A dodgy system, but it brought home the pasta

Click to follow
'LADRO] Buffone]' There are many reasons for loving and respecting the Italian people. Those words are the latest.

As drivers pass the offices of politicians caught with their fat fingers in the till, they slow up, wind down the window and fling handfuls of small change at the door, shouting: 'Thief] Buffoon]' What is happening in Italy is not a revolution; it is a sort of national insurrection, an alliance between an enraged people and the judiciary to sweep away a corrupt and parasitical system.

It is one of those enormous movements of renewal which from time to time shake nations and - even if they do not fulfil their own hopes - change the atmosphere for a generation. In that, it is like the upheavals of 1968. They failed as revolutions. But in France and Germany, above all, they profoundly changed the way society was managed. Lawyers, academics, journalists and even politicians reformed their institutions and their style. The system survived, but it was forced to be more open and responsive.

'Italianisation' has become a famous term. But now it has to be re-examined. 'Italianisation' meant, broadly, a system in which the absurdity of political life was not allowed to damage the way in which ordinary people lived and earned money. At the top, strutting politicians took bribes, passed silly laws meant to benefit their cronies and formed governments as transient as a television image with no vertical hold. Down below, manufacturers and farmers and workers carried on indifferently. In order to do so, they habitually evaded taxes, lied on official forms and ignored regulations which did not suit them. The result - in Italy's case - has been a raw, often callous but thoroughly vigorous economy.

I remember watching the ceremony of smuggler-interception in the Bay of Naples. The smugglers, controlled by the Camorra (the Naples equivalent of the Mafia), loaded up cigarettes from ships just over the horizon. On their return, police launches would set out and trace impressive white wakes across the Bay, taking care not to intersect with the smugglers. The cigarettes would then be unloaded and distributed to hordes of small boys who sold them on street corners, giving a small illegal income to hundreds of families. The Mafia is not only a component of state parasitism in Italy, bribing and extorting from the political elites. It is also a part of the economia sommersa, the submerged economy which has made itself immune to those elites.

In his essay 'Notes from the Chancellor's Office' (1982), the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger made an imaginary character describe these 'whole sectors of (Italian) production and social life which have escaped interference from the political parties, trade union sclerosis, the inland revenue bureaucracy. Simply dived out of sight, inaccessible and enormously productive.'

I once heard an accountant say that 'a tax breathes through its loopholes'. This is pretty close to the Enzensberger theory about modern life in general, which is that rules only work because people can get round them. There are so many regulations and directives, and so much hardware and software operating to reinforce them, that if they all functioned properly everything would seize up. The only reason that traffic keeps moving in German cities is that over half of all parking and stopping manoeuvres are illegal. 'Anarchy prevents chaos.' (I wish I had written that, but then Enzensberger is a poet.)

Can other countries be 'Italianised'? And now that the Italian people are chasing every official ladro and buffone into jail, should they be? It's a recipe with some attractions for post- Communist European countries. Although the West expects them to turn magically into capitalist democracies, it will be a long and turbulent process. Mad, posturing governments will rise and fall. Already there has appeared a huge shoal of mafiosi, swindlers, tax- dodgers, old Communists profiting by bribery and blackmail, smugglers and 'entrepreneurs' who are really fences in Hugo Boss suits. This is not a sign of failure. This is the seething shark soup out of which capitalism eventually crawls. But there is a case for insulating this process from politicians.

The worst example is probably Russia. Here a set of competing ethnic mafias - Chechen, Tatar, Georgian - have made an alliance with the old Communist cliques who still often rule at local level. They control large parts of the productive economy (which the Italian Mafia, chaotic by comparison, generally does not), ignore reforming legislation, and interfere seriously with the operation of the market. In the Moscow meat market, for instance, the Mafia levied its percentage on sale prices, not profits, so that traders who lowered prices to increase sales would be threatened and beaten up. The result was unsold meat rotting on the hooks and hungry Russians.

This is anarchy and chaos combined. There is a school of thought in Moscow that would accept 'mafia capitalism' on the grounds that any form of private economy is an advance on the old pattern. But almost any effective government would be better than the lawless misery in parts of Russia.

Poland is a sounder case. The cost in unemployment and inflation has been terrible, but the economy is beginning to transform itself. A large private entrepreneurial class has emerged, as well as the inevitable looters and smugglers. At the same time, the instability of governments has been prevented (though only just) from infecting economic life. Poland is a land of individualists, whose experience has been that most governments are mad and bad. At the same time, it is a land of hard-working patriots, who know that if you want to build your country you have to make and carry the bricks yourself. These are Italian perceptions, too. Poles and Italians have always had an affinity.

I suspect that what is happening in Italy does not mean that 'Italianisation' is dead. The Italians and their legion of honest prosecutors are simply cleaning out a system which had grown intolerably filthy. The state can claim no credit for what has been done well in Italy (apart from some good regional governments such as Emilia-Romagna), and it has totally failed in its duty to succour the casualties of change: the jobless, the southern poor, the immigrants. But a spruce, powerful, central government demanding discipline may not be what the Italian people want.

The local authorities - cities and regions - will change enormously, especially in northern Italy. Rome, however, is another matter. The bombs of the Mafia and the ultra-right are trying to scare Italy into calling for a strong hand, a new Duce. The nation is keeping its head, and the outcome will probably be a cleaner, younger coalition government which shows more compassion but even less inclination to make Italians conform.

But somebody has to govern and show a collective Italian face to the world, and not every politician has been a thief or buffoon. Sandro Pertini, that truthful and angry old man who was president from 1978 to 1985, seemed to represent a 'real' Italy. He was, I think, the sole post-war statesman to enjoy general love and respect. There was only one Pertini, and he is dead now. But a new political class of 1993, men and women who do not steal and admit the limits of their power, would be a beautiful memorial to him.