Fear and loathing in Southern Europe

  • September 3, 2011

Capitalism & Crisis

Underneath the blistering summer sun and humid skies of the Mediterranean, the façade of the Rennaisance is slowly beginning to wither away.

Florence, Italy, September 3, 2011

“It’s such a shame,” Efisio tells me with heart-felt Italian melancholy as we stare at the crumbling façade of  this impressive 15th century palazzo. “The place is deserted. Completely abandoned.” Indeed, as I cast my eyes onto the giant columns sustaining the outside loggia, the quintessential cupola above the heart of the villa, and the weathered frescoes on its ceiling, I struggle to imagine that this crappy youth hostel once used to be the pride of one of the world’s richest families. Right here, on the border between Florence and the Tuscan countryside, in the very cradle of the risorgimento, underneath the blistering summer sun and humid skies of the Mediterranean, the façade of the Renaissance is slowly beginning to wither away, exposing the cold and naked logic of the new Europe of today. It’s like the edifice of our ancient civilization is caving in to external dynamics over which we have absolutely no control. The light is still shining bright, but everyone here knows that dark days are ahead.

“Look around,” the 50-year old laments in his thick Sardinian accent. “There are only, what, 30 people here? This place could house hundreds.” It’s true: the place is enormous, and there’s a huge garden with camping space where internal labor migrants like Efisio could easily be housed for free. “But it’s so expensive,” he complains. “And the restaurant is completely shit, the bar is always closed, the paint is peeling off. Someone should fix this place up. I would do it. If only I could. But, fuck, I need money, and they probably don’t have any either.” I take a drag from my cigarette and let him finish in silence, softly nodding my head in understanding. “Why don’t you go back home?” I ask him after a while, already knowing the answer. He looks away and pauses for a moment. “I have no other choice,” he finally says. “What can I do? There’s just no work back home.”

Efisio is the third middle-aged Southern Italian I meet here. He is an uneducated construction worker, driven from his home in the Mediterranean to Northern Italy in the hope of finding some kind of job and a place to live. But even here work is scarce, so he’s been spending the past month living in various youth hostels around the city. I, on the other hand, have come to Florence to bask in the superficial glory of a fully-funded doctoral program. During the welcome ceremony, amid a load of blabla, the President (who is a former President of European Parliament) told us not to treat the Institute as an ivory tower. But the way it sits there on the hills of Fiesole, overlooking the city of Florence, far removed from the day-to-day concerns of the average Italian, it turns out to be exactly that: a cosmopolitan island of self-fashioned intellectuals in a nationwide sea of despair. How could these people ever help fix Efisio’s problems? I feel like I’m in the wrong place. While I’ll be busy taking the nonsensical obligatory course in quantitative methods, Europe will voluntarily drag itself ever closer to collapse. To what end would we want to theorize this without taking action?

The piazzas and restaurants of the city center may still be full with German and American tourists, and Florence may actually be weathering the financial storm quite well, but it’s the real Italy, not the open air museums, that I’m worried about. The Italy of real Italians, like Salvatore, my roommate for the past three nights. An incredibly kind man who speaks fluent French and English, who shared his food with me, told me about his children back in Naples and how much he missed them. He had been lucky enough to find a decent job teaching French at a school just outside of Florence, but when I told him I was from the Netherlands, his eyes suddenly lit up. “Good people, good country!” he exclaimed. “Do you think I could find a job there?” I faked a smile not to break his dreams. Told him he might find employment at some French school. But all I could think in the back of my head was: “is this really what the European Dream is all about?” We are driving the people of the North to the point of depression, where they only want to emigrate South, while driving the people of the South to the point of despair, where they only want to emigrate North.

Salvatore’s boyish excitement about the theoretical possibility of ever moving to the Netherlands made me feel sad. I fled my country, which still has ample opportunity, precisely because I found it to be lacking in soul. But now that I arrive in the land with soul, it turns out its aging body is crippling. And so we are all left with hope of a better, happier future elsewhere. Streams of migrants crossing throughout Europe and across the Mediterranean in search of a better future — with a tiny bit of hope that it should still be possible to live a dignified existence somewhere else. I actually saw that same glimmer of hope in Efisio’s eyes last night when I told him that I was leaving the hostel in a few days to move into my new place. He asked me about it, so I showed him the pictures. His eyes lit up. “Give me your phone number,” he said. “Perhaps I can live with you?” I obligingly gave him my details, but I warned him that my landlord only allows students in the house. “Oh, fucking students,” he blurted out. “Every time I try to find a place in this shitty town they tell me they only accept students. And you know why? Because they get a subsidy from the government if they only have students in the house. What’s a simple guy like me going to do? They don’t want workers anywhere. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.” I looked at his weathered face and I realized that the only places I ever experienced this sense of despair before were Zimbabwe and Greece.

In a way, it has always been like this in Italy: poor peasants from the South flocking North in search of a better future. But there is something different in the air from earlier times that I was here. When I first came to Florence in 2004, I remember opening the bedroom window to the smell of spring and Italian food and thinking to myself: “this is where I want to live!” I came back in 2005 to live and study in Bologna for a semester. It was one of the most exciting times of my life: we occupied the political science faculty for weeks on end to protest against Berlusconi’s budget cuts in education and culture. We marched on Rome against the Moratti reforms and were battered by riot police. In a sense, it was a typical “Latin” university experience, filled with anger at the conservative and authoritarian government and packed with student activism against the establishment. But something changed. As Alfredo, a colleague PhD researcher, put it: “the Italians are asleep. We are facing the worst crisis in recent history, and the people are sleeping.”

This seems bizarre, since distrust for the authorities and outright popular resistance have always gone hand in hand in Italy, from the Turin factory uprisings and the Bologna Commune to the Partisan Resistance and the Brigate Rosse. What is so shocking to discover coming back here in 2011, is that the political and economic situation has only gotten worse, while the political engagement appears to have all but evaporated. Precisely in the year that the entire Mediterranean decided to burst into flames, Italy somehow chose to stay quiet. It’s a strange dialectic: on the one hand, the lack of political engagement feeds the widespread sense of powerlessness, while at the same time, this powerlessness drives even the most committed citizens into the realm of political apathy. As Zygmunt Bauman recently put it, it is absolutely frightening to think that no one might actually be in control. Politics has remained national, but power has all but evaporated into global flows — capital flows, information flows, trade flows. Why bother with politics if the politicians have lost their power? Why bother protesting against Berlusconi’s absurd circus sideshow, if even Il Cavaliere himself is apparently forced to play second fiddle to Mr Trichet of the European Central Bank?

And so I’m sitting here in the only air-conditioned room of a youth hostel populated by German high school students, spending my time helping three old Italian men navigate their way onto the internet. I helped one of them set up Skype so he could talk to his family, helped another find his way onto case.it to find a house, and am right now helping the third one set up a WordPress blog to promote his business while finishing up this article. “You look a bit sad today,” he says, after I fail to answer one of his questions. He’s right. After just a few days here, I can’t help being drawn in by the sense of fear and loathing that has made itself master of the soul of this beautiful country. Staring out of the window, my eyes fall back upon those crumbling columns holding up the loggia. I wonder how much longer they can hold before the whole edifice collapses.

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