Black-out (in front)
Updated: Sep 29, 2022
Yesterday, from 10:23 AM until just after 6 PM, Poggiosole lost all electric power. For 7 hours and 45 minutes not only were our dishwashers, coffee machines, ovens and air conditioners down, all running water (from kitchen sinks to toilets) stopped as well. This is because Poggiosole's water, whether sourced from our wells or the municipal acqueduct, is kept pressurized by a series of on-property electrically-powered pumps.
It took me about an hour to ascertain that the cause of this blackout was not technical but administrative. My mother, whose name is still on all Poggiosole's utility contracts, had misplaced an electric bill due back in March, and after a series of unsuccessful attempts to reach her by phone and email (she is 92 years old), the electric company cut us off. A flurry of phone calls, a rapid bank wire, not a few emails and dozens of WhatsApp messages later, I learned the order had been given to restore our power. Having been told that the process of bringing us back on-line could take up to 36 hours, when the lights came back on at 18:08, I breathed a big sigh of relief.
Throughout, as I kept mom ("Why won't the TV work?!") and the two families that are presently our guests informed of the situation, I felt a blend of embarrassment and (pun alert!) powerlessness. But, as stressful as the experience was, it paled in comparison to the dread I felt, just last month, when Mario Draghi resigned as Italy's prime minister, opening the way for a general election for which the neo-fascist Giorgia Meloni (who prefers to identify as "post-fascist"), vying to be voted Italy's next PM, is polling very well.
The timing of this post seemed perfect when I bought this morning's paper, with a photo of Meloni and Vickor Orbán posing for a selfie (Meloni's phone) running above the fold.
Yet the timing of the collapse of yet another Italian government in general, and of Draghi's in particular, is, as journalists have remarked, quite awful, considering that €191.5 billion in EU grants and loans is riding on market and labor reforms Meloni's far-right party Fratelli d'Italia is unlikely to abide by. There is also ample evidence that Meloni and her party are heirs to Italian fascism, promoting anti-immigrant views and homophobic sentiment (video in Italian) to stoke fear and foment resentment.
The enduring appeal of fascism in Italy is not hard to understand. The country's weak sense of nationhood, general pessimism, extreme diversity of attitudes with respect to work, transparency, competitiveness, and globalism as well as its corrupt and over-compensated political class, combined with high public debt (household debt is comparatively low), all augur for a strong hand at the top. Add in the sense of grievance that attends a global center of art and commerce (15th through 17th century, and let's not forget neorealist cinema) turned present-day laggard and you have a good recipe for a society in which a very vocal minority, Meloni's core support, is susceptible to populist and fascist rhetoric. "We were once great", goes the rallying cry, "and we could be again, if only we distanced ourselves from / purged ourselves of / stopped catering to... [fill in your favorite liberal, broad-minded or inclusive entity, attitude, or ethno-religious minority]." This sort of scapegoating, especially if allowed to foment into verbal and then physical violence, is worrisome. But some voters "just want a change", and memories are short.
The Camicie Nere (Mussolini's volunteer militia) were omnipresent during my parents' formative years, 1930-1943. Stories around our dinner table were consistent with the dramatized depictions of their tactics in post-war Italian cinema (through to 2022's L'ombra del giorno).
You need not look further than their flag: about as far from the vital and expansive humanism often associated with (Renaissance) Italy as it's possible to be.
Fortunately Italy is not a particularly violent country. Perhaps due to the weight of all that public debt and bureaucracy, not a lot of folks dream big here, and dreaming big, while exciting, has its downsides. There is also an anti-extremism built-in to Italy's political system: the compromise inherent in building and maintaining governing coalitions that are often unstable has a moderating effect. Still, with Meloni out in front, and post-pandemic woes (add an energy crisis) weighing heavily on all but the most privileged, the departure of Draghi's steadying hand may someday be rued profoundly. Here's hoping reason, paired with sweet longing, prevails. Better to press for an honest reckoning of a nation's problems than conjure enemies out of one's neighbors IMHO.
Postscript, August 16: A few days ago the essayist Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker and reflecting on the August 12th attempted murder of the Indian-born British writer Salman Rushdie, on whom a fatwa had been declared some 30 years prior, pinpointed, for me, the real danger of rhetoric like that which Meloni deploys in the above-linked video. In her speach she casts gay and lesbian couples as a threat to the well-being of children and the "identity" and "rights" of her audience. At minute 0:46 of the clip, Meloni yells forcefully "I am Giorgia! I am a woman! I am a mother! I am Italian! I am a Christian! You won't take that away from me!" Then, pausing to stare determinedly across her cheering audience she repeats, for emphasis, "You won't take that away from me!" The implication is that the rights, perhaps the very existence of people who identify differently to her threaten her sense of who she is (and, by extension, the identities of voters who follow and favor her). Odd, for a woman who appears so self-assured! Returning to Gopnik's New Yorker article, he writes: "When theocrats or autocrats or simple demagogues inflame their followers, fires erupt, and innocent people are burned even if the time between the fuse being lit and the flame exploding may be longer than we could have imagined".
Post-postscript, September 26: With just under 64% of eligible voters turning out to vote, Meloni's far-right coalition won yesterday's election. An American friend wrote to me, asking, "Is she your Trump?" I replied that Meloni seems more coherent and grounded than Trump when he took office (and far less whacko than Trump at the end of his term). Many have spoken of Meloni's "realism" and "fiscal prudence", terms I don't associate with Trump. There is also a much more sinister quality to Trump and to the more militant MAGA voters at his rallies than what we have seen here. In this balanced analysis, my favorite news magazine sounds a note of optimism citing Meloni's approval of NATO and distaste for Vadimir Putin. For all her Eurosceptic rhetoric, Meloni will have to contend with the program of reforms tied to Italy's lion's share of the EU's post-pandemic recovery fund. Some fear a clamp down on immigrants' rights and a spate of nationalizations to appease the portion of her base that dislikes the EU and the euro. But it's unlikely Meloni will manage to (or even wish to) enact particularly extremist policies.
However her coalition governs, Meloni is sure to find her time as PM very different to campaigning. Quoting Alexander Stille, the author of several books about Italian history and politics, "Once you're in the government, you start paying the cost of public dissatisfaction." What's more, the more radical elements in Meloni's coalition will be ready to attack her over any move towards the political center, even though she arguably prevailed in the election by embracing a good deal of centrist rhetoric on the economy and the war in Ukraine. In its cautious acceptance of Meloni's victory The Economist notes, "No party or alliance has succeeded in getting re-elected since the collapse of the post-war political system in the early 1990s.". My greatest concern is continued instability and ineffectual leadership in a country whose vested interests and entrenched political class have been unwilling, for far too long, to put increased competitiveness at the top of the agenda and keep it there.