From Thu Jun 23 07:00:10 2005
Date: Wed, 22 Jun 2005 11:19:37 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: [NYTr] Italy's economic crisis: Farewell to la dolce vita
Article: 215226y To: undisclosed-recipients: ;

Italy in economic crisis: Farewell to la dolce vita

By Peter Popham, The Independent, 22 June 2005

The traditional image of Italian life—whether Roman high society, or a Tuscan rural idyll—is crumbling. Berlusconi may scoff, but his country has become the sick man of Europe.

This is a story about frustration in one of the sweetest and richest countries in the world: the frustration of the young and the old, the privileged and the underprivileged, in a country that for decades enjoyed rapid growth and was the envy of the world—a land with perfect climate, perfect food and wine, and a laid-back approach to success that made it all the sweeter.

Italy still looks the part of an envied land: la figura (the look of things) has always been an Italian obsession, whether it is the cut of a suit or the placement of palazzi around a piazza, and when the buttery sun cuts through the fountains of Piazza de Ferrari by the grand fagade of the Carlo Felice Opera House in the centre of Genoa, the people sipping drinks under the sunshades of the cafes cannot help but look blessed.

Don’t fall for the image. Italians may still look more stylish than their neighbours, but in many of the more important areas of everyday life, Italy is trailing badly behind its competitors.

The OECD has lambasted its meagre levels of economic growth. The European Commission has thrown its hands up in despair at a ballooning budget deficit, which is in danger of wrecking the euro. And for thousands of ordinary Italians, the suave swagger through life epitomised by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini's La Dolce Vita has become a distant pipedream.

For the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, the notion that Italy is in any sort of trouble is a pernicious lie. “We Italians enjoy a situation of comfort and joy that derives from the fact that we were born and live in the most beautiful country in the world,” he told a press conference recently. “It is also one of the richest countries in the world.”

The idea of Italy as sick, he said, was “profoundly at odds with the reality we live. Italy has thousands of monuments, historical palaces, archaeological sites, we have the greatest per capita ownership of cars and houses and the largest number of mobile phones.” Not only that, but Italians knew how to make good use of them. “As they are playboys, our lads send at least 10 SMS messages to their girlfriends every day!”

But for one of those putative playboys in the centre of Genoa, life in Italy is a nightmare from which the only possibility of awaking is through leaving the country. But at the age of 41, he may have left it too late.

Gianni Maselli lives with his mother on the outskirts of Genoa, and he has never had a job. He flunked out of Genoa University three-quarters of the way through a law course, and decided to go for a career in communications. Intelligent and articulate, a self-taught whiz at multi-media, for many years he has been banging his head against the brick wall of Genoa's municipal institutions, demanding work on the basis of his merits. He has got nowhere.

Through long and bitter experience, he has come to the conclusion that in Italy, ability and motivation count for nothing. “Work is not considered as an abstract thing. That's why it is so hard to get people to recognise quality, competence, professionalism. Because the first thing people look for is if one belongs to a group: a political party, a civil organisation of some kind, anything, but one must belong to a group. If you don’t belong to a group, you don’t have a chance; you are not even taken into consideration.

“If you apply for a job anyway, they take you for a ride, make you think you have a chance. But finally the promised phone call doesn’t come, the letter doesn’t arrive, and you realise you never did have a chance. They waste your time, hoping that you will simply give up, that you will understand. If you keep at it, at a certain point they decide that you must be an idiot. Unless somebody says ‘give him a job’, unless someone says ‘he's one of us', you can’t do anything, as a solitary individual.”

Italy wasn’t always like this. Carlo Geneletti, a sociologist in the northern town of Bergamo, says: “There was a moment in the 1960s when there was a great opening, when many, many posts became available. Many people came to the cities from the countryside, many people studied, which they had not done before; they found rewarding jobs. The economic growth was so explosive that you needed to have those people. But that stopped, and it's been over for quite some time. It's no longer this way.”

Maselli has spent time in Britain and the United States and he knows those societies work differently. “To get a job in the United States,” he says, “it's enough to make a phone call! You go to a website where jobs are offered, you click on the job button. It's enough to make a phone call, because a job is a job! Of course if you turn up with hair to your shoulders and 10 days of beard, you won’t get it.

“This stupid thing, work, in Italy becomes a matter of enormous complexity and difficulty. There is no social mobility; people are terrified of being fired because then they know they won’t find another job, because they know what they had to go through to get a job in the first place. It's not just a matter of making a phone call. You have to go to one place and then to another and then to a third, line up, ask people for favours, and when you do that there is always somebody in front of you because people aren’t all equal. So you can’t afford to get fired because if you get fired then you are unemployed and there's no way out. All this blocks the society.”

Carlo Geneletti has experienced the same phenomenon: retiring from his job in technical co-operation with the United Nations, he moved back to his home town hoping to find an outlet for his experience in voluntary work. But there have been few takers.

“I knew I wouldn’t want to look for a job,” he says. “But I expected I would be able to work on a voluntary basis.” During his 30 years with the UN, Geneletti worked in “40 or 50” countries, mostly in Africa, first as a researcher then later on technical projects. With northern Italy's exploding population of immigrants, he had a strong expectation that his experience would be tapped. It didn’t happen. “I did a couple of things, which I am glad about,” he says, “but very small things. But other things didn’t work out.” Doors that opened to him closed again when he gave, “in the most respectful way”, his criticisms. Other doors never opened at all. After 34 years away, he was forced to recognise that Italy was now a foreign country, and one to which he had no desire to adapt.

“I found that I don’t really fit in this culture any more. It's very hierarchical. If you are the boss, even of a very small organisation, you are the Boss with a capital B; you get respect from the people working for you, and above all you get loyalty. And that means not criticising the way you handle the job, not criticising what you do. You cannot criticise, you’re not supposed to do it.

“I attended meetings of voluntary organisations that were very similar to a presidium of the Supreme Soviet. If the boss takes a position, everybody else is supposed to follow it up. And if I took a position that was different from the head of the organisation, the doors closed immediately.”

And then, he says, “there were doors that never opened. Now why didn’t they open? Generally Italians do not present themselves as individuals. You are always a member of something. If I go to somebody and say, listen, I would like to help out doing this, immediately in his brain is the question, who is this guy? And who is this guy does not necessarily mean what has he done, what has he studied, but whom does he belong to? Does he belong to a party, does he belong to the Church? “Everyone belongs to a group, a section, something, and it is through those that you advance your career or make a point in the wider world. If you are a nobody you could be a Nobel Prize-winner and you could go nowhere…”

With the heyday of rapid growth a fading memory, Italy under Berlusconi has staggered to a halt. Economic growth, already anaemic, is this year predicted to be about 0.6 per cent. With lira devaluation—the tool that kept Italy's shoes and textiles and machines and cars competitive on the world's markets—no longer available now it is in the eurozone, Italian industry faces an unprecedented crisis as imports from the Far East pour in. Production has plummeted relative to its neighbours, while labour costs have soared. A crisis is pending. And there seems no way out.

Raffaella Ottaviani is on the face of it one of Italy's lucky people. A graphic designer based in Rome, she has worked at the highest level of her profession in the capital for 20 years. But she was an employee of the city, and in her case the price of security was a salary so low it was impossible to live on it. When she finally quit the job last week she was earning 1,500 (#1,000) a month.

“Berlusconi's remarks are absurd,” she said. “We know very well that we are not happy. Italy is a disgraced country at the moment because it's lagging behind the rest of Europe. Whenever one goes abroad one is stunned by how far behind Italy is behind, in services, in the quality of life, in the cost of living, in housing, and above all in hope for the future.

“We don’t know what model of society we are working towards. So what are we trying to achieve? Nothing works properly. This is a country where the Church is trying to drag us back to the Middle Ages. You can feel the pressure from the Church, for example during the recent referendum on IVF treatment.

“Twenty years ago we had the idea that we were working for a society more equal, more just. We were trying to understand how to develop this country in the best possible way. Today the logic of the big fish which eats the smaller fish has won out. And what this country really lacks is a sense of community. Everyone thinks about his own little problems. The problem is one of values, of what to tell one's children, when the people in power are so corrupt.’

Corruption is a fact that confronts people every day. Maria Pia Pizzi is a streetsweeper in Rome, earning 1,000 a month, and when she saw an advertisement for a new housing development in an unspoilt corner of the suburbs, she put her life savings into it, only to learn a year later that the scheme was a scam. Now the city has offered her a deal—a new home next to Rome's biggest rubbish dump. “They say the area is totally under control, totally clean,” she says bitterly. “Only a mug would believe them.”

“How can we start again?” says Ottaviani. “What do those in power offer us? That the only thing of importance is to become personally rich.”

She added: “It's a country that is suffocating. Where can we start from, how can we start again? What do those in power offer us? That the only thing of importance is to become personally rich. What sort of example are we giving to the younger generation? Where is the effort for research, the effort to create the new economy? The only hope is moving abroad, because here there is no possibility.

“The only advantage that Italy possesses today is Europe, belonging to a community in which the law really works and not as it does in our country. I believe that the first crisis of our country is an ethical and moral crisis, and all the rest comes after that. I am too old to leave, but for the young people I think that's the only hope.”

“If I was young,” says Geneletti, “I would be so angry at this society. But they are not angry. Because Italians don’t think they have any rights. They think they have to be meek, to meekly accept the crumbs that drop from the table.”