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  • Reassessing Italian ModernizationSocial Autonomy in the Age of Exhaustion
  • Franco Berardi (bio)


Counter-Reformation and Modernity

In this article, I wish to focus on the historical and cultural background which may help to explain the particularity of Italian modernity, starting from the Counter-Reformation, the moment when religious schism in Europe led to the cultural split that marks social and economic differentiation. The Counter-Reformation sanctioned the different pace of Christian European civilization in the age of colonization and industrialization. While the Protestant Reformation forged the culture of the northern European bourgeoisie, infusing the principles of individual discipline and personal responsibility into the public mind, Catholic culture privileged the sense of belonging and a fatalistic dependence on Providence. More deeply, the iconophobic severity of the Protestant imagination is part of the internalization of the industrial perception of time and space. According to Max Weber, classical industrial development is supported by the Protestant mentality [8–11]. In the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, the European bourgeoisie built the foundations of its power by subjecting itself to a rigid ethical and existential discipline. On the one hand, the bourgeois assumes responsibility for his or her actions and is accountable for them before God and man, and most of all before the banker. Economic fortune, then, is a worldly confirmation of divine benevolence. On the other hand, after the Council of Trent (1545–63), the Counter-Reformation reinstated the primacy of the religious over the secular realm and defended the belief that respecting the ecclesiastic hierarchy was much more important than submitting to productive discipline. The deep substratum of Catholic culture resisted both productivity and bourgeois efficiency. While Calvinism was based on the observance of the law, the spirit of the Counter-Reformation reinforced the primacy of mercy and the absolute value of repentance. The effects of the Counter-Reformation remained deeply engrained in the Italian social imaginary throughout modernity and manifested themselves in all their reactionary force at decisive moments in the life of the country. During the Neapolitan revolution of 1799, the enlightened bourgeoisie was isolated and defeated due to the complicity of the people with the House of Bourbon, the Church’s ally. After 1800, the alliance of the Church with the rural classes acted as an antibourgeois conservative force in the defense of the cultural hegemony of the Church against all attempts at the secularization of national life. In the years following the Second World War, Christian Democracy, the dominant political force in Italy, represented the mediation of a permanent equilibrium between capitalist modernization and populist and reactionary resistance. However, it would be wrong to see the “laxness” [End Page 29] that derives from the spirit of the Counter-Reformation as a purely regressive and conservative energy.

In Vuelta de siglo, the Mexican philosopher Bolívar Echeverría argues that we should not identify modernity with a single model, but rather as the coexistence of two conflicting and interweaving paradigms [195–217]. The first paradigm developed out of the dominant bourgeois vision of modernity based on the Protestant ethic and on the territorial centrality of industrial production. The other vision of modernity emerged from the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque. This “second modernity” for Echeverría became subordinate and marginalized when the industrialization of the human environment reduced the social field to a process of mechanical production and reproduction, elevating the former paradigm as the sole guarantor of modern subjectivity. The bourgeoisie is strongly rooted in a local territory because the accumulation of value cannot be separated from the buildup (and expansion) of material products derived from the conflictive cooperation of the manual skills of workers and the entrepreneurial and financial skills of capitalists. Since the sixteenth century the Catholic Church has created a different kind of modernity, based on imagination and deterritorialization. The religious power of Rome has always been based on the ideological control of imagination: mysticism, spirituality, ascetic self-denial, but also the sensuous representation of flourishing bodies and an extreme sophistication of aesthetic forms. Catholic Spain of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the harbinger of a non-industrial brand of accumulation, based on the massive robbery of the Americas. This strain of...