Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, April 24, 2020

Why Italians are not singing anymore: the problem of a weak state

Shows of brutality are used by politicians to look "tough on crime," but they are a mark of weakness, not of strength. Something similar has happened in Italy where a weak government imposed harsh confinement measures on citizens. They didn't arrive to force everyone to wear iron chains, but the idea was similar: politicians trying to look "tough on the virus. Image: convicted inmates from Brevard County Jail.

In some places in the US, jail inmates are forced to wear black-and-white striped costumes and chains around the ankles. In some cases, even iron balls are attached to the chains. Without denying that there exists a crime problem, you may reasonably argue that this is not the best way to reduce it. But these spectacular measures are chosen by politicians competing against each other by showing that they are "tough on crime."

Something similar seems to have happened in Italy, with local politicians competing against each other to impose on citizens harsher and harsher measures against the coronavirus epidemic. Also in this case, without denying the gravity of the epidemic, you may reasonably argue that most of these measures were not the best way to fight it.

The Italian lockdown was probably the harshest seen anywhere in Europe. It involved a series of unclear and often contradictory orders from the government, sometimes looking like they were meant to harass citizens rather than stopping the epidemics. Just as a few examples, you could be fined if your spouse rode in the family car in the front seat rather than in the back seat. You could take your dog for a walk, but not your child. You could buy cigarettes, but not books. You could buy newspapers, but not office supplies. You could walk in the street, alone, but not run. In addition, your neighbors could report you to the police if they thought you were doing something that was not allowed by the government, and in many cases they did.

So, why did the Italian government behave like a poor imitation of Stalin's Soviet government at its darkest moments? My impression is that it is because it is an extremely weak government -- a fragile coalition created in a hurry less than one year ago mainly with the purpose of avoiding early elections. No ideas, no plans, just a bunch of politicians engaged in a struggle for their political survival.

Dictatorship is the mark of a weak government: lacking real strength, dictators try to look strong by taking (indeed) dictatorial measures. Their only legitimacy is provided by fear and their survival depends on their capability of scaring their citizens. It is a point well explained by Chandran Nair in his book "The Sustainable State" (2018). An excellent book, well worth reading, it forcefully makes the point that no serious measure can be taken against threats such as pollution (or, recently, the coronavirus epidemic) if the state is not strong and enjoys a prestige sufficient to avoid that politicians start competing with each other instead of worrying about the needs of the citizens.

Nair has in mind China as an example of a strong state and, indeed, China managed the epidemic in an extremely effective way, although with some uncertainties at the beginning, But for an example closer to our world, Germany also did reasonably well with the epidemic. According to an article recently appeared on "The Atlantic", it was the result of the cautious management by the German chancellor Angela Merkel. No scare tactics, but honesty and trust.

Merkel has relied heavily, and very publicly, on the expertise of a handful of experts, including the now famous Christian Drosten, the head of virology at the Charité hospital in Berlin. From the perspective of the public, Pries said, the chancellor and the virologist “are very trustworthy.” People know “that what they get from both Drosten and Angela Merkel are real and very well-considered facts” and that the two also “share information about what they don’t know.” Because they are “honest with respect to their information,” he said, that information is seen as credible. This honesty, at a time of widespread disinformation, Pries told me, was playing a big role in persuading Germans to largely continue to follow the rules and maintain, even now, “a very calm situation in Germany.”
Below, you'll find an article that I wrote for Al Arabiya a few weeks ago, discussing how at the beginning Italians had taken the "stay home" order as both a challenge and a duty, to the point that they would sing from their windows and balconies. But that soon stopped: right now, the mood has soured, with many Italians fed up with the measures forced on them and with a government treating them as if they were unruly children. Right now, the epidemic is winding down, but the economic crisis is rapidly deepening. Money is running out and people are becoming desperate. The government doesn't seem to have any idea about how to manage the crisis and, at this point, anything can happen.

Coronavirus: Why aren't the Italians singing anymore?

By Ugo Bardi Friday 03 April 2020

At the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic, a few weeks ago, Italians seemed to have found a moment of national unity when the country’s lockdown began March 9. Everyone understood that it was a difficult moment, but took it as a challenge to fight the virus together. Italian flags were hung from windows and people sang from their balconies and windows.

More than three weeks later, patience is wearing thin and the singing has stopped. Locked in their homes, people are scared, bored, and they don’t know what to do or what to expect. The media has done what they are experts at: terrorizing people by a barrage of numbers taken out of context, gratuitous sensationalism, and fake news. Politicians quickly discovered that scaring people pays, and that in difficult moments they could gain popularity by enacting tougher and tougher laws enforcing the lockdown.

Being locked at home with the police patrolling the streets is eerie. It looks like a post-apocalypse science fiction movie, something one would never have expected to see in real life.

In this situation, it seems that everyone has found convenient culprits in the European Union and Germany, who are accused of not doing enough to help Italy in this difficult moment. Several right-wing politicians are openly calling for Italy to leave the European Union and, perhaps in anticipation, the European Union flag has been taken down in some government buildings without anyone daring to enforce the law that makes it mandatory to hang it. The Germans are viewed today by Italians in the same way their ancestors in the Roman Empire viewed their neighbors: Northern barbarians to be feared and despised.

It is not just a question of being locked inside their homes. Italians are discovering that they have suddenly become poor. The Italian economy has taken a terrible beating from several sides. The income from international tourism – which generates 40 billion euros annually – is lost for this year, and nobody knows when (or if) tourists from abroad will return.

And that says nothing about the effect of the crisis on other industries: airlines, transportation, and entertainment among others. Optimists say that the Italian gross domestic product (GDP) will lose 10 percent this year, but some say it will see larger losses. But GDP is an abstract number, whereas workers in the tourism industry who have lost their jobs, very actively feel that loss. Many others are still theoretically employed, but they don’t know if their job will still exist after the emergency is over. Plenty of others are simply running out of money, and food riots in southern Italy have been reported – fortunately only minor episodes have occurred so far. What is perhaps the most anxiety inducing is that no one knows what might happen if the lockdown continues for much longer.

Yet, there is also good news for Italy: The most recent data show that the epidemic has peaked and is now winding down. In a few weeks, it may be over.

Not only is it a victory for the Italians who accepted the sacrifice of the lockdown, it is a historical occasion to learn from past mistakes and to do better going forward. Unfortunately, no one in power can seem to conceive anything but a return to the old ways: there is an absence of progressive policy makers developing a real transition to a green energy economy, for example.

Only a few people recognize the opportunities that the moment offers. We could go for a “green reboot” that could free the Italian economy from its traditional dependency on imported oil and gas. Further, with more activities becoming virtual, it could be time to reform the bloated and inefficient Italian state bureaucracy.

Italians are known to be resilient and enterprising, and there is still a chance to work for a better Italy. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll remember the time when we sang from balconies as the start of a new era.


Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy, and he is a full member of the Club of Rome. He is the author of “Before Collapse” (Springer 2019).


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)