A House Divided: Federalism and Social Conflict in Italy

AuthorAmnon Lev
Published date01 December 2018
Date01 December 2018
Subject MatterArticle
Amnon Lev*
For indeed any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the
other of the rich; these are at war with one another; and in either there are many smaller
divisions, and you would be altogether beside the mark if you treated them all as a single
Plato, The Republic
Looking at Italy, the article argues that government serves as an intervening variable
that can mediate the implication of federalism and social division. Its overall argument
is that the Italian state maintained its unity through a governmental practice of
configuring social division so as not to align on the North/South divide, while engaging
in a comprehensive devolution of competencies to the subnational level. Through
readings of Carlo Cattaneo and Guiseppe Mazzini, the first part of the article considers
the conjunctural factors that allowed for the creation, against all odds, of Italy as a
unitary state. The second part considers by what strategies the political parties colluded
in preserving the unity of the national territory, and by what forms of devolution power
was transferred to the subnational level. In conclusion, the article considers the rise of
federalism in Italian politics from the 1990s.
Looking to Italy to see how federalism works within deeply divided societies might
seem like an odd choice. Not only is the country not a federation, but historically,
federalism, the principled advocacy of federal power sharing, has not had any real
traction in its political life.2 And yet, taking Italy as an example may give us new insights

Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen. I would like to thank the anonymous
reviewers of Federal Law Review for their comments which were extremely helpful in
sharpening my argument.
Plato, The Republic (Benjamin Jowett, trans, Cosmic Classics, 2008) 92.
Italy is, to use Ronald Watt’s terminology, a regionalised, not a federalised, union, the key
criterion being whether it is within the legal power of Parliament to amend the devolution
statutes. With the exception of a 2001 referendum, Italian devolution has been done through
the passing of constitutional laws pursuant to art 138 of the Constitution. Such laws must be
debated in both Houses over a period of no less than three months, and must be approved
by an absolute majority in both Houses on second vote. On the criteria for distinguishing

Federal Law Review
Volume 46
into the way social division and federalism relate to, and condition, each other. Their
relation is usually thought of on analogy with therapy: social division is a threat to the
polity, federalism is one of a number of remedies that can be applied to if not cure, then
at least manage the disease. On this view, social division is a brute fact, something ‘out
there,’ for the social scientist to diagnose correctly so that decision-makers can take
appropriate measures when intervention can no longer be put off.3 We shall try to
nuance this widely held belief. The point is not to deny the relevance, for federalism, of
the level of division in a society—that would be folly—but to suggest that the federalising
action of social division is mediated by a set of intervening variables that, to stay with
the medicinal analogy, may inhibit or block it. What the Italian case shows is that, unless
properly configured, even deep and persistent social division will not always set off a
push for federal, as opposed to other forms of, power sharing. The theme of configuration
opens up to the importance of politics and political culture, so often overlooked in
federalism studies. The argument we make is that the Italian State maintained its unity
through a governmental practice of configuring social division so as not to align on the
divide between the prosperous North and the chronically underdeveloped South that
plagues the country, and has done so from its founding. The practice, an integral part of
Italy’s political culture, has been the conduit of a comprehensive devolution of
competencies by which successive governments have accommodated political
aspirations at the subnational level, without opening a flank to attempts to disaggregate
the State. Paradoxically, what has been called, with approval, a hollowing out of the
Italian State,4 has been a way for this divided house to stand.
The demonstration, which falls in two parts, builds on the commonsensical notion
that there is a path dependency to how states develop. Federalist scholars have already
put this insight to use. In a very interesting study, Nicholas Aroney has shown that there
is high degree of continuity between the way constitutive power is distributed at the time
of the giving of a federal constitution (or the federalisation of a unitary one) and the way
constituted power is distributed within the polity after that time.5 As a polity moves
towards becoming a federal political system, it thus retains the basic constitutional
characteristics of its original template. Our concern here, however, is not with the public,
and so easily reconstructible, distribution of constituted power but with the more
intangible question of how the avoidance of a specific problematic—the federal

between federalised and regionalised unions, see Nicholas Aroney, ‘Devolutionary
Federalism Within a Westminster-derived Context’ in Aileen McHarg, Tom Mullen, Allan
Page and Neil Walker (eds), The Scottish Independence Referendum: Constitutional and Political
Implications (Oxford University Press, 2016) 239, 300–1; Alfred Stepan, Arguing Comparative
Politics (Oxford University Press, 2001) 295, 320–2; Ronald L Watts, ‘The United Kingdom as
a federalised or regionalised union’ in Alan Trench (ed), Devolution and power in the United
Kingdom (Manchester University Press, 2007) 239, 240–1.
For a statement of this theorem, see Malcolm M Feeley and Edward Rubin, Federalism: Political
Identity and Tragic Compromise (University of Michigan Press, 2011) 43–7.
Louis F Del Duca and Patrick Del Duca, ‘An Italian Federalism?: The State, Its Institutions
and National Culture as Rule of Law Guarantor’ (2006) 54 The American Journal of Comparative
Law 799, 804.
Nicholas Aroney, ‘The formation and amendment of federal constitutions in a Westminster-
derived context’ (2018) 16 International Journal of Constitutional Law 17, 49. Aroney speculates,
very plausibly, that the original configuration of constitutive power perpetuates itself in two
ways: by informing constitutional reasoning, and by virtue of the systemic conservative bias
of any system of power.

A House Divided: Federalism and Social Conflict in Italy
question—is perpetuated in and through governmental practice. This requires us to
examine how Italian governmental practice ties into the question of political form
This is the subject of Part II that surveys the ideological context of the Risorgimento
by looking at two positions that are often seen as antithetical: Carlo Cattaneo’s liberal
federalism and Guiseppe Mazzini’s democratic nationalism. The point of comparing
them is to bring out an affinity that explains how they could converge around a project
of state building that was committed to, and delivered on, neither. What that
convergence gives us is the locus of a conjuncture, a situational avenue of agency through
which Italy was created, against all odds, as a unitary state. The analytic payout of seeing
unification in terms of a conjuncture is that it draws our attention to the fact that, once
the conjuncture passes, sustaining the unitary state that arose out of it required that
power be exercised in a specific way. We analyse those requirements in terms of a
governmental practice of differentiating the rule of law across the national territory so
as to allow government to contain the effects of social division without putting into the
question the unity of the state—an informal federalism.
Part III considers how, by what strategies, this governmental practice was diffused
through the political system, and by what forms of devolution it was then actuated. By
its very nature, the demonstration is approximative. We shall argue that the trajectory
of devolution, from its onset right up to the rise to power of Lega Nord, the first regional
party in Italian political history, correlates with shifts in the capacity of government,
itself a function of shifting external constraints. The current nature of some of the events
cautions against taking them as evidence that governmental practice is changing or, on
the contrary, that it is on pattern. In concluding, I shall nevertheless attempt to draw
some general conclusions about federalism from the Italian case, focusing on the
question of how social division is mediated through government.
None of the observations about Italian political life that will be introduced here are
original. I believe, however, that their use in the study of federal phenomena is. It refers
back to a theory of federalism that I have outlined elsewhere, according to which our
conceptions of federation and federalism are...

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