Not the Bella Vita, but Life in Italy Marches On

February 29, 2012
Italian Premier Mario Monti speaks during a joint press conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, not seen, at the end of their meeting at Chigi Palace in Rome, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

Having been in Rome for a week I expected to be constantly disrupted by protestors and/or work stoppages akin to the media images from Greece. Yet the Italian capital bore no visible traces of political demonstrations.

Such normalcy – notwithstanding the bid for more effective taxation and austerity measures – seems a testimony to the power of technocrats in times of crisis. Coming after the idiosyncratic personal-orientation of Silvio Berlusconi’s government, the 100 days in office of new prime minister Mario Monti is certainly a change in style. One interpretation of this situation is that Italians recognize the extent of the 'emergency' (as the government’s latest document calling for “economic and social rebirth” puts it). After all it is usually only in times of deep crisis that technocrats are moved into positions of over-arching power.

Another interpretation, however, is that despite the image of a new effectiveness the constraints on substantial change in Italian politics remain formidable. To be sure, some cuts have already taken place — notably the decision to end Rome’s bid for the 2020 Olympics (the Athens games in 2004 demonstrating the problems of taking on such ambitious events) stopping a new order of fighter jets, and new measures to end tax breaks for the Vatican when church property is used for commercial purposes. But it is going to require much harder and extended slogging to get further along this path.

Instead of taking to the streets, opponents of reform measures are using the complexity of the Italian political system to dilute and obstruct change. Technocrats can propose altering policies with respect to unemployment benefit rules, regulations about dismissals, and the allocation of pensions (according to OECD figures Italians on average stop working at 61 with 14% of Italy’s economic output spent on pension benefits), but it is going to take more than a shift in style to alter the substantive ways of doing things.

Life in Italy might not meet all the ideals of the stereotypical Bella Vita. Still, it appears that for many citizens and interest groups, what they have now – whether misguidedly or not - looks better than what they might have under transformed conditions. The absence of front line protests, far from showing approval for the implementation of the technocratic agenda, may simply signal that such activities are not deemed necessary.

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