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28 November 2011updated 18 Jan 2012 6:31am

Idling towards the apocalypse

Even after the fall of Silvio Berlusconi, Italians are in little doubt just how bad a state their co

By David Selbourne

During these last days the Piazza della Repubblica in Urbino – a city crowned by its towering Ducal Palace and with increasing numbers of shops closing – has been “occupied” by students in a huddle of tents. Facing a future of semi-employment or joblessness, they have coined slogans condemning the banks and bankers, and demanded more funds for the education system. The citizens of Urbino have looked on, for the most part in silence.

Silvio Berlusconi’s overthrow in Rome has been high drama, and each morning customers in the city’s cafés study the papers with furrowed brows. In order to rescue Italy from itself and salvage something from an economy weakened by the operations of the free market, there has, in effect, been a coup d’état, skilfully carried out by President Giorgio Napolitano.

It threw out an elected government in mid-office without the slightest reference to the electors, as the scoundrelly Berlusconi rightly protests in turn.
But then Italy was no true representative democracy to start with. Its party placemen and placewomen, imposed on constituencies, are largely invisible to local people – there are no Friday surgeries here – and the scale of corruption is such as to make Britain’s political system seem pure. (Most Italians mistakenly think Britain is a political and ethical utopia. Little do they know.)

“It was not a coup,” says the deputy secretary of the Urbino commune, Roberto Chicarella, unlocking the door of his office and courteously ushering me in. Dr Chicarella turns out to have been a student of Napolitano, who taught a course in political economy at the Italian Communist Party’s school for would-be apparatchiks back in the mid-1960s. Indeed, Urbino has been run by the left (now a pseudo left) uninterruptedly since the Second World War. Yet there is nothing to scoff at in these pretences; no one in Italy could quite match the career of Baron Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull – or the ex-Trotskyites, some working for MI5, who now have their hands in Britain’s tills.

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“Berlusconi,” Chicarella argues, “had become too weak. His party was folding, and the crisis was out of control. He knew himself that the time had come to resign.”

Business as usual

But what, I ask, is an old communist like Napolitano doing handing Italy over to bureaucrats and Eurocrats, bankers and academics? With communism and socialism gone and never to return, however, I know the answer to my own question.

“In a market economy which has escaped the control even of those who are in favour of it,” the deputy secretary replies, “there was no alternative to using those who know the market and who know what instruments are effective in it. It is not a question of left and right. You have to be pragmatic.”

Public spending in Italy “has swollen to unmanageable proportions, public adminis­tration is inefficient and the public deficit is vast”. Yes, Europe has reason to tremble. Chicarella goes further; here is an ex-Communist Party official who courageously concedes that “the right is right when it criticises the public sector’s abuses. To cut useless public expenditure is an ethical duty.” He even wants a “freer labour market”.

Over the Apennines in Rome, behind the façade of rule by Prime Minister Mario Monti and his executive – a true word for the presidentially imposed regime – business is much as usual. Principle plays little part. Some of Berlusconi’s members of parliament are hanging on to the old goat’s coat-tails, hoping for a change in his fortunes, while others seek favour from Monti. As in ancient Rome, allegiance is less to party than to patron: a Berlusconi yesterday, a Monti today.

Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party is (or perhaps was) less a political movement than a business enterprise. Its rewards, as increasingly in Britain, have been illicit wealth and shameless feeding from the public trough. Gaining the poltrona, or seat, of office, and not the common good, is the main object of political endeavour. In Italy, this chair has been unceremoniously pulled from under Berlusconi while he was still sitting on it, but his followers and dependants are keeping their eyes open for whatever the next turn of events may bring.

The Machiavellian stab-in-the-back is another currency of the Roman scene, in which none can be trusted. Some of Berlusconi’s parliamentarians rose to their feet to salute the new consul, whether from habit of sycophancy or in hope of the coming of a messiah, or both. Others threw punches at their colleagues; here, infighting has a literal meaning. But in the vote of confidence won in both houses by Monti, a vote that gave retrospective “democratic” approval to the putsch that brought him to office, most of Berlusconi’s parliamentarians voted for the would-be Saviour. Among those who did not were Benito Mussolini’s granddaughter and a character unable to vote because he was under house arrest.

In Urbino, as elsewhere in Italy, disgust with the political class is visceral; under the surface there is the same mood as in Britain. “Politics has ruined everything,” says a voice in the piazza. Dangerously, he speaks for most of the people. For some, even Monti and his government merely represent “50 more politicians to pay for”. The predations on the public purse, including lifelong pensions after a single term in parliament, are hard to accept when the national economy is sinking. There is even contempt for the commune of Urbino. Most see it as a closed, small-town mafia of insiders, whatever its ostensible colour.

Above all, the way Berlusconi reduced a proud country to ridicule – “Burlesconi”, some call him – has aroused a sense of shame. Not surprising, therefore, this being Italy, that there is a desire among many for a “strong man”, un uomo forte, to get the country out of its pickle.

With his built-up shoes and hair implants, Berlusconi never was the sinless saviour for whom Catholic Italy secretly craves. But the virtues of a Monti, welcome as they are to most Italians (“We need a just man, a serious man,” the vintner Gilberto Calcinari tells me) will not be enough, either, as the going gets rougher.

Italians – even the ousted Berlusconi, temporarily – have given Monti the green light only because the deluge awaits if, or when, he fails. Even Berlusconi knows this. The showgirls have gone back to the limbo whence they came and there are now no overgrown schoolboys in government, no Camerons, Goves or Osbornes. The youngest member of Monti’s team, the minister of health, is 56 and the average age of cabinet ministers is 67.

Thomas Hobbes would have approved. To give good counsel in government, he wrote in the Leviathan, “requires the age and observation of a man in years” as well as “great knowledge . . . not to be attained without study”.

But what has the new team, acting under EU orders, to offer Italy in its great crisis? The answer is the further rape of the public domain by privatisation, as in Britain: increased taxes with cuts in public spending, austerity with fairness, benefit curbs with social justice, “national cohesion” with “liberalisation”, or pie-in-the-sky served with chalk and cheese. And to what end? Growth, growth and more growth, until the Italians are truly stuffed. Even Chicarella, Napolitano’s former student, wants to see the labour market liberalised. He thinks there is
no alternative.

Smile of the crocodile

Meanwhile, the grotesque Berlusconi has cynically occupied the high ground, able to exploit the coup against him by claiming to be the guardian of Italian democracy. At the same time, he is seeking to escape justice in the criminal and civil cases pending against him. “He is a crocodile in the water,” says Calcinari the vintner. “Only his eyes can be seen.”

Out in the town, much worse can be heard, even if “most Italians hide their real feelings”, as someone tells me. Better that the English in Tuscany and Umbria don’t know what their neighbours really think of them.

The anger at Italy’s inequalities is palpable; so, too, the feelings of despair that a well-placed relative or a high-powered contact counts for more here than merit. There is also growing fear for the future. It is no surprise that there are fascistic sentiments in the air. Xenophobia is at their core. “I’d willingly put on a black shirt and machine-gun the marocchini [Moroccans],” a man in the piazza tells me.

“If Monti doesn’t succeed, will it be the Apocalypse?” I asked Chicarella, half-joking. He seemed afraid to agree. Whether these are the last days of the Roman empire, or the European Union, no one can tell. The atmosphere at times reminds me of eastern Europe in the 1980s as its regimes fell, heralding the disasters of the “free market”.

The half-dozen tents have gone now from the central piazza in Urbino. The “occupying” students have folded them up and moved on. The square’s hosed-down cobbles shine in the autumn sun.

David Selbourne was made an Officer of the Italian Republic’s Order of Merit by President Carlo Ciampi in June 2001