The Italian malaise:

An end of the dolce vita?

Brenda Dionisi
January 24, 2008

Much like a Pandora’s box, contemporary Italy has increasingly born the brunt of its own evils and hardships, and as a result, has come under more and more international scrutiny. It seems that the pizza, pasta and mandolino icons have caught up with the bel paese and the challenges of globalization have weighed it down and worn it out.


Berated for lacking the boldness, vitality and courage for which it was once celebrated, today’s Italy is believed to be deep in the throws of a ‘collective funk’ according to a rather poignant American critique of the state of Italy today. Ian Fisher’s December 13 New York Times piece has provoked national debate thanks to its premise that Italy is suffering from a widespread sense of malessere, or malaise, due to old and new political, social and economic ills.  The reasons for such gloom and doom? Shouldering the highest pensions, public debt and costs of government, while maintaining the lowest wages, birth rate and levels of economic growth in Europe, Italy, Fisher points out, has ‘fragmentary politics, uneven growth, organized crime and a tenuous sense of nationhood’. Such are indicators of the country’s ‘foul mood’. More importantly, he notes Italy’s apparent paralysis in the face of such ever-surmounting obstacles is making its people more despondent and disengaged than ever. There is little hope, or none at all, in turning the situation around, he observes.


Italian reaction to the NYT article has been mixed. Most Italians agree that the nation is definitely experiencing a particular moment of hardship, or crisi. Even the mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, admits that ‘there is more fear than hope’ among Italians.


However, other Italians view Fisher’s vision of contemporary Italy as rather melodramatic, slightly overblown, and if anything, borderline hysterical. Many contend that the current stagnancy does not mean imminent social and economic disaster, but is a temporary setback that will only serve to make Italy stronger.


The ‘cling-on’ culture

Italian author and broadcaster of the political talk show Ballarò, Giovanni Floris admits, ‘We are witnessing a deterioration in the morale, expectations and courage of Italians, caused by a static society, where it is difficult to take action’. He describes the political system as a caste entrenched in favoritism, where very few players wield most of the power. ‘Italians are currently depressed by the unchanging nature of their country, where the same members of the establishment cling on to power for a lifetime, denying newcomers opportunities for advancement’.


Nothing could be closer to the truth. Italy’s aging political class mirrors its aging population and workforce, each fiercely protecting its own territory of influence. Floris adds, ‘The problem is that the politicians, who are always the same people, always fish from the same pool. In the long run, this impoverishes the country’.


And as 60-somethings continue to occupy most of the available jobs, the country’s younger generations are unable to assert themselves. Faced with unemployment or contract work, most young adults continue to live at home because of embarrassingly low salaries, the ever-rising costs of living, a lack of affordable housing. Breeding greatness like that of Federico Fellini, Sophia Loren, Luciano Pavarotti and Gianni Agnelli, means leaving room for Italy’s brightest to flourish—not founder.


When asked his thoughts on the NYT article and on the widening generational divide discussed therein, a Sicilian-born PhD candidate said:


I agree that Italy is a country in crisis because many Italians are finding it more and more difficult to stretch their salaries till the end of the month. People who earn 1,200 euro a month cannot afford to purchase a home. I can’t afford to purchase a home, and don’t know if I will ever be able to. My greatest fear is that I will not be able to make a life for myself like my parents did at my age. So yes, I fear the future, but I do not consider it ‘hopeless’. On the other hand, I am suspect of a foreign journalist’s account of the situation in Italy—he doesn’t live here, he hasn’t grown up here. Things are complicated in Italy and they cannot be outlined in a few pages. However, I do believe in Italy’s ability to rise to any challenge, regardless of the odds. Italy has seen darker days than this. It emerged from WWII in complete and total ruin, and within 10 years or so, became the sixth richest and most industrialized country in the world. We need tough moments in order to show others, and more importantly ourselves, what we are made of.


Two sides to every coin

While some truth lies behind Fisher’s bleak depiction, perhaps he has only scratched the surface enough to reveal a frustrated, and at times, enraged population.


For it seems that Italians have not rolled over and surrendered to their fate. ‘Where there is a will, there is a way,’ the saying goes, and if there is a way, you can bet your money that Italy will find it. The recent garbage crisis in Naples is evidence of this: a decades-long trash problem reached its climax when Neapolitans decided that enough was enough. Their actions, though highly unconventional and immensely self-damaging, got the world’s attention, and purposefully, help in trying to solve the problem the problem.


Several Italian economists believe that the national economy is not in decline, but rather, in a period of ‘profound transformation, these examples of transformation show Italy’s ability to adapt and survive,’ says Luca Paolazzi, research director for the private employer’s association Confindustria.


A 30-something entrepreneur from Florence reiterates the importance of Italy’s survival instinct:


Living in Italy is tough, but we make do just fine. The NYT article offered an accurate summary of the facts and taken all together it is depressing. But if you live each problem one by one, it is not as discouraging as it seems. It is like we possess a sort of entropic joy which helps us affront a country that does not seem to facilitate anything—everything is difficult. I like to think that Italian entrepreneurial inventiveness has developed in a Darwinian-like way in order to reach a higher level and overcome bigger obstacles; that we are exceptional players on the international stage, where the State plays alongside us, and not against us.


In his end-of-year speech, premier Romano Prodi assured the nation, ‘We’ve finally started reducing the public debt and the Italian race car, after a change of tires and a refill of confidence, is coming out of the pit lane and is going at a speed it hasn’t managed in years.’ Exports are on the rise and a recent campaign to curb tax evasion has saved the Italian state millions of euro this past year.


Moreover, state officials seem more adamant than ever before to curb organized crime. Estimated to be the country’s largest economic sector, the mafia is losing its tight grip on several key economic sectors, more so each day. Although much still needs to be done, several initiatives—like that of the Confindustria in Sicily, which has provided increased support for shop owners who refuse to pay protection money to mob lords—leave ample room for hope to grow and prosper in future generations.




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