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‘La Questione Meridionale’: The Southern Italian problem and what it can tell us about our own North-South divide

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Italy has been stricken with a painful geopolitical divide between the North and South since its unification. The country’s overwhelming regional disunity has been labelled ‘la condizione meridionale’, a diagnosis referring to the perception that, ever since the unification of Italy in 1871, there has been a persistent backwardness in the socio-economic development of Southern Italian regions. This problem has a prominent place in Italian literature, with famed writers such as Antonio Gramsci and Maria Ortese addressing the blatant Northern bias that has ravaged the South. This division, manifest in the economic disparity between the two areas and the infrastructural paucity in cities such as Naples and Lecce, is perpetuated by an entrenched ideological disharmony. The true complexity of the Southern problem is not economic, but psychological. There lies an impossibility in attempting to overturn an inferiority complex that has been drilled into the Southern Italian population over years of neglect, a futility in trying to soften their staunch anti-North mentality. The wounds of Southern discrimination cannot be healed through solely fiscal measures. And yet, the Italian government persist in their ham-fisted attempts to plaster over these deep fissures in their society. What is perhaps more worrying, from a local perspective, is the striking resemblance that the approach of ‘I Presidenti del Consiglio’ bears to that of our own Parliament. 

Gramsi, political theorist and Secretary of the Communist Party of Italy, commented on the longstanding nature of the issue, “the new Italy had found itself in completely antithetical conditions, two sections of the peninsula, north and south”. This is in reference to the fact that, after the Risorgimento (consolidation of the Kingdom of Italy), there was still great disunity, not only in the lack of a national identity, but also in the contrasting societal development of the North and South. The same point was made more succinctly by the 19th Century federalist Massimo D’Azeglio: “we have made Italy, now we must make Italians”.  The former paternal administrations of the Southern regions had done nothing conducive to economic progress; no roads or ports had been built, primitive agricultural methods used land extremely inefficiently, and there was no established bourgeoisie. This reality was exacerbated by banditry and emigration, causing social turmoil that ensured the South remained severely underdeveloped for the rest of the 19th century. The first academic investigation into the problem was carried out in 1875 by Sidney Sonnino and Leopoldo Francetti, who identified the Mafia as a marked symptom of Southern backwardness and investigated the deep-rooted inequality on which the country’s social institutions were constructed. The Italian government, in their irredentist fervour, disregarded their findings and labelled the report ‘unpatriotic’. This blatant ignorance, and refusal to confront the problem, constitutes an enduring attitude of neglect that has plagued Italian politics for centuries.  

Of course, this is not to say that the Italian government have ignored the problem entirely. After the Second World War, in attempt to develop the South, they created a fund known as the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, involving ambitious public work projects aided by billions of dollars of financial backing. Whilst seeming to be a positive move for change, this act transpired to be performative politics rather than a genuine endeavour towards progress. Mismanagement and somewhat apathetic supervision meant that the program spawned corruption instead of instigating development. Its demise was consolidated under a cascade of scandals in 1993, and most of the employment opportunities it created swiftly disappeared. Despite the obvious economic toll this took on the South, the long-term social effects are perhaps more dire, as the Northern reaction to the failure of the project was severe. A secessionist movement helmed by Umberto Bossi embodied the culture of resentment towards the South, lamenting the wastefulness of the enterprise and the way in which taxpayer funds were squandered on an ungrateful populus. While the movement was fuelled by a Northern snobbery, their anger was justified – ham-fisted handling of investments had created a culture of dependency and passivity, only serving to further warp the monetary equilibrium of the country.  

The answer to La Questione Meridionale will not be found in a short manner of time. The entrenched cultural differences, consolidated by economic negligence, have inflicted wounds upon Italian society that may never fully heal. And this predicament, worrying as it is, may provide insight into potential future developments in the British North-South divide. Industrial decline, exacerbated by Covid, has left us at a crucial point in political history, and how the Government reacts to the damage inflicted upon the North will likely define whether the divide worsens in the coming years. The government is in dire need of lucid and efficient decision-making, with consistency in attitude towards aiding the North being absolutely paramount. The Northern infrastructure pipeline looks to be a step in the right direction, provided that it does not interfere with the progress already made by the Northern Hub programme. With a pinch of acumen in our approach to balancing the economic and social asymmetry of the country, perhaps we can avoid bringing about our own condizione settetrionale.  

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