The Italian Mezzogiorno: A Mediterranean Dixieland?

In its drive to unify the Italian peninsula, Piedmont looked towards Germany as a role model for its military but rejected one of the principal institutions of German unification: a federal system that could have spared the individual Italian states. Instead, Piedmont adopted French-styled centralization and the unitary state, sounding the death knell for the smaller territorial units of government of the north and the considerably larger Kingdom of Naples to the south.

There is much that likens Italy’s Mezzogiorno, as the Italian South is sometimes called, to its American counterpart. Even the Italian spoken below Italy’s imaginary “Mason-Dixon” line (which some say runs along the River Tronto, separating the Marche from the Abruzzo north of Rome), is spoken with a “southern drawl”. The north-south divide as it has played out in the US after the Civil War or in Italy following unification share remarkably similar destinies and for many of the same reasons.

In the years prior to Italian unification, the Kingdom of Naples was the biggest of the Italian states and a major European Power. Boasting Europe’s biggest merchant marine and third-largest Navy, the Kingdom of Naples could count on the protection of the Austrian Empire on the European continent, and on Great Britain its principal Ally in the Mediterranean. Still, the Neapolitans folded like a deck of cards before the rag-tailed volunteers of Giuseppe Garibaldi, a soldier of fortune and republican, fighting for a Monarchy in which he did not believe! If, as some believe, Naples was, at the time, one of Europe’s most progressive and prosperous of states, why then did the Neapolitans not rally in defense of their King and Kingdom?

By 1859, the Kingdom of Naples was no longer the most prosperous state of the Italian peninsula. The Italian Mezzogiorno may not have known slavery but the feudal bondage of peasant farmers had ended just decades before. Following the Congress of Vienna of 1815, the Italian South slipped back under the quasi-absolute rule of the Bourbon Monarchy. After the Crimean War, Naples lost the protection of the Austrian Empire. British sympathies for Garibaldi and a united Italy weakened the Anglo-Neapolitan Alliance in the Mediterranean. The Bourbon King of Naples and his Kingdom found themselves progressively isolated. Ferdinand II died towards the end of 1859 and was followed by his son Francesco II, aged 23, too young and inexperienced to be able to hold his own against the likes of Cavour and King Victor Emanuelle II. A kind man, beset by many doubts, the young King tried to save his throne by subscribing to a Constitution and by allying himself with the Piedmontese. It was too little too late. No longer strategic, Naples was soon abandoned by its friends and allies Something similar would happen to the American South after Gettysburg, as English and French interests towards the Confederate States of America cooled.

With Garibaldi at the gates of Naples, “Franceschiello” (as the young King was affectionately called by some of his subjects), made the mistake of abandoning the impregnable city of Naples for the old Fort of Gaeta, which would prove unable to withstand naval gunfire. The King barricaded himself in the old fortress with his court and Royal Guard, where they held out for three long months. With food and munitions exhausted and no reinforcements in sight, King and survivors were forced to surrender. Unable to rally his Army and Navy, let alone his subjects. the young King fled first to Rome before finally retiring to Paris in 1870.

Ironically, the only Italians with a sense of “belonging” to something more than the City or County they called home were the “meridionali”. Southern Italians had lived together for centuries under one rule long before unification. While northern Italians did their thing organized into smaller political units within the confines of a sort of “medieval EU” known as The Holy Romano-Germanic Empire, which included the North Italian City States or “liberi comuni” of the middle ages and later the Signorie of The Renaissance, southern Italians lived together but alone beyond the confines of that Empire, cut off from their northern neighbors by the Papal States.

When South Carolina seceded from the United States of America in December of 1860, America’s Mezzogiorno was predominantly agricultural. It was highly dependent upon the sale of cash crops to world markets. From 1815 cotton became the most valuable export of the United States. By 1840, cotton was worth more than all other exports combined. At that time the southern states of the USA produced two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton. Although America’s Mezzogiorno was predominantly agricultural, it was not without manufacturing industries. The southern states even experimented the use of slave labor in their manufacturing plants. Still, in comparison to the northern states, the southern states had little manufacturing capability, about 29 percent of the railroad tracks and only 13 percent of the nation’s banks. In 1860, while the South was still politically and economically strong, the southern way of life and (the political and economic) preeminence it had enjoyed within the Union was threatened by northern industrialization and growing immigration.

Something similar was about to happen to the Italian Mezzogiorno. In 1860 it too was predominantly agricultural. Famous were the “latifondi” (which were big plantation-like expanses of land owned by one or more “land barons”) centered in and around Palermo and Naples, many survived until the 1950s. Like the American South, the Italian Mezzogiorno was dependent on the sale of cash crops but the Italian South’s staples were comprised of wheat grains and citrus fruits: lemons and oranges in abundance and, of course, olive oil. Such crops were and are particularly vulnerable to world market fluctuations, a factor which makes them economically fragile in ways that are not always easy to foresee. Moreover, the Italian South even then was plagued by enormous, long-term environmental problems, beginning with a scarce supply of water, soil erosion, and overcrowding. The Italian South was on the fringe of the social, political and economic heartland of Europe. It was far from the major decision-making centers and markets of its time. It did not have access to cheap and abundant sources of power. Before and after unification distance remained a major obstacle for the Napoletani. Nevertheless, southern agriculture pretty much survived unification and did not suffer much until the depression at the end of the 19th Century.

In 1860, the American and the Italian Mezzogiorno were aristocratic and elitist. Both of these aristocracies, however, were well educated. In the American South the accent was on a military education. Less so in the Italian South where despite the influence of the French revolution, education was based on class and soldiering was left largely to conscripts and volunteers except in Sicily where only volunteers were accepted into the Royal Bourbon Army. Once strong and respected, the Royal Army had lost its former luster. Demotivated and neglected by its young King, despite a few belated reforms, it lacked good generals and was best by an aging officer corps. The populations of both the Italian and American South were more or less equal (9 -10 million people); each with a middle class of about 3 million. The rest of the population were either black slaves or poor whites in the case of the American South or peasants recently freed from feudal bondage in the Italian Mezzogiorno. The American South was a democracy (for whites) comprised mostly of Scotch-Irish Protestants, whereas the Italian South was a Kingdom populated by Italian Catholics governed by an absolute Monarch of foreign lineage. The aftermath of the Civil War created the legend of a rich and glorious South fighting for its right to self-determination. In the years following Italian unification, the annexation of the Mezzogiorno and the brutal suppression of the southern “Briganti” by the Piedmontese Army, fueled the legend that to this day would have the Kingdom of Naples a modern Italian state, and Francesco, a model King.

Following unification, the Italian Mezzogiorno struggled to find its place within the new and enlarged Kingdom of Italy. Initial enthusiasm over Garibaldi and the ideals of unification waned as the Neapolitans soon realized that freeing themselves of their reactionary Bourbon King did not necessarily translate into a new and better deal for the South. Economically-speaking, per capita income and wages in northern and southern Italy from 1800 to 1820 were about the same. They stayed the same even in the decades immediately following unification. During this time, the northern Po River Valley was not any more industrialized than was the South. The Mezzogiorno’s lag increased, however, as northern industrialization outpaced that of the South, raising per capita income and wages in the North. Education too was more widespread and less class-oriented up north. In 1861, however, the standard of living in both sections of the country was about the same.

In both the American and the Italian Mezzogiorno, the lag in industrial development was not due to any inherent economic disadvantage. There was great wealth in both of these southern areas. In the American South, wealth was primarily tied up in a slave economy. In the Italian South, wealth was concentrated in the “latifondi” of the land barons. In 1860 the economic value of slaves in the southern states exceeded the invested value of all of the nation’s railroads, factories, and banks combined. At the same time, the landed gentry and nobility in the Italian South had invested heavily in agriculture and fishing, a few infant industries including shipbuilding, iron smelting, steel plants and mining (sulphur and salt). If the Italian Mezzogiorno was not without manufacturing capabilities, at the outbreak of the Civil War there were at least 10,000 factories and almost 10,000 miles of railroad tracks in the American South. On the Italian peninsula, Naples was the first Italian State to build a railroad.

In the USA, civil war was averted as long as a balance of power, however precarious, could be maintained in Congress between northern “free” and southern “slave” states. In Italy, similar issues and needs would arise with unification but the solution adopted was a lightning-quick war followed by annexation of Naples into the Kingdom of Italy rather than attempt to confederate or federate the northern and southern state(s) together.

In the American Mezzogiorno, southern Democrats have always been more conservative than northern Democrats. Ironically, back in 1859, the Republicans were new-born “liberals” mostly because of their anti-slavery policies but also because under Lincoln they would come to favor “big government”, perhaps as an antidote to the “states’ rights” theories of southern Democrats that lay at the roots of secession and war. Today the reverse is true as Republicans starting with Ronald Reagan have become champions of “small government” and stand ready to defend the rights of states vis-à-vis the federal government. They are opposed to the “big government” policies of the Democrats, including President Obama’s (national) Health Care Plan. After the Civil War, the American South suffered poverty more than any other section or area of the United States. Today, the South and Southwest are voting Republican more and more. In Italy, the “Southern Question” was handled initially with some “stick” and subsequently with a lot of “carrot”. In a land where people dream of jobs in civil service and government, rather than in private enterprise, the remedy for the Italian South was thought to lie in massive investments by public enterprise and government subsidies.

World War II had left millions of Italians displaced or homeless and unemployed. A safety valve was needed and found in emigration and post-war reconstruction. The accelerated industrialization that followed, fueled by cheap and abundant sources of natural gas, found by ENI (Italy’s National Oil & Gas Conglomerate) in the North Italian Po Rivier Valley, sparked the internal migration of millions of southerners to northern cities such as Milan and Turin. The result was the post-war industrial boom better known as the “Italian Miracle”. In part to compensate the Mezzogiorno for its loss of population, as well as to provide jobs for those that stayed behind, from 1951 to 1992 the Lire equivalent of about 140 Billion Euros were invested by government agencies in southern development schemes. In retrospect, the results have been less than satisfactory.

Despite more than 50 years of substantial government investments in infrastructure and subsidies, the Italian Mezzogiorno today is roughly in the same economic position it was when the post-war agencies first began pumping Billions of Lire into the area. Per capita, GNP and productivity in the South are about the same today as they were in 1951. The current depression has only made matters worse. Per capita income down South is half of what it is in the North. Unemployment and moonlighting are twice as high in the South as they are in the North. A few figures will better highlight the South’s plight: Italian GNP in 2013 totaled more than $2 Trillion Dollars (US). Of this, the northern regions alone accounted for 60% of the GNP with only 46% of the population. But this is misleading because it excludes the GNP and population of Central Italy, which in the meantime have grown to “northern” standards. If one were to take just the regions of the former Kingdom of Naples into account, GNP for that area plummets to only 25% of the total with about 33% of the population.

The above figures are incredibly similar to figures for the American South, where with just 37.4% of the US population, southern Republicans are said to exert a high degree of control over government action. So too in Italy, where because of similar mechanisms, southern regions governed by the post-communist “Democrats” seem to exert more control over government policies despite the significantly smaller population and lower GNP.

Traditionally determined to vote against the “damn Yankees” of the North, and therefore, unshakeable in their political beliefs, southern Democrats have begun voting Republican more and more. Something similar seems to be happening in the Italian Mezzogiorno. Once of unshakeable Democratic-Christian convictions, southern voters in the Italian Mezzogiorno have begun to vote more and more for the post-communist Partito Democratico.

In modern-day Italy, northern regions complain that most of the tax Euros paid into the central government in Rome are transferred to the southern regions. Similarly, in the USA today, federal tax dollars are still transferred from northern states to southern states. In both countries, northerners seem to have taken a back seat to southerners while their respective governments continue to pour precious resources into the bottomless pits of their insatiable “mezzogiornos”.

Since the 1960s the American South and Southwest witnessed domestic migrations similar to those experienced by Italy in the decades immediately following the second world war. But whereas in Italy the direction was from south to north in the US it was from north to south. In America, the North began to lose industry, population and representation in Congress as more and more northerners, including businesses flocked to the “sun belt” attracted, inter alia, by balmy weather, lower energy costs and nonunion wages, competitive tax laws and policies favorable to business and individuals alike and, in the West, proximity to the increasingly important Pacific Rim nations. As more and more companies domestic and foreign began to open branches and subsidiaries, millions of white and blue collar workers, as well as retirees from northern states began moving into the so-called “sunbelt” cities of the South and Southwest such as Charlotte, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Miami, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix, San Diego attracted by the good weather, lower taxes and cheaper living conditions. Nothing of the kind was or is possible in Italy where local culture, the “unitary” state, and single jurisdiction conspire to ensure rigidity in the institutions and laws of North and South such as to make similar solutions unthinkable, if not impossible.

But economics is not the only problem raised by Italian unification. The chronic lack of jobs in the Italian Mezzogiorno has traditionally encouraged young people to stay in school longer. The result is the South produces a higher percentage of college graduates, including more civil servants (and politicians) than the North. State jobs attracted few northerners because of the (once) lower pay but they have always been popular among southerners because there was not much else to be had, and once in, it was for life. Another reason for the popularity of government jobs in the South is that, in a single jurisdiction like Italy, government jobs come with round-trip tickets. In fact, after a number of years, civil servants can ask to be reassigned closer to home. The downside is that public offices in the north are understaffed, whereas in the south the reverse is true.

The “unitary” state also means that political parties can candidate whoever they want, wherever they want. The lack of residency criteria for political candidates means politicians from one region can easily run and get elected in another region with which they have little or no connection. Electoral laws are such that the only expertise seemingly required of politicians is sucking up to party bosses. This does not work against northern interests alone but it is another undeniable downside to the so-called “stato unitario” and the vertical organization and leadership it breeds.

In a land where internal mobility is negligible and the north-south divide is stratified in the two distinct cultures (Continental and Mediterranean) that characterize Italy, the South and the North are forever condemned to live out their present divisions, unless and until the “unitary state” can somehow be superseded.

Done on 2 November 2015
by pparak