[ISSN 1974-028X]








filosofia & religione


storia & sport


turismo storico




























N. 43 - Luglio 2011 (LXXIV)

The Italian Mezzogiorno
A Brief history of the post-war years

di Marco Siddi


The backwardness of Italy's southern regions has been a formidable challenge for the Italian state since its unification. The Italian Mezzogiorno, including the regions south of Rome, Sardinia and Sicily, has always been poorer than the rest of the peninsula. The socio-economic problems that existed at the time of Italy's unification (1861) were left unsolved and almost unchallenged by the Italian state for nearly a century. It was only after the Second World War that the state attempted to intervene in the Mezzogiorno to rescue its economy and try to bridge the gap between North and South. However, the large state-financed programs of the 1950s and 1960s achieved far less than its creators had hoped.


The term Mezzogiorno means ‘south’, but it does not only refer to the geographical position of the Italian regions which it identifies. It also relates to the state of social and economic backwardness that characterizes these regions. After the Second World War, traditional agriculture and sheep farming were still the main economic activities in southern Italy. Industry was almost non-existent and the Mezzogiorno was not involved in the process of post-war economic recovery that was taking place in northern Italy.


Large areas in the southern Italian countryside were infested by malaria. The environment was hostile: mountainous and hilly regions with little rain and poor soil dominated the landscape. Irrigation systems were completely inadequate almost everywhere. The countryside was divided into large estates, where the land was farmed with old and inefficient methods. Many landlords lived in the cities, far away from their estates, and did very little to improve agricultural methods or transform their possessions into modern and competitive farms.


Communications between the cities and the countryside were very limited. Poor communications and the scarcity of agricultural products, which were mostly sold on the local market, constituted a serious obstacle to trade. The basic infrastructure – schools, hospitals, streets, aqueducts, sewage systems – were largely inadequate and insufficient. In 1954, 49 percent of the adult population of the Mezzogiorno was illiterate and 85 percent of all southern Italian families were classified as poverty-stricken.


The number of unemployed people was estimated around 2 million and probably another two million were underemployed. Many decided to migrate to northern Italy and Lazio in order to find employment and better living conditions. Exasperation led those who did not migrate to undertake radical forms of protests, such as the occupation of lands in Calabria, Abruzzi, Sicily and Basilicata during the winter 1949-1950.


It was in this context that the government of the Christian Democrat Alcide de Gasperi decided to help the South with direct state intervention. The main initiatives launched by the Christian Democrats included an agrarian reform and the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno, a program of state-funded agricultural, industrial and infrastructural projects. These initiatives constituted united Italy's first serious plan of state intervention and aid to the poverty-stricken Mezzogiorno.


The decision to implement an agrarian reform was motivated by economic and social reasons. The reform had been part of the program of all the post-war parties – including the Democrazia Cristiana, that emerged as the main party in the 1948 elections – as a prerequisite for the recovery of the agricultural sector. The large estates of southern Italy were not efficient. Thus, land was to be redistributed and reorganized in order to lay the foundations for modern and competitive agriculture.


The agrarian reform was also a response to the peasant demonstrations that took place in Italy in the winter of 1949-1950. In order to secure popular support and defuse social tensions, the state could no longer ignore the demands of the poor southern peasants. Domestic stability was essential in order to sustain the rapid industrial growth that was taking place in the north and to deprive the Communist Party of the support of discontented peasants.


The Christian Democrats hoped that the agrarian reform would placate social tensions without radically changing the conditions of the southern peasantry, so that poverty would still force many southerners to migrate to the north. This migration was considered as necessary in order to provide the northern Italian industries with the cheap labour that they desperately needed to sustain the post-war economic growth.


The implementation of the agrarian reform proved largely unsatisfactory. The criteria for the confiscation of land were ambiguous. In Calabria, for instance, only ‘unimproved’ arable land on estates over 300 hectares in size was liable to confiscation. In the rest of southern Italy only the estates worth more than 30,000 lire were subject to confiscation. Landowners could avoid confiscation by simply dividing their estates among members of their families.


In addition, the concept of ‘unimproved arable’ land proved to be very ambiguous. Insignificant ‘improvements’ to large unproductive estates provided landowners with a good excuse to avoid confiscation. The 700,000 hectares of confiscated land were insufficient to satisfy the demands of all peasants. Moreover, only 10 percent of the land was in fertile areas, while the rest was in poor mountainous regions.


In order to implement the agrarian reform, reform boards were created. However, the boards were not able to effectively tackle the challenge they were confronted with. They could not develop a coherent policy of intervention and channelled more aid towards the richer areas (such as the Piana di Sibari in Calabria), where it was easier to create profitable and competitive farms. The poorer areas were often left to their fate, which resulted in the abandonment of large arable lands during the decade following the reform.


The agrarian reform was accompanied by another project of state intervention in post-war southern Italy, the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno. Like the agrarian reform, the Cassa lacked a coherent plan and tended to favour the richer areas. Most importantly, the project was undermined by the presence of a large and expensive bureaucracy, as well as by the practices of clientelism and corruption in the award of building contracts, jobs and funds.


While the agrarian reform and the projects financed by the Cassa were taking place, the Christian Democrats were also attempting to lay the foundations for mass support in the South. In order to secure votes, they were even ready to make a compromise with local mafiosi. Clientelism and abuse of office became common practices. The Christian Democratic party (DC) used state structures and money to pursue its own political interests.


In this process, it was helped by the Catholic Church, which was very influential in southern Italy thanks to its local ramifications. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s the Church overtly supported the Christian Democrats, both at national and local level. For the Vatican, the DC constituted an essential bulwark against Communism, as well as a political force that would resist radical social changes.


The collusion between mafia and politics was one of the main reasons for the scarce success of state intervention in the Mezzogiorno. The mafia thrived thanks to political support and its infiltration of civil society. The large amount of funds channelled by the state into the South provided an excellent opportunity for the mafia to make economic gains. Local mafia clans obtained contracts for public works and acquired dominant positions in cooperatives and land reclamation agencies.


The mafia also played a crucial role in the intermediation for the provision of labour and in other economically significant activities, such as the provision of water to the cities. In order to be able to carry out these activities, it needed the collaboration of leading politicians both at local and at national level. As Patrick Mc Carthy has stated in his Italy since 1945, ‘mafia found a solid prop in the DC party’. The DC tolerated the mafia's infiltration of society and its lucrative economic activities. In exchange, the Christian Democrats obtained the political support of mafia clans.


This is demonstrated by the constant growth of the DC's share of votes in cities such as Naples and Palermo, where the local mafia had acquired considerable economic and political power. In Palermo, the DC obtained 14% of the votes in 1946, 25% in 1952, 35.8% in 1956 and 44.4% in 1964. Such a surprising success was also due to other factors, such as the integration of right-wing politicians and monarchists in the ranks of the DC. However, the support of the mafia’s clientele did play a crucial role too.


State intervention in the Mezzogiorno could hardly be successful if public funds were used to pursue personal political interests and public works were assigned to mafia-controlled businesses. These problems were compounded by managerial miscalculations. Investments in the industrial sector started only at the end of the 1950s. Meanwhile, the gap between the North and the South had become wider.


Most industrial centres that had been created in the South with public funds were isolated and ill-fitted in the local economy. Their production was based much more on the demand of foreign and northern Italian markets than on that of local markets. Furthermore, these industrial centres competed with the small local industry for skilled workers. They also did not make an important contribution to alleviating the problem of unemployment, as investments went mainly into sectors in which the ratio labour to capital was the lowest.


Consequently, unemployment and underemployment led an estimated 9 million Italians to migrate from the South to the North of the peninsula in the years 1953-1973. Migration, deprived southern Italy of its young workforce. This vicious circle badly affected the already precarious process of industrialization and economic development in the Mezzogiorno.


External factors proved to be a further burden for the economy of the Mezzogiorno. Following the foundation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957, Italy had to adjust itself to the regulations of the European Common Agricultural Policy. The Italian government had focused its negotiating strategy at the European level on securing benefits for the national industry and taken a more compromising stance on agricultural issues. Consequently, among the agricultural products of the Mezzogiorno only olive oil was as heavily subsidized as the northern European agricultural products.


The accession to the European Economic Community also contributed to the outflow of labour from southern Italy, as the Italian government attempted to reduce unemployment in the South by encouraging migration towards other EEC states. This also led to further depopulation of the poorer areas of the Mezzogiorno.


As has been shown, the backwardness of the Mezzogiorno persisted also after the Second World War. This was due mainly to the inadequacy of state intervention in the South. The agrarian reform of the early 1950s proved to be insufficient to revive the agricultural sector. It favoured the development of some richer areas, but it completely neglected the needs of the poorer peasants, who were left no other choice than to migrate to the cities of the North in order to look for better living conditions.


Corruption, clientelism, private political interests and the collusion between politicians and mafia undermined the projects of the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno. As a result, the chronic underdevelopment of southern Italy continued to be a major problem for post-war Italy.



Riferimenti bibliografici:


Allum, P. A. Politics and society in post-war Naples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Bevilacqua, Piero. Breve storia dell’Italia meridionale dall’Ottocento a oggi. Roma: Donzelli, 1993.

Chubb, Judith. Patronage, power and poverty in southern Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Duggan, Christopher. Italy in the Cold War. Politics, culture and society 1948-1956. Oxford: Berg, 1995.

Forgacs, David. Italian cultural studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ginsborg, Paul. A history of contemporary Italy. Society and politics 1943-1988. London: Penguin, 1990.

Gramsci, Antonio. La questione meridionale. Roma: Editori riuniti, 1991.

Mc Carthy, Patrick. Italy since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Wiskemann, Elizabeth. Italy since 1945. Bristol: Macmillan, 1971.




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