Italy is not Greece. The latter is technically a failed state because of its overwhelming public and private indebtedness. But Italy is in the process of becoming Greece. The economy is in terrible shape with a nearly 12 percent unemployment rate nationally. Youth unemployment hovers at 40 percent. Both of these numbers are much worse in southern Italy, a historically depressed region that is now in freefall.
Two legendary businessmen had such statistics in mind when they recently gave interviews to the Corriere della Sera newspaper. Carlo De Benedetti, longtime head of the Olivetti Corporation, declared that work “is the only thing that counts; the rest is superstructure. Work is dignity. A country without work sooner or later will experience social disturbances and upheavals.” Two weeks later the former head of Fiat, Cesare Romiti, concurred. He said that he was frightened by Italy’s unemployment problems: “I am anguished for my country, especially over public indebtedness and unemployment. There is no work; therefore, there is nothing.” We are used to hearing such apocalyptic forebodings about capitalism from Italy’s Marxist left, but not from the country’s corporate headquarters.
Ernesto Galli della Loggia, a distinguished contemporary historian and newspaper columnist, recently wrote that Italy is falling apart. Without work, young people are leaving the country in droves. The physical infrastructure is collapsing. Disorderly conduct is increasing. The menace of organized crime is proliferating. Italy is a country of insecure old people and young people without prospects. Italians look to their uncertain future with fear. In such a crisis-ridden atmosphere, the center, where stability for the status quo lies, cannot hold.
Another leading preoccupation in Italy today is the unwanted arrival of Muslim immigrants and refugees from the war-torn Middle East and North Africa. This is a European-wide problem, but Italy’s proximity to the two afflicted regions makes it especially appealing as a destination for the millions of displaced Muslims seeking safety.
There is particular concern in Italy today over the disastrous situation created in nearby Libya. The NATO-led military operation that overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi resulted in the absolute chaos that has reigned there ever since. The country has disintegrated, and armed militias of fanatical Islamist groups have filled the void. Moreover, Libya has become a perfect environment for criminal traffic in drugs, weapons, and human beings. The real economy of Libya consists of such activities, which have replaced the oil industry. The Italians fear that the widespread Libyan violence will spill over into their country.
The Italian government has repeatedly issued warnings about the threat that Muslim extremists pose for the country. As a member of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq and a supporter generally of American foreign policy, Italy is a likely target for revenge attacks. In Jihadi literature, Italy is cited as an enemy not only for its imperialist history and association with the United States, but also because of the country’s role as the center of Western Christianity. In his first declaration after becoming ISIL Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared, “We will conquer Rome.”
Since 9/11, fears about violence coming from the ideological extremists on the left and right who had traumatized the country during the 1970s and 1980s—the so-called years of lead—have been replaced almost entirely by the threat of radical Islamic terrorism. As reported by Steve Hendricks in A Kidnapping in Milan: The CIA on Trial (2010), the Abu Omar case involving the 2003 CIA abduction of an imam in Milan for rendition in Egypt produced some startling revelations about the extent of radical Islamic activities in Italy, as well as a wave of brutal publicity about the American use of torture.
Front-page newspaper reports about Islamic fundamentalist extremism in Italy have been continuous, especially since the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan Theatre attacks in Paris and the 2016 attacks in Brussels, Nice, and Munich. Muslims from Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, the UK, and Italy have joined ISIL in Syria. All of these countries fear that returning extremists will bring new levels of jihad to Europe.
In the wake of the March 2016 terrorist eruptions in Brussels, authorities reported that Belgium had more nationals fighting for jihadist forces than any other Western country. As of January 2015, 440 people born in Belgium were fighting in Syria and Iraq. Belgium serves as the European hub of jihadist recruiting activity. Planning for numerous Islamist bombings, including the November 2015 Paris attacks, has originated in the Molenbeek District of Brussels. Densely populated by immigrants from North Africa, Molenbeek has become the symbol of European jihadism. About 100 people from Molenbeek alone are fighting for ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
Dozens of Muslims from Italy reportedly are fighting for the Caliphate. The Italians also have begun to worry about an incipient Molenbeek syndrome of their own in Salerno, where about 45,000 Muslims have settled. Clashes between the Moroccans who live there and ethnic Italians have been in the news and now form part of a national pattern of concern over the country’s future.
It is not as if Italy has been entirely free in recent years of other forms of extremist violence. After the defeat and virtual disappearance of the Marxist-Leninist Red Brigades in the 1980s, a new generation of left-wing radicals appeared around the turn of the century. They laid claim to the mantle of Red Brigadism and sought to revive the cause of anti-capitalist revolution in Italy. Hoping to garner support in the ranks of Italians disaffected by globalization, they murdered two establishment economists identified with workplace and trade agreement reform, Massimo D’Antona in 1999 and Marco Biagi in 2002.
The widespread unpopularity of Silvio Berlusconi’s decision in 2003 to align Italy with the United States in Operation Iraqi Freedom gave the new Red Brigades added cause for optimism. Nevertheless, they failed and swiftly disappeared from the scene. There would be no encore of lasting significance for the Red Brigades. The national trauma that they caused in their heyday and their total failure to achieve anything make them an unlikely candidate for political revival.
Yet the country’s economic crisis and a widespread antagonism against globalization have fueled other dissident movements. Violent anarchist Black Bloc demonstrations have resulted in episodes of vandalism. In May 2015, for instance, extensive damage and mayhem occurred in Milan, where anarchists attacked shops, burned automobiles, and hurled Molotov cocktails at the police. Following this event, authorities expressed alarm about Italy’s preoccupying political climate and worried that the cumulative effect of anarchist violence and Muslim extremism might produce a crisis in Italy’s political institutions.
Two right-wing anti-establishment parties, the Lega and the Movimento Cinque Stelle, have gained the most from the disillusionment of the voters with the status quo.
Both of these parties have made strong showings in recent elections. In the coming general elections, scheduled to be held no later than May 2018, Matteo Salvini’s League and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement are now projected to win more seats in Parliament than the mainstream center-left Democratic Party and the center-right Forza Italia Party combined. These two men could be running the country in a coalition government.
They have much in common. The core problem for both of them is the European Union, which they condemn as an abomination responsible for almost all of Italy’s worst problems. Grillo and Salvini both are trumpiani. They see Donald Trump as an ally against the European Union, the establishment media, open borders, unwanted immigrants, and globalized trade agreements. Salvini recently compared the historical significance of Trump’s victory to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Vladimir Putin also comes in for much praise from Grillo and Salvini because the Russian leader, too, is seen as an adversary of an irredeemably evil and dysfunctional European status quo, which only cares about the banks and the corporations. Grillo recently praised Putin for his perfectly sensible and moderate ideas about international relations. Trump’s desire for an understanding with Russia Grillo called the best initiative to emanate from Washington in many years, including all the years of the Obama administration, which he has denounced as an absolute disaster and a major cause of international disorder.
It would be fair to say that Italy is always in crisis. This is so for a reason advanced by the fifteenth-century historian Leonardo Bruni. In his classic History of the Florentine People, he noted that history is always a struggle between the popolo grasso and the popolo minuto, the haves and the have nots. In a country like Italy, which has suffered from a poor rapport among land, resources, and people, conflicts of the kind noted by Bruni assume exceptionally sharp forms.
Italy has been the classic land of political and ideological extremism. The Italians brought fascism into existence and carried it to its pioneering triumph. After World War II, they created the largest and most active European communist party outside the Iron Curtain. In the 1970s and 1980s, they had the worst problems with terrorism, left and right, of any people in the industrialized world. Today we observe in Italy mounting anxiety over the prospect of a deepening economic crisis and swelling migration streams flowing into the country. It does not require the perspicacity of a Thucydides or a Bruni to understand that such traumatizing conditions pose a serious challenge to existing systems of government and international arrangements. On the other hand, if climate change turns out not to be a hoax, Italy’s economic and political problems will disappear along with everything else in creation.
Richard Drake, a historian of Europe and the United States, is professor of history at the University of Montana.
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