Capitalism is destroying southern European life


The Observer

One of my many regrets in life is that my daughters will never see the Italy I knew. Other people probably feel the same about Greece, France, Spain or Portugal, recalling the age before everyone seemed to be everywhere. When even Florence was not that crowded in summer and the small towns and villages of Tuscany and central Italy — certainly the south — were Italian in every way: few foreigners and that uncompromised way of life.

An early start in the cool of morning, hard work followed by a good lunch with wine from a jug. Then the sacred siesta — a nap, or cuddle-up with someone else during the Italian afternoon, when everything is determinedly chiuso — closed. After the impenitent heat of day relents, the shutters reopen and evening begins for most with the passeggiata, Grandpa on the arm of his granddaughter, teenagers showing off, heated discussion over Gazetta dello Sport or the L’Unita. For others, back to work, for a few hours.

On Sundays: forget it — no, you cannot go and buy this or that. Those metal shutters are down and will remain so until Monday morning, possibly late Monday afternoon. Sunday lunch lasts from about 3:30 p.m. to past 11.

This is rose-tinted and ignores the appalling tribulations some people faced, but these customs still exist in Italy and across the Mediterranean and Aegean, just about. It is called the quality of life and it is how I lived — and worked — for a while during the early 1970s and (less relaxedly) as a correspondent in the 1990s.

But this popular civilization is endangered, because of a pincer movement by tourism and the north’s economic doctrines. That garage on the winding hill up to Montalcino is now a fancy Enoteca open all hours. In the big cities, Sunday is just not Sunday anymore. Meanwhile, the pressure is on southern Europe to stop the indulgences and heed northern Europe’s headlines about debt and deficit: CRISIS IN THE EUROZONE! AUSTERITY!

This week millions of people will leave Britain, northern Europe and America, heading for the lands where the olive trees grow. Most will find the cheapest deal at a beach or major “tourist destination.” Some will go to second homes converted from what were farmhouses in the days I used to ride my Honda 850 out for a picnic in the hills. Others will rent a villa; many will travel from place to place, either pounding the beaten track or seeking out ever more remote “hidden treasures.” And why not? Everyone deserves a break.

Many holidaymakers will enjoy playing at — perhaps even enviably gawping at — the way life is lived among the cypresses. Understandably, they’ll adopt a few local habits for this precious week or two: a quick morning espresso at the bar; a longer lunch than at home; a siesta, indeed; an aperitif in the square before dinner outdoors. They may be a little annoyed that the church or museum they wanted to visit is shut for the afternoon, but, walking around, will hear the echo of their footsteps off the old stone walls and admire the tenacity with which the town has gone restfully silent in a way no place in northern Europe does.

They may remark on the impact this way of life seems to have on people’s health. There is a sense of well-being, especially among the elderly, sitting out on the street for dominoes or totocalcio football pools, that evades people in the northern Europe, despite their obsession with keeping trim. Platoons of reporters have plodded around the “blue zones” in Sardinia and the island of Ikaria in the Greek Aegean, trying to unlock “the secret” of why people live longer in these places than anywhere else.

The island has a history of starvation and persecution that forced people to grow much of what they eat, and vice versa, which today is advantageous, but even that aside, the “secret” is obvious: Ikarians live mostly in the open air, they do not sit in offices; people work, but not unnecessarily. Fishermen in the port of Evdilos enjoy a long morning of backgammon on the quayside before launching their craft. No one fiddles with digital gadgets; the Internet is something you find in a cafe if you need it. Many watch black-and-white TV, partly because they cannot afford a color set, partly because they see no need for one.

It’s like the Italy I knew in the 1970s, including the extremist politics. There are worries too, of course; those of almost every Greek (Spaniard, Italian or Portuguese) about the economy, debt, unemployment — and now that very northern word, arriving on the chill political wind from London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington: “austerity.” And here’s the rub.

The few places left that have fended off mass tourism and preserved their way of life, such as Ikaria, the plains of Castile, the wilds of Abruzzo, are, in reality, everything that northern society, their managers, the International Monetary Fund, businessmen, politicians — both Euroskeptics and Angela Merkel — despise. The politics of the EU are nothing if not a grinding of southern Europe; bludgeoning the south into abandoning its lazy ways, spruce up, pay off its debt and BE LIKE THEM!

Yes, to adopt turbo-capitalist zeal in place of these languid Latinate ways; to conjoin their obsessive consumerism, their corporate mind-set, their worship of technology. Enough of these ghost town Sundays — where’s your 24/7 shopping, triple-A rating, stress medication?

And so August holidays on cobblestones and land where the vine grows become very weird, as people go to play at the way of life their leaders — maybe even they — are destroying. Many of those from Britain, America, Germany and elsewhere this weekend setting off to savor the southern life are the politicians, bankers, lawyers, managers, civil servants, think tank “brains” — newspaper writers indeed — who have decided, generally if not individually, that the Anglo-American way of capitalism is the only way to go. Fueled, it sometimes feels, more by some combination of cocaine, Red Bull and Viagra than aromatic coffee, a cool aperitif and an afternoon snooze.

But in August, they leave their frantic modus vivendi behind. “Oh, look at those little old men playing chess on the pavement — so sweet!” “Campari-soda per favore!” “Tasha, you MUST try the epoisses, it’s divine!” “I so love the way they whizz about on scooters without helmets and no one wears seat belts — it’s such fun!”

Then September comes, back to balancing the books, the shareholders’ interests, the “aggressively managed portfolio,” the stock market indexes. That’s enough Caravaggio and mortadella for one year, time for a new austerity package — those lazy bloody Latins.

Ed Vulliamy is a writer for The Observer and The Guardian.

  • wal_man

    If you want things in life you must buy them. If you want to buy things in life you need money. If you need money you must work. Work as much as you like. If you don’t feel you need much then work to those ends. Do what you wish with your money. THIS is Capitalism: People making individual choices with THEIR money. How can such a thing be bad?
    What’s bad is when a person or society robs Peter to pay Paul and never give Peter his money back. What is bad when one puts their desires on a credit card and expects someone else to pay the bill.
    No society or person can spent more money than they make for long.
    Your wordy lament is spoken like a true idealog. We all lament that the world we grew up in no longer exists. The focus should be on the things that drove those changes. Married mothers used to be able to stay home with the kids but now the burden of tax responsibilities has driven them into the workplace just to cover the Government Nut. That’s only one example. The more the government spends, the more they need to tax. The more they need to tax, the more you have to work to cover the overhead. Was the tax burden lower when you were younger? I’ll bet it was!
    Your blame is mis-directed. It is government making deals with special interests that serve a small group rather than all of us. These special interests receive special treatment with tax money, YOUR tax money. This is your issue.
    Blaming “Capitalism” for money woes is like blaming the Weatherman when it rains.

    • Eagle

      ” If you need money you must work.”


      And if you work hard eight hours a day, you won’t have time left to earn money.
      This is not capitalism; our present world of capitalism is only about greed and cheat.

      If you want to know what capitalism is about, then just go back to the beginning of the 20th century and read Henry Ford quotes. He and they knew what capitalism was about, it is not what we have today.

      Here, just two Ford quotes:

      “It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It is the customer who pays the wages.”

      “ There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible. “

      Now, this is (was) capitalism that was invented in order to make it possible for you to decide what to do with your money and life.
      Where are we from that? Where are we now???

      • wal_man

        Good quotes! And you’re right. The arguement is mainly what it is that has had the negative impact on employers and working people. I contend that it is the intervention in the marketplace by the ever expanding hand of government. Demonize “big privledged businesses” if you want to but governments do not manufacture or sell items for their money, they can only get what they spend by taxing the people who produce. Government does not produce anything, they use resources and, despite what Socialists might contend, cannot create economic prosperity. They can only really get in the way of it by over taxing.
        To use a quote very much like Henry Ford’s, this one by Ronal Reagan, he said: “Businesses don’t pay taxes. Consumers pay taxes.” That is, businesses have to pay those taxes by raising prices.
        To answer Iian McPherson’s reply I’d use the above as an example of what forces are at play when the costs of goods rise and that is that taxes, and we in the U.S. are taxed at about 30% of our income and when we spend money almost anywhere. Our phone bill is taxed, our electric bill is taxed our property is taxed, our gas is taxed and I pay an excise tax yearly to the town I live in which is basically to park my car in my driveway.

        These taxes depress my wages. They limit my choices for what I can buy which limits the materials retailers and manufacturers will purchase for future production. By me not having that dollar in my pocket to spend, keeps that money out of the pockets of others whose goods I’d like to buy but can’t.
        So I contend that it the government’s taxing tenticles that is the problem. They are fighting expensive foreign wars, mandating expensive pyramid scheme like safty-net health and welfare programs and building roads to nowwhere and we get to pay for it. The public school lunch program alone is a massive multi-billion dollar government industry now. Who is paying those billions? We didn’t have a lunch program when I was a kid. We brought our lunch (mommy made it).
        We could have purchased these things on the open market but government steps in and monopolizes health, schools and even banking. You never get to see what the market wasn’t able to create. You only get to see what the government built with the money since they took it. The private sector can always deliver goods and services better and cheaper.
        This is why mommy can’t stay home. Demonize anyone you wish but if government wasn’t taking the resources, we would have the chance to work for them.
        And working 8 hours is nothing compared to the people who came before us. A workers day at the turn of the last century in the U.S. was 60 hours a week. Ten hour days and you got Sunday off.

      • Eagle

        Nice insight and true.

        You are saying: “The arguement is mainly what it is that has had the negative impact on employers and working people.”

        Well, the same thoughts here in my mind. You have answered, say partially, I mean touching the surface. I always thought they were only symptoms.

        Frankly, I do not know the answer, but tracking down the ways of cause and effect I see that governments, politicians, CEOs, employers never got that much
        support and background that they can get now from our high tech life, allowing them to build their own private heartland and getting away from reality.

        Our new world is highly mechanized by the ”trust in the mechanism” trend, creating an artificial unrealistic, self-destructive human life full with sociopaths, who only know how to seize power but just don’t know how to do the job. They know how to make money (take away from others) but they just don’t know how to use it wisely.
        It looks like we are heading for something irreversible.

    • Iain Macpherson

      Wage depression and price hikes have way more to do with married mothers having to work, whether they want to or not, than taxes do. It’s the same grinding down of middle-class stability that this article rightly decries. Women staying home, southern Europeans not slaving away enough, it all stands in the way of wealth transfer to the privileged few.

    • zer0_0zor0

      You are right that it is the government corrupted by special interests that seek to undermine regulations, etc. that ensure that the free market is indeed free, BUT the problem is that they always do that making a false appeal to capitalism.

  • msupp

    “They may remark on the impact this way of life seems to have on people’s health.” And they may also remark, on how this way of life leads to a moribound economy. Wake up, southern Europe, and Europe more generally was living in a fantasy land in which economic indicators and realities never made it to the citizenry. Sadly for Europe, this is no longer possible to maintain. What a naive article looking for a scapegoat for the “poor” Greeks, Cypriots, and Italian’s woes.

    • zer0_0zor0

      So, you’re a technocrat, then.
      It’s true that a rationalized economy is important, and it contributes to ethics, too.
      But what about that capitalist Berlusconi?

  • What a silly thesis. People who are so ‘poor’ (devoid of economic surpluses) because of their indulgence and unproductiveness lamenting the incursion of outsiders because they need their money. Just raise your prices if your attitude is commonplace, and we’ll not come. Oh that’s right, you have no notion of cause and effect, or just no stomach for responsibility. You’ll be ok, somehow?

    • Julian Garrett

      That was because their system did not demand economic surpluses, it actually did just fine by itself.
      But that was because it wasn’t intricately interconnected with
      everything else. These guys dont worry about “positive outcomes”, they
      worry more about “fish” and “life”. Yes, its rapidly becoming a
      forgotten age.

      Their life became tied to their country, and
      everyone in a second became responsible for “best outcome” and “most
      efficient use of capital”, like the village was now a corporation, run
      at ever faster speed to produce more, to chop away the old, the poor, the needy, all for one goal – more money.

      There is a traditional way of life that is under the heel of traders who only know 100 hour weeks (and I suggest you look at http://www.wallstreetoasis.com to see what I am talking about, and how much these people truly exist in their own, horrific, bubble)

      Your idea of “Responsibility” does not play out on the level of these people. They want to be responsible to others, not a financial outcome.

      Still a little bit like Japan, but things are changing everywhere, and very rapidly.

      • If they cannot support themselves; if they require outside wealth, then they need economic surpluses. If they want to exclude outsiders, then they will need to secede from an extortionist based representative democracy, which is not capitalism, its a ‘kinder fascism’ from whence they came, but they think they are free. But in fact, they don’t bear the economic cost of what they want. Do they want to exclude outsiders? Then they will pay less tax, but they will have to pay for defence. They are simply folk who are just unhappy. They are not challenging themselves intellectually. They are bemoaning the ‘self-evident’ culprit, without seeing the broader picture. Our political system offers no winners. We are all losers. Some just have more extorted wealth than others.

  • None of those places are capitalist nations.

    In fact, we don’t have a capitalist nation on this planet anymore, and we’ve never had real laissez-faire capitalism in the history of of the world.

    People like you, Ed, have already won. Your brother’s keeper ethics of altruism and political socialism are the status quo. What are you complaining about? Greece, Spain and Portugal have all gone down that path. This was the result. And that wasn’t because of capitalism, it was because of exactly what you believe in.

    I understand that your ideology doesn’t leave any room for honestly confronting the facts that conflict with your vision. You see products, you see brand names, you see “corporations”, and you wrongly equates their mere existence with capitalism. But there’s no need to so shamelessly erect a strawman. If you want to evade the truth, at least make it less obvious.

  • Japanish

    A great article. It’s funny how the few comments here are howling against a decent way of life and in support of selfish Anglo-Saxon capitalist greed: Everyone’s an individual, and other nonsense. I wonder how many of these posters enjoy the Japanese healthcare system,and a state supported (either directly and indirectly) job? Anglo-saxon neo liberal politics has destroyed North America, a lot of Europe and is in the process of destroying Japan.

    • Wilkins Micawber

      Not Anglo-Saxon, left-wing is what you mean.

  • Ricky Kaminski

    That was lovely.

  • heartlaker

    The author romanticises a way of life long subsidized by a corrupt transfer of wealth from the north. Milan, Turin and the industrial powerhouses up there do not identify with his kind of pining.

    • Japanish

      Milan, Turin and the industrial powerhouses did very well on the back of cheap labour from the south.

  • Toolonggone

    It is not the left who is a prime mover of capitalism. Private institutions (i.e., big banks, corporate media, transnational corporations) are the ones responsible for sucking up significant amount of wealth from the public. I always thought this is the phenomenon mainly occurred within North America and some countries in Europe. I was wrong. It is affecting both central and South Americas, and Asia, too.