The following article first appeared on The American Conservative on August 28, 2017.
The suicide in the Friuli region of northern Italy earlier this year of a 30-year-old man, identified in the newspapers only as Michele, has become a symbol of the country’s unemployment tragedy, particularly as it affects young people. Though much worse in the South, the country’s economic crisis also has had a blighting effect on the North. The national unemployment rate now stands at nearly 12 percent. A 40 percent youth unemployment rate nationwide, however, has people speaking of a generational apartheid in Italy. There is no work to be found for young people. In the workplace, comparatively speaking, they have been walled off from the rest of the population.
Friuli is a region of plain and mountain in the northeastern part of Italy, flush against borders to the north with Austria and the east with Slovenia. The annals of Friuli antedate by many centuries the arrival of the ancient Romans, who founded the colony of Aquileia there nearly two hundred years before Christ. The barbarian invasions swept over Friuli in the general wreckage of the Roman Empire. An Aquileian state arose in the Middle Ages, but was absorbed in the 15th century by the expanding Venetian empire. Then Friuli passed through French and Austrian phases of occupation and control before becoming part the newly founded Kingdom of Italy, in 1866.
The Friulani, a highly energetic and resourceful people steeped in the work ethic common to the peasant and artisanal cultures of traditional Europe, tilled the land and also gained a well-deserved reputation for their skill in specialty crafts and the building trades. Typically in such cultures, the work that a man did defined him. The modern world has changed those old ways of life, but the culture they generated persists. More recently, Friuli became renowned for its small businesses and factories, which played a vital role in the national economy. There was still hard work for the Friulani to do.
From his mother’s milk, Michele would have imbibed the work ethic of his native region. He would have thought of work as dignity and honor. In a suicide note, he claimed to be bereft of such things and of hope. “Desire has passed me by,” he wrote. Michele never had been able to find a meaningful job and had despaired of ever finding one. Contemplating his blank future, a sense of deep frustration had crushed his spirit. He hoped that his parents would forgive his dreadful act, but could not envisage a place for himself in a society without work.
No less than many other regions in the country, Friuli has been devastated by the economic crash of 2008 and its seemingly permanent aftermath. Hundreds of its small businesses and factories have closed, leaving many thousands unemployed. Michele’s father called his son’s death “the defeat of a moribund society.” What other way is there to describe a society unable to create work for its young people?
One of Italy’s rising political figures, Beppe Grillo of the politically eclectic Five-Star Movement, has proposed a guaranteed citizen income for all Italians. His reasoning appears to be that the Italians should be getting something from their government other than its slavish devotion to the corrupt oligarchy of the banks and corporations that rule the country.
There is a strong Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein component in the Five-Star Movement, as well as an admiration for the challenge that Hugo Chávez threw down to the multinationals in Venezuela. Grillo also has praised Ecuador’s Rafael Correa for his opposition to the International Monetary Fund, an institution that the Italian leader reviles as a battering ram of noxious austerity policies. Since the recent presidential election in the United States, Grillo has praised Trump as a much-needed change-of-air in world politics. Change of any kind, a powerful sentiment in the United States last fall, exerts the same kind of force in Italy now.
Even if a guaranteed citizen income initiative were to prevail and become law, the main problem underscored by Michele’s death would still remain. An allowance conjures up the image of juvenile dependence. A national welfare program for all citizens certainly is preferable to leaving ever rising numbers of them in want, but it would not solve in a socially edifying way the anterior problem of work. Michele was not asking for an allowance. He wanted work to do. This is a human need that societies deserving of survival are obliged to supply, a point raised by Thorstein Veblen in the book of his he valued most, The Instinct of Workmanship (1914). Human beings, he wrote, are called by nature to useful effort. It is not only the deprivations and frustrations associated with sex that undermine and subvert the human personality. He judged the men who live by moving money around to be the greatest peril of all to those who live by work.
The problem of work in Italy today belongs to the class of social consequences identified by Pier Paolo Pasolini in a famous Corriere della Sera article in 1974. “The Italians are no longer what they once were,” he observed. By this statement, Friuli’s greatest poet, filmmaker, and social critic meant that Italy’s traditional values had undergone an anthropological mutation. The country had abandoned its traditional way of life, which in its peasant culture had achieved a kind of poetic synthesis in the saying of Padron ‘Ntoni, novelist Giovanni Verga’s lead character in I Malavoglia (1881): “He is richest who has the fewest wants.” Pasolini feared that the new values of a hedonistic consumer society would be a poor substitute for Italy’s Christian and socialist ideals. What a debased fate for Italy, to come through the civilization-defining vicissitudes of its millennial history, only to end up ignobly aping American-style conspicuous consumption.
Pasolini had in mind a particular phase of the globalized economy, which since the 1970s has sped forward on the principle that money must be completely liberated to maximize profits for those who have it. It is immediately evident why this golden rule for today’s economy, though achieving its purpose of profit-maximization, has been a poor proposition for most of the working people of the Western world.
While rates of extreme poverty worldwide have declined in recent decades, the means to produce such a result have required an outsourcing of the West’s manufacturing base. The coincidental surge in profits made possible by the relocation of manufacturing jobs to countries unencumbered by high wages, labor unions, and environmental laws has with perfect justice sparked a political firestorm.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explained in Globalization and Its Discontents (2004) that the basic problem with the world’s current financial arrangement concerned the institutions and organizations commanding it. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the U.S. Treasury, and the European Monetary Union protect special interests, Wall Street most of all. Despite their lip-service in democratic argot, the very last thing seriously on the minds of the top financial policy makers is the well-being of ordinary people.
As a result of the methods used to promote globalization, the consequences for the West have been tragic. Work is becoming increasingly uncertain and insecure, or it is in the process of disappearing altogether. It would take Veblen’s talents for social satire, which are unsurpassed in all of American literature, to depict with the essential exactitude of artistic synthesis how far the United States has fallen away from democratic grace, the country’s dramatically widening gap between the haves and the have-nots being what it is. Clearly, we are on the wrong course. What the robotics revolution, now at an incipient stage, will do to further diminish opportunities for Western peoples to work can be easily imagined, if the economic imperative of corporate capitalism is the rule to go by.
The same desolating trends can be seen in Europe, where people increasingly regard the European Union as a Trojan horse. The economic elites and their political front-men responsible for this image-challenged contraption lose public support with each new poll. The people by and large blame the European Union and the other accessories of globalization for their worsening standard of living. When informed by the establishment media that thanks to globalization Europe has never been more prosperous and peaceful, Europeans in historic numbers are reacting with disbelief. Their deepening sense of betrayal propels the surge of populism that defines the politics of Europe today.
Arguments long-settled in favor of deregulation, liberalization, open borders, and other globalization watchwords have been reopened. The constituency is growing for a politics that puts the well-being of Europeans first. Political measures calling for the protection of European jobs and cultures have gained a following unforeseen prior to 2008.
In Italy, for example, 77 percent of the people questioned in a recent poll could see no advantage to them at all from the country’s membership in the European Union. Sixty-four percent of them expressed hostility toward it. Eight Italian businesses out of 10 can find nothing positive to say about the European Union. It is seen to be a creature of the banks and the big financial houses. As public relations disasters go, this one has unfolded on an epic scale as the underlying populations, long left out of consideration by the economic elites, have begun to sense the fate their masters have in store for them.
Leaving underlying populations out of consideration was a special feature of the planning that went into globalization. They have been voiceless. In America, Trump gave them a voice, and they responded to him with their political support. It did not matter that he came before them without a plan for their deliverance. That he came to them at all mattered. He understood the depth of the anger and alienation in America against a status quo personified by his opponent, Hillary Clinton, whose repeated and munificently rewarded speeches before the captains of finance on Wall Street effectively branded her as the safe candidate for all who wanted to leave existing economic arrangements fundamentally undisturbed.
Trump may go down in history as a president who was hopelessly out of his depth on all vital matters, but his presidential campaign will be studied for as long as historians have an interest in American politics. It was a masterpiece of intuition based on an uncannily correct judgment about the spirit of the times. Bernie Sanders had the same insight, but the Democratic Party turned out to be much more corrupt and vulnerable to manipulation than the Republicans, an astonishing feat. In possibly an even more flagrant instance of interference in the American democratic process than anything yet proven against Vladimir Putin, internal machinations weighted the primary process against Sanders. The Republicans tried to head off Trump, too, but a fiercely loyal base and a dearth of plausible opponents gave him an easy victory in the primaries.
At an academic conference in New York in May a year ago, I participated in a conversation among scholars, journalists, and government officials who generally thought that Trump would not even win 20 percent of the national vote. His ridiculous campaign surely would fall of its own dead weight. Professional pollsters, though not so far wrong as my conference colleagues in New York, also missed what appears to be the main story of the campaign: a loss of faith, unprecedented in its severity, by the American people in the rules of the game. There is no other way to explain the stunningly bizarre choice that they made for the man to lead them.
That Trump has rapt admirers and self-confessed imitators in Europe should come as no surprise because the mood he represents is an international phenomenon. Virtually every European country has a Trump candidate saying basically the same things that he did in his campaign against immigrants, globalization trade agreements, and the establishment media. Italy has two such candidates: Grillo and the leader of the xenophobic League Party, Matteo Salvini. They are riding a wave of anti-establishment outrage and in tandem are outpolling the two major mainstream parties, the center-left Democratic Party, now in internal disarray from schism, and the center-right Go Italy Party.
As Europe since the end of World War II has slipped ever more securely into the orbit of American military and economic power, it is only to be expected that the Atlantic Community will be increasingly homogeneous. The Italian case is most instructive about the fundamental meaning of America for Europe. Italy’s greatest postwar novelist, Cesare Pavese, explained in The Moon and the Bonfires (1950), “America is here already. We have our millionaires and people are dying of hunger.” Contemporary Italy, in keeping with Europe as a whole, is best understood as an example of America’s role as the prime mover in international affairs and economics, or of how the world works per necessità, in Machiavelli’s phrase, according to the dictates of those who hold irresistible power.
By outsourcing its manufacturing base in search of portfolio enhancement, the United States exercised a freedom for which liberty-loving European businessmen, bankers, and politicians hungered as well. Unable to compete with 50-cent per hour labor, the working classes in America and Europe would have to go to the wall, but while adjusting their blindfolds they could rest assured that in the fullness of time the wonder-working ways of the free market would redeem the world.
Such a promise held no meaning for Michele, and he left this world slamming the door. “I feel betrayed,” he wrote in his suicide note. Who can say which other factors drove him in those last desperate hours before he took his life? We do know what his stated reason was for doing it. Work was the final thought that he had. How else could a Friulano give a good account of himself in this life?