History of the Mafia by Salvatore Lupo

Seeing that the Italian Mafia has been generating headlines again, this may be a good opportunity to let our readers know about a new book by Columbia University Press: History of the Mafia by Salvatore Lupo. The book was first published in Italian in 1996 and has now been translated into English by Donzelli Editore. Even though I find the book a tad too ‘academic’ at times, it is really useful in understanding just how the Mafia operates, where it comes from and how it continually adapts itself to new circumstances. It soon becomes clear that you cannot understand the whole Mafia phenomenon without a proper understanding of Italian history. And, as Lupo adequately explains, you can forget about the myths that both Hollywood and the Mafia itself are tyring to uphold; there is no ‘good Mafia’:

“Valachi, Gentile, Bonanno, Buscetta, and Calderone all portrayed themselves and their friends as wise men who applied the rules, who sought to mediate conflict, and who avoided illegal violence, turning to bloodshed only as a last resort, in order to apply the rational and carefully weighed deliberations of the organization. At the same time, they depicted their enemies as treacherous individuals, unwilling to respect the laws of (their own) society, always ready to engage in betrayal, killing at the drop of a hat, and verging on the brink of sadism and insanity. We can believe that the self-portrayal of the pentiti is a sincere one, yet if their adversaries were to speak, they might well tell the story from a diametrically opposed point of view. (…) In reality, such internal conflict – such as the contrast between the old Mafia and the new Mafia – is an integral part of the Mafia’s ideology. It is an expression of a mediocre and obscurantic vision of the world.”

I haven’t read the entire book yet, so I’ll just refer you to the book’s pages at Columbia University Press for more quotes and information.

Not Being God, a collaborative autobiography of Gianni Vattimo

I was a bit hesitant when, a few weeks ago, I accepted to write a review of Not Being God, a collaborative autobiography (or non-auto-autobiograpy as I like to call it) of Gianni Vattimo, published by Columbia University Press. The book is officially called a “collaborative autobiography” because, even though it was written by Piergiorgio Paterlini, it adopts the style of a first-person novel. Basically, the written text is Paterlini’s but the voice you hear is that of Vattimo. The reason for this is given in the introduction, where Paterlini states:

”(…) because I wanted to do it (long live subjectivity) and because Gianni Vattimo agreed to do it with me. But above all, because this necessary (auto)biography is something he – who writes so engagingly, unlike many of his colleagues – would never have written.”

And I must say the approach worked. After a couple of pages you forget Not Being God is not written by Vattimo. It is beautifully ‘subjective’ in all senses of the word.
The first thing that struck me when I embarked upon the book, was that it almost reads like a lifeblog. The chapters, 64 of them, are a bit like short stories, mostly chronological, on different aspects of Vattimo’s life. The format makes for easy reading and allows the reader to put down the book from time to time for a moment of reflection without losing track of the story line. This is very useful, for instance, when you are reading about Vattimo’s philosophical thought and need to do some googling, like I had to. I am a notorious Philistine when it comes to ‘higher culture’. Sure, I like art and philosophy and literature, but I am about as highbrow and erudite as a rent boy in Turin’s Valentino Park. This is the very reason why I hesitated to write a review on Not Being God. To make things worse, I had never even heard of Gianni Vattimo! Well, it turns out my ignorance was not really a handicap. On the contrary. It allowed me to focus on the man behind the philosopher. And the book really is highly enjoyable. And so is Gianni Vattimo. You have got to love this gay man who wanted to have a normal family life, taking the view that “sexual specialization is impoverishing”, and who is endearingly candid about his personality:

”On one hand, faced with an attack full of gratuitous hatred, I think, with childish surprise: How can they not be fond of someone like me? On the other, I always think that I’m incapable of winning over anyone, of deserving anyone’s affection. If someone does show me affection, simply and naturally and without expecting anything in return, I almost wonder how it’s possible.”

Furthermore, the book whisks you through a few decades of Italian politics and history and even gives you an inside look on the way the European Parliament works (according to Vattimo):

“At Brussels I always used to say, “Give me a report, even a rapporto protetto.” Because, since they can’t decide anything, members of the European Parliament try to win a name for themselves by attaching their name to a report on some topic or other. The Commission sends you a measure they wish to take, you study it and write the whole thing up, then take it to your group and present it. Even if the Assembly does vote it down, the Commission goes ahead with it anyway, because they’re utterly indifferent.”

Philosophy takes, of course, a prominent place in Not Being God, but the philosophical passages are easily digestible and Vattimo (through Paterlini) explains them well enough. And there are several interesting ideas that even a layman like myself can understand and appreciate:

”I’m convinced that not much can be done about the uniformization of the world, in the current situation at any rate, under a sole empire, the United States. But tomorrow it might be someone else. If there’s a way out – with the end of every absurd claim to absolute objectivity – it’s for society to become the place where truth signifies accord among interpreters, not the claim to demonstrate how matters stand.”

So, to summarize, Being God is a delicious mix of philosophy, history, politics, ‘gayness’ and the personal experiences and thoughts of an interesting man, thinker and political activist with an extraordinary life. It is thoroughly enjoyable, well-written (and translated, by William McCuaig) and, at times, enormously funny. It should appeal to everyone and, especially, to those who already know Gianni Vattimo or take a keen interest in Italian culture, its recent politics and history. And do not worry if you know little about Italian politics. All the Italian abbreviations that are used in the book are translated and explained at the end. Also, there is a handy index in case you want to research the tons of names that are mentioned in this autobiography.
The book’s official Columbia University Press webpage is here, more excerpts from the book (about Vattimo’s concept of “weak thought” and death threats among other things) can be found here and Gianni Vattimo’s very own weblog (in Italian) can be found over here. Enjoy.

Italy’s Roma: just how bad?

Very unhappy article in the Guardian today about the Roma situation in Italy:

Last week, Silvio Berlusconi’s new rightwing Italian administration announced plans to carry out a national registration of all the country’s estimated 150,000 Gypsies – Roma and Sinti people – whether Italian-born or migrants. Interior minister and leading light of the xenophobic Northern League, Roberto Maroni, insisted that taking fingerprints of all Roma, including children, was needed to “prevent begging” and, if necessary, remove the children from their parents…
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Berlusconi III: Revenge of the Sithio

Haven’t we seen this movie before? Will it be any better this time? Can Italy afford another round of Silvi B?

I know what could make this a great term of office! Start a new campaign: Tyrolia is only Italian! Because it’s worked so well for Greece

Update: I see that David is as enthusiastic as I am.

Berlusconi wins

The old bastard pulled it off. Seems to get fairly solid majorities in both chambers. Veltroni just conceded.

There’s was even more disgust at the political process than usual this election. Lots of scandals and Beppe Grillo rallies. Some dude ate his ballot, etc. So turnout was lower than usual this year. I gotta assume that hurt the left.

So they’re on track to have ten years of Silvio in a twelve year period, quite possibly. At least after that he’ll be to old to run again (He’s 71 now). The evil dorks, Lega Nord, had a great day too. Lovely times ahead for Italy.

Is 2008 Make Or Break Year For Italy’s Economy?

As Italians head to the polls this weekend in order to pick what will be their 62nd government in 65 years (in an election which is being held three years early to boot, due to the collapse of Romano Prodi’s outgoing administration) one odd detail seems to stand out and sum up the multitude of political and economic woes which confront Italy at the present time: we still don’t have economic growth figures for the last quarter of 2007. Now this situation may well be an entirely fortuitous one – Italy’s national statistics office ISTAT are in the process of introducing a new methodology to bring their data into line with current EU standards as employed in other countries (Italy yet one more time is at the end of the line here, but let’s not get bogged down on this detail) – but there does seem to be something deeply symbolic about all this, especially since Italy may well currently be in recession, and may well be the first eurozone country to have fallen into recession since the outbreak of the global financial turmoil of August 2007.

Perhaps the other salient detail on this election weekend is the news this (Saturday) morning that “national champion” airline Alitalia is near to collapse and may have its license to fly revoked, at least this is the view of Vito Riggio, president of Italy’s civil aviation authority, as reported in Corriere della Sera.

“If something isn’t done soon, everyone must realize that Alitalia is on its last legs…. The authority will have no choice but to revoke the airline’s license “in two, maximum three weeks if it can’t show it can find cash to stay in business”

And – as if to add insult to injury – only this week the IMF revised down yet one more time their 2008 forecast for Italian GDP growth, on this occasion to a mere 0.3% , and (as we will see below) a steadily accumulating body of data now clearly suggest that Italy is already in recession, and may well have entered recession sometime during the last quarter of 2007. If confirmed this will mean that Italy will have been in-and-out of four recessions in last five years. So the real question we should be asking ourselves is not be whether Italy is in a recession, but when in fact she entered it, and even more to the point, when will she leave? Continue reading

Italy’s upcoming election: another parliamentary stalemate in the making?

In less than a week Italy will be holding a general election three years ahead of schedule, but before I explain how the upcoming vote may lead to another gridlock, I believe an introduction is in order. My name is Manuel Alvarez-Rivera and I’m the webmaster of Election Resources on the Internet, where I cover elections and electoral systems around the world, mainly (but by no means exclusively) in Europe; I also write about the same topics at the Global Economy Matters (GEM) blog with fellow AFOE authors Edward Hugh and Claus Vistesen. I would like to take a moment to thank the AFOE team for inviting me as a guest poster, all the more so since the ocassion has a special significance to me: my collaboration on GEM with Edward was the outgrowth of his reply to an e-mail I sent to the editors of this blog two years ago, regarding Italy’s closely fought election.

As it happens, two years later Italy is back to the polls, following the collapse of Romano Prodi’s center-left coalition government earlier this year, and the last opinion polls published in March showed a consistent lead for the new, center-right People of Freedom Party (PdL) headed by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, which – in coalition with the Northern League (LN) and the Movement for Autonomy (MpA) – appeared set to capture an overall majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies under the country’s 2005 proportional representation with majority prize electoral law.

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Dare we hope?

Bad news for the old crook.

Through his family-controlled Fininvest empire, Berlusconi runs Mediaset, by far the biggest commercial TV broadcaster in Italy. His empire also runs the biggest national advertiser, the biggest publisher and much else. Given Italy’s long tradition of political interference with public sector broadcasting, this means that when he has been prime minister he has wielded influence over almost everything watched by Italians on TV, from news programmes to adverts.

But on January 31 the European Court of Justice made a first dent in Italy’s unusually concentrated media market when it ruled that the national broadcasting system failed to foster competition. In essence, the court recognised what anyone who has lived in Italy (I did so for five years) knows: the present system is a stitch-up between Mediaset and Rai, the state-controlled broadcaster.

This was an important moment because it reminded Italians that, even if they cannot fix what is wrong in Italy, Europe can sometimes do it for them. Since Berlusconi entered politics in 1993-94, turning his media dominance into a serious national issue, Italy has had two spells of centre-left government – 1996-2001 and May 2006 to the present day. In neither spell did the centre-left succeed in passing laws to reform the media sector or curb politicans’ conflicts of interest.

One can speculate as to the reasons why. In the late 1990s, it was perhaps because former premier Massimo D’Alema was too clever by half and Berlusconi outmanoeuvred him. More recently, Prodi’s government was probably too weak and divided to pass such laws – though it had promised it would.

In any event, the spotlight will now move to Brussels. Buoyed by recent victories such as the landmark Microsoft case, the EU competition authorities have never felt stronger when it comes to taking on corporate power. At some point in Berlusconi’s future premiership (assuming he wins the election), it is a safe bet that a test case challenging his media dominance will under the scrutiny of Brussels.

The credibility of the EU as a regulator with worldwide influence will be on the line. But so, too will the reputation of the multi-billionaire Berlusconi. It will be some spectacle.

Unintended Consequences

We can all probably agree that Italy’s fit of xenophobia towards Romanians is pretty bad, but it has had one positive consequence; ITS, the extreme-right/nationalist grouping in the European Parliament whose membership can be summed up as “if you want to make some minority unwelcome and you’re in the minority yourself, you’re welcome here”, has fallen apart after the Great Romania Party, one of its less hopelessly unsuccessful members, unsurprisingly walked out.

I say unsurprisingly because the leader of Italy’s “post-fascists”, Giancarlo Fini, has been going around calling his Romanian allies in ITS “animals”. There was always something fundamentally absurd about a group of parties dedicated to lionising their own nations and decrying others trying to cooperate internationally; it was just a matter of time.

A (positive) German shock?

Eurozone Watch has two articles about Germany and Italy that offer support for an optimistic view of the European economy. For a start, Sebastian Dullein argues that a comparison of Germany today and the US after the early 90s recession shows that Germany might be on the brink of a productivity surge. Dullein argues that labour productivity growth at the moment is being depressed by the re-absorption of the long-term unemployed, which also happened in the US in the early 90s. He quotes a figure of 7.6 per cent for productivity change (per employee, rather than per hour worked) in the metalworking industries (in Germany, a term that covers most of the industrial sector), which is positively stellar – after all, the US didn’t pass 2 per cent per-hour until 1998, well into the boom.

He also criticises Wolfgang Munchau for arguing (in essence) that there had been no structural reforms that accounted for productivity growth, and therefore that there was no growth. At this, I think I heard J.K. Galbraith’s ghost chuckle into his martini – it is indeed a fine example of all that is wrong with economics as a discipline that one can argue that we must all reform because there is a crisis, the evidence of that crisis being that one’s reforms have not been adopted.

An alternative argument would be that there was not all that much wrong with German firms in the first place. It is suggested that R&D spending is too low, but Dullein argues that it’s picking up. And anyway, their products can’t be that bad, as the rest of the world wants to buy German exports more than anything else. He also notes that there has been a wave of capital investment since 2002.

This possible German shock is already reverberating interestingly. Italy, for example, is experiencing better economic times, with growth picking up and strong industrial order books – especially on orders from France and Germany for capital goods. The growth is despite an increase in the tax take, with the result that the government is likely to have a chunk of change on hand. The OECD and the EU Commission would rather like to see that used to cut the monster public debt, still running at over 100 per cent of GDP. But the political situation might make that unlikely.

That might be the good news, though. When wasn’t the Italian government up to its eyes in debt? And it’s almost traditional that political turmoil in Italy is accompanied by good economic news. The difficult bit, though, is that Italian inflation is running somewhat slower than German – this implies, of course, an improvement in the terms-of-trade. Probably, Italy has done some internal disinflation, being unable to devalue – but this implies that wages have suffered relatively. The question is how to redistribute the benefit of the German shock without killing the golden goose.