With just over 120,000 people, Bergamo, northeast of Milan, is not a particularly populous city, and it is short of priests, like almost every other city in the Catholic West. Yet in the second week of March alone, six priests died of coronavirus in Bergamo, and five more died the week after. By then, the virus was attacking the post office (itself an imperiled institution), killing two workers. Citywide, the death toll was approaching five hundred Bergamaschi. Hospitals had erected tents to accommodate the overflow, but these had proved insufficient. Of the city’s six hundred doctors, 118 were infected and the rest were working almost around the clock. In the Seriana Valley, northeast of the city, one woman posted online a much-watched video about how her relatively young father had, for lack of health care, “died like a dog.” As the number of Italy’s dead rose past that of any other country in the world, authorities in Rome required Italians to stay at home to slow the contagion, imposing what quickly became the longest curfew in the country’s history.
Stories of stress and woe abound. The Corriere della Sera mentioned a lady from Mestre, near Venice, infected with the virus, who got angry at a supermarket cashier (trips to buy food being among the few exceptions to the lockdown) and coughed in her face, infecting her. But more common were the stories of solidarity: People emerging onto their balconies to sing the national anthem or Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” (which has almost the status of a national anthem) and hanging Italian flags out their windows. The government started illuminating the prime-ministerial building, the Palazzo Chigi, every night in the green, white, and red of the national flag. Something about the crisis made Italians feel more traditionally like Italians. Scolding articles about “inclusion” and “solidarity,” about universal rights and human rights, which had dominated headlines for years, disappeared along with freedom of movement. There was something natural about this. As the news editor Ernesto Galli della Loggia wrote:
The present epidemic is showing, in an explosive way, what anyone not drunk on ideological fantasy has always understood: In times of life and death, what counts is who speaks your language, who shares your past, who is familiar with the sights and smells of your homeland, who sings the same songs, and who uses the same swear words.
Yet at the moment when Italians are learning—and yearning—to be alone with themselves, Italy’s inherited economic predicaments bind it to the complicated structures of the twenty-seven-member European Union. Italy is not only the European country hit hardest by the coronavirus; it may have been the country least ready economically for such a shock. It is struggling to finance, with a shrinking population, a debt that stands near 135 percent of GDP.
More and more of the Italian public has come to believe that membership in the E.U.—and in the globalized economy that serves as the E.U.’s guiding principle—has done damage to their country. Italy’s economic stagnation dates from the establishment of the common currency, the Euro, at the turn of this century. And Italians feel poorly served by the E.U. in the coronavirus crisis. Just as Italy sought masks, latex gloves, and plastic glasses—commodities that the country, having put its faith in the global market, is no longer capable of producing in quantity—Germany and France banned their export. As other countries sickened and their economies collapsed, Italy’s borrowing costs rose more than 3 percent above those of Germany. At that point Italy did not request, it demanded, guarantees for its financial system. The E.U., fearing for its own stability, granted them in the form of the €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purpose Program (Pepp). Tensions over international governance and international economics have been easy to camouflage in other parts of the world—but not in Italy for a while. And certainly not now.
The basic fact about Italians since the end of the Cold War is that they are disappearing. The country’s national statistics agency, Istat, reports that Italian women bear 1.21 children each—a recipe for an imploding population. Almost a quarter of women born in 1978 are ending their childbearing years childless, double the level in 1950. Every year 440,000 Italians are born, and about twice as many die. But those numbers radically understate how quickly the population is declining. Native Italians have been emigrating at record rates for more than a decade—160,000 in 2018 alone. Municipalities across the country are giving away—or selling for the nominal price of €1—abandoned houses, many of them quite beautiful, to anyone willing to invest in refurbishing them. There have been disappointingly few takers.
Onto this tinder has been thrown a demographic spark: The population of Africa is projected to increase by a billion people before mid-century, faster than any continental population anywhere has ever grown. There will not be a billion new jobs to occupy the youth of Africa, who are beginning to make their way north in large numbers. In this light, the 2011 overthrow and murder of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, by a coalition under American, French, and British leadership, appears to have done as much to undermine Western security as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Until 2011, immigrants crossed the eastern Mediterranean only in small numbers; by 2013, Libya was an immigrant launching pad. In 2016, 180,000 immigrants from Africa arrived in Italy. It took a year for the ministry of interior to get the problem under a very precarious kind of control, which has involved a certain amount of non-transparent deal-making with the rump Libyan Coast Guard.
Until coronavirus, most of Italian politics was about migration. There are arguments in many European countries about whether the expression “The Great Replacement”—coined by the French writer Renaud Camus to describe the substitution of a young Third World population for a dying European one—is a racist provocation. But there is no denying that it is an accurate description. There are already five million foreign-born in Italy, a number approaching 10 percent of the population from a base of nearly zero a generation ago. About 500,000 are “irregular.” Many of the men are dishwashers and landscapers in and around the globalized cities; about two million women are “colfs” (collaboratori familiari), doing a combination of housework and childcare. Together they staff the menial part of the globalized service economy in a way that Americans will find familiar.
Then there are places like Castel Volturno, on the ancient Via Domiziana, which once connected the Appian Way to Cumae (the first Greek city in Italy, where the Romans consulted the Sibyl) ten miles south, and to Naples, a bit south of that. Today prostitutes in high boots line the route, generally Albanians and Romanians during the day, Nigerians at night. “Twenty euros in the car, fifty if they take you back to an apartment,” says Dimitri Russo, who is the ex-mayor of Castel Volturno and a native of the place.
Castel Volturno had about 18,000 residents in 1980. “It was bellissimo,” Russo says. But after an earthquake east of Naples killed 2,300 people in 1981, houses were commandeered for use as emergency lodging, and the town fell into disrepair. The local branch of the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) was involved. A few Nigerians came in the 1980s, at first to work in the mozzarella cheese industry nearby. (There are big buffalo herds just inland.) Those Nigerians invited relatives to stay in the empty housing they’d spotted. Some were involved with Nigerian organized crime, which had become useful to the Camorra, according to the Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano. Ghanaians followed. Many Italians heard of the town for the first time in 2008 when eight of the Ghanaians were shot down in a gangland massacre, the motives for which have never been made fully clear.
It’s an astonishing place today. One meets actual squeegee-men, reminiscent of 1980s New York, at intersections en route. According to Russo, the town has become the biggest Nigerian-Ghanaian community in continental Europe. The municipal population is 26,400, of whom 4,300 are legal immigrants and 15,000 are illegal. Almost all the shops are boarded up. Parts of the town are under two feet of water, as marshland reclaims them. Russo has a good-sized house near the center of town, for which he pays €200 ($215) a month, the going rate. A member of the Democratic party (PD), successor to the Communists and Social Democrats, Russo thinks of himself as a man of the left. Because he doesn’t speak English well (even if he likes listening to Nirvana), he has a hard time communicating directly with his mostly Anglophone new neighbors. But he gets along well with them and has even been accused of being the “mayor of the blacks.” Still, very few of these people vote, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Russo was replaced at the last election by a mayor from the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, which traces its descent from Mussolini, condemns immigration, and polls at about 10 percent nationwide.
Places like Castel Volturno are important because the country has some major policy decisions to make about immigration, and these are the images that leap to Italians’ minds when they consider how to make them. Italy has gotten the short end of the globalization stick. Since the Berlin Wall came down, the world’s GDP has doubled, according to the Censis think tank in Rome, but Italy’s economy has flatlined. This does not mean Italy has not changed internally: It has undergone the same huge transfers from poor to rich typical of advanced economies under globalization. Workers’ salaries have fallen by 18 percent, while bosses’ have risen by 7 percent. Old people earn 30 percent more than they did at the end of the last century, and young people 32 percent less.
For reasons of demographics, productivity, and distribution, the Italian system will become harder and harder to finance in the coming years. The basic policy of the Italian establishment has been to assume the gap can be filled by means of legal migration, a position advanced most forcefully by Tito Boeri, the longtime head of Italy’s Social Security Institute. Unfortunately, such substitution is not just a quantitative matter of filling “positions.” There is also a qualitative aspect, a cultural aspect. To replace an Italian with, say, a Nigerian is to remove from the Italian system someone who has been expensively treated and socialized over generations to function within that system, and to replace him with someone who has not. Worse, it requires the withdrawal of resources from the system (to be expended in the form of “diversity consulting” and “sensitivity training” and many welfare subsidies) before the benefits—assuming there are benefits—can be realized. This system of treating and socializing people to facilitate productive working together is what is called a culture. Focusing on culture is what turned Matteo Salvini into the most important Italian politician of his time.
Salvini is a forty-seven-year-old career political activist who started out with the Northern League, a federation of separatist parties from Milan, Verona, Venice, and smaller northern cities such as Bergamo, where the lifestyle and level of industrialization are virtually German. The party was formed by people fed up with what they saw as the freeloading of Italy’s South, where the lifestyle and level of industrialization are virtually Tunisian. It has been commonplace to call the Northern League “right-wing.” But its culture is that of its region—business-oriented and bourgeois, rather than bomb-throwing and jingoistic. The Northern League was made up of people whose feelings for their region are suffused with sentimentality (like those of certain British Tories) and who may have read a bit too much Ayn Rand.
But if you consider immigration a right-wing issue, then it is fair to say Salvini has turned his party into a right-wing one. Salvini believes that what Italy does about migration will determine whether it lives or dies. He renamed his party “The League,” dropping the adjective “northern” along with any discussion about parting ways with freeloading Sicilians, and in the 2018 elections took his message to the whole of Italy. He almost instantly became its most popular politician.
After the elections, Salvini’s League joined the government as junior partner to a nine-year-old anti-corruption party called the Five Star Movement, or M5S. Five Star got to pick the premier—a hitherto unknown law professor, Giuseppe Conte, who has grown into the post impressively. But Salvini, rightly convinced that fighting immigration was the only route to the political top, quickly out-hustled everyone else in the government. As interior minister, he closed down the immigrant “reception centers” that facilitated applications for humanitarian entry to Italy, passed two security decrees that criminalized different ways of aiding migrants, and aggressively blocked migrant rescue boats seeking permission to land in Sicily and Calabria. His poll numbers rose steadily, and so did the government’s. The Italian political establishment, the pope, and various European and American foundations fought him every step of the way.
Such battles were a boon for Salvini. His greatest political gift is for managing his image on the Internet, and in this he has been helped by a consultant of genius named Luca Morisi. Salvini pretty much carried out his job as interior minister through social media. It became hard to tell acts of state from stunts. His posts often seemed to wander off-topic, as if he had the attention span of a cartoon character. For many Italians, especially those who disliked Salvini, such antics brought Donald Trump to mind. When a vote was coming up in parliament, instead of rallying his supporters, Salvini would start talking about how the best thing in Italy was a really good bowl of pasta (picture attached!). In the middle of various immigration-related legal battles in December, he attacked the Ferrero company for using Turkish hazelnuts instead of Italian ones (yum, yum!) in their Nutella.
His outward sloppiness was the product of inward discipline. Morisi’s theory, outlined in interviews and memos, was this: A politician trying to warn voters of the impending doom of their civilization must be in it for the long haul. Over time, apocalyptic messaging becomes depressing. Voters turn away from it. So Morisi designed a quota system for balancing Salvini’s posts. You’d never go more than two or three posts without seeing a bikini or an affogato, without hearing a joke or an encomium to fragoline di bosco. Salvini’s website was a pleasantly positive place. Salvini himself, despite having had multiple partners during his political career—two of whom have borne him children—has lately begun carrying a rosary in public, particularly in front of Southern audiences. The country’s top newspapers condemn him for hypocrisy. Voters seem to understand he is asking them to elect him, not to ordain him.
Salvini’s performances reshaped the Italian political scene. Luigi Di Maio, the top-ranking Five Star politician, started referring to the Mediterranean rescue missions to pick up would-be migrants from rickety boats as “sea taxis.” By last fall, Five Star cofounder Beppe Grillo complained: “Italy is under water and these people keep talking about [helping] migrants.” Salvini became the country’s main ideological reference point. An Italian right-winger is someone who believes the immigration problem created Salvini. A left-winger is someone who believes Salvini created the immigration problem. By the summer of 2019, certain polls showed Salvini capable of winning a parliamentary majority. He went—bare-chested— on an August listening tour of the beaches and barbecues and dockside barrooms of Italy, broadcasting on Facebook as he went. Italy was, it seemed, ready to become the first major European country to elect a populist prime minister.
But Salvini underestimated his own importance, the gravity of his threat to the partisan status quo. When he withdrew from the coalition with M5S in the summer of 2019—with the goal of triggering snap elections that would make him prime minister—the Italian political establishment, led by President Sergio Mattarella, pulled out every stop to block the country from going to the polls. The establishment-left PD (led by Nicola Zingaretti, who would become the first prominent Italian politician to contract the coronavirus) joined M5S to form a new government (Conte II). It was an extraordinary moment, since fighting the complacency and corruption of the PD was the purpose for which the M5S had been founded in the first place. Since joining forces, the two parties have not ventured far from Salvini’s policies, though the country’s activist judges have sought to undo his security decrees and even to indict him for “kidnapping,” the charge they have leveled for his refusal to let migrants disembark from a boat that sought refuge in Catania.
Between the swearing-in of the new government last summer and the outbreak of the coronavirus in February, Salvini’s attempts to bring his own issues back to the center of the agenda have defined Italian politics. In a way, they still do. Much of this agitation continued to involve immigration, especially in the South, where it sometimes seems to locals that the country is repurposing money to help people who are not Italians and are breaking Italy’s laws. If the government had the money to build structures and deploy vessels to welcome people who would undercut the wages of native Italians, why didn’t it have the money for a hospital? In Campania, around Naples, the League has gone from non-existent five years ago to commanding a quarter of the vote today. According to some polls, it may be the largest party. In the run-up to a February election in Emilia-Romagna, the most reliably left-leaning region in Italy, the League’s candidate ran even with the region’s popular incumbent regional president for much of the winter. Though Salvini’s candidate lost, the result revealed Emilia-Romagna to be much like Massachusetts: not so much a progressive place as a place under the control of a progressive party.
At the center of Salvini’s politics starting last fall was the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the draconian bailout plan devised by the E.U.’s commission to confront the Greek crisis of 2010. As designed, the ESM would have permitted vast disbursals of money, mostly to buy bonds, in order to rescue a country’s credit. But in exchange it allowed the E.U., in effect, to extinguish the “rescued” country’s sovereignty, as the multilateral “Troika” had done to Greece during its own crisis. Italians worried that they were next in line—and they have turned out to be right, even if it was a plague and not an audit of the country’s books that brought on the crisis. Salvini campaigned all autumn long against the ESM, faulting it for its elitism and its capture by private interests outside of Italy, warning that it was designed to steal money from Italians to rescue German lenders. At a political level, Salvini managed to drive a wedge through the coalition government, dividing the establishment PD from the anti-establishment M5S.
His polemic, as we now see, was well timed. When coronavirus hit Italy earlier than other countries, E.U. politicians signaled that they would use the ESM exactly as Salvini had warned. Christine Lagarde, incoming head of the European Central Bank (ECB), warned that it was not the ECB’s job to help the coronavirus countries. Salvini understood that, for the sake of rescuing the Euro, the E.U. needed to bail out Italy as much as Italy needed to be bailed out. Only unconditional rescue plans would be acceptable, he said. Anything else would be “profiting from the emergency to subject the country to the troika.”
Conte’s economics advisers have mostly followed suit, to very satisfactory effect for Italy. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, suspended the E.U.’s Stability Pact, which had required balanced budgets, impossible under coronavirus conditions. Details of the E.U.’s new €750 billion “Pepp” stabilization plan are emerging as this article goes to press, but it will serve Italy better than the ESM. Italy may wind up more integrated into Europe’s banking structures. But it is less likely to be enslaved by them, as Salvini insisted Italy must not be.
The challenges of coronavirus, vast and deadly though they are, are not unrelated to those Italy has faced over the past decades. A country led by people who consider the defense of national borders politically illegitimate will not be prepared to fight an epidemic, which requires placing barriers between people whom there is no political reason for separating. Italy at first limited itself to cordoning off a few infected areas until people in Lombardy began dying in large numbers. But once curfews were imposed, the illogic of the situation sank in: Italy’s leaders more readily claimed the authority to lock Italians in their houses than to police the nation’s borders, which even then remained open, as European treaties required.
There is little point in blaming Italians for being slow to realize what had hit them, for hesitating, for wasting time. China wasted time. America wasted time. Adjusting one’s philosophy to new realities is a slow process. Italians have been adapting heroically, patriotically, and, in fact, as quickly as one could hope. Their world, despite appearances, will eventually come back together. But perhaps when it does it will be in a more durable and sensible way, one that puts Italians in less danger of being ruled by people who don’t know their swear words and don’t weep when they hear “Nessun dorma.”
Christopher Caldwell is a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute.