The bittersweet life

Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer its Demons to Face the Future, by Bill Emmott, Yale Books £18.99 304 pages

Early in this lucid and thoughtful book, Bill Emmott cites Dante’s Divine Comedy, with its Hell and Paradise at opposite poles, as a way of understanding the split nature of Italian society: “a very Italian sort of a divide”, he calls it.

I am not sure this helps him, or us, very much. Dante’s Inferno is for sinners who had indulged their greed, jealousy, lust and other sins while allowing their faith to wither. Paradiso, meanwhile, is for those whose Christian faith was their life’s staff and guide. Dante’s masterpiece was, as Harold Bloom describes it in The Western Canon (1994), a kind of new New Testament, with Beatrice “sublimated” into taking the place of Christ. Yet the nature of modern Italy described by Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, is messily secular, with Catholicism as a comfort blanket. Dante was rendering service to God; Emmott, in Good Italy, Bad Italy, is emphatically on Caesar’s territory.

The legacy of the Bad is grimly evident today. Mario Monti, appointed prime minister in November last year, is a pre-eminent representative of Good Italy, one of these Italian leaders who, as Maurizio Viroli describes them in his scathing The Liberty of Servants (2011), possessed “a profound sense of duty [who] knew well that the Italian problem was a moral weakness, in the elite and in the populace”.

Precise and calm in public, Monti talks up the problem rather than disguising it. In an interview this month for Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana (Christian Family), he said previous governments had racked up huge debts that had “put a burden on Italians who were then children, or had not even been born – that’s the great harm that was done to families 80 per cent of our time is taken up trying to secure a country devastated by irresponsibility.”

There is no certainty that Monti and his cabinet of fellow technocrats will succeed. The markets now put Italy in the same lower circles of fiscal hell as Spain, and their judgements aggravate its plight. Monti conceded last week that he is losing the support of the main parties necessary to his mandate: Italy, more exposed by the week, is at best in Purgatory, with a mountain to climb before returning (if ever!) to Paradise.

Emmott has more form than any other foreign commentator in shining a harsh light on Bad Italy. (He put out an Economist cover in April 2001 that declared Silvio Berlusconi unfit to lead the country). A considerable part of this book is drawn from the work Emmott did for another, Forza, Italia, published in 2010 in Italian but not translated into English.

That earlier book ran against the prevailing grain in concentrating on Good Italy, one where courageous shopkeepers and networks of young people openly confront organised crime; where judges in Turin have succeeded in speeding up previously interminable waits for justice; where companies as diverse as makers of spectacles and ultra-light aircraft lead the world; where those who work for good and charitable causes lead Europe in their numbers and enthusiasm; and where bright academic sparks shine and stay, rather than leave for the English-speaking world that many Italians have found more congenial than home.

Emmott seems to have had second thoughts since 2010. Some of his examples from which the first book drew hope – such as Nichi Vendola, president of the Puglia region, once touted as a saviour of the left – have faded. Despite the courage of the anti-mafiosi, the evidence is that organised crime is still spreading.

Above all, Emmott’s book stresses that Italy, for all its entrepreneurial vigour, is mired in a swamp. Even if it is not wholly of Berlusconi’s making, much of it was created or deepened by the remarkable hegemony Berlusconi managed to maintain for most of the past two decades: a hegemony based as much on his huge influence over the broadcast media as on his political skills. As prime minister, he could use his own three Mediaset channels and the most popular channels of the public broadcaster RAI to maintain, as Emmott describes it, a “personal support and domination of the political agenda, by means of declaration and interventions that are only rarely followed up by actual policy. On TV, he is at least as much a performer as he is a politician”.

Emmott’s Good and Bad are deeply intertwined here. Care for family and closest friends easily transmutes into indifference or enmity to those outside the clan circle – an attitude vividly displayed by Berlusconi himself. As Emmott puts it: the Italian habit is “to seek power in order to use it for self-interested purposes, to amass power to reward friends, family, bag carriers and sexual partners regardless of merit or ability, and by doing so closing doors rather than opening them”.

Emmott has succumbed to the beguiling temptation of Italophilia, which for Anglo-Saxons with some experience of the country is generally mixed with exasperation and even shock. His portrait of the Bad Italy is finely done: it blends what he sees as the moral turpitude and indifference of many Italians with the mess that successive governments have made of an economy that in the 1950s and 1960s led Europe in growth and whose dynamism was a source of envy. Now, however, “slow growth and political paralysis have made Italy the biggest threat to Europe’s single currency, the euro, for the Bad has such a tight grip that neither investors nor other governments can muster sufficient confidence that Italy can turn itself round”.

The book’s lament is that of a clear-sighted lover; and it is written in a graceful style that is stronger for its careful – even delicate – illumination of personal and national failure than simply offering a wilderness of denunciations. As the serpentine coils of Italian politics wind themselves round Monti, as he struggles to maintain momentum while political support falters, Emmott’s Good will have one Inferno of a job to keep this beleaguered and beautiful country from sinking further.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

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