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Italy in Perspective

ISSUE:  Winter 1952


MICHELANGELO and Raphael, who worked in the sixteenth century, are regarded by Italians as “moderns.”  That is a measure of the age of their country. Italy is a young nation inhabited by an ancient people. Collectively they remember the conquering and retreating treads of many armies, their own included. On a wall along the broad Via dei Fori Imperiale, which lends to the massive Colosseum, Mussolini erected four marble maps showing the expansion of Rome from a village to an empire embracing Rumania, the Caucasus, England, and Egypt-all in a thousand years. But though there is no chart depicting the contraction of that empire, nor of Mussolini’s punier one, the Romans know it. It gives them a large historic perspective and a cynical attitude toward power.

Italians are as surrounded by beauty as they are by history. Many of the people themselves are handsome and the skies are soft. The squares, fountains, monuments, palaces, and ruins are embodiments of graceful form and quiet grandeur.

Their art and their past (both are intertwined, for one is the record of the other) give Italians a sense of deeper values: time is measured in ages rather than years; beauty survives; strength wanes.

There is no Titian or da Vinci or Raphael or Michelangelo in Italy –or elsewhere. The imagination of today’s geniuses finds an outlet in science, industry, politics, and war. Four centuries ago, an Einstein might have been a Raphael, later a Beethoven. India has had saints, but no engineers; America has engineers. Goals shape a civilization. Rome produced Caesars. Medieval Italy nurtured artists. Italy’s current goals are few and negative.

The Italian nation lacks hope.  Its creative flow, therefore, is a thin trickle. Its ambitions are limited. It is skeptical of the fruits of power. Sour grapes, perhaps, but also because Italy is the country of the grape and the sun. War and dictatorship are tension.  Italians shun hate. They love to smile and relax.  They are neither a crusading nor a rhetorical race; Mussolini, who pretended to be both, was a passing pimple. Masses followed him but few believed him and fewer believed in him.

Fascism, like Bolshevism, is irrational; it seeks to substitute faith for reason. Mussolini failed to create a Fascist mystique because Italians incline to doubts and rationalism. “The Italians are pagans,” Socialist leader Giuseppe Saragat said. “D’Annunzio was a pagan. Italian literature was never religious or mystical.  Not even Dante was religious.”

 Many others echoed his views.

An Italian can be a fervent Communist and an observant Catholic; politics need not interfere with religion.  Liberals were Fascists; politics may be divorced from philosophy of life. Service in governments and parties, all ephemeral, should feed vanity, convenience, or purse.

The nationalism which takes pride in military prowess or imperial expansion is foreign to most Italians. They are more mild than martial.  They love their country and resent, for instance, the un-Italian status of Trieste, but they suspect flag-waving and know that statesmen often try to capitalize on patriotism.

Unlike the French, whose first-class greatness was torn from them so recently that the wound still hurts, especially when transoceanic salt is rubbed into it, Italy perpetuated her glory in bronze and marble many centuries ago and it is no longer painful to be without it. The country bears no grudges against Americans bringing gifts. To take from the rich is one’s reward for being poor.

Though all roads and airways lead to Rome, the Italians feel that they are off the beaten track of world power politics and like it.  They do not aspire collectively. They do not think they can change Italy, let alone the universe.

Too much past obstructs the future. Too much history interferes with history making.  Italy is therefore a slow-motion country. Landlords and industrialists clutch the status quo. The government introduces reforms but counsels patience. This fits the temper if not the needs of the nation. The temper defeats revolutionary change.

The years of desperation following World War Two in which the Italian government might have been overthrown by a coup d’état or an adverse election are gone. A Communist revolt would fail; the police are too effective, the workers too reluctant to take risks. The Communists know this.  They would have to synchronize their uprising with the approach of the Russian legions, and some of them are apparently wondering how pleasant the result would be.

Hordes of Italians remain in the Communist party or vote for it or refrain from criticizing it because they are intimidated by the Communist squadristas á la Mussolini, which employ harder means than castor oil, or because they are afraid of losing their jobs. Such is Communist influence in the trade unions and factories that it can often determine whether a worker remains employed.  Thousands of owners keep surplus workers rather than defy Red shop stewards. This terror, plus the fear, not altogether dead, that war might come and Moscow might win it, bolsters Communist strength. But it is a strength which contains no honey and brings Italy no good. Rather the contrary. The Italian Communists have wasted their powder in political strikes for the greater glory of Generalissimo Stalin and consequently lack the ability to improve the woeful living conditions of the people.

With the Communists handicapped by the Moscow kiss­-of-death and the Socialists docile and addicted to politicking instead of to mass amelioration via producers’ and consumers’ co-operatives, Italian capitalism enjoys an immunity which is both undeserved and unhealthy.

Italian capitalism has merely superimposed industrial techniques on a feudal mentality. It is unprogressive. “I should like to ask,” said Mr. M. Leon Dayton, chief of the Economic Co-operation Administration (ECA) or Marshall Plan for Italy, in a speech at Genoa on October 19, 1950, “how it is that a meter of woolen or cotton material costing one to two thousand lire to produce is being sold to consumers at five times that amount; or why it is that a pair of shoes, which costs  (including taxes) only one or two thousand lire to make, finds its way to the feet of the wearer only after two to five hundred per cent has been added?”

There was consternation but no reply.

Mr. Dayton, a Portland, Oregon, businessman, is devoted to free, private enterprise. But as a convinced American capitalist, he must question the archaic philosophy of Italian capitalism. He teaches his Italian classmen that “to increase production and profits the earning power of the people must be increased proportionately.” Only a few listen.

The average Italian capitalist reasons-like his grandfather-that it is much better to make a profit of one hundred lire on one article than eleven lire each on ten articles. That way he reduces his investment and risk and can send the unused capital for safety to Switzerland, Latin America, the United States, or a British Dominion.

The income of the Italian worker, consequently, is low, about one-tenth of an American worker’s; the earning power of the peasant is lower still. Most Italians have little to use and little to lose. Unemployment, which was about 1,700,000 in 1949  (approximately ten per cent of the total labor force and double the prewar level), now hovers above the two million lines.  There are furthermore, two million underemployed in the cities. Add the idle and semi-idle in villages and multiply by at least three dependents.  The result, according to Dayton makes two-thirds of Italy under-consumers. This is Italy’s chief problem: under-consumption.

Italy is deficient in food, fuel, oil, and industrial raw materials.  She therefore must import heavily and, to pay for imports, she must export heavily. But her purchases abroad far exceed her sales abroad.

The ECA or Marshall Plan has been paying the deficit. From April 3, 1948, when the ECA commenced operations in Italy, to February 26, 1951, total ECA aid to Italy amounted to $1,225,700,000, most of which went to cover the country’s unfavorable foreign trade balance. In effect, the Marshall Plan finances Italy’s imports, which are, mainly, imports from the United States. This is another way of saying that America is making a gift to Italy of the necessities of life.

During the past three years, the Marshall Plan has made it possible for Italy to receive from abroad wheat for spaghetti and bread, medicines, cotton for textiles, and machinery, fuel, and raw materials for her factories.  Without this help, Italy would have been chaotic, hungry, and derelict.

But Italy’s estimated excess of imports over exports in 1951-52 is $450,000,000, compared to about $200,000,000 in 1950. Where can Italy find this huge sum? Unless America again pays the bill, the democratic world must suffer the consequences. The same situation is likely to arise the next year and the next and the next.

The prospect is grim. When Mr. Dayton talks about Italy, most of his emphasis and much of his time are spent on the need of a United Europe. Dayton came to this conclusion through the practical channel of dollars and lire. “If Europe became one country,” the told me, “Italy’s unemployment problem would end in six months.”

Presumably, the two million or more unemployed and the half-employed would move to other parts of the united Europe. Italy, one hears, is over-populated. The government, therefore, encourages emigration. The net overseas emigration rose from 54,000 in 1947 to 150,000 in 1949, but this does not offset the decline in emigration to European countries nor, more particularly, does it cancel out the increase in population due to the excess of births over deaths. In 1950, this surplus was 442,000, an enormous accretion for a country in chronic economic crisis.  (Italy’s population is put, conservatively, at 46,500,000).

In a Catholic nation like Italy where, if there is no new child in a family for some time, priests have been known to inquire why, the problem of birth rate is a difficult one. Moreover, Mussolini’s bigger-families agitation bore fruit in a large number of persons born fifteen to twenty years ago, many of who are today unemployed and disgruntled candidates for Communism. (Educators urge that the school-leaving age be raised.)

On the other hand, demographers note that in Piedmont and Liguria, the more prosperous regions of the north, the birth rate is lower than the death rate, whereas in Lucania and Calabria, the very poor southern areas, births exceed deaths. This only confirms the universal law that birth rate is in inverse proportion to wealth.   Therefore, although birth control in Italy is complicated by religion, an adequate improvement in living standards might some day achieve it automatically.

In the present Italian economy, however, millions of men, women, and children are surplus. They would presumably go to France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, England, and Scandinavia if Europe were one country. Unfortunately, neither Europe nor the world is moving toward the administrative unity which would reduce humanity’s woes.

Count Carlo Sforza, Italy’s septuagenarian foreign minister, has inspired or eagerly joined many useful efforts toward European federation, world government, and the settlement of economic feuds between nations.  These help Italy. But they are not helping her quickly enough. Some relief can come from without, but real salvation waits upon a profound psychological revolution among Italian industrialists.  Unless Italian capitalism adopts mass production of low-priced goods so that the entire nation, and not just one-third of it, has adequate food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and education, Communism will continue to flourish and Italy will continue to live unhealthily by hypodermic dollar injections.

Italians have a fine mechanical gift, and anybody who has ever seen the country knows what wonderful farmers they are. They are a nation of hard workers without enough work to do. The deficiency is man-made. The statement that Italy is poor in natural resources is a commonplace, yet who knows enough to say so? Italy has never, literally never, made a complete geological survey of her subsoil wealth. (Mussolini was too busy fighting wars.)  Italy also requires a land reform, but a vast acreage already properly divided could double and treble its crops if given fertilizer, improved seed, and ample tools.

In the heart of Europe-and in some ways the mother of Europe-Italy nevertheless tapers off sharply from French and Swiss living standards in the North to Spanish and even African standards where the boot dips deeply into the Mediterranean. Regional and inter-urban rivalries result.  These hark back strangely to the Middle Ages when Florence and Naples waged wars, when Pisa conquered the great maritime port-now the delightful tourist haven-of Amalfi, where the compass was first developed, and when Genoa’s mercantile interest in India reaped the discovery of America.

Today, Milan and Turin are accused of treating the south as an economic colony, and thus intensifying its misery. Rome, city of millions, gay and elegant, concerns itself chiefly with government papers and clerical prayers, while Naples lies languorously in the sun reminding one somewhat of Barcelona, for in both, poverty plus love of liberty combine to generate the mentality of anarchism rather than Communism. Genoa longs for more commerce. The smaller town of Gaeta still wears the scars of war and Minturno, a village of about 4,000, sits in tatters and torn shoes.  Formia, on the other hand, athwart the Rome-Naples highway, is prosperous. The general impression of Italy is one of a hobbled, spotty economy.

The Marshall Plan has considerably improved conditions. Domestic sales of milk, sugar, tobacco, automobiles, radios, telephones, and of wheat for the indispensable, inevitable spaghetti have risen appreciably above 1947 and somewhat above 1938, but meat, lard, and eggs are down. Production, however, has not kept pace with other Marshall Plan countries. The cause is plain. “Productivity,” reads an ECA report, “continues well below prewar levels. As a direct consequence of this productivity, the cost of goods remains high and restricts sales in both domestic and foreign markets.” ECA accordingly   recommends  “a better distribution of income to provide constant   incentive to production   in the form of increasing demand for goods and services.”

But the Italian bourgeoisie has not been converted to the idea of a better distribution of income. Dayton of ECA says, ”I have the impression of a tendency on the part of some business and industrial leaders to give lip service to the need of raising the standard of living and to the basic principle of low cost and high production.  But of all the firms in Italy, you can count those who practice these precepts on the fingers of your two hands.”

In addition to producing too little and charging too much, the Italian rich spend unduly on themselves, in many cases. export capital while America pumps capital into their capital-deficient country, and, very significantly, they use deliberate methods to escape tax payments.

Taxation is a universally tolerated means of partially redistributing national income. It aids government in caring for the under-privileged. In Italy, persons with fixed incomes which are recorded pay taxes in full, but the upper brackets notoriously tend to practice wholesale tax fraud and evasion. It all conforms to their neglect of national interests; it is an obsolete form of selfishness.

In their attitude toward themselves and their employees, the bulk of Italian manufacturers, and of course landlords, manifest vestiges of feudal mentality, which militate against progress.

Italy must create a larger market at home by paying better wages and producing cheaply for the mass. Such low­ price production would enable Italy to compete more successfully on foreign markets.  Thus mass production is the stone that will kill the two birds Italy hungers for: a home market and a foreign market.

Italy has a thing called a Vespa. It is a short motor scooter, a simple efficient mechanism capable of considerable speed, with two rubber tires about fourteen inches in diameter.  It can carry a sidecar or small trailer attachment for commercial deliveries and is fitted with a pillion seat for a passenger, often a lady riding sidesaddle and holding the driver tightly. It is a striking vehicle, a sort of metallic bronco, and the young men love it, especially when they loudly race its tiny four-horsepower motor. The Vespa and its four sister brands are becoming for Italy, with her lesser wealth, narrow, crookeder streets, and better climate, what the automobile is to America.  In the same way, Italy needs “Vespa” shoes, “Vespa” clothing, ”Vespa” kitchen utensils, farm implements, beds, tractors; that is, mass-production goods scaled down in size, cost, and, if necessary, quality to fit her smaller purse and national conditions.

An attempt is being made to reshape Italy’s economy. The ECA has helped Italians do a tremendous job of economic rehabilitation.  In the ”Christ Stopped at Eboli” region around Lucania, ECA money, loaned on easy terms to small industries, has produced a forest of brick kilns, machine-tool factories, repair shops, buses, and trucks, which have raised living standards and hopes. Seventeen million dollars invested in a natural-gas development project in the north have already uncovered gas reserves which will save Italy $440,000,000 in coal imports; there is a promise here of a new European Ruhr Valley on the Po. Americans are likewise pressing Italian capitalists to develop the island of Sardinia which, equal in size to Sicily and rich in suspected wealth, has only one fourth the population. Marshall Plan funds are pouring into Sicily too. ECA dollars are building roads, piping drinking water to rural areas, eliminating swamps, building many homes, chiefly for the well-to-do, encouraging geological surveys, and, in general, doing myriad jobs which Italians might have done years ago. In agriculture, threshers and combines are ousting the primitive flail, and tractors compete profitably with oxen.

But it is only a modest beginning. “We cannot afford to tarry, to sit on a rock and bask in the sun,” Leon Dayton told a Genoa businessmen’s audience on October 19, 1950. He was pitting himself against something profoundly Italian, and yet, as he remarked in the same address, “Italians possess a toughness of fibre, a desire for work, and a pleasure in individual accomplishment.” The problem is one of leadership. Dayton warned the Genoese industrialists that they might “through inaction, let that leadership slip by default into the willing hands of Joseph Stalin.”

The more immediate prospect is that Italy’s present economic leadership may perpetuate the two-thirds-pauper status of the country, in particular with defense needs necessarily yet tragically diverting fortunes to unproductive use.

Italy’s individualism is a roadblock against Communism. But in leaders, individualism must be tempered with social conscience and a sense of community responsibility. The possession of wealth has been recognized as a public trusteeship as well as a personal advantage. In most countries, the lord has come down from his feudal castle into the stream of changing life. Italy too is called upon to re-enter the business of history-making, not with conquering legions but with creative social and economic reforms, which depend as much on a new psychology as on dollars from the new world. The dollars will come, but their effect will be palliative and temporary unless the regime saves itself by a dedication to Italy’s poor people.


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