A review of Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future, by Bill Emmott

The great A.J. Liebling used to enlighten New Yorker readers about the foibles of the popular press, and one of his many memorable pieces dealt with the coverage of the meat rationing program in wartime America. Shortly after the war, the press started to run stories about meat, showing tantalizing pictures of steaks in Canadian butcher shops…. Liebling said it reminded him of stories about African tribes he had read as a little boy, in which every now and then a tribe would go on a wild rampage, slaughtering scores of animals and eating them in a frenzy.

This popped into my mind while reading Good Italy, Bad Italy, because much of this book—written by the former editor of the Economist, and therefore a person we need to take seriously—is a frenzied hunt to slaughter former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and others of his herd. Bill Emmott is hardly alone; virtually the entire tribe of British journalists engaged in the same pursuit for years. Italy's current malaise is blamed almost entirely on Berlusconi, his family, his businesses (especially publishing and TV broadcasting), and his allies, real and imagined, political or just plain criminal. Although, as of the time Emmott wrote the book, Berlusconi had never been convicted of any crime (they finally got him on a tax evasion charge, now on appeal), virtually all the charges against him are treated with deadly earnestness.

Meanwhile, his opponents and tormentors on the Left are given a pass, albeit from time to time they are referenced in a minor key, as when the author laments the spread of corruption "especially though not only by Mr. Berlusconi." Emmott says it would be unfair to expect good leadership from them until Berlusconi vanishes from the political scene.

Emmott ran around Italy, interviewing a great variety of Italians, from captains and corporals of industry to fellow journalists, think tankers, civic leaders fighting mafiosi, and winemakers. His book is often interesting, and there are useful facts and factoids, as you'd expect from an economist. The big theme is the struggle of virtuous, creative, likeable Italians against the system that leaves them little room for the sort of entrepreneurial activity he rightly favors. One of his best insights is that Italians nowadays find niches for artistic, political, and industrial enterprises of very high quality, but they can only go so far. Once they pass a threshold of success, they have to come to terms with oppressive institutions like the mafias, the big trade unions, and the big industrial associations. At that point, the virtuous entrepreneurs must choose between remaining small (usually family-based) or becoming part of the corrupt games that define the national economy.

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Over and over again, Emmott asks himself why, with so much talent at their disposal, the Italians have failed to create a more open and transparent national economy. He blames it on corrupt individuals, like his stereotype of Berlusconi. But that's not an explanation at all, because the real question is: how did this system, which all Italy-watchers recognize as anachronistic and self-defeating, come to be? Emmott cannot answer this question because he doesn't seem to know the first thing about modern Italian history.

For example, you would never know from reading Good Italy, Bad Italy that postwar, post-fascist Italy had a blocked political system, due to the presence of the Communist Party (PCI). It was blocked because it was unthinkable to most Italians to have a government dominated by the PCI, which would threaten Italy's position as a pro-American member of the NATO Alliance and, for extras, would jeopardize Italian democracy itself. The PCI was a very big deal. It was the largest Communist Party in Western Europe. It ran the biggest trade union in the country. In keeping with the doctrines of Antonio Gramsci, it dominated the intellectual class, including the professoriate, many of the important newspapers, most leading novelists, entertainers, pundits, moviemakers, actors, and actresses. It controlled a hard core of judges, as well, beginning in 1948 when PCI Chairman Palmiro Togliatti was appointed justice minister.

The counterbalance to the PCI was the Christian Democratic Party (DC), and it was the keystone of the government well into the 1980s. Inevitably, its corruption deepened over the years, not only because there was no political alternative, but because state involvement in industry was necessary in the ongoing fight with the Communists, who had control over the unions and proportionally over business. Any top manager of big Italian business had to reach a modus vivendi with the PCI, or face ruinous strikes, demonstrations, and scandals.

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The corruption was mutual, and a lot of it had less to do with Italian morality than with the Cold War. The Communists received money (and instructions) from the Soviet Union, and the anti-Communists (the DC, and smaller parties) got paid off by the United States, starting with the Marshall Plan. There was little room for virtue in all of this, and the system only began to crack in the early 1990s, with Tangentopoli, (bribesville), a massive scandal that brought down the DC and their key ally of the period, the Socialist leader Bettino Craxi.

Emmott is a fan, regarding Tangentopoli as a welcome spasm of morality. Those who lived through it, however, realized that a large part of it was purely political. Only the anti-Communists—the Christian Democrats, Socialists, Social Democrats, and Liberals—were brought down by the scandals, and then the Soviet Union fell, removing the Communists from their half century of being identified as the instrument of a foreign power. The PCI began its evolution into a more European sort of left-wing party, and seemed poised to take control of the government in the early 1990s. That was the moment Berlusconi entered politics, and he successfully mobilized the electorate, warning that the left was still in the hands of the old Communists. None of this is mentioned in Emmott's book. He is scandalized by Berlusconi's blatant conflicts of interest—he retained ownership of his real estate and press/TV empire all the while he was prime minister—but the intermingling of government, political parties, and "private" business was well established long before Berlusconi ever entered politics. Indeed, if there is anything about Berlusconi's political career that set him apart from his predecessors, it is that he broke the state monopoly on broadcasting, thereby making an historic contribution to freedom of the press in Italy. Before he built Mediaset into a broadcasting power, virtually all radio and television (with the exception of Radio Monte Carlo and the Vatican's broadcasts) was state-owned and -operated. As such, the various stations and channels were divvied up among the political parties, so you got DC "news" on one station, PCI "news" on another, Socialist "news" on a third, and so forth. Berlusconi's Mediaset was much less monolithic; many of his most popular news readers, commentators, editors, and hosts of cultural and political shows were openly critical of him, as they are today. I quite agree with Emmott's concerns about conflict of interest, but the old media were, and still are, far more politically compromised than Berlusconi's. The state monopoly was, and largely still is, totally political, while Berlusconi's operations were and are also productive enterprises, and thus responsive to market forces.

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It's not easy to see Italy plain. When I started my research into Italian fascism in the mid-'60s, I was often told that it took about 10 years to understand the place. It's now nearly 50 years, and I'm still not there, even though, unlike Emmott, I have taught at the University of Rome, actually speak Italian (he had to rely on a translator), have taken (successful) legal action against Italian newspapers and magazines, and have worked for several Italian enterprises and advised American companies interested in doing business there. So it's not surprising that even a skilled journalist and editor, full of energy and admirable curiosity, should fall short of his objective.

He's at his best looking for signs of hope, of which there are many, and spotting road blocks to progress. Of the latter, the legal system is one of the most daunting. It is maddeningly slow and difficult—a "fast track" libel suit, for example, takes a minimum of four to five years to reach an initial judgment, and appeals invariably follow. Emmott stresses the need to change the labor laws, and to enforce greater transparency, both of which are necessary to stimulate the creation of new businesses. Greater efficiency is also required to attract outside investment. Many foreign investors put their capital elsewhere because it is so hard to get a contract enforced.

Like all observers of the Italian scene, Emmott decries the near-universal efforts to avoid taxes, but I wish he had taken more time to look at the incredible array of taxes to which the Italians have been subjected. Already in the '70s, I was told by some of the country's leading economists that the marginal tax rate was about 120%! And it is a commonplace to say that every Italian business leader has to keep at least three sets of ledgers: one for the state, one for his wife, and one for himself. As they say, when the state steals, it forces the citizens to become thieves themselves. DuringTangentopoli, I pointed out that most any captain of Italian industry could be prosecuted for corruption; the choice of victim was political.

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Finally, I think Emmott gives insufficient weight to at least one source of hope: the emergence of a new generation not conditioned by the blocked state of Italian affairs. Throughout the postwar period, a small group of politicians and their allies in business ran the country. New faces were rare, and young faces rarer still. The same names, and ever more wrinkled faces, recurred with heart-sinking monotony: Andreotti, Fanfani, Forlani, Pajetta, Longo, Nenni, and La Malfa. The closest thing to a youthful leader, until the rise of Bettino Craxi in the mid-to-late 70s, was PCI chief Enrico Berlinguer, who wasn't all that young but had an attractive baby face.

That's finally over, although the current "technician" prime minister, Mario Monti, is a bit of a throwback, and the unfair, albeit accurate, street line about him goes "he even looks like an undertaker." The hottest political stars in the Italian firmament are new, and, by traditional standards, shockingly young. Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence who lost his run for prime minister in the (new) leftwing party's primaries in December, is only in his thirties, and other youngsters include Flavio Tosi, the mayor of Verona, and Nichi Vendola from Bari, who shatters many models as a Catholic homosexual.

Such people think and act outside the old black box of Italian politics, and it may be that they will find a way to offer greater opportunities to the Italian people—even though, with one of the lowest birth rates in the old world, there will be fewer and fewer of them around to exploit the chances.

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For Correspondence on this review, click here.