Italy Succumbs (Again) to Mob Politics

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister. Credit: Antonio Nardelli/Shutterstock

A new left-right populist government has taken power in Rome, fueled by popular anger over illegal immigration and adept in its use of social media. The M5S/Lega, as it’s known, wants debt forgiveness and new spending as the price for Italy remaining within the eurozone. A number of observers blame German Chancellor Angela Merkel for this populist lurch, which every day makes Italy seem like a larger Greece.

“The backlash in Italy is another predictable (and predicted) episode in the long saga of a poorly designed currency arrangement,” argues Joseph Stiglitz, “in which the dominant power, Germany, impedes the necessary reforms and insists on policies that exacerbate the inherent problems, using rhetoric seemingly intended to inflame passions.”

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, when asked about unkind comparisons in the German press between himself and Rome’s new finance chief, stated:

I wanted to keep Greece in the eurozone sustainably and was clashing with Germany’s leaders in favor of the debt restructuring that would make this possible. By crushing our Europeanist government in the summer of 2015, Germany sowed the seeds of today’s bitter harvest: a majority in Italy’s parliament that dreams of exiting the euro.

Of course, blaming the Germans for Italy’s financial dysfunction gives the great peoples of northern Europe far too much credit. Since the early days of Rome, Italy has been invaded and pillaged more than, and by most of, the major nations in the region. This chaotic history left behind an unstable legacy when it comes to matters of state finance and democratic governance.

In 1848, as much of Europe was experiencing violent social revolution, Rome and the rest of Italy was engulfed in political chaos and civil war. With the self-exile of Pope Pius IX from Rome to Naples in November of that year, the temporal rule of the Church over the Papal States on Italy’s western coast ended. The first modern republican state in Italy emerged suddenly with little preparation. Rome almost immediately fell into a financial crisis.

Christopher Clark, writing in the London Review of Books, describes the very liberal Republic of Rome that arose after the collapse of the sovereignty that the popes had wielded in central Italy since 754 AD:

[T]here was something unreal about the whole project. As people with money fled the capital, the republic was forced to subsist on debased republican coinage and inflated banknotes elegantly inscribed with eagles, fasces and cannonballs. If money was scarce, celebrity was not. The luminaries of the worldwide Italian insurrectionary networks descended on Rome.

As with the decadent Italy of 170 years ago (and also today), in the United States, celebrity has come to play an increasingly important role in public life. Yet unlike the relatively new Americans, Italians have been wallowing in a state of political disarray for millennia. After more than a hundred years of foreign occupation and war, China emerged a strong, centralized, and authoritarian state during the 20th century. Yet Italy never rebounded from those centuries of foreign subjugation and violence.

Following the Franco-German invasion of Italy in the late 1400s, successive popes in Rome regained control over the Papal States in central and northern Italy, culminating in the relatively stable rule of Sixtus V (1585-1590) and Clement VIII (1592-1605). Over the next two centuries, however, Italy was more of a geographical expression than a country, politically divided and for the most part under foreign rule. When the French occupied Rome in 1808, Napoleon captured the Pope and declared the Papal States to be French soil.

Thus began the transition from what was effectively a theocracy in Italy prior to 1848 to a reasonably united republic, at least by Italian standards. Through about 1871 when Rome was named the capital, Italy had a measure of stability under a variety of colorful strongmen, but a truly enduring democratic republic never really took root. With the exception of the Piedmont, which retained its liberal constitution and became the great hope of Italian reformers, the rest of Italy was subjected to irredentist tendencies that agitated for war with Austria and France.

The failure of liberal democracy in Italy in the late 1800s set the…

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