Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

The Working Class Goes to Hell: Economic Issues in Post-World War II Italian Cinema

Academic journal article Annali d'Italianistica

The Working Class Goes to Hell: Economic Issues in Post-World War II Italian Cinema

Article excerpt

1. Prologue in the Factories

What is, in theological terms, the reverse of a miracle? What is, in economic terms, the reverse of an "economic miracle"? As today's Italy faces the danger of economic implosion, and with it, the reversal of almost half a century of progress, the country is now confronted with the very real danger of losing the relief it thought to have found from centuries of poverty, backwardness and emigration. In this process, a protracted recent period of governmental corruption and mismanagement of resources, mixed in with a cheerful dosis of plain buffoonery, have of course played an indispensable pernicious role; but they were not the root cause of the decline. There must clearly be more at stake than a series of electoral "wrong choices" if since the end of the Second World War, Italy, having first gone from backwardness to development, has now reverted again to something uncannily suggesting backwardness redux. Granted, the cycles of history appear to have a habit periodically to come and go; or rather, it would seem, first they go and then they come back--usually, to pretty much the same place from which they had originally left. Thus, in principle there is nothing especially new in the whole process as we see it unfold in today's Italy. And yet, such tides and ebbs usually take centuries to play themselves out in full; one is therefore inevitably puzzled as to how the present negative phase could work its effects through the Italian polity in the "mere" span of about two decades, less than the time of a human generation. How could things go so horribly wrong, so fast?

This is both an Italian history and a global one.

Capitalism, especially in its laissez-faire ("classic," "liberal," and more recently, "neo-classic," "neo-liberal") variant, has long been known for both its unethical, or non-ethical, system of values (pace Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759), and on the side of pragmatics, its instability. On both accounts, though focusing especially on the latter, Marx and Engels famously scrutinized capitalism's recurrent crises, stating a truth unspeakable to capitalists, but otherwise fairly obvious. This is the truth that--as, one generation ago, Minsky wryly summarized the issue--capitalism is affected by "a basic flaw: the system has problems with capital" (Minsky, "Back from the Brink," 1988, 28). (1) Notably, the point that most gripped Marx's and Engels's attention was the issue of overproduction, that is, the system's ever-looming incapacity adequately to clear the merchandises produced. What will happen, Marx and Engels asked, when so much will be produced that not enough takers will be available (willing or, more to the point, able) to buy the merchandise accumulated by the uncontrollable capitalistic mechanism?

During Marx's life and, later, well into the age of imperialism, the next question then became to explain by what devices, in the teeth of all theoretical odds, capitalism could possibly continue to manage standing tall, as it variously did in a number of diverse countries. Lenin's, and Luxembourg's, reply was that the by no means miraculous, in fact quite predictable mechanism giving it an ever-renewed lease of life was its unstoppable incorporation into its machinery of more and more "virgin soil" captured across the globe. New sources of supply and new markets/outlets, so Lenin and Luxembourg argued, kept feeding it and, in return, absorbing its production, thus seemingly postponing forever the day of the reckoning. That day would come (as, quite punctually, it did at the time of the two World Wars) when the imperialist powers, having run out of empty global spaces to occupy, would clash with each other at their mutual borders. At that point inter-imperial wars were bound to ensue, forcing capitalism to reveal, by a circuitous but inevitable path, its own inherently destructive nature. (2) There is little need for further elaboration here on the remarkable extent to which the weak, underdeveloped Italian State was an active player in the imperialist game--except to point out, perhaps, that in desperately pursuing, come what may, the gunboat race for reasons of prestige, the Italian ruling class of that period mistook the means for the goal, and thus ended up grabbing at great cost "virgin soils" that neither supplied much, nor took much Italian production in return. …

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