How Italy Is Adjusting

“My friend, the only true fortunetellers are the judges: when they send you down for 30 years, you can be sure they’ve made a pretty accurate prediction of your future.”

El Viejo laughs and asks for only his nickname to be used. He is nearly 70, has been convicted of crimes linked to drug smuggling for one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world and has three passports — Italian, American and Venezuelan. In other words, he has all the right credentials for talking about the so-called informal sector, which, to many Italians, is the fundamental cause of our current economic troubles.

El Viejo mocks the Italians’ newfound passion for predictions. As stocks fell, politicians (our Parliament members are the highest-paid in Europe and our prime minister is, perhaps, the most farcical) fumbled, and the country risked a fate comparable to that of Greece, Italians discovered a hitherto unknown interest in analysts, agencies and financial oracles. We’ve been leafing through newspapers and punching remote controls in search of news about the spread between Italian government bonds and the German bund, even if we have only the vaguest idea of what it all means.

As so often happens in Italy, anxiety manifests itself in individualistic survival strategies. People turn away from government and broader society, fall back on family and clan loyalties and the informal sector. Sociologists call the result “amoral familism,” a term Edward C. Banfield coined in the 1950s.

There are upsides and downsides to this phenomenon. Italians have a great capacity for reconstruction after hard times — as after the Second World War, when the country emerged from ruins to become one of the most industrialized in the world. We tend to associate those resurrections with what we call the “art of muddling through,” of which we are masters. It’s the capacity to be flexible in the face of change — something families tend to do better than governments.

But this is allied to a deep mistrust of government and the public sector. As many sociologists have pointed out, localism and clannishness are the enemies of an open and meritocratic society. Access to the professions is considered almost a hereditary privilege here. And tax evasion is seen as a legitimate defense against an inefficient state.

Reducing the debt, balancing the accounts and stimulating growth seem distant objectives in these conditions. We are only now admitting there is even a problem. For 10 years, our society has imposed a rose-tinted, optimistic view of things — we have told ourselves that there is no crisis, that Italy overcomes every difficulty. Whenever the facts happened to burst rudely onto the scene, the reflex has been to shift the blame onto unspecified others: the markets, speculators, the European Central Bank. Moreover, the perception of individual well-being is still strong. Italians don’t feel poor; our public debt is alarming, but our private debt is not, unlike that in the United States. But the downside is near-zero growth: the economy is expanding at a rate of less than 1 percent per year.

And when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi dons the robes of rigor and demands sacrifices, he is no longer credible: he even tried to avoid a confrontation with the facts by spreading the recovery measures over four years, so as to leave the most unpopular task to the government that will succeed him after the 2013 elections. Europe intervened, and the premier was finally forced to introduce more immediate budget cuts and new taxes, with the typically melodramatic comment, “Our heart bleeds.”

As it should, particularly for the young, who are at the mercy of a labor market consisting increasingly of temporary jobs, which has abolished protections without creating opportunities. Routinely dismissed by the left and right as “layabouts” and “overgrown babies,” they draw little comfort from emergency legislative measures like the reform of pensions they expect they’ll never receive.

The crisis will push them deeper into the informal sector and the system of clan and family welfare, or force them abroad to find jobs. In other words, the very society that led to this will be strengthened.

Perhaps that means we’ll muddle through again. Organizations like El Viejo’s, with their capacity for rapid accumulation of cash and their investments in every sector, will do fine. And as always, there are some who make a small profit out of the crisis — like the cross-border workers of Lombardy, who receive their salaries in Swiss francs increased in value by the weakness of the euro.

But we are reminded of that saying: we don’t inherit the world from our forebears, but receive it on loan from our children. How can we resurrect Italy this time without that generation?

Luca Rastello, the author of How to Smuggle Cocaine by the Ton, in Five Easy Lessons and Stefano Parola. Both are journalists at La Repubblica. This essay was translated by Jonathan Hunt from the Italian.

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