The Strength of Weak National Identities: Italian Political Development and Europe

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Berezin, Strength of Weak National Identities,5/9/2017

“The Strength of Weak National Identities: Italian Political Development and Europe.” Italian Politics and Society: The Review of the Conference Group on Italian Politics and Society (CONGRIPS), APSA 2009 Volume 68(Fall): 8-16.

Mabel Berezin, Associate Professor of Sociology
354 Uris Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY  14853

I. Divisions

Readers of the Congrips newsletter would probably know that Italian national politics have been particularly tempestuous since the beginning of 2009. Earthquakes of the physical kind in Aquila to the political kind, the sexual scandals engulfing Silvio Belusconi have dominated the news. The front page news today in La Repubblica (October 11, 2009) is especially dramatic. The lead story features Berlusconi railing against the foreign press for “spitting on the Paese.” Berlusconi’s reaction was triggered by his general anger at the repeal of the Alfano law which had protected him from prosecution for his alleged criminal activities. A few stories down Dario Franceschini, leader of the PD, speaking to the party gathering, describes Berlusconi as an “ominicchio”—which roughly translates as “ugly little humanoid.” A few stories further down, a group of Italian women politicians are generating a petition, to protest Berlusconi’s disrespect towards women. By the time that this contribution appears, the third Berlusconi government may be over—or, may be still with us.

This paper seeks to take a step back from the important but nonetheless distracting drama of the moment. It seeks to make two points: first, many of the events that appear to be coming to a climax at the moment are Italian iterations of long term European trends; and second, to speculate on what synergy may exist between Italy’s political future and the ever expanding European integration project. The paper began as a contribution to a conference that marked the 2006 English translation of Remo Bodei’s Il noi diviso published as We, the Divided: Ethos, Politics and Culture in Post-war Italy, 1943-2006 (2006).1 Il noi diviso is a philosophical history of the Italian present that holds deep appeal for the more pragmatic disciplines of social science and history. “Divided identity” is at the core of Bodei’s book. It thus provides an anchor for the observations about the future and past of Italian national identity and political development that follow. A newsletter contribution can only gloss ideas that Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Security and Populism in the New Europe (Berezin 2009) develops more fully.

Remo Bodei is one of contemporary Italy’s leading moral philosophers. Il noi diviso written in 1998 is his foray into political ethics. The translators have changed the subtitle of the book which was originally “ethics and ideas of Republican Italy.” The change from the emphasis upon ethics to the emphasis upon culture and politics is slightly misleading as it distracts from the deeply philosophical lens through which Bodei views the world of post-war Italian politics. Bodei’s book travels over a terrain that students of post-war Italy will recognize. The burden of the fascist past and the founding of the Republic; the Cold War and anti-Communism, the anni di piombo, tangentopoli, Berlusconi—all occupy the pages of Il noi diviso. Bodei ponders why Italy is the way it is—divided—regionally, culturally, socially and every which way. Bodei suggests that Italy’s troubled relation to its past does not augur well for its future.

Underlying Bodei’s discussion is the assumption that division, that is a weak national identity, is a moral liability. An old argument from economic sociology that is rarely applied to politics suggests that a perceived weakness may sometimes mask a strength. Sociologist Mark Granovetter (1972) developed this argument with respect to labor market opportunities among the upper middle classes. Until Granovetter’s research appeared, sociologists assumed that information about the availability of privileged jobs came through closed, and elite, social networks—clientelism if we translate this into Italian terms. Granovetter’s research discovered that information about “good” jobs came from random conversations among loosely connected people who encountered each other commuting to work every day on a bus. Granovetter concluded that diffuse or “weak” ties were more valuable in terms of acquiring privileged information about scarce social resources than “dense” social networks. To rephrase, strong identities situated in closed groups constrained rather than enhanced the acquisition of resources.

Granovetter was not interested in either identity or politics but his “strength of weak ties” translates well to contemporary European politics. It forces us to question the utility of strong national identities in a world that is organized increasingly as transnational and global. I am not suggesting as some globalization scholars have argued that the nation-state, or Italy for that matter, is either gone or irrelevant. An individual’s relation to the territorially defined national state in which he or she lives and where he or she has legal membership by virtue of citizenship cannot remain the same in the 21st century as it was in the 19th and 20th century--the apogee of the modern nation state. Rather, I am pointing to the acknowledge fact that the national state and geopolitical configurations (Sassen 2006; Katzenstein 2005) have altered in ways that make strong national identities constraining at best and the source of bitter conflict at worse.

Globalization and the attendant process of Europeanization demand the re-calibration, not elimination, of both the nation-state and the national attachments of its citizens. In the context of recalibration, strong national identities limit the national imagination whereas weak national identities permit a territorially unfettered collective imagination that presents a wide horizon of collective possibilities. Contemporary Italy is well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that Europeanization presents—if it can transcend the its current political morass.

Three ideas from Il noi diviso inform the sections of this contribution. First, Bodei’s discussion of ethos parallels an argument that I (Berezin 1997; 2009) have made repeatedly about the relation between identities and institutions; second, the notion of contiguous categories, what Bodei describes as pointillism, focuses attention on apparently diverse events; and third, the dates, 1943-1945, crucial for Bodei as the period of the “civil” war influence identity formation among a post-war generation of Italians.

II. Italy: A Flexible Consolidation Regime

In Making the Fascist Self (1997), I began to think systematically about the relation between a modern bureaucratic state and a national identity. The last chapter of that book begins with this anecdote. An American Lieutenant charged with the task of requisitioning quarters for American officers in 1944 went to the home of Giuseppe Bottai the former Fascist minister who had fled to Africa. The Lieutenant found Bottai’s wife at home. He apologetically told the very civilized Signora Bottai that he would have to take her home for the American officers. She smiled and said “But Lieutenant, you know we were fascists.” To which he replied, “Thank you Madame, I have been in Italy for six months, and you are the first fascist whom I have met!” Fascist identities as well as fascists may have expediently vanished with the noise of allied bombs and the appearance of troops, but there is a theoretically salient point here. Some identities do not stick in Italy.

Il noi diviso cites from personal letters of Resistance leaders who were executed by fascist militants as well as from letters of fascists who were executed by resistance fighters. The former were replete with democratic and socialist ideals; the latter with fascist intransigence. In the chapter that began with the meeting between the American lieutenant and the Signora Bottai, I analyzed the letters written by soldiers who had won gold or silver medals for bravery and who died on the Greek Albanian front. In contrast to the letters that Bodei cites, the letters that I read were virtually a-political.

The letters from the “heroes” that I analyzed contained very little about fascism or about political ideals. For the most part the letters were articulations of commitment to church and family. Some letters displayed a surprisingly deep knowledge of Roman Catholicism. It is hardly news to say that Italians, or at least some Italians, are culturally Roman Catholic and that they are attached to their families. What was novel to me was the extent to which a fascist identity was not articulated in these letters. The absence of the political in the letters forced me to theorize how certain identities interacted and clashed with each other.

Identities have two dimensions that often are conflated to the detriment of analytic clarity. First, they are categorical and epistemological; and second they are ontological and emotional. The categorical is embedded in institutional arrangements—state, market, family, religion and law is constitutive of this dimension—citizenship law, labor law, laws regulating private life, laws separating church and state. Bodei labels as ethos what I am describing as institutional. The ontological speaks to the degree of emotional identification with a category. In practice the epistemological and the ontological are intertwined in various ways. But it is important to keep them separate analytically because while the categorical is collective and always present; the emotional is highly contingent—an individual or a group can go for a long time without ever asserting their identities. Identities, collective or otherwise, tend to be asserted when they are threatened in some way—which is why war is a mechanism of identity building. In times when threat is absent, rituals of affirmation are central to identity formation and maintenance—a central reason why the Italian fascist state spent much time forcing its citizens to engage in public political rituals.

Modern nation-states, Italy among them, have cultural institutions that wed the categorical dimension of the identity to the ontological. They have not all done this in the same way and at the same time. I have developed the concept of a consolidation regime (Berezin 2009) to capture the variation in this process. Italy developed what I describe as a flexible consolidation regime. One point of contrast here is France which developed a hegemonic consolidation regime. A loose fit between culture and the state (weak national culture/strong state) implies weak national identities, with a state structure that does not at least initially support strong identity forming institutions, i.e., school, national language. This is not to say that the polity lacks identities (or for that matter schools or a national language) just that all identities are not exclusively tied to the national state. Extra-national identities may be tied to religion or region. Flexible consolidation regimes are internally less coherent and given to internal conflict, but externally flexible and much more able than hegemonic consolidation regimes to respond to external threats or exogenous factors. Flexible consolidation regimes are susceptible to separatist movements.

In the case of Italy, particularly Italy in 1944, with the collapse of the regime, Italians retreated to the familiar identities attached to Church and family—that also had strong institutional supports. The institutional order of the Catholic Church assured that its effect on the lives of ordinary Italians was not merely at the level of emotion. In the post war period, the Catholic Church had much institutional clout and it struggled to maintain its institutional power through the entire period. Recent events such as the 2005 referendum on in-vitro fertilization and the struggle over the ending of life support for Eluana Englaro suggest that the Church is trying to re-assert its power.

III. The Practical Meaning of National Identity

The conflation of the categorical and the emotional dimensions of identity as well as the failure to differentiate between the development of the political and cultural institutions of the nation-state have been particularly detrimental in discussions of Italy and Italian civic solidarity. Italy has had a modern state since 1861. The Italian state may not always be efficient, it may be plagued by clientelism and corruption, but it is a state. With the exception of the period of fascism, it has been a more or less democratic state.

Where Italy has been weak is in the development of ordinary civic nationalism—nation-ness of the sort that characterizes many of the other European nation-states. For example, language standardization came late and literacy rates were low until the post-war; the educational system was chaotic from the 19th century into the 20th. Marzio Barbagli (1982) has famously described the system as “educating for unemployment.” This is not to say that Italy did not and does not have an intellectual class that has theorized what the contours of an Italian nation would be (Patriarca 2001). What Italy lacked in the early periods of unification was a practical intellectual class to develop strong national institutions of civic solidarity. To borrow from Philip Nord (1995), Italy did not experience a “Republican Moment” in the French sense. Unlike France, Italy did not have a Third Republic that unleashed an army of school teachers to make peasants into Italians whether they liked it or not (Weber 1976). In Italy, the Fascist regime took up the campaign of political socialization and institution building in the 1930s. When the regime fell, the institutions that it had put in place were marked by the taint of fascism.

Scholars such as Bodei have emphasized the deficits of Italian political socialization at the expense of its potentially positive features. In contrast to what it lacked, Italy had and has a tradition of strong sub-national or extra-national identities buttressed by institutional arrangements that militated against the formation of a strong national identity. The state had a central administration and there were rules of belonging, i.e., citizenship rights, but no central secular center to make one feel Italian. In addition, the out migration of the late 19th century and early 20th did not leave Italians, those who left as well as those who stayed behind, with the feeling that Italian citizens were cherished members of a national community.

Sub-national or extra-national identities and institutions—the Church, the political party--provided a cogent source of identity to Italians. Family identities manifested themselves in benign forms such as conservative politics and the tradition of small and large family firms, and in less benign forms as the Mafia. Regional identities—North versus South, and ever finer gradations--formed the core of Italian place identity. All of these identities and institutions played off of each other in various ways. They contained the proverbial strengths and weaknesses and perhaps would have gone on to perpetuity if it were not for a series of exogenous and contingent events.

IV. The Force of the Unexpected: What Would We Have Missed If the World Stopped in 1985?

If our historical clocks had stopped in 1985, we would have missed several key dates and events in Italian and European political development and the political landscape would look very different today. The corruption scandals known as Tangentopoli led to the collapse of the post-war Christian Democratic Party. This opened up a political space that the trio of Silvio Berlusconi, Gianfranco Fini and Umberto Bossi filled. But the collapse of the First Republic came in temporal proximity to international events that when combined with the Italian events produced a synergy that transformed Italian liabilities into assets.

The first such international event was the end of inter-war Eastern European Communism in 1989. The collapse of communism had an effect throughout Europe but was particularly salient for the Italian Communist Party, which had defined itself at least in its earlier days in relation to the Eastern Bloc. The new Italian Communist Party, the Democratic Party of the Left, never had the cohesiveness of the old party, as evidenced by the fact that it went through two name changes and splintered within a few years into more traditionally left parties. The second significant event was the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. European integration was long in the works and Italians were always positive to Europe. Maastricht was significant because it signaled the beginning of an accelerated pace of European integration. Less easy to tie to a specific date was the fact that Italy, which had been historically a country of out migration began in the early 1990s to become a country of immigration (Colombo and Sciortino 2004, p. 52; 54).

These international events re-arranged but did not eliminate what Bodei (1998) labeled as the “divisions” among Italians. In addition, international events created possibilities for new divisions. “Europe” writ large, the presence of “others” from Africa, Eastern Europe, and Albania, had to be incorporated into an Italy grappling with new political parties and ideas. The presence of immigrants forced Italians to consider differences that were less parochial than the historical antagonism between the North and South.. The Northern Leagues were born out of the fear of these “new” differences, while they simultaneously enforced “old” differences in their rhetorical attacks on the South (Agnew 1995; Sciortino 1999).

The fall of the Berlin Wall and attendant events made Communism in general seem less viable. Although by 1989, European and Italian Communism were significantly weaker than they had been at any previous time during the post war period. The beginning of long-term secular trends that Maastricht initiated resulted in new economic and productive arrangements throughout Europe. In this context, the sub- national identities and regional economies that had plagued Italy in the past began to appear as a potentially positive and not a divisive force.

The collapse of Communism, the Maastricht Treaty, the inflow of immigrants coupled with the internal politics of corruption and Tangentopoli—opened a political space that made the outcomes of the 1994 election possible. March 1994 was a turning point for Italian political development because it made it no longer possible to evade the issue of the fascist past. Gianfranco Fini’s position in the governing coalition as a “post-fascist” marked the election as an extraordinary political event. Before 1994 it seemed unimaginable that a party with links to the old fascist party could be part of the government. In 2009, it is easy to forget the process of normalization that occurred between the first and second and third Berlusconi governments vis a vis the presence of Fini—who by 2004 was the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and today is President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

In contrast to Jean-Marie Le Pen and other European right politicians, Fini was part of an Italian and not a trans-European populist process. Fini and fascism’s rehabilitation was the end point of a cultural shift that began in the mid-1980s in the commercial sphere. For example, in November 1984, IPSOA and the Commune of Rome sponsored a large exhibit mounted in the Roman Coliseum entitled “The Economy between the Two Wars” that left out fascism entirely and concentrated on “Italian achievement,” although fascism was the economy between the two wars.

The election of 1994 re-created the fascist past--which side one was on and what one did—as one of Bodei’s “divisions:” contiguous identity points that sometimes matter and sometimes do not. It also signaled the opening of a marketplace of identities, a neo-liberal approach to identity and commitment, manifest in low voter participation and volatile political alignments and results. While Fini was an Italian iteration, political volatility that began in the mid-1980s was not unique to Italy and was a trans-European phenomenon.

V. The Strength of Weak National Identities and European Possibilities

In 1882, Ernst Renan famously asked “What is a Nation?” He answer was that shared history—a people united in time and space, national habits rather than cultural or ethnic particularities--was the strongest glue of a defined political community. Roberto Michels (1949) in an essay on Patriotism, argued that “Difference is strange to most persons” hence the need for the creation of what Benedict Anderson (1983) would years later label “the imagined community.”

Differences, divisions, are only collective liabilities if one’s model of the polity is the 19th and 20th century nation/state where the collective national culture provides the emotional support for the bureaucratic state. But for the reasons elaborated, Italy and Italians never made the leap that married culture to a national state. Italy’s flexible consolidation regime positions it well for the 21st century, an age of recalibrated nation states—particularly in the European context. Just because Italians have a weak national identity, it does not mean they lack identity. Following Bodei (1998), Italian identity is “division.” In the Italian instance, division or weak national identity is a virtue not a vice, because it allows Italy and Italians the emotional, political and economic flexibility to operate in a trans-national European political space.

And Europe—European integration and expansion--is the dominant issue on the European continent, particularly in light of globalization, terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and global financial crisis. Eurobarometer data suggests that Italians have been consistently favorable to the European community. Level of support among Italian respondents is consistently higher than among French respondents and even higher than the European Union average. Italy is paradoxically finding its national voice in Europe—that is, Europe as an object of identification is helping to produce an Italian national identity that looks outward as well as inward. Gabriele Albertini, PDL representative to the European Parliament and former mayor of Milan, is currently Chairperson of the newly created European Committee on Foreign Affairs.

In 2003 before his appointment as the Italian representative to the European Constitutional Committee, Fini articulated his support of Europe in L’Europa che verra: il destino del continente e il ruolo dell’italia [The Europe that will Come: The Destiny of the Continent and the Role of Italy (Fini and Fusi 2003)]. Invoking Charles De Gaulle as his model, Fini argued that a national and a European identity are complementary and do not exclude each other: “European culture is European identity. Can one think of a Europe that is not profoundly steeped in single national cultures—and of Italian culture in particular? (21)” Fini argued that a European demos is “forming.” Youth are at the core of the new demos as well as the Internet which breaks down barriers. Paradoxically, Fini supported the idea that since English is the language of technology it will also be the language of Europe—even if one must continue to learn and use one’s national language. When asked if he is committed to a human or a national identity, Fini replies, “We cannot neglect the fact that the concept of identity is always married to the concept of community, the smallest is the family, the largest is already Europe today. Although according to others, it is not Europe but the West (p. 27).”

In a wide-ranging interview with Le Point in March 2005, Fini discussed the upcoming Constitutional Referendum in France.2 Fini argued that while he would not interfere with French sovereignty, he had doubts about the French submitting the Constitution to a popular referendum and called the vote a “great responsibility.” When the interviewer reminded Fini that he had originally opposed Maastricht, Fini replied that he had come to believe that a “strong Europe” would unite the values of Europe and America and attenuate the possibility of American domination. At the end of the interview, Fini declared that he could align himself with a variety of European politicians from Joschka Fisher (he would probably say Angela Merkel today) to Nicolas Sarkozy, as he made his decisions on principles, not ideology.

When the French rejected the European constitution, Fini declared publicly that the French were placing the European project in danger. On June 7, 2005, less than a week after the Dutch “no” vote on the Constitution, Fini gave the keynote address at the Fiftieth Anniversary Commemoration of the Messina Conference. Fini reminded his audience of the ritual significance of Messina. Fifty years earlier, he French National Assembly had rejected the European Defense Community Project and it appeared that the project of Europe had stalled. Fini argued that Italy had a responsibility to preserve the “legacy of the Constitution.”3

VI. What Next?

I end where I began with the current political pasticcio. I will not predict that Berlusconi will fall—although this time it seems that he most likely will. Nor shall I speculate as to who will be where when the dust settles. I simply make a few observations on the current situation based upon the arguments presented so far. First, I take up the issue of Italy and Europe. Italians become so immersed in their particularities that they sometimes fail to see how they fit in a broader political landscape. In this regard, the 2009 European Parliamentary elections are instructive. Students of EU tend to give these elections short shrift because citizens tend not to vote in them. However, they are important signals of continental trends that often emerge fully developed in individual nation states. The EU average turnout has continued to decline since 1979 when they began. In 2009, EU average turnout was 43%. Italian turnout was 65%--well higher than the EU average. While Italian turnout also declined—down from a high of 71% in 2004—it has still been consistently higher than France, Germany and the Netherlands where you would expect to observe high participation.

The 2009 European elections elicited shock from analysts because of the electoral success of extreme right parties in Britain, the Netherlands and Hungary coupled with the trouncing of the Social Democratic left. But this reaction missed two salient points. The EPP took the greatest percentage of the parliamentary seats—this meant that the center right prevailed. As I argue in Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times using the case of the Front National, the center right tends to protect against the extreme right. This is in part because the center right is able to easily pick up on conservative values of nationness that the left is uncomfortable espousing.

The center right in France and Germany is Sarkozy and Merkel. The center right in Italy is unhappily Berlusconi and possibly Fini. The outrageous behavior of Berlusconi and the taint of fascism that Fini cannot fully shake obscures a central point.

If Berlusconi is forced to resign and either Fini or someone similar to Fini succeeds him than political configurations in Italy will look much like the central core of “old” Europe. On the other hand, the “divisions”, the flexible identities of Italians may advantage the left in Italy—although not in expected ways. First, the Catholic Church may be overplaying its hand and this undermines some forces on the right. In this regard, there are some other numbers that emerge from the European elections that are worth considering. First, the spread between the PDL and the PD is only 10%. Berlusconi asked his supporters to go to the polls and they did not return the strong numbers that he had hoped for. The PD delivered 26% of the vote as compared to the PS in France that only managed 16%. But there is another instructive figure from the French results. The PS and the Green Party each delivered 16% of the vote—for a combined 32% that topped the UMP’s 27%. Clearly, the PD needs allies and constituents. Young people in Italy and elsewhere are often committed environmentalists. A left/green alliance be the winning combination that catapults the left out of its doldrums in Italy and throughout Europe.

The divided identities of Italians offer opportunities for what Joseph Schumpeter has described as “creative destruction”—the terrain from which new possibilities and political innovations arise. The answers are not in yet on any of this, but given the present moment in Italian politics, I suspect that they will be coming soon.

1 Department of Italian Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, May 10, 2006. Due to space limitations, in-text citations, link to the bibliography for Illiberal Politics in Neoliberal Times (2009).

2 Dominique Dunglas, “Interview with Gianfranco Fini,” Le Point (Paris) March 10, 2005 (Accessed 1/26/2007)

3 Speech by Minister Fini at the 50th Anniversary of the Messina Conference, 7 June 2005. Italy: Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (, Accessed January 26, 2007).

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