Guarini Institute Lecture: "Italy Against Itself" by Alexander Stille

A journalist, writer and Professor of International Journalism at Columbia University, Alexander Stille is one of the most well-known English-writing experts on Italian politics and society. The son of Ugo Sille, the New York correspondent for the Italian Corriere della Sera, Mr. Alexander Stille was born in New York City; he then pursued his B.A. degree at Yale and an MS at Columbia.

Besides working as a contributor to many notable newspapers, including The New York Times, La Repubblica, the Boston Globe and The Atlantic Monthly, Alexander Stille has been the author of a number of remarkable books which focus on the anomalies of the Italian political panorama. These are: Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism (1991); Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic (1995); and The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country with a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi (2006). Professor Stille was also the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award for best work of history (1992), Premio Acqui (1992), San Francisco Chronicle Critics Choice Award (1995), and the Alicia Patterson Foundation award for journalism (1996).

Alexander Stille

Alexander Stille

In the Guarini Institute lecture which he held at John Cabot University on February 25th, Mr. Stille focused on the institutional and political crisis in which Italy seems to have been trapped for some 15 years now. In the first part of the lecture, he therefore described the different and multi-faced dimensions that the crisis has to it, and he did so by comparing it with the one that brought to the collapse of what is known as the First Republic. Paradoxically, he stated, the late 1980s crisis was less problematic in that high levels of corruption and general political disillusion on the part of the citizens were balanced by high level of productivity and growth. Today, this is no longer true: Italian economic growth, which in the 1980s had gone as far as surpassing that of Great Britain, is now equal to zero.

As stated by Mr. Stille, in fact, even though the political and institutional gap was as marked back then as it is today, what distinguishes the current crisis from the past one is that, in contrast to the 1980’s, today Italian income is flat, and the growth and productivity rates are by average among the lowest in the EU. This, according to Professor Stille, largely accounts for the current alarming signs of disaffection towards the Italian political class that are being staged by large chunks of Italian electorate. What he called the “Grillo phenomenon”, in fact, is a very important witness of the “angry mood” among the Italian citizens, which is also testified by the fact that books like “La Casta” and “Gomorra” are currently rated as best-selling books in Italian libraries.

In the second part of the lecture, the focus shifted from the description of the causes and signs of the crisis, to a discussion of the perspectives on the future of Italian politics. Professor Stille clearly expressed his doubts about the potential ability of the current Berlusconi administration to put remedy to the critical situation.

This, Mr. Stille stated, is due to a number of reasons, the most important of which being that the two main groups of which the governing coalition is constituted are virtually incompatible with one another, as the Lega Nord digs the roots of its electoral success on a Northern regions-based sense of pride whereas Berlusconi’s party is very much dependent on votes coming from the Southern regions. Such incompatibility, worsened by the low credibility of the governing political class (current members of Parliament under investigation for crimes of corruption), is what will make it very difficult for the present government to draw and carry out a coherent policy. In concluding, Professor Stille expressed his concerns about the continuing collapse of the Italian left which, as a matter of fact , implies the de facto lack of any political opposition to the current governing coalition.