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Italy – Land of Cliques

Yes, it’s true.  Italy is riddled with cliques.  It’s a very cliquey nation.  Cliques are everywhere in Italy when you think about it, as I did after having met up for a beer and a chat with an American friend here in Milan, Italy and the subject of cliquey Italy came up in conversation.

Many from outside Italy who have tried to do business here will have come across the Italian clique mentality. Indeed, before even trying to set up a business here, you often find that for a foreigner an Italian business partner is essential to getting anything off the ground business-wise.

The clique is closely related to a facet of Italian national character, that of that of mutual distrust – which I keep coming across, even after having lived and worked in Italy for well over a decade.

Many, but not all, Italians seem to be of the opinion that it is not so much a case of if they will be ripped off, but when.

Actually, this fear of being fiddled is quite justified, in that many Italians are ‘furbo‘ (click to see my post on this curious Italian word), and scams are everywhere too, which is something else I’ve written about more than a few times.

If you would like to find about more for the Italian propensity for cliquey behavior, then read on.

There are so many examples of Italian cliquishness that it is difficult to know just were to begin, so let’s get an old chestnut out of the way first.

Political Cliques

Italy is run by cliques.  The whole political class in Italy is one big clique, as the book “La Casta” – “the Cast” highlighted.

To even enter politics in Italy you need to penetrate a clique, for within the overall clique which is the political class, there are the other cliques, otherwise known as political parties.  Italy’s political parties are made up of cliques within cliques, and individual members may well belong to yet more cliques too.

At the moment this was written, Italy was being run by a coalition of cliques, and as with the best of cliques, communication between the members of the different cliques tended to be either non existent or difficult.  Berlusconi actually managed to form one large clique out of many smaller ones.  This is to his credit really, and it is not the first time that Berlusconi has united cliques. He did so during his last government, and kept the cliques from falling out for five years – a remarkable achievement in Italy where governments have a habit of crumbling more or less annually.  What Berlusconi did was a merit-worthy achievement in a country as cliquey as Italy.

A myriad of clumsy cliques have characterized Italy’s governments since the end of the second world war.  Not so much sixty-odd governments as sixty-odd cliques, with embedded mini-cliques, each masquerading as governments.  And because cliques are so cliquey, many of the fragile relationships fell apart as soon as one clique tried to do something another clique did not like, and Italy’s governments collapsed, over and over again.  The mini-cliques, some of which were not as mini as perhaps they seemed, have also had lasting and negative effects on Italy in terms of corruption, meritocracy, and progress.

There was the Freemason clique, known as P2, which my Italian readers will know something about.  Indeed the supposed head of this most exclusive clique (which included Silvio Berlusconi, incidentally), one Licio Gelli, a dyed in the wool fascist, resurfaced on a private TV channel here.  His appearance caused quite a hubbub too, probably because Italian’s perpetually worry that a return to fascism is on the cards.  Gelli, by the way, is a big Berlusconi fan.

Aside from the possibly defunct P2, are there other Italian cliques?  You bet there are!  In fact there are so many of them that it can be difficult to know just where to start.  I’ll have a go.

The CAI Clique

For those who may be unaware, CAI was the consortium of Italian entrepreneurs which attempted to keep Alitalia, at Berlusconi’s behest, Italian.  CAI was yet another Italian clique, formed in the Italian tradition from other cliques.  The CAI clique was made up of some of the members of another well known Italian clique  – the ‘Salotto Buono’ or ‘Good Parlor’, a group of powerful and influential Italian businessmen who control most of Italy’s larger business concerns, such as Fiat, and Pirelli.

Cliquey TV

Certain Italian organizations are incredibly cliquey too.  RAI, the Italian state TV channel, is so cliquey that many of its employees are members of the same families.  While some may label this as good old ‘nepotism’, it is nothing more than yet another example of the Italian tendency towards cliques.

Even within Italian firms cliques spawn.  Individual employees will treat their colleagues with disdain, simply because they are not in the right clique.  I know of an example of one colleague treating another very badly, although I will not name names.  The colleague who came off worst was not in the right clique.

Internal communication in some Italian companies can be virtually non-existent, probably because of the fear of creating some conflict or other with one of the resident cliques.

In a major Italian company I know, there should be a web-based collaborative system, but there is not, and efficiency suffers as a result.  Members of one clique cover each others lacks of ability, so the inefficient status quo continues to reign.

Attempting to reduce the number of internal cliques, maybe though training, and management which rewards competence instead of ‘friendship’, would probably raise levels of communication, efficiency, and thus productivity, many times over in Italy.  It is not that Italians are unproductive, by any means, but they could become more productive and would if the cliques were eradicated.

Cliquey Police

To join one of Italy’s many police forces, you have to break into a clique.  The local police, polizia municpale, are very cliquey and only friends of friends tend to manage to penetrate this clique to end up with what is regarded as being a cushy job.  Some of the local police cliques are corrupt too, or so it would seem from stories in the news and various stories I’ve been told over the years.

The national police force, the polizia, is similarly cliquey by all accounts.  Clique power is sometimes invoked by related cliques.

Rumors and accusations were flying around Italy that the police called in to monitor demonstrations against reforms to Italy’s education system in Rome’s Piazza Navona turned a blind eye to the arrival of rather well-prepared aggressive extreme right wing groups, and that the police took their time to intervene and calm things down.  Could it have been that the police were part of the same right wing clique as the rent-a-mob trouble makers?  In cliquey Italy, it is possible.

Cliques v Globalization

A further possible example of the police-clique in action was the police-led invasion of the Diaz school in Genoa.  A number of anti-globalization protesters were holed up for the night in the school during the 2001 Genoa G8 summit.

It has long been rumored in Italy that high level politicians were behind the questionable decision to send police units into the school and ‘crush a few heads’.  Maybe the intention was to crack down on the admittedly violent ‘black block’, and the police simply got their intelligence wrong?  Or maybe clique forces were employed to send a strong message to all those involved in the protests during the G8 summit?  The truth will probably be never known.

Cliquey Mafia

If you did not already know, Italy’s various mafias are another example of the Italian desire to belong to a clique.  To reach the higher levels of a mafia clique you often need to come from the right ‘family’ or clan.  These clans are yet another clique.

Should prospective mafia members come from an area run by another cliquey clan, it will mean that they will have little chance of being considered for a high level ‘position’.  Distrust, again.

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Once you have entered the mafia clique, removing yourself from it can be deadly, that’s if you actually live long enough to begin to consider moving out.  Yes, the mafia is one of Italy’s most dangerous and ruthless cliques. When the mafia terminates your employment, it probably ends your life.

Cliquey family

Of course it is widely known that Italy’s mafias are run by a groups of families.  Well, Italian families are pretty cliquey too.  Many Italian businesses are run by a families.

Again, it’s a question of trust, or rather, distrust.  You see while it is possible, it is less likely that family members will rip each other off, even if this does sometimes happen.  Blood, it is hoped, is thicker than water.

Cliquey Friends

The cliquishness of Italians often begins at school, and small cliquey groups of friends are often formed during their formative years.

You will see these groups of friends hanging around together in the evenings or at weekends in Italy’s many squares or outside ice cream shops, and these groups may vacation together for many years after finishing school.

Trying to enter these tightly knit circles of friends can be difficult, unless you are accepted as being worthy enough to join.  Even potential boy and girl friends are thoroughly vetted before being admitted to these ‘friendly’ cliques.

It’s not just friends that can be a cliquey group, whole cities can form huge impenetrable cliques – Florence, Siena, Venice and Genoa, are but a few examples.

Cliquey Cities

Genoa, for example, is one heck of a cliquey city, just ask my other Genovese half.

It is just about impossible for those who do not come from Genoa to find a job in this Italian seaside city, unless they know someone who belongs to the an influential Genoa clique, that is.

Even for those from Genoa itself, it can be tough to find work, simply because the job seekers in question have never managed to penetrate the appropriate clique.

Cliquey Web

Italy’s internetizens are, by and large, a cliquey bunch.  I’m not the only one to have noticed this either.

There are cliquey bunches of Italian bloggers who are highly reluctant to interact with those who are outside their tightly knit groups.

Whereas in other countries the web has become a place for sharing and exchanging information, in Italy the innate sense of distrust from which many Italian’s appear to suffer, means that the Italian web is much less collaborative than in the US or UK.

Italians seem to worry that sharing information may allow others to gain the upper hand, or lead them into making a ‘brutta figura’ – making themselves look stupid, or simply ripping them off.   To avoid such occurrences, Italians will keep tight lipped with regard to any information which they think might be of benefit to another – unless you are a trusted clique member, of course.

Other Cliques

Italian associations or organizations tends to be cliques, including sports associations.

There are other examples, I’m sure, but what I’ve written here is more than enough.  I suppose I could go on about the Roman Catholic Church as being yet another clique, but, for the moment, I won’t.  Another time, maybe.

Cliquey Influence

Italy’s many cliques wield a enormous amount of influence over life in Italy.  Attempts to reduce their influence meet with vociferous opposition and the wealthier cliques are very well represented in Italy’s parliament.  Italy’s right is cliquey; the left is to an extent, but not so much.

While Italy tends to appear to be dysfunctional to much of the outside world, to its cliques, Italy is just fine the way it is.

Corruption, a huge problem in Italy, can often be traced back to cliques using their influence to obtain some advantage or other.  They are also one of the reasons why Italy is not meritocratic.

Bending Italy to the will of the cliques is also why the country does not seem to modernize.  The cliques are conservative and reactionary, and headed by old minds who do not see any reason why things need to change – provided their bank accounts remain healthy.

Why is Italy So Cliquey?

After wading through the above, this very question may well be on the tip of your tongue.  I’m sorry, but I’m not going to attempt to answer right here, right now.

I’m afraid you will have to wait until another time or leave your theories via a comment.  If you are a regular reader of Italy Chronicles, you will know that I have indirectly touched on the probable causes of Italy’s, quite possibly, excessive cliquishness on previous occasions.   Note too, that the inherent distrust Italians have for one another is one of the reasons why Italy is so cliquey.  This distrust can be traced back to the time when Italy was a nation of city states – or city cliques, and to the times when Italy was occupied by foreign powers and open dissent could result in the loss of one’s head.

Let me leave you with this thought, though.  There is an internet based system which may be breaking down the Italian tendency towards cliquishness.  Alternatively, some may argue that this system could also be creating a whole bunch of new Italian cliques!

Do you know which ‘system’ I’m on about?

Before you point out that other cultures are cliquey too, this I know; however Italy, as a result of my own experience and after having spoken to other expats working in Italy, seems to be more cliquey than countries such as the US and UK.

Of course, the UK has its very own special group of cliques, otherwise known as its odd class system.

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