Can Italy be explained to an international audience of under-30s? Can we hope to make young people from 32 different countries understand the anomalies and resources of our country? If anyone can do it with irony, critical spirit, and the right balance between a cosmopolitan look and an Italian soul, it is Beppe Severgnini. He did so by addressing the participants of the 44th Full-Time MBA during the Gala Dinner at the Program’s opening. And judging by the engagement of the young managers at the end of the evening, we can say that his speech served at least to offer them a few more coordinates to seize the opportunities that Italy, despite everything, can offer.
Introduced by Gianmario Verona, Rector of Bocconi University, precisely as a “perfect knowledge translator” of the Italian identity to non-Italians, Severgnini is one of those characters who in Italy (and not only here) needs no introductions: a journalist since 1981, first at Indro Montanelli’s Il Giornale, then at La Voce and at Corriere della Sera, for whom he is currently editor-in-chief of their weekly supplement 7, he has worked in the USA and England for a long time, was a correspondent for The Economist in Italy, and is currently collaborating with The New York Times. A pioneer of Italian journalism on the web since 1998 with the Corriere’s famous daily column “Italians”, he is also a television pundit and an essayist, with 16 books to his credit, plus one on the way.
His curriculum did not prevent him from starting from the Italian province, from one of its many hearts: Crema, his hometown and somehow the archetype of an Italian identity that can also be confused, frightened, “umbilical”, that feels threatened in its cultural and material certainties, but that is always capable of relationships and passions, of a quality of life “not taken for granted elsewhere”, of unexpected resources.
(Overly) Easy Answers to Difficult Problems
If this is a high-contrast photograph of Italy today, how did we get there? It is impossible to answer this question without putting on the table one of the most used words in recent years: populism. An overly simple answer to problems that are too complex. “Italians are not embittered by what has already happened, but they are frightened by what will happen, because they fear that there is no plan for the future,” says Severgnini. “Building consensus on the ‘threat’ that comes from the outside, on a policy made up of three words – ‘no more immigrants’ – is easy and above all costless.” He adds: “I recently wrote on the NYT that Italians are not racists. Not yet.”
“Fulfilling other electoral promises, on the other hand, is anything but free”, Severgnini continues. “The size of the undertakings is not yet clear, but I have tried to make some calculations based on the financial strategy announced by the government: a universal basic income for citizens could cost from 15 to 30 billion euros; a pension reform, with the lowering of the retirement age to 62 years of age, from 9 to 13 billions over the first year; the flat tax – applied in just two rates: 15% for incomes up to 80 thousand euros, and 20% beyond that – about 50 billions. We reach a total ranging from 74 to 93 billions. Do we have this money? Of course not.”
So now what? That’s the implicit question that hovers around the room. This is the cornerstone of populism: “The strength of all populism today lies in knowing how to exploit the combination of social media and social malaise, two phenomena that have both exploded over the last decade. There is absolutely no confidence in the future. For the first time, people in Italy think that their children’s lives will be harder than their own. And when the general feeling is that things are getting worse, someone comes along and tells you that they’re going to be better with them.” In short, it is a matter of bringing together a widespread discomfort with the ease of spreading elementary messages, no matter how well-founded and achievable they may be. “It happened in the United Kingdom with Brexit and in America with Trump: nostalgia wins, the (recent) past always seems better.”
The Eternal Italian “miracle”
Despite these premises, Italy does not appear to be in great disarray, it really does not seem on the verge of an irreversible crisis. It still has a strong appeal, and not only as a holiday destination. Severgnini thinks we have four lifesavers: “First (I know I’ll shock some of you): Italians never take their rulers entirely seriously. We have an inherent ‘healthy distrust’ of the political class. This would be a problem in many countries, a crisis of democracy, but in some phases of our history – like this – it becomes a safety valve. Second: Italy does not merely have a central government. We are a relatively young unified state and have always had strong local identities and ‘authorities’. Over the centuries, we have learned to adapt to and coexist with different centers of power. Even today, for example, there are great differences in city administrations. Third: family. It is a foundation of our social fabric and in difficult times it becomes our first safety net. In full it means that Italy is the home of human relations: in any given relationship, even the most formal, there is always a human connection that can make a difference. Don’t forget this, it’s important to understand this country, for better or for worse. Fourth: quality of life. Not the life of the rich American with his estate in Tuscany, but the real one, made up of the places where we live, what we eat, how we spend our time. You just have to go out in Milan one of these September evenings to understand what I mean. It is a daily ‘time of consolation’ that we Italians often take for granted, but that makes it easier to live in this country.”
Then there’s a fifth element, the wild card: “It’s Italian genius, that which often turns a crisis into a success. We have issues with rules, but give us an exception and we’ll change the world for you.”
The picture painted by Severgnini to the foreign students is perhaps reassuring, but not conventional. It contains fondness but not complacency, it encompasses all the desire and difficulty of explaining Italy to the world. But above all, there is an energy that reaches the audience and inspires it. For those who have chosen Milan and Italy for their MBA year, this is definitely a good start.
SDA Bocconi School of Management