The Youth Are Showing Up Mute

Too timid compared to their European counterparts. In Italy the youth let others speak of them and do not know how to give themselves political representation.
The World Bank recently Tweeted a series of statistics that made me think about the world between the two World Wars. They were not about totalitarianism, the rearmament, the Great Depression, or racism. No, they were about smaller events, fractions of individual lives. The data posted by the World Bank demonstrated something that goes under the awful phrase “global brain trade”, or global commerce of minds. Italy is represented graphically by a tiny point for intelligence imported, and a long bar for the ones leaving the country.
It’s nothing new, to be honest. It is the problem of the generation of those who came late and were collectively disinherited. Those who now tend to leave a country that for them has become inhospitable. This is exodus made in silence, without protests if not individual ones, protests reharsed in one’s mind like angry prayers, rather than expressed out loud and in common. Faced with that World Bank chart, I couldn’t help but think of something that had nothing to do with it, and yet it spoke in some way to the Italy of today. I thought of 1921, and Piero Sraffa. Almost as if his story was relevant to us today, although nearly everything of that era, from the Great War to the march on Rome, feels (as it is) so different from us, here and now.
In 1921 Sraffa was a young man visiting London, an exchange student ante litteram, when a meeting changed his life. Mary Berenson, wife of art historian Bernard Berenson, who had holed himself up in a villa in the hills around Florence, introduced the young Italian to John Maynard Keynes. Sraffa was 23 years old and had just earned a degree in Turin with Luigi Einaudi as a professor, after a year spent in uniform in the rear echelons of the front. Keynes was 38 at the time and had not yet developed any of the theories that would go on to change the 1900’s, but his pamphlet on the economic consequences of peace had already made him the intellectual rockstar of his era: a Nouriel Roubini of the treaty of Versailles. Keynes took stock of the introverted young man, and saw his mental stenght somewhere beneath that thick black hair. For his series Reconstruction in Europe, the English dandy decided to commission an article from the young man from Turin, about the well-hidden troubles of Italian banks. It would appear the following year in The Economic Journal, then again in simplified form in the Manchester Guardian (today’s Guardian). In its second printing, when the young man had already returned to his home country, the article was noticed by bankers in Rome and Milan, who complained to Mussolini. The head of the government in that moment was trying to save the Banco di Roma, a delicate endeavor, and he lost his temper at the news. He dictated an angry telegram, not to Sraffa but to his father, declaring the younger Sraffa’s work “a defamation of Italy.” Sraffa junior responded that everything was based in verifiable facts, and refused to retract. He had thrown off the cloak of conformism and knew full well that from that moment on there was little that could be done for him. He and Italy were over. In the end, Keynes took him under his wing and found him some work around Cambridge to keep him out of trouble. Librarian, then editor of the university newspaper: Sraffa never left King’s College, and in 1961 he was awarded the medal of the Royal Swedish Academy, equivalent of the Nobel prize for economics, which was formally instituted in 1969.
The young man who feels so far outside the system as to “defame Italy” abroad; appeals to the father to rein in his son; the flight of the young and educated abroad. Does this remind you of anything? As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t. Not just because that was a dictatorship and this is a democracy. There is something else, Sraffa had done something that today’s youth – to use a proverbial expression of the elderly – don’t do: he was more furious even than Mussolini, and he rebelled with all of his intelligence and the obstinacy of the facts.
In his most recent year-end message, Giorgio Napolitano said that young people are entitled to be indignant about the condition that the country has left for them. But are they? Do they have Sraffa’s courage or tenacity? If they do, we haven’t noticed. There is something that stands out in the reality behind the graphics of the World Bank, or behind the myriad words of compassion reserved for today’s youth – pity for them is an industry of its own at this point – and that is the silence of those involved. Thirty-seven percent of them are unemployed. They invest their time in school and university, where they are thought things that earn a paycheck for their professors, not useful education for them: this year 31 thousand jobs were left unfilled due to a lack of suitable professionals, a number nearly the same as the number of people who graduated in 2007 and are still looking for work.
But from them, nothing. They are voiceless. When the Indignados held Spanish squares hostage for months, with dignity and discipline, their Italian counterparts stayed home. When English and American youths pitched their tents in Zuccotti Park and in front of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, shouting “Occupy Wall Street!” or whatever city they were in, Italy saw just a few improvised protests in Piazza Affari and at offices of Standards & Poor’s. The rare times that Italian youths held organized protests, their slogans were imported from abroad, or, worse, from their aging sessantottini parents, who collectively deprived them of their future. As if they were struck by the Stockholm syndrome, where the victim, deep down, falls in love with the kidnapper. Just as if their parents in 1968 had repeated the buzzwords of the early 1920’s.
But in the end it doesn’t matter if the slogans make sense or not – that’s not the point – because it is the deafening silence around them that stands out. The lack of a voice. The substantial absence of headlines, websites, TV, radio, or newspapers, or of organizations, clubs, or parties that truly speak for the young; Il Manifesto, or Il Male of the 1970’s may have been a mass of absurdities in the opinions of some, but at least it was young people buying them. Today we have Facebook and its cousins; but those are channels, delivery methods, not messages in and of themselves. Social networks per se do not exert any kind of pressure. The other excluded group in Italy, women, has been able to give itself a voice, make demands, and has recognizable figureheads. Young people, instead, if they do speak, are not heard. Why?
A year ago it did not seem like things would end up like this. Mario Monti made his debut with something unprecedented, he summoned Italian youths “for consultations” during the formation of the government. And then again for operation “tears and blood.” Members of the Forum Nazionale went to meet Monti, and today Giovanni Failla, who was present that day and today is president of the group, tells what happened once the stage lights were shut off. “We received emails of protest from many young people, essentially they were asking ‘why you and not us?’”
The Forum is in reality the only organized youth platform in Italy. Monti follows them on Twitter. It gathers 84 organizations, from the youth of the political parties, do the ACLI, the AGESCI, Azione Cattolica, Arcigay, Young Muslims of Italy, the Young Jews. More than a lobbying group, it is a small parliament, or an umbrella group with which the Premier consulted privately. There is a video on Youtube that was captured with a cell phone during a meeting that was not without its challenging questions. Then they were invited by Welfare minister Elsa Fornero, who became infuriated when she realized there were no women in the delegation: it was the only thing talked about in the newspapers and on TV, and it ended there. “That’s how it is,” admits Failla. “We have a voice insofar as we are summoned.” The youth, today, are not forcing people to listen.
In his chaotic little office in Cambridge on an afternoon in 1936, Sraffa met with a 21 year old from Berlin who would force the world to negotiate with him. We only know that they had “a long and wonderful conversation.” Of Jewish heritage, at the time somewhere between a communist and a socialist, Otto Albert Hirschmann had left Germany after the advent of Hitler in 1933. He studied in Paris and then with Hayek in London, fought with the republicans in the Spanish civil war, and graduated from Trieste in 1938 while he participated in clandestine anti-fascist movements. In 1970 Hirschman, having dropped an “n” from his name and tenured at Princeton, published a book that perfectly defined the condition of recent generations in Italy today right from the title: Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States. The theme covers ways to react to the dissatisfaction one might have against a system of power. It can be done like Sraffa when he wrote articles about the banks and brought problems to light (protest), or like Sraffa when he fled abroad (defection), or by remaining despite everything. Defection forces a change only when it is sizable enough (one example: all East Germans wanted to go over to the West until East Germany collapsed), but if it is just a modest drip of departures, writes Hirschman, it can produce dangerous results: “An oppression of the weak by the incompetent, and exploitation of the poor by the lazy.”
Young Italians are like prisoners in a Hirschmanian dilemma that they are unable to solve. Faced with the system, they don’t choose loyalty, nor protest, nor defection, at least not with the critical mass needed to upend the balance. An analysis of the demographic composition of the vote for Matteo Renzi, the 37 year old candidate of the Democratic Party in the primaries, reveals simply that the numbers are against the youth. Pollster Fabrizio Masia notes that Renzi won the overwhelming majority with voters 18-35 years old, but overwhelmingly lost with those 55 and older, but the latter are far more numerous, with Italy’s average age being so high. And Renzi, in his Democratic Party, opted first for protest and then for loyalty, but never for defection.
The theme in Euripides’ Alcestis is not much different. The young Alcestis accepts death in order to save her husband Admetus, because his aging parents refuse to do so. The encounter between Admetus and his father Pheres is intense: “You distinguish yourself with your cowardice,” says son to father. “And you would be the one to hold my cowardice against me?” replies father to son. It is the dialogue of impotence and failure. Today only the sons, in this strange story, are in the position to find a happy ending.