Far from being on the margins of Europe, Italy has more often than not been at her centre. Fascism was born in Milan in 1919, and first took power in Rome in 1922. The wartime anti-fascist resistance (1943–45) was a movement of extraordinary depth and power. Later, the Italian Republic produced a mass-party system unrivalled in world history, with political sub-cultures that spread their tentacles deep into civil society, the economy and cultural spheres. Italy’s ‘long May’ was quite easily the most radical, interesting and, in the end, violent of Europe’s 68s. The Italian economy—with the ‘flexible specialization’ of the ‘third Italy’ and its industrial districts—provided a post-Fordist model widely studied by economists and social scientists. Politically, in the 1980s, Bettino Craxi prefigured Blair by crafting a new, strongman social-democratic politics which broke with both the symbols (hammer and sickle) and the material interests (indexed wage-rises) of the industrial working class. Craxi, right down to his corrupt boots, invented Blairism, including the crushing of internal party democracy in the once proud and disputatious Socialist Party.

From the ashes of Craxi came Silvio Berlusconi—the richest man in Italy, media magnate, P2 Masonic lodge member (no. 1816) and master salesman. Berlusconi re-invented politics, dispensing with the old structures—parties with members, sections, hustings, manifestos, meetings—and using his business experience to advertise a political product: himself. In 2002, with Berlusconi firmly in power (as both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister) Italy is once more at the centre of world attention, against the background of the police riot at the G8 summit in Genoa, a shift towards official euro-scepticism and openly racist legislation, and the mysterious death of a government advisor, Marco Biagi, allegedly at the hands of a new division of the Red Brigades.

Paul Ginsborg’s Italy and its Discontents is a sequel to his widely acclaimed History of Contemporary Italy. Elegant and at times very funny, his new book is easily the best account of the last twenty years of Italian political history. Its blending of micro and macro-history is often inspired, and its narrative of the spectacular crisis that shook the country, bringing down the old political class at the turn of the nineties, is lucid and gripping. A vivid panorama of Italian society emerges, without demonization or eulogy. Unlike its seminal predecessor, this volume is organized thematically, and begins with something of an apology—Ginsborg describing his work as ‘part history, part political argument, part participant observation’ (he has himself played a leading role in the Left’s debates and anti-Berlusconi mobilizations of recent months). It is true that Ginsborg ventures here into territories which are sometimes not his own, and is not always comfortable there. But this willingness to take risks forms part of the merit of his enterprise. This is an important book, and the best way of engaging with it is to consider some of its leading themes.

The family—as an economic, political and cultural unit—is at the heart of Ginsborg’s analysis, as it was in A History of Contemporary Italy. Once again, he finds both positive traits of solidarity and community, and negative strains of conservatism, racism and insularity, in Italian familism. Ginsborg is at pains to explain why this attachment has dominated all other loyalties, in terms of what he calls the deformed relationship between the citizen and the state. Over time, he argues, Italians have developed a clientelistic attitude to the state—based on a notion of exchange: the state is seen as a hostile force (not least as a greedy collector of complicated and irksome taxation), but also as a potential honey-pot of resources of all kinds. This nexus is in part the result of an instrumental use of the state by politicians and business interests throughout Italian history, and in part the anthropological expression of widespread familism.

One question, then, is who started all this, and when? Do we really need to go back to the Middle Ages to find the answer, as Robert Putnam has famously done? Another is how a clear-cut separation of interests between citizen and state can actually be made, since nearly all citizens have some sort of stake in the state machine. Certainly, Ginsborg is right to criticize the political class for its failure to reform public administration since the War; but there has never been great pressure from below for such reform. The tax revolt of the Northern Leagues in the 1980s never took off as a form of protest and, once in power, they divided up the spoils of the state sector in much the same way as the other parties.

Perhaps a cultural revolution—not exactly imminent—would be needed to shift the underlying geology of this deadlock. It could be argued that the Italian state has been in the throes of a legitimation crisis ever since unification in 1860, and that the roots of the widespread distrust of authority, and connivance at illegality of every kind, go back to the Risorgimento. Ginsborg writes eloquently of the disastrous state of Italy’s public services today. But it has to be said that compared with their counterparts in the UK, many of these agencies—including the railways and even the infamous postal service—can appear as paragons of efficiency, humanity and customer satisfaction. On the other hand, Ginsborg’s laudable attempt to find silver linings in the much-decried Italian state sector has led him in the unlikely direction of the Bank of Italy, for which his praise is fulsome, and the salutary impact of European integration. But in hindsight, monetary union appears less and less significant within the broad trends that have marked public financial management in Italy since unification. Italian economic and political elites seem perfectly able to carry on in the old way despite Maastricht.

Ginsborg finds another source of hope for the future in what he calls the ‘reflexive middle classes’ that form, he thinks, an archipelago of ‘virtuous minorities’ within Italian society. Who are they? According to Ginsborg, some are those who give their time to the vast Italian voluntary sector (often linked to the Church), but most work in ‘educative’ public-sector professions—teachers, lecturers, health workers, intellectuals. It is never quite clear what ties these people together—a sense of the state (but which state?), ecological values, rejection of mass consumerism and hedonism? More reductively, are the ‘reflexive middle classes’ simply those who vote for the Centre-Left, rather than the Centre-Right? For Ginsborg, ‘instead of being swept away by the intense rhythms, the enrichment and the material consumption of the modern world, this middle class has shown a growing awareness of global dangers, of the damage wrought by unthinking consumption on the quality of everyday life, of the connections between private choices and public consequences’.