Italy Wakes Up

This summer, political journalists Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo exposed the excess and corruption of Italian politics in their book, The Caste: How Italian Politicians Have Become Untouchable. Reviewing the work in the November/December issue of FOREIGN POLICY, Antonio Carlucci says The Caste has “become the center of political debate” in the country. Now, FP sits down with the men who started the firestorm.

Related to this article: Italys Untouchable Caste
by Antonio Carlucci
For additional Web extras from the November/December 2007 issue of FP, click here.

FOREIGN POLICY: Your book, The Caste, is an impressive work of investigative journalism: You uncovered corruption, inefficiency, and dirty secrets everywhere from the Italian Senates restaurant halls to local administrations in remote villages. What motivated you to embark on such a massive enterprise?

Gian Antonio Stella: It was a civic duty. We did it because someone needed to do it. We didnt in the least expect that the book would turn out [to be] such a success.

Sergio Rizzo: It was born out of a journalistic intuition. Mr. Stella and I noticed that in last years state budget bill, there was an item that grows bigger every year and never shrinks. Im talking about the so-called expenses for constitutional organs. We started from there, inquiring into the costs of each branch of the state. This inquiry turned first into a journalistic investigation published in the daily Corriere della Sera [newspaper] and then into our book. We expected that the book would [sell] 30,000 copies in the first edition; it seemed an optimistic but cautious forecast, in line with the kind of book we were about to publish. Then, in four months, we reached 760,000 copies and 18 reprints. But this isnt just about sales figures; whats most important is what came out of it. Normally, such essays lie on the desk of the person who bought them. In this case, though, families are buying our book. You could say that at least 2 million people must have read it.

FP: What is your favorite anecdote in the book?

GS: What made me laugh the most is that there is one barber for every 36 senators, which is absolutely absurd. And these barbers can receive up to ($190,000) per year, which is $36,000 more than the salary of [the] Lord Chamberlain in the British monarchy. Its something that makes you laugh, but at the same time makes you want to cry, much like the rest of the book. What I find most outrageous is that there is a law in Italy according to which if you give money to a political party you can benefit from tax breaks of up to 51 times more than if you would have given the money to research against cancer.

FP: What were your main sources?

SR: But for a few exceptions, it all came from data available to the public. Yesterday, for example, I went to the Camera (the lower house), which publishes these [tables] that tell you how much money Mr. X or Y received and from whom. For example, on July 30, the Democratic Socialist Party received more than $142,000 from an organization called Progetto Novanta. Any idea who this is? Its run by Sergio Scarpellini [an entrepreneur whom The Caste reveals to have rented palaces around Rome to the Senate and lower house at sky-high prices in exchange for financial contributions to various political parties and individual politicians]. It is still going on. But this is just to show you that we didnt need to do difficult researcheverything was already published in public documents. In the balance sheets of the Senate, the lower house, the presidency everything is out there. But because we put the pieces together and made it so easy to read that was what created a popular uproar. You put the single facts and anecdotes together and you get a monstrous picture.

FP: The Caste appears at a time when newspaper headlines are full of tirades against political parties and politicians in general. In early September, famous Italian political satirist Beppe GrilloItalys Michael Moorerallied 50,000 people in Bologna to protest against politicians and corruption at all levels. Whats going on? Are these signs of change, or futile expressions of frustration with no concrete political outcomes?

GS: To those who say that this popular reaction isnt constructive, I respond with an Italian saying: From what pulpit comes the preaching? Those who say our critique of the system is not constructive are the same people who let Italys presidential palace become four times more expensive than Buckingham Palace; they are the ones who made it possible for everyone to write the budget as they please, so that it is impossible in Italy to compare any two (public) balance sheets; they are the same people who let politics become so expensive that, while German citizens pay a maximum of $142 million per year for public funding of political parties, Italians pay $426 million. Its easy to accuse the citizens of giving in to demagogy, but where do populist reactions originate? From a rigorous denunciation of the failures of the system, such as our book, or from those who pay a stenographer $361,000 a year, that is, $28,000 more than the president of the republic himself? Who is stirring populism?

FP: So, what would you do to change the system?

SR: First, I would draft a new electoral law that would restore the possibility for voters to look in the face the representatives they elect to Parliament. [The current electoral law, passed in early 2006, does not allow people to cast their vote for a single representative of their choice. People only pick a political party, and the partys leadership then decides who sits in Parliament]. And second, of course, we must rely on personalities of great moral stature and power to cut down on public expenses. I am convinced that if they would allow the minister of the economy [Tommaso Padoa Schioppa] to do his job, we would achieve important results. He is a person of unimpaired integrity who has worked at the Central Bank of Europe. But if someone always stands up to say, You cant cut this! or You cant cut that!, even he wont get anywhere. Third, we need to start abolishing the [subsidized] provinces and all of those unnecessary intermediary centers of power between the central government and municipalities. We must carefully analyze the whole system of regional governments and the powers they hold. We need to rethink and reform just about everything. We need to rescue a sense of the general welfare. We need to start looking beyond our own nose, beyond the next provincial, regional, or general elections, and conceive of broader possibilities.

GS: First of all, I would make everyone draft balance sheets where purchasing newspapers is called newspaper purchase, renting cars for government ceremonies would be called government car rental, and allotting funds for public infrastructures would be called public infrastructure allotment. Now, everyone writes the budget as they please, making it completely incomprehensible. This transparency is a priority, even before cutting expenses. It must come before everything else.

FP: You call the political elite a privileged caste, but can you absolve Italians? In a democracy, isnt the political class a representation of the voters who elected it?

GS: Its true that a society is no better than its political facade. But the leading class is called leading because it must lead a country. You dont send a mediocre team to the world championships; you send the best you have. Right now, Italys leading class doesnt lead. I dont settle for leadership that is the same as the rest of the country.

SR: No, absolutely not. When you go to vote for Party X, and you know that in Party X there are candidates who have been convicted for corruption, then you are an accomplice on some level. Those who vote and make a bad choice cant complain. But it is a bit hard to make a distinction between honest and corrupt candidates under the current electoral law, which only allows citizens to pick the party and not the single representatives.

FP: You often mention Britain and Germany as examples of integrity, honesty, and transparency in political affairs. But other Western democracies have certainly had their fair share of scandal, too. Maybe the grass isnt always greener?

GS: There is, however, a fundamental difference. We are not saying that we can have a perfect world; we would be happy with just having a normal democracy where every now and then people make mistakes, and scandals break, and the guilty party pays for it. In Italy, those who make mistakes never pay. [U.S.] Sen. Larry Craigs political career is over. If he had been Italian, he might have had some chance of getting away with it. In the United States, if you upset your voters morals, youre done.

SR: Look at Germany. Their system of public funding for political parties is different; they have a limit of nearly $190 million. Here in Italy, money keeps popping up everywhere. German politicians display a level of integrity and competence that is unknown here [Angela] Merkel has been spotted in Naples while waiting in line for a ferry ticket to Capri. I dont know how many Italian politicians you would see waiting for a ferry ticket.

FP: How did politicians react to the publication of The Caste?

GS: Now that it is a few months after the publication, we can say it openly: It was horrible.

SR: Politicians reactions are these. [He pulls out Corriere della Sera dated Sept. 19, 2007, and points at the headline, (Italian President Giorgio) Napolitano says anti-politics is dangerous.] When the head of state says that newspapers must beware of how they deal with political themes and avoid sensationalism, [he is] clearly aiming at those who conduct journalistic investigations and uncover the eyesores in our political system.

At first, politicians reacted with indifference. Then they started warning against populism. Some told me, Thats not really how things are. But it was always about insignificant details. For example, we wrote that if you have some item stolen in the lower house, you can get a refund. Politicians rebuked by saying that you can only get a refund for stolen objects that were left in the checkroom. But (the checkroom staff) explained to us that the custom was to just give the money out whenever a refund was requested in order to avoid lengthy arguments. That is what happened. When the book came out, [that practice] stopped.

FP: What were the best critiques you received?

SR: What was really importantbesides the positive critiques we received from the press, including the international presswas that people started talking politics again. People in this country, the man on the street, had stopped discussing politics. Now, whats remarkable is that every time we present this book, and there have been hundreds of book presentations, it turns into a debate. We did a video chat in Milan. The moment we sat down, there were already 1,000 questions, that is, 1,000 people who each had a question. By the time we left, there were 2,500 questions from all around the world: Italians in France, Germany, Mexico, Mozambique, Paraguay, the United States we didnt know which ones to answer. And then these people started chatting with each other, discussing politics. That is the most important thing: That a country that was asleep is waking up again.

Interview: Erica Alini, a researcher at the Associated Presss Rome bureau.