Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Ordine and Ordini

My hobby is Italian politics.

In the Autumn of 1990, wee Mo and I were on holiday in Piacenza, where she had taught English for two years before we met. There was, at the time, a by-election pending in Paisley, my home town, and I was, in a very machiavellian way, trying to be the Labour Candidate without appearing to be interested in the post. As it transpired, I was not Machiavelli.

I was nonetheless amazed by the reaction of our Italian friends to the possibility that I might become a "Deputato". Hands were shaken, and congratulations offered on my anticipated future. For, to be an elected politician was welcomed by them  not as an opportunity to bring about political change but rather as a certain guarantee of my own personal financial good fortune.

This was of course before the "Mani Puliti" outrage that for, just a moment, seemed to promise a better and cleaner politics. What emerged however was "Forza Italia", under the dominating figure of Silvio Berlusconi, and the offer of the illusion of change.

Since that time however I have taken a recreational interest in Italian Politics. Its more interesting than train-spotting, at least to me.

Italy loves illusion. Berlusconi held himself out as an Italian Thatcher, relentlessly moderrnising the sclerotic Italian Public Sector. In fact he behaved in office as a man as immersed in clientism as any of the worst of the Christian Democrats. The only changes that he would accomplish were those in the interests of his own business interests and those of his closest personal and political allies.

But he carried this off nonetheless not truly because of the ineptitude of the left opposition, or even because of his dominance of the Media, but rather because the Italians bought into the illusion in a sort of mass hysteria or group think that simply did not want to hear the increasing voices inside and outside Italy, insisting that this could not go on forever.

It is regarded as bad taste to make reference to Mussolini when discussing modern Italy. Mussolini was however a much more complex figure than one to be forever condemned (as he ought to be) by the Pact of Steel. But he was always also a master of illusion, indeed self-delusion.

The crowds who mobbed the Piazza Venezia to hail the declaration of war on France in Britain, did so in the genuine but wholly erroneous belief that Italy was equipped to fight that war BECAUSE IT LOOKED LIKE IT WAS.

And, indeed, amongst other things, Italy at the declaration of war boasted a quite beautiful array of capital warships. The problem was that that was all they were; beautiful. There armour plating was wholly inadequate; their crews, although magnificently attired, hopelessly undertrained and undersupplied; and the plan for their strategic deployment totally non-existent. Within 18 months almost all of this fleet lay on the bottom of the Mediterranean.

Italy had been there before of course, throughout the debacle of 1848 and the collapse of 1917. Regrettably no lessons had been learned.

Now we live today in Europe in much more fortunate times. Italian illusions today are exposed not with death but with financial disaster.

It has been clear for as long as anyone can remember that the related factors of a declining birth rate and an ageing population demanded serious reform of the notoriously generous Italian Pension system. Berlusconi himself acknowledged that. But he offered not real change but only the illusion of change. It was also clear for a similar period that a major advanced economy could not tolerate the proportion of economic activity conducted without any form of state supervision or tax collection. Again however, Berlusconi only really even pretended to be doing anything about this, largely for external consumption, while nodding and winking to his many domestic supporters steeped in such activity. And it was clear that the restrictive practices of the "Ordini" were wholly incompatible with either the meritocratic society or the open European Economy that Berlusconi purported to support. But real reform was always just beyond his grasp, postponed "a domani".

This was always, one day, going to end in tears and the Euro was ultimately only the catalyst in that process. But the Euro is also mechanism which will guarantee that the Italian Economy cannot be refloated on a sea of illusion, any more than the Warships on the seabed of the bay of Taranto.

The Italians are in the end serious Europeans. The idea that they will leave the Euro is inconceivable. In the end the neccessary sacrifices will be made as they were in the late Forties and Fifties, leading to the Italian growth rate being the best in Europe in the 1960s.

The irony is that this will almost certainly only be possible under a Government of Technocrats, immune to illusion but believed by the people. The Left is simply in no condition to fulfil that role and, in respect of a significant minority, not even greatly interested in doing so. It is sometimes joked that the British Labour Party prefers opposition to government. In Italy for a significant part of the PD and all of the Rifondazione, that genuinely appears to be the case. It is bizarre however that the Italian people will only be prepared to believe in, and accept, the need for action if they are told it by someone other than politicians. And that the Left would be happier to protest against that action, whatever it is, rather than to have some role in shaping it.

There is at least economic material to work with. Italian private personal debt is much lower than that of the UK and personal savings much higher (an important factor when considering the weathering of of austerity and the ability to raise domestic capital). In value added products such as fashion and design, Italy remains a world leader. The Transport infrastructure is magnificent and even the climate a significant God given economic benefit.

The real tragedy of this is that not that the Italians wont  sort all of this; they will and the good times will return. No, the tragedy is that, unless there is a change in the national character, at some point in the future, in some way as yet unforseen, it will all happen again.

That's the consequence of obsession with the bella figura.

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