We spoke with Luciano Canfora, the historian and classical philologist about the pandemic and Europe’s response to it.
Professor Luciano Canfora, 75 years after the Italian Liberation, the comparison between times of war and the pandemic is often used. Is there anything today that recalls those years?
I tend to avoid reckless comparisons, where the elements being compared are not of the same kind. Wars are damaging choices that are made by power groups. Diseases are not. The other side of the problem is how to cope once the disaster has occurred and inequalities are being produced, and that is where political power must intervene. Therefore, just as the reconstruction of 1945 was a difficult one, so will tomorrow’s recovery be. It requires a well-thought-out intervention, at the grassroots level and carefully measured.
What’s your view on the government?
One can poke fun at anyone, but I do not share the attitude that has been, for example, adopted by La Repubblica. I do not know what the new director will do, but in recent weeks I have been reading columnists who have continued taking shots at the government. Just like the default setting of criticism coming from the right. I agree with Nenni here: whenever the right is praising me, I get worried. Casting blame on those who have found themselves forced to do what was possible is a cheap shot.
Conte has put a large number of experts to work. Is that a good thing?
The cacophony of learned men and scientists is incredible and alarming. The experts who are asking for the utmost caution are giving the impression that they are doing so in order to cover themselves, they are imposing preventive and unilateral caution perhaps more in order to burnish their image for future memory.
After the era in which competence was no longer a virtue, is the myth of science also about to fall?
For goodness’ sake, we have more than half a century of reflection on the non-neutrality of science behind us. I am old enough to remember Marcello Cini’s “The Bee and the Architect,” a classic. Let’s add that the very noble “exact sciences” are not really that exact. When the plague broke out in ancient Athens, the doctors were expelled. Wrongly so, because medicine is a conjectural science par excellence. It’s understandable that they’re groping for answers. But they also must have the courage to choose.
But politics must also choose. Let me take the example of the schools: there is still no official statement as to how the school year will end, and how it will start again is a complete mystery.
The complete closure of the schools was an enormous mistake, and at the same time the moment of truth after years of cost-cutting. At the time of Minister Gelmini, the policy was to make the classes bigger—jokingly called “henhouse classes”—to be able to cut the number of teachers and eliminate the supporting ones. It was an insane policy, which has now come to a head. We must aim for classes of 10 to 15 students, for a fruitful relationship with the teachers. The risk of contagion would be reduced. But this also entails courageous building and investment: it cannot be done overnight. Instead, it must be planned immediately. I understand that it is easy to sketch out a different reality. But we are not sketching out socialism, but rather a civil solution, which in some countries is already a reality.
Speaking of politics. Is everyone statist today?
As soon as serious disasters occur, even those who had sung the praises of neoliberalism are whining and asking for the help of the state. Will the recovery last for a long time? Let’s hope so. The harsh reality will convince even the most foolish worshippers of neoliberalism.
Do you see a glimmer of hope in Europe?
Here, the dispute is laid out in terms that are often embarrassing and paralyzing. We all know the original flaw of how the European Union was built, a name that is more a hope than a reality. Wise people immediately pointed out that starting from money rather than politics was a mistake. Today, highlighting the aspects that are seriously unsatisfactory doesn’t make us Salvinians. But while desperate, hysterical politicians, such as the leaders of the right—desperate because they know their time will not come back again—are just playing a destructive game, an intelligent government should be critical of the behavior of the most selfish countries within the Union.
You mean the countries that are being called “frugal.”
Molière’s miser was frugal, i.e. selfish. An affinity in terms of intentions and, hopefully, concrete action on the part of the countries most liable to be affected by the current difficulties can reverse the trend. Then, much will depend on what direction the two leading countries, France and Germany, are taking. France has stopped playing leader. This is an interesting moment that can be seized to change the balance. I will add that the Salvini-style Eurosceptics are doing the bidding of the neo-fascist who governs the United States, who said from the very start that he wanted to break the EU. The real struggle is to rebalance the relationships and aims within the Union. I hope that this will be the result that will come out of this terrible crisis.
Has the time of the nationalists gone?
I see the obsessive habit of publicizing polls is being lost. But the Lega is falling, because it has made no contribution to solving the problems. This has marked the beginning of an unstoppable decline. Of course, Fratelli d’Italia is benefiting from that, but I think I can see that the more time will pass, the more the battle between these two extreme right-wing parties will be a losing one.
On Friday, seven M5S deputies voted with the right on the ESM. Are the Five Stars transforming?
Only seven out of an enormous parliamentary group. The Christian Democrats have had far more dissidents. In ’48, they were an absolute majority, and the bleeding was taking place on the left. Mario Melloni, better known as Fortebraccio, voted against the Atlantic Pact, and with him came others as well. This wasn’t the reason why De Gasperi collapsed. In time, the Five Stars will become a real party. They have clashing views, some of them very confused. This former young man, Di Battista, is an agitator whose only end is himself—he could be in a right-wing populist party. They need clarity, but clarity does not come at the negotiating table or at a conference. It comes in the concrete act of doing politics, which is a formidable discipline.
The Orbán-loving right wing is complaining about an authoritarian turn underway in Italy under the pretext of the pandemic. Is that right?
I would almost consider it a non-existent problem. They are screeching and squealing to signal their existence. They are comparing the pandemic to a war: those who know a little about history know that during wartime, Parliament is closed. This happened during the war of 1914, and in England in 1939. It’s funny that health measures adopted all over the planet are being called freedom-destroying. That would mean that even the doctor who forbids a sick person from going out is a tyrant.
Are we going to be better when we come out of this crisis?
The balance of power is decisive. If those in government are able to translate the wise measures we were talking about into action, that will already be a lasting change. But the lesson must be learned immediately, before the pain suffered is forgotten. The opportunity must be seized. And perhaps there are those who will be able to make use of it.
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