Chapter 2: How capitalism was badly managed in Italy and why (1943-1967)

O my own Italy, though words are vain
The mortal wounds to close,
Unnumbered, that they beauteous bosom stain (…)
That your truth is understood here through my mouth – the one whom I could be.

Petrarch, The Songbook[1]

We have rapidly enumerated the objective successes that modern capitalism obtained prior to the last few decades. But since we do not intend to make an apology for this world – an apology whose utility in the proper domain of propaganda we do not deny –, we must set out in several summarized lines the origins of the internal crisis in our own country, a crisis that we are called upon to understand and confront without delay.

We know that, in the States, an illness is at first difficulty to recognize, then easy to cure, and that, through its progress, the disease becomes ever-more easy to recognize, but more difficult to treat.[2] As for what concerns Italy, we are convinced that, if we have so far been spared a pure, simple and irreversible politico-economic disaster, this has been thanks to the relative, contingent weakness of the adversary’s forces and less so due to the merit and prudence of our politicians.

If we want to avoid a situation in which the illness becomes too easily recognized without relying on chance or hope, we must immediately diagnose it and simultaneously begin shock treatment before the workers understand its proportions and seriousness, which would inevitably open up to them new possibilities and new pretexts for struggle, as well as radiant perspectives of victory. The current wait-and-see attitude of the ruling class, which always fears to act or only acts out of fear, makes it look ridiculous in the eyes of the uneducated, working class masses. People are tired for a while before they perceive that they are, and nothing animates and supports a movement more than the ridicule of those against whom it is directed. Such situations are always very dangerous for both parties because they cause impotent despair in one and fatal fervor in the other. To not fall into the opposed risks of dramatizing or de-dramatizing the current crisis, there is only one route: to understand the nature and real depths of it exactly.

Our history from 1943 to 1967, when seen from a distance and in its entirety, appears to us as the representation of a fierce struggle that, in its first five years (up to the elections of 18 April 1948),[3] was seen in the majority of the countries opposed to the Ancien Régime of the Kingdom of Italy, which was born old and of which fascism was the supreme episode and the most recent archaism. It was exactly the Kingdom’s traditional routines, its hardly glorious memories, its always disappointed illusions of grandeur and its mediocre representatives to which the entirety of the new Italian society was unanimously opposed, like a single person.

From the moment that the Ancien Régime was permanently destroyed, the elections of 1948 definitively concluded this first period of unified collaboration between the bourgeoisie and the lower classes of our country. By putting an end to the illusions of the workers, who still hoped for a possible collaboration between their parliamentary representatives and those of the wealthy classes, the bourgeoisie showed itself to be more realistic than the workers were. The triumph of the middle class was double: over all those who had been above it in the defunct Kingdom, and over all those who had been below it. This was a complete triumph, but it was only definitive in relation to those who were above the bourgeois, that is to say, the old decadent aristocracy of the large landowners. In this sense, the victory was effectively complete because all the economic and productive powers, and all the prerogatives and the government of the young Republic in its entirety were united as a monopoly within the boundaries that defined this bourgeoisie, which from then on became the unique leader of the ex-Kingdom. It took positions in all the useful posts of power by prodigiously multiplying their number, and very quickly got accustomed to living there, as much upon the public treasury as upon its own industry.

But this was, moreover, a provisional success because all the classes that had also contributed to the struggle against the Kingdom – first under fascism, then during the Resistance, and finally during the era of the Constituent Assembly – saw that the largest part of the fruits of victory were “expropriated” at the very moment when this victory became definitive. In such a situation, it wasn’t a good thing to have too many illusions about the possibility of avoiding a new confrontation within the very interior of the heterogeneous coalition of the forces that emerged victorious from the preceding conflict. This conflict, which itself was part of a vaster conflict of global hostilities, had nevertheless quite weakened the working population and thus permitted the bourgeoisie to dedicate itself to its own interests without fear of once again finding itself obligated to measure up to a strong and unified adversary. On the other hand, after 1948, two decisive events contributed to once again reinforcing the position of the new dominant class: above all, the political strategy chosen by Togliatti[4] for the Communists and by the Left in general was not at all in contradiction with the new needs of the democratic and liberal center since, under the sufficiently vague mandate of the economic “reconstruction” of the country, renewed social tensions were momentarily frozen and, reciprocally – to the extent that this reconstruction was effectively undertaken – political passions calmed down and a public and private wealth such as Italy had never before known developed very rapidly. No one can forget how the Cold War, which excessively augmented international tensions, opportunely served to cool and defuse the real reasons for the internal conflict, which was constantly projected beyond Italy’s frontiers. The insurrectional episode of July, 1948, for which the attack against Togliatti served as a pretext, was the only noisy consequence of the workers’ disappointment after the elections of 18 April, and this was the occasion on which the Italian Communists, who loyally repressed the insurrection from within, with their own troops, proved their coherence and their responsibility with respect to their democratic political choices.

From then on, the particular needs of the bourgeoisie became the general needs of the republican government. They also dominated both the foreign policy and the domestic affairs of the country. The spirit of the times was active, industrious, poised; what one calls political dishonesty had precise justifications; it was, by temperament, a timid spirit, but was rash due to egotism, moderate in everything except its mediocre taste for “well being.” This spirit would have accomplished miracles if only it had possessed a little of the nobility of intention that has always appeared indispensible to us, but, by itself, this spirit could produce nothing other than a series of weak governments, without virtue or grandeur. Master of everything as no other aristocracy on the peninsula had ever been, the middle class or, rather, that part of this class that we could call the class of government, had taken up its residence in governmental power and, soon after, in its idiosyncrasies: the government took on the appearance of a private industry and was no longer the political expression of private industry properly speaking. None of the members of this class appeared to think about public affairs, not even to make them turn a profit for their own private interests or their own political current, while the holders of economic power and the common people – in a blithe thoughtlessness that united them for a while – occupied themselves with their respective individual interests, which were great in the case of the former and small in the case of the latter, with both contributing to the deceptive success of the ideology of well being.

Posterity, which only sees the brilliant crimes and ordinarily misses the vices that are at the origins of all the most serious crises, will perhaps never know how all the successive Italian governments had gradually but increasingly taken on the appearance of a commercial firm in which all the operations were made in view of earnings that could be derived for its particular associates, naturally under the sign of the public interest. When some of the most authorized representatives of economic power began to worry about the risks and the costs of a parallel system of government, the leaders of Christian Democracy, then accustomed to consider any government ministry as sinecure guaranteed to each of its notables, resorted to the saddest kind of blackmail by threatening to render public several virtual scandals in which economic power wasn’t any less implicated than political power, with the intent of keeping the reins of the government locked into imbroglio and bankruptcy. It was certainly an error to give in to this blackmail. Almost all of the political despicable acts of which we have been the unwilling and mostly powerless witnesses have, in our country, followed from the fact that the men who are introduced into political life – deprived of a personal inheritance – fear their ruin if they abandon their places [in government] or from the fact that their ambitions, personal passions or fears render them so obstinate in the continuation of their careers in power that they consider the simple idea of abandoning them with a kind of horror, which distorts their judgment and makes them sacrifice the future to the benefit of the present and their honor to the roles that they play.

On the other hand, no one can forget the responsibility of America, which seems to have accorded more confidence to the forced and artificial stability of the Italian political class – which obviously presented as its own work the recent well-being to which the country has acceded – than to the real craftsmen of the economic miracle, who were the industrialists and entrepreneurs, in general.

The current politico-economic paralysis, which had to be the direct and principal result of such irresponsible conduct, was the least unforeseeable thing in the world and yet it was regarded as a Cassandra-like prophecy that could have warned against such a possibility, which was what we exhausted ourselves trying to do. If our efforts weren’t publicly mocked, this was, in the best of cases, due to a residue of respect and, most often, due to pure and simple fear. Instead of praises for our alleged foresight, which at the moment come to us from all sides, we would have more modestly preferred a more attentive audience at the moment when there was still time to avoid this dreadful situation.

In a political world composed and led in such a fashion, what was most lacking was political life itself. On their side, the majority of the industrialists and, more generally, the holders of economic power, who were once again too devoted to their religion of laissez faire [French in original], didn’t entertain with sufficient clarity the consequences (obviously more damaging to them than to the politicians) of such a doctrine when it was set up as the unique rule for Italian politics and were too trusting of an inertial power that had made the politico-economic machine, following its own internal rules, function “automatically,” and all the more so when one kept one’s hands off of its delicate mechanisms. What one cheerfully forgot were the very society in which this “automatism” functioned and the profound transformations that it had brought about over the prior 20 years. The industrialists, who were rightly bored by the empty and verbose speeches of the government, placed, on the other hand, an extravagant confidence in the simplistic technical studies made by mediocre economists with whom they surrounded themselves and from whom they asked forecasts that reassured them concerning the expansion of and increase in their profits. With the arrival of the critical moment in which these forecasts were challenged point by point by the facts, the industrialists asked for more forecasts, as if to compensate for real losses with illusory certitudes, to which they hastened to make themselves slaves. A collective neurosis seemed to have seized these men, the majority of whom lacked the mental strength of their fathers and the character traits of their ancestors. They had inherited their money but not their courage, their pride but not their dignified prudence. The first failures sufficed to depress them psychologically and to remove from them the spirit of free enterprise. Thus they progressively lost the indispensible class solidarity that should have been their first line of defense when they were confronted by the excessive political power and the growing pretentions of their workers – and all this deteriorated into a kind of law of silence; they became accomplices in a shared impotence with the political class that, in truth, they allowed themselves to be fleeced by.

The nation in its entirety then overtly felt a tranquil contempt, as much for economic power as for the political administration, and those concerned were quite wrong to consider this tranquility to be confident and satisfied submission, the forthcoming end of which they did not perceive. Slowly the country divided into two unequal but still not opposed parts: on high there reigned apathy, boredom, impotence and immobility; down below, by contrast, political life began to manifest itself in feverish, irregular and apparently extra-political or extra-unionist symptoms that an attentive observer could have picked out without difficulty. We have had the misfortune of being one of those observers, and consequently we were much more sensitive to the inquietude that grew and rooted itself in the heart of our society to the extent that public morals deteriorated into general indifference; we were no doubt favored by our personal integrity, which has always been above party interests, and by the fact that our interests have never been dependent upon chance. In addition, we were favored by our position, which has required a character hardly inclined to false fears and false consolations, and so it was easy for us to enter into the game played by these institutions, as well as the mass of small, everyday facts, where in complete coldness we examined the evolution of the morals and opinions of the country, among the ruling class as well as among workers. It was thus, and not at all thanks to the chimerical wisdom that today one wants to attribute to us, that we have been able to clearly discern the many indicators that have ordinarily appeared in history in advance of each of its catastrophes and that always herald revolution.

Towards the end of 1967, these symptoms became so numerous that we believed it our duty to communicate in a private manner our preoccupations to the man who, due to the very position that he occupied, had to be able to understand (more than anyone else) the seriousness of the disastrous consequences, and who had the greatest interest in preventing them.

We then said [to him] that the Constitution of the Italian Republic had abolished all the secular privileges and destroyed all the protected rights, yet let a fundamental one (the right to own private property) continue to exist amidst the utopian perspective of extending that right to everyone. We then added that, in a period when half the States in Europe were confronting a growing discontent among the workers and the entirety of the young generation, the property owners shouldn’t have too many illusions about the solidity of their situation, nor should they imagine that the right to own private property would continue to remain an insurmountable wall for the simple reason that in Europe, until then, it had never been breached, because our times resemble no other. We have shown how, at the origin, when the right to own private property was the only foundation required for the support of many other rights, we defended it without too many difficulties or, rather, our enemies didn’t dare attack it directly. The right to own private property constituted a kind of wall within the wall of society, and all the other rights and privileges were its forward defenses. Blows could not reach it and, on the other hand, our enemies did not seriously seek to besiege it. But today, for many people the right to own private property seems to be the last remains of an aristocratic world that was destroyed de jure et de facto. Standing alone, it appears with the greatest obviousness to be a unique, isolated privilege in a leveled society, while all the other protected rights (much more contestable and justly hated) no longer serve as a screen, and so the right to own private property itself has been challenged in the most dangerous manner and with a contagious violence. It is no longer the attacker, but the defender, who seems obligated to justify himself.

Confirming our preoccupations and aggravating them with the stamp of an event, what took place in May 1968 showed the world that the time had come when our form of society was revealed to be divided into two large parties in the most unhealthy way. Real political struggle, which we could neither prevent nor win with speeches and which unavoidably had its theatre of operations in the factories and streets, henceforth broke out between those who possessed and those who were deprived of this right and, under a thousand diverse pretexts, our enemies did not miss an occasion to choose private property as the battlefield, and everyday and everywhere salaried work became a casus belli. Our political calendar could have been illustrated by an old maxim: “the illness never ends when those who command have lost their sense of shame, because that is exactly the moment when those who used to obey lose their respect for them, and it is at that very moment that they leave their lethargy behind through convulsions” [French in original: Cardinal de Retz, Mémoires].

Thus in France in 1968 and Italy in 1969, we saw our class tremble, without either courage or dignity, as if overwhelmed by the phantasm of its imminent death. Subsequently, this very bourgeoisie, as if awoken from a nightmare, believed itself to be definitively saved, but without seeking any further explanations. We never allowed ourselves to share either one of these errors, because we still heed the effects that passing whims, determined by this or that circumstance, can have on the human spirit, and because we are too well informed about the singular doctrines that, from time to time, appear or are rediscovered everywhere and that, under different names and labels, have had as their common denominator the denial of the right to own private property and the contestation of the duty of salaried work. The seriousness of the situation in which these things came about could be measured by the extreme ease with which these ideas spread in the factories, neighborhoods, schools, and offices, and the enthusiasms that they aroused.

”Beauty,” Stendhal says, “is the promise of happiness” [French in original], and we acknowledge that all the new theories, and the ideas that have simply been sketched out, denounce above all the pallor, boredom, and routine [French in original] of everyday survival in industrial societies; the real ugliness that has overcome the appearance of our towns that have been abandoned to the ravages of urbanists and speculators of all kinds; the pollution of the air, food and minds that has been democratically imposed on all the inhabitants of the urban centers. As a result, we easily understand that this “global” critique, even if it is generally imprecise, has easily hit the bull’s eye for people who are bored and impatient with the so-called diversions and leisure activities [French in original] that this society can offer them, and we can likewise explain how at present it has become objectively easy to make the workers believe anything that comes from channels of information that are different from the customary ones, which are accused – often rightfully so – of hiding the truth and being specialized in the manipulation of lies in which the majority of the country has believed for many years. Disappointment, the effects of which are always dangerous, seized the petit-bourgeoisie, which in these last few years has seen the disappearance of the social promotions that had been promised to it by the political parties that it voted for. The disappointment of the petit-bourgeoisie, which we should fear less than the rage of the workers, first manifested itself through the contestation that the children of this class engaged in at the high schools and universities, and subsequently it spread to their families, who were politically oriented toward the right-wing opposition parties or, in the majority of cases, the left-wing ones. The Communist Party was therefore able to offset the electoral losses that had cost it the defection of a part of its base among the workers, who became radicalized and escaped from its control. But what appears to us the most immediately worrisome development is the vulnerability to illusions of happiness and beauty that our political class has created in all the classes that, due to vocation or disappointment, are now openly opposed to the bourgeoisie, which has prepared the battlefield without preparing itself for battle against the other class, thus forgetting the following infernal prophecy.

For all eternity they will be against each other:
The one lot will arise out of their graves
With fists clenched, the other with their hair cut off.[5]

[1] The first three lines here are from Canto XVI, “To the Princes of Italy, Exhorting them to Set Her Free,” but the concluding two lines are not. Perhaps they were taken from Pierre-Louis Ginguené’s Histoire littéraire d’Italie (1819).

[2] Niccolo Machiavelli, Chapter III, The Prince: “[B]ecause, by providing for oneself beforehand, one can remedy them easily, but if one waits until they draw close, the medicine is not on time, because the illness has become incurable [...] [I]n the beginning of its malignity, it is easy to cure and difficult to know, but in the progression of time, not having known it at the beginning, nor medicated it, it becomes easy to know and difficult to cure. So it happens in the things of state; because, knowing far-off (which is not given except to the prudent) the evils which are borne in it, one quickly cures them, but, not having known them, one allows them to grow so that anyone knows them, there is no longer any remedy for them.”

[3] Thanks to financial assistance and clandestine “hit squads” provided by the CIA, the political right-wing won the Italian elections of 18 April 1948, which were “in danger” of being won by the Communists.

[4] Palmiro Togliatti was head of the Italian Communist Party until his death in 1964.

[5] Dante, The Inferno, Canto VII, lines 55-57.