Book Reviews

David's Book Club: Who Ruined Southern Italy?

This edition of the Book Club is dedicated to my Twitter friends. At the end of a visit to Naples, I tweeted an inquiry: could anyone out there recommend some explanations of why southern Italy has remained so much poorer than the industrial north? Within seconds, I had been assigned a reading list for a college seminar in Italian economic history. I can't pretend I finished the whole list, but I did read the below three, each of which argued a very different explanation of Italy's "southern question."

Vera Zamagni presents what might be called the classic view in her Economic History of Italy 1860-1990.

Her story is this: At unification in 1860, the South was already significantly poorer per-person than the north and center of Italy. Beginning in the 1880s, the Northwest—a triangle bounded by Turin, Milan, and Genoa—lurched ahead toward industrialization, pulling away from the rest of the country. The south fell further and further behind, hitting bottom in the early 1950s, by which time the Northwest was producing nearly three times as much per-person as the South. Growth in the South then accelerated. But as late as the 1980s, the Northwest produced twice as much per-person as the South.

Zamagni argues that this is less a story about what went wrong in the South than about what went right in the Northwest. But boy, did a lot go wrong for the South.

At unification, Naples was the most industrialized city in Italy, due to the protectionist policies of southern Italy's Bourbon monarchs. The new government, attentive to the interests of the commercial farmers of the North, Italy's richest farming region, adopted a free-trade policy, ruining the South's emergent steel and locomotive makers. Thirty years later, however, as industrialization accelerated in the North, the Kingdom of Italy turned protectionist—too late to help Naples-based companies, but just in time to raise the prices of manufactured goods to southern consumers.

The "liberal" Italian governments of 1860-1920 (sometimes led by southern prime ministers) did intermittently try to address the problems of the South. The Fascist regime that took power in 1922, based as it was on the support of northern landowners and industrialists, did not do even so much as that.

Yet from Zamagni's economic point of view, the South lost ground after 1860 less by deliberate design and much more by the fundamental non-complementarity of the northern and southern economies.

For example: Southern agriculture needed to make a transition from cereal production to higher-value, more labor-intense crops such as fresh fruit and vegetables. But the pre-World War II North, although richer than the South, was not rich enough to buy such costly products as that.

For example again: the North did not produce sufficient investment capital to develop the South—yet post-Unification financial policies acted to exclude foreign capital from all Italy, both from the Northwest where it was needed less, and from the South, where it was needed more.

Only with the beginning of the European unification and the advent of U.S. Marshall Plan aid did the South begin to regain old lost ground—and then only after millions of southerners had chosen emigration to the United States, Canada, Argentina, or the richer countries of Europe.

Zamagni's final verdict however is that the South's problems were probably inescapable. The South was poor because it had always been poor, dating back probably to when the Romans imposed their system of huge grain estates worked by slave labor.

It would be impossible to imagine a book more different from Zamagni's than that that of the Italian TV journalist Pino Aprile, author of the scorching polemic, Terroni: All That Has Been Done to Ensure that the Italians of the South Became "Southerners". A publisher's note at the opening of the book notes that "terroni" is a rude slang term for people who are ignorant, lazy, and dirty, with approximately the ugliness of such English words as "dago" or "wop," but in this case aimed by Italians of the north at Italians of the South.

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If Zamagni is meticulous, data-driven, balanced, and rigorous, Aprile is the opposite in every way. Terroni is a big, emotional mess of a book, full of insinuations, accusations, overstatements, misstatements, and outright paranoia.

Yet Terroni sold 200,000 copies in Italy for a reason. Terroni articulates the grievances of the South with a raw scream of angry pain. Many of those grievances will be hard for American readers to understand without a backstory:

The South was absorbed by the North after a short and comparatively bloodless war—much of the shortness attributable to some abrupt changes of side by Southern generals, presumably abetted by bribery. (The architect of Italian unification, the Piedmontese prime minister Camillo Cavour, is reputed to have remarked to his associates: "Gentlemen, if we had done for ourselves what we have done for Italy, what great scoundrels we should be.")

While easily taken, however, the South was not easily held. Almost as soon as the last Southern king fled into exile, a guerrilla movement took form among the peasants of Sicily. The rebels had two main grievances: (i) the new government imposed much heavier taxes than the old, and (ii) it seized and sold church lands, thus ending the one and only source of social welfare available in the countryside, however inadequate that source had been.

The Rome government dismissed these peasant rebels as mere "brigands." But the rebels found leadership from army officers of the old kingdom who had not changed sides. They resisted so successfully that the Rome government eventually had to impose martial law over the whole South, deploy more than 100,000 troops, and authorize savage laws of repression, including laws that authorized soldiers to execute the relatives of suspected brigands in retaliation. In the decade after 1860, military tribunals sentenced nearly 10,000 people to death. It's unknown how many died in battle, and over the decades to follow, nearly 1 million would depart through Naples for the United States and South America.

Aprile takes knowledge of these events for granted in his passionate lament for his native country. It's a pretty terrible story. Yet in the end, it's hard quite to blame these Northern depredations for Southern poverty. Surely it makes more sense to think that it was Southern poverty that made possible the Northern depredations.