Table of Contents
Capitolo 4
The Great Deception
The eternal pendulum that is Italy
Capitolo 4: The Great Deception

The eternal pendulum that is Italy

From the two souls of Faust evoked by Guido Carli to the abandonment of the countryside as witnessed by Nuto Revelli, here is a fresco in two acts illustrating the country of yesterday and today, suspended between a corporatist tendency and more liberalist ones, in search of the values that inspired the best revolutions in Italy

Leonardo Eredi

Act I: Guido Carli’s Belpaese, or Italy’s two Faustian souls

In the last years of his life, Guido Carli often returned to the image of ‘Faust’s two souls’, picking up on Goethe’s masterpiece with which he had practised his German during the period he spent as a student in Munich in 1936. Carli was convinced that there were two conflicting souls in the Italian economy, just as there were in Doctor Faust’s heart, and that their contrasts always recurred, sharpening their divisive effects. The economic system, Carli said in his substantial memoir (Cinquant’anni di economia italiana, in collaboration with Paolo Peluffo, Laterza Roma-Bari 1993), was torn between two opposing tendencies: “One recognises the solution to the problem of wealth production and its distribution according to principles of equity in the State itself, in economic planning by the State, in the management of enterprises by public hands. The other assumes that it is up to the public authorities merely to lay down general rules to guide the initiative of individuals to satisfy the needs of the community and of individuals”.  The struggle between these two souls, Carli continued, has always been “unequal”, because on the one hand there is a minority (indeed, he pointed out, “a small minority”) defending the prerogatives of the market, mobilised “against the animal spirits of the entire Italian ruling class”, ready to fall back “into the protective mould of a corporative society”. However, this falling back did not happen because, as a result of “one of those historical cases in which luck, causality and brilliant intuition are intertwined”, it was pushed, at least during Carli’s lifetime, towards “adherence to international monetary institutions”, adopting a path capable of conditioning its future and laying the foundations for the country’s prosperity. In the final phase of his autobiographical reflection, Carli made the sense of his participation in the public life of the country coincide with the path he had taken to steer Italy in a direction in which it would not otherwise have gone spontaneously. Because if the country had indulged its “animal spirits” it would have ended up in a completely different place and would have reintroduced a heavy corporative shell at its anti-market core, which had been erected and perfected during the Fascist regime. The judgement is very heavy, in its substance: Carli did not denounce so much an attitude that permeated the deep fibres of the nation, but a way of being ingrained in the ruling classes, accusing them of an innate propensity that led them to slide towards a corporative drift adverse to any thrust towards development. It is striking that such an assessment should be expressed by a man who was born into the ruling classes and never left them, thanks to a cursus honorum that was prestigious like few others, and which saw him pile up post after post from an early age: president of the Italian Foreign Exchange Office, minister for foreign trade, governor of the Bank of Italy, president of Confindustria (the only one not to have arrived from the ranks of businessmen), Christian Democrat senator and treasury minister. And, lastly, a great negotiator at the table of the Maastricht agreements in 1991.

Guido Carli. A life

Yet Carli considered and presented himself as belonging to a civil, political and intellectual minority that had deployed its influence in making Italy take the steps which it had been reluctant about. Was his reconstruction the fruit of an autobiographical itinerary conceived and rationalised a posteriori, with the aim of imparting coherence to a story that was perhaps not so consistent? And how much is there in his story that is still significant for Italy today, with its problematic approach to Europe and its uncertain place in the international system? Carli’s path was not necessarily mapped out from the start, although his family’s status meant that he was immediately a member of the ruling classes. Carli was born in 1914, when his father Filippo was still at the height of his youthful activity as secretary of the Brescia Chamber of Commerce and, at the same time, as promoter of the corporative ideas that his son would one day fight. Filippo Carli became known as the ideologist of the economic wing of the Italian nationalists, of which he was the leading figure. He was anything but a liberalist: on the contrary, he was a real opponent of Einaudi’s ideas, which he considered unsuitable for the development of industrial Italy. He wanted a true leonine partnership to be signed between the state and business (especially the large steel companies in his native Brescia). He imagined that the ‘cartels’ would dominate the market, that an organic, indestructible alliance would be established between the nation, industry and labour. These ideas underwent some change but remained substantially unaltered in their original basis and Filippo Carli saw in Fascism the agent that would implement them. During the years of the regime he was rewarded with a chair in sociology, since as an economist he was a little too heterodox to be admitted into academic circles. His son grew up on his shadow, indeed so much so that he completed the studies to which Filippo had directed him. He studied economics, yes, but on line with a corporatist approach (which is also evidenced by the aforementioned penchant for German). Unfortunately, Filippo died just as Guido was about to graduate. The problem of a job immediately arose: the solution came with a post at IRI, which is not surprising in the context of this story (IRI = Istituto per la Ricostruzione Industriale; in English: ‘Institute for Industrial Reconstruction’) . It was “a priest originally from Val Trompia, in the province of Brescia [again, the ‘ironbound’ ties of that land], a friend of the Montini family who were linked to [his] by ancient friendship” that helped him get the job, a reticent Carli was later to say. There are those who think that the priest might be Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI. The fact is that, introduced to another young economist, the Catholic Sergio Paronetto, who was already a prominent figure in Via Veneto, where the IRI had its headquarters, Carli took his first steps in the environment in which the interpenetration of state and business had been achieved. It was there that he met Paronetto, who was the author of an early ‘bible’ of the new economy according to Catholic doctrine, the Camaldoli Code. There too, he became acquainted with Donato Menichella, later his predecessor at the Banca d’Italia. This long introduction serves to recall how Carli was well introduced into the decision-making and administrative circuits of the public economy, with which he was involved well before the liberal milieu to which he later professed he belonged. This is a sign that Faust’s souls were not yet so distinct in his youth and when he first entered the economic profession. Carli’s liberal approach, the one he was never subsequently to abandon, was born after the collapse of Fascism, when he packed up and put away forever the theories of his father and his friends, supporters all of corporatism. The turning point came in 1943-44, when Carli began to frequent liberal political and intellectual circles. It was then that he changed direction and, immediately afterwards, jumped ship in favour of the United States and Western values. In the post-war period, Carli confidently chose the path of participation in technical bodies which saw cooperation between Italy and the Western system firmly established. This process began with Alcide De Gasperi’s trip to the United States, which outlined the political turnaround of the Italian government, now unreservedly siding with the Atlantic camp. For Carli, this was translated in economic terms by the full acceptance of the Bretton Woods monetary agreements, which allowed Italy to enter a new framework of internationalisation, favouring the strengthening and modernisation of its industrial apparatus, a strategy that found its cornerstone in the growth of Vittorio Valletta’s Fiat on the American model. These were the years of Carli’s great successes, as well as the rise of the Italian economy. His career developed rapidly, after the fundamental moment that saw his appointment to the Ministry of Foreign Trade, just when the policy of commercial liberalisation was being implemented. Carli rightly saw this as the cornerstone on which to build the foundations of European integration. In his ex-post analysis, the history of Italian development always appears to be framed within one of economic, monetary, commercial and banking institutions, the purpose of which is to determine the rules and scope of Italy’s productive expansion. From a personal point of view, this story culminated for Carli with his taking the place of Menichella at the Banca d’Italia, which probably inaugurated the phase of his greatest political influence. Carli arrived at the Banca d’Italia relatively young (he was forty-six years old), with a strong consensus patiently built up from the end of the war onwards. The outgoing governor would probably not have chosen him as his successor, but he did not obstruct his nomination. Carli thus benefited from the aura of prestige surrounding the figure of the governor, reinforced year after year by the public reading of the Final Considerations, an appointment that became a ritual of power. The drafting of the Banca d’Italia’s Annual Report is, would Carli recall, a demanding appointment to which he devoted the greatest care. He was assisted by the greatest Italian banker of the time, Raffaele Mattioli, the president of the Banca Commerciale, who never failed to make acute and unprejudiced observations, and the economist Federico Caffè, the most rigorous of left-wing economists, who never tired of reviewing the drafts of the Final Considerations. Fifteen years in office is a long time for the governor of a central bank, especially if the period coincides with the end of the so-called ‘economic miracle’ (a definition challenged to the core by Mattioli). The brief season of Italian development was consumed in a handful of years, soon giving way to a different era, in which economic issues became more complicated. A period in which Italian society lost its homogeneity and broke up into conflicting nuclei, and economic policy became uncertain, often informed by a logic of compromise.

The end of a vision

In his memoirs, Carli dwells on this period to document, on the one hand, how corporate temptations tend to reappear and, on the other, to indicate how the way to be rid of them was to anchor Italy to international constraints that would regulate any deviant economic behaviour. For him, this was the path that led to Maastricht, after years punctuated by moments of personal disappointment (his experience at the head of Confindustria was disappointing, and even more so his battle to contain public spending and debt as Treasury Minister). Of course, Carli was perfectly aware that the constraints signed up to for the single European currency are far more stringent than those of Bretton Woods. And he realised, in close dialogue with his successor at the Bank of Italy, Paolo Baffi, that the creation of a single monetary area under German domination entailed very heavy costs and risks for Italy. But he was convinced that Italy cannot shake off these constraints without risking losing itself, leaving its economy heading for collapse. His certainty has been called into question over and over again in the last twenty years, after the euro became a reality. Likewise, the tussle between the different souls of the Italian economy comes up again and again, with new questions. Perhaps these souls are not as clearly separated and opposed as Carli presented them, when he referred to Goethe’s Faust, but they certainly underpin a confrontation that has never been concluded once and for all.

Act II: Nuto Revelli, the abandoned countryside and a growing Italy

I liked living up there. The air was good, the water was good. The water was our wine. We had everything that together is called freedom. It was like having wings. Here at the boarding house I feel a bit like in prison. At night, when I dream, I dream up there. My house, my first house, was a black house, but I liked it so much. Up there the eagle flies.” Giovanna Giavelli

There is everything in Nuto Revelli’s words, in his cycle of the defeated. There would be little to add and much to ponder:

“Every time I came to Caudano he received me in his low, dark, black kitchen, in that untidiness of which he was jealous. And he would offer me the usual glass of coffee and sugar. He always slipped seven teaspoons of sugar into my coffee, no more, no less. The abundant sugar was also a sign of hospitality, of friendship. But it was above all a revenge against his past.

August 1981. Vincens went back to Caudano as often as he could. He is the one who introduced me to the circle in the village. This testimony of his is an x-ray of a small community that is inexorably dying out, day after day:

“Caudano has really gone downhill. Every time I go back to my village, before entering my house, I have to cut down the nettles that now invade everything. The abandoned houses, which until three years ago still had a roof, are now falling down one after the other.

In the 1950s, many young people from the valley went to Fiat. Three were from Caudano. In those days Fiat was a big thing; it was a company as big as the state. People used to say: ‘Fiat is a safe haven’. Then the sixties, the Michelin years, and the second great wave of young people who left the valley.

When I moved to Strevi, fifteen years ago, there were still eight families living here in Caudano, about twenty people. Now there are still two families, seven people. Of these seven inhabitants, three are over eighty: Blot, Pinèt, and Tansin. Then there is Ninin who is seventy-eight. Martin is sixty-seven, his wife Anna is fifty-five, and their son Renzo who is twenty-six. It’s very rare that in our villages there is still a young man like Renzo. He could have joined Michelin, but he doesn’t want anything to do with the factory. He says he doesn’t want to sell his freedom. He’s in love with the mountains. Ah, yes, yes. He’s someone to marry. […]

Two years ago, the Giordana family moved to Dronero. There were six of them, and with their departure the village suddenly emptied out. With the Giordanas, life was gone and gone too was the harmony that still existed in Caudano. […]

In ten years there will be no one here. Unless all the factories close, or the workers are laid off. Or if a war breaks out. They haven’t abolished wars, after all. As long as they arm themselves, as long as they build tanks and atomic bombs, a war is always possible. So, if some upheaval were to occur, this would still be a safe place in which to hide! […]

In our area there are few farmers; you can count them on the tips of your fingers. There are no more young people actually working in agriculture. It’s fair to say that almost every family has a relative working in Alba, at Ferrero, Miroglio, or at the Società San Paolo… A girl working at Ferrero earns over three hundred thousand lire, a very respectable salary. A young woman who has a job is free; she no longer has to depend on her father or husband, as was the case in the past. Economic independence is very important. I see it in my mother…, since she has her pension she has felt freer, more independent. Until twenty years ago, many girls went off to work as servants. Then the factory came and interrupted that almost obligatory rigmarole. My cousin was one of the first to go and work for Ferrero, in 1955, when she was eighteen. Oh, her decision seemed quite sensational at the time. Then it became normal for girls to go and work in factories. […].”[1]

We believed

This is the story of post-war Italy, the Italy that saw the countryside empty itself, peasant life become even more impoverished and lose its meaning for civil society. The land became a nuisance, or an accessory, something that had to produce and be kept quiet. From this physical emptying, the attitudinal and cultural unravelling began. Reading Revelli, like Fenoglio, seems an archaic gesture, an ancient, almost rhetorical exercise. And yet, we believed in it. We believed in modernity. So did the poor classes, who discovered prosperity, as well as the ruling classes, who became rich and had a fixed idea: what you take away from one side you add to the other. If we throw concrete here, we will plant a tree there, and technology will save us. While money cleansed the consciences of some, the Enlightenment drive stubbornly kept alive the idea that science and research would not fail and that the planet would save itself. No one could doubt this, just as no one in the 1970s thought they would not find a job or retire. But that unravelling, we know today, was too great. The earth is a nuisance, it is something that has to follow our rhythm, a rhythm that is no longer earth-based. So perhaps we will just have to inhabit other planets, because there seems to be little space left for us here. We genuinely believed this. That there would be no more war, although one is now beating at our door, that science would solve the problem of pollution, that we could shoot waste into space, and that the earth would be a fungible commodity. This has not been the case, and now that the bombs are falling, we can no longer even take refuge in the place where we were born.

[1] From L’anello forte. La donna: storie di vita contadina by Nuto Revelli, Einaudi Torino 1985.

Leonardo Eredi

Leonardo Eredi is a historian and professor of industrial economics.