Opinion

John Lloyd

The Italians have caste their lot

John Lloyd
Apr 30, 2013 21:24 UTC

Let’s begin with two glimpses of the workings of the Italian state.

First, it was announced last week that passengers would be required to mount a bus only at the door in the front, and pay the driver on entry. The present system, in which tickets are bought in cafes and other shops and stamped at machines on the bus after entry from any one of several doors, has resulted in such widespread evasion that it’s calculated that only a minority of riders buy tickets on publicly owned buses. In Naples, three out of 10 play by the rules. The wonder is that three bother to pay.

Second, the ruins of Pompeii, buried by lava from the volcano Vesuvius in 79 AD and thus preserved as a Roman town, is one of the world’s wonders. It is also among its worst-preserved wonders. The Italian authorities have taken such poor care of it that several buildings have collapsed, and much-needed European Union money has been withheld because of the bureaucratic chaos.

The Italian state is one of the most swollen in the democratic world. It has some 330,000 police officers in a dozen different agencies, more than any other country in the EU and twice the number in the UK, which is slightly bigger in population. The private sector in health, education and welfare is tiny. The administrations, at district, city, provincial, regional and national levels, have their own councils, bureaucracies and, in many cases, police forces.

The largest issue: The state is not only hypertrophied, it is thoroughly politicized. There are more elected politicians in the country than in any other European state.

Yet – or therefore – it is often deeply inefficient and substantially corrupt. It’s corrupt openly and covertly. The politicians, the upper administrative class and the top judiciary have awarded themselves salaries larger than their equivalents in other – and richer – European states. Meanwhile, large amounts of the money allocated by the state for various projects are stolen. Several investigations are now going on into the misuse of funds allocated to Pompeii in the past few years. “Pompeii,” says Sergio Rizzo, one of Italy’s most prominent investigative reporters, “is a beautiful place but … it also reveals the workings of Italian chaos.”

Italy elects the impossible

John Lloyd
Feb 26, 2013 16:22 UTC

In a parliamentary election this week, a majority of Italian voters – some 60 percent – chose parties that even a cursory glance could tell had no coherent idea of how to run an advanced and complex state (let alone Italy). Forty percent voted for two groups that have a recognizably sensible approach to governance, the largest of which is mainly made up of the Democratic Party, heirs to the former Communist Party of Italy. In one of the smaller ironies of the election, these heirs of an anti-capitalist, anti parliamentary revolutionary ideology were regarded, especially by investors, bankers and politicians of both the center-right and center-left, as Italy’s greatest hope for constitutional and market stability

Just under 30 percent of the vote went to the coalition put together by Silvio Berlusconi, a man not exactly proven at being able to govern Italy well. He is yesterday’s but also tomorrow’s man, who saw his run for office – once regarded as something of a joke – embraced as he promised to return, in cash, citizens’ payments of a property tax for which his party had voted; asked a young woman how often she climaxed; and remarked, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, that former dictator Benito Mussolini, whose racial laws condemned thousands of Italian Jews to concentration camps and death, had done some good things in his time. He didn’t win, but nearly did; which means he remains a major power in the land.

Tim Parks, the British writer who has married and lived for most of his life in Italy, wrote of his adopted people that “nonchalance is perhaps their greatest (talent)”, and continued: “Berlusconi’s political instincts mesh perfectly with the collective determination (of Italians) not to face the truth, which again combines with the deep fear that a more serious leader might ask too much of them. … Only in a country where tax evasion is endemic can one appeal to evaders at the expense of those who pay taxes.” 

Silvio Berlusconi rises from the dead (again)

John Lloyd
Dec 11, 2012 16:43 UTC

It’s not over till Silvio stops singing. The onetime cruise ship crooner has called his party – the People of Freedom – to order. Most have obeyed his command to withdraw support for the technocratic government now running Italy, including those who until recently said it was a good thing old man Berlusconi was out of the running.

The pesky thing is, Berlusconi is right about some things. His party is right when it says “the situation is worse than a year ago.” Berlusconi will be right, as well, if he judges that the parties of the left – presently the likely winners in a future election – don’t rouse much enthusiasm in the electorate. And he may – just may – be right that his money, his media and the old Berlusconi magic might tip the scales toward him.

But is he right enough to win back power? It will depend on whether his fellow citizens’ disappointment at the results, so far, of Prime Minister Mario Monti’s austerity program is greater than their memory of how ineffectual and scandal-ridden Berlusconi was by the end of his rule. This week, Monti announced he is resigning once next year’s budget is approved.

Italy’s unelected democrat

John Lloyd
Aug 31, 2012 16:54 UTC

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

Italy’s unelected democrat

John Lloyd
Aug 28, 2012 15:12 UTC

The great Italian caricaturist Altan had a cartoon on the front of La Repubblica last week, in which an Italian is sinking below the waves, shouting: “I’m drowning!” On the beach, a fat man whose swimsuit sports the German national colors, says: “Zat is how you learn, zpendthrift!”

This in a left-of-center daily that is supportive of the crisis plan of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and has set its face against anti-German populism. The press of the right has been less restrained: A recent front-page photo of German Chancellor Angela Merkel showed her with a hand upraised, perhaps to wave — but vaguely reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s minimalist Nazi salute, with the headline “Fourth Reich.” The article claimed that two world wars and millions of corpses were “not enough to quiet German egomania”. This in Il Giornale, a Milan daily owned by the Berlusconi family.

I smiled at the Altan cartoon on an Italian beach, where I was last week, looking about for signs of desperation. They were not dramatic, but observable. Simply, fewer people came. The soaring cost of petrol, which went over the 2-euro mark for a liter, was generally held to be the main culprit for the reduction in the annual hunt for the sun. It was little problem to hire a beach umbrella, to book a table for dinner, even to park. While most summers the political news is absent or silly, this year the Italian papers chronicled, daily, the fever chart of the Italian and European economy, and it was febrile indeed — now a spurt of optimism, now a stab of doom.

A sinking Italy is grasping for direction

John Lloyd
Jun 12, 2012 19:02 UTC

Italy, one of the founders of the European Union, is now in the most critical of situations. If many different things do not go well for the bel paese in the next year, it may attract the use of the word “founder” in its other, more sinister meaning: to sink.

As the euro zone crisis – which has traumatized Greece, put painful squeezes on Ireland and Portugal, and now engulfs the banks and the economy of Spain – laps around the beaches of Italy’s peninsula, the mood has soured.

In the past week, interviewing some of Italy’s leading journalists for a book on journalism in Berlusconi’s Italy, the country I found was one of profound doubt. Italian journalists are not the least cynical of their profession and often greet new events with a we’ve-seen-it-all-before shrug. Not now. Now they follow and record and comment on the news with journalism’s customary hyperactivity. But they admit they have no notion of what will come – or even how their country will be governed. What might come is, by large consent, possibly, even probably, bad.

Expect worse for the working class

John Lloyd
Jan 10, 2012 17:12 UTC

Organized workers of the world are united on at least one big thing: that the recession which has settled over much of what was once called the developed world (and if we are not wise and active, may soon be better called the “undeveloping world”) should not load more onto the burdened backs of the working class.

But it will. Politicians everywhere see little choice.

In the United States, right-to-work laws are being pushed hard in those states with Republican leadership. The laws stop unions from forcing non-union workers to obey union decisions in plants where they have contracts. And when these laws are on the books, the unequivocal result is that union organization and membership slump. More controversially, those who support these laws claim that investment in the state grows – thus increasing the number of jobs and sometimes the level of wages.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is preparing a package of measures, due to be outlined on Jan. 18 at a meeting with employers’ and union leaders, that he hopes will allow companies to reduce working hours and pay in slack times, with increases at a time of full demand. No one expects an agreement soon (if ever), and since the President faces a re-election battle in the spring, he is politically vulnerable to disruption. But even if Socialist candidate François Hollande, ahead now in the polls by some 10 percent, were to win, he would be trying something of the same, since French companies’ competitiveness is tending to fall.

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