I have recently returned from participating in a conference in Naples, Italy on “The Economy as a Complex Spatial System” where there many papers and much discussion about the longstanding poverty problem in southern Italy, long labeled “the Mezzogiorno problem.” Mezzogiorno literally means midday or noon, but has long been applied to southern Italy because it is sunny, and middays are supposedly sunny. Unfortunately the problem is deeply entrenched and now tied to broader disturbing events in Italy and the European Union.
The problem can be seen most acutely by considering Naples itself. Founded by Greeks in the 7th century BCE as “Neapolis” (“new city”), with modern residents being “Neapolitans,” it was the second largest city in Europe (after Paris) in 1494 when Lorenzo di Medici (“the Magnificent,” from Florence) walked alone to its gates offering himself as a hostage to make the first Italy-wide peace in centuries on the peninsula, seen by many as a distant prelude to the later unification of Italy, with Garibaldi conquering Naples sealing the deal. As late as 200 years ago, Naples was still the third largest city in Europe, with only London having joined Paris ahead of it. Today it is the third largest in Italy, with both Rome and Milan ahead of it, mired in corruption and dysfunction, if lots of faded glory from its eminent and influential past.
More broadly throughout the Mezzogiorno, per capita income is 60% of the national average while the unemployment rate is twice the national average. This is not an equilibrium situation, with a steady outflow of migrants from south to north failing to bring about an equalization of wages or income. Many and long efforts have been made by national politicians to engage in educational and infrastructure investment in the region, but somehow it has all come to not much, with students coming out of the universities heading north for high paying jobs, and infrastructure falling apart as the Commora in Naples or Mafia in Sicily corrupt the construction industry with shoddy production amid massive bribe taking. It is not as bad as it was some years ago when I was there, but there are still piles of garbage in many places. Nevertheless, Naples is a charming and fascinating place.
Furthermore, it is not that there have not been serious efforts to crack the corrupt local power structure. There was a huge effort in the 1990s that brought down the longstanding national political parties, as especially the long-ruling Christian Democrats had top politicians exposed as being in freemasonic (P2) conspiracies with longstanding Commora and Mafia figures in the South, with quite a few of them getting arrested, with several heroic prosecutors and judges dying in this noble effort. But despite all the shaking up and reshuffling long established patterns reasserted themselves, and not that much changed. The Mezzogiorno remained the same old problem.
There is much debate about the ultimate sources of this, and most tend to invoke history and such matters as social capital, with Robert Putnam famously arguing that this latter is what is the key to understanding why northern Italy has done so much better than southern. Putnam blamed long rule by outsiders, especially the absolutist and autocratic Spaniards, for this, in comparison to the vigorous republics one found in the North such as Venice and Florence (with the Papal States in the center being their own thing). More than one paper at the conference ended up with some sort of social capital type explanation playing an important role.
Now it seems that the ongoing problem of the South, exacerbated by a long economic stagnation of all of Italy, has led to a new political upheaval, with the latest election putting together to ideologically opposed parties to rule, although they agree on some matters, such as being pro-Russia and skeptical about the euro and the EU, if not ready to pull out of either. The previously ruling Democratic Party lost big and so did the center right party of Berluscoini, Forza Italia. The new rulers are the Five Star Movement, led by di Maiao, now Labor Secretary, and Matteo Salvini, Interior Secretary of the League, formerly the Northern League. The prime minister, Conte, is basically a figurehead, although he supported Trump at the G7 meeting on readmitting Russia. Supposedly 5 Star has the edge, but Malvini seems to be coming on strong, imitating strong man leaders elsewhere.
League changed its identity last year, dumping its earlier incarnation as a neo-fascist separatist party based in the North and opposing sending aid to the Mezzogiorno. Rather he made it a national party and made an appeal to the South on the basis of an anti-immigrant platform. Southern Italy is where the most immigrants have been landing from Africa, and resentment has risen. The hard fact is that it was the South in the end that put the two parties over, voting especially strongly for the League. The Mezzogiorno problem has now become the Italy problem.
Salvini has not only blocked immigrant boats from arriving, but he has also come out for rounding up the Roma (gypsies) and expelling them, as well as opposing vaccinations. I am afraid that di Maio is a cipher, and we shall in the not-too-distant future see this Salvini, riding on support from the long aggrieved Mezzogiorno, come to lead Italy.