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.