Italy’s malaise

Italy’s plight is troubling. The country’s most vulnerable groups – immigrants, the Roma population, Jews – are rightly wary.

March 6, 2018 21:02
3 minute read.
Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi casts his vote at a polling station in Milan, Italy.

Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi casts his vote at a polling station in Milan, Italy March 4, 2018.. (photo credit: REUTERS/STEFANO RELLANDINI)


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In the wake of Italy’s national election this week, which saw the rise of right-wing and anti-establishment political parties, a prominent Jewish leader warns the situation there is reminiscent of the early 1920s.

“The rise of fascism in Italy at the beginning of the 1920s is similar in certain respects [to the present political situation], as it was the power of populist protection rising from the bottom and not from the intellectual and leading cultural forces,” Noemi Di Segni told The Jerusalem Post’s Jewish World reporter Tamara Zieve on Monday.

Di Segni went on to say that “I think the real struggle and real challenge for the country today is remembering its past... to remember the history of fascism in Italy – of what has happened and can happen.”

We respect Di Segni’s perception of the situation. But we would argue that the rise of right-wing and even fascist political parties is a symptom of a much more fundamental malaise that has plagued Italy for some time.

A beautiful ship slowly sinking because of the ineptitude of its captain was the image that popped into the mind of Luigi Zingales, a Chicago University economist and Italian expat, when asked recently by an Italian publication to describe the way he sees the country from abroad.

As Zingales noted in a recent article for Foreign Policy, four factors are endangering Italy’s future: lack of growth in productivity (a problem shared by Israel); a negative demographic outlook (a problem not shared by Israel); oppressive levels of public debt; and Italy’s problematic relationship with the European Union, which is exacerbated by its economic problems.

At the heart of all of Italy’s problems is ingrained corruption, nepotism, and discrimination against women that undermine meritocracy. The best and the brightest who lack connections or have the bad luck of being born female leave for countries such as Germany and the US where they are compensated for their talents.

If the best jobs are obtained based on who you know and your gender, the business sector will be led by persons who lack talent and who are unable to exploit innovations that can maximize productivity.

Low productivity, in turn, leads to economic stagnation, lower tax revenue, higher debt and economic crises that force the European Union to intervene. And when technocrats sitting in Brussels start dictating policies from afar, Italian rightly feel their sovereignty has been undermined. Voting is less about articulating one’s support for this or that policy than about protesting the status quo.

Tragically, there is little hope of change. Most parties that could theoretically form the next government are more likely than not themselves mired in corruption or backed by interests that are. The only party that ran explicitly on a platform to fight corruption and strengthen meritocracy is the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo and headed by Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old former student activist. Five Star received a plurality of the vote – 32.7%. But Grillo has stuck by his refusal to fun for elected office, strengthening the impression that Five Star is nothing more than a protest party devoid of concrete policy proscriptions.

Lacking hope and political vision, Italians have turned to extremism and populism. Last March, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing, anti-immigration League, which received more than 17% of the vote, its best showing ever, visited Moscow and signed a deal to cooperate with Russia. Salvini said at the time, “I admire Putin as a man of state, a man of government, who defends the interests of his people and his businesses, who defends his values and his borders, and I esteem him for free, not for money.”

Salvini plans to form a coalition with Brothers of Italy, a neo-fascist party tracing its roots to the post-Mussolini Italian Social Movement. Brothers of Italy almost doubled its vote share, to 4.4%.

Italy’s plight is troubling. The country’s most vulnerable groups – immigrants, the Roma population, Jews – are rightly wary. Di Segni’s sentiments are undoubtedly heartfelt. It is an unfortunate axiom of human nature that in times of societal and economic turmoil the weakest members of society – the Jews included – are the first to feel threatened, even if they have nothing to do with the causes of the crisis.

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