Note on the Late Italian Referendum

THERE IS A WORD in Italian—furbizia—which has been coming to my mind with some frequency in recent days. It is one of these words that one cannot translate; it grows straight from the innermost character and conditions of a people, and so has no equivalent on the tongues of other peoples. I sometimes wonder if comprehending this word, one might not have found a key, or at least an aid, to understanding how such brilliance of mind and such organizational chaos can exist in one and the same country, as exist here in Italy.
    The possible translations supplied by my dual-language dictionary include “cunning, crafty, sly, artful.” I might mention another possibility, although it is syntactically inadequate: furbizia has a connotation similar to what we intend when we use the verb “outfox.” None of these words, however, suffices to render. In truth, furbizia means something like “ability to take utmost advantage of a situation,” which presupposes of course that one has understood the situation in question with all the swift, penetrating intelligence of an Italian—has understood what is at stake, and who are the principle actors, and what are their principle motives, and what the likely outcomes will be, and how one may most surely arrive at the outcome that one desires. And all of this, without the least regard to morality and to law. Furbizia is that rarest thing in the social sphere: an amoral virtue.
      This would make it fascinating enough. On account of its removal from normal standards of ethics, the Italians themselves do not put a consistent evaluation on the quality of being furbo. On the one hand they freely apply it as a term of praise, applying the epithet to one another in much the same way as we might say, “How very clever of you!” Yet the common expression fare il furbo means something like “being a crafty one,” and has strictly a derogatory acceptation. If I do not mistake my ear, its complimentary use is more prevalent in those parts of Italy afflicted by the Mafia or related criminal organizations. Yet I think it would be a mistake to say that the term owes its existence to such. Quite the contrary seems to me more probable: namely, that the Italian aptitude for organized crime owes itself to the term—or rather, to the same traits of national character from which the term itself springs. The Italians display a great capacity for the local in politics; and this same capacity leads them into absurdities or contradictions in the organization and execution of larger-scale politics. The Italians see too much, and in too fine a detail: and thus they compromise their powers of generalization, and their ability to act on the basis of rule.
      I take as an item in support of this observation the failed national referendum of 4 December. I will say, before venturing an analysis of this referendum, that I have been hard-pressed since arriving in Italy to understand the intricacies of Italian governance, and I warn my reader that I am far from being an expert in any of this material, nor perhaps even an entirely reliable observer. In the first place, I am all too Anglo-Saxon in my expectations for what liberal government is or ought to be. In the second place, I live in a part of Italy which does not necessarily represent the national view (insofar as one may speak of a “national view” in Italy). But I believe it worthwhile to attempt to see the matter as clearly as we poor non-Italians may, for what occurred with this referendum reflects certain problems that have begun to make themselves felt everywhere throughout the West.


AN INGENUOUS OBSERVER, regarding the late referendum with eyes that are not accustomed to Italian politics, would have perceived in it a constitutional question of some national importance but of no overwhelming complexity (as constitutional reforms go). Ostensibly, it took as its goal the very honorable and necessary aim of reducing the burden of Italy’s extraordinarily labyrinthine bureaucracy, and beginning the hard task of imposing a little fiscal austerity on a system which is desperately in need of such. There was, to be sure, some worry about the degree of power the referendum might grant to the central government, and this led certain knowledgeable commentators, of the dignity for example of ex-Prime Minister Mario Monti, to oppose it. This was a major concern in particular for those Italians who live in regions which are economically, demographically, or geographically marginal, and which thus would risk being taken advantage of by a stronger central government. And this concern was only strengthened by the fact that Italians to this day, in everything but soccer, tend to value the local over the national. (One might indeed wonder if they are altogether mistaken in this.) In any case, despite the very legitimate disagreements that might have existed over the question, the arguments on either side would have seemed clear enough.
      So much for what an ingenuous observer might perceive. Only that matters were not near so simple. For, some months ago, the champion of this referendum, current Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, made the error of predicating his Prime Ministry on the victory of the referendum, going so far as to promise his summary resignation from politics in case of its failure. Here, then, the first layer upon the naïve interpretation: for now the referendum was given another meaning altogether, as the political enemies of Renzi, or else the citizens who are generally disillusioned with the establishment, or else those who simply do not think Renzi is abbastanza simpatico, could eliminate him via an unrelated vote on a question of constitutional reform.
      Nor is this the end. For Renzi has been a staunch supporter of Italy’s role in the European Union, setting himself even as the standard-bearer for this position, and has rallied the Italians to his cause as much as he could. Here then another layer yet: for now, the European secessionists in Italy (of which there are a goodly number) might vote against the referendum—which means, against Renzi—in symbolic protest against what they perceive as Italy’s disadvantaged position in the Union. They could even hope—who could say, in our uncertain days?—that a vote against the referendum might in some unforeseen way precipitate Italy’s break from the Union. The vote for a constitutional alteration became thus as well a vote in favor of or against Italy’s continued participation in the European Union.
      Nor is even this the end: but Renzi’s rivals for the Prime Ministry include the Movimento 5 Stelle, the Five Star Movement, an eclectic populist movement, headed by comedian Beppe Grillo. This movement has lately been galvanized by the success of Brexit and the victory of Trump. It has in general taken a strong stance against both Renzi and against Italy’s participation in the European Union. And thus, another layer again was added: a vote for No would be interpreted as a vote for the “M5S.”
      Thus, a national public referendum, which was meant to offer a partial remedy to a purely Italian bureaucratic problem, became instead the vehicle to determine the leadership of the entire Italian government, to express the will of the Italian people as regards the tendency of various strands of legislation in the immediate future, and to reestablish, or to begin to unravel, Italian ties with the European Union.
      These complexities are far from unusual or singular here in Italy. What can one say? The Italians, when they do not find furbizia in play, are brilliant at inventing it.
      The vote, as is known, came in: “No” had the day (thanks principally to Southern Italy and to the unemployed amongst the young). Renzi, true to his word, and against the expectations of many Italians (who are remarkable inured to mendacity in their politicians), announced his immediate resignation from politics. The supporters of Beppe Grillo rejoiced and clamored (most democratically, and rather unconstitutionally) for an immediate vote to replace the fallen Prime Minister, which would likely have favored their candidate. Others warned against disrupting a delicate system more than it has already been disrupted. This tumult continued apace, until it was announced by the President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella that a vote would be arranged for next spring, which date was quickly postponed again to 2018. In the meantime, a provisional Prime Minister was to be assigned by President Mattarella: and after juggling several names around, he has at last settled upon—Matteo Renzi.
      Thus, after a long, trying, divisional, and vitriolic debate over a referendum which was loaded, far beyond its avowed purpose, with quantities of political baggage and complex questions of international import, we find ourselves precisely where we stood before the vote. Nothing has changed in the Italian constitution, and nothing has changed in the names that represent it. This is all characteristically Italian. Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è, bisogna che tutto cambi, (“If we wish that everything remains as it is, then everything must change.”) as it is so beautifully stated in the novel Il Gattopardo, The Leopard, by Tomaso di Lampedusa. Of course, things are not the same; the vote and its fallout have changed things, precisely as the Italy portrayed at the end of Il Gattopardo is fundamentally altered from when the book opened. Even now, for instance, President Mattarella is seeking a replacement for Renzi, who insists he will not break his word to the Italians, and will despite all resign. But these changes have been thus far largely invisible, and they are nothing that anyone wished for or anticipated. It is remarkable the degree to which the status quo has been preserved, despite the evident will of the majority of Italians, on both sides of the question, to change it. And one might suppose that a goodly part of the reason for this curious deadlock in motion, is the complexity of the political knot that had been slowly tied about the referendum.


IT MAY BE ASKED why I have dwelt so long on what is, after all, an Italian conundrum. What, as a reader from America or Great Britain might ask me, does such matter to any of us? I suggest that the confusion surrounding this latest vote—the cross-purposes, the strata of diverse and divergent political intentions, the way in which it becomes impossible to vote for anything at all, without voting against something else that one might desire as fervently—all of this is not merely Italian, but is coming more and more to characterize most of the major decisions confronting our Western nations, and certainly most of the votes in which the public is directly involved. We see embodied here, to put things into their simplest terms, a tripartite tension between local politics and national politics and international politics, which, it seems to me, is ever more characteristic in modern politics in general, and which if unchecked is in danger of deeply compromising the efficacy of democratic politics.
      Now, the tension between the local and the national is as old at least as the question of how to maintain kingdoms and empires. But in the past this tension was generally the result of disparate groups of human beings, and their conflicting interests. For example, the Roman Empire had to find a way of incorporating the tribes and peoples that it conquered, despite their wide diversity of mores and beliefs; and these tribes and peoples in turn could not help but feel the ways in which their mores and beliefs were curtailed and rounded off by the Empire by which they had been absorbed. There existed a tension then between the conquered and the conquering, as has been repeated many times before and since throughout history. Or again—as has been evident in countless cases of past and present regimes, a certain group of a regime’s subjects might protest in any number of ways against a government which does not represent them and which acts to fulfill interests other than their own; and thus, there exist tensions between the classes or the parts of a given regime. In all these cases, however, one element remains more or less invariable: namely, that the interests on both sides stand mutually exclusive of each other. A Jew subjected to the antique Romans does not feel the justice of the Romans’ claim, and vice versa; and the Russian peasant at the time of the Red Revolution stood in arms and fire against the right of the aristocracy to govern, and vice versa. These tensions can be alleviated by means of overarching ideals, such as for example the belief in national unity or in the God-given right of the rulers to rule. But insofar as these tensions exist, they represent in almost all cases mutually exclusive interests.
      Here is the real peculiarity of our modern situation. Although such class disputes of course exist also today, because of the interaction between democracies and classes, and the way that democracies pretend to represent all classes without exception, an individual must vote simultaneously for his class interest and for his national interest, in order to be a good democrat. But as can be seen clearly in this last vote, in the majority of cases, an individual on any side of any issue you please, will thus find himself voting against his own interest no matter which way he votes.
      I have heard from some British people that a similar perplexity was experienced by many individuals in the vote on Brexit, and I am certain that many Americans, recalling the recent presidential election, will sympathize with the confusion felt by many Italians on 4 December. The Italians found before them a referendum which included, explicitly or tacitly, all of three distinct questions: 1.) the protection of the rights of local and regional government, 2.) the desire to simplify a wretchedly complicated national bureaucracy and to avert a national economic crisis, and 3.) the question of the proper relation of both of these concerns to the supranational economic power of the European Union. In any one of these cases, a voter was confronted with the possibility of a vote of yes or no. Thus in a single referendum six different political positions were implicated, while the vote itself remained stubbornly binary. It would be a rare individual indeed who could mark down his yes or no without some pang of doubt, some feeling of self-contradiction, some sense that he was at once betraying himself.
      We live in a world in which the broader politics of our nations in many cases stand at constant odds to the way we would live our lives. It is necessary for the defense of our countries that enormous quantities of money be spent on our militaries, and that our countries put themselves, as much as their national resources will permit, into positions of economic strength vis-à-vis their allies and their rivals in the rest of the world. The only way that any of this is possible is by embracing free economies that encourage the ceaseless growth of those companies and businesses that make them possible. Small family-operated businesses are pressed by inward and outward pressures to become large corporate businesses; agriculture bends itself to the models of industry; the single individual who goes about his work, whatever work it may be, is crushed by economies of scale if he does not find some strategy for overcoming them. Taxes are continually raised in accord with the growing needs of the government, and the government, in order to justify this growth, begins to take responsibilities on its shoulders for the welfare of its citizens, who become a species of client to it: but this only augments the need for more economic growth, and thus exacerbates the inherent tension between the private and the public. And sooner or later the system runs up against the simple, untransgressable law that is scribed into the fabric of all human things: namely, that there is a fateful limit drawn around all human “progress.” And when we begin to press that limit, the tensions which have been buried by the continual race between the public and the private sectors, come blaringly to our attention.
      We live in such a day, in which we must make decisions on a daily basis which in many cases contradict the political stands we take, decisions such as what food we will eat or what clothing we will purchase, or what cars we will drive or how much trash we produce, or how many people we will hire on in our businesses, or for what businesses we in turn will work—countless decisions in which the conflict between the small and the large scale are more and more strongly felt. To complicate all, our democracies have simplified the enormous intricate range of possible political positions to the simple dichotomy of the orthodox right and the orthodox left.
      Is it then any wonder, that one cannot leave the voting box with a clear conscience?
      There is no rule which can be adopted to confront these troubles. It is not enough to say, for example, that we must in all cases vote to protect our neighborhoods, for in some cases the best way to protect our neighborhoods will be to vote to protect our cities, even if this should have negative ramifications for our neighborhoods. It is not enough to unequivocally support the strong arm of the state, for in some cases the strong arm of the state is best protected by binding it. The citizens are called upon, as good democrats, to exert such political wisdom as they possess, and to do what they may toward the improvement of their knowledge and their awareness of many situations whose complexities increasingly exceed the grasp even of the experts. This is a test they are bound to lose, through no fault of their own, and this will be increasingly one of the great challenges to confront modern democracies.
      This is unsatisfactory, I know. We should like a clear new rule by which we may regulate ourselves and our actions, a bright vision toward which we may aim our bows. The sometimes grotesque gestures which politics and political groups have late been adopting, are clarion sign of this need. I do not believe, however, that such a rule, such a vision, can come to us, until the theoretic base has been lain, and we perceive with greater distinction than we now perceive, the ways in which politics are even now changing, and the new political forms which must, can, or should govern us in the coming decades.
      One simple change in perspective can, however, begin to help us shape our political decisions—not indeed in the voting booth, but rather in our day to day lives. As we look to the present, we must begin to turn our attention to questions which have hitherto been taken for granted—questions, not of specific issues of politics and laws, but questions of how we live our lives here and now, and how the customs that we adopt on a day to day basis, and the values that we embrace, practice, and encourage in ourselves and others, are the unacknowledged bedrock of all politics and law. Here above all a revaluation is necessary: we must recognize once more the fundamental dignity and power of personal ethics and manners.
      As we look to the future, we must realize that “a new political science is needed for a world that is altogether new.” A new era is dawning—we may say this, without being merely melodramatic—and we, who stand at the first glimmerings of its light, may be forgiven if we do not comprehend the lineaments of the day, or even find ourselves blinded by these initial rays. It behooves us to keep our eyes open despite all.


THE ITALIANS have another word, rather informal and equally untranslatable: un casino (not to be mistaken for the Italian for our English “casino,” namely, un casinò, with the accent). The dictionary will offer our word “mess” in translation, but this is woefully inadequate. Un casino is a real, true, devil of a mess, which can only be cleaned up with an inconvenient quantity of time, attention, and care, and probably more than we have at our disposal. The political situation at present is truly un gran casino. There is no easy solution for the time ahead of us, and it is often enough even difficult to know what to hope for. This much, at least, I would wish upon all of us: a gracious quantity of furbizia.

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Related Material:

1. A number of articles regarding the referendum:

This article from the Telegraph was written before the vote came in. It is an adequate description of the situation, but, as all the English articles I have read, it does not so much as mention one key aspect of the question, which was much directive of the decisions of many Italians: namely, the shift of powers from the local and regional to the central government that the referendum wished to accomplish. Note that this is a different (if related) concern from the one frequently expressed, of the shift of powers from the Senate to the Prime Ministry.

Here and here one may find economic analyses of the fallout we may expect in the wake of the vote, from The Economist and BBC respectively. The first considers the matter from the economic side, while the other looks instead at the possible political consequences of the referendum’s failure.

2. Tomaso di Lampedusa’s masterpiece The Leopard in English translation. This book is extraordinarily timely, for it speaks keenly to certain of the questions of our modern political situation. Here one will find a decent article on the plot and background of the book. Also recommended is the movie directed by Luchino Visconti, which is to my mind one of the greatest films ever made, and certainly one of the best translations of literature into cinema ever effected.

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