berlusco is not exactly deprived. Photo (Right) : Noemi Letizia, his current protegé.)

Despite exuberant Berlusconi’s backslapping bonhomie of a salesman and the jokes about his unbearable ego, Italians chose him convinced that as Prime Minister he would continue his run of successes as in business and his soccer team, modernizing and enriching Italy. He seemed a more exciting prospect than the austere Center-Left, eternally divided since the diaspora of the Italian Communist Party.

Incidents of Berlusconi’s antics are legion: Happy-go-lucky Silvio making the cuckold sign behind the head of a politician from another European nation as they posed for a commemorative photo. Or in response to the German Socialist, Martin Schulz, who criticized him in the European parliament, Berlusconi suggested that Schulz would be perfect as an SS guard in a film on a Nazi concentration camp. For many people this was too much simply because Italians don’t want to be the laughing stock of Europe. As Prime Minister he has compared himself to Napoleon and then Christ because no other politician has achieved as much and no other has been so persecuted. A corresponding joke is that on the dashboard of Silvio’s car is a plaque with the message that “the only difference between God and Berlusconi is that God doesn’t think he is Berlusconi.” Before the 2006 elections outrageous Silvio said publicly that Chinese Communists under Mao “boiled babies and used them as fertilizer,” causing an uproar in Beijing. Italy had to apologize and explain that Berlusconi’s polemics were directed against Italy’s Center-Left, not China. He once boasted to a Milan daily that he had rung four porno chat lines to ask which candidate they favored and seven of ten declared in his favor.

Nonetheless it is because of such unprecedented and boorish behavior that some electors consider him more real than run-of-the-mill politicians. With a man of his vulgarity at the helm, it is no surprise the traditional and romantic nation of Italy was transformed into one of Europe’s most vulgar nations during his 1994-95 Premiership. Capable of anything to win elections, any lie, any alliance, besides his promise of modernity, Silvio’s second most potent message is anti-Communism which appeals to well over one half of Italy.

Berlusconi’s constant alarms of the Communist threat continue to swing center voters to his side. He refers to the anti-Berlusconi Economist magazine as Ecommunist and suggests that the Milanese investigating magistrates who have been on his trail for years are sexual perverts. Although he finds the hated Communists under every bed, he bends over backwards for the former KGB chief, Vladimir Putin. He allegedly personally coached a cheer squad to chant VLA- DI-MIR; VLA-DI-MIR, outside one of his Sardinian villas where he hosted Putin. He accuses one and all of Communism, even the Industrialists’ Confederation of allying against him with the Center-Left, the Trade Unions, Italy’s five major dailies and most of the magistracy. Conspiracy is his favorite accusation: even the banks are in cahoots with the cooperative movement against him. His preferred stance is as victim. His conspiracy theories, his divisive tactics and his eternal optimism convince voters—he is resilient, energetic and probably forever bordering on desperation. Failure is his nightmare, conviction of a crime his nemesis.

Despite having created his own party, forming and re-forming his own government coalition, called first the House of Freedom, now the People of Freedom, despite serving four times as Prime Minister, Berlusconi keeps himself in the limelight with such clownish antics and his anti-politician behavior. Play the piano at international conferences. Sing bawdy songs in public. His style is the regular guy who cracks jokes and does a lot of backslapping. More reserved Italians like this behavior because it seems worldly. They liked seeing him arm-in-arm with Bush and Putin. Premier Berlusconi liked nothing better than getting the two world leaders together, standing between them and drawing them near as if he were creating peace in the world.

Berlusconi unabashedly exploits the Italian’s natural sense of humor. They say the more a people suffers, the more they need to laugh and find things to laugh at. By that standard the Italians must have suffered a lot because the endurance of their sense of humor is remarkable considering their ordinary chaos. Whether people realize it or not, there is a level of comicality in their hyperbolic actions. Film director Federico Fellini used to show the Italian nature in his films: “It’s all about the fantasies, hopes, and delusions of a little people who were innocent enough to trust fascism. It’s about the pathetic Epicureanism of the boom. About Italy’s sad inability to be anything but an occupied country—the Vatican and Washington today, the Hapsburgs, Bourbons, before. It’s about the tragicomic destiny of a people who make too much noise at the wrong time, and sleep when they should wake.”Go figure!

As a result of the national ingenuity it is a piece of cake for manipulative politicians to convince Italians that they are the most fortunate people on the planet. For naïve non-Italians too Italy is the mother of all and its peoples the most special, even when for anyone with eyes to see that Italy no longer exists and what remains is in a precipitous fall. From year to year, from crisis to crisis, the divide between rich and poor deepens. Class bitterness is rampant since workers wages lag dreadfully behind the rest of Europe. Cheapness pervades society as mirrored in a degenerate television led by Berlusconi’s TV empire. In short, Berlusconism has changed Italians into a mean-spirited people.

Berlusconi did not create the chaos in Italy. But he exploited it. Precisely because of the chaos, visitors in Italy from north and south, east and west, feel a beguiling sense of freedom to do things forbidden at home, to dive into fountains , dress outrageously and drive recklessly, things Italians either scorn or are forbidden to do. In theory, Italians truly want things to work; they want Italy to be a “normal country.” That desire however is unadulterated theory. In theory, things should again work as Mussolini’s trains did. In theory, Berlusconi would eliminate the plagues of the chaotic multi-party system without however eliminating the parties. For many Italians, Berlusconism is an expression of Utopia. To repeat, the Italian’s natural inclination is anarchy. No rules. No limits. For fifteen years Berlusconi has promised Italians the order they know they need but don’t want any more than he intends creating it. At best he would change everything albeit without changing anything, according to the expression coined by Tomasi di Lampedusa in his Sicilian novel, Il Gattopardo: “cambiare tutto, affinché non cambi niente.”(Change everything so that nothing changes: The Leopard.)

Nonetheless the transformation of the delicate 20th century Italian some of us once knew—let’s say since 1980—is no less mysterious than the transformation of the once fierce Romans into the gentle post-Risorgimento peoples.

Among many books about Silvio Berlusconi, two pose the question: Is Silvio Berlusconi a threat to democracy, a Mussolini-in-the-making? Silvio Berlusconi: television, power and patrimony by Paul Ginsborg andBerlusconi’s Shadow: crime, justice and the pursuit of power by David Lane. Among the reasons for the authors’ harsh criticism is that despite his pre-electoral promise to divest himself of his three national commercial television stations, he never did it.

At the outset this point should be clear and manifest, and sufficient to ban him from politics as it would in any “normal country.” He owns the three networks of his Mediaset company and controls the three state channels as chief of government; his TV monopoly is total in that another of his companies controls most TV advertising.

However even in the reality of that travesty of democracy, today’s most sensitive point is that his government has introduced laws to protect him personally in various legal proceedings against him for crimes committed in the creation of his TV empire. On the agenda in these days is again the question of immunity. This time immunity for all parliamentarians which includes him, widely understood as a law tailor-made for Silvio Berlusconi. Moreover because he is the richest Italian, with multiple business interests apart from television, many of his government measures are liable to charges of conflict of interest. But old boy Silvio is heedless of institutional niceties in his purported attempt to reshape Italy.

So how did such a man ever become Prime Minister in the first place? Initially a Milanese builder, with the help of the then Socialist Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, Berlusconi obtained a monopoly of the then emergent commercial television industry via bribery. When Craxi and other politicians were swept aside on corruption counts and the Communist Party split in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism in East Europe, the Communist-hating Right had a boulevard wide open before them.

The Economist, emphasizing Berlusconi’s alleged links with the Mafia and its money to found his empire, insists that Italians must be either particularly cynical or stupid to vote for Berlusconi. Reporters like David Lane pursue meticulously Berlusconi’s business transactions and legal travails and have no empathy whatsoever with his supporters. Paul Ginsborg, an Englishman who teaches contemporary Italian history at Florence University and has written several books about the phenomenon, treats Berlusconi as but one more example of the worldwide melding of personality politics, great wealth and media control which poses problems for all democracies.

Berlusconi has been Prime Minister (or Premier as he prefers to be called since it doesn’t refer to other ministers) four times: 1994-95, 2001-2005, 2005-2006, and now 2008 until today. Once elected Berlusconi immediately charges that an ongoing conspiracy of Communists of the magistracy and the press hobbles his government and blocks the renovations and reforms he aims at. He is forever the populist revolutionary opposed by the establishment. In the end he delivers on few promises in his “pact with the nation.” In the international sphere he aligns closely with the United States at the expense of European Union ties and Italy’s traditional pro-Arab policy. .

WHY DO ITALIANS VOTE FOR A BUFOON LIKE BERLUSCONI?

The mythical catch phrase “now we have to make Italians,” attributed to the 19th century conservative nationalist, Massimo D’Azeglio, has been much cited in debates over the question of Italian national identity and the movement toward Italy’s Unification. The question was of what those newly made Italian subjects were constituted, and of what consisted their “Italian” specificity so different from their ancient Roman ancestors. Literary and academic figures, educators and scientists have long reflected on the nature of the social bond of the diverse peoples on the Italic peninsula.

As per Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg in The Pinocchio Effect: On Making Italians 1860-1920, Pinocchio, the puppet without strings, provides the master metaphor for meditation on the nature of attachment itself. How are we to understand the play between a submission exacted by the Law and a submission freely chosen, between external determination and internal compulsion, in the form and functioning of the social bond?

The Italian example is a scintillating socio-political study in itself, a major contribution to our thinking about ideology and its workings. One has dealt with fin-de-siècle obsessions with the ways that bodies were measured and disciplined, attached to apparatuses and made to move autonomously. That is, like the mechanical puppet Pinocchio. Much discussed is the emergence of a male masochistic subject from the traumatic rift opened up by the radical separation between Church and State wrought by the Unification of Italy, and its effect on the male citizen leading to the Italian vulnerability to dictatorship. Recent work on Italian modernity, combined with a reflection on ideology, has therefore focused on the Fascist period.

Regarding the puppet image I have cited pertinent words about “false consciousness” from Patrice Greanville’s review of Joel C. Magnuson’s Mindful Economics: Understanding American Capitalism, Its Consequences & Alternatives. “Conditioned behavior injected from above, or false consciousness,” Greanville writes, “has always worked to prop up the status quo. In the 14th century, for example, embedded in fanatical religiosity and ignorance, it justified feudalism. [The Vatican was among the first to use political propaganda, per se.] In our time, it props up capitalism and its offshoot, imperialism. As such, it presents true democrats with a tough challenge: systemic propaganda in pursuit of false political consciousness is not just annoying; it’s lethal to the survival of democracy, and its advance inevitably eviscerates every single feature of democracy that make its functioning worth fighting for.

“It’s fairly obvious that from the ruling orders’ perspective the wages of propaganda are substantial. False consciousness among the masses allows the upper classes to run society in their own narrow self-interest while pretending to do so in the interest of all. Enormous, mind-boggling wealth and power are thus rapidly accumulated by the tip of the social pyramid in all societies riddled with inequality.

“Outright repression can ensure a level of compliance, sometimes for a generation or two, but in the long run it cannot guarantee political stability or legitimacy. Only covert mind control can deliver that. Thus by far the most efficient solution is when we are made to carry the chains and prisons right inside our heads. Policing our own actions while still believing in our total freedom is simply a diabolically effective formula ensuring perpetual bondage.

“The drift toward authoritarianism cannot be arrested, only slowed down or momentarily interrupted, given the essentially undemocratic nature of the system. Living with capitalism is like living with a sociopath in the room, a maniac who bears constant watching. Yet that is exactly what we continue to observe among broad segments of the population of many nations, most notably the U.S. (think of “the red state syndrome”), where such “irrational” voting patterns have become so scandalously common as to make the American electorate something of an enigma if not a laughingstock to many observers around the globe. So how do we explain this? The short answer is false political consciousness.”

One answer to our query about Italians is that contrary to a diffused conception of them Italians are not more politically sophisticated than others in the world of the Occident. The historical reality is they are gullible, easily swayed and maneuverable, a nation of Pinocchio’s, especially when firmly entrenched in their trusted ideologies of Left or Right.  Despite their innate skepticism and cynicism—qualities utterly lacking in the great American heartland—the Italian masses do not think any more than do their American counterparts. They react to what fills, or seems to fill, their everyday lives. Though Italians still go to the polls massively, they too are learning that voting is not enough. Electoral laws seem to mutate from one year to the next. New laws are passed but the candidates and the rhetoric remain the same. Inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, in a setting of changing kings and popes and invaders and occupiers, have been changed by the times, by bad politics, by a growing lack of ideals, a lack of adequate political leadership, positive example and political instruction. The historic chaos of Italy and growing indifference to reality of its peoples provided vast space for the likes of Silvio Berlusconi.

CHANGE OR NOT TO CHANGE, THAT IS THE QUESTION.

My Italian wife, skeptic, anarchic and representative of many Italian people, refuses categorically, even theoretically, to consider the idea of discontinuity in Italy between the so-called First Republic to the Second Republic of say, the period between 1992-94. According to her, nothing really happened. No change of direction. No change in politics. No change is the manner of government. The same things only got worse:

The European Union (EU) in Brussels and the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt rank Italy at the tail end in almost every socio-economic category. Real inflation is among the highest in the West, and Italy along with Great Britain Europe’s most expensive country. Meanwhile workers’ salaries are 20% lower than in France and 30% lower than Germany. According to a popular slogan, Italians earn Greek wages and pay German prices.

Anarchic Italians regularly declare they will not vote in elections always just around the corner. “The caste” doesn’t take the threat seriously for Italians never disappoint them. Meanwhile political platforms resemble each other more each time. The parties resemble each other, the Democratic Party (named, ironically, for the American party and only ever so slightly center-left) and Berlusconi’s new-old rightwing People of Freedom Party. (Berlusconi believes he has the same monopoly on freedom as his “friend George Bush” had on God). In any case, each political contender promises to change Italy. People generally accept that the real aim of both sides is “to change things so that nothing changes.”Sounds familiar?

CHAOS

It is a truism that Italians are “ungovernable.” Lest any observer arriving in Italy foolishly try to speak Spanish or French with Italians and seek similarities between them and their Latin brothers, it should be clear that no such similarity exists. The Spanish want to be governed, the French demand to be governed but history shows that Italians sneer at any form of government less than authoritarianism or dictatorship. As per Stewart-Steinberg, the history of Italy since its unification in 1861 and the rise of Fascism in 1922 “is the history of a state in search of a nation,” a cloudy period when an optimistic leader of Italian unity remarked: “We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.” Actually neither claim was ever realized.

Since then Italians have in fact surrendered their dream of a nation, their dream of a “normal country.” It should not be forgotten that Italy is NOT and has never been a normal country. Freedom in Italy will always mean anarchy and lawlessness. Since unity in 1861, since the twenty years of Fascism, the famous Ventennio, and World War II, Italians have preferred a society without rules. They prefer chaos to order. Every man for himself. Rules for everyone but me as at my local trash bins. Here, however, one precaution: I exclude from these generalizations the new generation swiftly becoming more European and more exigent of what even the most facetious politicians label a “normal country.”

It is no wonder that the Italy of the Berlusconi era has reached the peak of absurdity, and its leader is the laughing stock of Europe. Deaf, dumb and blind Italy, where authenticity has morphed into stupidity. Where imitation reigns and the genuine is futile. The near absence in Italy of any clean-cut national direction underlines the futility, the hopelessness and the ultimate nothingness of the Italian idea, the absence of which Italians themselves are aware but largely ignore because the nation is still unformed. Nothing but seeming to be what they are not and imitation count, while anarchy reigns.

Roma Ladrona, one says in north Italy! Rome thief! Rome is described as a whore, a whore who takes on one and all. A boisterous, aggressive and vulgar puttana, generous, haughty and impenetrable who embraces and absorbs everyone and everything in her embrace. Sinful and angelic, devilish and beatific, impertinent and condescending, ironic and naïve, uncompromising and malleable, superficial and philosophical, clownish and Mediterranean melancholy, she is the Italian dream. At a time when I have become standoffish toward Rome, I have come to understand that in contrast to Paris or New York, Rome makes few explicit demands; she simply engulfs all. The dissatisfied may slip out of her arms and she will never miss them. Majestically oblivious, Rome makes no compromises.. She is herself. She the city has few false airs. Her values are earthy. She knows many things and only occasionally dons her silk finery and high-heeled black shoes for a mocking stroll past the comical figures at Parliament playing the game of politics. Change in Rome comes slowly. Welcome, Roma says, opening her arms. Come in … and do it my way. It is seduction. An imperceptible rape of the senses. Some realize it and flee. Most acclimate and end up doing it the Roman way. The ravished thrash around and beat their chests but the 2500-year old whore smiles and pulls them back into a comfortable corner of her soft wide bosom and ignores their cries. What remains then is love and hate, fascination and repugnance.

POLITICAL ITALY-EITHER RIGHT OR LEFT

I visited the tomb of Antonio Gramsci in the Poets’ Cemetery in Rome, a final resting place for artists, poets, writers and illustrious foreigners and lovers of Italy. An inconspicuous urn resting in the center of the mound contains the ashes of the philosopher, Marxist thinker and founder of the Italian Communist Party. The tombstone bears only his name and his dates—1891-1937. Fresh red flowers indicate that the site is regularly tended.

I visited the tomb of Gramsci because I wanted to speak of one of the men most representative of the better side of tormented Twentieth century Italy, an advocate of a new social-political-economic structure and a major figure in shaping progressive thought from the early XX century. I wanted to speak of Gramsci because the Italy that many people still love is today in danger, threatened by a Right which has carried Italy to depths of reaction that would cause Gramsci’s progressive spirit to wing its way to other worlds. I wanted to speak of the man who contrasted so totally, so dramatically with Benito Mussolini who instead led Italy to ruin.

The figure of Antonio Gramsci is emblematic of the profound dichotomy between progress and reaction marking Europe since the end of the Nineteenth century, which I will discuss here in order to show what Italy could have become a century ago. To show also that Left or Right does matter.

I imagine that the Marxist Gramsci would have ambivalent feelings about his neighbors in the Poets’ Cemetery: lying near him are dozens of “White Russians,” the adversaries of the Bolshevik revolution in Tsarist Russia in 1917, which Gramsci supported. At the same time, the culture of the Russian exiles was dedicated to maintaining the hegemony of the Russian upper class over the masses, which Gramsci opposed. Yet, Gramsci must have felt sympathy for the progressive English poets, John Keats and Percy Byshe Shelley, who lie under two pines in a distant corner of the same cemetery. Keats (“I saw pale kings, and princes too” from his La Belle Dame san merci) wrote, as Gramsci must have at some point, “I am ambitious to do the world some good.”

Keats arrived in Rome a sick man—as Gramsci was all his life—and died at age twenty-six after choosing the Poets’ Cemetery for his resting place. Shelley, who preferred “painful pleasures to easier ones”, also lived his last years in Italy where he died in a Mediterranean storm near Lerici and joined his friend Keats a year later in the same Rome cemetery. As much as he appreciated their culture and admired Keats’ universal words, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ Antonio Gramsci, did not worship all the names of the Western literary canon. In his Selections from the Prison Notebooks he writes of the difficulty of intellectuals to be free of the dominant social group; he was mistrustful of the esprit de corps and the compromises running through the intellectual community.

Like many great men Gramsci too hoped to change the world. His point of departure was the idea that everything in life is determined by capital. His reasoning was simple and eternal: the class that controls capital is the dominant class. The capitalist class formulates its ideology to secure its control—or, in Gramscian language, its hegemony—over the people. Class struggle results when the people try to change the rules and take power. The task of intellectuals is to lead and act politically in order to change the world. “Let men be judged by what they do, not what they say.”

In the first five years of the Third Millennium rightwing Italy more than other West European countries imitated the USA in an effort to convert Italy’s social state into a cold, market economy. Some of Italy’s social system was dismantled but the conversion did not work and economic growth was 0.0 %. As in the USA, the inequalities between rich and poor in Italy, as in much of Europe, have never been greater. The richest five per cent of Italy controls a disproportionate part of the nation’s wealth.

While the gap between the rich and poor is widening everywhere, free market exponents cry for more and more “freedom”, that is more freedom to become richer. But everywhere there is a missing factor in the equation: equality. Equality is out. Equality! exclaim alarmed free marketers. “An infringement on my freedom!” European free marketers cry and wring their hands and point out the “American way of life.”

An inexplicable mystery for free marketers is that Social Democratic countries in Scandinavia enjoy the world’s highest standard of living. Their mixed economies, part social, part capitalist, work. There, the rich pay dear. They grumble and dodge taxes but in the end a majority of them accept higher taxes in the knowledge that future generations will be the better for it.

Inequality is incompatible with freedom. Freedom has become one of the most complex words in our vocabulary. It is often an evil word. For what kind of freedom does one mean? Freedom for whom? At whose expense? Who represents the poor one-party systems in coutries where the social state does not exist or is dying? There is little evidence of infringements on the rights of the rich anywhere; but as far as the poor are concerned the minimum wage is not a sign of equality.

The social economy recognizes the existence of inequalities and places limits on them. Market economy theoreticians, on the other hand, explain that inequality is quite a good thing; it is a stimulus to improve one’s position by hard work or innovation; success is a hope for all, an aspiration, something to strive for; it makes a society more vital. I do not believe that social and economic inequalities are a necessary price to pay for the economic freedom of a few. First, let’s redistribute wealth dramatically. Then we can talk about acceptance of inequalities as a boast to economic progress.

Following World War I Italy became a country divided by the political right or the left. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was formed in 1921 and Fascism emerged in 1922. Left and Right have been at each other’s throats since. Fascism in its time needed Communism as both its internal and external enemy. Rightwing regimes today adore the word Communism. The word “Communist” sets their hearts a flutter.

Communism in Berlusconian Italy today is the scarecrow that terrorism is in America. In countries with less solid democratic traditions, the threat of Communism-Socialism has been exploited by reactionary forces to establish dictatorial regimes. Like terrorism, Communism was the excuse for emergency laws in the Philippines or Peru as it was in Chile and Argentina. Though Communism in East Europe failed long ago and those states disappeared, the European Right—in Italy, France, Spain, Greece— continues to raise the specter of the “Communist” threat to “family” and “our values.”

Communist parties born last century from the European Socialist movement called themselves Marxist. Though the totalitarian parties of East Europe called their states Socialist republics. Since the dissolution of the USSR, Communist slogans sound more utopian than threatening. Today nearly a myth, Communism is abstract even in Communist China.

With the broadening of the European Union toward the East the question of Communism is however recurrent today since the EU is formed by peoples with opposite perceptions of it. For many East Europeans, Communism was a nightmare. But the end of the totalitarian regimes in East Europe led some of those countries to blind faith in a savage market economy and abandonment of the spirit of social solidarity.

For many people in the world the word Communism is not a dirty word. The question of Communism has not been settled. Though Communist regimes vanished and Communist parties everywhere are marginalized, for the 450,000,000 people of the twenty-seven nations of the European Union the memory of Communism is alive. Though Communism in practice is no longer a credible alternative to free market democracy, though it no longer aims at revolution and though it is crushed by its Soviet past [whose truth due to constant and overwhelming anti-communist propaganda is still a matter of debate], its memory is alive.

In West Europe, Communists led the resistance against Nazism. In post-WWII, Communism was at the center of the political opposition. After the fall of East European Communism, the anti-Communist Pole, Pope John Paul II, wrote that Communism was necessary to combat unbridled Capitalism. In the year before his death, Pope Karol Wojtyla made his pronouncement concerning the evils of our times: “Nazism,” he wrote, “was the absolute evil, and Communism the necessary evil,” with the emphasis on “necessary.”

Reformed Communist parties abound in modern Europe. In Italy, Communist parties are integrated into progressive forces and have over ten per cent of the national vote. Communist parties play political roles in France, Spain and other countries, scandalizing only the extreme Right. The original ideas of Communism survive chiefly as a promise and a theoretical alternative—a lodestar as it were in the political desert— to rampant capitalism. It is a brake on the dismantling of the social state.

Communism has always had multiple faces—political, social, economic, and cultural. In some places its roots were deep in society; in some it still enters into traditional political parties as in Italy and France. Its very complexity, its undeniable Christian ideals on one hand and its economic promises on the other, explain why the idea is still alive. Residues of Communist culture, the spark of utopia that all men desire, partially explain the spirit of anti-capitalism in the world and hostility toward the United States (a fact aided by America’s implacably wrongheaded and often criminal policies.) The memory of Communism also explains the resistance of the social state to an unfettered market economy. It offers an alternative view of history, another approach to the present, and for some a vision of the future. Karl Marx wrote in 1848 that the ghost of Communism haunted Europe. Today, it is chiefly the memory of that ghost that resists. The ghost however is so powerful that the political Right regularly dangles its threat before the eyes of voters each time they go to the polls.

In the post-World War II era when many European writers were of the Left, nearly the entire Left in Italy adhered to the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which, like CPs in other West European countries, did not break with the Soviet Union until after its troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Though Hungary 1956 had shaken the Faith of Italy’s intellectuals, the final blow of Prague was still a year away in 1967 when articles in the New York Times, Saturday Evening Post, Ramparts and The Nation revealed that the Congress For Cultural Freedom and its magazines, including the Rome magazine Tempo Presente, published by the writer Ignazio Silone, were financed by the CIA.

Silone’s story reflects that of many European intellectuals of the 20th century. Although he quit the Italian Communist Party in 1929 of which he was among the founders, Silone remained a Socialist all his life. His far-sightedness irritated fellow intellectuals who in the ideological tumult of the century had gone either to the extreme Right or Left. Not only isolated, Silone was also accused of being a Fascist agent and informer. As a side effect, the revelations of  CIA interference in the cultural field in the West was justification for the widespread mistrust of America that continues today.

The life stories of Silone and fellow writer Nicola Chiaromonte reflect the qualms and temptations, the convictions and aberrations, the commitments and the compromises of Italian and European intellectuals in general of the period that Chiaromonte in an essay of the same title labeled “the time of bad faith.” Chiaromonte fought in the Spanish Civil War in André Malraux’s air squadron, lived in exile in Paris where he was linked to Albert Camus, and in New York where he wrote for The Partisan Review, The New Republic, The Nation and Politics of Dwight Macdonald. Outside Italy, Chiaromonte was a cult figure. Albeit after his return to Italy in 1953 he became an authoritative essayist and took a place on the European anti-Communist Left, he never enjoyed the same respect at home as abroad. Chiaromonte presented essays from his collection, To Believe and Not To Believe (Credere e Non credere), at Princeton in 1966 when he held the Christian Gauss Seminars On Literary Criticism, essays written while he co-edited Tempo Presente in Rome.

The case of Ignazio Silone was more complex. His life path and his turning points brought him to the depths of suffering, dedication to the Cause, repentance and search for redemption, the themes of his greatest novels: Fontamara and Bread and Wine. Silone had the tragic flaw, the hamartia, that ancient Greeks found so necessary to be a man. In his search for social justice for the rural people of the Abruzzi Mountains near Rome, Silone joined the new Italian Communist Party in 1921. In his times in Europe, Communists were everything from died-in-the wool Stalinists to leftwing Socialists to workers and farmers desirous of Socialism in their struggle against injustice. He participated in the work of the young party, in the underground against the Fascist state and finally in the Comintern. By 1929 he had had enough of Stalinism and began his withdrawal, an experience he describes in detail in his book, Emergency Exit. The number of ex-Communists in Europe in those years was legion. And all of them were marked for life, so much so that the Exes formed a unique category. Silone however remained faithful to the Socialist ideals he began with. “Every sincere Socialist,” he wrote, “remains Socialist forever.”

I believe Left and Right are still meaningful terms today. Social-political maturity should be movement toward, not away from progress and Left. Though exes are a dangerous species, history shows that when one abandons one faith for another, dogmatism always threatens. Romantic dispositions! Rebellious inclinations! Given all the penuries and frustrations of inhabiting the left, the more frequent shift in life is from Left to Right. But that is retrocession, immaturity, or downright betrayal of an ideal which, however flawed in practice due to the ebb and flow of history’s forces, is still far nobler and superior to anything the conservative side may pretend to offer. It is to go socially and intellectually backwards. Distasteful and loathsome, a degrading personal development. Besides, the results are usually disastrous.

Four decades of the great lie —the lies spread about by the usual comfortable apologists for capitalism—sufficed to generate a new morality. A morality of evil that has filtered down into society today. The CIA, whatever its true power today, is emblematic of the new immorality-amorality. It has nothing to do with ideas or ideology; only power … and evil. A way of viewing the world. A cold manner, amoral and immoral at the same time. This evil power is also an American spirit, an evil spirit that has always lurked in America. America was never innocent, only naive. Evil lurked in the Blue Ridge Mountains of my boyhood. At the same time the entire guileless American nation has been and was duped, wanted to be duped, by the great new lie, and by reflex, the whole post-war world was duped.

After World War II, the choice of America and its ex-Nazi cohorts fell on the “menace” posed by the USSR and world Communism: the Soviet putative thirst for conquest of the world. The secret Sino-Soviet pact to conquer the world. Communist subversion of Africa and Latin America. The internal threat by America’s own Communists, while Italy, Spain, France and Greece were falling victim to their powerful, Moscow-supported Communist parties, the whole of Europe falling into the hands of advancing Soviet armies.

Until 1989-1991 Communism was the bugaboo of the capitalist, anti-communist.

The subsequent creation of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and other, changing “rogue nations” was the natural course of things. The necessary enemy of Power could have been something else: for example, after the defeat of East Europe the new enemy could have become the European Union, perhaps in the minds of some American leaders still a reasonable enemy.

THE DICHOTOMY

An abyss has opened in Italy’s good old society. Italy has entered the European Union, sends its troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and exports its fashion and its countless made-in-Italys, yet it perceives what Harvard’s Francesco Erspamer calls an “ Italian rhetoric of nostalgia” for its archaic society. Perhaps in the same way that Europe as a whole, some places more, some less, continues to be the Old World. In the sense that kings and emperors, kingdoms and empires, vanish but Europe’s common culture that distinguishes Europe and sets it apart still survives, and, often unrecognized, has been the cement that holds the European Union together. For to the chagrin of Europe’s neo-liberals, their multinational, globalization-oriented economic and political institutions cannot unite the continent alone. The Italian, generous, salt-of-the-earth individual stands in opposition to a mean and selfish collective the people of the peninsula have become, each individual struggling to imitate their corrupt mendacious leaders. This is not to suggest that culture predominates or that political-economic power does not call the shots but the enduring wide role of culture differentiates Europe from America. Yet, limited by the growing lack of depth and sentiment and compassion of its economic-political system, Old Europe remains capitalist, imperialistic, greedy and avaricious. Or rather, its ruling orders, which set the moral tone, do.

Paradoxically and for the wrong reasons Berlusconi agrees: reason is “cold” and inhuman, he instructs, faith (in him) is “warm and human.” Therefore he hammers home the message that Italians should ignore reason and guide ourselves by faith in “Papi” Silvio and sing with him his hymn: Thank God for Silvio. In his rhetoric, all politicians except himself and his men are by nature false gods. He instead claims to speak in the name of “Italians”: Italians want this, Italians want that. His interviews, his talk shows, his public speeches are performances staged for the credulous who still believe. His mellifluous words are theater. Dishonest theatre. The reward for his followers is arrival. Parvenus at the pinnacle they have the right to vote in parliamentary immunity for themselves. Parliamentary immunity for two reasons: first of all to save their leader, Premier Berlusconi, from prosecution of crimes he committed to reach the top and to protect their brothers, the many deputies and senators already on trial or under judicial investigation for criminal offences.

Italy is truly where everyman’s home is truly his castle—“It’s my house and I can do what I please here … and the collective be damned!”—while the outside world is a great garbage dump. Where a major political accomplishment after Berlusconi was re-elected the last time was to clean the burning and smoking and stinking garbage from the streets of Naples before cholera broke out in order to fulfill at least one electoral campaign promise.

ITALY TODAY: THE END OF AN EPOCH

According to my Rizzoli Enciclopedia Universale the word “epoch” corresponds to a specific historical moment limited by certain important events, particular moments of human life, such as the epoch of Charlemagne or the epoch of the Crusades.

Italy is the object of this study, I, the subject. The procurator, the latter, the accused, the first. What, where, when, how, why, are the questions. Italy is Europe. But a “certain Europe,” partially concealed, garbled and grossly misrepresented on its lonely peninsula south of the protective Alps. If, as one says, Europe is not Europe without Italy, many Italians still believe that Italy, that archaic Italy, could somehow exist without Europe. Italy, my object is peculiar and forever different.

As Fascism and Silvio Berlusconi and the Vatican prove, the easy-to-control Italy, the land where lemon trees bloom, the beloved Italy of music and laughter and good food, has morphed into a land of bitter, skeptical people. Things have indeed changed in order to remain the same.

Italians find difficulty in thinking of themselves and their life in the abstract. Especially not their history. Because of their unruly rebellious nature, since the achievement of national unity 150 years ago they have required a powerful, visible and physical power to subject and govern them. Stewart-Steinberg writes about making Italians: “Whether this national trait has been understood critically or uncritically, whether it has even been conceived as a strategic necessity, has mattered less than the fact that it nevertheless has the effectiveness of a stereotype….It also dominates the analyses of contemporary critics who seek in the Italian propensity to visual, spectacular forms of power an explanation for Italy’s failed modernization, failed political revolution, and collapse into authoritarian, fascist solutions.”

The heroic seeker of the enigma Italy, the seeker of the authentic, is more often than not bound for the shark-infested reefs of failure.  Disillusionment awaits him, the disillusionment that lies in a no longer existent object, dissolved and disintegrated in a paroxysm of vanity, confusion and madness. For the tenacious seeker inevitably discovers that the object of his search is absent. And if not absent, then what remains is only a pale reflection of the original.

_____

MEDIOCRITY IS BEAUTIFUL. As much as Mastroianni, Gassman, the Carotenutos, and many other great actors of the neorealist classic period masterfully reflected the reality of Italy’s postwar, Roberto Begnini and his cloying middlebrow manipulative sentimentality is the “Italian” comic of today, beloved by many in the undiscerning American middle classes. (Still: A scene from Life is Beautiful.)

The Bel Paese of yore is today an imitation, a distorted reflection of itself. A reflection seen in a broken dirty mirror, in which left is right and right is left. The fun-loving, hospitable, sociable, affable, easy-going Italiano the world once loved is an extinct creature. What remains is a simulacrum. An imitation of himself of another epoch. A self that he himself detests..

A SAD HISTORY, A SAD DISCONTINUITY

After periods of mal-government, democratic people in democratic nations hope for socio-political discontinuity. Discontinuity in aims and means. Discontinuity in leadership. After war we hope for peace. After crisis we hope for stability. After corruption we hope for transparency. The contrary has happened in Italy, erasing the last vestiges of that lingering positive image of an Italy that perhaps never really existed.

This very Italian story is a long and different story, of a different land and different people. By the way, one might keep in mind that one Italian word for “story” is the same as the word for history: storia. Thus this Italian story is also Italian history. Italy is a strange, curious and sad land whose story is its own history. Its recent, politically young democracy staggers along mountain roads and totters on gaping precipices forever on the point of hurling itself headlong into the chasm. Its democracy is in question today. Its democracy has always been in question because it has never been clear where political power lies: in the legislature, in the magistracy or in the hands of the executive? Since the concept of the separation and balance of powers that coexist escapes typical Italian mentality that very doubt casts a web of never-ending uncertainty and instability over the land. Each power charges that democracy itself is endangered if its power is threatened. If executive power is limited in Italy, the tendency is to accuse the other two powers of conspiracy and betrayal of democracy. The real danger is when one of the three powers does NOT perform its duty. If the executive succeeds in crushing the other two powers, the struggle ends and he becomes a dictator. That in a nutshell is the dream of Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Laws of the Second Republic provide for virtual election by the people of its executive. In Italy that is extremely dangerous. For a populist executive elected by the people believes he is ordained to command. Threatened by legal proceedings for crimes ranging from bribery to corruption, Berlusconi constantly refers back to the people who elected him. To accuse him is to accuse Italy itself. His whole defense is built on the will of the people.

GAITHER STEWART is European Correspondent, based in Rome, for Cyrano’s Journal Online and Senior Editor with THE GREANVILLE POST. His career as a journalist and chronicler of our times spans several continents.

NOTES:

(1)

Though movies and television would like us to believe otherwise, it was very rare when gunfights occurred with the two gunfighterssquarely facing each other from a distance in a dusty street. This romanticized image of the Old West gunfight was born in the dime novels of the late 19th century and perpetuated in the film era, to such a point that this fictional version is what our mind’s eye quickly conjures up when we hear the word “gunfight.” In actuality, the “real” gunfights of the Old Westwere rarely that “civilized.” In fact, there are several misnomers about these “romaticised” gunfights, the first of which is that very rarely, did the gunfightersactually “plan” agunfight to occur, “calling out” their enemy for dueling action in the street. Instead, most of these many fights took place in the heat of the moment when tempers flared, and more often than not, with the aide of a little bottled courage. They also didn’t occur at a distance of 75 feet, with each gunfightertaking one shot, one falling dead to the ground, and the other standing as a “hero” before a dozen gathered onlookers. Instead, these fights were usually close-up and personal, with a number of shots blasted from pistols, often resulting in innocent bystanders hit by a bullet gone wild. Much of the time, it would be difficult to tell who had even “won” the gunfight for several minutes, as the black powder smoke from the pistols cleared the air.

6 comments on “GAITHER STEWART: IN SEARCH OF ITALY
  1. Totally, absolutely spot-on. I speak as an American who has visited Italy numerous times, and even married an Italian, as the author did. The Italy I knew in the 1970s and 80s, when I studied in Bologna and other points, is gone. All countries change, but in Italy the change has been away from her best. It’s tragedy for all civilized men (and women!).

    Boomer Cook, Barcelona

  2. Logan Wysmouth says:

    I much enjoyed your treatment of this complicated subject. Your take on the effects of inequality in Italy (which in my view triggered the huge emigration waves to the Americas, from Buenos Aires to New York) is well advised. Under the casino capitalism being injected by native “free marketers” the situation is sure to become much worse in Italy. That, too, is narrowly and broadly speaking (IMHO) a product of America’s noxious cultural and economic influence around the world, and the fact that the US continues to be the most reactionary, meddlesome, and misunderstood of the great powers. (On this more below)

    Your question is worth putting across in every debate with these laissez faire zealots: why is it that social democratic countries produce a far healthier society than Darwinian capitalist ones? And those are societies with what i would call “inhibited” socialist institutions in their midst, as the capitalists constantly work to sink and defund such islands of brotherhood, lest the concept be unanimously perceived as superior to their dog-eat-dog blueprint.

    I say the US is grossly “misunderstood” because many foreigners who never set foot in that country have swallowed the glowing propaganda about America whole, accepting the spurious vision of America dispensed by Hollywood and American tv, (and countless brainwashed Americans themselves) and therefore fail to realize that America is no social model to follow but to avoid. Many in Eastern Europe, for example, bought this vision and have lived to regret it.

    I apologise if this sounds too much like a generalisation. I lived in the U.S. for 27 years, and finally left, unable to operate in that culture much longer.

    Thank you again for a remarkable portrait of modern Italy. It’s sobering to see that even mature, politically sophisticated nations like Italy or France can be indoctrinated and swayed by the mass media.

    L.W., NSW

  3. Sus says:

    Very long article to get through, but I enjoyed it. The case of Italy is sad. That such a country could have fallen into the hands of such a crook (Berluscon), a coarse crook at that. But then again the American people had their George W Bush, a buffoon in some ways, but of the malignant sort. The world is in deep trouble because democracy is an illusion. It doesnt exist in America, Italy, France—nowhere. Just the power of the rich.

  4. Barnacle says:

    So what’s your solution? Take to the streets? It may soon come to that—probably elsewhere, but the mess will certainly reach these shores.

  5. Well done, Gaither, Italy which went through its own Pax Romana some time ago, whereby the colonies and the barbarians were brutally subjected to its power and converted to Roman justice, mores and culture, is now the colony that is suffering under Pax Americana. Plus ca change, plus ca reste le meme chose….

  6. “hello,
    This is about online payment.There is a massive change underway in the mobile media market as it becomes unshackled from the operators’ portals that have dominated it for a decade, all without having made any significant inroads into the content use of mobile users. The new capped data packages, fuelled by further competition, will see a total revamp of the mobile media market. It will no longer be based on portals but on direct services by content and services providers via open source phones and mobile-friendly Internet-based services. The next step is the continued emergence of m-commerce and in particular m-payment services. 
    regards
    hazz.hazz”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Categories

From Punto Press


PuntoPress_DisplayAd_REV

StatCounter

wordpress stats