The Primacy of Collective Being, or Culture Beats Institutions - the Example of Italy

APRIL 21, 2019

Italy provides a perfect natural experiment regarding “being” (aka culture) vs structure (aka institutions). We have the same institutions be that at Risorgimento in 1871 or new regionalism in the 1970s, but very different cultures – crudely the “North” and the “South”. And culture absolutely dominated:

The new institutions of the unified nation-state, far from homogenizing traditional patterns of politics, were themselves pulled ineluctably into conformity with those contrasting traditions, just as the regional governments after 1970 would be remolded by these same social and cultural contexts: [Putnam p. 145]

Thus, we have a perfect example of the primacy of “being”, in this case collective being as culture, over structure (institutions and rules of governance).


The North after risorgimento rapidly returned to its rich network of horizontal ties established 700 years earlier. There developed a dense and diverse set of mutual aid societies, cooperatives as well as more informal practices such as the aiutarella (mutual assistance at harvest). The two new parties of the socialists and catholics reflected and built on these traditions – whilst politically in competition at a socio-cultural level they drew on the same roots of collective being: high trust, mutual aid and solidarity and a rich horizontal network of ties and support.

But in the South, the centuries-old (or even millenial-old) vertical clientilism continued even under these new, more liberal conditions. Here, with no civic tradition to draw on, no civic tradition was created and politics remained a case of feudalistic vertical assistance and dependency. Distrust between all parties remained high and all groups detested and distrusted the state. Day to day culture was a case of amoral familism of each for his own, of brutal competition between impoverished peasants fighting for scraps of work and food on the feudal latifundia.

An important aside: this is real evidence for collective being because these “amoral familial” peasants of the south once they migrated north after the second world war would to a man become active members of the communist party in Emilia romagna and Lombardy (see Norman Lewis in the “Honoured Society”). Aside: It would be interesting to study the trust level of, say, peasants from Italy when they migrated northwards.

And we have a perfect example of the primacy of “being”, in this case collective being as culture, over structure (institutions and rules of governance):

The new institutions of the unified nation-state, far from homogenizing traditional patterns of politics, were themselves pulled ineluctably into conformity with those contrasting traditions, just as the regional govern- ments after 1970 would be remolded by these same social and cultural contexts:


From p.142 ff. of Putnam, Robert D., Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Nanetti. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Although mutual aid societies, cooperatives, and other manifestations of civic solidarity were established in all sectors of the economy and in all parts of the peninsula, they were not equally extensive or equally successful everywhere. In north-central Italy, mirroring almost precisely that area where the communal republics had longest endured five centuries earlier (and where the most civic regions would be found in the 1970s), the medieval traditions of collaboration persisted, even among poor peasants. “A significant network of social and economic obligations, particularly in the countryside, is formed by the recognition of neighborhoodship. Between vicini [neighbors] there is continuous mutual aid and exchange of services.

Sharecropping families had in fact developed a rich network of exchanges and mutual aid: typical of these was the aiutarella, the exchange of labour between families at crucial moments in the agricultural calendar, such as at threshing time. On a cultural level there was also the important practice of the veglia. During the long winter evenings, families would gather in the stables or kitchens of the farmhouses, to play cards and games, to knit and to mend, to listen to and tell stories. Participation in the veglia was not segregated family by family. Rather, . . . it involved rotating hospitality and a complex system of visiting.

By stark contrast, an 1863 report concluded that in Calabria, a desolate land locked in the southern traditions of authoritarian rule (and destined to rank as the least civic of all the regions in the 1970s), there were “no associations, no mutual aid; everything is isolation. Society is held up by the natural civil and religious bonds alone; but of economic bonds there is nothing, no solidarity between families or between individuals or between them and the government."

In areas of Italy long subjected to autocratic rule, national unification did little to inculcate civic habits:

In all classes the absence of a community sense resulted from a habit of insubordination learned in centuries of despotism. Even the nobles had become accustomed to obstruction, and thought that governments could be fairly cheated without moral obliquity so long as the cheating were successful. . . . Instead of recognizing that taxes had to be paid, the attitude was rather that if one group of people had discovered a profitable evasion, then other groups had better look to their own interests. Each province, each class, each industry thus endeavored to gain at the expense of the community.

Southern agriculture, although complicated by a crazy-quilt patchwork of landholding, was typified by the latifondo,96 or large estate, worked by impoverished peasants:

The peasants were in constant competition with each other for the best strips of land on the latifondo, and for what meagre resources were available. Vertical relationships between patron and client, and obsequiousness to the landlord, were more important than horizontal solidarities. As Bevilacqua has written for the period 1880-1920: The peasant classes were more at war amongst themselves than with the other sectors of rural society; a war which fed off a terrain of recurring and real contrasts, both economic, psychological and cultural.’ That such attitudes triumphed can only be understood in the context of a society which was dominated by distrust. . . . [T]he weight of the past, when combined with the failures of state authority after 1860 and the disastrous peasant-landlord relations . . . produced a society where fede pub-blica (civic trust) had been reduced to a minimum: ‘chi ara diritto, muore disperato’ (he who behaves honestly comes to a miserable end) was a noted Calabrian proverb.

The primeval mistrust that rent the social fabric in these regions was, in fact, captured in innumerable proverbs:

  • “Damned is he who trusts another.”
  • “Don’t make loans, don’t give gifts, don’t do good, for it will turn out bad for you.”
  • “Everyone thinks of his own good and cheats his companion.”
  • “When you see the house of your neighbor on fire, carry water to your own.”

In the Mezzogiorno, above all, observed Pasquale Villari in 1883, “One feels too much the I and too little the ‘we’.“99

The combination of impoverishment and mutual distrust forestalled horizontal solidarity and fostered what Banfield has called “amoral familism.“100 “In an overcrowded latifundia economy,” recalls Sidney Tarrow, “the village square was an employment bureau where the fortunate few found a day’s labor while their bitter neighbors looked on.“101 “Each be- came different from the other; he came to find himself ever more involved in a bitter battle of competition to obtain work or to be able to cultivate a little land, and thus participated less in class solidarity and in the life of the collectivity, and appeared exclusively interested in the progress of himself and his family.” Mark the contrast with those landless braccianti of civic Emilia-Romagna who, facing a similar dilemma, formed a voluntary cooperative to seek shared work.

As Tarrow, among other scholars, has emphasized, the South was not (and is not) apolitical or asocial. On the contrary, political cunning and social connections have long been essential to survival in this melancholy land. The relevant distinction is not between the presence and absence of social bonds, but rather between horizontal bonds of mutual solidarity and vertical bonds of dependency and exploitation. The southerner—whether peasant or city-dweller, whether in the old Hapsburg kingdom of the sixteenth century, the new Italian kingdom of the nineteenth century, or (as we saw in the previous chapter) the regional politics of the late twentieth century—has sought refuge in vertical bonds of patronage and clientelism, employed for both economic and political ends:

Clientelism is the product of a disorganic society and tends to preserve social fragmentation and disorganization. . . . Turiello [a close observer of the Mezzogiorno in the 1880s] refers again and again to the ‘excessive isolation (scioltezza) of individuals’ who feel no moral bond outside the family, and views the clientele as the specific remedy for a disjointed society. The clientele, he wrote, are ‘the only associations which actually show real operative energy in a civil society which has been divided within itself for centuries’ and in which people unite not on the basis of mutual trust but only when forced by necessity.104

The new institutions of the unified nation-state, far from homogenizing traditional patterns of politics, were themselves pulled ineluctably into conformity with those contrasting traditions, just as the regional governments after 1970 would be remolded by these same social and cultural contexts:

In the 1870s, one can say that the most advanced provinces of Italy already were expressing their preferences through free institutions or associations— agrarian associations, mutual aid societies, chambers of commerce, savings banks—while the southern ones were more inclined to make use of personal

The southern feudal nobility—along with elements of the urban professional classes who had acquired common land and Church properties expropriated by the newly-forged Italian state—used private violence, as well as their privileged access to state resources, to reinforce vertical relations of dominion and personal dependency and to discourage horizontal solidarity.106 Leopoldo Franchetti, a civic-minded Tuscan landowner who in 1876 authored a remarkable analysis of social conditions in Sicily, concluded:

The landed classes ruled from on high the network of clientelistic structures at various levels and maintained contact for their own advantage with the supreme representative organs of the country. . . . Every local notable in his jurisdiction of power was the head of a network of persons of the most diverse social conditions, who depended on him for their economic survival and social prestige and who furnished him legal support in terms of electoral suffrage and illegal support in the recourse to private violence in defense of his particular interests, in a rigorously hierarchical relationship of para-feudal dependence.107

For wretchedly vulnerable peasants, recourse to patron-client ties was a sensible response to an atomized society. One recent account of the “moral economy” of life on a latifondo estate in Calabria in the first half of the nineteenth century recounts that peasants in fact feared exclusion from the patron-client system, for it alone assured their physical subsistence, along with the necessary intermediation with distant state authorities and a primitive kind of private welfare program (pensions for widows and orphans and occasional “gratuities”), so long as the peasant-client remained obedient, “faithful” to the estate, and “available” to perform chores as required by the landlord-patron.108 In the absence of horizontal solidarity, as exemplified by mutual aid societies, vertical dependence is a rational strategy for survival—even when those who are dependent recognize its drawbacks.109

The dispossessed southern peasantry did not always endure their fate in silence. ognize its drawbacks. Violent protest movements, including chronic brigandage, flared like heat lightning across the Mezzogiorno landscape throughout the late nineteenth century. However, these anarchic episodes (unlike the con- temporary urban and rural strike waves in the center and north of the country) produced no permanent organization and left little residue of collective solidarity.110 The South remained, as the great Communist intellectual Antonio Granisci lamented, “a great social disaggregation.“111 Despite the occasional violent revolts, “it is more important to emphasize the more usual passive reaction of resigned submission. For it is this sub- mission that provides the historical background to the acceptance of the arrogation of power by individuals, viz. the mafiosi, by the rest of the 112 population.”