The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
THE regions of Calabria, Lucania and Apulia are the Achilles heel of Italy and perhaps of Western Europe as a whole. Their problem is basically agrarian, and it is intricate because of endless local diversity. When one goes to southern Italy, right down into the toe (Calabria) and the heel which is called the Salento (southern Apulia), one finds oneself in a pre-industrial age. In so far as the industrial revolution had an effect, it has spelt decline. The natural defeatism of the Italians of the south has in consequence deepened. Nonetheless, specialists on Italian agriculture -- for example, Professor Manlio Rossi-Doria, one of the foremost authorities on the subject -- are convinced that southern Italy has great potentialities. They believe that if its problems can be energetically tackled, while Marshall Plan funds are available, what is probably the worst "undeveloped area" in Western Europe can be transformed into a European asset. If, on the other hand, the problem is shirked, as it has been for the last 50 years and more, the situation can become only worse and worse.
It is not true that the Italians of the south are dirty or lazy, and still less is it true that they are stupid; but roughly half of them are illiterate, and their health is miserable. The climate is dry (without rain in the summer) and the dryness has been intensified by the severe deforestation of the last 90 years; the climate, however, has the compensating mildness of the Mediterranean zone so favorable to olive tree and vine. There are parts of the region, in particular a strip along the western or Tyrrhenian coast of Calabria, where the soil is rich, though inland and higher up the soil seems very poor. Large areas are completely undeveloped and wasted; in some of the most arid-looking districts water is not far beneath the earth's surface, yet no one digs down to get it.
One evil pervades the whole Mezzogiórno (as the Italians call the south of Italy), and that is a traditional, habitual unwillingness to invest capital in anything. One can discover a variety of reasons for this. It is a cumulative disease; the less investment there is, the less attractive investment becomes as the years slip by -- and in southern Italy they slip by almost unnoticed. To some extent it is an inheritance from the period when the south was under Spanish rule. Often since the foundation of the modern Italian state in 1860 the government itself has been to blame; it has mostly been short of funds, and quicker returns were to be had from other parts of Italy. The excessive rates of interest in Italy in the last few years, against which American experts have rightly been protesting and which began to be reduced in the spring of this year, have, however, probably had little direct bearing on this shortage of capital, since no southern capitalist would have invested money there on any terms; with very few exceptions the owners of the big properties, or latifondi, live luxuriously in Naples or elsewhere without care or thought for their land beyond a desire to bleed it.
At first the traveller in the Mezzogiórno is incredulous as he observes the signs of neglect. In Calabria, especially that part of it which faces the Ionian Sea, there is severe soil erosion, due to the cutting down of the trees on the mountains, for which the state must take a considerable share of blame since many of the forest areas are state property. Timber was urgently required for the construction of the railroads when the ancient Kingdom of Naples and Sicily was conquered by Garibaldi and handed over to the House of Savoy, and the trees which were cut down were not replaced. Deforestation has continued and has been accelerated during each of the world wars, with the inevitable result that the rivers are growing more and more turbulent. Each winter the waters rush down, sweep away farms and silt up vineyards and orange groves. Later, the water stagnates at the river mouths, feeding the malarial swamps -- and then the river beds dry up and there is no more water until the next devastation. Since one of Italy's crying needs is hydroelectric power, the wastage is compounded -- rivers ruin the land instead of irrigating it, and their force which should be harnessed for constructive purposes is spent uselessly.
The peculiar wealth of Calabria lies in its orange and lemon groves. These fruits grow in the luscious confusion of the rich coastal strip where little farms yielding every kind of produce are so crowded together that some of them seem to be sliding into the sea. In the district around Reggio, Calabrian soil and climate combine to produce remarkably large orange crops. In view of the dietetic importance which oranges have acquired, they are no longer a luxury fruit and it may be presumed that the world market will expand. Without drastic changes in methods of marketing, however, Calabrian oranges are unlikely to reach it in large numbers. They are grown by tenant farmers, who get about a fifth of the crop, and on tiny peasant-owned farms; the tenants have no incentive to set up an efficient marketing apparatus, and the small owners who might want to do so lack the capital. In the Po Valley and in central Italy, coöperatives have successfully been developed to meet such needs, but in the south the idea is regarded with suspicion.
A serious misfortune in south Italy is that the peasants scarcely ever live on the land they cultivate except around Lecce in the Salento. In Lucania and Apulia, so vastly overpopulated, the traveller is astonished to find immense stretches of uninhabited pasture and crop land. The small farmers, shepherds and laborers who work these lands are packed together in distant towns. In the plain called the Tavoliere, around Foggia, whole communities often live on some rock where their ancestors took refuge from invaders centuries ago, in measureless squalor and far from their work. In Matera, a provincial capital in Lucania made famous by the novelist, Carlo Levi, the people live in unventilated holes scooped out of the rocks, and nothing has been built there since the war, apart from a very smart cinema. In Melito the only building which looks habitable is the prison. Everywhere one finds peasants paying rent for some windowless shed worse than a stable. The land-hungry peasantry have pounced upon any odd scrap of land to be found, and their tiny cultivated strips are scattered in all directions from the towns in which they sleep. The Fascist régime resettled some hundreds of farmers on the land west of Foggia, but only large-scale capital investment can lead to a solution.
The Italian birth rate is at its highest in the south and the scourge of overpopulation constantly grows worse, intensified not only by the shutting off of emigration, but also by the hygienic improvements which the Allies, and especially the Americans, brought with them to Italy. Malaria has been reduced, and so also has infant mortality. As fewer babies die and things therefore get worse the pressure of population in the Mezzogiórno takes on a nightmare quality. Every scrap of land, wherever it lies and however barren it may be, every scrap of work, however ill-paid, is vital to the peasant whose family is growing all the time, and must be struggled for in the fierce competition of the poor. Instruction in birth control is suggested as a necessary first step in mitigating this misery; but the Church forbids. Attempts to grapple with the people's housing needs seem more and more hopeless; rare attempts on the part of individuals seem only to multiply the difficulties. A Milanese pioneer, for example, bought a good-sized farm outside Cosenza in Calabria, invested all his capital in it and with northern vigor set about improving it. He has built a few decent houses for the laborers, but his new tobacco factory draws unemployed people from the Tyrrhenian side of the mountains, and he cannot house them all nor employ them for more than part time; meanwhile, he is losing money. It is easy to guess how foolish the big landowners consider him. How much wiser they feel themselves to be in taking out all the quick profit they can from their land and in putting nothing back where it would only go down the drain of the universal desperate poverty!
So long as nothing is done to check the mounting population, unemployment (or rather under-employment) will mount also. In southern Italy there is often little distinction between the employed and the unemployed, because there is scarcely anyone who has enough to do. Those who work on the land are lucky if they are employed for six months in the year. They depend upon the seasons. In such industry as there is, the work is seasonal also. Since 1915 tobacco-growing has been developed on a fairly large scale, especially in the province of Lecce, and this provides four months' factory work in the year for women. Even where employers keep to the labor legislation of the country, their employees may be left without pay for two-thirds of the year, and there is next to no public assistance.
In general, there are so many people competing for every scrap of work that employers can pay illegally low wages with impunity. Trade union organization is weak, except among the railwaymen and the few employees of some big northern firm like Montecatini chemicals; the southern peasant is often afraid that anyone who might offer him work would withdraw the offer if he were known to belong to a union. In Calabria one sees women carrying wood down the mountains on their heads for unlimited hours in the day; for this heavy work they earn 200 lire, or possibly 250 -- less than 50 cents a day. Often one sees school-children at jobs which adults grievously need, but their labor is cheap -- or they are saving their fathers from paying any wages.
Evil conditions such as these breed either apathy or exasperation. Most of the time most of the people of southern Italy accept the consolation offered by their priests and wait for the other world. Paziénza! Things have always been like this here and they always will be. They are ready to believe that all reformers are suspect and that all northerners -- which is their name for all other Italians -- are reformers. It is better to resist the machinations of such people. Local politicians like to say that southern Italy saved Western Europe in the elections of April 1948 since it provided a strong anti-Left majority which outweighed the Leftist vote further north. But in those overcrowded towns, Cerignola and Andria in Apulia or the port of Bari, many of the unemployed laborers or braccianti have joined the Communist Party.
And then sometimes apathy flares up into exasperation. The war showed many southerners what life is like in other parts of the world, and the Communists have been able to make use of this. In fact, while they lost in the north and remained steady in central Italy, it was in some of the most primitive parts of the Mezzogiórno that the Communists made gains in 1948. In a village called Condofuri in southern Calabria, where the torrents had swept the peasants' farms away and they still had to pay taxes on the land they had lost, there was a 60 percent Communist vote. This was something quite new -- and there were similar happenings in a number of southern townships. They may have been due to momentary exasperation -- but they may also have been caused by an exasperation which will grow.
During the last period of the Second World War, with the Allied armies in occupation, southern Italy enjoyed a brief artificial prosperity, and after the war big landowners and peasants both could sell food at very high prices. But in the last two years food prices have fallen, and the political atmosphere has changed. The latifondisti have recovered influence, and hold to their property more tenaciously than ever. Peasants are often punished now for having squatted on neglected land, though a decree of 1944 had encouraged them to do so. Meanwhile, the characteristic products of the Mezzogiórno still tend to be classified as superfluous luxuries in a Europe whose economic recovery is incomplete. While to Italians or Spaniards wines, eating grapes and olive oil appear as common necessities, Britain and other more northern countries will not spend much to buy them, and France can supply herself. Italy exported only 35,546 quintals of almonds in the six months from September 1948 to February 1949 inclusive, whereas she exported 127,932 quintals in the equivalent period ten years before. Around Melito, the southernmost point of Calabria, the bergamotto grows easily. This is a fruit closely akin to the orange or lemon -- the leaves of its trees are slightly darker and smaller than orange-tree leaves -- whose oily juice preserves perfumes or flavors. Jasmine has been grown here systematically since about 1936. In spite of competition from older perfumery concerns on the Riviera, there seemed some hope of building up a Calabrian perfume industry; but so far the hope has proved vain.
By their nature the south Italians take all the difficulties which arise about these things as deliberate affronts to them. The American E.C.A. experts, in view of the precarious world market for wine, have advised the retention of wheat-growing on certain areas given to vines before Mussolini's campaign for wheat. Southerners comment bitterly on this; the Americans, they say, are as indifferent as the Fascist dictator to the fact that vines give more employment than wheat.
As one travels around southern Italy one observes a number of scattered, uncoördinated attempts to improve agriculture and set up industries. At Sibari, on the Gulf of Taranto, a region of big landed properties, an industrialist called Toscano has begun to drain what has been a malarial swamp. Reclamation and settlement on a small scale are being carried forward by the government in the Tavoliere. At Sant' Eufemia, on the Tyrrhenian coast of Calabria, a few houses have been built at the river mouth. But what little one finds seems doomed to be flooded by the rising tide of the population. Often one sees small olive-oil refineries or textile factories started up by some entrepreneur, then abandoned.
The authorities in Foggia say it will take them 50 years, at their present scale of expenditure, to irrigate and settle the Tavoliere and to introduce intensive cultivation there. If, on the other hand, they were able to invest 30 billion to 35 billion lire, this whole area could be literally transformed in five years so as to employ about four times as much labor and produce vastly more wheat, olive oil and wine. At the same time, new crops, such as hybrid maize, might be introduced and the breeding of animals for meat might be undertaken, now that Albanian meat supplies have come to an end.
In a way the industrialization of Eastern Europe by the Communists gives southern Italian agriculture its chance to replace former imports of food. Experts whose views are unjaundiced by the defeatism of the Mezzogiórno agree that, given the capital, the possibilities are tremendous. But a coördinated effort is essential. Land reclamation will need to go hand in hand with the redistribution of the land, and, if possible, with the concentration of scattered strips. Parts of the most wastefully-operated large properties should be made available for land-hungry owners of dwarf farms and agricultural laborers; but it is not desirable to add to the number of uneconomical small farms unless coöperatives are developed. Above all, people must be settled in their own cottages on the land.
Calabria offers the most exciting opportunity because here it is possible to combine irrigation, which would make productive some 190,000 hectares now wasted and protect 50,000 more from floods, with the creation of about one and a half billion kilowatts per annum from water power. At the same time the malarial swamps could be finally abolished, and it would become worth while to develop the roads and railways now regularly wrecked by floods. Reforestation would obviously be an essential part of the project -- chestnut trees for the tanning industry would probably be a good investment, and perhaps also broom, in view of its new industrial possibilities. On the lower slopes figs of exceptionally good quality could be grown, and it would also probably be worth while to develop banana plantations. At the same time, capital would make it possible to work the Calabrian deposits of lignite, quartz and pyrites, which have never been mined at all. All this would provide work for thousands of people, who would then consume a normal instead of a subnormal diet, and this would have its effect on the local market for wine and olive oil. A new demand for textiles and radios would arise, and some goods might drop from the luxury into the everyday category. It should thus become possible to industrialize on a very considerable scale without too great a danger of overproduction. This is a sample of the problem.
Marshall aid has offered a magic hope to those who believe in these developments in southern Italy. The American E.C.A. mission to Italy made an excellent impression; the Italian authorities feel that its members understand that sometimes a nettle must be grasped. But it is still too early to judge whether Marshall funds will change the situation fundamentally.
The obstacles to success are, in summary, two. The first is simply that the amount of capital required to do the job properly is gigantic. It has been noted that the authorities at Foggia calculate that they need 6 or 7 billion lire per annum for five years for the Tavoliere. The first year's allocation under the Marshall Plan is less than 3 billion. The needs in Calabria are estimated at 200 billion lire over 20 years, but the first allocation is scarcely more than 7 billion. The allocations for the second year are expected to be smaller. Perhaps we may hope that the estimates of the sums needed are exaggerated.
The second obstacle lies within Italy herself. The obstructively conservative forces in the country have regained political power; the latifondisti believe that it is to their interest to prevent change, though the opposite would seem to be true. Last spring Premier De Gasperi put forward a project for agrarian reform which, contrary to expert advice, left the less-productive big properties untouched. Very little has been heard of the project since. At the conference of the Christian Democrats in June, Segni, the Minister of Agriculture, who is the author of several interesting projects to help tenant farmers and promote capital investment in the land, referred very cautiously to the fact that 500 landowners own as much land as 5,500,000 "agricultural producers." Meanwhile the distribution of Marshall funds has become a matter of party politics. In fact, Marshall funds cannot solve the problem of the Mezzogiórno unless they are administered on conditions so strict as to involve the control of certain antisocial forces in Italy.