From Luigi Barzini’s The Europeans

The second half of the 20th century was not exactly the golden age of letters. Yet across the face of this wide Sahara one great canyon cuts like a scar—an Everest in reverse, a terrestrial Marianas, a vast sun-baked trench carved by some unimaginable natural harrow into the parched gravel of an already-bleak century.

I refer, of course, to the 1980s. In my opinion, this decade produced exactly one artistic achievement that will stand the test of time: Skinny Puppy. And in letters? Though we may never know why, in the ’80s it was easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a camel than for anyone to write a decent book. Even Hunter Thompson was unmanned by the age—I mean, really, The Curse of Lono?

So it’s with some surprise that I present this selection from Luigi Barzini’s The Europeans—copyright, 1983. The exception is easy to explain. Barzini, a hereditary aristocrat of Italian liberal journalism, was no parbaked Boomer, but a man of the Interbellum. Moreover, the effort must have exhausted the old lion—he seems to have died in 1984.

Before we read Barzini, we need to be clear on the context: Barzini was no reactionary, nor even a conservative. He was a liberal, an Anglophile and Americanist, educated at Columbia, and an unabashed fan of European unification under American political traditions. But he was a liberal of the old world—a considerably looser straitjacket than the word at present implies. Moreover, when he wrote The Europeans he was neither young nor dense, and Conquest’s law had done its usual work.

Here is a passage from his chapter on Italy. (UR readers may also enjoy Barzini’s The Italians, the work from which I learned that Garibaldi didn’t unite Italy—he divided Africa.) Note how remarkably open Barzini is about who actually called, and calls, the shots in postwar Europe. He was certainly in a position to know.

So: a snapshot of history, not without some contemporary relevance. I have taken the liberty of adding a few paragraph breaks for readability on teh Intertubes.

Miscalculations, sometimes irreparable, are also constantly made by foreigners in their estimates of the Italian political and economic perspectives. Inevitably, cures for Italian ills based on authoritative diagnoses, cures that might be excellent for other countries, are disastrously wrong.

In the late fifties and early sixties, when the Italian economy was enjoying a boom and political problems were being gradually solved, save one, the Communist threat, foreign specialists decided the only hope for the country was not what common sense would have recommended, the strengthening of the coalition of center parties, which, with American help, had rapidly reconstructed the country after the war (all efficient governments are, whatever they call themselves, center governments). Foreign experts thought that a new Center-Left government would be the right medicine, a coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists.

It must be honestly pointed out that, as usual, these foreigners were deceived by Italian words, which seldom mean exactly what they seem to say. Italian Socialists of that generation were not what these people imagined. They were also very dissimilar from the Italian Socialists of today. They were then incredibly behind the times. Most of them were verbal extremists. Many clung to the 1870 myths of La Commune and to the excessive impossible hopes of the beginning of this century, some were Anarcho-Syndicalists, others were pure anarchists and a few were terrorists at heart. They believed the economy was the only motor of history but knew almost nothing about economics. They were openly pro-Communist, resigned to accept Soviet leadership in international affairs, resigned also to see the Italian Communists take power, and worked strenuously to help them destroy what was left of the bourgeois liberal state. The secretary of the party, Francesco de Martino, repeatedly threatened: “We’ll nationalize everything in the country except barber shops.” (The odd exception was probably because Professor de Martino, being Neapolitan, presumably did not use a razor, but like most middle-aged southerners, was shaved every afternoon after the siesta by a friendly barber, whose autonomy from the state he was understandably determined to preserve for the safety of his own hirsute jowls.) […] The plan to form a Center-Left coalition was first conceived by Italian politicians for many different reasons of their own, but also custom-designed to seduce the Americans, without whose approval and backing the Italians curiously believed it could not be carried out. The Americans immediately saw in it a wonderful way to fulfill their double vocation: the pragmatic one of leaving no problem unsolved and their missionary obligation to spread democracy and improve everything in sight.

They spared neither effort nor money to implement the plan as quickly as possible. They thought it was the only way to cure all the Italian ills at once, so why wait? It would strengthen the decaying state; check rampant corruption; generally enforce law and order; defeat the Mafia, the Camorra, and the emboldened unattached criminals; discourage the class struggle; decrease the number of ruinous strikes; swell production and imports; slow down inflation; levitate the standard of living; and as a result, encourage domestic and foreign investments.

Above all, they believed it to be a certain way to isolate and weaken the pro-Soviet Communists, by depriving them of their Socialist vassals, and free Italy once and for all from the menace of a totalitarian takeover. A Soviet-dominated peninsula cutting the Mediterranean in half obviously would have thrown all NATO plans and the security of the United States itself into disarray. […] The plan might possibly have produced in some other country all the wonderful effects the Americans expected. In unpredictable Italy, it produced the exact contrary. It was estimated that in the end the plan cost as much as a lost war and retarded social and economic progress for at least one generation. Its failure also came from external circumstances, to be sure, the rise in the price of oil, the revolt of the young and the workers in the late sixties, but was principally due to the wrong diagnosis. The state (what was left of it after twenty years of arbitrary dictatorship and a crushing military defeat) practically collapsed under the burden of a vastly enlarged number of new tasks, some of them admittedly useful and necessary, but with which the bureaucracy, such as it was, was absolutely unprepared to cope. Among them was the enforcement of some of the most ambitious and intricate legislation ever passed outside Byzantium.

Furthermore, the Christian Democrats and the Socialists, who had considered with hostility the secular liberal democratic state since its inception in 1861, joyfully kept on dismantling it. Too late they realized it had become an indispensable tool, not only to govern in the ordinary way, but above all to carry out any left-wing policy, which notoriously relies on an ever-increasing state intervention in every sector of the economy. Corruption grew to Levantine proportions. The police were demoralized, paralyzed, and ordered not to use their weapons even when attacked.

Only after Aldo Moro was kidnapped and killed did the more responsible politicians in power begin to realize that the dismantling of law-enforcement agencies did not harm their “class enemies” alone but was detrimental for the whole country and could be mortally dangerous for each of them. Law and order were violated by everybody as a matter of course with impunity; even sedate elderly drivers allowed themselves to cross red lights. Bank robberies and kidnappings of well-to-do gentlemen proliferated. Terrorists dynamited trains, cars, and office buildings and murdered innocent people almost every day. Every request of the trade unions was immediately granted without discussion. The endemic riots, the perennial strikes, the occupation of factories, and the continuous threats of universal nationalizations discouraged new investments. Capital surreptitiously fled the country in vast quantities. Production slowed down and sometimes came unexpectedly, without a reason, to a standstill in many plants. The state deficit, incredibly, grew higher than that of the U.S. federal government, and the inflation rate threatened to reach South American levels. The “economic miracle” of the fifties became but a nostalgic memory, a lost golden age.

Finally the Communists, who, deprived of their Socialist vassals and isolated in their ghetto, were supposed to wither away, acquired instead an all-pervading tentacular influence they had never previously enjoyed or hoped for. They seduced or terrorized the intelligentsia, more or less controlled schools, universities, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, all means of communications, and through the trade unions, the economic life of the country. They infiltrated the bench and the bureaucracy. Many Italians, who were not convinced Communists, saw the way the wind was turning, and prudently, resignedly behaved as if they were true believers, naturally with the neophyte’s fanatic zeal, somewhat as their fathers had done as Blackshirts. Democratic opponents to the Center-Left, who did not fully trust the government’s programs and still thought the Communists a possible threat to freedom, somehow found themselves without jobs or occupying obscure positions inferior to their capacities. As a result many bright and ambitious young men emigrated to countries where advancement was based on merit and not political affiliation. One Italian writer I know changed language to make a living.

The Communists’ source of power was principally their capacity to stage riots anywhere at any time. The party had money enough to organize noisy and turbulent mass meetings a few blocks from the seat of the government by concentrating hundreds of buses and dozens of special trains on Rome within days. It could also paralyze the whole country overnight by means of general strikes, brutally enforced by strong-arm squads. Sometimes the party did not have to do anything. Threats were enough, veiled threats in Unità leading articles, in a speech in Parliament, or even unspoken threats. The saying went at the time that the Christian Democrats could do nothing that displeased the Socialists, the Socialists could do nothing that displeased the Communists, and, in the end, even if the Communists did not always get all they wanted, nothing could be decided that they did not like. Some of the most controversial laws were in fact passed with their votes or thanks to their abstention.

The idea that the Center-Left coalition could best defend the people’s liberty from the Communists was best criticized by Giovanni Malagodi, parliamentary leader of the handful of democratic opposition deputies, with these words, “You are making the same mistake the Romans made at the end. They entrusted part of the defense of the empire to Germanic tribes, related by blood, customs and religion to the Germanic tribes pressing on the border.”

Specialists in Italian affairs (diplomats, journalists, and professors of international relations in the best universities) were frightened by what they had helped to bring about. They concluded the country was hopelessly, incurably sick, as sick as Imperial China or the Ottoman Empire on their last legs, ready for extreme unction. They saw it correctly as rudderless, irreparably torn by irreconcilable social strife, led by weak, incompetent politicians, and drifting toward final bankruptcy and collapse, or at best, a totalitarian police regime on the Soviet model. They had to conclude that the Center-Left coalition, while inspired by the best intentions and based on sound information, had been a costly mistake that had produced more terrifying problems than it had solved, possibly only because its aims were too high and because it had been set up before the country was ready for it.

The Italians surprised them again. Like the soldiers at Castelfidardo and along the Piave, they refused to lie down and die. To be sure, most of the large basic industries and utilities, state-owned or controlled, managed by political appointees, packed for electoral reasons with superfluous workers who could not be fired, lost enormous sums of money yearly, some of them larger sums than their capital.

To be sure the small and medium private industries could not really save the country forever, but they proliferated and flourished, for a few years anyway. They invented new products, improved old ones, and exported them all over the world. Many specialized dangerously in chic luxury goods—fashions, shoes, leather goods—which, being dispensable, could mean that their customers would vanish in a depression, but others managed to beat the competitors in manufacturing advanced necessary products that would sell well in all seasons. Italian design triumphed everywhere. The wines beat their French competitors in the United States. The more expensive handmade cars dominated the playboys’ market. Films found a vast international public. Olivetti carved itself an honorable place in the world of electronic office machines. Italian companies, freed abroad from their legal entanglements, built dams, roads, bridges, airports, canals, ports, railroads, new cities, hospitals, hotels and universities all over the Third World. One firm even won the bids for a section of the New York subway. One man I met on a plane told me he built museums dedicated to local art in many newly created African republics and filled their showcases with admirable wooden sculptures and textiles that were made in Florence at his direction. The genuine ancient local product, he discovered, was scarce and hard to find. Made of wood or ephemeral fibers, it deteriorated beyond repair. The Florentine artifacts were much more satisfactory.

As a result of the well-intentioned but suffocating new legislation and of the paralyzing, ill-informed pressure of trade unions, old-fashioned piece-work was revived. Naples exported five million pairs of gloves a year, in spite of the fact that there was not one glove factory in the city. Most of the shoe industry, which practically came to dominate the world, was similarly organized. The majority of these enterprises kept diligently within the law, and paid their taxes and social security contributions in full. [MM: yeah, right.] The village of Castel Giubileo, near Mantua, which produced pantyhose at extremely low prices; Brescia, where iron rods for reinforced concrete works were made much more cheaply than anywhere else; and other similar towns were inspected by suspicious Common Market functionaries who found nothing amiss. […] The experts were astounded. Once again it seemed Italy had saved itself in its own inscrutable way, without any public explanation or scientific exegesis foreigners could study. There were no reliable statistics. In fact the only way economists could estimate the growth of the gross national product was by comparing the yearly figures for the consumption of electric power. They concluded once again that Italy was an unpredictable country sui generis, which reached the brink but then somehow always managed to avoid definitive ruin and national dissolution. How did the Italians do it? What was their secret?

I visited Francesco Saverio Nitti at the end of World War II, shortly after he had returned to Rome from exile. A democratic liberal, considered one of the more authoritative intellectual opponents of the Fascist regime, second only to Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci, he had spent the years of banishment in Paris, on the Rive Gauche, reading, writing, and thinking. He was one of the wisest, most intelligent, clear-eyed, and skeptical Italians alive. He was a revered scholar, the author of important books on politics and economics, a professor of finance at the University of Naples. He had been prime minister during some of the bloodiest and most turbulent years after the first war, from June 1919 until June 1920.

The Fascists hated him because he had kept his head, reorganized the forces of order, tried to enforce the law impartially and to strengthen the authority of the state. They contemptuously called him by a scatological nickname, “Cagoia,” and depicted him as a fat pig in their cartoons. The real reason for this hostility was the character of the man. He did not allow mass emotions to dictate his decisions, never tried to please the crowd, did not share (or make believe that he shared, as others did) the fanatical nationalist dreams that then flattered many people, consoled them in their misery, and assuaged their incoherent fears. Above all he seldom hesitated to call things by their ugly names and to announce unpleasant but necessary truths.

I went to see him because I hoped he, in his old age, had reached fundamental and definitive truths about Italian life, the laws governing it, and could explain to me why our countrymen, sober, cautious and realistic in their private affairs, could at times join demented political mass movements (Fascist yesterday and Communist after the war) and sometimes seemed to rush blindly, like lemmings, toward collective catastrophe and annihilation. I wanted him to tell me whether it was possible to figure Italians out and whether there was hope for them, one day, to govern themselves undramatically, reasonably, diligently, economically and prudently; why they so often preferred to be led by quacks; why so many of them were always looking for miraculous formulas, instant cures, and shortcuts; and why men like him were seldom entrusted with power and lost it quickly when they were.

Nitti was a small, round-bellied, bald man, not unlike, I must respectfully admit, the cartoonists’ pig, so small a man his feet barely touched the ground when he was seated. His eyes were small and bright, as bright as gems. He shook with laughter at my questions. I remember his answer exactly. His was not, of course, an all-compassing answer, a panorama of Italian history, an essay on the people’s psychology, which would have taken hours or days, but an epigram of only a few words, by which he probably invited me to explore on my own the many ancient causes of our national curse.

This is what he said: “Gli italiani sono stati ubbriacati di bugie per cento cinquanta anni.” (“Italians have been made drunk with lies for one hundred and fifty years.”)

I thought I knew what he meant. First of all, he was a Southerner, born in Melfi in Basilicata in 1868, and his bitterness represented the desperate disappointment of his countrymen from the old kingdom of Naples, who had felt swindled by history, deceived by “lies.” After the unification, in 1861, they had seen most of their hopes of cultural, social, and economic advancement shattered. The South had been shamefully neglected, they thought, had sunk into even more dismal poverty, lost the small dignity of its independence and proud local traditions without finding a suitable role in the new nation. Thousands of its rebellious peasants, led by fanatical legitimists, had been summarily slaughtered after the unification by the new Italian army, in a war of Vendean ruthlessness; millions more had been driven by hunger and despair to emigrate. At the same time, the North had begun timidly to develop industries and had known a modest prosperity.

The figure “one hundred and fifty,” while slightly inexact (it should have been “one hundred and forty-seven”) was also revealing. It evidently referred to the unfortunate short-lived republic, the Parthenopean Republic, set up in Naples by a small educated elite of liberal “patriots” (as they called themselves, loyal, that is, to their country and not to their sovereign), based on the principles of the American and French revolutions. Its weakness was the fact that it had been created, or rather, imposed on the people with the help of the French revolutionary army which had invaded the kingdom. The people, peasants, priests, soldiers, landowners, aristocrats, and cautious bourgeois, considered it the invention of the devil, a sacrilegious foreign importation, and fought it as they had fought the invaders. The idealistic founders were tried for treason and hanged by the Bourbon king as soon as he had been brought back to Naples from Sicily by the English fleet. Which were the “lies” at the time, I wondered, the radiant but premature delusions of the “patriots” or the anachronistic myths that surrounded the Neapolitan monarchy and preserved it for another sixty-one years?

“Lies” presumably also were the grandiose expectations aroused by the Risorgimento, which, like the Center-Left coalition a century later, was supposed to cure all Italian ills, solve all problems, produce wealth, spread literacy, transform all the people into democratic and well-behaved North Europeans, and open the road to national greatness and prosperity. United Italy turned out not to be exactly what many people had imagined, the people who had conspired, suffered jail and exile, fought and died. The final result was a rickety, divided, shabby, impoverished and backward nation, yet one that wasted its miserable resources trying to impersonate one of the world’s great powers.

Among the victims of such “lies” (which surely were not lies for them) had been the good Italian citizens, a minority, Nitti among them. Their Italy, the country they loved and served, tried with some success to prod its reluctant inhabitants toward the modern world, democracy, incipient industrialization, progress in many fields, and also managed to win the First World War. But this Italy was also one of Nitti’s “lies,” a thin papier-mache structure, the eggshell holding the national Humpty-Dumpty together, a make-believe country that never obtained the complete wholehearted support of all its incredulous citizens.

The biggest of Nitti’s “lies” surely were the myths of Fascist propaganda. The regime had created an imaginary Spartan country, in which all men had to make believe they were heroic soldiers, all women Roman matrons, all children Balilla (the Genoa street urchin who started a revolt against the Austrian garrison in 1746 by throwing one stone). This was done by means of slogans, flags, stirring speeches from balconies, military music, mass meetings, parades, dashing uniforms, medals, hoaxes, and constant distortions of reality. The Italians woke up too late from their artificial dream, those still alive, that is, hungry, desperate, discredited, the object of derision, cornuti e mazziati, or “cuckolded and beaten up,” governed as in the past by contemptuous foreigners in a country of smoking ruins and decaying corpses, from which most things detachable had been stolen and women raped.

But why were lies so necessary in Italian life? That, of course, was the problem. Nitti did not even try to explain.

Anglo-Americans, of course, are not Italians. Which may be fortunate—because we have been ubbriacati di bugie not for a piddling century and a half, but more like four hundred. Or at least three hundred. Moreover, despite this remarkable career of intoxication, we have never become so ubbriacati that we couldn’t hold our bugie.

Or even export them—for instance, to Italy. Hey, Tony! If you like our “diplomats, journalists, and professors of international relations in the best universities,” you’ll love our cars…