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State and punishment in Italy - The constitution of political membership’: punishment, political membership, and the Italian case

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State and punishment in Italy

Certainly the Italian case allows for no easy assumptions concerning ‘the anti-politics of crime’, particularly as a punitive manifestation of sovereign State decline (level 1).5 It thus serves as an apt illustration of Western penal divergence, and of the need to account for such divergence. In terms of punishment, for example, contemporary Italian penality has been described as neither punitive nor moderate, but ‘one in which repression and leniency co-exist and alternate’ (Gallo, 2015: 599; also Gonnella, 2013). This oscillation is manifest in Italian incarceration rates, whose ‘background increase […] since 1970 […] has [nonetheless] been dotted by repeat amnesties’ (599) and by provisions in favour of decarceration (though of short term effect – Gallo, 2015: 606). The same alternation is a broader feature of Italian penal policy (602; Padovani, 1981: 93). Italian penality can therefore be characterized as both harsh and lenient, and neither an example of straightforward penal convergence around a Western ‘punitive’ model, nor an example of straightforward resistance to punitiveness.

This dual penality is the penality of a ‘contested State’ (Gallo, 2015: 599), and it reflects the Italian State’s need to assert its authority on a fragmented reality by attempting to monopolise both the distribution of punishment and the dispensation of forgiveness. The frequent use of amnesties can partly be seen in this light: as the State claiming its monopoly on leniency, either as an act of paternal forgiveness or, often, as a pragmatic concession to the needs of a system beset by over-reliance on criminal legislation, and by prison overcrowding (Gallo, 2015: 607-608). However, moderation in Italy is not just a preserve of the sovereign State. It is also linked to the continuing importance of informal social controls (Melossi, 2003: 381) – such as those deriving from the family – that may either contribute to reduce deviance, or may make state law redundant in the resolution of social conflict. This type of moderation has been described as moderation in fact (‘de facto’): not necessarily the outcome of conscious policy decisions, but ‘the [formally] unintended corollary of existing socio-political dynamics’ (Gallo, 2015: 608).

The Italian State is contested insofar as it has failed to command exclusive allegiance from its citizens (Agnew, 2002). This failure derives historically from the process through which Italy was unified ‘initially at least, [by initiative of] northern Italians’ led by the monarchy of Savoy-Piedmont (Agnew, 2002: 42-43; Cassese, 2014: 29). Unification was by annexation of Italy’s various regions, rather than by consensus (Cotta and Verzichelli, 2007: 3), and this led to a heterogeneous national State, that faced substantial internal opposition (27) including, at the time, from the Catholic Church (5; Cassese, 2014: 314-315; Donovan, 2003: 97). The national State did not come to represent ‘the religious beliefs and practices’ of its citizens, and this compromised its ritual and symbolic power (Agnew, 2002: 58; Cassese, 2014: 25). This gave the State an ‘extremely fragile social base’ (Cassese, 2014: 38), not least because of the initial limitations on suffrage (Cassese, 2011; Cassese, 2014; Urbinati, 2013: 192). According to Sabino Cassese, the unified Italian State possessed different levels of state capacity (‘stateness’ or statalità) and relatively weak institutions: Cassese identifies this as a constant feature of Italian history (38). Contemporary examples of the ‘contestation’ faced by the State, include both internal political terrorism and organised crime, ‘emergencies’ faced by the Italian Republic, that represented explicit challenges to its political authority.

Italy’s internal heterogeneity has then been reinforced by the nation’s territorial differentiation (Cassese, 2014: 61), which has been variously conceptualised (Sciarrone and Storti, 2015), including by the long-standing division between North and South (339). Differentiation persists to this day and is manifest in the regional cleavages within the Italian political economy (Crouch, 2005: 5; Trigilia, 1997), for example in terms of type, size and concentration of enterprises. Regional differences provide continuing structural anchorage for Italy’s heterogeneity, as a consequence of which the nation displays ‘a tension between centre and periphery’ – between central State and its component parts (Gallo, 2015: 610). This tension has affected State-citizen relations: ‘for a long period the state has conceived of its relationship as mere imposition of sovereignty over its subjects. Meanwhile, civil society itself has kept its expectations towards the state and its institutions rather low’ (Selmini, 2005: 317). The centre-periphery tension has also had repercussions on contemporary Italian penality, including the negotiation and re-negotiation between central State and local authorities on matters of local safety (Selmini, 2005: 311; more broadly Cassese, 2014: 34 and 89-114). The central State, for example cut funds available to local authorities (Menichelli, 2015: 273), even as a 2001 constitutional reform restructured the balance of powers between local authorities and central government, ‘listing the duties reserved to national government and those in concurrent legislation’ and ‘leaving everything else to the competence of each region’ (267).

To the extent that the Italian State ‘has conceived of the relationship’ with its citizens as the necessary ‘imposition of sovereignty’, this has further created the potential for a punitive use of the criminal law, precisely as a tool with which to impose authority over a heterogeneous polity (Gallo, 2015: 614; Cassese, 2014: 350). This is most visible in emergency laws against political terrorism and organised crime. These laws, for example, require such offenders to collaborate with the authorities, against their terrorist or organised crime group, in order to access alternatives to custody (see further Gallo, 2015: 607). Collaboration here serves as practical manifestation of renewed allegiance to the State.

Moderation too is influenced by the tension between centre and periphery, insofar as de facto moderation and informal social controls, are linked to the presence of so-called ‘intermediate normative orders’: broadly speaking ‘political institutions that stand in between the state and its citizens, and mediate between the two’ (Gallo, 2015: 610). These orders are alternative collectivities which carry with them ‘intermediate collective loyalties, institutionally subordinate, but psychologically alternative, to loyalty for the State’, including ‘party loyalties; but also […] associational, religious and, in various forms, personal’ loyalties (Pizzorno, 1992: 19, cited in Gallo, 2015: 611). Examples of such orders include post war mass parties (Donovan, 2003: 98) – the Christian Democracy (DC) and the Communist Party (PCI) – but also clientelistic and corruption networks, families, and kinship networks.

Intermediate normative orders are linked to moderation insofar as citizens may choose to resolve social conflict by relying on the orders’ norms and practices, rather than by relying on state law (Gallo, 2015). Where these norms and practices do not coincide with state norms, reliance on them may in fact stimulate the corollary to de facto moderation and informal social controls: a low-level, diffuse (‘widespread’) illegality (Melossi, 2003: 382; Nelken, 2014: 282), which is thought to characterise Italy, and which is manifest in high levels of informal labour and tax evasion (Scamuzzi, 1996: 134; Pasquino, 2015; Sciarrone and Storti, 2015; Gallo, 2015: 608). For example, estimates for 2014 place the value of the shadow economy at 13% of Italian GDP (ISTAT, 2016: 2), with the greatest value added generated by tax irregularities, followed by informal labour, and illegal activities.

Cassese talks of the different ‘layers’ that make up the Italian State that ‘live an autonomous life [and] overlap in a non-orderly fashion’ thus producing weak legality (2014: 37; or different levels of legality: Sciarrone and Storti, 2015). ‘Weak legality’ is not just limited to citizens: widespread illegality also encompasses corruption, a phenomenon held to be ‘[embedded] […] in Italy’s institutions’ (Rhodes, 2015: 321; Ruggiero, 2010). Political corruption emerged with virulence in the 1990s, with the large-scale scandal known as Tangentopoli that contributed to the collapse of the erstwhile political parties (Nelken, 1996; Rhodes, 2015). Commentators judge that corruption has not abated in Italy since then (Rhodes, 2015: 320). Moreover, though public opinion has not been consistent in its support for anti-corruption (320), Tangentopoli (and the conflict between judicial and political classes that it enflamed) has contributed to citizens’ distrust of political and economic elites (Vannucci, 2009: 258; Ginsborg, 2013: 284). A 2016 survey reveals, for example, that only 6% of those interviewed had ‘much or very much trust’ (‘molta o moltissima’ fiducia) in political parties, 11% in Parliament, and 20% in ‘the State’ as a whole (Diamanti et al, 2016: 8).

The depiction of Italy as containing ‘intermediate normative orders’ coincides with the idea of normative pluralism, developed by the Italian jurist Santi Romano, and held to reflect the ‘[p]luralism […] built into Italian society’ (Zanetti, 2011: para. 3). Romano argued that the legal order is not the sole preserve of the central State, but that a legal order exists ‘wherever there exists a social organism, of some complexity’. Such an organism, according to Romano, produces an internal discipline, ‘authority, powers, norms and sanctions’ ([1946] 2013: 90). Note the similarity here with Della Porta et al’s analysis of recently discovered corruption networks (linked to large construction works) in which ‘decisions, attitudes, negotiations, expectations […] are based on pre-established scripts following rules that are well known to the people involved and informally codified, […][which] marginalize or punish those who show opposition or express disagreement’ and ‘socialize [novices to] the “laws” of corruption’ (2015: 198).

As this example shows, while a legal order may find support in the State’s legal order, it may also be distinct from, or even in explicit contradiction with, state law. Examples of the latter include ‘criminal or revolutionary societies’ (Romano, [1946] 2013: 33). Again, the Catholic Church, organised crime cartels, but also parties such as the PCI, have been identified – despite their notable differences – as pertinent examples of alternative normative institutions (Zanetti, 2011). ‘[R]elations such as kinship hierarchies and economic structures’ are then amongst the features thought to distinguish these institutions from mere ‘clusters of randomly assembled persons’ (Croce and Salvatore, 2007: 8).

Romano also notes the inverse relationship between the strength of the sovereign State and the strength of any internal juridical order contained within it: the stronger the State, the weaker the pull of alternative normative authorities and vice versa (Romano, [1946] 2013: 88). In this respect Italy seems to have historically displayed ‘a […] national state […] rarely able to dominate alternative institutions but […] also in need of some kind of negotiable help from them’ (Zanetti, 2011: para. 13). That is to say, Italy displays a State beset by a tension between centre and periphery (also Sciarrone and Storti, 2015).

From this depiction, we can conclude that the Italian nation State has historically displayed a defect in ‘political sovereignty’ (Loughlin, 2003): it has failed to monopolise its citizens’ allegiance, and create a cohesive political unit. In contemporary Italy this defect is manifest precisely in the presence of intermediate normative orders. This presence alerts us to the fact that political belonging in Italy may well be shared belonging. At the citizens’ level, citizens may conceive of themselves as belonging simultaneously to a political community unified in the State – understood here as an impartial entity representing the national collectivity – and to a political community unified by more personalistic bonds – kinship bonds, for example, or the bonds established within a political clientele.

Citizens may also conceive of themselves as belonging to the State via the medium of an intermediate normative order. Thus Italy’s post war mass parties educated citizens to political participation in democratic institutions (Selmini, 2005: 317; Pasquino, 2002: 71; Pasquino, 2015: 38; Urbinati, 2013: 189; Gallo, 2015: 610), with the PCI and DC ‘[adapting] their ideological confrontation so as to make it become an […] asset that contributed to the country’s political integration’ (1993: 558). Here belonging was in the parties – with their historically strong subcultures (Donovan, 2003: 98; Bogaards, 2005: 507) – and, through the parties, in the State. A similar mechanism follows also from the post-war Italian welfare state, where it displays features common to ‘conservative corporatism’ (or 'social corporatism' - Urbinati, 2013: 196) which premises incorporation into the nation State on incorporation into particular labour categories (Cavadino and Dignan, 2006: 17).

In sum, in Italy political membership can be in the State and in intermediate normative orders; in the State through an intermediate normative order; and in some cases in an intermediate order rather than the State (as in the example of organised crime or political terrorist associations). Only in some cases is membership constituted exclusively in the national collectivity; and only in some cases is the primary relationship with political representatives of the national collectivity.

This shared membership is also possible because of the particular nature of Italian institutions, including Republican institutions, described by Cassese as ‘porous’ to the multiplicity of interests present within the nation (2014: 345; Gallo, 2015; Rebuffa, 1996; also Bogaards, 2005). The Italian Republic presents both ‘a fragmented, corporative, civil society’ and ‘permeable and penetrable institutions’ (Pasquino, 2015: 50)6, given their multiplicity of veto-points. Again note that, where access to state institutions is by means of an intermediate order, this is likely to reinforce intermediate loyalties (Gallo, 2015: 603). Where such orders are premised on more ‘personal’ bonds – clientelistic bonds, personal following, kinship – this also gives a more ‘privatistic’ nature to the access to democratic institutions (Sciarrone and Storti, 2015). Access here is by political belonging rather than, as with political parties, by political participation (Gallo, 2015).

I have already discussed some of the penal implications of Italy’s shared political membership: the sovereign State tries to harness both punishment and forgiveness to shore up its authority. We find a push for harsh punishment where the sovereign State attempts to contain the risks posed by shared membership. We find also a push towards mediation and pragmatic moderation, where the State attempts to appropriate leniency, even disobedience, trying to incorporate its recalcitrant citizens (and agents) by forgiveness (see also Melossi's notion of 'soft authoritarian paternalism', 2001: 412). Shared political membership then creates incentives towards de facto moderation if and where state law is displaced by norms internal to the various ‘orders’ that co-exist with and within the central State (Gallo, 2015). In sum, what we see here is that the constitution of political membership in Italy is intrinsically linked to the distribution of both repression and leniency, with shared political membership contributing to a dual penality.

Anti-politics and punishment – comparisons and implications

In his analysis of ‘anti-politics’, Loader urges us to pay close attention to ‘unevenness in the development of crime dominated societies’ (2008: 406) rather than presume their universality. What does the Italian case contribute to this debate, and with what broader implications for theories of State, membership, (anti) politics and punishment? Firstly, given Italy’s ‘contested State’– one in which political membership is shared with orders possessing norms that may or may not coincide with state law – there is limited space for easy assumptions on state power, or on the unchallenged authoritativeness of state law, or on the appeal of state law for citizens. Applying the ‘anti-politics’ premise to Italy, over-estimates past political cohesion in ‘the State’ as the national collective entity and sovereign (level 1). It also assumes the absence of political cohesion today, without investigating the conditions of political membership, or querying the capacity for pockets of ‘communal solidarity’ (Ramsay, 2012: 212) to resist structural changes associated with ‘late modernity’. This vision ignores the existence of, and variation in, methods of producing social capital (Putnam, 1992; Barker, 2007; Barker, 2009) that do not depend exclusively upon a model of politics premised on the mediation of mass political parties. Moreover, to assume that political disaggregation leads to a saturation of the political field by forms of ‘penal control’ (Garland, 2013), is to presume that the law is capable of monopolising citizens’ imagination of, and demands for, order. It is to presume that citizens can and do re-imagine themselves as abstracted victims (Simon, 2007; Ramsay, 2012) or that they are in fact subject to victimisation, to be solved – in the short and long term – only by formal penal censure.

All such assumptions need to be tested across contexts. For example, if in Italy citizens’ political communities are also ‘intermediate normative orders’, then we need to ask which of these ‘orders’ has survived into the contemporary era and on what terms. It may make sense to talk about ‘anti-politics’ in relation to the passing of the PCI and its ideology.7 It may make less sense to apply this analytical lens to ‘intermediate orders’ unified by family or kinship ties, which may have demonstrated greater resilience over time (see Saraceno, 2015).

Assumptions on politics and punishment also need to be tested against comparative institutional differences, insofar as institutions are the means through which individuals participate in given polities, giving substance to political membership (Barker, 2009). Miller argues that in the US it is significant that the political agenda and policy choices may be closed off to citizens, as this leaves them with a choice between ‘maintaining the status quo [– high rates of violent crime –] or doubling down on […] support for increasing punitiveness’ (2016: 196; Gottschalk, 2013). Unsurprisingly citizens may opt for the latter.

In Italy, the porousness of institutions to a plurality of interest groups is similarly significant. Porous institutions have affected the character of political participation and in some cases personalised it, for example through kinship or clientelistic connections. This consequently begs the question of how ‘representative’ representative politics actually were, even prior to their ‘decline’. In a more positive light, a porous institutional structure also provides a conduit for different interest groups to try and react to, and possibly resist, the structural changes associated with ‘late modernity’ or economic neoliberalism. Different strata, in a stratified society whose political community is only partly unified in ‘the State’, suffer structural changes differently.

Similarly, stratification may also extend to the presence or absence of political ‘visions’ within society, so that we cannot assume the exclusive dominance of law and order narratives. Admittedly contemporary ‘visions’ may be increasingly narrow: for example, the demise of mass parties in Italy was met by a resurgence of localism (Selmini, 2005: 319; Calise, 1993: 558). Dispiriting as this may be from the perspective of a democratic politics premised on inclusive participation and national collective goods (Gallo, 2015: 612; Lacey and Soskice, 2015: 469-470), it nonetheless suggest that further investigation needs to be undertaken, before we conclude that all Western democracies, and all citizens within such democracies, have equally transitioned into ‘anti-politics’ with its penchant for penal control. Again, this insight is well articulated by comparative penal analyses, where they urge us to focus on ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, their different levels of integration into political communities, and their different levels of exposure to penal censure. In Western Europe this issue is of particular salience where such ‘outsiders’ are immigrants (Lacey, 2008; Melossi, 2013; Aas, 2014; Barker, 2013, 2017).8

Similarly we cannot presume that, in the face of insecurity, citizens will necessarily turn to the law for reassurance. In Italy, the centre-periphery tension manifests itself in a dualism between an over-inflation of laws (Gallo, 2015: 612) and their circumvention (Cassese, 2014: 342-343); between legal coercion and informal mediation. This suggests that, even in the face of the structural changes presumed in the penal literature, the demand for ‘law-for-order’ will not be consistent across Italian society. Some citizens may turn to the law and legality as the fallback solution to the absence of compelling political narratives, and in the presence of political corruption. This is indeed the trajectory that Massimo Pavarini traces for the Italian Left in the 1990s (1994; Ginsborg, 2013), and is a dynamic that is thought to engender a ‘punitive potential’ in Italy (Gallo, 2015: 612; Sciarrone and Storti, 2015). However, other citizens may choose to resolve conflicts via the informal norms of existing ‘intermediate orders’, suggesting if not outright ‘resistance’ then perhaps ‘refusal’ of, or ‘indifference’ to (Loader, 2008: 406), the criminal law as a solution to social conflict.

The presence of informal social controls militates against seeing Italy simply in terms of a society saturate with penal control. I claim that this issue, the existence and persistence of alternative ‘social norms and logics’ (Koch, 2016: 14), is relevant also to the penality of other Western polities. David Garland has identified the absence of informal social controls, and the deficit in social organisation and social integration, as key to explaining the ‘exceptionalism’ of US penality (2013; though see Lacey and Soskice, 2015: 465). In the US, penal control is the necessary ‘back-up’ where ‘more positive and more productive modes of social control are unavailable’ (Garland, 2013: 505; Lacey and Soskice, 2015: 473). This raises the question of the fate penal control has had in societies where different forms of social control have persisted (Lacey, 2008; Lappi-Seppala, 2008).

I argue that this question can be re-phrased in terms of the constitution of political membership: how is political membership constituted across different Western polities? Through what institutional means, permeated by what (changing) political narratives, creating what level and manner of identification between the State, as sovereign and political collectivity, and citizens? Scholars of punishment need to continue interrogating the construction and evolution of political membership, and its contextual variation. This process will give us insights into how different polities are transitioning into the contemporary era and with what political outcomes: to what extent do we face a disaggregation of political communities? These insights may in turn help us explain if and why punitiveness, an overwhelming preoccupation with crime, and a reliance on penal control, are indeed taking hold in different polities: are disaggregated communities turning to state punishment as their solution?

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