Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1995 Issue

The Culture of Politics

From his vantage point in Bologna, political commentator Patrick McCarthy is perfectly situated to observe the political scene in Italy and throughout Europe - - and to share his observations with his students at Hopkins's Bologna Center.

By Dale Keiger

It is 8:30 on an early spring morning in Bologna, Italy, and Patrick McCarthy is about to start a two-hour class on the late structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault. Eight-thirty is early to digest something as meaty as Foucault, and a few of McCarthy's 15 or so pupils will straggle in over the next 25 minutes. But in a soft, Irish-accented voice, McCarthy begins: "The subject, what we call the 'I', doesn't really exist for Foucault."

McCarthy is one of the most respected and popular faculty members at the Johns Hopkins Bologna Center (part of Hopkins's Nitze School for Advanced International Studies, or SAIS), where he is resident professor of European politics. A slender man with a lined face and light-colored eyes, McCarthy might look stern were it not for a few spiky patches in his hair and a gap between his front teeth. These features sometimes lend him the look of a boy caught firing a rubber band at a classmate during chapel. He does have a mischievous wit, though it is delivered with such dryness you must be alert to catch it. In his youth, McCarthy was a rugby player, and sometimes from his face you sense an enduring toughness. When he explains something, his eyes occasionally widen as if in wonderment at how the world works.

McCarthy teaches courses in contemporary European politics and society, and the history of the movement toward European unity. Today's class is part of a course titled Politics and Culture in Post-War Europe. The reading list includes George Orwell, German novelist Christa Wolf, Italian film director Pierpaolo Pasolini, Albert Camus, Heinrich Boll, Margaret Drabble, and Graham Greene. That McCarthy has included novelists, essayists, and a film maker in a course on society and politics reflects his belief that to understand a society, one must learn something of its culture. He has written and edited books on contemporary European politics, but he's also written books on Camus and Céline. He uses Camus's expression of the tension between France and Algeria in the 1950s to help students understand the present uneasy relationship between Europe and the Islamic world. He employs Céline to teach about anti-Semitism, and the present revival of the political far right in Europe.

"Doing this has always seemed obvious to me, but it's something universities often seem to ignore," he says. "This course is designed to allow students to obtain a certain knowledge of how culture overlaps politics. It equips them to analyze texts in a political light."

He begins his lecture by explaining Foucault's place in what his students have been studying throughout the term. They are attentive, though a few look bleary-eyed and can't stop yawning. Most are graduate students in their mid-20s, in the first year of a two-year master's program that requires a year in Bologna followed by a year at SAIS in Washington, D.C. Some are clad in blue jeans and sweatshirts; one young woman wears a chic beaded pillbox hat set at a rakish angle. German, Scandinavian, Canadian, and American accents mingle (like most of the center's classes, McCarthy's is conducted in English); a few cadences and inflections defy easy categorization, suggesting American students raised in Europe. Outside the window, the sun highlights the terra cotta roof of the building across the street. Someone clinks a cup he's brought to class from the center's coffee bar downstairs; cresting just below the cup's brim is the frothy top of a cappuccino. This is, after all, Italy.

McCarthy pauses now and then to pose questions. The students are strikingly articulate, and not always prepared to concede the points that Foucault makes. One of them voices a difference of opinion with the French intellectual, and McCarthy responds by noting, "You're in good company there. But not in Foucault's."

After an hour, he decides it's time for an intermission.

"Can we keep the break to five minutes?" he requests.

Responds a student, "It depends on how fast they can make cappuccino downstairs."

In the collapse of the Christian Democrats, McCarthy sees evidence that the Vatican's influence continues to decline. Attendance at Mass is down. Italian couplse obviously disregard the Church's teachings on contraception.

In his office down the hall from the classroom, McCarthy sits behind his desk, unwraps a chocolate bar, and gestures with it, saying, "This is quite a breakfast." He speaks fondly of his class. At the beginning of the term, he provided a list of 18 texts and let the students select the 12 the class would read. They chose, among others, Foucault, French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard (who in 1977 wrote a book titled Forget Foucault), and contemporary Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. "They opted for philosophy with an emphasis on the modern," he says. "They spend a lot of time discussing the issues outside of class." He pauses to take another bite of chocolate. Referring to a young woman who had been notably assertive in class, he says, "That one girl read Foucault at Harvard. I think she scares the other members of the class."

Scholars can be a jealous lot, but on learning that McCarthy was to be the subject of a magazine article, several of his colleagues smiled and said, "Oh, good." Students offered unsolicited testimonials to his skill as a teacher, the breadth of his knowledge, and his remarkable recall of detail - - everything from the tallies of past Italian elections to soccer scores.

Says David Calleo, director of European studies at SAIS, who has known McCarthy for nearly 20 years, "He's a very good scholar, very good at linking subjects that aren't always thought of together. And he's a wonderful teacher. He's very sympathetic to students, but at the same time very demanding, and somehow the combination works out."

McCarthy's forthcoming book is titled The Crisis of the Italian State (St. Martin's Press, 1995), and he finds now to be a fascinating time in Italy. The country recently has witnessed massive government corruption scandals, a violent struggle against the Mafia, the murder (apparently by a professional assassin) of Maurizio Gucci of the famous Gucci fashion family, and the rapid political rise and fall - - and possible resurrection - - of Silvio Berlusconi, the charismatic Italian television magnate who won Italy's last election to national office, and then, within months, led his government to collapse.

McCarthy writes a monthly column for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in which he comments on current events in Bologna, everything from mayoral elections to the closing of a street market to the disappearance of popular osterias, or taverns. He often interprets the local scene through the eyes of his 12-year-old daughter, Kate. He accords the Italians more esteem and importance than they sometimes accord themselves.

"The Italians don't think they count for much," he says. "They are very self-critical." But economically, he notes, Italy counts for as much in modern Europe as does Great Britain. Italy has a small-business sector far more dynamic than anything found in Britain. These small businesses tend to be well-run, rooted in families that look after them for generations. Says McCarthy, "The British don't think making knives in Reading is a good way to spend one's time, whereas the Italians think making knives in Modena is a good thing. And the fact that the Italian government has neglected these businesses has many advantages for them. They probably don't pay their share of taxes, they probably don't obey labor laws, and they shortcut a lot of bureaucracy. This makes them very hard for companies in other countries to compete with."

The Crisis of the Italian State examines the last three years of Italian political upheaval, during which the post-war political order - - and with it the dominant Christian Democrat party, the democristiani - - collapsed. "The more I looked at all this, the more I thought it was more than a normal political change," says McCarthy.

The end of politics-as-usual began when magistrates in Milan exposed the fact that the democristiani-led coalition was channeling public monies to political supporters. The magistrates also scrutinized the system of "taxes" on public contracts, in reality bribes demanded from contractors by the political parties in power. This system of "clientelism," as it was called, was the pillar of Christian Democrat power. In the scandal's wake, the party, which had dominated most Italian governing coalitions since 1948, broke up into a slew of weak splinter groups.

Into the breach stepped Berlusconi, as head of the Freedom Alliance, a new coalition that included the neo-Fascist National Alliance party. The latter had not been a big factor in previous elections, but in McCarthy's words, it suddenly "shed its chrysalis and became a sort of butterfly, floating gaily with 13 percent of the vote [in the last election], proclaiming one day it was Fascist and the next day that it was not."

In his book, McCarthy attempts to trace the origins of these political developments. In Berlusconi's victory, he sees the rise of a sort of Italian populism. The elites of Italian society were taking their lumps from the Milan magistrates. Along came Berlusconi, who was not an aristocrat, but a self-made man. Though divorced, he managed, not unlike Ronald Reagan, to project an appeal to traditional values.

Television played a critical role in Berlusconi's election, McCarthy says, another intersection of culture and politics: "You can't create a political movement out of nothing unless you can reach a lot of people very quickly." Berlusconi owns Fininvest, which controls the three major national commercial channels and gives him a virtual monopoly on commercial TV - - imagine an American politician owning NBC, CBS, and ABC. Fininvest sells network time to many small businesses, and helped Berlusconi reach out and build a base of business support.

Berlusconi also owns AC Milan, one of Italy's mightiest soccer teams. Italy is mad for soccer. Its premier league is the world's best, and AC Milan won the last European club championship. "That helped him a great deal," McCarthy says.

Berlusconi swept into power on March 27, 1994. By December 22, he was gone, forced to resign when the Northern League party bolted from his governing coalition. His government collapsed so quickly, McCarthy says, in part because his coalition partners could campaign for office together but not work together. He failed to reduce Italy's growing budget deficit, failed to support the ever-devaluing lira, and failed to continue an economically vital program to privatize Italian state industries. He ruled, in McCarthy's words, "like a clan chieftain who plundered the state."

But McCarthy doesn't discount a possible comeback by the media magnate. Berlusconi retains the ability to appeal, through his television networks, over the heads of the elite directly to the masses. "Although he governed badly," McCarthy says, "what is not appreciated [by foreign observers] is that a good deal remains of Berlusconi the charismatic leader, the glamorous self-made entrepreneur. I would hesitate to write him off. I know that even in `Red Bologna' [for years the city had a Communist Party administration], people are going to vote for him again because they think he was a great man downed by lesser men." Besides, McCarthy wryly notes, AC Milan is playing good soccer again this year. Another European club championship (at press time the team was in the finals) would make Berlusconi a hero to a large section of the Italian electorate.

In the collapse of the Christian Democrats, McCarthy sees evidence that the Vatican's influence continues to decline. The democristiani had always been a staunchly Roman Catholic, anti-Communist party that enjoyed the support of the Church. "The Vatican told the voters in the 1948 elections, `God can see you and Stalin can't,'" McCarthy says. "It wanted a church-dominated Italy, and it got it." But in modern Italy, the Vatican's power to sway opinion has waned. Attendance at Mass is down. Italian couples obviously disregard the Church's teachings on contraception - - the Italian birthrate, notes McCarthy, is down to 1.3 children per woman, and abstinence doesn't seem the likely explanation.

Summing up The Crisis of the Italian State, McCarthy says, "The book is a bit of an ambitious undertaking. Maybe I've walked in where angels feared to tread. But it seemed worthwhile to try to provide an overview."

McCarthy is one of the most respected and popular faculty members at the Bologna Center. "If you're going to understand a country, he says, "you've got to understand its culture."

McCarthy was born in Wales, of Irish extraction, in 1941. As a young man at Oxford, he studied French and German, earning first class honors. In 1963, he spent a year studying at Harvard, penning a research paper on "Flaubert and the Revolution of 1848."

In 1968, he returned to America, to Cornell, as a visiting assistant professor of comparative literature. "That was the year the guns came out," he says, referring to the much-publicized occupation of the Cornell student union by armed black students. "I don't want to sound like a political tourist, but it was quite exciting. I had been in France during the Algerian war, so I was able to sympathize with the anti-war movement in the U.S."

Asked why he came back to the States, he responds, "The short answer is, I always liked to travel . . . to wander, that's a better word. And my family was only marginally British. They remained strongly Irish. I liked the U.S. I thought that Harvard, compared to Oxford, was a much more open and exciting university. I think the country's slightly crazy. That's the best part of it. You can do whatever you like and nobody cares. You can invent your own America. There's one for everybody." He also liked the interdisciplinary quality of American universities.

From Cornell, McCarthy moved on to Haverford College, near Philadelphia. In 1975, he married his wife, Veronica ("From London. A grave sin in my family, marrying an English person."), and they moved to Washington so she could take a job as a senior staff officer at the National Academy of Sciences. Says McCarthy, "I walked into SAIS and met David Calleo. We just got along well. We have in common that belief that if you're going to understand a country, you've got to understand its culture." McCarthy became a visiting professor in European studies at SAIS until 1977, when he and Veronica moved back to Europe. He taught at the Bologna Center for two years.

From 1979 to 1988, the peripatetic couple moved back and forth between Europe and the States. McCarthy taught at Haverford again, kept in touch with the Bologna Center during another period of residence in Europe, and had a daughter, Kate, in 1983. In 1988, the Bologna Center offered him a permanent teaching position, and the family left the United States and settled in Italy.

In the class on Foucault after their coffee break, McCarthy's students are attentive as he goes over selected passages in English and French. McCarthy likes this class. "It's like a holiday for me," he says. As he lectures, he repeatedly takes his glasses off and puts them on again: on to read from his notes, off to address the students, on to go back to his notes. He has doffed his gray suit jacket, and with his wide-eyed look discusses Foucault's idea that there are no great truths, merely many flawed discourses.

Speaking of Foucault's emphasis on examining what gets left out of any written account of society, McCarthy notes that Foucault himself left out items that didn't fit well with the points of his essays.

Says one student, "Are you saying discontinuous papers from us would be welcome?"

"Yes," McCarthy says, with a slight grin. "Strive for less coherence. Especially in discussing economics."

He breaks up his recitation with occasional bits of dry humor. "We might think about if there are subjects that are taboo in modern society, which must not be spoken of," he says. "I tend to think there are". . . pause . . ."and I'm not going to discuss them."

Back in his office, McCarthy folds his arms behind his head and thinks about what he wants to say about Europe, the subject of another forthcoming book. Along with Erik Jones (SAIS '89), he co-edited Disintegration or Transformation: The Problems of the State in Advanced Industrial Societies (St. Martin's Press, 1995). He wrote or co-wrote two of the chapters, arguing that the nation-state is not disappearing, but that the nature of its power is changing.

For example, he notes how in creating the European Union (EU), the 15 member nations "traded off bits of their sovereignty, but got other kinds of power in return." Individual governments gave up the right to subsidize certain industries such as steel, chemicals, and automobiles; they also gave up the ability to govern the flow of capital across borders. In exchange, the EU nations gained the power to negotiate as a bloc. Thus they achieved a stronger position at the GATT world trade and tariffs negotiations. Individual nations were able to use the EU's clout to secure concessions important to their own economies and political constituencies; France, for example, used its position as an EU member to force concessions from the United States on the export of American films and other cultural products.

The union has enabled Germany to better control immigration from Poland and Eastern Europe, says McCarthy. Were Germany to restrict such immigration on its own, he notes, it would risk pointed reminders of its past mistreatment of Poles and other nationalities. But if it does so in the name of the European Union, of which the Eastern European countries are not members, it mutes such criticism. It is no longer Germany once again making trouble for Poles and others; it is now Germany protecting the interests of the EU.

The EU nations have established a European parliament, a Council of Ministers, and the European Court of Justice. Neither the parliament nor the court has much power, as yet. McCarthy cites a case regarding the Italian soccer federation. Italy's first division (its premier professional league) restricts each team to three non-Italian players. The European Union stated that this constitutes restraint on the free movement of labor, thus violating one of its fundamental principles. "The Italian soccer federation collapsed in laughter and went on doing what it wanted to do," McCarthy says. But he adds that the European Court is gradually building up a body of legal precedents. When the day comes that a powerful EU member such as Germany decides that it's in its own interest to put its weight behind a decision, McCarthy says, the court will acquire genuine authority.

European Union agreements have had dramatic effect on certain domestic politics, and McCarthy cites a prime example close to home. In 1992, for the first time the Italian government began to exert serious pressure on the Mafia. "Why was the government going to war with the Mafia?" he asks. "The Christian Democratic government had worked out a delicate system of compromise. It had treated the Mafia as a sort of state with which it negotiated. Suddenly, the negotiation had broken down." One explanation, McCarthy believes, is that other European governments, especially Germany, pressured the Italians into action. They did not want their banking systems, open now to free movement of capital, flooded with laundered drug money. The Italian government's traditional accommodation with organized crime was no longer satisfactory in the broader context of European unity.

For some smaller countries, the EU has meant increased stature and sophistication, McCarthy believes. He cites Ireland as an example: "Ireland got a seat on the Council of Ministers. This did two things. First, it diluted the Irish obsession with Britain. Second, it diluted Irish nationalism - - they go together. You had the emergence of a body of opinion that was more sophisticated and more cosmopolitan." He believes that the sudden confidence with which Ireland pursued a peace plan with England for Northern Ireland was a direct result.

Though much of the business of the EU is business, McCarthy observes another impetus toward union: "One cannot neglect that this began as a way to avoid wars." A conspicuous failure in that regard has been the strife in the former Yugoslavia. "It's been disastrous," McCarthy says. "They [the EU nations] see it as an enormous failure. It inhibits their thinking in other areas, such as Algeria. But I think there are reasons for regarding Yugoslavia as a special case. You're asking the EU to undo centuries of hostility.

"One of the things I find odd is we Europeans don't do anything about Bosnia, but we watch it on TV and terrify ourselves by watching these scenes of carnage. There's something decadent about that. And it's very postmodern. It's a spectacle. In the past these things happened and people outside didn't know very much about them. Now it's offered as a form of entertainment. It comes on directly before the soccer results: `Juventus 3, AC Milan 0. Serbs 2, Croats 1.' I think it creates a kind of unreality."

The mood in Europe right now is pessimistic, McCarthy says. Many European economies remain mired in recession. Profits are up and inflation is under control, but overall European unemployment won't budge from roughly 10 percent (compared to a healthy 5 percent in the United States); in Spain, unemployment remains over 20 percent.

"I think the great fear in Europe," McCarthy says, "which is fueled by the American example, is the creation of a kind of sub-proletariat, a permanent underclass, which would be new in Europe." Europeans worry about immigrant "guest workers" becoming that permanent underclass. Europe has always had poor people, but they were at least part of the culture and had some opportunity to move out of poverty. Guest workers live on the margins of European society in a sort of cultural segregation, and they tend to get trapped in poorly paid, irregular jobs, such as garbage collection, textile sweat shops, or seasonal agricultural work - - "jobs which the native population thinks it's too grand to do," McCarthy says.

Because of low European birth rates, McCarthy predicts that even more immigrant laborers may be needed in the future. Many of them will be from North Africa, fueling tensions between European governments and Islamic fundamentalists. "The greatest task facing the next generation of Europeans will be to understand and work with the Arab world," he says. "Historically, Europeans have done a poor job of engaging in dialogue with Islam. My daughter's generation will have to show more generosity, more imaginative sympathy, and above all, more self-criticism."

Despite the many problems, McCarthy is not convinced that Europe should be so gloomy. The German economy is recovering from the impact of reunification, and that bodes well for the rest of the union. Several other EU nations have growing economies, and McCarthy sees a lessening of nationalism and a greater willingness to cooperate.

"I'm not too pessimistic about Europe," he says. "We'll see. We'll see."

Notes from Bologna Our intrepid reporter sets out to capture the local flavor

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