MotherJones SO93: The fall of Rome

Virtually overnight, the Lega Nord, or "Northern League," has become the most potent political force in Italy. Will its gospel of radical separatism dismemberthe world's sixth-leading industrial nation?

Thirty years ago, as Paula Malcangio's parents boarded a Milan-bound train in their native Apulia, deep in the heel of the Italian boot, a dream was taking hold in Europe.

The dream brought the Malcangios and millions of their fellow southerners north to Switzerland, West Germany, and the big industrial cities of northern Italy. Malcangio, a twenty-five-year-old lawyer, is succinct about what drew her family north: "Clean streets. Decent jobs. Comfortable apartments. The things that were missing in Apulia."

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Although Malcangio doesn't mention it, southern Italians like her parents also came north to leave the corrupt dominion of the Mafia in favor of good government and honest politicians who worked for their constituents' interests.

But recently the people of Milan and other northern cities looked around them to discover that nothing is as it seemed. The economy is an empty shell. Northern politicians have been implicated in vast corruption scandals and Mafia operations. And a bewildering revolution is underway, led by Milan's own children.

The primary instrument of this revolution is the Lega Nord, or "Northern League," an organization that insists it is not a political party and that its members are not politicians. Virtually overnight, the Lega has become the most potent political force in Italy, preaching a gospel of radical separatism that may dismember the sixth-leading industrial nation on earth.

Within the next eighteen months, and perhaps even sooner, it is possible that their efforts will topple the Italian state. If this should occur, northern Italy will have taken the ultimate step in the West's growing case of compassion fatigue, cutting itself off from an impoverished South that the Lega says is little more than a sponge soaking up the tax money of northern workers and companies.

The Lega's press secretary in Milan is Paula Malcangio. "There is nothing strange about it," she shrugs, when I ask how a daughter of Apulia could represent an organization whose more extreme members call for sending southern immigrants "back where they came from." "It's realism. The world isn't the same place that it was a few years ago, and radical changes are necessary."

Supporters say the Lega is ushering in tomorrow's politics with a novel mixture of grass-roots activism and free-market economics. Critics charge that the group's base rests on antisouthern racism and a desire by the rich to rid themselves of the poor. Everyone agrees that the challenge the Lega poses to the status quo is decidedly serious. As the uncertainties of the 1990s put the conventional nation-state under siege across Europe, northern Italy's separatist movement is emerging as the biggest threat to politics-as-usual since the rise of Fascism seventy years ago.

The Lega epicenter is a rambling suite of offices on the fifth floor of a nineteenth-century palazzo in the Via Foscolo, just off Milan's central Piazza del Duomo. The site is not without irony. The building forms one side of the Galleria, the elegant neoclassical mall where a century ago the city's liberal intellectuals met to discuss the consolidation of the then-infant Italian state.

When I arrive for an interview at 9 a.m. on Saturday, the business of revolution is already humming. Half a dozen people sprint past me on the stairs. Inside the headquarters, campaign workers charge from room to room, their arms full of computer readouts ripped from endlessly whirring printers.

The average age of the eight staffers I interview (who include members of Parliament and top Lega political strategists) is twenty-six. In an Italian political world that has always favored impeccably tailored suits, they wear Levi's embroidered with the Lega emblem, a stylized Lombard knight waving his sword. These jeans are also sold to the public for about thirty-five dollars a pair, a sensational bargain in Milan and testament to the adroit marketing that has catapulted the Lega into the political spotlight.

In late 1989, the Lega (then known as the Lombard League, after the province where it was born) had a single seat in Parliament, held by maverick founder Umberto Bossi, and was virtually unheard of outside the most erudite circles of Italian political analysis. But since 1991, the Lega has spread into seven other provinces, and its parliamentary delegation has grown to eighty members. In local elections held last June, its candidates took up to 40 percent of the vote in the big northern cities--an astonishing four times the total of the ruling Christian Democrats. The Lega now runs Milan, Italy's primary industrial and banking center, and a clutch of other major cities above the Po River. "We are the masters of the North," Bossi says, without exaggeration.

Some of the explanation lies in the "throw the bums out" mood that now haunts incumbents in many European nations, and the fact that few incumbents have proved to be more outrageous bums than Italy's scandal-plagued Christian Democrats. But Italy's ballot-box miracle suggests a public clamor for deep structural alterations, not simply a new cast of characters in the corridors of government.

Foremost among the promises that wrought this miracle is regional autonomy, a North for the northerners, its appeal embodied in the Lega graffito plastered on walls all over the Po Valley: "Get the Thieves of Rome Off Our Backs!" The idea is straightforward: The North generates taxes. The South consumes handouts. In between stands the national government in Rome, which takes from one to give to the other, while diverting a substantial amount into its own coffers.

Paula Malcangio is right: the world isn't what it was a few years ago. The East-West conflict is over, and the centralized state's role as protector of the nuclear peace has withered. These are the new European faultlines: North versus South. Rich versus poor. Old versus new.

"In the beginning, that is what we stood for--finally saying basta, enough is enough," Corrado Peraboni tells me, typing purposefully on a Macintosh keyboard even as we talk. "But it certainly wasn't the whole story."

At twenty-eight, Peraboni is one of the youngest members of the Italian Parliament, elected last year on a Lega ticket that hopes to terminate the very legislature in which he now sits. Despite his youth, he is a principal architect of the Lega's plan for the day when northern Italy is free of the Roman yoke. For a quick grasp of his political philosophy, all you need know is how he spends his summer vacations. "I go to visit my friends at Stanford," Peraboni says. "I talk to everyone I can in the Valley."

The Valley in question is Silicon, and the world view such pilgrimages have cultivated among i ragazzi di Bossi, "Bossi's Kids," is essentially a high-tech libertarianism of the sort that peppers conversations at Apple and Hewlett-Packard. It couldn't be more distant from the ponderous Renaissance ministries and arcane bureaucracy of Rome.

"One, we will focus our industrial policies on small and medium firms, the kind that really fuel modern development," Peraboni tells me. "Two, we will deregulate the laws that restrict entrepreneurial vision. Three, we will create an atmosphere that links our universities to our businesses in a marriage that serves technological innovation."

Conversations with the ragazzi often employ the jargon of engineering, computer science, or business law--rather than the polished phrases of parliamentary rhetoric--for the simple reason that the ragazzi are almost universally technical professionals. And they are never, as they make abundantly clear, professional politicians.

"Look at the faces in this office," Peraboni says. "We weren't born to politics, and we won't stay in it. We are engineers, lawyers, physicists. I am an accountant, and only for the moment a deputy in Parliament. This is not a party, with a paid staff of permanent office-seekers and their parasites. It is a group of people who volunteer their time to a cause."

It can sound enticing. Yet even with Peraboni, the conversation inevitably winds its way back to North and South, as it does when I mention that I'm Sicilian-American.

"Umberto Bossi's wife, Manuela Marrone, is also Sicilian," Peraboni says. "And my fiancee, Paula Malcangio, is from Apulia. So how can people say we hate the southerners? It is simply our view that the South will never develop if it is always fed on our handouts."

Later, Malcangio tells me the same thing: "It isn't a question of racism for us; it is a question of doing what is necessary to enter the modern world, the twenty-first century. It is a question of getting rid of the past if it slows you down, and embracing the future."

Romano Fattorossi, a journalist who writes about youth culture, says, "No one is more fanatic about supporting the Lega than the children of the southern immigrants. No one is more Milanese than these first- generation Milanese."

In their aggressive Milanese-ness, they are racing down the same trail that the former Yugoslavia and a slew of ex-Soviet republics are following more violently, a trail that aims simultaneously for the assertion of the local and the embrace of the international, abandoning "my country" for "my city" and "my world."

The language that the Lega speaks is the language of political discourse for many young people in Europe today. It is, for instance, the language of the Arc-en-Ciel (Rainbow) faction at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, which is led by Lega representatives and includes German neoliberals, French neorepublicans, and renegade environmentalists. Arc-en-Ciel's attitude toward the more conventional protest parties of the Left is pretty much summed up by a young Berliner's opinion of Germany's Green party leadership: "When I think of them, I think of 1960s cars--clumsy and out-of-date."

Self-absorbed, intolerant, and ahistorical, the post- Cold War protest wave is an explosion in progress, and nowhere is it further advanced than in Italy. In a continental Europe where rock-solid mass institutions and centralized national government have been articles of unflinching faith for decades, the new Italian politics is violently anti-institutional, dead set against the very notion of a political class, and local to the point of denying that nations have any useful function at all.

"We are only for the individual, not for the group," says Paulo Friggerio, a twenty-seven-year-old economist and Lega political strategist. "We trust nobody who belongs to a party or talks about 'our country' when he means the place governed from Rome. Italy? Italy means nothing to us."

What Italy--and Europe--meant a generation ago was, as much as anything, an understanding that linked the underdeveloped, Mediterranean South to the prosperous, industrial North. An understanding and an elaboration of the immigrant dream.

Paula Malcangio's parents rode the Italian flank of a human tide that swept the Mediterranean basin in the 1950s, a tide that carried Turks to Berlin, Algerians to Paris, and Cypriot Greeks to London. In Italy, it also sent trillions of lire in the opposite direction, to Apulia, Sicily, Calabria, and the Campania, where the only choices for young people were unemployment in the crumbling villages of their ancestors and recruitment by the Mafia or its mainland cousins. The handouts were to make the South look and act just like the North.

By the late 1970s, most people privately acknowledged that the handouts weren't working, although until Bossi's arrival on the scene, virtually nobody said so out loud. The money went into someone's pockets rather than the southern infrastructure, and ambition in Sicily or Naples still meant boarding a train or kissing the ring of a capo. Nonetheless, everyone--not just northern Italians gazing south, but Germans and Dutch and French assessing the whole Mediterranean basin--pretended that things were changing. It was the comforting illusion of the liberal rich.

But the dream that was failing in the South appeared to be succeeding in the North beyond Europe's wildest imaginings. On the strength of labor and social-democratic vision, a boom was underway from Hamburg to Milan. By the 1980s, ordinary working people, even immigrants, had cars, vacation homes, and the means to send their children to universities like the one that trained Paula Malcangio to be a lawyer.

Everybody understood that there were two Italys--two Europes--and that the one above a line drawn from Rome to the port city of Bari was the only one that merited attention. A parallel set of lines separated Germany from the Balkans, France from North Africa, England from Ireland.

Below the line--whether in Sicily, Yugoslavia, Algeria, or Ulster-- life was still about poverty, struggle, and feudal violence. Above the line, politics were predictable and people were rich. And none were richer than the northern Italians. Those in the provinces of Lombardy and the Piedmont were in fact among the richest people in the world by the late eighties, with a per capita income equalled in Europe only by the most prosperous districts of West Germany and Switzerland.

One consequence of that wealth is Rozzano, a blue-collar suburb of Milan. The town is not the charming medieval hilltop of tourist fantasies, but the kind of place that most contemporary Italians inhabit--a functional, rectilinear grid of streets laid out by city planners in the 1960s and filled with twenty-story towers in the booming 1970s. The modernist city hall commands a broad central piazza and is reassuringly flanked by the offices of the Communist and Christian Democratic parties. Everything about Rozzano bespeaks the solid predictability to which the North and its immigrants aspired for thirty years.

"It worked perfectly for a long time," Giacinto Aloise, who works in a nearby paper mill, told me. "Every year we voted for the right people and the streets were kept clean. Every year more buildings went up. Every year our paychecks got bigger."

But beneath the surface, nothing was as it seemed.

The Italian economy was in a shambles. It was held together by political sleight of hand and an enormous deficit that went curiously unnoticed until the European Community set fiscal standards for full union in the late 1980s and discovered that Italy was nearly on the ropes. When this uncomfortable reality began to catch up with appearances, services dwindled, big industries scrambled for profitability, and the unemployment rate rocketed into double figures. "We hang around on the piazza all the time now," Tullio Fabbrizio, an ex-auto worker, told me. "Our jobs are gone."

In the realm of public morality, the shock was even greater. When the Soviets said "uncle" and journalists began looking for new stories, the image of northern rectitude was shattered by a storm of corruption scandals the likes of which Europe had never seen.

There weren't really two Italys or two Europes. It took the end of the Cold War, a forty-five-year distraction from the politics of governance, to show the North for the fraud that it was.

In most of Europe, the illumination came with a whimper: the muted cries of feckless governments falling or plummeting in the public- opinion polls. Helmut Kohl of Germany stood revealed as a coward, speechless in the face of neo-Nazi violence. John Major, waffling ceaselessly on Britain's part in a strengthened European Community, sunk to a 14 percent favorable rating. Caught up in allegations that AIDS-tainted blood was administered to hemophiliacs with the health ministry's knowledge, President Francois Mitterrand's French Socialists were decimated in parliamentary elections.

In northern Italy, by contrast, the old order fell with an enormous bang, the sound of thousands of political monuments toppling from the sheer weight of boodle in their pockets. The day this article went to press, more than 2,600 politicians and major business executives were under investigation or already in the slammer, on charges ranging from collaboration with the Mafia (Christian Democratic Giulio Andreotti, who served seven terms as prime minister) to bribe-taking (former Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi), vote-buying, and tax evasion. Indeed, virtually the entire government was standing trial by the summer of 1993, in a debacle that the press dubbed Tangentopoli (Bribe Town). It made Watergate look like harmless pranks by kindergarten children, and it turned the Northern League (which had been calling the Roman politicians "thieves" for years) into a political force.

According to town records, 90 percent of the people who live in Rozzano are southern immigrants--Sicilians, Calabrese, Neopolitans, and Pugliese. In the last municipal election, nearly half of them voted for the Northern League.

The people who still care about Italy--about the Italy of Rome--are the heirs of those who half a century ago breathed a second life into an Italian state ruined by Mussolini's imperial fantasies: Christian Democrats and their Socialist partners, organized crime, and the Allied governments that stage-managed the corpse's revival, cracking deals with Lucky Luciano one day and political honchos the next.

It wasn't that the Allies admired their questionable accomplices in this enterprise. The arrangement simply made Cold War sense, and playing ball with the criminal and the compromised was probably the only strategy that could stop the then-popular Communist party from taking power and shifting Rome's allegiance to the eastern bloc. Each time the Soviets rattled a saber, steps were taken to reinforce what became the operative establishment of Italy: the Mafia in the South and the "acceptable" politicians in Rome and the North.

These dons of the establishment find themselves in an uncomfortable position today. But despite their political setbacks, they still control the financial conduits and the means of production (at least at the macroeconomic level, where the big banks, steel mills, auto manufacturers, and computer firms hand over the bribes), not to mention the estimated $20 billion in heroin profits that the Mafia launders annually. They also have the guns, should it come to that. Only the naive would imagine that Italy's sistema del potere, its "power structure," will accept the apparent verdict of history quietly.

But the people have turned against the sistema. Few politicians realized that the fundamental bulwark of the power structure was the silent collaboration of the populace, and that this was remarkably fragile. "In the past, Italians, especially southern Italians, never believed in the possibility of change," says Roberto Mazzarella, a Sicilian writer who directs the Palermo office of La Rete (The Network), an anti-Mafia party that is also challenging the status quo. "That was the biggest weapon of the sistema--if you suppress the hope that things will improve, which is what the Mafia is so good at doing, the effect is extreme passivity. The system always banked on such passivity, and they really don't know what to do now that it's gone."

Voter passivity has its limits, as Perot demonstrated in the last U.S. election--and Italy in 1993 lies beyond those limits. There's plenty of grist for the American mill, as well as the European, in the Italian drama. If the state does survive here, Rome may become little more than a feeble interlocutor in a federal structure that accords all meaningful power to an autonomous, wealthy North and its poor southern cousins. The questions such a development would raise are already increasing the hypertension level of political hacks thousand of miles from the Tiber.

What would the consequences of a dismantled Italy be for American and NATO military bases sprinkled across the boot and on the Italian islands? Or for western Europe, now in the throes of unification? What would it mean for the West if the bums actually were thrown out in a major developed nation, not by a look-alike "opposition," but by a populist army that took Ross Perot's ideas to their logical conclusion, without the sham and the bluster?

It's tempting, after a half century of comic-opera Italian politics that shuffled and reshuffled the same marked deck, to dismiss the Lega Nord. Nothing serious. Nothing new. Just Italy all over again. But that would be to forget that northern Italy saw Niccolo Machiavelli invent modern politics and Benito Mussolini found Fascism. Both men inspired movements that proved far more consequential outside of Italy than within. It remains to be seen whether Umberto Bossi will join them.

Frank Viviano covers Europe for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of Dispatches from the Pacific Century, published in June by Addison Wesley.

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