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).


  1. What is a 'weak State"? Is it one composed of Farmers who also serve as the "Militia" - or one composed of large urban centers dependent upon a few large scale industrial Farmers who utilize cheap migrant labor to produce foodstuffs to feed the Urban masses? OR? a Technocracy?

    What is sustainable on a Finite Planet?

    Ancient Rome, in order to enforce it's dictates and expenses, imposed heavy taxes on the population and literally drove the Farmers off the land of Italy - so much that Rome had to import corn from Africa. When the Barbarians waged war against Rome - and cut off the supply of corn from Africa - Rome starved.

    Now we see:

    The UN claims that debt money and limited debt forgiveness might solve the problem:

    "The consequences of a combined health pandemic and a global recession will be catastrophic for many developing countries and halt their progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals".

    The report speaks of mounting economic damage - but nothing of the ecological damage caused by Overshoot. Who runs the UN? Must be the Banksters - who in my mind are Criminals - fiat money is the weapon, usury the gun.

    In "The Sustainable State" -

    "Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow, an independent Pan-Asian think tank. He was chairman of Environmental Resources Management in Asia Pacific until 2004, and is a regular speaker at global forums including the World Economic Forum, APEC Summits and OECD events. He is a Member of the Club of Rome and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts".

    I see the argument for a strong state which will manage human populations - and the size and scope of Industrial Civilization - and which I agree with.

    Professor Albert Bartlett in his lecture expressed this concern clearly - with his yeast in a bottle analogy - that after a short period of time - the doubling exceeds the capacity and leads to collapse.

    Jay Hanson discussed the problems of Overshoot Loop and came to the conclusion:

    Step 1. Individuals and groups evolved a bias to maximize fitness by maximizing power, which requires over-reproduction and/or over-consumption of natural resources (overshoot), whenever systemic constraints allow it. Differential power generation and accumulation result in a hierarchical group structure.

    Step 2. Energy is always limited, and overshoot eventually leads to decreasing power available to some members of the group, with lower-ranking members suffering first.

    Step 3. Diminishing power availability creates divisive subgroups within the original group. Low-rank members will form subgroups and coalitions to demand a greater share of power from higher-ranking individuals, who will resist by forming their own coalitions to maintain power.

    Step 4. Violent social strife eventually occurs among subgroups who demand a greater share of the remaining power.

    Step 5. The weakest subgroups (high or low rank) are either forced to disperse to a new territory, are killed, enslaved, or imprisoned.

    Step 6. Go back to step 1.

    So now let us avoid the emotional and become logical - is Corona Virus - however conceived or contracted the enemy or the cure? Only an unnatural species such as Humans would choose to sacrifice their younger progeny to maintain the non-productive at a loss to those who survive. One of the greatest problems with Industrial Civilization is that it has made life for urban dwellers so comfortable and easy that they want to remain alive forever - only the physical exists, and the spiritual is dead. They lost their connection with Mother Earth and that in death there is new life.

    1. Wow. Quite a comment and thank you. Also my heart aches for what Ugo and his countrymen are going through. At least the Italian government hasn't recommended Lysol for the pandemic. A weak government(Italy) or an incompetent government. Take your pick.

    2. I am horrified by how you see your fellow humans. Why is it that so many think that "everyone but me is evil and selfish". This "survival of the fittest" worldview disturbs me greatly.

      Jay Hanson might have been a great man, but in this he was clearly wrong and all evidence is stacked against this worldview. Its a narrative that is strongly connected to neoliberal ideology and you will find in more often in US pop culture than anywhere else in the world.

      Thinking like this is actually the problem that we have. We are seperated, atomized by our system. The homo econimicus allegedly only loves money. How many do you know that are like this? Get that nonsense ut of your brains, its simply wrong.

      The fundamental evolutionary advantage of humans is that we care for onother. This has been shown many times (Since Kropotkin did so first in the 19th century).

      Modern game theory (i.e. David Axelrod) has coined the term "evolutionary stable strategy". Delve into it uf you will. Aggressive and selfish strategies exist but are ALWAYS weaker than cooperative strategies in evolutionary experiments and real development. Cooperation evolves in crisis. Look at New Orleans and Kathrina.

    3. TSE seems to be making perfectly good sense to me, as usual. We are part of Earth's ecology. Nothing difficult to understand here.
      Keep it up TSE.

  2. s the Universe expanding or collapsing? Because if it is collapsing, it will only end in heat death via entropy. Banksters being allowed to borrow fiat money at interest, which pushes future demand to the present are largely responsible for creating this problem - that of Overshoot and collapse. Collapse is the only possible solution to this dilemma - and the ride down - as Jay Hanson said:

    "It’s impossible to know the details of how our rush to extinction will play itself out, but we do know that it is going to be hell for those who are unlucky to be alive at the time".

    Enjoy some Byrds:

    1. Hurrah for the Byrds.
      We must stay strong.

  3. I am married to an Italian so have some good insight. I love Italy. It is such a special place. I love when my wife speaks Italian almost every morning with friends or family her at the farm in MO. Her cooking is wonderful. After a hard day’s work on the farm coming back to the smell of a well-cooked meal is invigorating. The beauty of the Italy is phenomenal.

    As for your article Ugo, I find Italians strange as far as work is concerned. When I have been in my wife’s village Falcade I noticed just how hard it is to do anything. Things I can do in Missouri compared to Italy are dramatic plus the cost so much lower. The rules and regulations to even for example take down an old wood shed were so extreme and unproductive. I went to a store in a nearby town to get things to do house work and the choices were so few and cost high. One thing I like about this experience is the town had a central core of people who specialized in their retail. In the US so much has gone online or big box store the continuity of the city centers have been compromised. This does matter in a world of decline.

    The rules Italians put up with means loss of so much productivity. Maybe this also explains the amount of creativity that comes out of Italians for style and engineering. There is a spontaneity and craziness about Italians along with the imposed order. These extremes mean a combination of very educated people that keep a culture alive albeit not growing in material prosperity like many places in America where anything goes. I like my way of getting things done. I feel I can be very efficient in the US buying, selling and fixing. I like Italian culture and the beauty that all the laws tend to enshrine from change. I guess we can say there are consequences for behaviors and laws both overt inherent and sublime. I hope Italy does not change but I understand the frustrations.

    1. Nice Platitudes.

      'THEREFORE our only way out is through herd immunity.
      We need to protect the old and otherwise vulnerable.....and we need to open up society immediately! It is the only path that makes sense'.

      Perhaps the old and aged need to recognize that in death there is life - that every Being must pass - and that the young should not be forced to pay for keeping non-productive corpses alive.

      What to say about sound money vs. fiat money? The Banksters of today lend debt based fiat money at interest which pushed future demand into the present. We are in a sense - time traveling.

      Then the Family has broken down - we push the living corpses into medically assisted Nursing Homes in the hope that their wrecked bodies will live forever.


      This is NOT sustainable.

      It is only when we grasp reality - and decide to live within Natural bounds - that balance shall be restored.

    2. Are you ever right? Again I say this is nonsense. Even if you take rreal examples like the inuit society that lived under very hard conditions, they usually cared for the elder. Actually the inuit have been totally egalitarian and shared everything.

      Ther is the tale of inuit elders walking out into the cold night to die by themselfs in times of severe crisis. Is this what you are proposing? Ore would you decide who is "worth living" and euthanise everone lacking. That is what your logic leeds to. Are you a horrible person or simply blinded by fascist ideology so widespread today?

    3. I agree entirely with TSE, again. Keep it up TSE.

  4. "there is an absence of progressive policy makers developing a real transition to a green energy economy, for example."

    with the release of planet of the humans, surely its impossible to utter the words 'green energy' with a straight face. i feel vindicated actually as ive been saying so called green energy a load of rubbish for years.

    1. Nothing quite like watching fossil fuel powered and built vehicles tearing up trees - aka "Bio - Mass" to power Industrial Civilization.

      Brought to you by the Sierra Club.

      Never-mind the problem of Overshoot.

    2. got to love the arguments for ecars. they are better than internal combustion ones, the guardian cries. well maybe, but even if they were marginally better, which is doubtful, it wouldnt solve anything when there is no carbon budget left for a guaranteed 3c warming. talking about the guardian. they had a damage limitation article today about the outrageous lies in planet of the humans. they did not actually say what those lies were, and it all sounded a bit desperate.



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)