Rome is an incredibly deceptive city: it always appears to be something it is not. It seems to be ancient, but is actually modern; it seems never to change, yet in fifty years wiped out vestiges of millennia and upset the geography of half the surrounding region. It appears to be a city that leans to the left, which ruled it for twenty-five of the past forty years, but has been a petri dish for experiments in neo-liberalism and Blairism with a Tyrrhenian sauce. But perhaps the most instructive lesson of the Italian capital is that it shows us how and why what was once considered the ‘strongest and most intelligent left in Europe’ has melted like snow in the sun. That Rome is deceptive is inscribed in its best-known sobriquet: ‘the eternal city’. In reality, though it was founded 2,770 years ago (according to the myth of Romulus and Remus), 92 per cent of the city is not just modern but contemporary, as much the product of massive recent immigration as Chicago or Manchester were in their day. If in the time of its empire in Antiquity Rome was the largest metropolis on earth, peaking at 1.5 million inhabitants in the second century ad, by the late medieval period it had shrunk to a town of no more than 30,000 inhabitants. By about 1600 the population had crept back up to some 110,000, settling at around 170,000 in the following centuries. When Piedmontese troops stormed the city in 1870, putting an end to the Vatican state—with by then 200,000 inhabitants—Rome was just the fourth largest city in Italy after Milan, Naples and Genoa.

In newly unified Italy, the biggish town to which Roma caput mundi had been reduced was repopulated with civil servants from the North and labourers from the South and the Apennines, hired as masons on new construction sites or as domestic servants for petty-bourgeois white-collar households. As the chart below shows, there was steady growth for about a century: in 1950, for the first time in almost 2,000 years, the city returned to the population levels of Antiquity. In 1971, precisely one hundred years after the unification of Italy, it peaked at 2.8 million inhabitants.

The chart gives little idea of the enormity of the post-war boom. Between 1945 and 1970, the population of Rome almost tripled; urban planners projected growth to 5 million over the following decades. At that time, and at that size, Rome was a player in the major league of global cities. When I visited Turkey for the first time in 1971, Istanbul—2.7 million inhabitants—was less populated than Rome. Teheran with 3.3 million, Delhi with 3.5 million and Jakarta with 3.9 million were of comparable size. Today Teheran has 8.6 million inhabitants, Istanbul 14.6 million, Delhi 16.8 million, and Jakarta 10.7 million, whereas the entire metropolitan area of Rome, not just the city itself, has no more than 4.4 million inhabitants. Madrid has 6.3 million. Rome is the most densely populated city in Italy, but in terms of size it ranks with some of the more modest provincial cities of China, or on the same rung as Greater Boston, which has 4.7 million inhabitants.

The demographic boom after the Second World War coincided with an economic boom. So too the stagnation of its population in the past twenty-five years coincides with the economic stagnation into which Italy sank once the Cold War ended. During the Cold War, the American empire reserved special treatment for its marches: they had to be ‘success stories’, windows for showcasing Western capitalism. Economic growth was also needed to neutralize the strength of the left in some of these front-line countries. So there was an Italian boom and a Japanese miracle (and another in South Korea). In fact, the histories of Japan and Italy were in many ways parallel during the Cold War: both countries had authoritarian regimes in the inter-war years, both were defeated in the Second World War, both experienced an economic miracle after the war (Japan had a stronger start than Italy, but relative progress was comparable), both were continuously governed by the same party (Liberal Democrats in Japan and Christian Democrats in Italy). In both, organized crime remains conspicuous (yakuza in the land of the Rising Sun, Mafia and Camorra in the Bel Paese); in both high levels of corruption have been endemic; and since the end of the Cold War, the economies of both countries have never truly recovered.footnote1

During the Cold War, Italy could do anything it wanted: go into debt (no one seemed to pay much heed), unleash inflation and resort to devaluation, collude with the Mafia (Christian Democracy depended on it in Sicily) and pursue an anomalous path of state capitalism, pioneered by Alberto Beneduce under Fascism.footnote2

In the post-war years, the anomaly of the ‘Italian case’ in matters of real estate was glaring, particularly in Rome. To begin with, unlike in other European countries, in Italy there was never any serious attempt at public housing. Today the public housing institution (iacp) constitutes only 2.7 per cent of the total housing stock, while building cooperatives or socialized housing accounts for a mere 1 per cent.footnote3 Moreover, the contribution of the state has shrunk over time: currently, new public housing amounts to just 0.5 per cent of construction under way. In a country where public spending accounts for about half of gdp, not only has the state left a key area of its economy and society completely in the hands of private interests, but it has allowed total deregulation of this market. The state’s complete surrender in the construction sector has been compared to a kind of Eighteenth Brumaire pulled off by what Valentino Parlato once called a ‘real-estate bloc’ composed of ‘relics of the landed gentry, financial consortia, business adventurers, retired officers, owners of a few apartments, high professionals, public employees chained to some crumbling abode, corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, small-time savers seeking a nest-egg their pensions could never provide, big companies, contractors, jobbers’. Of this vast army, the foot-soldiers are home-owners.footnote4 In 1951, they numbered 4.3 million; in 1961, they had become 6 million; by 1971, they were 7.6 million. Today 18.5 million people own their homes, over 70 per cent of Italian families.

As Rome grew from one to almost three million inhabitants, the utter absence of the state in this area found expression in a phenomenon virtually unknown in other countries—in fact, no word for it exists in French, English or German—but which in Italy is a massive, chronic structural reality: abusivismo, a term that requires no adjective to specify what kind of abuse is involved. What it designates is every kind of illegal construction activity, conducted without a permit and/or in violation of regulations, by-laws, safety rules, often indeed without so much as an appearance in a land register. These range from such minor infractions as enclosing a balcony to create or extend a room, raising the roof of a preexisting building by one or two floors, or putting up a shack in the outskirts, to erecting huge industrial warehouses and creating entire neighbourhoods of ten-storey apartment blocks.