In a Funk,
Italy Sings an Aria of Disappointment
By IAN FISHER
The New York Times, December 13, 2007
ROME — All the
world loves Italy because it is old but still glamorous.
Because it eats and drinks well but is rarely fat or
drunk. Because it is the place in a hyper-regulated
Europe where people still debate with perfect
intelligence what, really, the red in a stoplight might
But these days,
for all the outside adoration and all of its innate
strengths, Italy seems not to love itself. The word here
is “malessere,” or “malaise”; it implies a collective
funk — economic, political and social — summed up in a
recent poll: Italians, despite their claim to have
mastered the art of living, say they are the least happy
people in Western Europe.
“It’s a country
that has lost a little of its will for the future,” said
Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome and a possible future
center-left prime minister. “There is more fear
are, for the most part, not new — and that is the
problem. They have simply caught up to Italy over many
years, and no one seems clear on how change can come —
or if it is possible anymore at all.
charted its own way of belonging to Europe, struggling
as few other countries do with fractured politics,
uneven growth, organized crime and a tenuous sense of
is rising that these old weaknesses are still no better,
and in some cases they are worse, as the world outside
outpaces the country. In 1987, Italy celebrated its
economic parity with Britain. Now Spain, which joined
the European Union only a year earlier, may soon
overtake it, and Italy has fallen behind Britain.
low-tech way of life may enthral tourists, but Internet
use and commerce here are among the lowest in Europe, as
are wages, foreign investment and growth. Pensions,
public debt and the cost of government are among the
numbers show a nation older and poorer — to the point
that Italy’s top bishop has proposed a major expansion
of food packages for the poor.
Worse, worry is
growing that Italy’s strengths are degrading into
weaknesses. Small and medium-size businesses, long the
nation’s family-run backbone, are struggling in a
globalized economy, particularly with low-wage
competition from China.
the family itself: 70 percent of Italians between 20 and
30 still live at home, condemning the young to an
extended and underproductive adolescence. Many of the
brightest, like the poorest a century ago, leave Italy.
The stakes have
risen so high that Ronald P. Spogli, the American
ambassador and someone with 40 years of experience with
Italy, warns that it risks a diminished international
role and relationship with Washington. America’s best
friends, he notes, are its business partners — and
Italy, comparatively, is not high among them.
Bureaucracy and unclear rules kept United States
investment in Italy in 2004 to $16.9 billion. The
figure for Spain was $49.3 billion.
“They need to
sever the ivy that has grown up around this fantastic
2,500-year-old tree that is threatening to kill the
tree,” Mr. Spogli said.
with possible prime ministers, businesspeople,
academics, economists and other Italians suggest that
the largest reason for this malaise seems to be the
feeling that there is little hope that the ivy can be
cut, and that is making Italians both sad and angry.
“Basta! Basta! Basta!”
Beppe Grillo, a 59-year-old comic and
blogger with swooping gray hair, howled in an interview.
The word means “enough,” and he repeated it to make his
point to Italy’s political class clear.
months, Mr. Grillo has become the defining
personification of Italy’s foul mood. On Sept. 8, he
gave that mood a loud voice when he called for a day of
rage, to scream across Piazza Maggiore in Bologna an
obscenity politely translated as “Take a hike!”
A few thousand
people were expected. But 50,000 jammed into the piazza,
and 250,000 signed a petition for changes like term
limits and the direct election of lawmakers. (Voters now
cast their ballots for parties, which then choose who
serves in Parliament, without the voters’ consent.)
His message was
enough inaction and excess (Italian lawmakers are the
best paid in Europe, driven around by the Continent’s
largest fleet of chauffeured cars), enough convicted
criminals in Parliament (there are 24), enough of the
same, tired old faces.
kettle of fish stinks to high heaven!” he yelled. “The
stench rises from the sewers and swirls around and you
leans to the political left, but he spares neither side
in his sold-out shows and popular blog. The problem, he
said, is the system itself.
There is a link
between the nation’s errant political system and its
worsening mood. Luisa Corrado, an Italian economist, led
the research behind the study at the University of
Cambridge that found Italians to be the least happy of
15 Western European nations. The researchers linked
differences in reported happiness across countries with
several socio-demographic and political factors,
including trust in the world around them, not least in
government. In Denmark, the happiest nation, 64 percent
trusted their Parliament. For Italians, the number was
36 percent. “Unfortunately we found this issue of social
trust was a bit missing” in Italy, Ms. Corrado said.
books that set off months of debate capture the distrust
of large powers that cannot be controlled. One, “The
Caste,” sold a million copies (in a nation where sales
of 20,000 make a best seller) by exposing the sins of
Italy’s political class and how it became privileged and
unaccountable. Even the presidency, once above the fray,
was not spared; the book put the office’s annual cost at
$328 million, four times as much as Buckingham Palace.
The other book,
“Gomorrah,” which sold 750,000 copies, oncerns the mob
around Naples, the camorra. But politics, it argues,
allows the camorra to flourish, keeping Italy’s lagging
south poor, and organized crime, by a recent study, the
economy’s largest sector.
Italy’s age-old problems, but Alexander Stille, a
Columbia University professor and an expert on Italy,
argues that this moment is different. While the economy
expanded, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Italians would
tolerate bad behavior from their leaders.
But growth has
been slow for years, and the quality of life is
declining. Statistics now show that 11 percent of
Italian families live under the poverty line, and that
15 percent have trouble spreading their salary over the
“The level of
anger is great because before you could slough it off,”
Mr. Stille said. “Now life is harder.”
associate the current crop of aging leaders with a
capacity to change. They are the same people who have
traded terms in power for more than a decade. Last year,
Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s richest man who became prime
minister for the first time in 1994, was voted out for
not keeping his promises for American-style growth and
opportunities based on merit. When he left office,
economic growth was at zero.
But it became
clear that getting rid of the center-right Mr.
Berlusconi would be no magic cure. Romano Prodi, who had
served as prime minister from 1996 to 1998, won, but he
was saddled with a shaky coalition of nine warring
He promised a
clean slate, but his unwieldy center-left government
disappointed with its first symbolic act: its cabinet
had 102 ministers, a new record. He has pushed through
two reform packages, and the economy is growing again.
“Ours is not a happy situation, but it is better than
before,” he said.
government has fallen once and threatens to fall again
at every difficult vote. Small proposals bring
protesters to the streets, one hurdle to making changes
as protected interests seek to preserve themselves.
Pharmacists shut their doors this year when the
government threatened to allow supermarkets to sell
aspirin. The cost for just 20 aspirin tablets at a
pharmacy is $5.75.
passed, but the government is largely paralyzed. Voters
are fed up, and Mr. Prodi’s foes know it.
the bad humor, the malaise,” said Gianfranco Fini,
leader of National Alliance, the second-largest
opposition party. “People are starting to get strongly
angry because you have a government that doesn’t do
The Generational Divide
“It’s a sadness that what
could be isn’t — that we are not a normal country,” said
Gianluca Gamboni, 36, a financial adviser in Rome,
summing up how he feels about Italy, which he loves, but
which drives him insane.
older generation, he travels and sees how much better
things work elsewhere. He does not spare himself: he
still lives with his parents, not because he wants to,
but because only now, after seven years at his job, can
he afford Rome’s high rents. He is finally considering a
place of his own.
Mr. Gamboni is
on the younger side of Italy’s generational divide — a
lens through which many of the country’s problems come
into focus. It is one of several subterranean forces,
easy to overlook at first, but that taken together make
clear how much Italy has changed over the past several
decades and how little that change has been digested.
Over a century,
ending in the 1970s, 25 million Italians left for better
lives elsewhere. Now, Italy is home to 3.7 million
immigrants. The Roman Catholic Church’s position is
diminishing, from a cultural pillar to a lobbying group.
Italy seems not to have adjusted to the death, in 1992,
of the Christian Democrats, who governed for more than
40 years. Economically, it was once easy to solve
problems by devaluing the currency, the lira. That is
now impossible with the euro, which has also increased
prices, particularly for housing. Then there is the
family. The divorce rate has risen. Large families are a
thing of the past. Italy has one of Europe’s lowest
birth rates, the fewest children under 15 and the
greatest number of people over 85, apart from Sweden.
Unemployment is low, at 6 percent. But 21 percent of the
population between 15 and 24 did not work in 2006. And
the old are not letting go.
Italy’s age is everywhere. In parks, clutches of old
ladies coo at a single toddler. On television, stars are
craggy. (The median age for the presenters of this
year’s Miss Italia contest was 70. The winner, Silvia
Battisti, was 18.) In the political sphere, Mr. Prodi is
68, Mr. Berlusconi 71.
generational problem is the Italian problem,” said Mario
Adinolfi, 36, a blogger and an aspiring lawmaker. “In
every country young people hope. Here in Italy there is
no hope anymore. Your mom keeps you home nice and
softly, and you stay there and you don’t fight. And if
you don’t fight, it is impossible to take power from
“We don’t have
a Google,” he added. “We can’t imagine in Italy that a
30-year-old opens a business in a garage.”
Selling a Notion of Italy
word spread through a house of young Romans, over beer
and pasta, that Luciano Pavarotti, the tenor and
arguably the world’s most famous Italian, had died.
“Damn it!” yelled Federico Boden, 28, a student. “Now
all we have is pasta and pizza!”
Italy does not
seem to rank as it once did for greatness. There is no
new Fellini, Rossellini or Loren. Its cinema,
television, art, literature and music are rarely
considered on the cutting edge.
But it does
have Ferrari, Ducati, Vespa, Armani, Gucci, Piano, Illy,
Barolo — all symbols of style and prestige. What Italy
has is itself, and many believe that the future rests in
trademarking mystique into “Made in Italy.”
was an early test. Producers moved with success from
quantity swill to quality. Illy, the coffee house, has
flourished by combining quality and uniformity with
innovation in methods and style in presentation.
“This is where
Italians are winners,” said Andrea Illy, the company’s
president. “Use your particular strengths, which are
beauty and culture.”
industry depended on low wages, making it vulnerable to
competition from China as labor costs rose. Alarms began
ringing years ago, with fears that many of Italy’s
traditional businesses — textiles, shoes, clothes —
could not compete. Many could not. In Friuli-Venezia
Giulia, a chair-making capital, the number of chair
companies has shrunk to about 800 from 1,200.
“At first they
thought this phase would just pass,” said Massimo
Martino, director of Maxdesign, a furniture company.
“But in reality, many businesses ended up closing
because fundamentally the market didn’t need them
anymore. They didn’t want to change.”
took up the challenge. Wood was the primary material
there, but Mr. Martino began to create chairs, mostly of
molded plastic, well designed but inexpensive. Others
decided that competing against China on price was
impossible. Instead, the aim would be quality and
Italy’s uniqueness, something China could not match.
Costantini, who runs a third-generation furniture
company, said he began focusing not just on the upper
end — he makes extra-large furniture for big Americans —
but also on creating lines that would sell the Italian
lifestyle itself. Customers are returning.
entrepreneurs complain that they are alone. Politicians
offered little help making Italy competitive, and this
remains a major impediment to making their gains grow.
Businesses want less bureaucracy, more flexible labor
laws and large investments in infrastructure to make
moving goods around easier.
“Now it’s time
to change,” said Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the
chairman of Fiat and the president of Ferrari and the
influential business group Confindustria. “If not, why
are we going down in every classification of competition
in the country? The reason is that in the best of cases
we are stopped.” t is not clear that this “Made in
Italy” strategy will be enough. Skeptics argue that
foreign investment, research and development funds and
money invested by venture capitalists remain too low, as
does Italy’s competitiveness.
nation’s entrepreneurs are a bright spot in a landscape
with few others. Some argue that the younger generation
is another key, if not now then when those in power die.
They are educated, they are well travelled and, as Beppe
Grillo does when he is attracting his masses, they use
parties merged to produce the Democratic Party, aimed at
overcoming the system’s crippling fragmentation. All
sides finally agreed that a new electoral law must be
redone to give more breathing room to the winner of the
next elections — crucial for pushing through any major
understanding the problems is the smallest step. Many
worry in the meantime that Italy may share the same fate
as the Republic of Venice, based in what many say is the
most beautiful of cities, but whose domination of trade
with the Near East died with no culminating event.
Napoleon’s conquest in 1797 only made it official.
Now it is
essentially an exquisite corpse, trampled over by
millions of tourists. If Italy does not shed its
comforts for change, many say, a similar fate awaits it:
blocked by past greatness, with aging tourists the
questionable source of life, the Florida of Europe.
is: ‘I can see all that, but there is nothing I can do
to change it,’” said Beppe Severnigni, a columnist for
Corriere della Sera.
But, he said,
“to change your ways means changing your individual
ways: refusing certain compromises, to start paying your
taxes, don’t ask for favors when you are looking for a
job, not to cheat when your child is trying to reach
admission to university.”
tricky part,” he said. “We have reached a point where
hoping for some kind of white knight coming in saying,
‘We’ll sort you out,’ is over.”
have our destiny in our hands more than ever before,” he