FIAT (or "Fix Italy Again, Tony")

You could call it in many ways: a diktat, a blackmail for the common good, an opportunity not to be missed, an illuminate industrial move, a shot in the foot. Whatever your choice, what's happening these days at Pomigliano d'Arco, in Napoli's populous and stagnant hinterland, has become a paradigm for Italy's decline, its future as a manufacturer in a globalised world, and how Italians realize that something needs to be done to invert the trend.

Fiat, Italy's leading car manufacturer, employs over 5.000 people at its Pomigliano factory, where productivity has been lagging for years. Workers have been put in cassa integrazione (a scheme for workers forced to work less, with a token salary), the manufacturing activity has been moved to factories abroad. In the core of “the South” - a region where the stereotype (whether it's fair or not) describe people as lazy, lacking in initiative and always waiting for a beneficial intervention from the public hand – the “rust belt” could soon swallow Pomigliano as well.

Then comes Fiat's bitter pill, with some sugar on it (or a sugary pill with a bitter aftertaste, if you prefer). If the workers accept a new deal – involving more flexible work shifts, all in order to increase productivity – then production of the brand's low cost Panda car would be moved back from Poland, to Pomigliano. Otherwise, end of the story for a moribund plant.

It goes without saying that the new plan would not make Fiat a Chinese sweathop. We're talking about shifts of 8 hours, day or night for everybody; some more ore di straordinari (overtime work shifts); stricter standards in coverage of sick days. But yes: overall, work will be harder, at the expense of some free time. And it doesn't bode well for the trade unions in the long term, if the results of decades of struggles for more rights are reversed with such speed.

That's why the trade unions split. Most of them accepted the deal, but a leading more left-wing one – Fiom – opposed it. Fiat, then proposed a referendum on its plan – and heavily campaigned for the “Yes”. With their backs against the wall – work more, or else – it was widely expected that the 5,000 employees would swallow the pill. They duly did, but with at a lower percentage than expected: less then 65 per cent.

Supporters of the plan point out that the Pomigliano plant was notorious for its lack of professionality: workers calling in sick in droves, strikes organized during Italy's football matches. Opponents bemoan the loss of bargaining powers on the workers' side. Italy's radical left, which has been out of Parliament for two years and is growing more nostalgic as time goes by, is seething.

This writer has never harboured much sympathy towards Italian trade unions. More appropriately, to what has become of them: places where the only rights worth fighting for are those enjoyed by workers already protected, while the growing army of on-and-off, “flexible” young workers is left without representation, often to the benefit of incompetent workers taken on with safe contracts when the economy was in its golden years.

Conditions have changed. They have been for almost two decades, with the relocation of industrial production and the rise of cheaper Eastern European and Asian rivals in Italy's core industries. The political system, frozen in a “Love or Hate Berlusconi” bubble since 1994, has never dealt with this structural decline. Funds for R&D are constantly the first to be cut. In my current Italian visit, the signs of the crisis are everywhere. Almost every shopkeeper, small entrepreneur, employees with jobs at risk, is complaining, and hoping for better times. Next year, “they say in 2-3 years”... most likely, in my opinion: never, if the problems are not addressed.

Italy is losing battle after battle in the survival struggle in a globalised world, and a huge collective effort is required. Otherwise, the future is grim. The Argentinian spectre has been there for almost a decade: the Greek one is geographically much closer, and Italy is now constantly singled out as the “sick man of Europe”. The way out is neither a supine surrender to the padroni (“owners”), nor a hardline “no, signore” along nostalgic Communist hymns. I think there is room for a compromise, for an “Italy 2.0”. But the more time it takes for people to realize that something needs to be done, the more bitter will be the pills to swallow. Or it could just be too late.


More of the same

There is a coalition that has governed a country for 7 of the last 9 years, dominated the political agenda for the other 2, presided over a stagnating economy and a massive arrival of immigrants, its leader facing countless trials and sex allegations, substantiated by audio tapes that clearly link him to dodgy situations. There is a xenophobic party – playing second fiddle in this coalition - managed as a fiefdom by its rabble-rousing founder, flirting periodically with the idea of taking the country out of the euro, and repeatedly showing that general culture is not among the criteria to select its members.

In a moment when the economical crisis is still biting hard, immigrants are blamed for everything that goes wrong and taxes don't decrease as promised, what did the voters choose, in the regional elections held this week? More of the same, of course. The country being Italy, this translates in an electoral victory for PM Silvio Berlusconi, and even more for the second pillar in his coalition, Northern League's Umberto Bossi. Whose son, 21-year-old Renzo, has just won a seat – with the highest number of votes in his town – in Lombardy's regional council. Despite having failed twice – and scraped through on the third time – high school's final exam.

Italians happy with the present economic situation of the country are hard to find, unless you believe the government propaganda. I believe that even if you ask the average Berlusconi or Bossi voter if they are optimistic about the future, most of them will say they're not. Yet, they keep voting for the duo that has shaped Italy's politics for the last 10 years. The Northern League is stronger than ever, since its foundation over 20 years ago. Berlusconi is holding on thanks to his ally; but he can still claim over a quarter of the national vote, and be cheered by supporters when he utters nonsense slogans like “we are the Party of love, the other are only envious and hateful”. Somebody should tell that to Renzo Bossi, who last year developed a Facebook apps called “Bounce the illegal immigrant back” (to the sea).

There are plenty of reasons for this situation, all of them are valid – and I will discuss them in future posts. The opposition, after being battered time after time, still just doesn't get it. Apathy is spreading among centre-left voters. Berlusconi censors opposing voices in the media. But what this bizarre correlation – the country goes to the dogs, hail to the chief! - makes more evident, in my opinion, is the increasing disconnection of Italians from reality/rest of Europe/the world. And it's all part of the plan.

A provincial, uneducated, scoffing-on-culture, egoistic, scared-of-immigrants population wants a strong man to rule. Policies are too complicated: He knows how to do it for you. Those who disturb Him – judges, do-good leftists - are defeatists, enemy of the country. Foreign media criticizing Him – even conservative ones! - are only envious because your food is better than theirs. Immigrants take your jobs. Chinese are shifty and never die. Communists are always around, but until He's around they are luckily unable to harm you.

Not that in the past we were all Nobel laureates. But values were different. You would control yourself in public, instead of spewing racing insults and laugh about it. You would be uncomfortable about your lack of culture. You would work hard to reach a better position. But day after day, in the last 20 years, the importance of all this has been eroded by the media of you-know-who.

After decades of a stolid, self-censored Catholic cultural industry, the audience was receptive. The collapse of the old political order gave space to a tycoon-turned-politician who “says things as they are”. And still owns the media system, giving you light programmes, where fame and money are the key values, and sensible reasoning is impossible to formulate – someone will shout over you anyway, “saying things as they are”. Your leader speaks to the guts, not to your head. You don't need the latter: He thinks for you. And if you vote with the guts, when the world is a scary place, you vote for who promises to protect you from the dangers.


Berlusconi and his peak

I'm very pleased to see Bill Emmott, whose judgment I highly respect, agreeing with what I've been thinking since the sex audio tapes came out: Berlusconi is at the peak. And from now on, although sometimes it seems impossible to get rid of this clown, there can be only downhill. We'll see if it'll be a quick one or a painfully long descent. Knowing the man, he'll fight to death. But he's also one that can't tolerate to fade slowly, so he could prefer to burn out - and bring the rest of Italy with him, like the ending of the movie "Il Caimano".

Here's Emmott's article.


The decline of Italian football, a mirror of the country

AC Milan is out of the Champions League, too. Nothing wrong in losing to mighty Manchester United, of course. But the thrashing 0-4 is just another confirmation of the long decline of our football. There's the serious chance that, for the third year in a row, no Italian teams will play in the quarter-finals of Europe's most prestigious tournament. Don't be deceived by Inter Milan's first leg victory against Chelsea (quite a lucky one, and let's wait for the match in London next week): Inter is an Italian team only on paper, and it's been built by outspending the rivals for years, building up a huge debt. The crisis of football, a mirror of Italy in so many ways, is here to stay.

In the Eighties and Nineties, Italians boasted that Serie A was the toughest league in the world. They were probably right: our teams would regularly advance in all sorts of European cups, the best world players would come to play in Italy. Then, things stalled. AC Milan's triumphs masked the progressive loss of competitiveness of the others. When English and Spanish teams where transforming their clubs in merchandising machines, rooting out hooligans from their brand-new stadiums, or scouring the world for football talent, Italians got stuck. Today, stadiums are decrepit and still city-owned. Referee scandals have fed the never-ending suspicions that game officials are bribed. Italian prospects grew scarce, and few teams realised the potential of the opening up of frontiers.

Now, I can already hear some of you saying: “Don't forget that Italy won the last World Cup! English and Spanish teams are in debt up to the neck, wait until the collapse of the Premiere League!”. Right. It's true that lots of the richest teams are on the verge of financial breakdown, and we're still World Champions until next July. But this sounds so much like the usual refrain by Berlusconi during the financial crisis, that hit Italy less than other countries. Steady as we go, our downhills are less evident. But only because we're always flat or slightly going down anyway, while the others enjoyed a boom for years.

Once, a key to any conversation with adult males around the world was muttering the names of our football players; now, I find taxi drivers that know Chelsea's or Liverpool's line-ups by heart, but when it comes to Italy they only remember Baggio, or Totti if you're lucky. In the next World Cup, the world will discover Italian football players they have never heard of.

Clinging to our past seems to be a strategy also of Italy's manager, Marcello Lippi: he's still leaning heavily on the core of players that – against all odds – won in 2006. But time takes its toll on the best athletes. There's only one potential game-changer: Italy's knack for pulling together, right when nobody is expecting that anymore. It worked wonders four years ago, when the country was still shocked by a huge referee scandal, which united and motivated the Nazionale's players. But now, in the air there's something different: only resignation for a much-debated decline, with solutions nowhere to be seen. Precisely like everything else in Italy.


What will happen when we get rid of Him...

Speaking about sycophants... the phenomenon is not confined to Italy, of course. But Italians, historically, have demonstrated a peculiar attitude that is quite similar to licking the current ruler's - whatever ruler - ass. To put it nicely, you call it "political adaptability". Bluntly speaking, it's switching sides so quickly and with an apparent clean conscience, so much so that you can probably deny your past and believe yourself when you do it.

After Mussolini was hanged in Piazzale Loreto, we say, suddenly nobody was a fascist anymore. Fascism was outlawed, confined to the past, but somehow we didn't come to terms with it. There was no Nuremberg-style trial, no public shame. "At least, under Mussolini trains were on time" is still a popular saying among people who lived under Fascism, without experience direct violence from it. Italians felt somewhat relieved that Mussolini was no Hitler, and the world demonization of the latter allowed us to forget that we had elected, supported, cheered a dictator for over twenty years.

Fast forward to year 2010... feels like a déjà-vu? It does to me. Berlusconi tapped into this nostalgia for "the strong man". And, although some people despair we'll never get rid of him, one day we will - unless he really proves immortal. Some months later, you'll tell me how many fasc... er, Berlusconiani you see around.

P.S. Joseph Heller's masterpiece, Catch-22, contains a great dialogue between an American soldier and an old Italian in a brothel (the novel is set in Italy during World War 2). Surreal, as the rest of the book. But spot-on, even 50 years later. Check it out:

Capt. Nately: Don't you have any principles?
Old man in whorehouse: Of course not!
Capt. Nately: No morality?
Old man in whorehouse: I'm a very moral man, and Italy is a very moral country. That's why we will certainly come out on top again if we succeed in being defeated.
Capt. Nately: You talk like a madman.
Old man in whorehouse: But I live like a sane one. I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top. Now that he has been deposed, I am anti-fascist. When the Germans were here, I was fanatically pro-German. Now I'm fanatically pro-American. You'll find no more loyal partisan in all of Italy than myself.
Capt. Nately: You're a shameful opportunist! What you don't understand is that it's better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.
Old man in whorehouse: You have it backwards. It's better to live on your feet than to die on your knees. I know.
Capt. Nately: How do you know?
Old man in whorehouse: Because I am 107-years-old. How old are you?
Capt. Nately: I'll be 20 in January.
Old man in whorehouse: If you live.


A call to sycophants

Every Italian living abroad, sooner or later, has to face the question “how come Berlusconi is still in power?”. The usual answers (control of TV channels, charisma, populistic appeal to the masses, his it's-ok-not-to-pay-taxes attitude, his macho allure, the use of his multi-billionaire wealth in electoral campaigns... and there's more) are well documented.

Plenty of books have been written on all this. Still, usually those who asked the question remain perplexed. Ever more so when you tell them that the country is sinking economically and morally, but if Italy was to vote tomorrow, Berlusconi would be likely to win again.

Among expats, the lack of hope in the future is palpable. The best and brightest leave. Many, among whose who stay, adapt by following the mother of all Italian justifications against whistle-blowing: “Tengo famiglia” - I have a family, therefore I'm not such a fool to go against the flow.

The last example came yesterday. Writing the final word on David Mills, a British lawyer convicted of corruption for his services in trials involving Berlusconi's dodgy financial holdings, the Corte di Cassazione ruled a sentence of "prescription": that means Mills committed the crime, but as it was too long ago, it is no longer punishable. Berlusconi, it goes without saying, didn't waste a second before attacking the magistrates who had worked on the case.

And how was the news reported? Mostly correctly. But the TG1, the 30-minutes news program on the main state channel, said twice that Mills had been “acquitted”. Innocent, then. Didn't do anything wrong. Berlusconi had been again smeared for political reasons. Now, normally these judicial cases don't move a single vote – those who follow them are already rabid anti-Berlusconites, the “silent majority” doesn't bother. But the silenty majority follows the TG1 as a dinner-time tradition. And Italy, remember, is a country where 70 percent of the population get their news primarily from TV.

There's no shortage of sycophants in Italy, and the TG1 editor-in-chief Augusto Minzolini has proved again and again he's determined to lead the pack. And I suspect Paolo Di Giannantonio, the TG1 speaker who read the news, is more of a “tengo famiglia” type, then a die-hard Berlusconiano. I like to think that he's ashamed of himself, now.

So, I have a dream. That next time, Di Giannatonio or another lackey-type journalist in his position stops reading the news, stares at the camera, says that he's tired of having to lie in order to work, rips up his notes, tell the audience to wake up, and walks away in disgust. Showing some backbone would probably cost him his salary, but he would become a national hero for millions. I suspect some colleagues could follow. And then things would turn interesting.

Desperate Italian is back

I stopped updating the blog since... I moved abroad. Fittingly for my alias, isn't it? It wasn't an easy choice - and I mean neglecting the blog, not leaving the country. I had a small but committed readership, and felt from the beginning the typical emigrant's sense of guilt: how can you criticize you country, if you don't share anymore its troubles? Fifteen months later, the motivation is coming back: I'm surrounded by foreigners who ask me questions about Italy. I hope my posts will help giving them a better picture, and that this space can become a corner for serious and enriching debates.