The shops are full, but Italy is on the brink

Fadhel, a 47-year-old Tunisian crane driver, has lived in Italy for 23 years, and the living has been good. Economic growth may have hovered close
to zero for most of the Berlusconi years, but the ever-rising national debt accomplished what Italian industry couldn't, maintaining the sense of an economy with the wind in its sails. Above all, there was work, regular and well enough paid for Fadhel, a legal immigrant, to bring over his
wife and start a family. Now his children, aged 16, 14 and 12 and all born in Italy, are doing well in school, plugged into the life and culture of their home town, the beautiful city of Ferrara - a prosperous example of the new multicultural Italy that is quietly coming into being.

But with the crisis, all that effort of adaptation is in jeopardy. Fadhel's work has evaporated. Over a year ago the construction firm he worked for folded, and he and the six other employees lost their jobs. After eight months, the unemployment benefit payments dried up. Now he is desperate. Several of his North African friends in the same situation, unable any longer to afford the European cost of living, have sent their wives and children back to Algeria and Tunisia to live with relatives; from being part of the texture of the city's life, they have been reduced to classic Gastarbeiter status, returning to Italy only when casual work becomes available. But Fadhel is desperate to avoid that solution. "Our children were born here, this is their home," he says. "We don't want to go back - there's no work in Tunisia either. The place has yet to settle down after the uprising." He's fighting to find the work that will enable them all to stay. But the prospects are grim.

To many middle-class and middle-aged Italians, the storms and upheavals of the past weeks have been just so much bad mood music, the latest episodes in a vicious soap opera that has been going on for the past two and a half years, ever since Veronica Lario, the second Mrs Berlusconi, called time on her billionaire husband for, as she put it, "frequenting minors".

The long goodbye

Even the now-promised departure of Silvio Berlusconi offers no catharsis and only the briefest sense of elation: he's not gone yet, after all, and he may well find ways to spin out his departure - and even once he's gone, there will be no clear alternative. Italy does changes of regime pompously, ponderously, with endless consultations and verifications. Early elections may or may not be called, depending on whether Angelino Alfano, Berlusconi's likely successor at the helm of the centre right, can reconstruct the coalition's vanished majority.

If he can't, President Napolitano will be under strong pressure to oversee the formation of a national unity government of technocrats, led perhaps by Mario Monti, a former European commissioner - but the survival of that, too, would depend on the whims of disorientated and fractious MPs. If an early election is called, there is no certainty that the left would win: although Berlusconi has been losing popularity for years now, the opposition is bitterly divided and has no figure around which it is prepared to unite. And all the while Europe, the IMF and the markets will be battering on
the doors, demanding the sort of swift, effective action that Italy has always been hopeless at providing.

But despite the uncertainty, among the middle-class and middle-aged there is little sense of foreboding. People get used to diminished prospects: they may be on the edge of a precipice, but as Berlusconi boasted, the restaurants are full and people are still shopping.

Italy has all sorts of cushions, after all. As in much poorer countries, the family stands ready and willing to help when jobs disappear or (as in the case of the young) fail to materialise at all. The black economy prospers, immune to recession; Pietro Grasso, chief prosecutor of the National Anti-Mafia Bureau, reported that organised crime had cemented its place as Italy's biggest industry, with a turnover of €150bn; drug-trafficking is the second-biggest industry in the country after oil, and launders €410m a day.

The nation's numerous armour-plated cartels and closed shops, from gondoliers and taxi drivers to notaries and university administrators, continue to defend their privileges, which Berlusconi has made only the feeblest efforts to reduce. The trade unions vigorously fight off all efforts to cut their members' pensions, just as MPs resist efforts to cut the cost of politics.

So, who pays for Italy's crisis? Those who are undefended: the young, of whom one-third aged between 15 and 24 have no work, and the new arrivals. People like Fadhel and his friends; those who defied every barrier of prejudice, culture and language to put down roots here, who work like Titans at the jobs Italians no longer care to do, and who represent one of the few hopes for the future of a country which, demographically speaking, has turned up its toes. And now they are going home.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?