Michael Ledeen is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Barbara and I are finishing up three weeks in Italy, and it’s not a happy place. But, for a long time, it hasn’t been nearly as happy as most Americans believed. It’s a deceptive place, where suffering is usually hidden by tough language, considerable charm, and extraordinary music. Italians are very dramatic, and those who spend time there (I’ve been at it for more than fifty years) often wonder if they are on stage or in the audience. Don’t forget that, just beneath the apparently cheerful exterior, there has long lurked one of the oldest traditions of political assassination in the world, from Caesar to the mafia.
It’s always been a tough place, remember that Italy invented fascism. And Hitler’s hero and inspiration was Mussolini. There are those who think that there is a fascist revival under way, but I don’t see it. I see chaos, populism, and all manner of social and economic programs, the outcome of which is unknowable. As usual, Italy is testing the political waters, as it always has. It’s Europe’s political laboratory.
There’s a new government, composed of big-talking leaders whose programs call for guaranteed minimum incomes,flat taxes, and much tougher border controls along the country’s ocean borders. The latter is highly contentious, and has produced a series of nasty meetings with EU leaders, notably the French. The Italians want other governments, from elsewhere in Europe to North Africa, to shoulder a greater share of the burden. So far, as you can well imagine, the various countries are far from agreement, although apparently on the 4th, a bilateral agreement with Libya to create a migrant center in that unhappy land was announced.
Populist sentiment is intense. Italians don’t want to fund refugees when their most talented and best educated kids are headed for countries where their skills are rewarded. You can’t begin to imagine how many well-to-do Italians have children in places like Canada and Australia. It’s a whole jet-lagged generation. As throughout Europe, one hears daily calls for greater regional independence, and the country’s most dynamic political force at present is the League, formerly the Northern League. Oddly, this movement is now flourishing in the south, which for a long time was the target of most of the League’s calls for big change. Today, the major target is Europe itself.
Italy has long excelled at finding niches in the export market, but right now that isn’t working well. Not that the country’s on the verge of depression, but the road to economic growth is sharply uphill, the birth rate is way down, and it’s very hot. The country needs immigrants but Italians don’t want the ones they’re getting by the boatload.
The new government came in with promises of dramatic reform, but most of them have been postponed. The latest move is to authorize the use of tasers by state police and the (military) carabinieri, with an experimental period to start right away. This was done personally by Matteo Salvini, the Interior Minister, who heads the League and serves as interior minister. It is the sort of colorful action he favors, and if Italy is headed for a more authoritarian style, this sort of thing is likely to become more common. It shows Italy is prepared to act on its own, without waiting for Europe to take the lead.
Which brings us to the European question. There is little doubt by now that the European scheme was bungled from the outset. It should have started with political union, but the Germans insisted that the creation of the euro come first. We can see the results: failed unity. We can say the same about Italy herself: failed unification. Italy needs greater federalism, a weaker national parliament, and stronger mayors and governors. If that happens, there might be hope for the place.
Don’t count on it.