Italy: From Revolution to Republic, 1700 to the Present

By Spencer M. Di Scala | Go to book overview
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Social and Economic Dilemmas

In judging the social and economic policies of Italy after unification, historians frequently fail to emphasize the difficulties of creating a unified state. The Risorgimento patriots had been too preoccupied in forging unity to devote much attention to the economic and social issues that would confront them afterward. Furthermore, the Italian peninsula presented unique problems. It exhibited a disparity probably found in no other European country. The old states had a long, entrenched history, having been cited by Renaissance historian Jacob Burckhardt as the first modern ones; this factor rooted separate administrations, economic policies, systems of law, mentalities, and dialects in different areas. Although standard Italian had been the first tongue to establish itself in early modern Europe, ordinary people spoke dialects frequently unintelligible to inhabitants of different regions.

After unification, Piedmont resolved these problems in a superficial but perhaps the only politically viable manner, given international conditions: by extending its administrative, economic, and legal structures to the rest of the peninsula. This policy caused long-term resentment and revolts, but crucial short-term questions had to be solved as well and immediately. Consider the basic issue of budgeting, which affects all areas of social and economic life: "No one knew, for example, how much tax evasion there was; only an oracle could have forecast what military expenditures would be to cope with brigandage or keep an army at fighting trim for fear of international complications; and even a supernatural power would have been hard pressed to know how much the founding fathers would pay out for public works, especially railroads."

During the first forty years after unification, an economic web of immense complexity threatened the new state. Italian statesmen understood the need for a modern infrastructure to create a national market and to link the country to Europe, and they substantially completed that task by 1880. This accomplishment brought notable trade increases, but it did not automatically resolve the major economic imbalances of the peninsula, which had existed for centuries.


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