La dolce vita is finally over: With its corrupt political system self-destructing, Italy must seize the opportunity to build a more civic community, says Robert D Putnam

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The Independent Online
The Italian political regime is crumbling. Thousands of members of the political and economic elite are under investigation for their roles in a gigantic tangle of corruption that, by some estimates, has cost Italian taxpayers dollars 20bn over the past decade. So far, three senior ministers, the heads of two major parties and nearly a quarter of the national parliament, along with a star-studded list of businessmen, bureaucrats and local officials throughout the country, have been named in various inquiries, and the toll is climbing daily.

The traditional party system itself - what Italians term the 'party-ocracy' - is collapsing. After decades of minuscule electoral swings of one or two percentage points among the mastodontic established parties, in the past year public support for new protest parties, among them the Northern League, has rocketed to 30 or 40 per cent in many parts of the country and is still rising. What has changed, however, is not the scandalous reality - corruption is hardly new in Italy - but the readiness of Italians to challenge it.

The change derives in part from the end of the Cold War, which has proved nearly as traumatic for members of the Italian political class as for their counterparts east of the erstwhile Berlin Wall. For more than 40 years national power was monopolised by the same small band of party leaders, claiming legitimacy from their self-proclaimed function as an anti-Communist 'dike' and fortified in the Fifties and Sixties by the affluence of 'il boom' and in the Seventies and Eighties by a mammoth, budget-busting expansion in government patronage.

In the past year the disappearance of the Communist threat, both at home and abroad, has completely reshuffled the cards in Italian politics. The old code of silence has broken down, victims of bribery demands have come forward and prosecutors have been emboldened to pursue their investigations. The same story, by the way, also fits Japan today - the same gradual unfreezing of Cold War party alignments, the same flood of revelations of massive corruption, the same public revulsion against the dominant party leaders. The house-cleaning is further along in Italy, however, and the crisis in Rome is that much nearer its climax. Normally sober Italian commentators speak of a 'revolution' under way.

The bigger question now is not why the old monopolies of power are crumbling, but what will follow this 'creative destruction'? Can Italy ever sustain stable, effective government? What are the prospects for Italian democracy? One intriguing prognosis is suggested by the results of an investigation that several colleagues and I have conducted over the past two decades on the seemingly arcane subject of regional government in Italy.

Beginning in 1970, Italians established a nation-wide set of 20 potentially powerful regional governments. The new institutions were virtually identical in form, but the social, economic, political and cultural contexts in which they were implanted differed dramatically, ranging from the pre-industrial to the post-industrial, from the devoutly Catholic to the ardently Communist, from the inertly feudal to the frenetically modern. Just as a botanist might investigate plant development by measuring the growth of genetically identical seeds sown in different plots, we sought to understand government performance by studying how these new institutions evolved in their diverse settings.

As expected, some of the new governments proved dismal failures - inefficient, lethargic and corrupt. Others worked remarkably well, however, creating innovative childcare programmes and job training centres, promoting investment and economic development, pioneering environmental standards and family clinics - managing the public's business efficiently and satisfying their constituents. In short, some of these regional governments turned out to be effective and forward-looking - even more so than some of their counterparts in the Anglo-American world - while others have utterly failed. Why? What could account for these stark differences in quality of government?

Some seemingly obvious answers turned out to be irrelevant. The actual organisation of government was too similar from region to region to explain the contrasts in performance. Party politics or ideology made little difference. Affluence and economic modernity had no direct effect. Social stability or political harmony or population movements were not the key. None of these factors could be correlated consistently with good government. Instead, the best predictor turned out to be one that readers of civics textbooks might have expected. Strong traditions of civic engagement - voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership of choral societies, literary circles and soccer clubs - are the hallmarks of a successful region.

Some regions of Italy, such as Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, have many active community organisations. Citizens in these regions become involved because they are concerned about public issues, not because of patronage. They trust one another to act fairly, and obey the law. Although the national plague of party-ocracy has not left these communities untouched, citizens there report that their leaders have been more resistant to the temptations of corruption. Social and political networks are organised horizontally, not hierarchically. These 'civic communities' value solidarity, civic participation and integrity. And here democracy works.

At the other pole are 'uncivic' regions, such as Calabria and Sicily. . The very concept of citizen is stunted here. Involvement in social and cultural associations is meagre. From the point of view of the inhabitants, public affairs are somebody else's business - i notabili, 'the bosses', 'the politicians' - but not theirs. Laws, almost everyone agrees, are made to be broken, but fearing others' lawlessness, everyone demands sterner discipline. Trapped in these interlocking vicious circles, nearly everyone feels powerless, exploited and unhappy. All things considered, it is hardly surprising that representative government here is less effective than in more civic communities.

The historical roots of the civic community are astonishingly deep. Enduring traditions of civic involvement and social solidarity can be traced back nearly a millennium to the 11th century, when communal republics were established in places such as Florence, Bologna and Genoa - the same communities that today enjoy civic engagement and successful government. At the core of this civic heritage are rich networks of organised reciprocity and civic solidarity - guilds, religious fraternities and 'tower societies' for self-defence in the medieval communes; co-operatives, mutual aid societies, neighbourhood associations and choral societies in the 20th century. The historical legacy of uncivic Italy in contrast has its roots in the autocratic feudalism of the Neapolitan and Sicilian kingdoms, with their self-perpetuating cycles of exploitation and dependence, lawlessness and authoritarianism.

Nor did Italy's more fortunate communities become civic because they were rich to start with. The historical record strongly suggests the opposite: they became rich because they were civic. Norms and networks of civic engagement seem to be a precondition for economic development, as for effective government. Some of the fastest, most sustained economic growth in Europe over the last four decades has occurred precisely in these civic communities, concentrated in the centre-north of the Italian peninsula. Although we are accustomed to thinking of the state and the market as alternative mechanisms for solving social problems, Italian history suggests that both states and markets operate more efficiently in civic settings.

One reformist regional official in an uncivic region responded to the conclusions of our study: 'This is a counsel of despair] You're telling me that nothing I can do will improve our prospects for success. The fate of the reform was sealed centuries ago.' But the results are far from being an invitation to quietism. On the contrary, they show that changing the formal institutions of government could change political practice. The uncivic regions, concentrated in the south of Italy, may be no better off now than they were when the reform began in 1970, but compared with where they would be today without the reform, they are much better off. And that is the view of most southerners.

The final lesson from our research, and perhaps the most instructive, is that most institutional history moves very slowly. Time is measured in decades. History probably moves even more slowly when erecting norms of reciprocity and networks of civic involvement, and that change must anyway rely on the local transformation of local structures, rather than on national initiatives.

The outlook for Italian prosperity and democracy in the aftermath of this winter's house-cleaning thus depends on whether Italy's civic or uncivic traditions prove stronger, now that Italians are freed from the anti-Communist fears that imprisoned them in a corrupt system. National election law reform, moving towards the Anglo-American winner-take-all electoral system, is likely to be introduced one way or another this spring. The result should be a therapeutic purge of the discredited political class. Even more fundamental to the prospects for Italian democracy, however, is the challenge of building a more civic community in those parts of the peninsula that lack it.

The author is Gurney Professor of Political Science at Harvard University. His most recent book is 'Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy', Princeton University Press, 1993.

(Photograph and maps omitted)