International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIII No. 1 (January-March 1998)


The “Case of Italy ” on the Eve of European Integration *
By Marcello Veneziani


A national identity that is abused and scorned—a source of shame. A state structure that is inefficient and discredited—the object of demands for dismantling and campaigns for denationalisation. A traditional lack of respect for institutions that has worsened in recent years. An inability to control the influx of clandestine immigrants which, even though it has not reached the danger levels of other countries, has nevertheless generated rejection crises, spirals of violence and widespread psychosis. The growing estrangement of citizens from public institutions and the emergence of a separatist movement that is more individualistic and tribal than political or territorial. And finally, the impetus of the Northern League in organising this civil alienation and in providing the idea of secession from the Italian state with a name, a symbol and a leader. This is Italy’s clinical record on the eve of European integration.

All of this while the new and indisputable Western dogma—globalisation—advances. Globalisation, a phenomenon, the positiveness and inevitability of which almost nobody dares to question. Globalisation, perceived as the great destroyer of state and national orders and community identities. Today, “national” is rendered in simultaneous translations as “autarkic”, “exclusivistic”, “protectionist” and “chauvinist”—inconceivable concepts at a time of global interdependence.

These are the circumstances under which Italy is preparing to enter Europe on the threshold of the third millennium, at times with the accommodating awareness of having matured a strong European sentiment for the simple reason that its national and state sentiment has weakened. And buoyed by the insinuating conviction that the future will unfold on the edge between global and local, between supranational macrosystems and regional and sub-national microsystems, in a system of cross references that makes the concept of the nation state ephemeral and superfluous.

This situation has been met with a kind of fatalism reminiscent of the historical and ideological determinism recently left behind, that of Marxist and progressivist historicism. The idea of history necessarily developing in the direction indicated by Marxist teleological historicism, stripped of the eschatological and prophetic aspects of communism, has been transferred to the planetary process known as globalisation. Technology takes on the role of ideology; the globalisation of capital takes the place of the internationalisation of socialism.

Only a few voices speak out against the inevitability of globalisation. 1   The “all-encompassing thought ” has engendered a panoply of prejudices and clichés that can hardly be subjected to criticism, or at least not without some daring.

Thus, the “case of Italy ” is not an expression that alludes to the country’s specificity, to an identity that has to be protected or acknowledged; no, it alludes to a clinical case, a disease, a deformity that must be eliminated in order to be able to adjust to that Absolute Parameter of which globalisation is the theological essence. The main aim is to become a “normal” country, to adjust “abnormal” Italy to a superior, objective parameter identified with the Western and modern paradigm. 2   There’s no point in asking who decided this, with what legitimation, in the name of what, and with what prospects. The force and the globality of the process do not allow for investigations into its quality or feasibility. An attempt will be made here to examine the prejudices that substantiate the foregoing overall picture and to verify their soundness.

The first prejudice is that Italy is a country with an artificial, weak and wavering national identity.

This interpretation is the unwitting victim of the neo-Hegelian idea that the nation arises from the state; as a consequence, Italy was born on 17 March 1861 with the proclamation of the united state. This was the conviction of Bertrando and Silvio Spaventa to which Benedetto Croce lent ulterior theoretical and historical dignity. 3   Funnily enough, the same conviction is in vogue again today among those who theorise the disintegration of Italy and identify national unity with a centralist state. It is, in effect, functional to those who believe that eliminating the centralist state means contemporaneously eliminating national identity. And is indeed repeated by the most lucid of secessionist theoreticians, Gianfranco Miglio, 4   when he rejects this author’s theory to the contrary, originally developed by Gioacchino Volpe, that the Italian nation existed before the advent of the united state. 5

The Risorgimento did not mark the birth of the Italian nation, but the “resurgence” of an ancient national identity which was to take on political, institutional and state identity as well. For as Volpe explained, there was an Italian identity centuries before the united state appeared: 6   its roots go back to ancient Rome, and above all to the Middle Ages, but it took on literary force and linguistic unity with the great poets and authors who wrote in Italian. Quite rightly, Vittore Branca recently pointed out that at the end of the millennium we Italians can read without difficulty in the same language in which they wrote authors who lived seven centuries earlier: neither the French nor the English can make the same boast, even though the unity of their states dates back much further. 7   Italy’s national unity is more cultural, linguistic and spiritual than territorial, political or institutional. One might say that Italy has an evident national koiné, a characteristic or mentality that has developed from the blending of Catholicism, the Mediterranean spirit and the Renaissance culture, in the same way that it has an unmistakable geographic conformation—a peninsula separated by the Alps and projecting into the Mediterranean basin. Italy exists historically, but also geographically; it exists in literature, but also in its mentality, language and habits (both good and bad). The Italian national identity seems to be going through a slump, but it is not fictitious; it may have deteriorated, but it is not conventional or virtual, like that of Padania. 8

The second prejudice is that Italy should cease to exist as a state because national identity hangs like an albatross around its neck in the context of the European system in the era of a global society.

The vicissitudes of recent years prove the contrary: you only count in Europe and in the global society if you are something, if you represent strong interests, cohesive systems and important subjects; you only count in broader contexts in as much as you have a solid country-system. The prospect of globalisation does not make the state superfluous, on the contrary, it makes a solid country-system and an efficient state essential. Who and what will balance the flows and imperatives of the global market, who will have the responsibility and strength to guarantee the more widespread interests of the weaker against the interests of strong groups and trans-national oligarchies? Will there not be the need for a grand mediator, a shock absorber, an arbiter between the two drives of globalisation and tribalisation?

The progressive disappearance of the nation state is at best a long-term prediction inappropriately applied to the present. Yet the conjuncture is likely to be functional to the interests of trans-national and at times trans-political oligarchies. It can be objected that no nation states are democratic to the core in that they are all run by oligarchies. But the difference is between a government of the few exclusively protecting the interests of the few and a government of the few generally forced to acknowledge the interests of the many. Until otherwise proven, there is no organisation outside of the nation state that represents the interests, needs and values of the majority, and none seems to be in sight.

The third prejudice is that growing separatist movements in Italy are reactions to the invasiveness of a strong state and the pervasiveness of nationalisation.

The truth is that separatist movements have arisen in Italy as a result of the weakness of the state and the lack of a national civic sense. It is not an excess of state that has generated the separatist movement, but the decomposition of it; not an excess of power, but the state’s flaccid obesity, the dilation to the point of haemorrhage of its efficiency, efficacy, vigor and authority.

The history of Italy shows that the omnipresence of the state is not a disease of the state, but a disorder caused by the parties that have occupied it and permeated all areas of it until they have equipped themselves with the instruments needed to consolidate and amplify their consensus and control over society. It can be historically demonstrated that the parties’ penetration of the state in Italy took place in parallel to the loss of a sense of state, of the dignity of the state, of a public spirit and of the prestige of the state administration. 9   This situation did not grow out of centralism but, on the contrary, out of the tentacular penetration of the parties into increasingly decentralised areas, ranging from regional government to peripheral agencies. The Northern League is not a physiological reaction to a strong state and asphyxiating patriotism, but the product of a fat but weak state and plaintive and rhetorical patriotism.

The fourth prejudice is the reverse of the last: a nationalist mentality is the source of all intolerance and of all incompatibilities with immigrants.

That this is a prejudice is shown by the fact that societies with a strong country-system and a vital national sense, shared values and a well-rooted public spirit are more capable of metabolising foreigners and bearing the weight of differences without hysteria than Italy. It is the disintegrated societies, the ones dominated by egoism and a tribal mentality, those that do not offer any social bond or common horizon, that are most likely to consider the influx of foreigners an intrusion and react in a pathological way. Cities dominated by fear and egoism, which provide no channels of communication and have degraded social and urban fabrics are the ones most susceptible to the wars of the poor and conflicts with foreigners. In this case as well, a state able to regulate the flow without succumbing to clandestine immigration, to monitor the social situation, and to manage the possibilities for accommodation and work can guarantee osmosis between foreigners and native citizens and the best living conditions for both.

One of the reasons for the consensus for local movements is the growing intolerance of uncontrolled immigration. Yet this is incompatible with the demands for the dismantling of the state system and the parts of it in control of public order so widespread in the south. Indeed, it is not possible to stem the flow of immigrants and regulate the excesses of the desperate if the authority of the state is contemporaneously undermined and its power to act contested.

The fifth prejudice is that the consensus that local movements and the Northern League are receiving is basically a manifestation of an anti-political and anti-ideological revolt centred on fiscal demands and commercial interests.

Politics is perceived by the followers of the separatist movements as being too nebulous, too hair-splitting, still too strongly linked to old categories such as anti-fascist and anti-communist, right and left, the state and trade unions. In reality, one must not look only at the outer structure of dissent; its psychological aspects must also be examined. Here, charismatic drives and vague apolitical and technocratic aspirations blend with ethnic and symbolic sentimentalism.

The phenomenon of local movements is not based on the rejection of politics and ideology, but on the reinvention and rebuilding of both on different bases. Indeed, it is the very lack of political passion and ideological desire of the national political forces that leads many people to support and militate in local movements and the Northern League. It is the perception of politics as no more than a career matter, a drive for power that leads to the glorification of the anti-systemic and mythical components of the Northern League. A poor symbolism, no doubt, but if even such coarse symbolism can have a grasp on the public, it only goes to emphasise to what extent values, passion and symbols are absent in politics today and the cynicism and opportunism that characterise it. In a certain sense, localism has become the extremism of post-ideological society, the integralism of advanced society, the fundamentalism of uprooted society.

The sixth prejudice equates greater tolerance towards any kind of local or exotic difference with a decline in religious belief. Or rather, it claims that secularisation will allow for the development of a mature citizenry, unrestrained by borders or discrimination. Without the bearers of absolute values, democratic life and the rights of citizenship will be more easily attuned to reciprocal tolerance.

The history of Western societies and in particular, that of Italy in the last thirty years, clearly demonstrates that the disappearance of shared values and a common religious and civil horizon is more likely to degrade and decay communication and coexistence than to facilitate it.

The fabric of civil solidarity feeds on that religious humus and the common perception of being in the same boat, of sharing the same destiny, typical of a religious view. And frays when, as in the case of Italy, the loss of Christian sentiments fuels egoism and an amoral sense of family. 10   These non political or not directly political factors have a fundamental value for political life as well; they affect the solidity of a community and produce the basic conditions, the habitat, the common horizon in which a polis, is possible. Without trust, Francis Fukuyama recently wrote, or without social virtue and shared values, a liberal society and a capitalist economy cannot develop. 11   Those who think that a system of belonging to religious, national and community values is a vestige that keeps a liberal society and a free market from developing fully, is confusing the aquarium in which our society prospers with its prison.

The seventh prejudice, widespread in Italy among the supporters of both the Northern League and national unity, establishes a radical incompatibility between references to local and regional identity and references to national identity.

The conviction is that local identities must inevitably be in conflict with national identity. Yet the unfolding of globalisation reveals a different situation: the enemy of primary identity is not—or at least is no longer—the larger identity or the identity of the other, but the denial of the principle of identity, of identity as a value or as a rooted reality. The antagonist of local differences is global uniformity, not national differences. The degree of uniformity that national identity produces is infinitely smaller than the degree of standardisation produced by the global process. Indeed, national identities and local identities are objectively on the same side today with respect to the global process which does not recognise the value of either and considers them an obsolete vestige.

Today it is possible, even inevitable, to envisage a form of national identity that ensures and encompasses, in a system of concentric circles, the local identities that have always been a salient feature of the Italian nation—an essential component of “the Italian case ”—and which is in turn protected from the outside by a broader identity like the European identity. This would mean, however, doing away with the Jacobin nationalism which has in the past reproduced on a national scale the same standardisation, adjustment to the norm, and restrictions on identity produced by globalisation today.

The eighth prejudice exhorts all to be suspicious of the rooted national and territorial bond of identity, in that it is an intrinsic bearer of intolerance, violence and aggressiveness towards others.

Recent history is proving, to the contrary, that disunited societies unleash a greater potential for intolerance and violence than organic or less decomposed societies. There is also evidence that when the communal bond of either national, ethnic, regional or local origin is either mortified, oppressed, repressed—as happened in Eastern Europe and some post-colonial countries—or depressed—as happens in some Western countries—then it becomes uncontrollable, evil and savage.

The undermining of national and community identity paves the way for an upsurge of national or national-religious integralism, hysterical revanchism, and aggressive chauvinism. When the natural bond with one’s roots, one’s people, one’s cultural and national specificity is left to simmer in the dark, there is the risk that it will be warped. The wars that have bloodied the world in the last years, including the Bosnian wars, have shown that states traced at the drawing board with no concern for the peoples, that artificial divisions of nations and ethnic groups imposed from above, are destined to provoke painful conflicts and radical hatred when the imperial and militaristic networks forcibly supporting them collapse.

It would be more just to recognise the dignity and value of national, popular and community identity, trying perhaps to direct the sense of belonging away from the irritable, darwinian and aggressive nationalism of the first half of this century. The challenge of the new millennium could be to nurture a common, national or local bond that has nothing to do with nationalism—which is a mockery of national identity—a civil bond that acknowledges diversity as a source of richness rather than of conflict, and which does not see specificity as being against that of another in terms of primacy or supremacy.

Finally, the ninth prejudice is that the only type of patriotism allowed in modern democracy is constitutional patriotism.

Brought back into vogue by Jürgen Habermas, it has found numerous supporters in Italy in recent years among scholars, intellectuals and well known institutional figures. 12   In reality, constitutional patriotism is based on the assumption that the national amalgam can be traced back to a pact of citizenship signed in the name of democracy and sanctioned by the constitution. But the kind of patriotism engendered by a contract, that is, entrusted to a piece of paper or, basically, a norm (and dating back to an event that is not very distant and has not generated any customs or traditions) can also be rescinded when it is no longer convenient for one or more of the parties to renew the pact. Therefore, in the framework of such constitutional patriotism, the secessionists would have some valid arguments in their favour if they were to ask for a democratic review of the pact by means of a referendum and to exercise the principle of self-determination.

The only kind of patriotism that can be valid and vigorous and that can weather the changing wills and interests of the parties is a patriotism of the nation which sinks its roots into the life and history of the people, the traditions of the nation, its geographic, territorial, linguistic and cultural heritage, the shared values and customs of a community. Otherwise, it would be more consistent to claim that patriotism has had its day and that it is no longer practicable in the global era.



European integration has not yet solved a primary ambiguity, and this risks weakening its status and its efficiency or, worse yet, aborting the entire undertaking. Should Europe be seen as an intermediate step towards globalisation, a transition phase towards the realisation of a global market and global state, or more simply, globalisation without states, or should it be seen as a dike against globalisation, a perimeter and a confine within which to found a European identity without obliterating sub-European identities, to design a vital area different from the others, including North America? Will Europe be a sub-set of the West and finally of the world or one of the vital areas of which Carl Schmitt and Sam Huntington have spoken? 13   These are not marginal and uninfluential intellectual questions on the future of Europe. They concern the crucial and decisive issue that will give Europe body, soul and significance. Put differently, will Europe present itself as a factor of “inter-national” adjustment and planetary uniformity or as the guarantor of differences and specificities? Will it be a supranational empire intent upon safeguarding its internal diversities and the diversities of Europe with respect to the rest of the world as a precious and unrelinquishable good, or will it be an agent of uniformity and progressive emancipation from differences towards a Global Parameter of societies without borders and without diversities?

Naturally one could also envisage a combination of answers or an obliquity of outcomes. But to evade the question means to overlook the social basis of Europe, the real reason for building or not building Europe. If we do not want, as is so often repeated, a Europe without Europeans, a Europe of parameters and not of the people, a Europe of the banks and not of the citizens, we must have the courage and honesty to respond to this question which brings the minor actors of Europe, the nations and the regions, into play and even protects such specificities as the “Italian case ” and a constellation of others. The alternative will be between a “normal” Europe adjusted to a norm that claims to be universal, in line as it is with a planetary parameter of not only an economic, but also a cultural nature, and a sovereign Europe made up of an archipelago of “abnormal” countries that cultivate their abnormalities—in the sense of their cultural differences—trying to make them compatible and synergic without becoming unstable or revocable.

This is the Gordian knot that will open the Third Millennium.


Marcello Veneziani is a journalist and author, and Director of the weekly Lo Stato.



*: Translation is by Gabriele Tonne.  Back.

Note 1: Among them is Naom Chomski, of the radical left, above all in his recent La società globale (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1997) and Alain de Benoist, of the new right, in L’impero interiore (Florence: Ponte alle grazie, 1996). In between lies Serge Latouche, La megamacchina (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1995) and his earlier volumes, L’occidentalizzazione del mondo (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1992) and Il pianeta dei naufraghi (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1993). Mention must also be made of the occasional critiques by A. Solzhenitsyn, who was referred to with caution when he was condemning the gulags, and is now generally ignored when attacking globalisation. For an economic point of view, see V. Forrester, L’orrore economico (Milan: SugarCo, 1997) and M. Veneziani, Processo all’occidente (Milan: SugarCo, 1990), especially the introduction by Augusto Del Noce.  Back.

Note 2: The “dream of a normal country ” has been a common leitmotif in recent years, recurring in the works of many well known Italian opinion makers. Massimo D’Alema, the secretary of the Democratics of the Left, the largest party in the Olive Tree governing coalition, even dedicated a book to the Paese Normale (A Normal Country) (Milan: Mondadori, 1995).  Back.

Note 3: B. Croce, Storia d’Europa (Bari: Laterza, 1948).  Back.

Note 4: The theoretician of the Northern League.  Back.

Note 5: G. Miglio and M. Veneziani, in Padania, Italia, edited by M. Ferrazzoli (Florence: Le Lettere, 1997).  Back.

Note 6: G. Volpe, Italia in cammino (Rome: Volpe, 1973).  Back.

Note 7: V. Branca, interviewed by L. Vaccari for the cultural pages of Avvenire, 19 August 1997.  Back.

Note 8: The name of the “state” set up by the Northern League.  Back.

Note 9: M. Veneziani, Fine dell’Italia? (Rome: Ed. L’Italia, 1992) and the pamphlet Decamerone italiano. Breve corso di sopravvivenza nazionale in dieci sedute (Florence: Vallecchi, 1996). For an historical-philosophical reference, see M. Veneziani, La rivoluzione conservatrice in Italia. Nascita e sviluppo dell’ideologia italiana (Milan: SugarCo, 1987, second expanded edition, 1994).  Back.

Note 10: Contrary to what Banfield and Putnam think, however, a moral and socially virtuous sense of family of Catholic extraction also exists in Italy; E. Banfield , Le basi morali di una società arretrata (Bologna: il Mulino, 1976) and R. Putnam, La tradizione civica nelle regioni italiane (Milan: Rizzoli, 1993).  Back.

Note 11: F. Fukuyama, Fiducia(Milan: Rizzoli, 1996).  Back.

Note 12: The expression “constitutional patriotism ” dates back to Dolf Sternberger, Verfassungspatriotismus (Frankfurt: Insel, 1990). It was rejuvenated by J. Habermas in 1986 on the occasion of the dispute on revisionism (now in G. E. Rusconi, Un passato che non passa (Turin: Einaudi, 1987). In Italy reference to constitutional patriotism has been made on several occasions by the President of the Republic, Oscar L. Scalfaro and some exponents of the center-left. See also, G. E. Rusconi, Se cessiamo di essere una nazione (Bologna: il Mulino, 1993).  Back.

Note 13: C. Schmitt, Il nomos della terra (Milan: Adelphi, 1991); S. Huntington, Lo scontro delle civiltà (Milan: Garzanti, 1997).  Back.