International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIII No. 1 (January-March 1998)


National Identity and Sense of State: the Case of Italy *
By Alessandro Cavalli


There has been much talk in recent times about the weak sense of national belonging in Italy. Various articles by well known commentators have posed the basic question whether and how a society/state can survive without a sufficiently solid sense of collective belonging, without that moral bond by which one identifies with a common history and culture. 1

The thesis is that the fracture that split the country after the fall of Fascism has never been mended and that, since then, Italy lacks that cement of healthy patriotism and national pride which other European partners enjoy. This question will not be examined here, but it will become clear that this position is not shared. The article is organised schematically, with a series of statements which would obviously require greater substantiation than is possible here.


First Thesis

The feeling of national identity is weak not only in Italy but in all Western European countries (albeit to different degrees).

This weakening is not exclusive to the Italian situation for the simple reason that support for national identity, that is, the nation state, was greatly diminished for both the victors and the vanquished by the Second World War, which marked the end of the European system of states as the centre of gravity of international relations at the global level. In the long postwar phase, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the actors on the world scene were the superpowers and for almost half a century the European states played an important but secondary role. In the fifty years since the end of the war, the European states lost a large part of their “real” sovereignty in the fields of defence and foreign policy, that is, in fields that are decisive in defining the very idea of state and sovereignty.

To this must be added that the feeling of national identity is strongly fuelled by the presence of an external enemy (real or imaginary), if possible, threatening and above all close to one’s borders. Throughout the Cold War period the enemy was within reasonable proximity and, in particular, common to all Western nations. Having a common enemy is a sufficient basis for a certain sense of solidarity, but this time the enemy was not another nation, it was an empire. The bipolar equilibrium put an end to the European system of states, and the upsetting of this equilibrium, brought about by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, has made this process irreversible.

The postwar attempt to recover lost sovereignty by strengthening the European pole of the Atlantic Alliance aborted in 1954 with the failure to approve the Treaty on the European Defence Community. Western Europe chose impotence at the level of global politics by putting its defence against the “real” enemy into the hands of the United States. The European states decided to survive in a state of protected subordination: this ensured their survival but did not prevent their decline.

This is the structural basis for the weakening of national identity. Initially, the victorious nations (France and Great Britain) had some difficulty in realising that they too were involved in the decline of the Old Continent, but when forced to abandon their colonial empires, they also had to scale down their ambitions.

The end of the Cold War produced a series of radical transformations: in the Eastern European nations, considerable political fragmentation was accompanied by a strong return of ethno-nationalistic sentiments; in Western Europe, the process of integration was accelerated by the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht. This point will be discussed later.

The return of nationalistic sentiments in Eastern Europe has not kept of those states from aspiring to membership in the European Union. It is unlikely that these aspirations will be satisfied in the short term, also because Western Europe does not seem willing to give up a part of its affluence to help its eastern neighbours cancel the traces of decades of communism. Negotiations for enlargement will soon begin but it will probably take a long time for Eastern Europe to integrate into the Union. For the moment, this area has been only marginally involved in the process of globalisation which is the real driving force behind the deepening of integration in Western Europe. It is now widely recognised in many sectors of both the elite and public opinion that Europe is inevitably headed for decline—also on an economic plane—unless the European Union is strengthened. The exact meaning of strengthening is a problem that cannot be dealt with here; suffice it to say that it involves the dilemma between deepening integration and increasing the number of states in the Union.


Second Thesis

The concept of national identity is confusing because its use encompasses at least three dimensions: pride in belonging to a nation; loyalty and trust in the institutions of the state; and what is called a “civic sense”

These three dimensions are not necessarily related. National pride is a cultural factor of a pre-political nature. Italians are proud of being Italian no less than the citizens of other European countries. Indeed, differences which were once more marked have tended to diminish. 2   The reasons for this pride have nothing to do with the functioning of political institutions. Italians are not proud of the functioning of their democracy nor of the quality (not to speak of the honesty) of their politicians, but they are proud of Italy’s art, music, landscapes, language and, above all, sports champions and—surprisingly—scientists. 3   National pride also has a comparative component, whether apparent or not: we are proud of something which we have or are and which makes us feel superior or at least not inferior to others. This emulatory component can be of varying intensity and form; normally it is peaceful and can admit to inferiority in fields in which it cannot compete (as long as there are other fields in which it is outstanding), but in the event of international political tensions or conflicts, it can easily turn into chauvinism and, therefore, take on a political dimension that it does not normally have. Basically, however, Italians do not lack national pride even though this has not gelled into a clear collective identity. 4   On the contrary, if the results of recent research are to be believed, there seems to have been a strong resurgence of national sentiments since 1994, at least among the university population. 5

The dimension that is really deficient is trust in or loyalty to the institutions. Many a comparative international survey, including the classic by Almond and Verba, 6   has shown that Italians are a cut below the average of almost all other European countries as concerns this dimension of collective identity. Of course, the other Europeans could “catch up” to the Italians in this field sooner or later (trust in democratic institutions seems to be on the decline everywhere), but for the moment the latter are unrivalled.

There is no easy explanation for this phenomenon: those who privilege cultural factors attribute the mediocre performance of Italian institutions to the atavistic lack of trust in everything public; others invert the cause and effect link and claim that the poor performance of Italian institutions is to blame for the lack of trust in them. In this case, the mechanism is probably circular, that is, a vicious circle. To put a stop to it, action can be taken at any point or at a number of points contemporaneously. In other words, there are good reasons for not having trust in the institutions, but the lack of trust becomes a factor that contributes to their poor functioning: citizens and institutions confront each other in a relationship of reciprocal distrust in which the institutions defend themselves from the citizens and the citizens from the institutions. Citizens perceives the state as distant and potentially hostile; the state has the same perception of its citizens. It should not be forgotten that this syndrome is more acute in the more heavily developed regions of northern Italy than in the south. 7

This lack of trust in institutions may also be interpreted in an optimistic way. In a recent survey carried out in Germany, which revealed a marked drop in the trust that young Germans have in their institutions, this was interpreted as being the result of a more critical attitude towards authority on the part of the younger generations. 8   In Germany, where respect for authority still causes concern, this interpretation is plausible. In Italy the contrary is probably true and causes concern.

It can be argued that Italians have no trust in their institutions because their expectations are too high. This is definitely true in certain cases. For example, there can be no doubt that the Italian school and public health systems leave much to be desired. Yet they function better than most people tend to believe, and this is because they are judged against ideal standards that can never be matched by reality. What certainly is lacking in Italy is, among other things, the attention on the part of institutions for the public, for their clients—and this is not a simple problem of communication, but one of the “civic culture” of civil servants.

That brings us to the third dimension, “civicness”. This is expressed in disapproval of such behaviours as not paying taxes, travelling on public transport without buying a ticket, not acknowledging to have involuntarily caused damage, littering, relying on inside help on exams, trying to bribe public officials, etc.

It seems that Italy is rather low in the ranking in this field as well. The data of the European Value Survey worked out by Sciolla, indicates that 61 percent of Italians at least verbally appreciate such “civicness”; but that also means that four Italians out of ten do not. 9

The thing most strongly lacking in Italy’s political culture is what is often called a “sense of state”, which is taken to encompass trust in institutions and an orientation towards legality which manifests itself, among other things, in microbehaviours in daily life that are generally taken to be indicators of civicness.


Third Thesis

The sub-nationalism created by the Northern League is the consequence of a crisis of the “sense of state” rather than a weakness in national identity.

Given that national identification is not as decidedly negative in Italy as critics predicting “the death of the homeland” tend to claim, what is lacking above all is a sense of state. What are the implications of this lack?

Any community that is politically organised into a state needs loyalty and solidarity in the simple sense that the will to stay together must be stronger than the will to separate, the will to pursue the common interest must be stronger than the will to pursue the interests of a part (be they territorial communities or social groups) when the latter conflict with the former. This is true of all political communities whatever their form of government, that is, whether democratic or not. Rusconi is right when he claims that one cannot do without the “the bond of identity with a common belonging” to “correct” (or “combat”) the centrifugal and disintegrating tendencies of “particularism and ethno-cultural and social sectarism”. 10   People have to have a sufficiently strong sense of “us”—of collective identity—in their minds and their hearts. Rusconi’s thesis is that democracy cannot function without this sufficiently strong collective identity. But does such a collective identity have to correspond to a nation (historically, not abstractly)? It is argued here that the collective identity underlying a political community does not necessarily have to be applied to the idea of nation. Or better, the sense of state in which collective identity is rooted is something that does not coincide with the idea of nation, at least as the latter has been manifested in the last two centuries of European history. Sense of state here is taken to mean something close to what Habermas called “constitutional patriotism”. 11

The sense of state is expressed, above all, in the conviction that that which keeps us together is stronger than that which separates us; therefore, someone with a sense of state does not put territorial unity into question. The Northern League, with its explicit separatist tendencies, represents an attack on the territorial integrity of the Italian state and, consequently, there can be no doubt that it must be combated (with what means and in what way is another matter). Exactly how effective the separatist threat of Bossi and his companions is, is something that will have to be explored by future historians. But the separatist component of the Northern League is dangerous not because of the (minimal) consensus that it manages to mobilise in northern Italy, but because of the subversive trends that it can foment in even a tiny minority of its supporters. The real danger derives from the Northen League’s subversive/terroristic undercurrent, from the spiral of repression/radicalisation that it can fuel and the consequent deterioration in civil coexistence. Certainly, the crisis of state institutions (with the repercussions that this has on the awareness and feeling of belonging) can certainly give rise to micro-nationalistic and ethno-populist phenomena. From an ideological point of view, Bossi’s primitive identifying mythology is not so important as the anti-state, anti-Rome (as capital city), anti-tax sentiments he rouses. Indeed, the Northern League was already a latent phenomenon before it came into the forefront with the crisis of the First Republic. Only the banality of the politicians (and social scientists) at the time was able to conceal it and the profundity of its roots. For example, everyone was aware of strong ethnic tensions between the people of the north and the south, but the phenomenon, rarely studied, was generally ridiculed as if it were a simple folkloric manifestation.

The second ingredient of a sense of state is unconditional respect for the rules of the democratic constitution, that is, the founding pact of the political community. A sense of state means respect for the institutions. The institutions must have a certain air of “majesty” or “sacredness” which puts certain constraints (if possible, self-constraints) on the political struggle and on criticism of the people representing them. In other words, it is not patriotic to delegitimise systematically the organs of the state (as so often occurs in Italy with respect to the judiciary and even the head of state). A line must be drawn between the (inviolable) right to criticise the institutions and their behaviour, and their delegitimation. If the thesis of “constitutional patriotism” is accepted, the delegitimation of constitutional bodies is as serious a violation of the bond between citizens of a country (the constitution) as the threat of separatism. The most important thing lacking in Italy’s political culture then (among politicians even more than among the population) is not love for one’s homeland, but a sense of state. And this is what makes its democracy fragile.

Rusconi seems to think that there cannot be a sense of state unless it is rooted in an idea of nation and reminds us of the patriotism of the men who fought in the Resistance movement who, while they had different passions and conceptions of the new democratic order, identified with a common history, culture, and destiny. 12   However, it seems that the patriotism of the Resistance fighters was expressed in two fundamental ways: they opposed the separatist tendencies present at the time (see, for example, Sicilian separatism) and they put aside their different passions and conceptions of democracy to draw up a constitution embodying a series of common rules.


Fourth Thesis

A common sense of history, culture and destiny is not a sufficiently solid basis for a constitutional pact.

To be frank, history does not unite the Italians, it separates them. Until the Risorgimento, the history of Italy was the story of the country’s inability (caught up as it was in the interaction of internal and external factors) to become a state. The Risorgimento was the accomplishment of an enlightened elite which exploited a favourable international context. What Rusconi has called the “great national event of the First World War” 13   was indeed a collective event (600,000 people died), but it divided the Italians more than it united them, and what followed— Fascism — certainly did not consolidate common bonds. As a result of the Fascists’ exaltation of the nation, the collapse of the regime dragged the idea of nation into ruin with it. This is something that no reinterpretation or revisionism can change. Italy is united (and certainly will remain so) not by virtue but in spite of its history. Anthropologically, culture unites us and divides us at the same time. True, the Italians, especially since the advent of television, have become a community that speaks the same language — and this facilitates communication. But otherwise, it is obvious that regional cultures maintain a strong identity (something which is, of course, not necessarily bad).

As far as destiny is concerned, Italians share a common destiny, not in the sense of having a glorious mission to accomplish, but in that of being in the same boat: either we start to sail (or at least float) together or we will all sink together.

The basic idea underlying some people’s invocation of the notion of “homeland” or “nation” is that, without this reference, there can be no sense of state. The weakening of the value of “homeland” and “nation” (in the sense in which they have been handed down) is a cultural process that is irreversible in the long term. Yet a revival (even temporary) of nationalism in Western Europe could hinder the deepening of the process of European unification and could therefore jeopardise the only prospect of stopping the continent’s decline in the future.


Fifth Thesis

European integration is a fragile and not irreversible process. Nationalism, as weak as it may be, can still slow down and stop it

It is dangerous to think that the process of European integration is solid enough to be irreversible. The reasons for this fragility are numerous.

What other name can be given to the attitude of important sectors of the political world (and population), not only in Britain, but also in France, Germany and Italy that is contrary to any kind of deepening of the Union and wishes to reconsider the qualifying points of the Treaty of Maastricht? What other name can be given to the sentiment that made a majority of Norwegians (and a conspicuous minority of Swedes and Finns) reject entry into the European Union and that led almost half the French and the Danes to vote “no” in the referendum approving the Treaty of Maastricht? And what is it, if not nationalism, that leads the Germans to defend the Deutschmark as the symbol of national identity? What other name can be given to the attitude of the Swiss who, although already a small multi-linguistic and multi-ethnic Europe, do not want to give up pieces of their sovereignty? Certainly, it is no longer the virulent and aggressive nationalism of the first half of the century; it is an unassuming and nostalgic nationalism, almost aware of its own decline, but still possessing an enormous capacity to disrupt the process of European union.

Nationalism is still a danger in that the nation state is not yet completely obsolete. True, it is weaker and has lost a part of its sovereignty, but it exists and the inertia of the extant is very strong. The process of unification is anything but irreversible. It is a very delicate process which, if it does not move ahead (even very gradually), always risks going backward. European unity has quite acutely been compared to a bicycle which inevitably falls over if you stop pedalling. What sense does it make to construct a single market for goods and, above all, capital, if there is no political and economic union? How can a single currency exist without strong coordination of the fiscal and economic policies of the countries in the event of possible (and probable) market fluctuations and social conflicts? Only those who have faith in dialectics can believe that the contradictions will spontaneously generate their own solutions; instead, they could trigger mechanisms of involution. It is almost a miracle that such a fragile construction has lasted as long as it has. Sometimes the impossible does happen.


Sixth Thesis

The European identity cannot (and must not) become similar to or a replacement for national identity

The formation of a “European identity” is not augured here. In order to exist, Europe will have to develop a sense of belonging, a feeling that that which unites it is stronger than that which divides it. Yet, the historical and cultural diversity of European nations cannot (and should not) be diminished or cancelled. Variety is an unrelinquishable heritage of European culture. In order to speak together and understand each other we will all have to learn at least two languages besides our mother tongue. We will have to see the differences in terms of diversity and not inferiority/superiority. We will also have to reconsider some pages of our history, above all recent history. For example, the First World War can no longer be considered a “great national event”; it must recognised as a great European tragedy, a kind of civil war that preceded European citizenship. We will have to take our schoolchildren to visit the battlefields and military cemeteries as sites not of national heroism but of the tragedies of nationalism. We will have to learn to distribute our feelings of belonging in such a way that no “unit” can demand our absolute loyalty — we will be able to feel that we are Lombards, Italians and Europeans without having these feelings compete with one another. This feeling will be one of “distributed patriotism” and thus, “weak patriotism”.

From this point of view (and unfortunately from this point of view alone), the Italians are in a favourable position with respect to other Europeans. The feeling of national belonging has already been diminished as if it has to coexist peacefully with the feeling of subnational and supranational belonging. For the Italians, the real obstacle to European integration is that they realise that they will not be able to make the other European citizens pay for the debts that their state has accumulated with its citizens; they will have to pay their debts themselves, without hoping to be salvaged by some generous partner.

If nation states really were “powder without substance” as Einaudi wrote at the end of the Second World War, 14   the Italians would have to hope for the return of some kind of ideological cement to help them overcome the particular and sectarian interests that hinder the consolidation of democracy in the country. This cement is a sense of state, not the concept of nation.

Unfortunately, nation states are weak but still capable of disrupting the course of European unification. Europe is not an objective that has been achieved, but a task which still requires work. It can, however, send a message to the rest of the world, a simple message: the divisions that history has produced can be overcome without giving up one’s national identity. Once this has been achieved, then, but only then, can the “nation” be invoked and can one be proud of being Italian without fear of fuelling the spectre of the nation state or nationalism.

It could be objected that the nation state is one thing and nationalism another. It is true, the nation and nationalism are two different things, yet they are linked. The idea of nation becomes corrupt and turns into nationalism when it combines with the claim of the nation state to have absolute sovereignty over a territory, that is, when it functions as a legitimising ideology for a kind of state, the nation state. This intersection of the nation and the nation state is still very close and represents a danger (let’s not forget Bosnia!) for Europe and the world. Freed of the nation state, the nation or better, the nations are a sign of the great wealth and variety of cultures, histories and memories that make Europe an ideal homeland with which to identify — in addition to one’s own.

All Italians love Italy; they love it so much that they would like it to be different from the way they see it every day. They would, in fact, like to see it more European, more projected into the future, less provincial, less quarrelsome, more democratic. But in order to make Italy more European, there is no need to be nostalgic for the nation.


Alessandro Cavalli is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pavia and Director of il Mulino.



*: Translation is by Gabriele Tonne.  Back.

Note 1: E. Rusconi, Se cessiamo di essere una nazione (Bologna: il Mulino, 1993) and Patria e repubblica (Bologna: il Mulino, 1997); E. Galli della Loggia , La morte della patria (Bari: Laterza, 1996); S. Lamaro, Patria (Padua: Marsilio, 1996).  Back.

Note 2: Available data amply demonstrate this, above all, research done by Eurobarometro. See G. Martinotti, S. Stefanizzi, “Europeans and the Nation State”, in O. Niedermeyer, R. Sinnott (eds.) Public Opinion and Internationalized Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).  Back.

Note 3: See C. Buzzi, A. Cavalli, A. de Lillo , Giovani verso il 2000 (Bologna: il Mulino, 1997).  Back.

Note 4: Segatti, “Gli orientamenti dei giovani in Italia e in Europa”, in R. Cartocci, A. Parisi (eds .) Difesa della patria e interesse nazionale nella scuola (Milan: F. Angeli, 1997); I. Diamanti, P. Segatti, “A che serve l’Italia?”, Limes, no. 4, 1994.  Back.

Note 5: Barbé, “Il drastico irrobustimento dell’identità nazionale in Italia. Un’analisi empirica comparativa”, Quaderni di Sociologia, vol. XLI, no. 13, 1997.  Back.

Note 6: A. Almond, S. Verba, The Civic Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963) in particular, pp. 106 et seq. See also, the important and controversial essay by R. Putnam, Making Democracy Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).  Back.

Note 7: L. Sciolla, Italiani. Stereotipi di casa nostra (Bologna: il Mulino, 1997). Back.

Note 8: U. Hoffmann-Lange (ed.) Jugend und Demokratie in Deutschland (Opladen: Leske & Budrich, 1995).  Back.

Note 9: L. Sciolla, N. Negri, “L’isolamento dello spirito civico” in L. Sciolla, N. Negri (eds.) Il paese dei paradossi (Rome: NIS, 1996) in particular, p. 127.  Back.

Note 10: G. E. Rusconi, “Scendere da Cosmopoli” in M. Nussbaum, G. E. Rusconi, M. Viroli (eds.) Piccole patrie, grande mondo (Milan: Reset, 1995) pp. 45-6.  Back.

Note 11: Habermas takes the notion of “constitutional patriotism” from Dolf Sternberger, Verfassungspatriotismus (Frankfurt a. M.: Insel Verlag, 1990).  Back.

Note 12: Rusconi, “Scendere da Cosmopoli”, p. 54.  Back.

Note 13: Rusconi, “Scendere da Cosmopoli”.  Back.

Note 14: L. Einaudi, La guerra e l’unità europea (Bologna: il Mulino, 1986).  Back.