Eternal corruption in the Eternal City?

Rome shows us that Italy needs drastic reform

September 10, 2015 2:00AM ET

In July, The New York Times and Le Monde published articles about Rome, pointing out the degradation of the city, the inefficiency of public transport and the lawless behavior of some of its residents before the Roman Catholic Church’s forthcoming Jubilee of Mercy, which is expected to attract millions of tourists and pilgrims beginning in December. Romans were naturally annoyed by this portrayal, and debates in social networks and local newspapers ensued.

Only there is cause to worry about Rome, and one need look no further than the Hollywood- and Mafia-style funeral of local mobster Vittorio Casamonica, a member of the relatively unknown (at least nationally) Casamonica family. His funeral on Aug. 20, which made headlines in the national and international press, featured an unauthorized helicopter flying over the city, a carriage pulled by horses, an orchestra playing music from “The Godfather” and banners displaying “King of Rome” and “You conquered Rome, now you will conquer paradise.” The procession consisted of a Rolls Royce, 250 other luxury cars and various helmetless motorbikers; it caused a traffic jam and provoked people to blame the authorities for the absurd and disruptive spectacle.

Many politicians have suggested that the Mafia was confined to southern Italian areas, but over the years, this Roman organization has built an empire. Many of its members declared salaries below the poverty line in their tax returns, with some claiming to have earned no money at all; in reality, their activities and those of their 1,000 affiliates produced an average of 40 million euros per annum. In 2013 state authorities confiscated a discotheque and 23 villas while trying to monitor the group’s alleged investments in Luxembourg and Monaco.

Where else can one find a European capital with such blatant examples of illegal activity in plain sight? Along with its great beauty, the Eternal City has become a veritable center of corruption. It’s a hub for almost all illegal Italian organizations, working with little gangs from Albania, Russia, China and Nigeria and engaging in drug trafficking, prostitution and gambling, among other activities. So far this year, the police have seized from them goods and property worth 720 million euros.

There is also a political side to be considered. Since December, links between the Mafia and politicians have come to light. The judiciary in Rome provided evidence of widescale municipal corruption (involving the managing of green areas, recycling, social housing and refugee reception centers) that siphoned off significant public funds. Public administrators and politicians from many parties, including some members of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico, received bribes in exchange for lucrative publicly funded contracts. Many local politicians were implicated and were immediately suspended, and others, such as right-wing former Mayor Gianni Alemanno, a senior minister in one of Silvio Berlusconi’s governments, are being investigated.

This sort of corruption has been a basic feature of the Italian political and social landscape. If capitals mirror their national characters, Rome reflects the best and worst of Italy, a nation in which politicians have always held an excess of power and a stranglehold over public administration. It is paradigmatic of one of the most beautiful and corrupt nations, brought down repeatedly by incompetent political leadership. 

Corruption in Italy shows the limits of economic and labor reforms in improving a state’s democratic functioning.

Italy’s political tradition has often encouraged clientelism and the exchange of favors. In the early 1990s, because of the work of judges in Milan, the party system was brought to its knees by the Tangentopoli scandal. The revelations about widespread bribing and the funding of political movements led to the disappearance of the long-standing Christian Democrats and moderate socialists for their role in the corruption.

Whereas in the more recent past, illegal party funding and bribes were often the rule, not the exception, today another type of corruption has taken hold. If corruption was traditionally used primarily to finance political parties, now the money flows directly into the pockets of politicians, other individuals and selected organizations. And there have been no significant improvements, in large part thanks to Berlusconi’s political enterprise. Take, for example, his decriminalization of false accounting or his political propaganda against the whole judiciary. These antics generated a perverse understanding of public morality and the role of law.

These scandals have tarnished Italy’s reputation and discouraged foreign investment in the country. The repercussions have hit the labor market hard: The youth unemployment rate is one of the highest in the European Union, at roughly 40 percent, and 2013 saw an increase of 21 percent in the number of Italians moving abroad, compared with the year before. Zero growth, strict budgets, poor investments and insufficient access to jobs have turned Italy into a country for old men and women, almost hostile to youths — at least those who seek honest work. Although the Italian government has promised to strengthen measures against organized crime and corruption, Renzi has done little to act on this pledge.

The level of corruption we are witnessing in Rome suggests that Italy needs a major change in mentality, a cultural revolution. No Italian governments put the rule of law, ethics and public well-being at the top of their agendas, but that is what the nation desperately needs.

Corruption in Italy shows the limits of economic and labor reforms in improving a state’s democratic functioning. This also demonstrates the failure of the EU’s larger agenda, which is unwilling to properly monitor the state of national institutions and societies and instead opts to rigidly focus on fiscal matters. The EU should also monitor the quality of democratic and elected institutions and provide guidelines for public ethics.

To save Italy from itself, its public officials should begin in its schools and require the education system to teach civic values. Italy needs to build better citizens who understand the necessity of paying taxes, respecting others and thinking collectively. Education and culture are fundamental in shaping social, economic and political structures — and in forming noncorrupt and useful political elites.

Government should reduce the privileges of political elites and their affiliates. Moreover, it should establish a transparent and meritocratic job market, especially in the public sector, to restore standards and worker confidence and stop the flow of talent out of the country.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that Italy will choose to go in this direction anytime soon.

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book on transnational neofascism is forthcoming in July from Cambridge University Press. His writing has appeared in The International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Reuters, The New York Times and The New Statesman.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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