- Democracy, Italian Style by Joseph LaPalombara
Yale, 308 pp, £14.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 300 03913 1
‘Democracy, Italian style’? The words will strike the general reader as an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. As everyone knows, Italy is the country of perpetual political crises, where there have been 45 national governments in forty years. In Italy tax evasion is a way of life, one adult in three votes Communist, the state itself is simultaneously at war with the Mafia, the Vatican and political terrorists. How could democracy take root in such an environment? Yet it has. ‘I know of no post-war democracy with a better record than Italy’s,’ Joseph LaPalombara, a professor of political science at Yale, proclaims. If the Italian version doesn’t measure up to our standards of how a democracy should behave, LaPalombara suggests, then maybe we should revise or expand our theories of democracy.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 10 No. 14 · 4 August 1988
Claudio Segrè asks two questions about Democracy, Italian Style. Will Italians read it? And will they love it? Few Italians will read it because few Italians read. Illiteracy – I include men like my father-in-law, who can just about sign his name – is still running at between 10 and 15 per cent. Fewer newspapers, books and magazines are read than in any other country in Western Europe, notwithstanding government subsidies to many publishers and the political parties which control them. The largest circulation of any magazine is that of the Famiglia Cristiana, forced on parishioners by a few zealous priests, followed by Grand Hotel, a comic book for servant and shop girls.
Will Italians love it? Of course they will. The name of the author, LaPalombara, will attract other Meridionali, and it is full of the sort of lies Italians like to hear told about themselves. A token translation into Italian was made of Barzini, because he told the truth with wit and charm, and his countrymen hated him for it. Not even his daughter, a Liberal politician in Milan, seems to be able to get a reprint done.
One sort of lie Italians tell well is called statistics. They ruined Mussolini by giving him false statistics about his armed forces, as they may well ruin contemporary Italy by lulling politicians – often unashamedly ignorant men – into believing that Italy really is the fifth most industrialised nation and that the average Italian owns stocks and shares, two cars, his home. Italians do not admit there is any such thing as an average Italian. They are all unique. However, only 30 per cent of them own their homes and only 45 per cent have any substantial investments. A new recruit to the numerous police of four kinds gets about $350 a month. My nephew who is the only judge for miles around in the only really prosperous part of Italy (the Trentino-Alto Adige) gets around $1000 a month after seven years in the job. The Senior Surgeon in the hospital near where I have had a house for a quarter of a century takes home about twice that after twenty years. Millions of Italians have no proper food outside the factory canteens and in LaPalombara’s South many eat pasta twice a day. Sixty-five per cent of all the houses and flats south of Rome have no indoor sanitation. There are over two million prostitutes. Universities are ill-equipped and teachers badly paid.
What got into LaPalombara? Is Yale University Press so awash with money that they can find nothing better to bring out (I have a manuscript or two in my drawer). Has he just inherited a pizza chain or pasta factory? Between submission of his manuscript and publication two more governments fell, making his own statistics as unreliable as the rest. If he really knows of no other post-war democracy with a better record than Italy’s, should he be a professor of political science anywhere?
I love Italy, and would feel deprived if I did not spend a few months each year there, but I have no illusions about the place or the people. I live in the mountains because they remind me of Scotland (plus sun and wine) and I avoid the coast, seven-eighths of which is washed by polluted waters full of happy holidaymakers. I read Barzini all the time to prevent myself being ripped off by my wife’s family and ‘friends’.
Osaka Gakuin University College, Japan
For Professor MacGregor-Hastie there will be a real welcome in the valleys of Tuscany after this – among those who can read.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 10 No. 15 · 1 September 1988
Accustomed as I am to the often vivid display of odium litteratum in your colourful correspondence columns, I had never expected to find its matrimonial equivalent so unengagingly paraded as in the letter from the egregiously named Professor Roy MacGregor-Hastie in your issue of 4 August. Even if I knew that my father-in-law was illiterate and my wife’s friends intent on ripping me off, I think that I could still muster enough delicacy and respect for conjugal charity – if not love – to have refrained from such trumpeting of these facts to the readers of your periodical.
Vol. 10 No. 16 · 15 September 1988
Being one of the few natives who can read, I was deeply surprised by Professor MacGregor-Hastie’s nasty letter in the LRB (Letters, 4 August). For the most part his statements are either false or fantastic. In 1985 there were nearly 1,600,000 illiterates in a population of 52,500,000 people; in 1981 58.9 per cent of the population owned his home; 13.6 per cent of the houses had no ‘indoor sanitation’, as MacGregor-Hastie calls it; a full professor earns from four to six millions per month (and in the last years no position was cancelled by the Government); in 1985 the gross national income was 680.530 billions of lire and the gross national saving was 121.557 billions of lire. And so on. I don’t bother to answer the more grotesque assertions. The English reader can find a fair presentation of today’s Italy both in La Palombara and in Italian Labyrinth by John Haycraft. To be sure, I have repeated what the official statistics say. MacGregor-Hastie does not believe in Italian statistics: but were did he find his figures? Has he personally checked everything? If he would care to stop reading Barzini’s old book and to look around him when living here, he might find some startling and disturbing evidence. MacGregor-Hastie likes Italy, but generally dislikes Italians, and it seems all too clear that he has problems in building a positive relationship with his wife’s Italian parents, relatives and friends. Nobody here would feel deprived if he decided to spend his free time elsewhere.
Vol. 10 No. 18 · 13 October 1988
Thank you for your publishing ‘Roy MacGregor-Hastie’s’ letter about Italy and the Italians (Letters, 4 August). I am assuming, of course, that ‘Roy MacGregor-Hastie’ is the latest non de plume of the author of The Henry Root Letters: his sociological analyses and racial slurs are so preposterous that they can only have been intended as satire. No one, for instance, could reasonably believe that serious literacy – the desire and ability to read widely and critically – is less widespread in Italy than in other countries, or that mass-circulation Italian magazines like Famiglia Christiana (‘forced on parishioners by a few zealous priests’) and Grand Hotel (‘a comic book for servant and shop girls’) are worse than what one sees people reading on the London Underground. In saying that Mussolini was ruined because ‘they’ (who?) provided him with false statistics about his armed forces, ‘MacGregor-Hastie’ demonstrates a dangerously faulty knowledge of modern Italian history and presents himself as one of those Northern Europeans who believe that authoritarian government is good for the naughty Latin peoples. This is borne out by his incorrect statement that the Tretino-Alto Adige region – i.e. the region with a large German-speaking minority and a considerable number of ultra-conservative voters – is the only really prosperous part of Italy. It is true that many Italian civil servants are underpaid, and it may also be true that only 30 per cent of Italians own their own homes and only 45 per cent have any investments, but are these statistics so different from those of other European countries? And even if they are, do they mean that people in Italy and elsewhere who do not own homes or have other material assets are necessarily inferior? What many of us foreigners who have chosen to live in Italy find most attractive about Italians is their apparently endemic incapacity to accept authority on its own terms. This can often make life inconvenient but never uninteresting. The only thing ‘MacGregor-Hastie’ seems to have picked up during the time he has spent here, however, is the Northern Italians’ age-old prejudice against the meridionali (South erners). He even uses this prejudice for casting aspersions on Professor Joseph LaPalombara, the Italo-American author of Democracy, Italian Style, who happens to have a Southern Italian name.