The sins of the fathers: Italy's democratic deficit
Berlusconi is a product of the country's incomplete unification, argues Alexander Lee.
On March 17th Italy will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its unification. But a shadow hangs over the festivities. Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s flamboyant prime minister, has prompted a crisis at the heart of Italian politics. By any ordinary standards Berlusconi should have been ejected from office. Long vilified for his purported connections to organised crime, shady business activities and dubious sexual morality, he has caused outrage with his dalliances with escort girls and with his attempts to circumvent the constitution to avoid prosecution. But, thanks to a series of back-room deals, Berlusconi won a dramatic victory in a crucial confidence vote last December and still clings on to power. For many commentators Berlusconi’s victory illustrates that political continuity and self-interest are more important to Italy’s legislators than democratic accountability. As the country looks back on 150 years of unity many question the future of Italian democracy and ask if the spirit of the Risorgimento (‘Resurgence’) – the movement which led to unification – has been forgotten.
But it is too easy to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Although Italy has a long history of democratic government, stretching back to the communes of the Middle Ages and the maritime republics of the Renaissance, its experience of democracy since unification has been ambivalent at best.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the world was ablaze with republican fervour. The French Revolution and the American War of Independence put democratic accountability at the top of the political agenda and the events of 1848 made republicanism the clarion call of Europe. Italy, however, remained comparatively immune to the republican craze.
From the very outset those who called for Italian unity were either unenthusiastic about or hostile towards democracy. In the 1830s Giuseppe Mazzini – still revered as one of Italy’s founding fathers – saw the individual as less important than the state. The philosopher-politician Vincenzo Gioberti opposed republicanism on the grounds that it would repeat the chaos of the medieval communes. Even the short-lived Roman Republic of 1848-49 belied its name: the city was governed by an all-powerful triumvirate which convinced Garibaldi that dictatorship was vital to Italy’s future.
The idea of democratic freedom was similarly absent from the newly unified Italian state. After 1861 the Italian parliament received little enthusiasm and democracy was seen as a dangerous idea even by elected representatives. In 1864 Francesco Crispi, twice prime minister, described representative democracy as an invitation to division and civil unrest and in the aftermath of the First World War a future minister, Giovanni Gentile, denied that democratic ideals had been part of the Risorgimento. Given such opposition it was unsurprising that the elections of 1919 returned a parliament in which anti-democrats had a clear majority.
Attitudes towards democracy improved slightly after the Second World War, but the popular scepticism towards representative institutions was sustained by the corruption that was an inescapable part of Italian political life from 1861 until 1992, when the Tangentopoli (‘Kickback city’) scandal broke and the resulting criminal investigations caused the collapse of every major political party.
Even for the leading figures of the Risorgimento parliament was a marketplace for sinecures, jobs and contracts. In 1868-89 ministers sold the state tobacco monopoly at a ludicrously low price in return for kickbacks and the Banca Romana scandal of 1889-94 revealed that two prime ministers had received dodgy loans in return for political influence. On top of this, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (prime minister 1917-19) proudly described himself as a mafioso and Crispi resigned as minister of the interior after being charged with bigamy. It was not without reason that a former minister, Pasquale Villa, described parliament as a ‘cesspit’. In 1922 Mussolini capitalised on such scandals, but still perpetuated the culture of corruption in power.
After the Second World War abuses grew worse. The Christian Democrats (DC) kept a stranglehold on government for more than 40 years through a network of patronage. Prime ministers Giulio Andreotti and Amintore Fanfani made any government contract or position dependent on support for the DC. When its dominance was eventually challenged in the mid-1980s the rising Italian Socialist Party built its success on emulating the clientilism of its rivals; its leader, Bettino Craxi, bought his way to power with kickbacks and bribes.
So why was democracy not valued after the Risorgimento?
The first answer lies in the historical meaning of ‘liberty’. Throughout the Risorgimento ‘liberty’ seldom connoted democratic values. From 1796 until 1922 ‘liberty’ was instead most commonly associated with freedom from foreign domination. Having been a patchwork quilt of small states for most of its history, Italy had been prone to foreign invasion. When the ‘democrats’ of the 1830s called for popular sovereignty, therefore, they had as their ideal not democratic republicanism, but independence from foreign oppression. So too, in October 1860, the scholar Francesco De Sanctis urged people in the southern town of Avellino to support the new state on the grounds that it would give them not democratic freedoms, but liberty from foreign rule. By the early 20th century democratic liberty was often subordinated to imperial aspirations. Coupled with the persistent abuses of parliament, democracy had little, if any, resonance in Italy by the time Mussolini came to power. Only after the Second World War did ‘liberty’ come unequivocally to signify democratic rights; but, by that stage, the damage had already been done.
The second answer lies in the fragmentary nature of Italy before and after unification. The long history of political division led to the petrifaction of local interests and crippled the development of any sense of commonality.
‘Italy’ had little meaning in the first decades after unification. In 1861, for example, Sicilians commonly believed that La Talia (a corruption of L’Italia) was the name of the new king’s wife and crowds in Naples asked themselves what ‘Italy’ was. Italy was still as divided as ever and people expressed more loyalty to their town or province than to the new state. These differences were, if anything, exacerbated by the practical problems of government. Deputies tended to form regional groups and local administration was almost invariably handed to local magnates or even mafiosi.
Successive governments recognised the problem of regional differences, but effectively worsened the sense of division. From the 1870s to the 1990s the ‘southern question’ dominated political debate and there was a widespread sense that the South was economically backwards and culturally alien and, consequently, it received a disproportionately small share of government investment. Even today the South is regarded by many in the North as barely Italian and the Lega Nord continues to attack government spending on the South and to demand the North’s independence. The stronger this sense of internal division has been, the weaker any appeals to common interest have become.
Without a heritage of democratic liberty or a sense of commonality, Italian politics after 1861 lacked the intellectual apparatus to develop a notion of political responsibility. From the Risorgimento to the rise of Mussolini both the probity of elected representatives and the prestige of parliamentary democracy were fatally undermined. With such a heritage, postwar Italy has been doomed to live as a prisoner of its past.
If this month’s celebrations are haunted by Berlusconi’s spectre it is wrong to say that his survival is a betrayal of the spirit of the Risorgimento. Berlusconi is nothing new: he is the heir to a long history of democratic abuses stemming from the weakness of Italian unification. The anniversary of the Risorgimento is a reminder that, if Italy is to build a future of democratic accountability, it must overcome the failures of the Risorgimento itself.
Alexander Lee is a Research Fellow at the universities of Luxembourg and Warwick.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology