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The New Prince

By Ofir Haivry

Silvio Berlusconi and the Italian conservative tradition. A roadmap.


I
 Anything but the Left
 
For in every city are these two opposite parties to be found....
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 91
The leading Italian author and Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello, who lived under the Fascist regime, was once asked by a foreign journalist if he considered himself a Fascist. Smiling, Pirandello replied that he was neither a Fascist nor an anti-Fascist. When the journalist asked if he was therefore a socialist, the author forcefully answered that he was not a socialist, nor could he ever be one—“because I am Sicilian.”
Pirandello’s retort reflects a view held not only by Sicilians but by the Italian nation as a whole—conservatism and anti-leftist sentiment are basic components of Italy’s national identity.
Such an assertion might seem surprising at first, for Italy does in fact possess strong leftist traditions which have produced outstanding thinkers, from the revolutionary ideologue of Italian unity Giuseppe Mazzini to Italian Communist Party founder Antonio Gramsci. The country has also experienced terrorist agitation by the left, from the anarchist violence of the nineteenth century through the Red Brigades of the 1970s, and for decades has possessed the largest and strongest Communist party in the democratic world.
The history of the Italian state and people, however, shows that not only have the Italians never allowed the left to rule them, but even the majority of the “leftists” were so infused with the spirit of Italian nationalist conservatism that at crucial junctures they preferred the preservation of tradition and the social order to leftist revolution.
The Italians have never undergone a social revolution. Italy’s social order has never been subjected to an enforced, comprehensive restructuring such as occurred in France, Russia or Nazi Germany. In this respect, the Italian political tradition resembles that of Great Britain or the United States, which have undergone major political upheavals but have maintained social and cultural continuity over the course of centuries. In contrast with these countries, however, Italy has never been under a clearly leftist government which sought to impose profound societal and economic changes by democratic means, such as the post-World War II British Labor government or the American New Deal of the 1930s. Nor has it ever suffered a destructive civil war, as did both these countries, which might have upset its consciousness and undermined its faith in the national heritage.2
Italy is unique in this regard in Western political history. Its vigorous social and cultural conservatism has enabled this once-beleaguered nation to become an industrial power without paying the price in bloodshed or suffering that often leads to leftist regimes. Despite Italy’s problems, which cannot be overlooked, we should ask: What can be learned from the Italian experience and applied in different contexts to other countries?
 
II
The Civil Society
Reflecting on the matters set forth above, and considering within myself whether the times were propitious in Italy at present for a new prince and whether there is at hand a state of things suitable for a prudent and capable leader to introduce a new system that would give honor to himself and benefit the citizens of the country, I have arrived at the opinion that all circumstances now favor such a prince, and I know not of a time more fitting such an enterprise.
The Prince, ch. 26
Until about 150 years ago, Italy was divided into a large number of principalities and states, which in the eyes of many made it more of a geographical and cultural than a national reality.3 Even in this period, however, leading Italian thinkers like Dante, Petrarca and Machiavelli sensed, and declared, that they belonged to a common national culture4—a nation boasting of cultural riches and commercial wealth, which made it an economic and intellectual giant in late medieval and Renaissance Europe. The most important source of this power, however, was its political culture, which enabled its citizenry to blossom.5
The reality of political division combined with a sense of cultural and national commonality evolved out of a unique political tradition of flexibility and balance among and within the various Italian states and, primarily, out of the ongoing search for stability without despotism. Examples of this search can be found in Venice, which was stable for centuries under the presumed absolute rule of the doge, a seemingly exalted duke who was actually a constitutional ruler with very limited authority, with the real power resting in councils of noblemen-merchants;6 or the papal state which, despite its religious foundation, conducted policy based primarily on considerations of realpolitik.7
Because it was rooted in local institutions and practices, the social order in Italy was much stronger and more firmly established than in other countries with more centralized governments. Decentralization also facilitated the development of diverse economic, cultural, political and professional elites with a tradition of adapting to change while preserving the basics of the social order and the accepted values of society. These developments constituted the first glimmerings of a civil society.
Starting in the sixteenth century, the inner balance of forces in Italy was gradually weakened, and the country was conquered by foreign powers. This caused the gradual loss of Italy’s leading economic status. But even during this period, most local and cultural traditions remained in place. These traditions stubbornly maintained their existence, exhibiting a willingness to assume different garb according to the demands of the current ruler, but without surrendering their continuity and vitality. This preserved the distinctive features of Italian political culture.
The continuity of ancient institutions and traditions over the course of centuries is obviously not unique to Italy. Italy, however, is distinct in the dimensions, duration and decentralization of that continuity. In Germany and Spain, one can find a few banks with a history of two centuries, but only in the various districts of Italy can one still find functioning banking institutions spanning five or six centuries.8 In France, the nation’s academic elite was concentrated in the Sorbonne, and academic life in England was similarly centralized in Cambridge and Oxford. For a long time, these were the sole academic institutions in these countries. In Italy, however, there were a large number of independent universities. Some, such as Padua and Bologna, have histories going back more than a thousand years, and today vie for the title of the oldest university in the world. Many other Italian universities are only slightly younger.
Italy’s city-states of five and six centuries ago also developed the beginnings of modern political parties: Permanent groupings of politically active citizens called parti. One of these, the Guelf (pro-papal) party, whose banner was a red cross over a white field with the word Libertas inscribed upon it, was the forefather of the Italian Christian Democrats, whose party symbol is still the red cross on the white field and the word Libertas. Many other institutions, such as trade unions, neighborhood celebrations and urban traditions like the famous Palio of Siena or the Calcio of Florence, have held their ground for many centuries as well and intertwine to form an extensive network of social relationships in the Italian civil society.9 Possibly the most important and strongest traditional element is the Catholic Church in Rome, which is the longest-lasting governmental institution in the world. It has been in existence since late antiquity, and for more than 1,500 years has exerted its influence on the political, social and cultural life of Italy.


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