Is Italy on the eve of a major political crisis? Is a change of regime, or perhaps even the birth of a new republic, imminent? President Francesco Cossiga, who has been quiet for years, is suddenly performing strange antics; Socialist leader Bettino Craxi waits in the wings, hoping for a change from the parliamentary to the presidential system; the Mafia, octopuslike, spreads its tentacles, while the northern leghe, or leagues, reveal both regional jingoism and mainly middle-class discontent; and everybody is fed up with partitocrazia, the paralyzing and permanent rule by the parties. No wonder that Rome is rife with rumors of an impending institutional upheaval.
On the other hand, there seems no imperative need for such a drastic solution. Admittedly, the two historic items on the national agenda–a unified European market by the end of 1992 and a common currency before the end of the millennium–are likely to prove a strain on the Italian economy, with its huge budget deficit and hefty public debt. But the capitalist establishment need not fear any dangerous resistance from the left. Why bother, then, to install authoritarian rule? As a pre-emptive strike to take advantage of the opposition’s present weakness? France now seems to have been “normalized,” along American lines [see Singer, “Socialism’s Setting Sun,” June 3]. Will it be Italy’s turn next? These were some of the puzzling problems I traveled to Italy to discuss with colleagues and political friends.
Mezzogiorno and Mafia
The first time I went to Rome was as a student; I hitchhiked from London. As we approached the Italian capital my Milanese truck driver pointed south and proclaimed with emphatic contempt, We are entering Africa! He was exaggerating, of course. The dividing line lay much farther south, and even beyond Naples it was not quite Africa. But he drew my attention to Italy’s “southern question,” to the existence of two countries within one nation, to the gap that still yawns after years of dizzy economic transformation.
Northern Italy is very much part of prosperous Western Europe. It shows in conspicuous consumption–and not only in the big cities. On a recent visit to such smaller towns as Verona and Vigevano, a shoemaking center south of Milan, I was struck by the number of luxurious boutiques reminiscent of Bond Street, the Faubourg St. Honoré or the poshest stretch of Fifth Avenue. Helped no doubt by tax evasion, the local upper classes must have plenty of money to spend. Admittedly, there is no shortage of money in the South either: State subsidies poured down the Southern drain were not lost for everybody, and the Mafia offers its own rewards. But the difference remains striking. The South’s per capita product is barely more than half the North’s, while the unemployment rate, at 21 percent, 1s more than three times as high. (This, incidentally, is a topical lesson the East Germans–and Eastern Europeans in general–should ponder before they swallow the message of the Harvard hustlers.) In Italy the gap is in fact even worse than the figures suggest because of the damage wrought by the secret societies.