You Know Who's More Corrupt than America?

This morning's New York Times story on corruption in southern Italy is as good an excuse as any to re-post links to my summer series on Italy's "southern problem."

Nothing embodies the failures of the Italian state more neatly than the highway from Salerno to Reggio Calabria. Critics see it as the rotten fruit of a jobs-for-votes culture that, nurtured by the organized crime that is endemic in southern Italy, has systematically defrauded the state while failing its citizens, leaving Calabria geographically and economically isolated.

The highway is also a symbol of what some Northern European countries say they fear the most about the euro zone: its development into a welfare system in which they are expected to support a sluggish Southern Europe, where grants and subsidies too often vanish in graft that the governments appear unable — or unwilling — to prevent. And it helps illustrate how the financing has yielded relatively little of the productive investment that might now be helping Southern Europe as it tries to climb out of an economic ditch.

Click here to read a post on David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy.

With the advent of the Euro, however, Italy's problems have suddenly become everybody's problems. The failures of the Italian state very nearly capsized the world financial system this winter. The crisis has receded, but not ended. In the interval, it's interesting to think about the question: why? The people of Italy have defined what the rest of us wear and what the rest of us eat; our art and architecture derive from the genius of Italian artists; our ideas about politics and religion are founded upon innovations of the Italian humanists of 600 years ago. Person for person, what country on earth has contributed more? And yet they can't pick up the garbage from the streets of Naples. What's wrong?

Here's an orthodox version of Italian economic history countered by a revisionist pro-Southern view.

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.

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.

Here is the best book I have read on the role of organized crime in southern Italy, John Dickie's Cosa Nostra.

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And here finally - and possibly most importantly - a study of the role of disease, and especially malaria, in the underdevelopment of the South.

The story of [the anti-malaria] program is the story of modern Italian nationhood: early successes from the 1890s through the First World War, horrible retrogression under war and Fascism, culminating in a deliberate unleashing of malaria against the Italian population by the retreating German army in 1943-45—and then, finally, the tremendous progress of the postwar years, culminating in ultimate eradication. This eradication opened the door to real progress in the South—leaving only the question whether the South had been too debilitated by unhappy history to make use of its opportunities.