How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
New general elections will be held in Italy in May. The present government coalition (formed by Christian Democrats and Socialists, with the addition of the very few but earnest Republicans) will defend itself on two fronts. From the radical Right will come the assaults of the not-numerous neo- Fascists and the still scarcer last-stand Monarchists; much more vigorous and dangerous attacks will be launched by the radical Left, the Communists and the revolutionary Socialists. Both radical Right and Left are theoretically sworn to destroy the present state of things and erect diametrically opposite régimes on the smoking ruins and the carnage. Such apocalyptic prospectives are not difficult to defeat, as they provoke more fear than hope in large sectors of the electorate.
The opposition also includes the Partito Liberale Italiano1, which is not radical, frightens nobody and does not wish to demolish the liberal, democratic parliamentary Republic it helped to set up after the war with other anti-Fascist parties, but would rather see it function more efficiently, honestly and, if possible, equitably. It would also like to see the other opposition parties and the Government less dependent on foreign influences like the Kremlin, the Vatican or the State Department. The Partito Liberale is small, to be sure (7 percent of the electorate), but should be considered the only legitimate opposition existing in Italy, the only one, that is, working strictly within the system, as a legitimate opposition should in a well-ordered democracy.
What will be the results of the elections? Are they predictable? The Government, whose record is generally good, is solidly entrenched in a strategically favorable position, neither Right nor too far to the Left. It has a rich program, which includes all sorts of wonderful plums for all sorts of people, from the most opulent automobile manufacturer of Turin to sulphur miners of Sicily. It controls vast economic pastures which are open to its friends and supporters; directs the expenditure of immense sums for all kinds of genuinely useful public schemes and huge unseen sums for all kinds of recondite purposes, which include the financing of the parties in power. It can rely on the loyal support of the radio and TV (which is a state monopoly) and the majority of newspapers (some are firmly controlled by the state; the others can be easily persuaded).
While almost everything else is visibly deteriorating, the economy is flourishing as never before in history, more rapidly than in countries which are evidently better governed and administered, and shows at the present moment no serious signs of slackening. The Government, as everybody knows, controls 50 percent of the economy and easily influences the rest, both legitimately (through public contracts, incentives, tax laws, discount rates) and illegitimately (through favors, indirect pressure or threats). The boom, the endemic corruption tolerated in the handling of public money, the many lotteries and football pools spread the hope that anybody can become rich any time. People are optimistic and tend to forget their many unsolved problems. For all these reasons, qualified observers do not expect vast migrations of votes from one side to another.
Political conflicts in Italy today have been compared to trench warfare during the First World War. To be sure, costly offensives will be mounted by all sides during the campaign; billions of lire spent on propaganda, posters and canvassing; lurid scandals uncovered both by the government parties and the motley opposition to defame and disqualify their opponents; but everybody agrees that all these cyclopean efforts will result in the conquest or loss of relatively small percentages of votes. Might one conclude, if things turn out as foreseen, that the coming elections have little importance, that all the jeux sont fails, rien ne va plus, and that the Italian Problem has been solved once and for all? Will it be possible to say that Italy has reached the state of the happy country without history? Are things really as stable as they look?
If this were true, it would indeed be welcome news. Historians agree that the only constant feature in Italian political life since the Barbarian invasion (and perhaps even before) has been its fragility and precariousness. Libraries are filled with studies of the probable causes of this state of things, diagnoses and proposed cures being as numerous as the fashionable theories which followed each other down the centuries, from Saint Thomas Aquinas' "Summa," Dante's "De Monarchia," Machiavelli's "Discourses" and "The Prince," to Vico's "New Science," Croce's "History of Italy," Gramsci's "Essays" and this morning's array of editorials. The cause or causes, however, do not interest us here. What deserves our attention is the consequence, the fact that the country was never freed, for one reason or another, from the necessity to lean on props of all kinds, special régimes, powerful outside guardians or protectors, and, at times, foreign occupying armies, to ward off some sort of imminent catastrophe, anarchy, civil war or invasion from abroad.
The most durable (and perhaps the most natural) of these combinazioni was the alliance between the great spiritual power of the Holy Roman Church and the great material power of the Holy Roman Empire. It lasted, with ups and downs, through many and notorious vicissitudes, from the sack of Rome by the Landsknecht of Charles V in 1527 till the Italian national army entered the same city in September 1870. This alliance preserved a splendid, somnolent, corrupt and humiliating peace. Some historians are of the opinion that such arrangements were the cause of worse inconveniences, in the long run, than the catastrophes they were designed to prevent, for they weakened the people's desire and capacity to determine their own future and to rely on their own forces. It is difficult to know whether this is true; there is no sure way to ascertain what would have happened without outside tutelage and help. What we can say is that, until the nineteenth century and the Risorgimento, no Italian tried to solve the National Problem, which was always hidden under a gorgeously multicolored baroque fagade of rhetoric, bombast and trompe l'oell deceptions.
The calamity to be warded off by means of all possible subterfuges has now been the same for almost half a century: it is the communist threat to conquer power, which always seemed (and still seems, at times) real, imminent and frightening. In spite of all the ingenious expedients devised, the threat never vanished. Obviously, they were based on a mistaken assessment of what caused the prevailing unrest. In 1922, many believed that the best medicine for it was a strong arbitrary government, a one- party totalitarian régime led by an all-powerful dictator; others accepted the Fascist rule as a temporary necessity, the only way out of an emergency; only a few disagreed. In the end the régime had to be imposed mostly by the secret police and the might of the German ally. It ended, as everybody knows, in ruin, defeat and ignominy. Obviously what the country needed (but might not have been ready for, at the time) was something different.
Twenty years later, in 1943, the Communist Party emerged from the underground as the most authoritative, literate, mature, aggressive and experienced outside the Soviet Union, the wealthiest and most numerous in the West. Led by Palmiro Togliatti and by excellent cadres of intellectuals and organizers, it went from electoral success to electoral success after the war. Togliatti was a scholar, philosopher and historian, a shrewd man who did not simply know his Marx and Lenin but also his Machiavelli and Gramsci, and adapted the naïve Soviet instructions he received from Moscow to the complex Italian historical reality. To be sure, the party lost some of its raw enthusiasm and revolutionary zest (all the terrorists and extremists were carefully weeded out) but acquired bureaucratic efficiency, discipline and the knack to rally protest votes not simply from the proletariat but from all kinds of dissatisfied people.
To face the growing menace to their liberty, the Italians were persuaded to confer absolute power in 1948 and almost absolute power ever since on the Christian Democrats. They resemble an American more than a European party. They form a vast conglomeration of men from all walks of life and classes, holding all possible political opinions, from the extreme Right (the Papal nobility, the hierarchy and the landowners) to the subversive extreme Left (the young clergy, the trade unions and the intellectuals). They are nominally held together by their common faith and the fear of a communist take-over. Their strength came (and still comes) from the moral support of the Church and its capillary organizations, which did excellent duty for an electoral machine. With such aid, the party's candidates filled almost one- half of parliament at every turn with incredible ease.
The Christian Democratic deputies and senators led by De Gasperi were animated by a desire to solve national problems and defend national interests. Their record, in the beginning, was good, sometimes excellent. The country was starving, the economy was in ruins and everything needed to be done. The Communist Party was kept at bay. The Christian Democrats were resigned to accepting orders from the Church in matters pertaining to a few sensitive but secondary sectors, like censorship, divorce, birth control and the public financing of Catholic schools (matters in which their opinions did not differ from the Church's anyway), but as the years went by they realized that they had limited autonomy in many other matters, even when the Vatican granted them their freedom. Each candidate was (and is) inevitably chosen (or approved) by the local Bishop; he knows he has to be pliant and understanding if he wishes to be elected and reëlected. Most important policies, therefore, had to be harmonized with those of the Church, in all fields, including foreign affairs. Problems which it did not consider vital were ignored or tackled only halfheartedly.
This would not be very important if the Church in Italy were like Catholic Churches elsewhere, if it were, that is, a National Church, led by a Primate, the kind that in the past stood up against overbearing princes and still respectfully defends national views against the Holy See whenever necessary. Such local churches at times supported excellent Catholic parties which governed well and wisely, or bravely assumed the defense of their flock and became a symbol of national unity in grave historical circumstances, as in Ireland under the English and in Poland under Imperial Russian and Soviet domination. There is no Italian Church. What exists in Italy is the Universal Church. The Primate of Italy is the Bishop of Rome, the Holy Pontiff, whose divinely imposed duty is to promote the welfare of all Catholics and Church organizations in all parts of the world. Where there is a conflict with the aspirations and needs of the Italian people, it is obvious that the interests of the Holy See take precedence.
The task of governing Italy and encouraging her prosperity and social progress has never been so difficult. The times make people impatient; they are persuaded that man's hopes have already become man's rights. The country can boast of every problem associated with the archaic, the ultra- modern and the overripe industrial world. It is, in spots, Greece, Switzerland and Lancashire. It has to cope with a high rate of illiteracy, an immature electorate, overbearing and avaricious entrepreneurs, the unemployment of too many unqualified workers, poverty and widespread corruption; with air and water pollution, inefficient state welfare organizations, chaotic urban growth, lack of modern schools, hospitals, courts; finally, with obsolete industries, some of which are state-owned or want to become state property to protect themselves from aggressive competition and to be able to point to their losses not as examples of bad management but as farsighted contributions to social well-being.
Then, if these headaches were not enough, Italy has a vast number of troubles which are uniquely her own, most of which cannot be cured and cost a great deal of money. Among them are the war on the Mafia, the retarded development of the South, earthquakes, floods, the effects of deforestation, the necessity to preserve priceless art treasures, palazzi, churches, ruins, world-famous landscapes and ancient archives from decay. What other country must prevent one of the world's most exquisite cities from slowly sinking in the mud or another from being washed away by the next spring flood? Where else must the government worry whether the inclination from the perpendicular of a glorious and ancient marble tower is approaching the danger point?
There are, in fact, enough problems to keep busy an army of foundation- financed specialists, each happily digging his own little sector. Non- specialists, however, who prefer the panoramic view, suspect that all these afflictions could be considered the many effects of one single pathological condition. This appears superficially as the discrepancy between the energy, vigor, feverish activity, zest for life, adaptability, industry, resourcefulness of the Italian people as a whole, most of whom now refuse the miserable living conditions they had resignedly accepted as their lot for centuries, and the growing paralysis of a decrepit state machinery. The Italians are visibly transforming parts of their country, by hook if possible and by crook if there is no other way, into a passable imitation of Mitteleuropa. They are moving, so to speak, in a northwestern direction, toward the Duchy of Bourgogne, the Rhine Valley and the Low Countries. At the same time, the public administration is sleepily dragging itself in the opposite direction, with Byzantium as its ideal resting place.
The problem, then, is fundamentally only one: that of bringing the public administration on a level with the need of the people, or the aggiornamento- the updating-of the state. Should Italy somehow acquire within the next few years a relatively efficient civil service, run by competent men, regulated by simplified procedures and governed by cabinet ministers with few but clear ideas, nobody doubts she would advance more speedily and with less impediments. She could cure most of her ills and prevent the deterioration of the few incurable ones. Obviously a start should be made with illiteracy. This should not be impossible to liquidate in a country where the entire school system from kindergarten to university is either run directly or controlled by the Ministry of Public Instruction.
Poverty could be tackled next. The state owns, runs, manages and controls directly some of the economic activities; it can easily influence all of them, as every modern state does, It is, in fact, on paper, the most powerful state in the free world, even if it does not seem to be fully aware of its properties and possibilities. It would theoretically be easy to provide stable and remunerative employment in a well-ordered economy for a properly trained population, fully able to take part in the scientific production processes of industry and agriculture. Finally, a reasonably affluent and literate population, whose rights and needs were automatically and quickly recognized by the state, would no longer fall prey to the communist mirage. The ancient problem of the revolutionary threat to liberty would be solved.
The people have been dreaming of being well governed for centuries. There is a fourteenth-century fresco by Lorenzetti, on a wall of the Palazzo della Ragione at Siena, called "Il buon governo." "Il buon governo" is the title of a well-known book by Luigi Einaudi, the distinguished economist who was the first President of the Republic. The fact that the country has had good government only at rare periods in history has convinced many that Italians do not have the qualities necessary to become good civil servants and administrators. This, of course, is not true. Many Italians (too many, perhaps) have a natural inclination for state employment and enjoy the security and authority connected with it. They like nothing better, in fact. And they can be satisfactory, if not always exemplary, bureaucrats whenever the system requires it.
They were impartial, honest and efficient under the first governments of united Italy (1860-1876) and under Giovanni Giolitti before World War I. They were good under the Austrians in Trent and Trieste. They were (and are) expert administrators in the Canton Ticino and the Swiss Federal bureaucracy. There are a few sectors of the Italian State which still function impeccably, the Banca d'ltalia and the Carabinieri among them. Finally, they have created and run for about twenty centuries the greatest bureaucratic masterpiece of all, the most subtle and complex organization devised by man, bigger and more far-reaching than the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey-the Roman Curia.
To be sure, old-fashioned government responsibilities were less exacting and specialized, more suited perhaps to the Italians' native qualities. But they have also proved themselves resourceful and skillful in the intricate organizations of the contemporary industrialized and scientific world: they are doing well, for instance, among the "Eurocrats" in Brussels. In other words, they love the jobs, possess the necessary qualities and can be good whenever they are enclosed within well-defined rules and entrusted with precise powers and duties. For these reasons many believe that the Italian state could be made to function in an adequate manner within a short time, with substantially the same men already employed, give and take a few thousands, and at approximately the same cost.
The aggiornamento of the state machinery should obviously be the aim of both the Right and the Left. Conservatives in Italy as elsewhere pine for law and order, the protection of life and property, the certainty of well- defined rights and duties; they enjoy seeing crooks and grafters end in jail and public affairs smoothly and economically managed. The Left, however, should want an energetic and refurbished bureaucracy and streamlined legal procedures even more. Their avowed policy is "the intervention of the state in the economy for the advantage of the collectivity." (The formula is not new. Every Italian government since Cavour did just that. Only the idea of what constituted the advantage of the collectivity varied with the times.) In order to intervene effectively one must have the necessary instruments: bureaus manned by trained and reliable experts. As most of the laws passed by the Left encounter obstinate resistance, the need for impartial and energetic enforcement agencies is particularly evident. Nationalized monopolies must be kept working for the common good by state surveillance, and not for their own aggrandizement. Finally, if the country should be divided into autonomous regions, as the Left and the Christian Democrats want, a well-run central administration will be found indispensable to harmonize local initiatives.
That the problem has become a matter of life and death is recognized by the first victims of the prevailing disorder, the civil servants themselves. For the last twenty years their unions have been placing an anguished request for a total overhaul of the system at the head of their list of demands when negotiating with the Government, even before higher wages and more tolerable living conditions. The minor parties, whose origins go back to the Risorgimento, the Liberali and the Republicans, as well as the newer Social Democrats (when they existed autonomously, before being merged in the new Partito Socialista) considered a reform of the state machinery preliminary to other political action.
The Liberali, in particular, who insist that the "rule of law" is a prerequisite of liberty in a country which has always been tempted by dogmatic paternalism, have made the renovation of the state and the reconstruction of its authority their principal electoral issue since 1946.
Even some left-wing Socialists have now come around to the same idea. Pietro Nenni (vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers) has lately pointed out to journalists that "one cannot entrust more and more intricate, technical and delicate new tasks to offices so disorganized they cannot even undertake their old ones. . . ." At this point many agree that the Italian people cannot survive and flourish for long if they do not solve their fundamental problem.
To be sure, the situation is not the result of a sinister conspiracy. The efficiency of bureaucracy and the authority of the law are declining in other countries, including some of the most famous and long-established nations; why should they improve in Italy, where the unified and independent state is only a few years older than a century and has always been fragile and precarious,? The present crisis may be but the contemporary aspect of the durable Italian Problem: some believe that a country which could not be governed as a whole in simpler times cannot easily be well run now that problems have become intricate and complex.
It must also be remembered that the liberation of Italy from foreign rule, the foundation of the new independent and unified kingdom, and the conquest of Rome were brought about by a small minority of the population, the middle class, with the aid of foreign allies, against the strenuous opposition of the Catholics, the legitimist upper classes and the proletariat. The new state was supported at best by such a small percentage of the people (the rest put up a resigned and not very convincing show of loyalty) that it was strong and authoritative only when the weather was fair. In fact, it went to pieces after World War I, as soon as an enlarged electorate brought to parliament a vast number of men representing sectors which had opposed the Risorgimento-the Catholics and the extreme Left-and the going became rough.
Then came twenty years of arbitrary rule under the Fascist régime, when the law was regularly set aside by the ruling clique and only those bureaucrats who slavishly served the régime could get ahead. The final blow was the War (which naturally suspended all semblance of rule by law) and the defeat. It is not surprising that the reconstruction of the public administration did not particularly worry the postwar democratic governments, haunted by more urgent problems. Short cuts (some of them illegal) were found to reconstruct everything, to block the Communists and to produce quick results in all fields. The new political élite in charge had no experience of correct administrative procedures and no desire to learn them. All this demoralized what was left of the administration and made its vices worse.
To be sure, there are groups, institutions, sections of the population, political parties, entrenched interests which find the decay and disorganization of the state eminently suited to their needs. They flourish in chaos. But it cannot be said that they are directly responsible for a situation which has deep roots in history. It is true, however, that they not only do nothing to solve the problem but also do everything in their power to prevent others from doing so. They are powerful and cannot be easily defeated. It must be remembered that, as long as they prevail, the country will not be able to conquer illiteracy, poverty and the communist menace. As long as they prevail the country will not know real stability.
Here is a rough list of them:
The managers of state-owned and privately owned big industrial and financial concerns. Both know that a rigorous control will paralyze their initiatives. They are in favor of a semi-socialist state, to be sure, with the powers necessary to interfere in the economy, and therefore back the present leftist coalition. They want the state to be strong enough to serve their interests, which, as everybody is being told all the time, coincide with the national interests, but weak enough not to hamper their freedom of action. Their contributions help support the parties in power and inevitably call most of the tunes.
The Trade Unions. The Communist, the Socialist and the Christian Democratic Trade Unions have for twenty years successfully prevented the passage of laws, which the Constitution calls for, to regulate their activities. For obvious reasons, they do not want to see the right to strike limited in any way nor legal procedures established for the settlement of labor disputes, similar to those existing in most progressive countries. The trade unions control vast blocs of votes and are represented in parliament by powerful groups of deputies and senators, both supporting and opposing the Government. They are ready to collaborate in order to discourage or defeat initiatives designed to curb their autonomy. It must be said that so far no serious attempt has been made to limit their power.
The Communist Party. It thrives on unsolved problems. It understandably watches with dry eyes the growing ineffectiveness of the bourgeois liberal state, which its great masters foresaw, and looks forward to its final collapse as impatiently as an heir waiting for the demise of a wealthy relative. The Communists also know that an efficient state would make them lose electoral votes and power. They understandably do nothing to improve matters.
The Socialists. They belong to the governing coalition but do not have the energy and the power necessary to launch any reform against the opposition of the Christian Democrats. Furthermore, they themselves are not of one mind about what reforms to ask for, what reforms would be useful and how to go about getting them. Some, in fact, believe like the Communists that the state should be allowed to reach its ultimate collapse in order to transform it more easily into their ideal model. Others would timidly like to do what is possible to better things now and alleviate the suffering of the lower classes. This dichotomy (which has always been part of Socialist parties in Europe) paralyzes them. Most of them are theoretical rebels at heart and found themselves more comfortable in the opposition; they had no inkling or training as administrators.
The Christian Democrats. For centuries the Church has played power politics in Italy. Machiavelli believed it was never strong enough to unify and govern the country effectively, but always strong enough to prevent others from doing so. At all times, it considered that being the sovereign master of its territory, surrounded by friendly principalities, was essential for its welfare, liberty of action and prosperity. After one hundred years of anticlerical or hostile governments, this historic task has become vital today. Furthermore, for deep philosophic reasons, the Church considers all states, even the friendliest, its own adversaries; it sees all merely human organizations and man-made laws with detachment and diffidence. Also, when good Catholics are in charge, it prefers the state to be weak and impotent. Finally, it must be remembered that the Christian Democrats of today are the heirs of the opponents of the liberal and secular Italy formed during the Risorgimento; they have besieged the castle of the state for so long that, now that they have conquered it, they cannot easily shed their old mentality. They cannot remember that the hated walls, ramparts and bastions are their own defenses, essential to keep the Communists out, and should be reinforced and kept in good repair. They enthusiastically keep on dismantling them. Even among the best of those who are trying to run the country, some of whom show great qualities of leadership and competence, there is a vague feeling that the Rechtstaat is somehow impious and that there is little that can be done here and now to better man's predicament.
The formation of the Center Left coalition was greatly aided by the combined efforts of the Vatican and the United States. John XXIII and Paul VI thought that breaking the old alliance between the Socialists and Communists would weaken and demoralize the extreme Left, open the way out of a dangerous situation, and help the Church acquire a more progressive and liberal image. President Kennedy dedicated to the operation (which would obviously strengthen American prestige) all the visible and invisible resources of the United States Government. At one point all Catholic organizations, the American foundations, the American press, American military agencies and the State Department were involved in pushing the project.
Was it a success? It did not disappoint all its backers, to be sure. It definitely weakened the Communists, who began to find new cause for hope only later, when the Church timidly opened a dialogue with them to explore the possibility of striking a modus vivendi in the West (including Italy) as well as in the East. The coalition solved some short-range problems and made few mistakes. It gave the Government unprecedented stability, a majority docile and large enough to consider launching a vast program of new legislation. It encouraged (or did not hamper) the rapid development of the economy. Nevertheless, it did not tackle the larger problems. It could not, because of the very nature of the allied parties. Since the Catholics cannot take the state seriously and the Socialists do not know whether to cure the state's ills or let it wither, the Government was never able to agree what a reformed, more efficient and modern state should look like.
Economic prosperity is a great advantage, to be sure, but without solid institutions to help it, it cannot assure stability in troubled times. Money alone does not solve fundamental problems, as more powerful, industrialized and affluent countries than Italy have discovered. While the economic weather remains fair, the Center Left coalition will be able to do good work, win elections, possibly pass a few needed laws and put up a good front. Should the weather change, however, the contrast between a hard- working, progressive society and a decrepit state machinery will become dramatically apparent; then the country will face anguishing decisions. There are a few observers who believe the present solution could be compared with the ancient alliance of the Church with the Empire (with Lyndon Johnson taking, pro tempore, the place of the Holy Roman Emperor), the alliance which kept Italy at peace for centuries but prevented the formation of an autonomous country. Some think the governing coalition (which has eliminated all other possible combinations) to be nothing more than a clever combinazione, which may postpone the day of reckoning for a while. Obviously, the Government will be a success only if it solves the one problem that history has presented to this generation to solve: the creation of a modern and efficient state. Somebody will have to do the job. If the Center Left does not find the men and the ideas, and fails to agree on the plan, somebody else will do it. Who? 1 It is preferable not to translate the term to avoid confusion. While all liberals spring from the same philosophic sources, fought originally the same revolutions, and still cherish somewhat similar goals, each country has developed its own distinct variety, determined by the conditions of the local struggle against tyranny, and by the nature and obstinacy of the local enemies of liberty.