It takes a certain talent to live in happy denial, to slide toward the edge of a precipice and be perfectly relaxed about it. Of all the talents that Italians are renowned for, such nonchalance is perhaps their greatest. Their economy is in deep recession; more than one in three young adults are unemployed; they are unable to compete economically with their neighbors; yet they continue as if nothing were happening, or as if a small glitch in the dolce vita could be fixed with the wave of a wand.
In particular, whether in awe or horror, they continue to be enchanted by the pied piper Silvio Berlusconi, the former and perhaps future prime minister and fabulously wealthy media magnate. In the run-up to the elections that begin today, he has promised to abolish the stiff property tax that was introduced by the previous government and is largely responsible for bringing a little credibility back to the country’s finances (and that he voted for himself when it was introduced). Not only would he abolish it, but he would actually pay back what Italians paid on it last year.
The announcement, despite coming from a man who has repeatedly failed to turn even the most promising political and economic circumstances into anything resembling the collective good, earned Mr. Berlusconi a considerable leap in the polls.
I have lived in Italy for 32 years. One of the first things that struck me was the relation between action and consequence, which is different in the other countries I knew, Britain and the United States. Here someone is found to have abused their position of public office — given jobs to relatives, accepted bribes, spent public money on personal pleasures — but does not resign, does not think of resigning, attacks the moralists and sails on regardless.
Statistics show that tax evasion is endemic, and the more so the more one moves south, to the point that around Naples, dentists declare lower incomes than policemen. Needless to say, the fiscal shortfall has to be made up with government borrowing and higher taxes for those who do pay.
Meanwhile, though sports is glaringly corrupt, fans are as passionate as ever. As the owner of the big soccer club A. C. Milan, Mr. Berlusconi decided, at the beginning of his campaign, to buy the star striker Mario Balotelli. Again he was rewarded in the opinion polls.
The constant discrepancy between how one might expect things to pan out and how they actually do is nothing new. On a tour through Italy in 1869, Mark Twain wrote, “I can not understand how a bankrupt Government can have such palatial railroad depots.”
Things don’t change. Italy recently completed Europe’s fastest train service; one can travel the 360 miles from Milan to Rome nonstop in just 2 hours and 45 minutes. In a country with a huge debt, this wonderful engineering feat has cost an astonishing 150 billion euros (about $200 billion).
Nobody seems sure where the investment came from or how the project will be paid for. One thing is certain: much of the money that legally should have been allotted to local services must have found its way to the high-speed project; to accommodate the few going fast, hosts of working people grind to the office in dirty, overcrowded trains. But what matters is the gleaming image of progress that the service projects.
Benito Mussolini, perhaps the first great propagandist of the modern era, understood perfectly this aspect of Italian psychology. “It is faith which moves mountains because it gives the illusion that mountains move,” he said. “Illusion is perhaps the only reality in life.”
On Jan. 27, at a ceremony for the national Holocaust remembrance day, Mr. Berlusconi felt it was the right time to say that Mussolini had actually done many good things and was not such a bad guy. He was rewarded with another upward twitch in the opinion polls.
It is the constant impression of people outside Italy that Mr. Berlusconi is some kind of evil buffoon and that the vast majority of Italians repudiate him. They cannot understand how a man so constantly on trial for all kinds of corruption, a man with a huge conflict of interest (he owns three national TV channels and large chunks of the country’s publishing industry), remains at the center of power.
The answer, aside from the extraordinarily slow and complex judiciary and a distressing lack of truly independent journalism, is that Mr. Berlusconi’s political instincts mesh perfectly with the collective determination not to face the truth, which again combines with deep fear that a more serious leader might ask too much of them. One of the things he has promised is a pardon for tax evaders. Only in a country where tax evasion is endemic can one appeal to evaders at the expense of those who actually pay taxes.
The mirror image of Mr. Berlusconi might be the caretaker prime minister Mario Monti, an unelected professor of economics, who took over in late 2011, in the middle of the euro crisis. Foreign observers are convinced Mr. Monti did a great job and deserves re-election; this is naïve. As many Italians see it (and I agree), the professor merely bowed to pressure from Berlin, cut spending where there was least resistance and taxed everybody without regard to income. His election campaign, based on a rhetoric of dour seriousness, has been disappointing. As a colleague remarked, if one is to be fleeced by the government anyway, better the entertainer than the pedant.
One entertainer seeking to capitalize on the situation is Beppe Grillo, a rowdy ex-comedian-turned-political blogger whose Five Star Movement proposes to sweep away the corrupt political order and promises a utopia of salaries for the unemployed and a 30-hour workweek. Mr. Grillo’s style is so demagogical and his party so dependent on his inflammatory charisma that the 20 percent of the electorate supposedly planning to vote for him must surely have decided that it simply does not matter if the country is ungovernable after the elections.
Alternately, it may be that people feel that nothing can be done anyway, so great is the power exercised over Italy by the European Union; hence it is largely unimportant whom they vote for. Perhaps it is the effect of centuries of Catholic paternalism and reckless electoral promises, but nobody seems to envision a practical series of reforms to get from where we are now to where we might want to be; in its place there are prayers and fiscal fantasies.
Mussolini later corrected his comments on illusion. “It is impossible to ignore reality,” he said, “however sad.” One wonders, as this election approaches, how near Italy is to the moment when denial is no longer possible. I imagine Mr. Berlusconi re-elected and the stock market crashing, the country’s international credibility melting away so that he must be removed in a matter of days. But then perhaps Italy’s woes will be attributed to the perversities of international finance.
What is never countenanced is the notion that one has made very serious mistakes, or that one might really have to adjust to a reality where economic initiative has shifted decisively to the East, and investment capital with it. Almost every political program in Italy expresses a desire to return to the past, rather than understand the country’s place in a changed world.
Tim Parks is a novelist and translator and the author of the forthcoming book Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails From Milan to Palermo.