A Mitigated Marxist
Spoofs and Spooks
Italian Cellphonery Mania
1 January 1999
Jim Chalmers, Editor
Public Network Europe
The Economist Group
15 Regent Street
LONDON SW1Y 4LR
The Disunited Kingdom
In this letter-essay to the editor of Public Network Europe (For European Telecoms Management; The Economist Group), you, Jim Chalmers, I wish to speak straightly from the shoulder and high-mindedly about Italy because so many someones are not, and the Tartuffery—now so uproarious—calls me to speak out earnestly. I refer to your “Italy: Still Crazy After All These Years; The Government supposedly departed from the centre stage in Italian telecoms with the sell-off of all but a 5% holding plus a ‘golden share’ in the dominant national operator, TELECOM ITALIA, in October last year. Think so? Think again. Such a desirable change would have been long overdue—and indeed it still is…”; dated November, 1998; Volume 8; 10.
The Italian Ship of State is sinking ever so slowly but surely; and, it has been doing so in little gulps ever since the late 1980s when it was realised that the Craxi camorra had gotten so far out of hand in causing serious economic damage to Italy and even threatening the economic stability of a good part of Europe, outside intervention (mostly German and Northamerican) had to be called upon, it dropping its heavy hand to stop the mimeographed glut of lire (paper without value now) and, punitively, with ever-so-little frequent turns of the economic screw, reducing the life style of the Italian high livers in an Italy which had gone almost completely out of whack in some of the ways reminiscent of the Venezuelan fiasco only a few years before in Southamerica. There is something keeping Italy afloat, and it is definitely not miracles or the Italian people. S.O.S. from Italia!!!
I wish to argue this point today, Jim: The great hullabaloo over the success of cellphone sales in The Boot (Europe’s largest mobile market) is not the result of laissez-faire capitalism thriving triumphantly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but is rather a symptom of the unattainability of dog-eat-dog being a sensation in Italy. Italy’s political and regulatory “obfuscation” has not created opportunity as Public Network Europe staff writers insist. More truly, it has created obfuscation! (Telling the truth is not good for business!)
Cellphone sales are closing in on the 20,000,000 mark ( ! ), and Christmas 1998 in Italy has been so thrilling telecommunications manufacturers, they are decking the halls with computer printouts of profits and waiting for more of them in the future. (Karl Marx: “If you give them enough cellphones, their ears will fall off.”) There are about 57,000,000 Italians. Interestingly, 70% of cellphone buyers make purchases costing less than Lire 500,000, 20% buy between the Lire 550,000 and Lire 700,000 bracket, and the remaining 10% are up-scale buyers. How many of these cellphones are stolen property is anyone’s guess. To make matters even more exhilarating, instead of expecting a reduction in telephone tariffs, users must live with the fact that Italy’s TELECOM ITALIA (spell that m-o-n-o-p-o-l-y!) is vying to augment those levies. The phenomenal sales records have not reduced costs appreciably. Why? Public utility bills in Italy are used as a double whammy: to pay for the cost of services, naturally; but, also to collect taxes from flagrantly derelict Italian taxpayers!
With one person in three toting a cellphone around with them in The Miami Beach of Europe, one might think that a super-sophisticated national network of quick verbal connecting has done wonders for Italy’s economy and even has reduced the bureaucratic morass strangling The Boot. Not so. Instant communications has failed to keep Italy from being submerged in inflation (yes, there is inflation in Italy; do not believe otherwise), public debt, unemployment, and uncompetitiveness. An Italian cellphone is more a status symbol than it is an instrument to prosper with, to progress with. It is an interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal. The decline of cellphone sales in Italy will be just as stunning as was their rise. Italians are not buying cars as they did before. They are not buying homes as they did before. They never were keen on buying computers. A cellphone is not a very high high-ticket item. Cellphones are being purchased because Italians do not have the money to buy high-ticket products. These status-conscious individuals yearn to be part of a well-oiled system, and knowing they are not, pretend to be so.
Meanwhile, however, the novelty of the cellphone has served up some interesting side dishes. Twelve-year-old school kids on bathroom break, call their truant friends for the answers to examinations. Husbands misdialing their lovers, call their wives (“Cellphone Slips”) to arrange rendezvous. Motorists tied up in traffic jams, call each other in the same lane on the autostrada to say they will be late for the appointment they have made with each other. Bus drivers, newly come to their routes, stop in the middle of the street, call their office, and ask whether or not they should turn left or right at such and such an intersection. It is not once that I have heard this conversation in a bus: “Yes, mama, the bus is on time for a change. You can start boiling the water for the pasta.” (Das Kapital lacks a “The Cuteness of Capitalism” chapter.) It is not that public phones have become museum pieces. There are still almost 40,000,000 Italians who could buy a cellphone! People still use public phones. When I asked a TELECOM ITALIA phone technician two months ago why 50% of the pay phones do not work and why they are so dirty you might want to use rubber gloves before touching them, he politely told me: “Listen, shithead, why don’t you buy a cellphone like everyone else is doing!”
I am not kidding when I say that for millions of Italians life is a snake-like affair. Italians have to coil and slide around to survive. They are good at it; they have been doing it for centuries. Italians are proud to be so and they do not care to know that there are places in this world where people are not so mercilessly inefficient and wasteful with their precious time and the natural resources their country provides them with. In the morning an Italian starts his/her daily calvary. Firstly, she goes to the bakery where—who knows—she might have to wait 15 seconds or 15 minutes to take home the bread she has previously ordered for the week and which waits for her in a brown paper bag. There may be one old, overexerted lady working to serve customers. In the backroom, two or three male cooks are working or laughing or resting. Not one of them is inclined to come out and relieve the poor woman when customers have loaded up to crowd size. And she is not going to ask them to help—their union might call a strike. Then, to the post office! Here she runs into one of the most Kafkaesque (Stalinist?) of all Italian bureaucracies. When she makes her way to the entrance of the post office each morning, she never knows what is going to hit her. Perhaps a “CLOSED FOR STAFF MEETING” (unannounced) sign, handwritten. A “CLOSED FOR THE TOWN’S PATRON SAINT’S DAY” sign? Or a “CLOSED BECAUSE OF ROBBERY” sign? Her post office has been robbed five times in the last two and a half years. After each robbery a security defect is adjusted and all hope the update might finally make the post office building security-clad. The last heist was a humdinger. Four thieves, dressed as cleaning men, entered and began sweeping and spraying away. Two of them put a ladder up against one of the bullet-proof windows, went up the ladder, pushed away the panels which formed the ceiling, then jumped down onto the desks of two of the clerks, who almost died of fright and had to take a two weeks’ leave of absence, while the other two purloiners held at bay customers with their fingers bulging out from their pockets as if they were guns—everyone realising that post office thieves do not carry guns in Italy because if they do they will not be let off the hook at their trial or trials! She passes an unstamped letter under the bullet-proof glass expecting the stressed, smoking postal clerk to weigh it, to post it. Instead, she is gruffly asked: “What do you want me to do with this?” Next, the bus to work. She has seen worse—in Southamerica. It is not so much that they are usually filthy dirty, or that the bus drivers often drive as maniacs do when the road or street ahead is cleared to do so (rarely)…. No, it is the damn traffic! She just cannot depend on getting to work on time. So, she must leave early to guarantee her on-time arrival. She has had a really rough day. Do you think she enjoys the suffering?
There are many other examples of what your staff writers call an “obfuscation that creates opportunity.” Opportunity? For whom? Of course: The Oligarchy! Italy has the most entrenched, replete and well-networked oligarchy in the world and surely that has created opportunity for itself. Still, it has created more obfuscation than perfect occasions for most others in Italy—the majority of whom do not share in the riches spewed out to the privileged class. The result has been uncanny. In all of this obfuscation, The Oligarchy’s media has pointed happily to its strokes of moneybags genius. Italian newspapers and magazines drool as if they belong to some economic Disneyland. Italian executives, in ARMANI suits and matching cellphones, gloat all over the place. These Latin fat cats are as happy as piglets in their pigpens. Not one of them has had the good sense to deduce that the prosperousness of Italian cellphonery is not due to a capitalistic supernatural event, but has been caused by the fact that Italy does not function per se. (Italy obfuscates for happy little piglets!) Italians have cellphones because hardly any operational unit works in Italy, and no one knows where the corruption, inefficiency and obfuscation will find Italians on any given day. The cellphone is a fad that fills a terrible void. Italians are desperate to talk to each other, desperate to encounter something that they can depend on. Desperate to feel sure of themselves and others. The cellphone offers a false solution. The cellphone will never resolve Italy’s weighty conundrum, but it will offer The Look that that nightmare is being confronted. The cellphone will force the vexed question of Italy’s stability farther and farther into a corner. Italy is spinning its wheels violently but Italy is going nowhere. Is Italy capitalism’s greatest failure to date? Is Italy the Berlin Wall of capitalism? Is Thomas Friedman, The New York Times economic guru, right when he says Italy is just another Mexico? Is the next wall to fall Wall Street’s Italy?
At 15 Regent Street in London—at your same address, Jim—there is another periodical housed and published by The Economist Group. It is called Information Strategy, Europe’s Magazine for Business Advantage. Have you seen it lately? Look at the cover of the December 1998-January 1999 issue, Volume 3; 10. My own eyes popped out when I read this title: “Corporate Chaos; Modern business on the edge of anarchy?” Then turn to page 29 and read the following: “Confusion Marketing; Chaos is not just affecting companies. Consumers are now faced with many different prices and complex charging structures for some products and services. Matthew May looks at the move towards confusion marketing and chaos pricing.” Are you kidding me, mates! In the same building at 15 Regent Street, one journalist says obfuscation is doing wonders for Italy, while another says obfuscation “may turn out to have been a temporary phenomenon of the late twentieth century,” that it is, quod erat demonstrandum, something that should be avoided by the new computer literate and business cynical consumer! (Have you people read The Divided Self by R. D. Laing?)
Here is an anti-obfuscation remedy for you all to take to cure yourselves ridden with The Italian Influenza. Italians are running scared doing all they can to cross the Euroland finish line in time to be part of what they think will be an enormous bailout for them. They will expect to be presented with a blank check to pay for all their decades of wastefulness and corruption—whether capitalistic, whether communistic—but not Marxist! When they do not get what they are looking for, they will exit the European Union stamping their feet as passive-aggressive personalities are wont to do. This sad state of affairs will cause the north and south of Europe to polarize farther, and the obfuscation will lead to confrontations that might take Europe to the brink of doing what it did so mightily twice before in the last century.
Please, let us turn off the bullshit machines and get to treating Italy, and Europe, reflectively and realistically. In other words, let us be honest with Italians and ourselves.
As you yourself would say, Jim, give us facts that provide valuable information on a country’s economic performance and analysis of its economic and political outlook. You are not doing that now for Italy. I am sorry to say.
When is the world going to understand the terrible torment Italy is suffering with at present?
See you later alligator…
* * *
Anthony St. John
Casella Postale 38
50041 CALENZANO FI
1 January 1999