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I Politici Italiani:

For those who, like me, take an inordinate interest in all things Italian (I spent a semester in Bologna during the run-up to last year's Presidential election, and hope to spend a good deal more time in that extraordinary country in years to come), a couple of recent books have caused a sensation in Italian political circles and may herald a real sea-change in the political culture there. One, La Casta: Così i Politici Italiani Sono Diventati Intoccabili (The Caste: How Italian Politicians Have Become Untouchable) by two journalists from Milan's Corriere della Serra, Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, is the subject of a very interesting review in this month's issue of Foreign Policy.

According to Rizzo and Stella, Italian political life has been hijacked by what they have termed “the Caste,” a political class of thousands of lawmakers who have devised rules that enrich themselves at public expense with little fear of oversight, accountability, or, in some cases, prosecution. The Caste, they claim, extends all the way to the president of the republic. But the breadth of the Caste is far greater than any one person or office. Rizzo and Stella report that members of Parliament continue to belong to the Caste even after they have resigned from office; that at least 16 of them have criminal records; and that Italy’s presidential palace costs more than four times as much to operate as Buckingham Palace. The Caste is full of such charges, which the authors unearthed from hundreds of pages of official, unclassified documents. It is a stunning indictment of the privileges, costs, abuses, and waste in Italian politics.

(There's also a useful interview with Rizzo and Stella posted here) And today's New York Times has a profile of Roberto Saviano, author of "Gomorrah," an enormously powerful indictment of the continuing strength and influence of the Neapolitan mafia (known as the Camorra"). What is perhaps most interesting about these two books is how phenomenally popular they've become in Italy; each has sold almost 1 million copies, a stunning figure in a country of 50 or so million people, even one with as well-developed a literary culture as Italy has. It's an enormously hopeful sign. The corruption in Italian politics, and Italian life, runs very deep, and saps an enormous amount of energy and enterprise out of Italian public life; it is a problem, or a series of inter-related problems, that obviously can only be solved by the Italians themselves, and the attention that has been drawn to these two books is probably the most hopeful sign in recent years that the political will to challenge decades and decades of entrenched power might finally be emerging. Worth watching, and hoping.

wb (mail):
The Caste sounds very much like what many Italian call the 'sottogoverno." This is the collection of political, intellectual, and social leaders who drive decisions about the course of political, academic and social life regardless of which parties are in office. Only one aspect of the sottogoverno is deciding which government-sponsored research programs go forward. At the top of this group of intocabili are a tiny number of innominabili.

See you in Italy!
11.3.2007 6:50pm
Andrew Janssen (mail):
The Caste also sounds a heckuva lot like the type Col. Tom Kratman refers to as "Tranzis" in his books. The good colonel doesn't have much time for transnational progressivism.
11.4.2007 1:39am
Gaius Marius:
Hmmm...sounds like you're describing the members of our Congress.
11.4.2007 6:52am
Bottomfish (mail):
If corruption is sufficently widespread, people will enjoy throwing up their hands in horror, professing the most idealistic sentiments while continuing to profit from corruption themselves. I'm reminded of Massachusetts and the recent veto of the Cape Wind project.
11.4.2007 7:47am
A. Kvetch (mail) (www):
I am Italian (but thankfully live in London), and I agree with most of what you have written. I just wanted to point out two things:
1) You say "each [book] has sold almost 1 million copies, a stunning figure in a country of 50 or so million people, even one with as well-developed a literary culture as Italy has." I would say that the number of copies sold is even more stunning than you state, as Italy does not have a well-developed literary culture at all. Literacy levels are truly appalling, and (according to 1996 figures) although Italy published 42,000 books annually at the time (almost as many as in the US) only about 25% of these actually registered any sales whatsoever (Source: Confronti by Beppe Severgnini, page 70).
2) Secondly, I would be much more pessimistic about any chance of changes actually taking place as a result of popular outrage. The ability of the governing "caste" to ignore the will of the population is staggering, and is best exemplified by successive governments' reintroduction of the scandalous (tax-payer funded) party financing system, despite the fact that three referenda (in 1978, 1993 and 2000) showed that a crushing majority is in favour of abolishing this system, see here.
11.4.2007 11:57am