Easy is the descent

In the late 1990s, I lived just outside Naples, Italy, in a house overlooking Lake Averno. Despite the occasional whiff of sulphurous fumes, it was quite the most beautiful spot I have ever lived in. The poet Virgil had a different view of the place, describing it as the entrance to the Underworld, a place so poisoned by volcanic gases that no birds flew. ‘Easy is the descent to Avernus,’ Virgil wrote, ‘for the door to the Underworld lies open both day and night. But to retrace your steps and return to the breezes above – that’s the task, that’s the toil.’

Lago-dAverno
Lake Averno (with Capri in the background)

The Naples area was in many ways anarchic. But having just spent 3 months living and working in Moscow, I felt surprisingly at home there. When a plane lands, most Canadians remain dutifully seated until the plane has stopped taxiing and the seatbelt sign goes off. Back in the 1990s that certainly wasn’t true of either Muscovites or Neapolitans. As soon as the plane had appeared to halt, they would leap up and start yanking stuff out of the overhead lockers, while fraught airline attendants rushed around trying to stop them. Once I was sitting next to a Neapolitan woman who was so desperate to get her bag she actually climbed over me. I’ve mentioned before the concept of pravosnoznanie (legal consciousness), the lack of which philosopher Ivan Ilyin believed made Russia ill-suited to liberal democracy. In examples like this, you get a sense of what he was talking about.

In his 1993 book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Robert Putnam shed light on this phenomenon by comparing identical government institutions in northern and southern Italy. He determined that the former were more effective than the latter because while in Northern Italy there was a highly developed civil society, in southern Italy, the social focus was the family. As a result, northerners were more engaged in the success of their communities, there was a higher degree of trust between groups and between citizens and their government, rules tended to be followed, and government was less corrupt.

Fast forward to 2016, and we see a somewhat similar thesis about Russia published this week by Anna Arutunyan, entitled ‘Only connect: Russia between individualism and collectivism’. Arutunyan begins with a story of a tourist agent in northern Russia whose effort to take people sailing fails because, despite taking the agent’s money, the sailor/tour guide fails to turn up. ‘I changed my mind’, he says later, ‘What? I am a free man. I want to be alone with the sea’. Arutunyan identifies this as an example of a Russian type of extreme individualism which contrasts with the normal cliché of Russian collectivism.

Russia’s problem, Arutunyan maintains, isn’t that it lacks the formal institutions required for a successful country. Rather it is a ‘problem of lack of social bonds.’ Opinion polls show that Russians don’t trust one another, define themselves as ‘their own person’, and volunteer much less than most other Europeans. In short, they are much like the southern Italians described by Putnam. The corruption which marks both places is thus a product of society, rather than of corrupt leaders. Indeed, the latter are merely the inevitable by-product of the former.

Arutunyan dates this problem back centuries. She conjectures that poor soil conditions in central and northern Russia meant that for most of Russian history peasants could barely make ends meet. Subsistence farming had two effects; a strong collective effort was required to survive; and individuals had a strong incentive to leave the community to seek better conditions elsewhere. The second of these phenomena led communities to adopt oppressive measures to prevent their members from fleeing. ‘Such rigid bonds within the community hindered effective ties with other communities, contributing to a culture of distrust,’ writes Arutunyan. As Russia urbanized and industrialized, the distrust then spread from the villages to the towns, and tainted relations between the educated urban elites and others. Soviet policies then perpetuated what Arutunyan describes as Russia’s peculiar combination of collectivism and ‘extreme individualism’. She writes:

The dichotomy of individualism versus collectivism … does not seem to work because extreme cases of both tendencies are present in equal measure. Recent studies on collectivist values suggest that Russians tend to ascribe to those values more than Americans or Europeans, but realities on the ground demonstrate that they do not act on those values. Collectivist values are strong, but in practice, social capital is weak.

Arutunyan notes that new types of community are developing in Russia, and remarks that, ‘The clues where Russia is headed next … lie not so much with the Kremlin’s unpredictable actions, but on a local level with the relationship patterns inside these nascent communities.’ If this analysis is correct, then the development of civic virtue at the lowest level will do more to transform Russia than changing leaders or reforming political institutions at the top.

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36 thoughts on “Easy is the descent”

  1. Excellent read. Thank you.

    Carlo Levi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli” describing the period of the author’s internal exile under Mussolini is a generous assessment of the life of Southern Italians which provides valuable insights into the perennial mistrust of central authorities in the south. Even if somewhat dated, it is a magnificent book.

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  2. In 1992-1996 in Belarus, our organization facilitated a consultant who was at the time also working on his doctoral dissertation. The issues which you highlight are also an integral part of what he found in the focus groups that we organized with him. Peter D. Clark, Cornell University: How religious, political and emotional dispositions affect civil society in post-soviet Belarus (1999). In addition to what he pointed out, as well as references to Putnam and the Napoli-Milan contrast, there was a stunning comparison with inner city loss of community in major US cities. I remember one of the tentative conclusions: totalitarian communism and extreme capitalism both lead to breakdown or loss of civil society, or block its development. It seems Aratunyan traces this more historically, whereas Clark and possibly also Putnam looked for more contemporary, behavioral influences.

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  3. Arutunyan dates this problem back centuries. She conjectures that poor soil conditions in central and northern Russia meant that for most of Russian history peasants could barely make ends meet.

    Plenty of peasants everywhere could barely make ends meet before the industrial revolution. Malthusianism was nigh universal.

    It is much more likely related to the differential family systems and inbreeding/outbreeding patterns in European history described by the Hajnal line.

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  4. “If this analysis is correct, then the development of civic virtue at the lowest level will do more to transform Russia than changing…”

    Oh jeez, to transform where, why? And what will it take to transform Canada?

    Ethno-cultural supremacism is unpleasant and insulting. And it works both ways: because you sit and wait till the plane fully stops, Italians think of you as an idiot. Trust me, it’s true. You think they need “civic virtue” whatever the hell that is, and they think you need a brain.

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  5. I think that’s a fairly facile response. It’s easy to tick off the “multiculturalist” box and refuse to discuss the effects of culture on quality of life, but that doesn’t make those effects go away. To take southern Italy as an example, the problems in the region aren’t a simple matter of a bit of unpleasant bustle on an airplane. The region has some of the worst economic problems in Europe, massive crime, and serious social pathologies that threaten to lock in the pattern for the forseeable future. Meanwhile, whoever can is getting out.
    A different example could be taken from South Korea, which has some of the highest youth suicide rates in the world, largely as a result of brutal educational competition and social pressures. “It’s our culture,” starts to look like a pretty thin excuse when your young people are killing themselves in large numbers.

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    1. But perhaps these are effects of the imposition of an alien culture, northern European culture. Effects of globalization. Or, if you prefer, of the continued (albeit less intrusive) American militarily, economic, and ideological control (occupation?), of both Italy and South Korea. And before that, in southern Italy, by fascism – a northern-Italian phenomenon, and by Japanese imperialism in Korea.

      But seriously, how can native culture be a problem anywhere at all? Not to mention: how can it be a problem for someone from faraway? Culture is a way of adaptation to the prevailing local conditions. It’s a defense mechanism.

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      1. Actually, in the South Korean case, it undoubtedly is an effect of Japanese colonialism. Japan has a lot of the same issues, and South Korea has imported a lot of Japanese habits and cultural norms (although, given the strength of anti-Japanese sentiment in SK, you’ll meet a lot of people there who don’t like to admit the fact 😉 ) That doesn’t change the fact, though, that these norms are now a part of KOREAN culture. Korea might have gotten the cold from Japan, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s now Korea’s cold.
        As for southern Italy, though, the same kinds of explanation don’t really apply there. The problems that the region has go back hundreds of years. They long predate American influence or fascism. It’s this deep rooting of the problems that explains why the South and the North are so different, even though they’ve shared the 20th century experiences of fascism and American influence.
        As to how culture can be a problem, I think it’s helpful to compare it to the habits of individuals. Habits are also adaptations to circumstance (in fact, you could think of culture as just being a set of collective habits). Whatever habits a person has, they are a response to earlier experience. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the habits are a beneficial adaptation. For example, someone might become an alcoholic as a coping mechanism to deal with stress. In a historical sense, it’s easy to explain why this person is an alcoholic. But that doesn’t change the fact that alcoholism is a very bad habit.
        Another way adaptations can be unhelpful is when circumstances change, and culture (or individual habits) don’t keep up. Cultureis related to circumstance, but it also has a staying power of its own. Sometimes culture can be specifically what stops people (or at least slows them down) when adjustments to new circumstances are obviously necessary.

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      2. It’s true that cultures are inertial, but I think this is also a defense mechanism, resistance to abrupt and (probably) dangerous changes. Evolution works slowly. Patterns of behavior, developed by trial and error over hundreds of years, are not going to change overnight.

        As for alcoholism, if it was caused by stress, then it sounds like excessive stress is the issue here. What makes you think alcoholism wasn’t the most natural, most suitable cure? We’re, after all, only human.

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      3. “As for southern Italy, though, the same kinds of explanation don’t really apply there. ”

        From the top of my head I can name several foreign invasions/conquests/subjugations of the Souther Italy, like – Eastern Roman Empire (aka Byzantium), Normans, French dynasy and then Spanish rule.

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      4. In regard to the changing of hands of southern Italy, it’s true that it happened, but I don’t think it explains much. Southern Italian society and its economy were pretty stable, and really weren’t much affected by the change of royal house. Like in the case of many other parts of pre-modern Europe, it’s misleading to put too much emphasis on the national origin of the people in charge. Neither Spanish nor French royalty ever instituted a modern colonial-type system in southern Italy. There was no particular reason to. The region had a rent-based latifundia economy, and all that really changed was who was at the top skimming the profits.
        In regard to cultural inertia and the alcoholism example, I think it’s important to distinguish between what’s understandable and what’s beneficial. It’s definitely understandable that people might become alcoholics as a result of extreme stress, but it’s not a beneficial response, since alcoholism leads to a number of problems that are only going to increase the stress even more (financial problems, possibility of losing one’s job, problems with relationships and family, etc.)
        I would say the same thing about cultures adapting too slowly. A certain degree of conservatism in culture is natural, and even beneficial in most cases. But that doesn’t change the fact that it can cause some severe problems when circumstances change rapidly and culture doesn’t keep up. It doesn’t mean that every aspect of the culture in question is rotten through and through, or that the people belonging to that culture are intrinsically worse or less intelligent or whatever than other people. But it does mean that there is a real problem, which can only be mitigated and dealt with if it’s faced in a realistic way.

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      5. In regard to the changing of hands of southern Italy, it’s true that it happened, but I don’t think it explains much. Southern Italian society and its economy were pretty stable, and really weren’t much affected by the change of royal house.

        Define “pretty stable”. Because just a few comments away you were saying that Southern Italy has “some of the worst economic problems in Europe”. Did it all happened overnight?

        Like in the case of many other parts of pre-modern Europe, it’s misleading to put too much emphasis on the national origin of the people in charge. Neither Spanish nor French royalty ever instituted a modern colonial-type system in southern Italy.

        Spaniards pretty much did. Or, what, you think that fra Tommazzo Companella wrote his magnum opus “The City of the Sun” and spent A LOT of his “free time” in Spanish prison for the fun of it and nice climate?

        And I’m not even talking about Garibaldi’s conquest of that land.

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      6. “Define ‘stable'”

        Stable -> generally fixed, unchanging. As should be clear from the context, I didn’t mean “stable” in the sense that implies “good”, just in the sense that implies “steady” or “not varying greatly”. Southern Italy was poor, lacking in civil institutions, and controlled by rent-seeking power-holders in 1400, and was more or less exactly the same in 1800. The changes of dynasty had relatively little effect on the patterns of life for the vast majority of the population. Whether their exploiters spoke French or Spanish, the pattern of exploitation was more or less the same.

        “Spaniards pretty much did. Or, what, you think that fra Tommazzo Companella wrote his magnum opus “The City of the Sun” and spent A LOT of his “free time” in Spanish prison for the fun of it and nice climate?”

        This isn’t a counter-example to my point. When I said that neither the French nor the Spanish dynasties acted as modern-style colonial masters, the point was that they didn’t change the pattern or structure of Southern Italian life. The fundamentals of the economy and society were laid down by the Normans before either French or Spanish dynasts arrived, and all that changed when they did was who was at the top. Punishing Campanella was perfectly natural in this situation. Campanella was a revolutionary, who wanted to introduce a new kind of system. The Spanish dynasty imprisoned him, not to protect some new model they had brought with them from Spain, but to preserve the old model they had inherited from the Normans. If the Normans were still in charge, they would have responded in precisely the same way. The point isn’t that the Spanish dynasty did a good job of governing the territory. The point is that they didn’t change anything major.

        As for Garibaldi, that’s a different matter, and obviously introduced a lot more changes than the changes of dynasty earlier had. But, by Garibaldi’s time, many (not all, but many) of the patterns of the Southern Italian life and economy had already set, including many that are involved in the regions current problems, for example the weakness of the rule of law and the relative absence (in notable contrast to Northern Italy) of civic institutions.

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      7. Define ‘good’. Is it good that you have 2 arms, when you could have 5?
        Cultural species evolve similar (conceptually) to biological species. And cultures are always in the process of changing.

        My objection is to the euro-centric view (which includes marxism, incidentally), that there is this straight vertical line with the European (Anglo-Saxon) culture on top, Asian barbarians below, and African savages down at the bottom. And that all these various kinds of barbarians and savages are on their way to evolve, hopefully, into glorious Europeans one day, with ‘civic virtue’ and other superior qualities.

        Though actually, it would be okay for ordinary Europeans to believe this, why not. The problem is, they have a lot of weapons, too much power. And this is a bad combination.

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      8. As for southern Italy, I think the main factor there would be agricultural economy and isolation, and therefore, historically, a high degree of self-sufficiency.

        A similar place in Swiss Jura gave rise to the concept of anarchism. Live us alone, big city people, we’ll manage fine without you. In southern Italy, their localism is known as Mafia. Obviously, it’s in conflict with the centralized modern state. In Switzerland, localism is institutionalized, but in Italy it’s in constant conflict with the power-hungry state, leading to constant clashes and various ugly consequences.

        Something like that.

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      9. “Stable -> generally fixed, unchanging. As should be clear from the context, I didn’t mean “stable” in the sense that implies “good”, just in the sense that implies “steady” or “not varying greatly”. Southern Italy was poor, lacking in civil institutions, and controlled by rent-seeking power-holders in 1400, and was more or less exactly the same in 1800. “

        But you also wrote:

        “Southern Italian society and its economy were pretty stable, and really weren’t much affected by the change of royal house”

        In that case your use of the word “stable” is useless. Constant flux of foreign invasions, commoner (should I remind you about the origins of MAFIA?) and noble rebellions against this or that foreign dynasty is anything but stable or “steady”. Can you call the present day Ukraine “stable” because of it is “steadily” coming screw ups in the form of eternal cycles of “peremoga->zrada->gan’ba”?

        Rent seeking nobles were hardly something unique for Souther Italy only. And, as you can probably deduce, neither Normans, nor French nor Spanish set up modern colonial rule over Souther Italy because (wait for it!) it happened in pre-modern times. And not because they were so humane or didn’t want to “rock the boat”.

        I can’t help but notice that this talk about “wrong sort of people” eerily echoes what most kreakls and so-called “Russian liberals” say about their own people – or what the Liberal l’Internationale says about their own fellow citizens when they refuse to vote for them.

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    2. I’m surprised to hear such things from you, Mr. Ward. After all, it was Canada that pioneered now Univarsal Western Value of the Multi-Culturalism.

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      1. 2 important points about Canadian multiculturalism

        1) Multiculturalism in Canada has always had strict limits. Obviously, the law is the first of these. If someone’s culture encourages them to do things prohibited by Canadian law, so much the worse for their culture. But another important point is that, like many other countries, Canada has a variety of professional associations that are mandatory and that enforce specific norms rooted in Canadian (and by extension, British and French) culture. So Canada does have a multiculturalism policy, but it’s by no means an absolute one, and it doesn’t imply that every culture is always and by definition good.
        2) Not everyone in Canada (even among those who approve of the multiculturalism policy) sees it as a universal value. Personally, I think it’s good for Canada to have an appropriately limited multiculturalism policy, because, due to Canada’s history, a high degree of cultural diversity is a fact in Canada, and we might as well recognize it rather than trying to ignore it. But I think it’s a pragmatic response to our circumstances, not some kind of absolute value.

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      2. My sense of Canadian multiculturalism is that it is the Western equivalent of the old Soviet policy of ‘National in form, socialist in content’ – i.e. ‘National in form, Western liberal in content’ – you can wear what clothes you like, eat what food you like, worship whatever God you like, but are nevertheless expected to ‘integrate’ into mainstream Canadian culture. The extent to which this is truly ‘multiculturalism’ is debatable.

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      3. My sense of Canadian multiculturalism is that it is the Western equivalent of the old Soviet policy of ‘National in form, Soviet in content’ – i.e. ‘National in form, Western liberal in content’ – you can wear what clothes you like, eat what food you like, worship whatever God you like, but are nevertheless expected to ‘integrate’ into mainstream Canadian culture. The extent to which this is truly ‘multiculturalism’ is debatable.

        Only the USSR never had that “National in Form, Soviet in content” policy – it had “the friendship of the people” (“Дружба народов”). Which was a real deal – no matter how modern liberals and nationalists scoff at that idea.

        From my understanding of Canadian multi-culturalism (correct me, if I’m wrong), from the very beginning your country had to deal with a lot of ethnic various groups, which were simply “unmeltable” like in the US. Add to that big territory and sparse population (which wasn’t increasing by leaps and bounds like in the US) and, on the surface, you had a working system when the inter-ethnic tensions are rather mild due to the fact that they had little contact with each other.

        And then Muricans had a bright idea to “liberate” their northern cousins from the oppression of the senile British Monarchy (and as much valuables as possible) in the good ol’ 1812. The end result was now a lot of various people compromising what is about to become Canada now had their own heroes (or just wanted to revenge Toronto), who were defending their own (i.e. – their common) Homeland. Trying to backtrack it and claim “No-no-no! You are just ordinary subjects of the Crown!” and institute a “melting-pot” from above and across the ocean didn’t quite work.

        What for a time being was a working system in Canada got called “vertical mosaic”. Various ethnic groups got their turf/specialty, like the Scots in banking sector, administration – English, working till they are dying from exhaustion – Irish, and French who were… unique. And because Canada for the British Empire was rather, ah, “subsidized region” ™, quite a number of British kreakls close to the powers that be successfully campaigned for “Stop Feeding Canada!” action. Newly formed Dominion at first developed bi-culturalism with English (or more or less all British) and French as recognized as equal partners. But because Canada still needed people, who were not exactly rushing to emigrate there, this concept finally got translated to all minorities who decided for some reasons to emigrate there – be they Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, Poles or Chinese.

        This system work till, probably, 1980-90s and was even to some or other degree adopted throughout the Western world. Main reason for that was that new émigrés were needed for maintaining the economic growth (and to serve as cannon-fodder) and that said economic growth also allowed these new emigrants to substantially increase their living standards. Besides, no one was persecuting them or demanding them to “melt”. Rapid robotization and autoimmunization put an end to that – emigrants still arrived whether needed or nor, but had less opportunities to improve their living standard and had even less desire even in the 2n or 3rd generation to not only assimilate – even basically integrate into their new society.

        Demanding such uniformity as “National in form, Western liberal in content” in modern Canada (or any other multi-cultural country) is IMO a wishful thinking. And what if that people are not liberal? What, you gonna deprive them from their voting rights?

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      4. ‘the USSR never had that “National in Form, Soviet in content” policy’ – Actually, Comrade Stalin said in 1925, ‘Proletarian in content, national in form-such is the universal culture towards which socialism is proceeding.’ See ‘The Political Tasks of the University of the
        Peoples of the East:Speech Delivered at a Meeting of Students
        of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East’, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1925/05/18.htm
        … In 1934, Stalin also wrote in ‘Marksizm i natsional’no-kolonial’nyi vopros’, that ‘Under the conditions of a dictatorship of the proletariat within a single country, the rise of cultures national in form and socialist in content has to take place.’

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      5. “Actually, Comrade Stalin said in 1925, ‘Proletarian in content, national in form-such is the universal culture towards which socialism is proceeding.’ “

        1) Can’t see “Soviet” here. Is there something wrong with my monitor?

        2) That was a slogan – one out of many, adopted in that time. So what? Lenin famously wrote at the adoption of ГОЭЛРО that “Comunism equals electrification of the whole country plus the rule of Bolsheviks”.

        I don’t think that Marxism-Leninism should be treated as gospel truth and everything written by its proponents should be viewed as literall Truth and commandments that were set in stone and could not be changed.

        3) Stalin had in mind first of all anti-colonial movement and as such argued in favor of “marriage” between opressed classes interests and their national ones, which were at the time more or less the same – toppling of the foreign exploiters’ power.

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  6. Thank you for providing a glimpse into Southern Italy “mentality” of the time when you lived there, Paul. This particular phenomenon – people getting up and ready to disembark the very moment their plane starts to land – is widely reported among well-travelled Russians. Probably, it has something to do with the same habit people in Russia develop when travelling via land transport – be it [commuter] train, bus or tram – and then just translating it to another form of transportation. Statistically speaking, Russians travel much more by land than by planes.

    I also thank you for providing this little cultural tidbit about Southern Italians. A lot of people in Russia still think about the Collective West as of some ideal Elfland of pure-pureness, where everything is fine, people are nice and spend their days reading and discussing Smart Books, while being paid enormous amount of money which allows them to “live like human beings” ™.

    I guess both you and Artunyan are reading too much here. Sometimes cigar is just a cigar. Artunyan’s particular attempts to size and measure Russians (who, apparently, are not good enough for her) reeks of phrenology and other “progressive” sciences. Her grasp of history is rather shaky, because she writes such things like “[this lead] communities to adopt oppressive measures to prevent their members from fleeing” – uhm, “communities” or pomesh’iks?

    She also waxes about “Kremlin unpredictable actions”. Seriously? What kind of “unpredictable actions” we are talking about here? Or was it just one of the standard issue clichés obligatory when writing about Russia?

    For the further development of the “civic virtue” or “pravosoznaniye” or whatever Russians need one thing – to be left alone and allowed to prosper.

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  7. Another similarity between 1990s Naples and Moscow was the packs of wild dogs. These were often to be seen hanging around overflowing Neapolitan garbage dumpsters. The garbage pickup scheme was to put your plastic bags on the roof of your FIAT and then drive them to the nearest city dumpster and throw them in. By pickup day the dumpsters would be overflowing and the dogs would be tearing all the bags apart. Italian garbage and recycling are believed to be mafia controlled. They pretend to deal with the refuse correctly – and charge cities a large price for doing so – but in fact dump it in abandoned quarries near Naples or in pits which they dig in fields, and when these get too full, they set them alight, polluting the countryside around.
    Other joys of Neapolitan life include optional red lights and one-way streets. By the time I left the city was beginning to introduce pay parking on the streets, but generally the method was that when you got out of your car somebody would approach you whom were expected to pay. This was of course entirely unofficial, but everyone knew that the deal was that this was `his` street and you paid him to `protect`your car. The advantages of this scheme were that a) it was actually cheaper than city fees were once they introduced them, and b) your car got protected, which it no longer was once the city took over.
    For a taste of the seedier side of Naples, watch the film Gomorrah: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=egtdYTuRKto There are even some scenes dealing with the garbage issue.

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    1. A man parks his car in Naples and goes for a coffee. Comes back in 10 minutes later and finds someone taking wheels off his car. He says: ‘hey, what are you doing, this is mine!’. The thief replies: ‘no, no, the tires are mine, you can have the radio’.

      I drove in Naples once. I also drove in Moscow before, many times, but Naples easily takes the price for craziness…

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      1. Naples driving is indeed in a league of its own, but there is a certain logic to it. After a while you begin to get a good sense of which red lights are optional and which ones aren’t, for instance.

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      2. My impression from driving in Italy is that it’s all psychology. They look into your eyes, they read you, they calculate your likely actions, and then, depending on that calculations, they either jump in front of you or let you pass.

        In the States (greater Boston, at least) you play the same game when you’re waiting on a traffic light and you need to make the left turn. Either you go as soon as it switches to green, or you wait. But in Italy it happens all the time, in all situations.

        Swiss roads are the opposite: traffic lights with arrows to all directions, and you don’t need to pay any attention to other drivers. Yet still stressful, because on every traffic light you have to wait forever. Oh well…

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  8. Similar patters of social behaviour can be observed in Serbia, Albania, Greece, China, Turkey and I am pretty sure most countries in Africa and South America. The question then is not so much why these countries are the way they are, but whether it is possible to have ‘a developed civil society’ in places that don’t enjoy the affluence that comes with being on the good side of global capitalism. As the Italian case demonstrates, this division exists within, as well as between countries.

    For some reason, inner city suburbs seem to have more of a littering and stabbing problem than the leafy communities of the civic virtue bearing educated middle classes. It must be the culture.

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      1. I personally do not particularly care for the term, but in the way it is used in most anglophone political science, it tends to encompass the sum total of social existence that is not part of the state or business. In some definitions this includes family networks, which would of course mean that the clan-like structures that persist in places like Southern Italy and the Balkans are in fact very strong civil society entities. But in practice, because academics are highly self centred beings who tend to universalise their own experience, civil society means the non-state non-business part of society that is usually found in the western world, things like public associations, ‘movements’, ngos, think tanks, the blogosphere etc. Of course these things need to be funded somehow. If they are funded by the state (like for example in 20th century socialism), they become dependent on it and are therefore not really civil society organisations any more, according to the mainstream definition. If of course they are not funded by the state, they need to be funded privately, something which requires support from ‘philanthropists’ or smaller donations by a reasonably sized group of people with enough disposable income, usually known as ‘the middle class’. Countries like Albania and places like S. Italy tend to lack these sources of funding. In fact, the extent to which people have access to disposable income is largely predicated upon their participation in the clan like structures that inhibit the development of civic consciousness. If for example you want to study to be a doctor and there are no scholarships because your country is poor, but your extended family bonds are strong enough that your uncles and second cousins are willing to chip in to support your studies, you are likelier to have your primary loyalties lie with your family (and therefore your locality) than the government. You are therefore also likelier to follow custom rather than law.

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      2. 2Pankratova’s grandson

        .

        So, basically, this “civil society” is pretty much a made up term by the Western ideologists, that is now shouted left and right to show how the West is Racially Culturally superior than the Others.

        Also – one important note. If these “building blocs” can’t be founded by the state (to stay truly independent and represent the society and not the state) then how can a “civil society” appear if its building blocs are funded by another state? Because that’s what the Western elites and punditocracy are basically saying, when they decry and criticize Russia for the “foreign agents” laws.

        “If of course they are not funded by the state, they need to be funded privately, something which requires support from ‘philanthropists’ or smaller donations by a reasonably sized group of people with enough disposable income, usually known as ‘the middle class’.”

        The whole premise is too Western centric and, ultimately, wrong. E.g. – labour unions financed by workers themselves. Or, what – only ‘the middle class’ are the only kosher ones to create the civil society?

        As we are speaking about Southern Italy, can you imagine a labour union of, say, fishermen? And because it’s quite often a family work (and rarely a “business”) such labour union would also incorporate family network. Is that bad or, I dunno, “not progressive enough”?

        “If for example you want to study to be a doctor and there are no scholarships because your country is poor, but your extended family bonds are strong enough that your uncles and second cousins are willing to chip in to support your studies, you are likelier to have your primary loyalties lie with your family (and therefore your locality) than the government. You are therefore also likelier to follow custom rather than law”

        Once again – wrong premise. First of all – define the term “poor country”. I’m pretty sure that the USSR in 1920s wasn’t by any means a “rich country” – never the less ALL education (that’s right, including the higher) was free for all. Later socialist “bloc” countries were also not “rich” (as the West puts it) but still provided the same educational opportunities. And that was once the case with Albania under Enver Hoxha.

        So, I think, that the term “civil society” is both too narrow and too vague to be of any use in any meaningful debate.

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      3. @Lyttenburgh

        I am not sure if you are disagreeing with me, or further developing my points, so I will try to further develop some of the things you raised.

        You say:
        ‘So, basically, this “civil society” is pretty much a made up term by the Western ideologists, that is now shouted left and right to show how the West is Racially Culturally superior than the Others.

        Also – one important note. If these “building blocs” can’t be founded by the state (to stay truly independent and represent the society and not the state) then how can a “civil society” appear if its building blocs are funded by another state? Because that’s what the Western elites and punditocracy are basically saying, when they decry and criticize Russia for the “foreign agents” laws.’

        I’d say I agree with this. Most of Western liberal commentary on non-Western countries and the global South is essentially a condescending measurement on the basis of an unattainable or entirely inconsistent measure. It’s quite similar to the views of Moscow yuppies about their fellow countrymen из глубинки, which is why Westerners are so fond of said yuppies. It is ultimately more of a class than a nationality issue.

        ‘The whole premise is too Western centric and, ultimately, wrong. E.g. – labour unions financed by workers themselves. Or, what – only ‘the middle class’ are the only kosher ones to create the civil society? ‘

        Well you see the whole point of civil society groups for liberals is that they promote freedom and democracy by ‘checking’ the state in various ways. Unfortunately, strong unions tend to campaign for things like wage protection and rent controls which rely on the state for enforcement and therefore tend to ‘check’ business more than the state. Since of course business is a good thing for freedom, strong labour unions have rarely been the objective of civil society warriors.In fact political scientists working on Russia have been recently complaining that a lot of academic work on ‘civil society’ ignores a multitude of organisations that should fit under the term on the basis that they tend to focus on things like social welfare for vulnerable people, instead of demanding More Freedom.

        ‘Once again – wrong premise. First of all – define the term “poor country”. I’m pretty sure that the USSR in 1920s wasn’t by any means a “rich country” – never the less ALL education (that’s right, including the higher) was free for all. Later socialist “bloc” countries were also not “rich” (as the West puts it) but still provided the same educational opportunities. And that was once the case with Albania under Enver Hoxha. ‘

        I am not sure what your argument is here. I agree that socialist states were quite good at providing welfare to their people, but this is not the issue here. Civil society is not about welfare but about independence from the state. As the only people who can be meaningfully independent from the state (ie not too poor to do anything other than subsisting) can be the western middle classes, civil society strength is really a proxy measure of the existence of a western style middle class. A normative stance on civil society as a good thing is therefore a normative stance on the middle class as a good thing. It is bourgeois ideology.

        ‘So, I think, that the term “civil society” is both too narrow and too vague to be of any use in any meaningful debate.’

        Unless it’s a debate among anglophone political scientists baffled by the fact that Russia isn’t similar to their countries 😉

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      4. “civil society strength is really a proxy measure of the existence of a western style middle class. A normative stance on civil society as a good thing is therefore a normative stance on the middle class as a good thing. It is bourgeois ideology. ”

        Thank you. I’m gonna copy-paste it for further references in debates with various [closeted] Randians.

        If you found my language assholish and dissing – then I have to apologise for that. But I’m an equal opportunity basterd – just ask people here on Irrusianality 😉

        The thing is – I had recently a depate with a very learned man, supposedly quite learned and even benevolent to Russia and Russians. The topic of the ever-vague “civil society” reared its ugly head during that discussion. It starts here and continues there.

        You have more courage than I do, Pankratova’s grandson. You dared to call it for what it is – a class struggle. Its really little surprise that there is class solidarity and, therefore, class bias when Westerners are talking about “Как нам обустроить Россию”. What they fail to understand are the numbers – Russian (or CIS-cuntries) so-called creative or middle-class is tiny and forever cursed with the most repugnant form of Smerdyakovsh’ina. Neveretheless, they continue to mistake it for the “people”.

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  9. Reading the original post and the references to Robert Putnam and Arutunyan, I got the sense that the comparisons between northern Italians and southern Italians (as made out in the post) were rather shallow.

    Italy was only unified in the late 1860s / 70s. Before then, the North and South were two very different worlds. It’s debatable that before unification, the only thing they had in common historically was being part of the Roman Empire.

    Both North and South had their own experiences of prosperity and how that wealth lasted depended a great deal on the kinds of government they had and whether the people had much say in how they were governed. The North was ruled by republics that were more or less self-governing, and the fact that these republics competed with one another for trade with China and other places encouraged the development and growth of banks and civic groups, which among other things helped stimulate the cultural developments that birthed the Renaissance.

    For a long time the South was ruled by the Byzantines, Muslims from Africa, the Normans, the French and then the Spanish. Parts were also ruled directly by the Pope. None of these rulers believed in giving their subjects much self-government. Is it any surprise that southern Italian culture traditionally focuses on family and clan networks, has weak civic institutions and does not encourage civic pride or engagement like volunteering, if southern Italians were never allowed much say in their own affairs? Mafia groups like La Camorra, La Cosa Nostra and ‘Ndrangheta initially developed as resistance movements against foreign rulers and which became corrupt as local opposition to foreign rule was met with repression and perhaps also violence.

    Land use in the North and South may have also influenced people’s attitudes and cultural development. In the South, most people were tenant farmers working on latifundias whose structures probably date back to the Roman Empire itself. The economy was mostly rural. By contrast, in the North, economic activity revolved as much around trade and craft industry as it did around farming.

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