The Italians - A Full-length Portrait Featuring Their Manners And Morals, by Luigi Barzini Jr, who distinguished “the two Italies:” the one that created and nurtured such luminaries as Dante Alighieri, St. Thomas of Aquino, and Leonardo da Vinci; the other, feeble and prone to catastrophe, backward in political action if not in thought, “invaded, ravaged, sacked, and humiliated in every century.”
Unfortunately, the book, which appeared a few days ago in Italian translation (Forza, Italia. Come ripartire dopo Berlusconi), has not yet been published in English. But the first chapter of the English (original) version is available to be read here—and that’s where I’m quoting from.
The Bad Italy is not Italy at all, but it is certainly Italian. It is not Italy because it is all about selfishness. It starts of course with corruption and criminality, but is better described as the urge to seek power in order to abuse it for self‐interested purposes, to amass power to reward friends, family, bag carriers and sexual partners regardless of merit or ability, and by doing so to build clans and other networks that are beholden to you, and that live by enriching themselves at the expense of others, by closing doors rather than opening them, by excluding rather than including.
This Bad Italy can best be compared to a parasite or, worse, a cancer. It is not a cancer that spreads and kills quickly, but one that grows bit by bit, gradually weakening its host. Certainly, that cancer has been spreading in recent years, flouting the hopes of many, both outside and inside Italy, that after Tangentopoli it would recede. It did recede, for a while, but then, facilitated and inspired from the very top of government, it has spread again. No one with their eyes open can honestly claim otherwise. But to say so is not to say that everything is hopeless.
If the Bad Italy is supreme, how is it that an Italian became the world’s youngest ever three‐Michelin‐star chef at the age of 27, or that the country is so rich in entrepreneurs despite the known difficulties in starting a business? How can Italy still have been the world’s fifth‐largest manufacturer in 2009 (after the US, China, Japan and Germany, in that order, according to a study by IHS Global Insight, an economic consultancy1), if it is being destroyed by Chinese competition? How can the “Eurostar” trains on which I have been travelling round the country be so much more comfortable and punctual than English ones (even if they are not really any faster)?
If it is all hopeless, how can I have encountered Italian companies leading the world in selling fitness equipment, sunglasses, cashmere clothing, light aircraft and much else besides, or new anti‐Mafia movements, or towns that have found new post‐industrial life or have pushed out the criminals, or Venice’s extraordinary flood‐control scheme, or journalists willing and able to tell the truth about what has been going on? It is plainly not an easy struggle, nor always a winning one. But the Good Italy is there, fighting away.
I am not just seeing a few rays of light in a dark cave, as if I was pointing out that Saddam Hussein was really a good family man or that there is some spark of creativity in North Korea. The Good Italy is more than that, much more.
For that is where the Good Italy resides, in moral sentiments, fellowfeeling, but also a spirit of openness, a desire for progress and modernity, a desire with Smith for “the wealth of nations” not just the wealth of individuals and groups. Over the centuries, it seems to me, this Good Italy has battled regularly against the Bad Italy, trying to beat back the cancerous efforts to eat away at excellence, at quality, at merit, at justice, at fairness, at truth itself. If it had failed, Italy really would not exist.
So I decided to look for the Good Italy, and to try see what can be done to make it stronger. The confidence to do this grew and grew as I began to find and talk to young people who turned out to be open minded, positive in attitude, connected to the world, and dedicated to changing things for the better.
What to say? Although not really new, as I already said, this book is worth reading. Unlike Luigi Barzini’s The Italians, written in 1964, the Italy described by Emmott is not anymore one of poverty and illiteracy. Hence, perhaps, its cautious, but palpable, optimism:
People have often remarked that Italy is an economic and political creature that should not in principle be capable of flying but does, one that breaks all the normal rules of economic aerodynamics, rather like a Bumble Bee.
They then devote their time to working out how it does so. I think that analogy is wrong. It reflects a mistaken view that there is some standard model for success as an economy and society, some formula that everyone must follow. Yet a mere lance at the world shows that this is not really true or at least meaningful, for there are vast differences between France and America, Japan and Britain, Italy and China, all of which have succeeded in achieving great progress, despite their diversities.
This country has become one of the richest in the world, one of the greatest in the world, thanks to the success of the Good Italy in overcoming the dead‐weight, the burden of the Bad, especially in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The reason why Italy does fly, why it doesn’t tumble tragically to the ground, is that the Good Italy stops it from crashing, by fighting back against the Bad, by pushing back the line between the two—sometimes, admittedly, only just in time.
It could happen again. If you want it to.