Italy at 150: The Need for a New Momentum

AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
By Lorenzo Piras 

Italy turned 150 on 17 March 2011. The celebrations, preceded by bitter controversy, were marked by important public figures and common citizens alike in a lukewarm manner. 

Parades and conferences were apparently not enough for Italians to feel inspired by this occasion. There are three main ways that we, as Italians, could celebrate this anniversary: by listening to our anthem, waving our flags and enjoying a short-lived boost of national pride; alternatively, we could get lost in endless debates on the rightfulness of celebrating our unification, listening to people from all over the place who claim that a unified Italy actually meant, for them, poverty, injustice and “occupation”. But if we really wanted to make use of this anniversary, we should choose the third option: reflecting on what we have achieved in 150 years, and on our mistakes and sufferings, treasuring our past, and most of all, critically assessing our present state, acknowledging  our potential, and starting to plan our future.

The whole world is aware of the problems Italy is currently facing: we have a government and a Prime Minister, who seem to be busier avoiding trials than working for the country; organised crime is consolidating its power in the southern regions and successfully expanding in the rich north; and our international image has been tarnished.

We have a striking 116 per cent sovereign debt, which places us on the edge of economic and financial collapse (especially given the lack of a clear and courageous economic policy), a 30 per cent youth unemployment rate, and scores of young students and graduates who prefer to build their futures abroad than to continue surviving in Italy. Our country remains troubled by the so-called “southern question”- the enormous social, economical, and cultural disparity which makes some of our northern regions the most advanced and productive in Europe, and, at the same time, some southern regions the most disadvantaged.

What is less talked about is our enormous potential. This does not make headlines, because it is not about powerful economic groups or charismatic leaders: our potential rests in our own people. There is a song by Francesco De Gregori, an Italian singer-songwriter, which ends with “long live Italy, Italy that resists”. This theme, condensed into one verse, could be key to our country’s future.

We Italians let our country go adrift, often being short-sighted and selfish, and choosing to live up to the many ignominious stereotypes the world characterises us with. Still, on many occasions during our history, we proved our ability to rise again from the ashes, to find inspiration and momentum, even in the darkest times, through unity and healthy pride. This is the main message we must take from our 150th anniversary: we can still make it.

Thousands of Italians, especially among the younger generations, are actively involved in the fight against organised crime, willingly putting themselves in great danger in order to eradicate the crime-subdued state of mind typical of many areas of Italy. Citizens, intellectuals, judges and civil servants, are denouncing illegal practices and criminal infiltrations of industry and politics.  In doing this, they are exposing themselves and their families to potential violent retaliation. Yet they are doing this because they believe in a better future.

Youths are protesting, trying to defend the value of education in the face of the cultural decay our country is infected with. Italian professionals, workers and students abroad are showing the world, every day, how serious and hard-working our people are, and how far Italy can be from the image of it projected by international media.

It is overly simplistic to say that with a new Prime Minister, with a new foreign policy, with new economic and financial objectives, Italy could see a new light. Of course, we need all these changes. But they would be nothing without a huge, organic bottom-up process based on the recognition of our own value. To capitalise on this anniversary, we need to look back to the moments, the people and the choices that positively shaped our history, and our current identity. We should be inspired by the turning points of our history, by the struggle for unification, by the Resistance against nazi-fascism, by our pantheon of true heroes, starting with Garibaldi, whose ideals and actions shaped our unification 150 years ago, down to Sicilian judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, murdered almost 20 years ago, and now symbols of the fight against organised crime.

We must not let the inspiration that we take from these figures and from these moments to develop into a wave of self-complacency, by definition useless and short-lived. Inspiration in this case must be a momentum towards action, inspired by passion, and by the awareness that we are not living up to the sacrifices made by those who, throughout the last 150 years, fought to make our country a better place: the 19th Century patriots as much as the anti-fascists and the many intellectuals, civil servants, and citizens who opposed the drift towards terrorism in the 1970s.

That is how we should interpret our 150th anniversary. It is an opportunity to think critically about ourselves and our country; we should look back, let ourselves be positively inspired by our history, and then immediately look ahead, ready for more sacrifice, struggle and resistance, in order to start building the better future that our country deserves. 


Lorenzo Piras is a writer and analyst. His articles on the social, political and economical dynamics of the Middle East, as well as on security and intelligence issues, have appeared in a number of blogs and news sites. He holds a BA in International Affairs from the University of Bologna, and is currently undertaking an MA in Intelligence and International Security at the Department of War Studies, King's College London. 


23 March 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia