Claudio Segrè

  • 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.

He should know. LaPalombara has studied Italian politics for more than forty years – and not just as an academic. He was First Secretary of the American Embassy in Rome. He has taught at the University of Florence and advised American and Italian corporations on the Italian political scene. But does he know? Italy, he concedes, is a land of illusions ‘where the tenth impression can be as deceptive as the first’, and ‘it is easy to confuse illusion with the real thing.’ Some readers may also be wary of his attitude. Democracy, Italian Style is written with the fervour and enthusiasm of a convert. For years, LaPalombara admits, he held much more negative views of Italian politics, views that ‘now strike me as inadequate – and very much in need of revision. This book is impelled by that conviction.’ The vision of a convert leading us in the land of illusions is hair-raising.

Nevertheless, LaPalombara proves to be a trustworthy guide. To those who know the field, Democracy, Italian Style may not reveal anything strikingly new, but the book very effectively sweeps away the old stereotypes. As the author argues, the old images of Italian politics and society no longer hold. Over the last four decades, despite the appearance of instability and perpetual crisis, the Italian record has been one of remarkable stability and achievement. In 1945, Italy was a defeated nation. She had experienced a generation of dictatorship and nearly two years of civil war. From that starting-point, the Italians crafted a political system which neither slid back into dictatorship nor yielded to the pressures of the ‘most powerful non-ruling Communist Party on earth’. It also survived the ultimate test of any democratic system: the challenge of terrorism in the late Sixties and Seventies.

The Italian political system can also claim credit for leading the nation to unprecedented prosperity, LaPalombara argues. Italy now ranks as the fifth most industrialised nation in the world – ahead of Great Britain. A 1986 survey found that Italian families on average owned $18,000 in bank deposits, $15,000 in government bonds and other fixed-income securities, $6000 in common stock or mutual funds, and real property (usually a home) worth $85,000. As taxi drivers will tell you in any major Italian city, the jam you are caught in reflects the fact that ‘two-car families’ are now an Italian norm. This new prosperity has affected Italian civic behaviour. The stereotype of the anarchic, self-interested Italian, the ‘rampant egoist, devoid of any sense of society’ has given way to what LaPalombara calls the ‘New Pluralism’ – a new emphasis on voluntarism and an explosion in the number of interest groups and self-help associations. A Ministry of Labour survey in the early Eighties counted about seven thousand of these voluntary groups, four thousand of which were large national organisations. In short, Italians have become joiners. The reasons are familiar: problems with the aged, pensions, the environment, single-parent families, alcohol and drug abuse, and a host of other social ills familiar to the advanced industrialised nations. Italians have also come to rely heavily on government policies and institutions to smooth over the risks and pitfalls of a market-oriented economy. As LaPalombara puts it, Italians have consistently favoured ‘equality of outcome’ over ‘equality of opportunity.’

In explaining Italy’s transformation and the success of ‘democracy, Italian style’, the author wisely shuns abstract social-science models. Rather, he tries to give us ‘the hang of how the system actually works’. Four factors apparently characterise Italian democracy: the role of sub-cultures, the notion of politics as spettacolo, the role of parties and the competence of Italy’s political élite. Far from being signs of political pathology, as some observers have argued, each of these factors is seen by LaPalombara as a sign of health, a brilliant accommodation to the nation’s particular problems.

Take political sub-cultures. For the outsider, they are stifling and a source of much frustration as well as being targets for ridicule. As LaPalombara explains, in Italy party affiliation is not simply a label. When Italians identify with a party, Communist, Christian Democratic or ‘laical’ (one of the half-dozen small parties), they are actually expressing ‘a state of mind, a way of thinking about oneself’. Through affiliated organisations such as trade unions, student groups, co-operatives, religious societies, recreational associations, the parties encompass all aspects of the citizen’s activities. Italians do not value ‘independents’ and view them as either spineless or fickle. Not to have a sub-culture implies that one lacks culture in a larger sense. On the other hand, as LaPalombara notes, even snowfalls are politicised. In January 1985 Rome experienced a rare snowstorm – the worst in modern history. Milanese newspapers reported gleefully on the Roman administration’s ‘Mediterranean’ ineptitude in clearing the streets. The criticisms were politically motivated and represented a danger to democracy, the Communist Mayor of Rome solemnly replied. Yet, as LaPalombara points out, sub-cultures give the parties their durability and their mass base, explain the astoundingly high Italian turnout at the polls, and the consistency with which Italians cling to their political allegiances. Italians vote not so much to ‘win’ – their chosen party may stand no chance – but rather to bear witness to their beliefs: Italians may talk as if they are ‘alienated from their political system’, but they are fiercely and passionately involved in it.

The second characteristic of democracy Italian style is the spettacolo. In Italy, LaPalombara remarks, politics is ‘a grand game that blurs the line between players and spectators’. He compares the nation to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where the groundlings joined in enthusiastically, whistling, hooting and providing alternate lines. An important aspect of spettacolo is rhetorical display. Italians delight in interminable, elegantly-constructed sentences dotted with subjunctives, double negatives and triple conditionals. They thrive on formulations like la non sfiducia (‘non no-confidence’), and parallele convergenti (‘converging parallels’) – the late Aldo Moro’s description of the possible future course of Christian Democratic and Communist relations. The question is: are the Italians really participating in the political process, or are they watching a shadow play? Empirical evidence is hard to come by; and the Italians will never admit publicly that they are satisfied with their political process. Nevertheless, LaPalombara sees them ‘not only as spectators but also avid participants, not only severe critics but also active and satisfied appreciators’. He also argues that there are enough mechanisms and institutions – the referendum, for example – to ensure that citizens really do affect policy-making.

The third characteristic of democracy Italian style is the power of the parties. Italy is a party-centred democracy – a partitocrazia – in which the parties do not simply represent the voters and respond to them. The parties often dictate policy. Their powers are in part a heritage from the Fascist period, La Palombara observes shrewdly, and their behaviour differs very little from that of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Italy remains democratic because there are competing parties. Without that competition – as was evident at the time of the famous ‘historical compromise’ of the early Seventies between the Christian Democrats and the Communists – the country would be heading into dangerous waters. Moreover, the parties are often unresponsive to the voters. Party bosses make and unmake governments according to their own self-interest and much of their work is done behind the scenes. LaPalombara does not see this as necessarily ‘sinister’: ‘It does not mock democracy; it makes democratic government possible, at least in the Italian context.’ These meetings make possible the delicate compromises by which Italian democracy survives; they enable the parties to avoid humiliating one another and ‘leave ... an escape route’ for ‘today’s political opponents, who may be tomorrow’s political allies’. These behind-the-scenes meetings also provide a mechanism to include the ostensibly-excluded Communists in the processes of government.

Finally, there is the problem of the Italian political élite. Italians mercilessly attack la classe politica and politicians themselves act as if elective office is an ‘unfortunate ill that befalls the unwary’. But all this, says LaPalombara, is to be taken as ritual, not reality: Italians enjoy using very abstract categories in their discourse; attacks on la classe politica are a safe way to vent political frustrations in a country where there is no clear government and opposition.

In short, LaPalombara argues, we should take Italian democracy seriously. We might even find it useful to compare it with our own Anglo-American system. Comparisons of this kind lead to some of the most stimulating and thought-provoking passages in the book. While we ponder the influence of the Church on the Italians, Italians are convinced that ‘religion is a much more salient aspect’ of American politics than it is in their own country. We think of Italy as a centre of terrorism, but Italians look dubiously on the British handling of Irish terrorists and are appalled at the series of political assassinations in America in the late Sixties. Italians may change prime ministers more often than the British, or than Americans change Presidents, but does this really mean that Italian democracy is more unstable? After all, 90 per cent of Italians typically vote in national elections as compared with just over half that number in American Presidential elections. Which corruption is more insidious: the headline-making scandals in Italy or the more extensive ‘white-collar’ crime in the United States? Italians have failed to bring the Mafia to heel in Sicily, but have other democracies dealt effectively with crime in their large cities?

Yet LaPalombara’s paean to Italian democracy is at times perplexing. The system he describes as ‘democracy, Italian style’ does not always seem peculiarly Italian or democratic. As LaPalombara describes them, Italy’s political sub-cultures and her partitocrazia do seem uniquely Italian: politics as spettacolo does not. In every modern political system, whether democratic or authoritarian, politics necessarily contain a heavy dose of show-business, the aim of which is to involve the citizen. This year, the American Democratic and Republican national conventions, for example, will put on their spettacoli – bands and streamers, ‘demonstrations’ and endless partisan rhetoric, much of it nearly as obfuscatory as the Italian. Other recent American examples of politics as spettacolo – soap opera – might include the Watergate and Irangate hearings, not to mention all the political commentators on television, the interviews and the talk-shows. As for participation, television has made the world a Shakespearean theatre. On radio and television phoneins, whether in Western Europe, the United States or, more recently, Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, the groundlings hoot and holler electronically. As in Italy, their satisfaction and their effect on the political process always remain something of a mystery.

If LaPalombara’s definition of ‘Italian style’ seems hazy at times, so are his views on democracy. We learn that Italy comes close to fulfilling the criteria of a ‘democratic polyarchy’, but not quite close enough. On the other hand, it appears that no ‘contemporary democratic state really fulfils’ them. LaPalombara combines this uncertainty in his definitions with an insistence on seeing Italian democracy in its cultural context. Yet if we are not to judge Italian democracy by other standards, or if the standards are to be elastic, it is easy to fall into the trap of simply justifying the present system, as LaPalombara does when he says the ‘Italian arrangement is not just a matter of choice but the only one possible’, and warns against any sweeping institutional changes based on foreign models.

His message seems to be: what is, is right. In the end, we may wonder uneasily whether, once again in the land of illusions, he – and we – have been taken in. LaPalombara argues that we should not take ‘the constant harping over crises or complaints about the shortcomings of la classe politica’ too seriously. The complaints, he maintains, encourage ‘a type of political virtuosity that is, at bottom, every Italian’s secret pride’. But perhaps we should take the complaints seriously. If the Italians carp and criticise so much, perhaps there is reason to do so. Italy’s scandals are real and cannot be explained away as simply a reflection of the culture. Perhaps what is, is not right.

Nevertheless, LaPalombara says things that need to be said: journalists and diplomats should read this book. So should the tourists who flock to Italy every summer. I only wish that LaPalombara had written this long meditative essay, the fruit of forty years of experience, with the grace and charm, say, of the late Luigi Barzini. Flashes of wit and humour, and odd parenthetical meditations and hunches brighten the text. But there are too many ponderous sentences, too many sub-heads and terms like ‘consociational democracy’, ‘democratic polyarchy’ and ‘blocked democracy’. Anglo-Americans should and probably will read this book.

LaPalombara’s Democracy, Italian Style is a sure – if sometimes awkward – guide to contemporary Italian politics. The question is: will Italians read it? Will they love the book because for once an Anglo-American has written a study about contemporary Italian politics that is not patronising or moralistic? Or will they hate it because it isn’t sufficiently critical of the system? Or will they sneer secretly, secure that once again they have taken an observer for a ride – or so they think?