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  • Building a Civil Society: Associations, Public Life, and the Origins of Modern Italy by Steven C. Soper
  • Dario Gaggio
Steven C. Soper. Building a Civil Society: Associations, Public Life, and the Origins of Modern Italy. University of Toronto Press. viii, 310. $85.00

Italian liberalism is usually associated with failure. “Liberal Italy,” the regime that emerged from the unification movement (the Risorgimento), gave way to Fascism in the early 1920s, and the post-World War II political system was dominated by Catholic and Marxist parties that were critical of liberalism. Even the end of the Cold War has not led to the emergence of credible and influential liberal forces. This is a book that deals with this “peculiarity” of Italian history without yielding to the determinism and reductionism that have marred much of the scholarship on the subject. In so doing, the author also conveys a wealth of insights into the promises, limitations, and contradictions of nineteenth-century liberalism writ large, and he accomplishes all of that with panache and understated elegance. [End Page 522]

Key to these accomplishments is the author’s decision to approach liberal politics not as a system of ideological principles but as a rather messy assemblage of poignant imaginings and concrete social relations embedded in local associational life, the stuff of civil society lionized by Alexis de Tocqueville, Jurgen Habermas, Robert Putnam, and countless other theorists. This emphasis on the local and the concrete undermines the claim that civil society is the wellspring of spontaneous and somewhat ahistorical values and cultural attitudes distinct from state power. Italy’s civil society was forged in conflict and compromise, through ongoing negotiations between elites, changing “publics,” and contrasting visions of the polity.

Steven C. Soper may well have written a book on the origins of modern Italy, as the subtitle states, but such origins are traced in two very specific places, the provinces of Padua and Vicenza in the Veneto region. This area remained under Austrian control for a few more years than did other parts of northern Italy, joining the new kingdom in 1866. It was also a place where Catholicism and anticlericalism battled each other with particular force, where industrial innovation coexisted with deep poverty and mass emigration, and where long-repressed associational life exploded in the wake of independence. Thus, Soper can indeed claim that social life in the Veneto over the second half of the nineteenth century epitomized many of the contradictions and aspirations of modern Italy as a whole.

On one level, the book traces the rise to prominence and the partial disillusionment of a restricted group of moderate Paduan and Vicentine liberals, above all Luigi Luzzati, Fedele Lampertico, Emilio Morpurgo, and Paolo Lioy, who preached the virtues (and engineered the makings) of particular kinds of associations, at once “popular” and “productive.” These mutual aid societies, popular and rural banks, public libraries, and agricultural societies, among others, promised to educate and uplift, if not the masses, at least the deserving poor, thereby eradicating pauperism and superstition. Despite their differences (Lampertico, for example, was deeply Catholic, whereas both Luzzati and Morpurgo were Jewish and secular), these “notables” shared a distinctly paternalistic attitude toward the lower classes and a deep-seated faith in the ability of associational life to make responsible and self-reliant citizens of the new state. By establishing beneficial institutions, they intended to forge a society worthy of the Risorgimento’s aspirations and sacrifices. Soper shows how, for all their prosaic features, these associations partook of the “poetry” of the day by developing an entire language and repertoire of rituals that conveyed sober and yet inspired commitment to modernization and improvement.

On a deeper level, the book charts the perceptions and experiences of an elite of moderate reformers who found themselves increasingly marginalized by the rise of democratic politics, class conflict, confessional [End Page 523] mobilization, and generally the rise of mass society. The orderly and hierarchical transition to a cohesive society of self-reliant citizens envisioned by the Venetian reformers never materialized. Some of the very associations they had created became crucibles of political conflict, while others never overcame their original elitism and lost their relevance. In the end...


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pp. 522-524
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