Masque Of Folly: Politically and ideologically, Italy's parliamentary elections resembled the sort of riotous carnivals for which Italian cities became notorious during the Eighteenth Century. Everybody was in costume; every face was masked; nothing was as it seemed; and the whole mad procession was presided over by an impious spirit of misrule.
WHAT’S WITH THE ITALIANS? Viewed from the perspective of a country located about as far from Italy as it is possible to get on a spherical planet, its people appear to have taken leave of their senses. Politically and ideologically, last Sunday’s parliamentary elections resembled the sort of riotous carnivals for which Italian cities became notorious during the Eighteenth Century. Everybody was in costume; every face was masked; nothing was as it seemed; and the whole mad procession was presided over by an impious spirit of misrule.
There is, however, justification for Italy’s apparent madness. What happened on Sunday was the Italian electorate’s entirely understandable response to a corrupt political class which, for the past 70 years, has perfected ever-more outrageous strategies for preventing ordinary Italians from getting what they want.
For more than 40 years Italy was ruled by a single political party, the Christian Democrats, which, in collusion with the country’s leading capitalists, the Catholic Church and organised crime bosses, kept the United States happy by preventing the powerful Communist Party of Italy (the largest communist party in the western world) from taking power democratically.
Oh, yes, we of the English-speaking countries like to joke about the revolving door of Italian politics and its seemingly endless procession of jowly, horn-rimmed bespectacled prime ministers. Less is said, however, about the corruption and manipulation basic to the perpetuation of a permanent anti-communist political regime dedicated to thwarting the aspirations of the Italian working-class.
Certainly, we English-speakers have witnessed nothing-like the exercise unleashed by the Italian magistracy following the collapse of the Soviet Union (and with it the credibility of communism) in 1991. The so-called “Mani Pulite” (Clean Hands) investigations brought to book so many senior members of the Italian political class – most especially the leaders of the anti-communist parties – that people began to refer to the world of politics as “Tangentopoli” (Bribesville) and wondered whether there was even one honest official left in the whole country.
The answer to that question appeared to be “No”. Because “Bribesville”, in the person of Italy’s “Mr Media” – Silvio Berlusconi – struck back at the “Clean Hands” investigations, accusing Italy’s relentless magistrates of wearing “red robes” (i.e. of being pawns of the Communist Party).
Berlusconi’s genius was to gather together against the Left all that was historically disreputable in Italian society: the defensive conservatism of the Italian family; the clientelism fundamental to making one’s way in Italian society; the disdain of Italy’s “civilised” northern provinces for the people of Italy’s “undeveloped” south; and, most worryingly, the resurgent ideology of Italian fascism. “Forza Italia” (Go Italy!) was the Christian Democracy Party reborn as a combination of football supporters club and anti-political crusade.
Did right-wing Italians know that Berlusconi was conning them? Of course they did. But, being conned was preferable to finally facing-up to Italy’s all-too-obvious economic and social decline, and the political putrefaction at the heart of its national life.
As a strategy for defeating the Italian Left it was nothing short of brilliant. To succeed, left-wing parties require an electorate which believes fervently in the possibility of a better future. By the time Berlusconi was finally forced from office, that crucial pre-requisite had been pummelled into a pervasive and despairing cynicism about all forms of political engagement. Increasingly, Italian politics was driven by the issues that most enraged the electorate: illegal immigration; the redistribution of the north’s wealth to the impoverished south; the growth of an unaccountable political bureaucracy more responsive to the urgings of Brussels than Rome; the inability of anybody to actually change anything.
Small wonder, then, that a shady stand-up comedian, Beppe Grillo, has pushed his Internet-based “Five Star Movement” to the front of the political pack. Or that “The League” – formerly the Northern League – has surged ahead of Forza Italia by promising to drive 600,000 illegal immigrants into the sea. Or that the parties of Italy’s increasingly decrepit status-quo have been soundly beaten. Or that there is currently no reasonable prospect of Italy’s mutually allergic political parties coming together to form any sort of responsible government.
Fittingly, it was the Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci, who penned the best description of Italy’s predicament: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 March 2018.