Italy, like Britain, is a European democracy whose politics lean more towards the centre-right than the centre-left, although the long-term reasons for this are strikingly different. Britain's political conservatism derives in great part from its insular tradition, the absence of defeat in external war and major social disturbance at home, and the consequent extraordinary continuities of its elites and institutions. Italy, on the other hand, has been shaped by its geopolitical position at the centre of the Mediterranean, looking in one direction towards the Levant and in the other towards Spain. Deep-rooted Mediterranean cultures of patronage and of clientelism, of family and of clan, have combined with a weak state tradition to create a strange mixture of deference and hierarchy, irreverence and individualism. Mussolini once complained that he was the most disobeyed dictator in history. In the recent Italian past there have been extraordinary movements of protest and of resistance, none more so than in the periods 1943-45 and 1968-73. But overall, Italian history tends to confirm the reflections of one of its greatest 19th-century intellectuals, Carlo Cattaneo, who briefly led the Milanese revolution of March 1848. Italy, he concluded, was a country capable only of short-lived upheavals and long counter-revolutions.
LRB 6 April 2006 | PDF Download