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Book Review: Bill Emmott, Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future

Richard Drake, review of Bill Emmott, Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future (Yale University Press), The European Legacy, vol. 19, no. 7, December 2014, pp. 924-926; published online.

Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future. By Bill Emmott (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), viii + 299 pp. $30.00 cloth.

Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, employs a literary conceit in his new book. He imagines himself in the role of Dante, who in his early-fourteenth-century Divine Comedy depicted the sins and sinners responsible for Italy’s moral and political ruin. Emmott self-deprecatingly recognizes that the comparison lacks credibility on the level of artistry. Nevertheless, throughout Good Italy, Bad Italy he invokes the spirit of Dante as the inspiration for his investigation of contemporary Italy.

Essentially, Emmott contends that Italy’s current economic plight, which makes it ‘the sick man of Europe’ with the potential to bring down the euro and the European Union itself, stems from the country’s failure to abide by the principles of free-market economics. In the debate over the merits of globalization, he is not quite a free-market fundamentalist. He identifies himself with would-be economic reformers: “many of us who have felt disappointed or disillusioned with our unstable, unequal, often short-sighted forms of capitalism have groped for alternatives” (184). The alternatives remain unspecified, but, in any case, he cannot envisage any desirable alternative to the economic model of free enterprise.

Italy’s problems today, according to Emmott, have resulted far less from the excesses of capitalism, which in its ideal form is essential for the felicity of mankind, than from the noxious legacy of socialism and statism. About socialism he makes no distinctions whatsoever. The entire socialist tradition, notwithstanding its complex internal variations, ranging from totalitarian Marxist-Leninism to social democracy, he deems utterly incompatible with progress and material well-being. Statism comes under fire for two reasons. First, he views state-run corporations as an abomination against the natural economic order. Second, excessive government regulation hinders the people best endowed by nature and training to maintain the economic vitality of the country: business entrepreneurs.

In keeping with Dante’s peregrinations in The Divine Comedy, Emmott begins with a tour of Hell, which for him in today’s Italy consists first and foremost of the country’s political arena. He portrays Silvio Berlusconi, who left the Prime Minister’s office in November 2011, as the epitome of a thoroughly dysfunctional political establishment. As editor of The Economist, Emmott for years attacked Berlusconi, denouncing him as unfit to govern Italy. He rehearses the case against Berlusconi as the arch defender of a corrupt status quo and as a moral reprobate to boot for his licentious life, while recognizing that the country’s political problems cannot be laid exclusively at the door of this one man, bad as he is.

Emmott puts many of the country’s political leaders in his metaphorical Hell, for their failure to create a vibrant democratic tradition. The country had a chance at the end of the Cold War and with the ensuing downfall of the traditional parties to overcome the political inertia of the past, but failed to do so. The central question now, he thinks, is whether the Italians will avail themselves of the opportunity afforded by the present crisis, this “second chance,” to create respectable political institutions. Mario Monti, the leader of the technocratic government appointed by President Giorgio Napolitano following Berlusconi’s fall from power, receives high praise for his efforts to push Italy toward free-market solutions to her problems. Soon after the publication of this book, however, the Monti government fell, leaving the country once again at sea with no safe political harbor in sight.

In Emmott’s account of contemporary Italy, he cannot point to anything that even remotely resembles Dante’s vision of Paradise, but his title for the chapter on economics is “Il purgatorio economico.” He finds much to lament in this latter-day Purgatory. For instance, Italy has suffered from a no-growth economy for more than a decade. Emmott reviews the manifestations of the crisis as well as its causes: huge budget deficits leading to a spiraling problem of public indebtedness, constraints on competition and innovation, high rates of unemployment particularly in the South and for young people nationwide, a faltering university system, a judicial system that is a byword for justice denied, and, in yet another nod to Dante, the corrosive moral atmosphere of the dismal Berlusconi years.

Yet despite all the negative developments recounted in this book, Emmott claims to have found many signs of an economic renaissance in Italy. Indeed, the bulk of the book concerns the good news found in the chapters titled “Inspiration from Turin,” “Hope in the South,” and “Potential Displayed.” His recipe for Italy’s future success consists of a recommendation to follow the model of Turin, “a liberal pioneer in a conservative country”(118). Here enterprising businessmen and their political allies have set the pace for a city committed to liberalism and modernization, defined by Emmott as values requiring labor and tax laws that favor the corporations.

Visiting the South, Emmott finds a few businessmen with the right ideas, but he suffers an acute disappointment with Nichi Vendola, the charismatic regional governor of Puglia and a rising political star in the country. A former communist and an open homosexual, Vendola is the founder of the Sinistra, Ecologia, Liberta` party. Emmott finds his charm resistible, especially upon discovering after their interview his strong support for unions, thus “placing himself on the left rather than staking a real claim to the centre of politics” (161). Given the name of Vendola’s party, this placement should have come as much less of a disagreeable surprise to Emmott than it evidently did.

As a would-be Dante, Emmott might have remembered in his pro-business manifesto that in The Divine Comedy it is not only false political and religious leaders who are put in Hell. Plenty of avaricious businessmen and bankers are down there as well. Greed, one of the seven deadly sins, had a particular claim on the entrepreneurs of fourteenth-century Florence, Dante angrily charged. He thought their presence an ominous foreshadowing of a permanent problem that the fullness of time would not abate. Thus the business culture that Emmott delightedly presents as the salvation of mankind Dante feared as the dread means of its exploitation and enslavement.

University of Montana, USA
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© 2014, Richard Drake

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