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Proeftuin Italië - Testbed Italy: A book review

by Jonathan Hankins [1], 22 March 2019

Proeftuin Italië [2] is a book written by two Dutch historians, Pepijn Corduwener [3] and Arthur Weststeijn [4], both of whom are connected to Dutch Universities (Utrecht and Leiden) and share a passion for Italian politics. As the title might suggest it is in Dutch, but as a book on innovation within political systems (and in this particular case in Italy) I felt is was worthy of pushing my linguistic competences to their limit and reading it. This review represents my own personal interpretation and views on a subject that is intrinsically tied to the Bassetti Foundation, the responsibility that politicians take while pursuing innovative strategies in the name of democracy.

If I translate the complete book title into English the contents become clear, Testbed Italy, how the most beautiful country in Europe invented modern politics. To clarify the argument of the book is that the roots of the modern political forms that are so debated today such as the current wave of populism, alongside many other historical examples such as fascism and other systematic political approaches can be discovered in Italy.

The book was conceived in Italy, and I felt it was fitting to read it in Milan on my recent working trip to the Foundation. As noted above the book holds particular interest for both myself and the Bassetti Foundation as an institution, given my almost twenty-year long relationship with the country and the foundation's close ties to Italian and Milanese politics and governance.

To give the reader an idea of these ties Bassetti Foundation President Piero Bassetti was the first President of the Region of Lombardy and later sat in parliament as a member of the Christian Democrat party (subject of one of the sections in the book itself), so the narrative presented risks being very close to home.

I found the book to be well structured and easy to read (within the competences of my level in Dutch of course), and I feel that it is a fair and non-judgmental description of events. The authors offer a broad range of cultural examples within the text that are not related to politics, such as references to film, popular music and TV personalities, displaying and putting their deep societal understanding of the context to work. It is an enjoyable read.

After a brief introduction, the book is divided into four large sections that can be read and understood as independent entities. The narrative that runs through these sections suggests that each of the approaches described were developed for the first time in Italy with the aim of closing the gulf between the population and the so-called ruling elite. The authors describe how each systematic change was justified in these terms, with the goal to bring the people together and closer to and within the power structure. The authors also describe how each attempt failed in some way in this aim however, and how each failure led to the next attempt, from nation-forming to fascism, the party democracy experiment and on to populism.

Section one is The National Experiment (1860 - 1921), and describes the build up to and creation of the country, the development of the concept of nation-forming (described as making Italians rather than making Italy) and the country's participation in the First World War and beyond. This clarification is important as it lays out a central argument within the book, that the political approaches described aim to mold as well as represent the society.

The authors argue that this nation-forming represents the first attempt at liberal nation forming from above in modern European politics, led by an ideological state apparatus that succeeded in forming a geographical nation while possibly failing at popular unification, but also in providing a model that once adopted in other states in Europe helped to feed the nationalism that led Europe into conflict. They argue that the approach fueled the ideas of futurism and set the scene for the First World War (alongside other much later conflicts in areas that had adopted the 'Italian' model), all of which laid the ground for Mussolini to voice his experiences in the trenches through another political innovation, the rise of fascism.

The second section is devoted to The Totalitarian Experiment (1922 - 1945), describing as we might imagine the rise and fall of Mussolini as a figurehead. Italy's participation in the Second World war and the civil conflict that followed, the results of which are still felt in Italian politics today are all described, and the authors note that in many ways this system built an infrastructure that would later be used for the creation of the democratic state system.

The authors describe totalitarianism as a project, a system in which everyone and everything plays a part, there is no room for outsiders if it is to work properly. They describe how the state apparatus was built that offered total immersion to a society that was invited to experience the vision of fascism through a pseudo-religious lens, and on to the single party state, leaving behind a state apparatus that could be used to put another innovative political model into place.

The Party Experiment (1945 - 1978) describes the construction of post war Italian politics led by the Christian Democrat party. This party managed to stay in power throughout this entire post war period through relationship building with the other large parties. The authors describe how they managed to maintain this position however through the construction of a network of influence sharing. Factories were built in strategic places under party management and jobs and favours shared out in return for political support.

The economy boomed but the system became so all-encompassing as it drew to its conclusion and the political establishment so corrupt that it was brought down through an investigation into bribes and favoritism that revealed the extent that the ideals has fallen into corruption. These times were also the years of violence as the extreme left and extreme right in collusion with the secret services wreaked havoc on the population and system.

The authors then go on to describe the rise of populism in the final chapter The Populist Experiment (1979 - 2011), a rise driven by the feeling that the political establishment had grown so far apart from the population, leading to the rise of Berlusconi and the Northen League and eventually the Five Star Movement.

Much has already been written about this period from the fall of the first republic due to the breadth of the corrupt system coming to light and even more about Berlusconi's party lifestyle, but the authors are non-judgmental in their descriptions. They explain the change in language use brought by the Northern league and Berlusconi himself, but as with previous attempts, after years in power these populist parties were not able to keep their promises of giving power back to the people, resulting in Berlusconi sliding in popularity and into deeper legal problems and the Northern League changing their name to the League and pursuing a national politics based upon rhetoric around the exclusion of non-Italians and criticism of the EU.

The book closes with a short introduction to the Five Star Movement and its central figures, but as it was published last year (2018) the governing experience of the Movement with the League cannot be addressed.

The book is well written and put flesh on the bones of my understanding of Italian politics (particularly the pre-Berlusconi period that remains little known outside Italy). As noted above it is published in Dutch and so not readily accessible to some of our readers, but I can certainly recommend it to anyone willing or able to take the plunge.

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Jonathan Hankins
  2. 2] https://webwinkel.uitgeverijprometheus.nl/book/pepijn-corduwener
  3. 3] https://www.uu.nl/medewerkers/PCorduwener
  4. 4] https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/staffmembers/arthur-weststeijn#tab-1
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