- The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy
Without Gramsci, neither contemporary Italy nor Andrea Muehlebach’s book about it could be imagined. For this writer, and for Muehlebach, this is precisely the problem, for Italians of many political stripes seeking social change invoke as their interlocutors Machiavelli and the Catholic Church in their (r)evolutionary visions of a new Italian society. Between their imagination of hegemonic conquest and the act, however, lies the sclerotic Italian society of the past quarter century, transforming each bold idea into pusillanimous power projections onto a political and social landscape still unaccepting of its Cold War and un-rejecting of its Fascist pasts.
Muehlebach argues that Italians today, or more specifically Milanese Italians under the fetishizing guise of volunteer work, are becoming increasingly responsible for helping disadvantaged individuals and groups neglected or delegated to their care by the state. In doing so, they are transforming themselves into persons for whom citizenship no longer consists of positive rights for themselves or the people they help, but becomes a new kind of subjection in which supplanting state effort itself is a form of validation and virtue. Both persons from Catholic and leftists sectors (specifically the leftist union confederation) participate wholeheartedly in this exercise, the possible unintended by-product of which is an affect-laden belief in the need for a society with broadly distributed social compassion.
This new disposition derives from the workings of neoliberalism in the Italian context, the author argues, hence the title “the moral neoliberal.” The theoretical relationship posited between neoliberalism and a new social personality seems to me a bit forced and at odds with the actual history of neoliberal programs and the rise of the Italian welfare state. The latter, such as it is, developed as a highly path-dependent zigzag of programs [End Page 1279] and policies traveling through a post-World War II Italian society buffeted by the imperatives of feeding itself and making a collective living in the face of its much stronger European neighbors; by massive worker resistance in Italy’s industrial core and worker complacency everywhere else; and by the maneuvers of the American hegemon to govern a polity split between Church and lay parties, all of whom wanted to create a distributive state in their quest for political legitimacy. Classically “late-developing,” historically forced to protect itself from economic and political marginalization within the northern-dominated European community, possessed of North-South economic differences inside its borders without parallel in Western Europe, Italy can even claim the dubious distinction of being among the first, and certainly the first of any major Western economy, to suffer in 1974 an IMF structural adjustment program. Even so, while the country was caught in the clutches of international as well as its own bankers, the Italian Parliament in 1978 created a universal, national health service, an achievement which, like its British counterpart or the United States’ Social Security Act, remains the crown jewel of an otherwise jerry-rigged welfare state. I would argue that Italy offers very particular “particulars” to its interpreters that destabilize the kind of sure-fired, direct relationship posited by Muehlebach between a neoliberalist epoch and the new form of comportment she argues is emerging in Italy today.
The book is oddly pitched. If it is to serve as an essay on neoliberal temperament as conditioned by the formation of a new socially helping, though responsibalized self, then its scope should have included putting the Italian findings among others now reported around the neoliberalized world. Instead, after cursory mention of the new role of affect in what are taken to be neoliberalized societies, the book might best work under the title “The Northern Italian Way of Welfare,” in which the evidence the author adduces from interaction with volunteers, volunteer trainers, and volunteer agencies would establish her case indeed. The Catholic Church in Italy, an outsized entity if there ever was one, jealously protects its seignorial rights as the country’s chief charity arm, securing directly from the Italian state the right to be the...