Civic Traditions in Modern Italy

by Robert Putnam with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y Nanetti

Introductory comments

Readers of Putnam's more widely-known Bowling Alone book may not know a great deal about this earlier text. One reason is that it appears to be out of print, making copies difficult to locate. Making Democracy Work, however, is in many ways a more interesting work than the later book, about which I'll try to elaborate on below. This is not to say that it lacks flaws; indeed a number of its hypotheses and conclusions have been strongly criticised as alternately simplistic, platitudinous, and subject to appropriation by wholly-unpalatable characters. Finally, one major problem with the book is one of time: much of the surrounding social and political context in Italy is simply out of date. However, it's still a thought-provoking read, and as such, merits discussion.

Both books are concerned with the concept of social capital, or rather how modern associations in civil society play an important or central role in determining many of the things that we in the West take for granted about our political structures and general social conditions. Where Bowling Alone extends much of the argument to the United States, it's in Making Democracy Work that one finds the main threads of Putnam's argument fleshed out in some detail.

Why regional governments?

Making Democracy Work was an in-depth study that took place over twenty years. It hinges on a significant political moment, the creation of regional governments in Italy in 1970, which was promised in the postwar Italian constitution in 1948. This delay of twenty-two years owed much to the Christian Democrat governments' unwillingness to implement reforms of any sort, particularly those that would devolve powers away from Rome (Putnam, 19; also Ginsborg, 1990, 327). As with most countries in Europe, Italy sports a centralised national government that with the advent of the welfare state, has slowly grown to consume much of the country's GDP. Unlike other centralised countries, however, Italy remains afflicted with perhaps one of the most sclerotic of bureaucracies ever encountered in the Western world.

Creating regional governments in 1970 was one thing. Budgeting and power-sharing, on the other hand, was quite another. Another two years elapsed before the regional governments gained any powers or funds of consequence, and the devolving of powers was a piecemeal, tentative, and rather-unsatisfactory experience for many regional administrations throughout the country (Putnam, 21). Unlike the German Lander, Italian regions do not have direct representation in the national parliament, or la Camera dei Deputati. Unlike Canadian provinces, or American states, while the regions are described in the Italian constitution, clear-cut outlines of regional responsibilities (such as natural resources, education or health care in the Canadian case) do not exist (Putnam, 47).

Putnam, Leonardi and Nanetti looked upon this situation and quickly realised that a unique opportunity had arisen; namely, if they were careful, they could track regional governments over time and perhaps gauge how well they met local expectations and needs. It was the closest thing a social scientist gets to the formulation of a controlled experiment, the Holy Grail to many in this line of work.

There are 20 regions in the country, from the industrial powerhouses in the north, such as Lombardia, Piemonte and Liguria, to severely depressed areas in the south, such as Sicilia, Calabria and Campania.

Structure: administrative strengths and weaknesses

Putnam's research demonstrated that northern regions, by and large, were much more likely to function efficiently and effectively than their southern counterparts. They were also more integrated with the communities they served, more likely to pass innovative laws and legislative instruments, more computerised, and maintained cohesive integrity for longer periods than southern governments. These results are not in themselves terribly notable, at least to anyone familiar with Italy. But what was significant, indeed what made this book (albeit briefly) important internationally, was its explanation as to the sources of northern administrative efficacy and southern weakness: culture.

Throughout the text, there are numerous discussions of regional government, and the social contexts that surround these administrations. The book has reams and reams of statistical data covering everything from literacy levels and infant mortality to economic development, union membership, and ideological depolarisation over time. It also has a potted history of the Italian peninsula centred on the medieval period, which for the authors marked the true starting point in explaining the differences between North and South (Putnam, 121-162).

Viewed solely as a study of administrative mechanisms in Italy, Putnam's work is an invaluable reference. Prior to its publication, longer, systematic analyses in English of Italian government (national, regional or local) were difficult to locate. To my knowledge extensive studies of this type have not been attempted since, simply because the amount of research and hard work required to collate and interpret the necessary data is overwhelming (Putnam, Preface, xiii; also Appendices A-F, pp 197-205).

Delving into the data presented, the second chapter describes in detail the overall effect of 20 years of regional government: administrative familiarity with different party representatives over time leads to marked decreases in ideological conflict and polemics, and a corresponding professional interest in managing public affairs effectively (Putnam, 26-37, 50-51). This chapter also traces the legislative struggle for fiscal independence from Rome, as well as the growth in regional autonomy once the fiscal base of the regions was enshrined in law (Putnam, 17-24).

The third and fourth chapters describe administrative performance, first by deciding what factors should be measured, then by analysing the results. In all cases listed below, Putnam and his colleagues were interested in observing differences between the regions. The first five measures are concerned with larger, process-related characteristics; the remaining seven with specific implementations. The last, 'bureaucratic responsiveness', is another facet of number three, 'statistics'. These measures comprise the following:

  1. Cabinet stability. How long do regional governments last? In this measurement, length of tenure has a corresponding effect on the ability of the administration to carry out the work with which it is elected in the first place. (Putnam, 67)
  2. Budget promptness. Do regional governments deliver their budgets on time? Late governments are forced to write their budgets after the fact of spending, rendering the effort moot. (Putnam, 67)
  3. Statistical and information services. What kind of information is gathered by the region? (Putnam, 67-68)
  4. Reform legislation. Is the law a broadly- or narrowly-focused one? Does the law have an inherent consistency, or is it a mechanism to waste money? (Putnam, 68)
  5. Legislative innovation. Does the law experiment with new ideas? Which regions were most likely to promulgate new ideas, and which were not? (Putnam, 69-70)
  6. Day care centres. The ratio of centres to number of children was compiled for each region in December 1983 (Putnam, 70). One obvious criticism of this particular factor is its one-off nature, without tracking rates of day care centre construction, opening and administration over time.
  7. Family clinics. In a similar fashion to day care centres above, the ratio of family clinics to regional population in May 1978 was measured (Putnam, 71).
  8. Industrial policy. Do the regions disburse money to specific firms, or do they use economic development plans, industrial parks, regional development finance agencies, or job-training schemes? This factor was measured in 1984 (Putnam, 71).
  9. Agriculture policy. Following a national law passed in 1977 authorising approximately US$400m (at that time) in agriculture funds for the regions, the regions were ranked according to their laws and spending during 1977-1980 (Putnam, 71).
  10. Bureaucratic responsiveness. How well do the regions answer questions posed by ordinary citizens?

These factors are combined as an index of institutional performance that is used as the grounds for comparison between the regions. By and large, the index correlates well with voter and citizen satisfaction, as well with levels of voluntary associations in the regions. This latter point is important as Putnam uses it as a focus of discussions in both this book and later in Bowling Alone.

'Why some regions work, and some do not'

Making Democracy Work seeks to explain the difference between successful and unsuccessful governments using culture and civil society as its main point of reference. Yet the authors chose not to define what civil society actually is. This is particularly apparent in the chapter outlining Italian medieval history, 'Tracing Civic Roots' (Putnam, 121-163). This explanation, however, is problematic, because it results in a conceptual malleability and lack of rigour. If the authors can't keep their definitions straight, it makes it all the more difficult for readers to do so.

Though this is to some degree understandable, as 'civil society', much like 'democracy' before it, has shifted in meaning over the course of time, this does not absolve Putnam and his colleagues of their responsibility to state their terms clearly. If anything, not doing so in this case is really inexcusable, because it has implications for the rest of the argument. Civil society once stood for 'political society', this being true especially during the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath. In more recent times, the term has come to indicate instead those social structures outside of politics, particularly when discussed by writers such as John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Hannah Arendt and Charles Taylor. When Putnam looks at regional governments themselves he seems to see civil society as mostly political. When he goes on to explain governmental performance, civil society appears to be outside of administration.

By this point, the interested reader probably wonders whatever happened to other possible sources of administrative success. For example, what about levels of socio-economic development? Putnam et al have an answer for this, that economic development has little to do with fostering community cohesion (155-159). If anything, they suggest that the reverse is true, that culture explains development, which is to my mind an extremely dangerous assertion to make.

At first glance, the civic history chapter has a number of interesting points to make, particularly about Northern Italian regions. Modern capitalism is widely understood to have had its genesis in the medieval cities of the northern half of the country, such as Pisa, Florence, Milan and Venice (Jones, 132). Banking, insurance, the creation of credit, and accounting are just a few of the financial practices and institutions that come to us via the Italian medieval centres (D'Epiro and Pinkowish, 105-111).

In terms of wider political and social study this book at the time stood as one of the first attempts to explain politics using the then-trendy social science credo of communitarianism, that popular-but-rather-unclear philosophy of governance that traced its first roots to Alexis de Tocqueville, continued in the 1990s with Amital Etzioni and many others. Communitarianism's ascendancy to consciousness came at the same time with the rise of nominally-left/liberal/social democrat leaders such as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Gerhard Schroeder. Unfortunately, owing to a certain squishiness in ideas and a lack of clarity, communitarian arguments have often been used to justify modes of political thought diametrically opposed to their general happy-clappy leftish stance.

Making Democracy Work demonstrates this characteristic itself, through the subtle reinforcement of cultural stereotypes. In Italy, this takes the form of a pronounced North-South divide. The 'Mason-Dixon' line runs through Rome. To sketch the prejudice briefly, and inadequately: Northern supporters (settrionalisti) dislike Southerners (meridionali) as being lazy, stupid, loud to the point of vulgarity, formed from peasant stock, deceitful and generally just a pain in the arse. Southern supporters (meridionalisti) dislike Northerners (settrionali)as being cold, mechanistic, legalistic, too cerebral, humourless, and disconnected from their neighbours. I can't tell you the number of times I've listened to both sides talk themselves into utter irrelevance.

In reading the book, you get a sense of cultural determinism: That all the efforts by regional governments are destined to succeed or fail, based solely on their cultural context, which in turn is decided by their location and history. One time is critical, the medieval period; everything else after that is trivial. The Risorganimento? Mussolini? World War II? The Cold War? The creation of the European Union? All irrelevant. So we have northern regions, by and large, doing well, because they're based in parts of the country that have thriving cultures that are cooperative, intricate, and developed. Southern regions by contrast are doomed to fail, because they are saddled with cultures that are stunted, atomistic, and take questions of game theory, Prisoner's Dilemmas and the Tragedy of the Commons to their logical ends. At one point,

One able reformist regional president in an uncivic region exclaimed when he heard our conclusions: 'This is a counsel of despair! You're telling me that nothing I can do will improve our prospects for success. The fate of the reform was sealed centuries ago.'- Putnam, 183

Paul Ginsborg outlines an analytical method that illustrates the problem with relying too heavily on a weak conceptual structure. In references to the Mafia, public administration, and the national government ministries in Rome, he notes that clientelism can be observed as a practice, or as a way of getting things done, as opposed to a cultural characteristic (2001, 180, 216-217). Corruption, the systematic rotting of ethical principles by those in power, becomes a possible outcome where clientelism exists, but is by no means inevitable (Ginsborg, 2001, 100 & 183). He is quick to point out that clientelism and corruption are not easily separated in Italy, but already we have a greater analytical scope with which to examine cultural explanations in context (2001, 183).

If the research itself were only suggestive of a cultural bias, it could be taken into context with the general merit of the argument. However, the interested reader finds comments that, at best, really make one pause:

Collective life in the less civic regions of Italy has been blighted for a thousand years and more. Why? It can hardly be that the inhabitants prefer a solitary and submissive squalor. Foreign oppression might once have been part of the explanation for their plight, but the regional government suggests that self-government is no panacea. One is tempted to ask in despair: Have people in these troubled regions learned nothing at all from their melancholy experience? Surely they must see that they would be better off if only everyone would cooperate for the common good. - Putnam, 163

If only things were so simple. Obviously, people use public choice / rational actor arguments exclusively in making decisions, no? Personally, I was so infuriated by this quote above that I nearly threw the book into the fire. Clearly something else is at work. To dissect the main sentences above:

  1. Are Southern regions troubled? There is no violent revolution in the making from the South. In economic terms, though, the answer would have to be 'Yes'. As of 2000, poverty affects nearly 14% of the Italian population as a whole, with nearly two-thirds of the total located in the South (Hopkinson, 78 and 204). While Southern regions have since the establishment of the Republic benefited from a number of economic programmes, such as the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno (1950-1984), and lowered taxation compared to the North and Centre (18% of national tax revenue for 36.5% of the population), state intervention in the South's favour has not been systematic enough to address structural faults in the way in which the Southern economy works (Ginsborg, 2001, 21-22; Putnam, 24).

    Moreover, the evidence is that the South continues to suffer from widespread unemployment, inadequate educational and technical skills, and a paucity of infrastructure to support new investment (Ginsborg, 2001, 22). As you can imagine, this combination is a bit vicious in its circularity. Pollyanna-ish appeals to have 'everyone just get along' do nothing to address exactly how people are to overcome these difficulties.

  2. What have been some of the Southern responses to the situation? One that gets short shrift in the text is that of migration, both within Italy itself from the South to the North, and from Italy to other countries.
    'Between 1946 and 1957 the numbers of those leaving Italy for the New World exceeded by 1,100,000 the numbers of those returning: 380,000 had remained in Argentina, 166,500 in Canada, 166,000 in the USA, 138,000 in Australia and 128,000 in Venezuela... nearly 70 per cent were from the South' Ginsborg, 1990, 211.

    Fully 7 percent of the Southern population at the time left for the North between 1958 and 1963 alone (Ginsborg, 1990, 218-220; also Putnam, 211n. 16). When you think about it, the decision to leave can be characterised as an economic one, one that favours rational choice over sentiment -- which makes its somewhat-hidden character in the book all the more puzzling.

    Though anecdotal, my experience in settling in a small, isolated community of 2000 people near Benevento has been instructive. I decided to get my papers, a process that took some three months to complete. (I hold dual citizenship.) In every single meeting with town officials, after the usual exchange of pleasantries and introductions, I was asked, over and over again: Are you mad? What reason could you have to come here? After explaining my familial links with the area, I'd get the consiglio: You want to go to Milan, or Turin. Don't stay here - work is difficult to find, the pay is bad, and you're probably used to bigger places... If not now, you will want to, later...

    ... and I fully admit the thought has occurred to me, more than once. In fact, if I could go tomorrow, I probably would.

Others in the South decided to stay and forge their own path. Putnam et al. suggest that the South lacks the kind of cultural cohesion necessary to find responsible government at work. I would argue that while the South has disadvantages, it certainly doesn't suffer from an absence of culture. On business trips within the South I noticed a number of entrepreneurial activities quite clearly modelled on the successes of the 'Third Italy' -- small, highly mobile and flexible consultancies and other services that counted governments, private investors and other businesses as their clients. I am involved in the renewable energy sector here, and a majority of our clients are either regional or local governments from the South, particularly in Campania, or enti pubblici (roughly equivalent to public corporations in American English or quangoes in British English); again predominantly Southern.

Ginsborg also notes that Southern voluntary associations (social movements and cultural groups) during the 1980s were growing at a much more rapid clip than their Northern counterparts (2001, 124). While it could be argued that they were starting from a lower point, their fervour and membership profile suggest something very unusual was occurring. Predominantly composed of students and young white-collar workers, they were to be found in all kinds of smaller as well as the larger cities in the South. The associations had a particular focus on, amongst other issues, cultural entertainments, particularly music and the cinema; as well as civic concerns such as the environment, not to be lightly dismissed in Italy given the country's level of pollution. Finally, the widespread Sicilian revolt against the Mafia during the same period set the stage, at least in part, for the eventual obliteration of the Christian Democrats from government in the early 1990s. No explanation from Putnam was given as to this omission, though it certainly would have made for interesting reading.

Suggesting that 'development is a product of culture' isn't far off from 'white man's burden'. In this way nutcases such as the Lega Nord seized upon the book's conclusions as justifying their aims, namely, the increased separation of the North from the central government in Rome, and the eventual creation of an independent northern state, called Padania (Hopkinson, 267-268: Recent 'innovative suggestions' coming from Umberto Bossi include a Miss Padania beauty contest, held for the first time this year, an idea to devolve power to three separate regional parliaments, and shifting the headquarters of the 'Communist'-dominated RAI Tre public network from Rome to Milan).

Questions of degree are not addressed well either. What I mean is that institutional efficiency is not exclusively a Northern characteristic, nor sloth or criminality solely Southern. Nationally, the most significant corruption trials of the last decade have been centred in Milan, with the 'Clean Hands' or Tangentopoli investigations of the 1990s. In Verona during the 1980s, the local Christian Democrat government was purged of older members in favour of a much more rapacious generation that actively solicited bribes and kickbacks for public works and related contracts (Ginsborg, 2001, 181). The Milanese underground during the same period had a going rate of 13.5 percent for works tenders (ibid., 183).

In the end, the book promises to cut to the heart of what 'makes Italian democracy work'. The failure to fulfill this pledge is the book's deepest flaw. Though it was hailed at the time of publication as a work of considerable political heft, it has gone from acclaim to disdain in the space of eight years. All social science books suffer from irrelevance with time, but this text's over-generalised conclusions and cultural determinism make it suitable only as a starting point in attempting to understand how politics work on this peninsula. Purtroppo.

Digressions, or The Stuff That Wouldn't Really Fit

Without norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement, the Hobbesian outcome of the Mezzogiorno -- amoral familism, clientelism, lawlessness, ineffective government, and economic stagnation -- seems likelier than successful democratization and economic development. Palermo may represent the future of Moscow. Putnam, 183

I disagree with this assessment, as it suggestively posits that Palermo is the endpoint. It isn't. Outside of the West, examples abound of places far worse off. Looking at Sierra Leone, Robert Kaplan noted that 'social dissolution was all around. The government, either as a moral force or an organising factor of public life, simply did not exist' (65).

Personal Disclaimers and Notes:  I studied Italian politics under Dr Leonardi during a Master's in London in 1994-95. Though valuable, it served no use in trying to understand the politics of this peninsula. It's only in actually living in Italy, specifically in the Mezzogiorno, that I've come to understand even a fraction of the social divide here. But that's another story in itself. If I ever get the time (and a cursory glance at my not-so-prolific output should suggest otherwise), I'll try to expand on some of the themes mentioned above.

All page number references to Putnam listed above are to Making Democracy Work, not to the Italian edition (description follows) nor to Bowling Alone, obviously.

Any foreign observer claiming Northern culture is inherently superior obviously hasn't watched enough Mediaset programming to tell the difference. Some of it is just horrific.

Submitted for the Support Your Local Library Everything Quest, May 2003.

My thanks and acknowledgements to many Italian friends, both Northern and Southern, who have illuminated and explained much to me in the last few months.

Non sono una settrionalista, neanche una meridionalista! Sono una europeanista, perĂ²...

ISBN and other publication data:  0691078890, Princeton University Press, published 29 December 1992
An Italian translation of this work is also available, though it may be difficult to locate:
Putnam, Robert D., Tradizione civica nelle regioni italiane (La), 1996, 16, pp 300, Mondadori, ISBN: 88-04-42304-8.

Additional sources:
Barzini, Luigi. The Italians, Penguin, 1968.
D'Epiro, Peter, and Pinkowish, Mary Desmond. Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World, Anchor Books (Random House), 2001.
Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988, Penguin, London, 1990.
Ginsborg, Paul. Italy and Its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State 1980-2001, Penguin, London, 2001.
Hopkinson, Lyndall Passerini, ed. Italy: Some Facts and Figures, Arti Tipografiche Toscane, Cortona, 2002.
Jones, Tobias. The Dark Heart of Italy: Travels Through Time and Space Across Italy, Faber and Faber, London, 2003.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Random House, New York, 1996 and Papermac (Macmillan Press), London, 1997.

Thanks to althorrat for the correction: Making Democracy Work is in fact still in print in the UK only

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