Life in the land of nods, winks and little shrugs

Italy and its Discontents
September 27, 2002

Although Paul Ginsborg's account of Italian political and social life over the past 20 years is clearly presented, well documented and politically impartial, it nevertheless fails to paint a true picture.

Ginsborg, a professor of European history at the University of Florence, begins by describing Italy's rise to a major world economy, the key role of service industry and small firms and the relative failure of large firms, the public sector and agriculture. Income distribution and increased social mobility have had their most dramatic effects on the working classes, making them wealthier but weakening their sense of collective identity. This, he says, has radically transformed the traditional Italian household, increasing individuals' freedom and producing a boom in cultural activities and travel. Clientelism, "familism" and the Roman Catholic church emerge as part of a legacy that has shaped relations between individuals and civil society.

The bulk of the book maps the progress of political events through the kaleidoscopic succession of 22 governments from 1980 to 2001, notably: the rise of Silvio Berlusconi and Forza Italia; Antonio di Pietro and "Operation Clean Hands"; the P2 Masonic lodge scandal; the murders of anti-Mafia heroes Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino; the rise and fall of Bettino Craxi; seven-time prime minister Giulio Andreotti's trials for Mafia involvement; and the arrival of Umberto Bossi and the Northern League separatists.

Particularly noteworthy is Ginsborg's coverage of Gladio, an Italian military secret service organisation created by agreement with the CIA in 1956 as a "stay-behind" force that underwent CIA training and direction until Andreotti was forced to recognise its existence in 1990. Ginsborg rightly rejects the official version that it was simply a measure against possible foreign invasion on the basis of strong evidence that it was in reality an instrument of surveillance and possible action against internal political enemies.

And in relating Craxi's handling of the Palestinian hijacking of the Achille Lauro liner in 1985, Ginsborg supports his refusal to hand over the terrorists to the US government, correctly noting the added strain on US relations, given Craxi's prior sympathies with Palestine.

It would be interesting to reconsider in this light Craxi's political isolation and savage treatment by di Pietro (at one stage alleged to have been backed by the CIA) and the flow of unexplained destabilising acts in the 1980s and 1990s, including bombings that were readily attributed to the Mafia and Red Brigade.

On the other hand, Ginsborg's ingenuous disappointment that "Clean Hands" did not revolutionise politics in Italy starkly exposes his limitations in understanding how the country really works. Italians knew that it would only be a matter of time before everything was brought under control and back to "normal".

The book's serious defect, however, is the author's curious decision to sweeten his story by systematically omitting important truths at key points, seriously distorting the overall picture. In this he has unconsciously performed a priceless public relations service for the Italian state.

Thus, clientelism, one of the principal forces that govern Italian society, is dangerously semi-legitimised by Ginsborg within an anthropological perspective and summarily dismissed. And his account of corruption is mostly limited to the 1992 "Bribesville" political scandal and to the Mafia. The reader is given little idea of the appalling damage that is caused daily by socially accepted corruption in Italian public and private life, obliging those who wish to make an honest living and be judged on merit to emigrate.

Similarly, Ginsborg glosses over criminal accusations against Berlusconi, making no mention of the fact that he was actually given three prison sentences totalling six years and five months (which he did not serve because of the statutory law of time limitations). Nor does he consider the grave implications of Berlusconi's claim that he was victimised by the Italian judiciary since, logically, either Italy has a prime minister who is both a criminal and a liar or else a large number of Italian magistrates should be sent to an appropriate European court for trial.

Disappointingly, he has little to say about Italian universities, authoritatively described by the late, great art critic Federico Zeri in 1998 as "one of Italy's three biggest cancers" (the other two being bureaucracy and the Roman Catholic church). Coverage of the Vatican, again superficial, fails to mention its furious ongoing battle over embryo research and medically assisted procreation.

Ginsborg's omissions extend to other areas. For example, he might have found space for natural disasters and their socio-political consequences, including the customary embezzlement of funds intended for the victims, as happened in the Umbria and Marche earthquakes in 1997, which killed ten people, injured 500 and saw 13,000 housed in tents, or the landslide in Campania in 1998, which killed 100.

An earlier, Italian version of the book has already been widely adopted in Italy's state schools for reasons that should be fairly obvious. One hopes that students of contemporary history and Italian at schools and universities in Britain and elsewhere will be spared similar indoctrination.

Domenico Pacitti is Italy editor of the Brussels-based magazine World Parliamentarian . He has taught at the University of Pisa since 1985.

Italy and its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State 1980-2001

Author - Paul Ginsborg
ISBN - 0 713 99537 8
Publisher - Allen Lane, The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 521

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