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CRISIS AND SOCIAL RAGE

The culture of resentment is not a solution

Data: 2012-06-04

Critica Sociale, June 2012,

The Great Recession following the financial crisis of 2007-08 has worsened the first global economic contraction since World War II. The crisis continues to deploy its effects, affecting household incomes, increasing inequality and aggravating poverty as notes Andrea Brandolini, officer at the Bank of Italy (1).
Persistence of recession's effects on European suffering economies raises troubling shadows on the future of Western systems.

The situation in Italy is of particular concern. A recent essay analyzes the past and reflects on the present and the future of Italian Welfare State. The study of Giovanni Vecchi, Professor of Economics at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, offers a clear picture: Italian growth rate has been declining in recent years and now it threatens a dangerous involution. Since 1991 Italian GDP per capita has increased by 0.6% per year, in a context where higher incomes are the only ones to grow significantly, compared with a substantial block of the lowest. Today, the index of income inequality, after having fallen from 40% in 1971 to less than 30% in 1982, fluctuates between 33 and 35%. Moreover, poors seem doomed to poverty, given that 90% of cases are chronic, and a creeping sense of insecurity is widespread even among those who can rely on an income (2).

Clearly, we move in a period where the vast majority of people consider with anxiety their occupational and existential perspectives. It could be argued that Western countries (as Italy) still enjoy relative prosperity, especially comparing the conditions of Europeans and North Americans with the poor multitudes in Asia and Africa. However, mature economies in Europe and North America are experiencing rising concerns due to the distrust of markets, or (according to other interpretations) the deliberate hostility of speculators, resulting in a sensitive deterioration of living standards. Consequently, our societies feel a painful sense of existential insecurity, together with frustration, fear, resentment. It is not a new phenomenon, but something has changed.

During the last two decades, a populist but effective rhetoric identified "the others" (strangers, migrants, terrorists) as the origin of  social ills, demanding State protection against those enemies. The success of this representation might help to explain the electoral appeal of European centre-right parties in the recent years. Now, is precisely the State or, (if you prefer, "the representatives of people") along with the Big Business to be targeted by social anger. In the 1990s the main concern of our communities, affluent and confident to remain so, has been represented by small predatory crime; then, after the momentous events of September 2001, the risk of permanent and apocalyptic terroristic threat influenced our minds. At the beginning of a new decade, those concerns have not disappeared, but are almost negligible in the face of the widening of existential precariousness. What it could seem guaranteed (employment, pensions, health care) is not likely to be in the future. As dissatisfaction grows, popular darts are directed against an establishment unable to manage the global system and its financial resource. Ultimately, global public opinion has no doubts about the identity of those who are responsible for the instability that threatens us.

Indignados, Occupy and revolutionary movements in North Africa

Explaining Time Magazine's choice to elect the figure of protester as Person of the Year for 2011, Kurt Andersen highlights common traits of dissenting groups all around the world. Wherever, protesters are very young, middle-class and educated (3). Almost all the protests of recent months have erupted spontaneously, without much encouragement from traditional political parties. Worldwide, the protesters of 2011-12 believe that political systems of their countries are irreversibly dysfunctional, corrupt and manipulated by influent lobbies, committed to prevent any real change. The stubbornness of the economic crisis seems to have finally revealed what had long been known: namely, that governments of various political wings have failed, supporting powerful vested interests rather than driving them, lavishing promises that could not be fulfilled and creating expectations frustrated in the few achievements.

Today, the public's wrath rails against the naked greed and the obstinate short-sightedness disclosing the intrinsic limitations of Western socio-economic model, once thought invulnerable. Pointing out new scapegoats (speculators, politicians, bankers) is not helpful, but it stirs up social rage, stressing strained nerves of collective consciousness. As the extraordinary and terrible twentieth century taught us, a way out of a general crisis is try to understand, avoid simplifications and work for necessary change. If the economic resources decline, the same cannot be said of human capital, supported by a level of education and access to technological tools unsurpassed in the history. A growing need for participation and involvement in the public sphere felt by a new generation, forced to rouse from the apathy of well-being, is the best hope for the future. This is a perspective that must be substantiated by the commitment of everyone, not just by politicians and institutions. Collective intelligence, and not culture of resentment, is an effective antidote against the cynical and dysfunctional irrationality that led us to the present situation. (Fabio Lucchini)


  1. A. Brandolini, The Great Recession and the Distribution of Househld Income, XIII Conferenza europea "Incomes Across the Great Recession", Fondazione Rodolfo Debenedetti, Palermo, 10 settembre 2011
  2. G. Vecchi, In ricchezza e in povertà. Il benessere degli italiani dall'Unità a oggi, Bologna, 2011
  3. K. Andersen, The Protester, Time Magazine, 14/12/2011






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