Town squares across northern Italy are now (relatively) deserted, as quarantine measures and fears about the COVID-19 coronavirus take hold. But time and again in the run-up to the regional elections in Emilia-Romagna at the end of January, the squares were packed with ‘Sardines’, as we mobilised against Matteo Salvini’s campaign to unseat the centre-left governor in a region that has been a left-wing stronghold since the end of the Second World War.
In the latest episode of the Talking Politics podcast, David Runciman catches up with Catherine Barnard on the Supreme Court's unanimous decision against prorogation, and discusses what's going on in Italian politics with Lucia Rubinelli and Chris Bickerton. They also explore the similarities and differences between the situations in the two countries, from fears of an election to the role played by president and monarch.
When I began to research my book on Piero Gobetti, the precocious young anti-fascist journalist and early victim of Mussolini, the world in which he lived seemed very remote to me. I could relate little of the post-1918 anger and desperation – the obsession with borders and national grievance, the struggle to make ends meet in times of unemployment and rising inflation, the angry men convinced they had been dispossessed – to my own circumstances.
When Britain’s insular political class thinks of Italy, it is usually as a byword for instability or venality – an unwarranted form of self-congratulation. Britain had no Tangentopoli: its forms of corruption are more sedate and domestic, and, if not always entirely legal, usually occupy a grey zone of establishment omertà.
A week is a very long time in Italian politics, but also no time at all. When the last issue of the LRB went to press on 25 May, it looked as though a new government was about to be formed in Rome. The Movimento 5 Stelle and the Lega had drawn up, signed and approved a coalition agreement – a curious and probably unworkable mix of their variously anti-establishment and racist policies – and nominated Giuseppe Conte to be prime minister. The president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, had reluctantly agreed to ask Conte to form a government. But then it all fell apart when Mattarella and the leader of the Lega, Matteo Salvini, couldn't agree on who would be finance minister: Salvini refused to propose anyone except the eurosceptic Paolo Savona; Mattarella refused to give him the job; Conte threw in the towel; ricominciamo da capo.
The Italian general election has resulted in a hung parliament. There is already talk of a Third Republic, as the 'mainstream' parties have been swept aside by a populist wave, though it's worth remembering that the Partito Democratico was only formed in 2007, out of the remnants of the remnants of the parties that dominated Italian politics during the First Republic (from 1946 until 1994); that the current incarnation of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia dates from as recently as 2013; and that the Second Republic (1994-2018) was dominated by Berlusconi and his meretricious brand of soi-disant anti-establishment but ultimately self-serving politics. It's hard to mourn the passing of that era; or would be, if it were possible to believe that it had really passed.
Pamela Mastropietro, an 18-year-old from Rome, left the rehab clinic where she’d been staying in the province of Macerata, in central Italy, on 29 January. Her dismembered corpse was discovered two days later, in two suitcases, in the countryside nearby. Innocent Oseghale, a 29-year-old Nigerian with an expired residency permit and a criminal record of drug dealing, was arrested almost immediately on suspicion of involvement in Mastropietro’s death.
Antonio Tajani, a former spokesman for Silvio Berlusconi, was elected president of the European Parliament yesterday. He dedicated his victory to the people who died in the earthquake in central Italy last August. At 10.25 this morning, a magnitude 5.3 earthquake struck not far from Amatrice. There have been three more of equivalent size in the hours since (and 200 of magnitude 2 or above): an unprecedented phenomenon.
Technically speaking, the No vote in Italy’s constitutional referendum yesterday was a vote for the status quo. But its architect, Matteo Renzi, who has resigned as prime minister after the vote didn’t go his way, was one of the few people to see it like that. For a lot of voters who want things to change, getting rid of Renzi seemed a better bet than his proposals for getting rid of the Senate. Italy is the only country in Europe with a ‘perfectly bicameral’ system. The upper and lower houses of parliament have equal legislative powers: both are able to draft legislation, and no laws can be passed without the approval of both. Renzi wanted to replace the directly elected Senate with a smaller chamber, representing the regions, with diminished powers.
The Hotel Belvedere is on a hillside a kilometre or so south of the Sicilian town of Corleone. The north-facing rooms have expansive views of the town below and the valley below that. The Belvedere shut its doors to tourists in late 2013 after a couple of decades of business; one of its last reviews on TripAdvisor described it as ‘totally empty’, with a ‘stale’ continental breakfast and ‘towels thin enough to read through’. A few months later, the hotel’s fortunes changed. Reopened in 2014 under new management – a co-operative that also runs care homes in Sicily – the hotel became an ‘extraordinary reception centre’ for migrants, one of about 3000 in Italy.
An elderly couple have been murdered in their home in Palagonia, a town of 16,500 people near Catania. The police have arrested an 18-year-old suspect, who was caught with the victims' phone, computer and bloody trousers on his person. He says he found them under a tree. The crime was probably gruesome enough to have made headlines for its sensation value alone: both corpses were naked; the woman was thrown from a balcony. There were no signs of forced entry on the doors or windows of their apartment. But it's still in the news because the suspect, an Ivorian national, arrived in Sicily by boat on 8 June.
The broad daylight at the southern end of the Mont Blanc Tunnel always seemed brighter than the light we'd left behind, but when you're seven it's easier to magnify minor differences. In 1970, and for some years that followed, the differences between France and Italy, as I saw them from a car window – there were so many of them. Both countries had motorways named for the sun – the Autoroute du Soleil, the Autostrada del Sole – but one took you to the Mediterranean, the other took you from one part of the Mediterranean to another. In France, the border police stared at you as if you were about to do something wrong; in Italy, they waved you through: 'Avanti, avanti.'
Last week we asked the Wu Ming Foundation to write a piece on Beppe Grillo and the Movimento 5 Stelle. Unhappy with the way we edited it, they withdrew it (with regrets on both sides but no bad feeling on either) and published it on their blog. You can read 'Grillismo: Yet another right-wing cult coming out of Italy' here.
One of Mario Monti's least popular reforms among Italian property owners is the introduction of a new property-based council tax (IMU) to replace the one that Silvio Berlusconi scrapped in 2008. On Wednesday, everyone on the electoral register was sent a letter with 'Avviso Importante: Rimborso IMU 2012’ printed on the envelope. The two closely printed sides of A4 inside explained how people could get last year's council tax refunded, either by bank transfer or in person at the post office. The letter was signed by Berlusconi: all people have to do to qualify for the rebate is vote for him in next week's elections. But not everyone read that far; apparently hopeful queues formed at post offices within hours. They'd have done better to mob Mediaset's headquarters.
In a piece on Italy's 'invertebrate left', published in the LRB in 2009, Perry Anderson wrote: From the mid-1960s onwards, Italian Communism had another strand, neither official nor operaista, that remained more authentically Gramscian than anything its leadership could offer, or ultimately tolerate. Expelled in 1969, the Manifesto group around Lucio Magri, Rossana Rossanda and Luciana Castellina went on to create the newspaper of that name that continues to this day, the one genuinely radical daily in Europe.
At last Berlusconi has said he’ll step down. It should be a good day for Italian democracy. Except that – assuming he really does go – Italy’s longest serving postwar prime minister will have been finally driven from office not for corruption, croneyism, tax evasion or colluding with the mafia; not for the conflict of interests between his media empire and his political position; not for having presided over years of economic stagnation, rising unemployment and crumbling public services, and otherwise generally enriching himself at (almost) everyone else’s expense; not for his outspoken xenophobia, sexism and homophobia; and not even for having sex with underage prostitutes; but because the EU, the IMF and the bond markets think he can't be trusted to push through the austerity regime they want Italy to enforce, which will almost certainly make everything even worse.
Under Italian law, an 'abrogative' referendum – which asks voters if they think a particular item of legislation should be repealed – can be called by anyone, subject to judicial approval and proof of popular support. Three of the proposals in the referendum held earlier this week came from the anti-corruption party Italia dei Valori (roughly ‘the Italy with Principles’), the other from a group campaigning against water privatisation. One of IdV’s proposals was also about water privatisation; the others concerned nuclear power and the ‘legitimate impediment’ law, passed last year, which allowed government ministers to say they were too busy to appear in court, however serious the charges.
Italian politics rarely make British headlines unless it's a story about Berlusconi's buffoonery and this weekend's local elections have been no exception. But they may hold a salutory lesson for the bigoted right elsewhere in Europe. The results have been anything but predictable, with surprise first-round wins for the centre-left in former right-wing strongholds across the north of the country, though it's less a victory for the centre-left – the mainstream Partito Democratico didn't do especially well, relying on votes for smaller coalition partners – than a defeat for the right.
On Sunday 13 February, more than a million Italians, most of them women, took to the streets to demand that Silvio Berlusconi resign. Their slogan was taken from Primo Levi: ‘If not now, when?’ Their theme song was Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’. The demonstrations (which took place in 231 Italian cities, as well as in Tokyo, New York, London, Paris and Brussels) were organised, without official political backing, by a variety of groups including Il Popolo Viola (‘The Purple People’), a web-based youth network, established in December 2009 to campaign against Berlusconi and the political ‘caste’ governing Italy. Berlusconi’s resignation was not forthcoming. Instead, he looks set to be possibly the first prime minister of a democratic country to stand trial while still in office, charged with abuse of power and the ‘exploitation of underage prostitution’.[*] Berlusconi is still in a surprisingly strong position, domestically.
‘I invite anyone who has a copy of this book to bring it into Piazza Bra for a public burning.’ The man speaking purported to be a priest. He was phoning a local radio station in Verona. The book in question was my exploration of Italy through football, A Season with Verona (2002), translated as Questa pazza fede (‘This Mad Faith’). But the priest wasn’t concerned about heresy. Italian football fans constantly refer to their ‘faith’. The first chapter, an account of an all-night bus trip from Verona to Bari, offered examples of the fans’ obsessive use of blasphemy to establish their credentials as bad boys, their opposition to a mood of political correctness that was seeking to ‘clean up football’.
People ask us: Is this the end for Berlusconi? And we answer: No, it isn't. Not necessarily. And even if it were, it wouldn't be the end of Berlusconism as a fetishistic mass cult, an ideological current in Italian life and a certain way of using the media. The most likely outcome is Berlusconism without Berlusconi. His former allies who are strong-arming him into resigning as prime minister are preparing a continuation of Berlusconism by other means. Gianfranco Fini, the former neo-fascist who is now being idolised even by some left-wing amnesiacs, is yet another Man of Destiny pretending to have come to town this morning. People seem to forget that Fini is still the man who was in alliance with Berlusconi for 16 years;
It was strange last week to leave behind the flag-smothered pubs and cars of England and arrive in Italy, where you could almost be forgiven for forgetting the World Cup was on at all. One of the local bars has a big(ish) screen outside, but there are no feverish announcements about when Italy is playing. Gaetano, the caretaker at the nearby five-a-side pitch, was raking up the cut grass on Saturday morning in a Brazil shirt. 'No one likes the Italians this year,' he said. Because they're unlikely to retain the trophy? 'It's like watching dead men play.' He made some polite murmurs about England's chances (this was before the dismal draw with the USA), but said he thought Germany would probably win (this before their 4-0 crushing of Australia).
Following the revelations in La Repubblica that a supposed interview with Philip Roth published in Libero last November was a complete fabrication, I got in touch with a few Italian novelists to ask them what they thought about the affair. Most of them politely declined to be interviewed, but Italo Calvino – I found his number in an old Turin phonebook mouldering among the carboys in the cellar; I can't think how it got there – was generous enough to give me a few minutes of his time. My computer unfortunately wiped the recording of our conversation before I was able fully to transcribe it, but here's what I've managed to salvage from my fragmentary notes. It was a bad line, and my Italian isn't all it might be, but this is more or less how the conversation went:
What with the European Commission's inquiry into its alleged anti-competitive behaviour and the controversy surrounding its megalomaniac digital library plans, not to mention the fiasco of Google Buzz, the irritating and privacy-invading social networking package that's now unavoidable for anyone with a Gmail account, Google's been in need of some positive publicity. So in some ways, at least to the internet behemoth's PR department, the conviction yesterday of three executives for breaking Italian privacy laws must come as a relief: Google can for once cast themselves in their old and increasingly unconvincing roles of underdogs and good guys. They explain what happened on their blog:
Yesterday's decision by Italy's constitutional court to revoke the prime minister's immunity from prosecution was unexpected, but with hindsight looks almost inevitable. The fundamental grounds for it are simple: according to Article 3 of the Italian Constitution, all citizens are equal before the law. Berlusconi's reaction was predictable: he says he's the victim of a left-wing conspiracy involving the courts, the media and even – a charge he hasn't dared level before – the president of the republic. The prime minister said he needed immunity in order to run the country. Since he can't have immunity, the logical upshot is that he can't run the country. But logic has never been Berlusconi's strong point.
On the train to Rome the other afternoon, three bored young policemen were roaming the corridors. Maybe they'd been on since Trieste and were going all the way to Naples: who knows. In the compartment next to mine a young black woman, travelling by herself, was talking on her phone. One of the policemen stopped outside the door to her compartment and asked her to be quiet. She ended the call. The other two officers swaggered along to join their friend. The three of them stood in the corridor, in silence, staring at her. I thought I should go out and ask them what was going on, maybe tell them I was an English journalist, possibly one who was writing an article about racism, or about sexual harassment... Or maybe I should I just go and sit in her compartment.
In the current issue of the LRB, Slavoj Žižek argues that Italy is leading the way as the West descends into authoritarian capitalism. One of the ways that Berlusconi maintains his grip on power, as Žižek says, is by fostering fear of immigrants. 'Our governments righteously reject populist racism as "unreasonable" by our democratic standards, and instead endorse "reasonably" racist protective measures,' Žižek writes. In one respect, when it comes to 'reasonable' racism, Brown's Britain has the edge over Berlusconi's Italy. The threat of compulsory ID cards for freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons and other British citizens seems to be fading (more to do with the need to save money than with an upsurge of libertarian feeling in the cabinet).
So the centre-right candidate easily won the run-off for mayor. (Is it just me, or is it the case that there's very little that's centrist about the so-called centre right, just as the so-called centre left seems to have very little of the left about it?) The town hasn't had a right-wing mayor since the end of the Second World War. Posters have sprung up everywhere, emblazoned with the logo of Berlusconi's Popolo della Libertà, saying a big thank you to voters and announcing that the town is changing, though without specifying how. It's all rather sinister. But then the losing centre-left candidate's runner-up prize is to be the majority leader on the town council, so what we probably have to look forward to, rather than the threatened change, is five years of stalemate.
I've been trying to buy tickets for the overnight car ferry from Naples to the Aeolian island of Lipari. It's harder than you'd think. You can buy tickets for the hydrofoil easily enough online, but you can't put the car on one of them (and without the car, there's no easy way up the mountain to where I'm staying). The sporadic car ferry service is operated by Siremar (Sicilia Regionale Marittima), a division of Tirrenia di Navigazione, which is owned by the state. You can go through most of the booking process online, but it comes to an abrupt end just before the point at which you'd do the actual booking. So I rang them up (it's a premium line: 18 cents per minute). They told me their computer was down, and that anyway even though I could book over the phone, to pay I'd have to go to a travel agent. I could find a list of authorised agents on the website.
I wonder if Silvio Berlusconi, for his next coup of reactionary lawmaking, is considering a repeal of the 1971 legalisation of divorce. Before 1971, marriage in Italy really was more or less a case of till death did them part, though not many people resorted to the methods of Marcello Mastroianni's character in Pietro Germi's 1961 black comedy, Divorzio all'italiana.
Like a complete idiot I assumed that informing the ufficio anagrafe I'd changed my address would automatically mean the electoral register would be updated too. Residency is a big deal here: the police are supposed to come and check that you live where you say you do before the town council will update the official record, and all sorts of things – from being taxed and getting an ID card to buying a car or paying lower (domestic rather than business-rate) electricity bills – are dependent on it. I thought the right to vote was one of them. By the time I learned a couple of weeks ago that the ufficio elettorale is distinct and down the hall from the ufficio anagrafe, it was too late to register for the weekend's ballot. (I'd have been just as stuffed in the UK, where the deadline was 7 April.) Even for the local elections? Even for the local elections. Oh dear.
I was woken by a text message from my mother: 'Are you ok news of earthquake.' I live more than 100km from l'Aquila, and didn't feel anything at 3.30 this morning – at least, not enough to wake me up. One of the neighbours says she was disturbed by a noise she thought was her husband walking into a door. The death toll in Abruzzo has now passed 90, and there are more than 50,000 evacuees. Berlusconi cancelled a trip to Moscow to fly over the destruction in a helicopter. The pope said he's praying for the dead babies. The head of the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, Enzo Boschi, has pointed the finger at poor building standards.
On Tuesday, the hapless leader of Italy’s centre-left opposition, Walter Veltroni, quit after his party was trounced in Sardinia’s gubernatorial election. The timing couldn’t have been better for the government, since Veltroni’s resignation pushed off the front pages the news that David Mills, the estranged husband of Britain’s Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, has been sentenced by a court in Milan to four and a half years in jail for taking bribes from the prime minister.