Points in case regarding emigration in Italy- from upper to lower ‘class’

Please note that the first part only includes rough descriptions of historic, political and sociological situations located in the past , as the core of this piece are the portraits of persons, who come from diverse social and economic back grounds in Italy today.

In his book ‘Homage to Catalonia’ (1938) George Orwell writes about his experience of comradeship and community in Spain, a decisive feature indicating the presence of a socialist body of thought that developed as the civil war commenced. He notes that ‘Many of the normal motives of civilized life-snobbishness money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc.- had simply ceased to exist’ (Orwell, 38).  Sadly those only ceased to exist while blood was being shed. Orwell’s book both lights a spark of hope in socialist hearts as well as marking out the difficulties and bias of creating equality through (violent) revolution.

Similar to Spain fascist values clashed with humanitarian and Marxist values during the Italian civil war (1942-1945). Ultimately, in Italy the aftermath of WW2 and the civil war was what made it even harder to enforce solidary and communal ideals.  A crucial feature of this aftermath was the disunity of mindsets and distribution of work places and wealth , that enforced the economic gap separating northern- from southern regions of Italy. At last it was not the ideals mentioned that clashed, but part of Italy striking with neo liberal reforms (south) and part of it adopting the new wave successfully (the north).

Yesterday’s fights’ are still conceivable today. The Italian government failed to catch up with other European nations’ policies that are essential for retaining significant socio-economic standards in a society based on capitalism. In Italy’s south you sense that you are in a political zone tainted with corruption and poor government more than elsewhere in the country. This is due to the misrule which often results in Mafiosi holding political offices. Rather than deducing the misery of people from mere financial factors, the core issue is structural and intertwined with the inefficient organisation and distribution of goods and work-power. The EU supported southern regions of Italy with 91 billion € in  2013. Half of that sum has basically been wasted in dubious mini-projects organised by Italian politicians. Altogether the situation culminated in a loss of faith in ‘the government’ and establishment and growing poverty in south Italy, contrasting the prosperity of northern Italy. Today many Italian citizens see it like that: The North is clean, the south is dodgy. The North is lawful, the south is criminal. The North is developed, the south is stagnant. Growth vs. decline.


Emigration, Mati art gallery

A great emigration necessarily implies unhappiness of some kind or other in the country that is deserted.

When Considering the current situation, it is paramount to view Italy as part of Europe. Italy is growing weaker. The ‘clean and lawful’ north moves further up. Emigration to strong and sovereign EU members appears to be THE SALVATION for young Italian adults at the moment: Especially for those who were born and raised in the ‘ostensibly dull’ south. Not only work-power but a whole generation is being lost to the European and other economic forefronts. The noted Author of the book ‘Gomorrah’, Roberto Saviano , even argues that sooner or later the Mafia will leave southern Italy too since even criminal business is on the decline

Let me specify how that generation is being lost and what mind sets and correlated behavior fuel this  process. We have emigrants who abandon Italy expecting to improve their  lives in doing so, hence energy and ideals are withdrawn from Italy together with the emigrating crowd. In addition to that simple equation, young people who are forced to stay or do not want to leave Italy join the Mafia or give themselves away to drugs and other clandestine activities in order to chase their anxieties away and veil their despair, numb themselves or  quit existing by taking their own lives. A disturbing assumption prevails here: There is literally no work in the south. This is not tared by the brush, I have talked to people living in the southern regions of Italy about these processes over and over again, and the strategies of young adults to ‘regain control’ over their lives are not unlikely to be the ones mentioned here. Nevertheless it’s got to be mentioned, that there are other more successful coping strategies, that aim regaining control on a structural, political level and are therefor less destructive. The point is that those are not accessible and acknowledged to and by  a wider crowd.

After having mentioned several reasons for the perceived concern and impotence it is pivotal to keep in mind that each human being shapes the society he lives in, no matter how powerless, passive, caught, blank or afraid one might feel. To be aware that you are an active participant of this world is important for each individual. The loss of this notion is dangerous because people who are not aware of their power are easily turned into instruments and taken advantage of by those who seam to be  in a powerful position. Ethically speaking this dynamic is deeply undesirable. We should not long for a society where most people live life feeling like passive spectators. The three people I portray here are somehow both, spectators and actors. The age all three are in is part of the life-time in  which people usually try to become independent- which means getting hold of  work, finding and taking care of family, housing and love- affairs – in western societies. Their names were changed for discretion.

Matteo, 27, born near S. (a city in Campania, a southwestern region) is an excellent example for showing the role of wealth and elite education for emigration. Those two privileges are not very present in the south of Italy due to the distribution mentioned earlier. His parents are doctors, whose values partly derive from  their parents: The father’s belong to the lower class since they were peasants, whilst the mother’s parents belong to the upper class. Nicola grew up hovering between socialists and bourgeois ideologies. His parents’ ideals turned out rather bourgeois, or (neo-)liberal-elitist. They believe in the ultimate power of money as an instrument that permits one to reach societie’s peak. Both influenced Matteo’s choice to study finance and business at universities such as Stanford and Harvard 6 years ago. Over the years Matteo lost most of the socialist ideals he used to be committed to due to the adaption mechanisms needed for elite education. There are ways to avoid adaption but most students can not resist it. Matteo compromised with elite education structures  in order to become part of them.  Resisting the possibility of having an elite education  would have been put down as an absurd rebellion from his behalf by many of his family members. He would have been put off as ill advised or confused probably. Nevertheless, his professional choice was somehow rebellious: His father wanted him to inherit his medical practice. Matteo rejected  his fathers’ sedentary lifestyle and conservative idea about inheriting what he fought for to his son. Whilst Matteo’s father worked his way from rags to riches, Matteo didn’t even know what life is like without having a modern housemaid until he moved to America.

Luigi’s existence, 31, born in L. (a city in Campania), illustrates how daunting imposed expectations  can work on ones’ educational ambitions. Luigi was born and raised in a middle class family and many values transmitted during his up bringing led to the pretty common paradigm of the young middle class in Italy: choosing ‘safety’ above passion. He is a doctor with a safe job. Both of Luigis’ parents are teachers who convey and live socialist ideals and were of moral and financial  support for their son. In (southern) Italy it is almost impossible to earn one’s living during academic formation as a student for there is no decent work for undergraduates. That is one of the reasons why Luigi took the prudential decision of becoming a doctor. It was mostly about increasing the chances of getting a secure job. This could be seen as  a phenomenon of  socio-economic captivity where people rationalise on their trajectory in life regarding financial stability instead of taking a leap and following passions (if they are not money-efficient). Life shaping decisions that may come across as wise, are actually restricted by existential fear. So this is why Luigi studied medicine for 6 years, finished with 110 cum cum laude (highest score at universities in Italy) and worked for over 4 years doing his specialization abroad. During a confidential conversation he indicated to me that teaching is what he really aspires to. What he really aspired and still aspires to  simply did not meet the expectation of getting him a secure job. This phenomena is not only wide spread in Italy of course, but the pressure Luigi was under differs a lot from the pressure he would have probably felt in Germany as a member of the middle class.

Last but not least there is Giorgio, 30, representing the lower class of southern Italy here. Giorgios’ life aid is education. Rationalising helps him through the roughness of everyday life. He lives in a small apartment with his depressed brother, who sleeps on a grabby couch in the kitchen and his mother, who sleeps in a room that is something in between a living room, a bedroom and an office. All three live on the mother’s low income and part of the grandfather’s pension. The notion of having individual space  is almost unknown when you live like this in Naples (region Campania). Giorgio is extremely idealistic. He is part of  a desperate but vivid class.  His master in sociology and his will to go on taking an academic path and engaging in research is the spark of hope for a better tomorrow which burns inside Giorgio. If it was not for the community he believes in, the apparently inescapable dependency he is caught in would make him give in I fear. Being with him, I sensed that his educational formation is about understanding his stake in society, since it appears to be a perpetual circle of struggling with short cuts,  precarious work,  escapism and all the filth that comes with it. Not to mention the responsibility he feels toward his younger brother and the stress he and his mother are undergoing due to his situation, but that is material for another story.

Both Matteo and Luigi have already experienced how going abroad can benefit your career, and this goes for pretty much everyone regardless where he or she was brought up and what social back ground an individual lives in. But especially for Matteo, who has recently decided to move to Washington for work, there are no equal alternatives found in his home country Italy, so that you could argue about how ‘forced’ this step of emigration is. This is what I think should not be the case.

The time has come to fight for something better. Maybe people should choose revolution over emigration, for I know that most Italian emigrants do love their ‘home’ and you risk ending up bitter over life, or at least resented over some part , if you give up on what you love. What sacrifices would it take to stay in a country and be confronted with inequality and growing poverty? Is Matteo happier than Luigi or Giorgio? Would emigrating make their lives easier? That question is highly hypothetical as Giorgio for example couldn’t even consider emigrating for he and his family do not have the economic supplies needed.

We need revolution and emancipation for long term improvements, people ready to ‘sacrifice’, meaning fight and stand up, in order to make the last years of their life or the next generations’ lives’ possibly better. Revolution is motivated by a rejection of the status quo. Within the rejection there are ideals that need to be implemented for changing the status quo. The high emigration rate in Italy is a form of protest, not revolution. Hence emigration will not ameliorate the status quo but it is an indicator for the need of change and reforms. An indicator that should be turned into new ideals and reforms that come with them.

sources: George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)