In Other Words

Italy’s Untouchable Caste

La Casta: Così i Politici Italiani Sono Diventati Intoccabili (The Caste: How Italian Politicians Have Become Untouchable) By Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella 284 pages, Rome: Saggi Italiani, 2007 (in Italian) Italy is a mountainous country. And, with troublesome transportation, difficult agriculture, and little interest from industry, the towns and villages in the Italian ...

La Casta: Così i Politici Italiani Sono Diventati Intoccabili
(The Caste: How Italian Politicians Have Become Untouchable)
By Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella
284 pages, Rome: Saggi Italiani, 2007 (in Italian)

Italy is a mountainous country. And, with troublesome transportation, difficult agriculture, and little interest from industry, the towns and villages in the Italian highlands move at a slower pace than communities at lower elevations. The result? Per capita incomes in Italy’s mountains are generally much lower than the national average.

But Italy is also a country where a sense of community and solidarity play huge roles both in interpersonal relations and in the central government’s policies. So, in the 1970s, the Italian government created le comunità montane, or "mountain communities." They were designed to be marked-off areas in the Italian highlands that would receive tax cuts, easy credit, and subsidies to alleviate the hardships of mountain life. In 2005, these communities received contributions of more than $240 million, or $28 per resident.

Rather than hand out the subsidies as prescribed, though, Italian politicians have applied the rather vague "mountain community" designation to any city, town, or village where political favor is for sale. As a result, the mountains have reached all the way to the sea. For example, in Palagiano, a small town in southern Italy that sits just 128 feet above sea level, those earmarked funds haven’t ended up in the citizens’ pockets; they’ve been used almost entirely to pay for new public offices and a small army of state bureaucrats called to "represent" the mountain communities.

The story of Palagiano opens the new book of two well-respected political journalists, Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella: La Casta: Così i politici italiani sono diventati intoccabili (The Caste: How Italian Politicians Have Become Untouchable). According to Rizzo and Stella, veterans at Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, Italian political life has been hijacked by what they have termed "the Caste," a political class of thousands of lawmakers who have devised rules that enrich themselves at public expense with little fear of oversight, accountability, or, in some cases, prosecution. The Caste, they claim, extends all the way to the president of the republic. But the breadth of the Caste is far greater than any one person or office. Rizzo and Stella report that members of Parliament continue to belong to the Caste even after they have resigned from office; that at least 16 of them have criminal records; and that Italy’s presidential palace costs more than four times as much to operate as Buckingham Palace. The Caste is full of such charges, which the authors unearthed from hundreds of pages of official, unclassified documents. It is a stunning indictment of the privileges, costs, abuses, and waste in Italian politics.

Unsurprisingly, The Caste has become the center of political debate in Italy. For many, it is a conversation about Italian politics that began in 1992 with the criminal investigation of leading politicians on bribery and corruption charges, called Mani Pulite, or "Clean Hands." After the investigation, two of the main political parties — the Christian Democrats and the Socialists — collapsed and disappeared. Until The Caste came along, though, there had been no real catalyst for widespread public dissent about Italy’s lawmakers. It has sold almost 1 million copies, an unthinkable number for this kind of political work, and has become, without a doubt, the book of the year in Italy.

Italians are fed up with the way their country has been run — and, in flocking to bookstores in droves, they’re expressing real disappointment in a way that’s more immediate and effective than at the voting booth. In Italy, political leadership is not generated through a free competition of ideas, with parties presenting lists of candidates from which the most appealing can be chosen. Instead, the Caste decides who will be part of it and who will not. In the voting booth, people are faced with symbols of the parties and blocked lists of names: When a voter chooses Party A or Party B, he or she is not deciding who will be elected, because this choice is — by law — a prerogative of the heads of Parties A and B. For years, a standard reply was issued to anyone criticizing Italian parties and politicians’ infinite generosity toward no one but themselves: "Politics has its costs, and that is the price of democracy." To be fair, a debate over the costs of politics is happening throughout Europe — over how much the state ought to finance parties and what compensation should be given to those who handle public matters. But Italy’s case is profoundly different from the rest of the European Union, because Italians simply do not have the chance to change the politicians they don’t like.

Rizzo and Stella chalk up Italian politicians’ unique status partly to the economic guarantees that the Caste extends to its members. Every month, a senator receives somewhere between $16,800 and $18,200, which includes both a basic salary of $5,600 and a variety of immunities and privileges large and small, everything from free rides on trains and airplanes, to reserved seats at soccer games, movies, and plays. In theory, these are not astronomical stipends. The problem, however, becomes disturbingly evident once the level of compensation is compared with the perennially dismal state of Italy’s public finances. For more than 20 years, Italian governments of all political persuasions have had to confront a public debt well above 100 percent of gross domestic product. That means that in 2007, Italy will have to pay $98 billion as interest on its debt, or almost 80 percent of what it spends to finance one of the best universal healthcare systems in Europe.

In so many other democracies, corrupt and wasteful politicians would simply be thrown out of office with the next election cycle. But adding to the resentment among Italians is the fact that the Caste doesn’t simply occupy a building in Rome or belong to a single party; politicians on both the left and the right belong to this self-perpetuating political class. Of course, there are exceptions. But the few ethical politicians face an almost hopeless struggle against this nomenklatura whose roots permeate the entire country, from north to south, creating smaller Castes at the local and regional level.

Notably, the Caste has offered up very little in response to Rizzo and Stella’s charges. In late July, the presidents of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies announced — in grand style — their intention to one day reform the parliamentary pension system and recall a $4,200 annual allowance for themselves, as measures to cut politicians’ benefits. Of course, it didn’t help that members of Parliament were granted an automatic salary hike amounting to more than $280 a month just a few weeks later.

Indeed, the Caste’s response has been so muted that it may have aggravated the problem. In September, public discontent was funneled into a protest led by a popular comedian, Beppe Grillo. Riding on the coattails of a recent Supreme Court ruling, in which it was decided that gracing someone with the supreme insult is not in fact punishable by law, Grillo organized a "F@#k You Day" throughout Italy, collecting signatures to present a popular-initiative law that would prohibit the election of politicians who have been convicted for criminal behavior and set a maximum of two five-year terms for parliamentarians. In one afternoon, he collected 300,000 signatures.

To this, the Caste reacted immediately, labeling the ballot initiative as the usual apathy and populist mistrust toward politics. Although the irony may have been lost on them, those politicians reacting with irritation toward the comedian’s petition only confirmed the perception that the Caste believes it alone should participate in Italian politics. But, with a million copies of Rizzo and Stella’s damning indictment sold, the odds that Italians will simply stay put and watch have never been so low. Today, the Caste has never seemed less untouchable.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola