Monday, March 4, 2013

Why Italy?

A portrait of my great-great-grandfather Ferdinando Bardi (1822-?). He fought with Garibaldi in the Italian unification war of 1860 and he was awarded the medals you see in this painting. I can only hope that my ancestor didn't kill too many people in order to deserve these medals but, apart from that, I have been wondering about what led him to fight in that war. Was it because he was paid? Was it because he was seeking adventure? Or was it, really, in the name of  "Italy"? And, in that case, what would he have thought if he could have imagined the present situation in Italy? 

In this post, I am rapidly revisiting the history of the Italian unification on the basis of the concept that everything that exists has a reason to exist and that, therefore, some of the recent political events in Italy, from the persistence of Berlusconi to the rise of the "five stars" movement have their roots in ancient history. I apologize for the brevity of this text on a subject that would require a much more in-depth analysis. But I hope it can be taken at least as a starting point to learn more on this matter.

1. Why Italy?

At school, Italians are told the standard version of the events that led Italy to become a unified state in 1861. It says that Italians fought hard and passionately for the ideal of a unified country. After a number of failed attempts, eventually, a thousand brave volunteers followed General Garibaldi in the fight against the backward and dictatorial Kingdom of Naples. With the help of many Neapolitan patriots, Garibaldi's army triumphed and that led to the unification of Italy into a single state ruled by the wise King of Piedmont. Later on, the Italian army also triumphed against groups of bandits who unsuccessfully tried to resist the unification process in Southern Italy.

However, there exists a different version of the same events that seems to be becoming more popular in Italy in recent times (let's call it the "revisionist" version). It says that the prosperous and civilized Kingdom of Naples was stabbed in the back by the attack of a band of mercenaries led by an adventurer named Giuseppe Garibaldi and paid with the gold of the King of Piedmont. By ruse and treachery, and with the help of British money, Garibaldi succeeded in overcoming the desperate resistance of the Neapolitan army and in ousting the King of Naples out of his legitimate kingdom. Afterward, Neapolitan freedom fighters tried to reinstate their legitimate king, but they were ruthlessly exterminated by Piedmont troops.

These are, of course, extreme descriptions of an ongoing debate about the unification of Italy. But these views illustrate at least one of the many fascinating features of history: how easily it is to project our modern feelings on people and events of the past. Here, both the official and the revisionist version see the unification of Italy in light of feelings that were probably alien to the people who actually lived the event. But the limit of both views is not so much in their forcing those ancient events into modern patterns, but in their tendency of seeing history only from a purely Italian perspective.

Perception of history, more than history itself, shapes people's thoughts and actions. So, if we want to understand events such as the rise and the persistence of Mr. Berlusconi as prime minister and leader of Italy, we should try to understand what led Italy to become what it is today: a unified state. It was, under many respects, an unavoidable outcome of the trends of the time, but not exactly for the reasons we are told in school, nor for those we can sometimes read in terms of the revisionist version. International politics played a fundamental role in the unification as modern research is starting to show (1).

2. The black wave of coal

Starting with the 17th century, Europe started to be engulfed by a black wave. It was a wave of coal, a cheap and abundant source of energy never seen before in history. With coal, there came the industrial revolution, and with it, economic growth and military power. But the great black wave didn't arrive everywhere at the same time. Because of remote geological events, it was found mainly in Northern Europe. So the coal revolution started in Southern Britain and in parallel in Northern France.

It was not strictly necessary for a region to have coal mines to industrialize: the black source of energy could always be imported. Coal was expensive to transport on land but it could be travel easily on water. So, the need for transporting coal was one of the main reasons that led to the development of the European network of waterways that started being common in the 19th century. But there was a problem with areas which were too hot and too dry to have waterways. No waterways meant no coal and no coal meant no industrial revolution. And that, in turn, meant being left behind by the phenomenal economic development created by the availability of coal. Of the Mediterranean regions, only Northern Italy and Catalonia could build waterways. The rest was shut off from the industrial revolution.

This unbalance of economic power was to be the key factor that generated the Italian unification. The Kingdom of Piedmont (officially the "Kingdom of Sardinia") in North-Western Italy, had access to waterways and, in 19th, century it became a military and industrial powerhouse in the Italian peninsula, whereas most of the other states, especially in the south, had remained agricultural economies. This power unbalance was not in itself sufficient to create the Italian unification, but a series of external circumstances made it possible and perhaps unavoidable.  

3.  Mediterranean geopolitics in the 19th century.

Before the industrial revolution, the Mediterranean Sea had been in large part a Turkish lake and, in a smaller part, a backwater of the Spanish Empire. But Turkey and Spain couldn't catch up with the coal revolution: they had neither sufficient coal nor good waterways. With the 19th century, the rise of the Northern European industrial powers had created a rapidly developing power vacuum in the Mediterranean region. Britain, France, Austria, and Russia were all looking South with the idea of carving for themselves a chunk of the declining Turkish Empire (formally, the "Ottoman Empire").

Napoleon had started the fireworks with the invasion of Egypt in 1798. That attempt failed, but it had just postponed the French plans and, in 1830, France invaded Algeria. The Algerians put up a stiff resistance but they received no help from the fading Ottoman Empire and they were overwhelmed by superior firepower and numbers. This time, it was clear that the French were in North Africa to stay.

The fall of Algeria changed the Mediterranean power game. Now, what would prevent the French from carving for themselves a Mediterranean empire? It could have included North Africa from Morocco to Egypt and, why not, also the Kingdom of Naples, another non-industrialized region that could have opposed very little resistance. None of the world powers were in the position of stopping France; not easily, at least. Russia was too far away, Austria was bottled in the Northern Adriatic, and the British were heavily engaged in controlling the Middle East.

It didn't take much effort for British diplomats to see that there was a solution that didn't require direct military intervention. What was needed was a strong, unified Italy. As a state, Italy would remain too weak to challenge the world powers, but it would be strong enough to prevent a French invasion and to resist the attempts of France to dominate what the Italians would see as their country's sphere of influence in North Africa. So, the British interest in Italian unification became a driving force in Italian politics.

That was not the only factor at play in the mid-19th century in the Mediterranean power game, but the British plans were perfectly consistent with those of Piedmont, which aimed at expelling Austria from Northern Italy and expanding in the Italian Peninsula. Even outside Piedmont, Italians remembered very well of the times, a couple of centuries before, when the Italian territory had been little more than a battleground for foreign powers fighting for supremacy. Many in Italy understood that only a unified Italian state could muster enough military power to maintain Italy independent from foreign rule.

There were economic reasons, too. Italians could see that a unified country could get rid of the archaic borders and tariffs, build a streamlined transport infrastructure, and create a single currency to facilitate commerce. Again, a unified state was widely seen as the only way for Italy to fight the threat of foreign domination.

3. The unification of Italy

The converging interests of Britain, Piedmont, and of several movements of ideas in Italy led to the unification of Italy in 1861. It was the result of a series of successful military campaigns and the triumph of the coordinated diplomacies of Piedmont and of Britain. Of the world powers that could oppose unification, Austria was defeated and France was appeased with some land (Savoy and Nice). The other Italian states could not put up a significant resistance; they were peacefully integrated into the new state or they were rapidly swept away. That was the destiny of the Southern "Kingdom of the Two Sicilies" (also known as the "Kingdom of Naples"). It was neither the backward dictatorship nor the prosperous and civilized land described today by different visions of history. Simply, it was economically too weak to survive alone.

For some years after the unification, a stubborn resistance remained active in the inland regions of what had been the Kingdom of Naples, but it was ruthlessly crushed. Then, the newly created Italian state turned out surprisingly resilient. Of course, Italy never was powerful enough to compete with the major powers, but it played its expected role in the Mediterranean region. Italy stopped French attempts to expand in Tunisia and, in 1911, Italy went on to gain a foothold in Northern Africa by defeating the Ottoman Empire and annexing the region that today we call Lybia. That created a buffer state between the spheres of influence of France and Britain in Northern Africa.

For a long time, the alliance between Britain and Italy remained strong; so much that it was referred by Italians as "Bella Fratellanza" ("beautiful brotherhood)". Italy remained a good customer for British coal and a favorite spot for British tourists and expatriates. But things were to change with the end of the Great War.

5. The decline of coal (and of Italy)

As long as Italy could import coal from England, its economy thrived and the alliance with Britain remained strong. But, with the end of the First World War, the British mines started having depletion problems: Britain was going through its "peak coal." In Italy, this event was perceived as a betrayal and Italians simply couldn't understand why Britain wouldn't give them the coal they needed. The result was a generalized distrust that was to turn into hate against the "Perfidious Albion," as the Italian press started to refer to Great Britain in the 1930s.

But insults against the British could not be transformed into the coal Italy needed. The country was starting to behave like a starved beast locked in a cage: it went crazy. According to the old say "whom the gods want to destroy, they first turn mad" in the 1930s the Italian government behaved as if its stated purpose was to destroy the country. A series of wars bankrupted an already crippled economy and the invasion of Ethiopia in 1936 was a hugely expensive campaign that provided little or no gains for Italy, except for the doubtful honor for the King of Italy to gain the title of "Emperor of Ethiopia." The government finished the job with the second world war, where an unprepared Italy was utterly defeated and destroyed.

After the end of the war, Italy managed to rebuild her economy on the basis of crude oil. But the oil crisis that started in the 1970s, was in many ways a repetition of the coal crisis of the 1920s. Without cheap oil, the Italian industrial economy simply cannot survive and this is probably one of the reasons for the streak of craziness that pervades Italian politics nowadays. Fortunately, this time, Italy can't react to the crisis by becoming aggressive, as it happened in the 1930s.

6. Why Italy in the 21st century?

The reason why large and complex political structures, such as national states, exist is because they provide benefits that justify their cost. But all political systems are subjected to what Joseph Tainter calls the "decreasing returns of complexity". With the decline of the resources that created the system, complexity ceases to be an advantage and becomes a burden. The result is normally that rapid decrease in complexity that we call "collapse".

Italy as a unified state is a complex political system that was created because of strategic and economic reasons valid at the time of its creation. A centralized government produced advantages in terms of territorial defense and economic integration that justified its cost. But things have deeply changed in both areas.

First, in the age of superpowers, Italy cannot maintain a competitive military power, not alone, at least. Today, the Italian military system is completely embedded in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In terms of foreign policy, Italy is embedded in the European Union and we can reasonably say that Italy does not have an independent foreign policy anymore.

Then, with the growth of the European Union and the birth of the Euro, the Italian government lost the possibility of an independent monetary policy and with it most of its capability of intervening in the national economy. Being part of the World Trade Organization (WTO), then, the Italian government has further limits on what it can do in economic terms.

What is left to the central Italian government is the ability to collect taxes and, indeed, most of the present political debate in Italy is about who should pay taxes, how much, and what these taxes should be used for. Of course, there is a general agreement that taxes should be used for such services as police, schools, roads, courts, hospitals and the like. But the Italian state is a top-heavy and expensive structure. Despite the decline of the national GDP, taxes keep steadily increasing and, today, tax revenues in Italy eat up nearly 45% of Italy's GDP (in the US it is less than 30%) at a cost for Italian citizens of about 500 billion euros (some 650 billion dollars) per year in taxes. Nevertheless, the quality of public services is perceived as declining and Italians are being asked more and more to pay for services that, once, were free. At this point, it is a legitimate question to ask if these same services could not be provided at lower costs (and possibly of better quality) by regional governments; without the burden of a centralized state system.

As usual for governments, the Italian one doesn't know how to cut costs and reform itself. It keeps asking more money to citizens while it dreams of fabulously expensive mega-projects such as a bridge over the strait of Messina, a high-speed rail from Turin to France, and many more. At the same time, the government has been unable to implement even simple gestures such as reducing the privileges of parliament members. That would have changed little in the overall state budget but would have at least sent a signal to Italians that sacrifices were to be shared. No wonder that Italian citizens are angry and confused and that they react with voting patterns at national elections that look confusing to foreigners (and to Italians as well). Events such as the rise of Mr. Grillo's "five-star" movement are the result of these feeling and of the need for a redistribution of the sacrifices that the difficult economic situation imposes.

Are we going to see Italy collapse as a centralized state to give way to regional governments? That doesn't seem to be on the political horizon right now, but it can't be ruled out either, as shown by the diffusion of the "revisionist" view of the Italian unification. What we can say for sure is that the Italian economic crisis is getting deeper and that big changes are looming ahead.


1. The notes on the role of Britain in the  Italian unification are based mainly on the book by Eugenio di Rienzo "Il Regno delle due Sicilie e le Potenze Europee" -Rubbettino 2012


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)