Why did those backward communities have so little civic spirit?

In 1954, the American political scientist Professor Edward Banfield embarked upon a research project in the South of Italy.

Together with his family, Banfield lived in the small and isolated town of Chiaromonte, in the mountainous region of Basilicata.

After nine months spent gathering data and conducting interviews across the comune, Banfield wrote a book about his experiences of life in a town for which he chose the pseudonym “Montegrano.”

The Moral Basis of a Backward Society“ makes for invaluable reading for anyone seeking to understand what separates the Mezzogiorno from Italy’s more economically advanced northern and central regions.

More importantly, it is an invaluable source of knowledge when it comes to how culture shapes social, political and economic development in any context.

Robert Putnam cited Banfield’s work extensively in his own insightful work on civic traditions across Italy’s regions, while Charles Murray also singled him out for praise when warning about the decline of community in America in “Coming Apart.”

Outside observers can easily fail to understand the social dynamics at play in Italy.

The country which Banfield studied had little of the ethnic diversity which had long created strife across Europe. Two thousand years of Christianity had apparently embedded the faith within national life, and the institution of the family was perceived to be strong. Each region had its own rich culture, which one could be excused for assuming would bind a people together.

In spite of this, the contrast between what Banfield observed in Montegrano and small town life as he knew it in America was striking.

Taking a small town in Utah as an example, the academic noted how a local newspaper reported on a number of community activities: a membership drive by the Red Cross, work by a women’s group to raise money for new facilities at the local college and a successful collection of pennies to support a children’s hospital 350 miles away.

The ethos of community service in this recently founded town in a recently established state was a world away from life in Montegrano.

No newspaper was published in the town. No community associations existed, except for a group of upper-class men who met regularly to play cards.

There were no organised voluntary charities either, and the example of an orphanage run by nuns in the ruins of a local monastery summed up the general attitude.

“The people of Montegrano contribute nothing to the support of it, although the children come from local families. The monastery is crumbling, but none of the many half-employed stone masons has ever given a day’s work to its repair. There is not enough food for the children, but no peasant or landed proprietor has ever given a young pig to the orphanage,” Banfield wrote.

Nobody - rich or poor, Right or Left - appeared to want to take initiative to advance the public good, or to have any hope that positive change could occur.

Banfield described Montegrano’s people as “amoral familialists” and suggested that they acted as if they were following a rule: “Maximise the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.”

Expanding upon this hypothesis, he suggested that amoral familists would exhibit various behaviours: no one would further the interests of the community unless it benefited themselves directly; private citizens would not take a serious interest in public problems; officeholders would be widely assumed to be bribe takers even if they were not; and those who claimed to be inspired by the public interest would be regarded as frauds.

Morality did not factor into the choices that individuals made, as highlighted in the anecdote of how one Montegrano woman felt cheated because a local woman had knowingly sold her a faulty sewing machine, in spite of the fact that her husband had played a similar trick when selling another broken sewing machine.



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Banfield’s findings on family were highly counter-intuitive, especially for those with a romantic view of small-town Italian life.

He found that relationships were actually quite detached. The formation of a new family through marriage generally put an end to the close relationship between parents and adult children, and feuds within extended families were the norm.

This had a knock-on impact when it came to the inefficient land structure which helped perpetuate backward farming practices. Widely dispersed patches of land could not be consolidated due to the unwillingness of people to sell or rent land to relatives whom they disliked.

Godparents were indeed hugely important, but not for religious or even family reasons.

Close relatives, Banfield wrote, were generally not chosen for these roles on the assumption that ill feelings did exist or would in future. Indeed, godparents had to be carefully chosen to minimise the likelihood that business exchanges (and therefore, disputes) would later occur.

The difficulties involved in this social system - particularly the hardship endured by families trying to accumulate a dowry to enable a daughter to marry - are made clear throughout.

Even in the mid-50s, social mores were changing as parents sought to have smaller families in order to limit the risk of falling lower in the socio-economic order.

In the following decades, this had serious repercussions and Italy’s catastrophically low fertility rate of just over 1.2 children per woman is now regarded as an urgent national problem. The right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Pope Francis have come together in a shared effort to promote childbearing, but the situation has grown so serious that this will be a generational task.

Smaller families and the flight to big cities has led to a hollowing out of Italy’s countryside, with towns like the real-life Chiaromonte now home to ageing communities ever more reliant on immigrant labour in a country whose cultural distinctiveness makes social integration particularly difficult.

Italy needs immigrants but struggles to assimilate them and the resulting societal changes fuel political discontent.

Banfield’s belief that amoral familists would favour authoritarian rule is of special relevance here.

Just a decade on from Italy’s disastrous participation in the Second World War, interviewees from across Montegrano’s class divide expressed the view that Mussolini’s regime was superior in some ways to the democratic system which followed it.

The youthful Meloni’s admiration for Il Duce is a source of bafflement to many outsiders and horror to others, but she was far from alone.

Post-war Italy was also the only Western European country where Communism stood a realistic chance of being inaugurated through the ballot box, and Banfield makes clear just how easily the people’s preferences could change in an environment where all politicians were viewed with deep cynicism.

The society he observed was one where interviewees could scarcely conceive of any upward mobility achieved through honest work. La miseria plagued people who were often reluctant to send their children to school or to devote any effort to political activism.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of Banfield’s book deal with Catholicism.

Southern Italians are generally considered to be more devout than their Northern compatriots. Just as it is impossible to imagine an Italian town without thinking of a church facing onto its piazza, it is hard to reconcile Banfield’s findings with our own preconceptions of a religious people.

“Of the 3,400 people in the commune,” Banfield wrote, “not more than 350 hear mass on Sunday. These are mostly women. The few men who go to mass remain standing near the door as if to signify that they are not unduly devout. When the collection plate is passed, many people give nothing and few give more than a half a cent (five or tenlire).”

As in other domains of life, indifference to the world around them prevented many people from using their free time to engage socially.

Priests performed a social role and were afforded a grudging respect accompanied by a clear resentment. Unlike the nuns who ran the local orphanage, locals would seek to do favours for the priests, as unlike with the nuns, these favours could be reciprocated in future.

Even the clergy seemed to be afflicted by the local culture; Banfield details how squabbling between the town’s two priests prevented locals from organising a chapter of Catholic Action in the town.

There was something more fundamental at play though, which related less to the social role of the Church and more to the core issue of religious belief.

Beyond basic catechesis, religious reading was generally not undertaken, and there was widespread scepticism about the existence of the afterlife.

Prayers were offered to saints more frequently than to God, often with the understanding that a payment would be made if a prayer was answered.

A community which doubted the goodness of this world found it difficult to see goodness in the divine either.

“For the typical peasant, God (or Christ, the terms are used interchangeably) is not a spirit of loving kindness or even of firm justice. He is a demanding and capricious overlord. He may not notice one at all. If He does, He may distribute bounty or catastrophe according to whim. Many think of God as a hostile, aggressive force which must be propitiated,” Banfield reflected.

As Banfield observes in his introduction, it is often taken for granted that various associations will form naturally, but this assumption does not take into account the role of culture in ensuring that civil society can bloom.

The haunting beauty of those impoverished and emptying towns in the Mezzogiorno should be an urgent reminder of the need to cultivate a spirit of public service in all areas of life. 

James Bradshaw writes from Ireland on topics including history, culture, film and literature.

Image credits: Chiaromontea town in the province of Potenza, in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata. Under the pseudonym "Montegrano", it was the case study for "The Moral Basis of a Backward Society" / Wikipedia 


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  • Angela Shanahan
    commented 2024-02-24 14:18:07 +1100
    This is a true description of how things were and, to some extent, still are in small Italian towns and villages. if you want to read a really heartbreaking description of the chaotic life in a small village during the Fascist period read Ignazio Silone’s great novel, Fontemara. It is pretty sad , and the Fascists don’t come off too well.
    Things have changed. I have a house in a place called Introdacqua in the Abruzzi . My father was born nearby in Sulmona, my grandmother and my godfather who now lives in America came from’ Intro,’ as we Aussies now call it. I go back there almost every year and they are all there giving me the usual once over.
    The lack of civic pride was one of the first things i noticed, ( along with all the rubbish) the other was the very tight family relationships
    tighter than any we have in Australia. My Godfather is my father’s maternal cousin, so naturally this is an importance relationship. However, a lot of this has changed. As far as the birthrate goes late marriage is a real problem in Italy is housing ,and the economy. Also because of that it is uncommon to break away from the birth family. There are cousins on my father’s side, who are pushing forty and still staying home and looking after mum. One is still expected to look after one’s old people. However, that is breaking down a bit.
    As regards family life , a lot of foreigners with children (even more foreign than I am ) are moving into Intro because they like the family life. Also, there are immigrants from central and eastern Europe there now. As for religion it has always been the same . None goes to mass except the old ladies and a few of us foreigners. however the YOUNG men all absolutely vie to carry the madonna on Easter and the town is absolutely packed for the big procession and the running of the madonna. Same in Sulmona, where they even put it the whole pageant on the local provincial tv.!
  • James Bradshaw
    published this page in The Latest 2024-02-23 21:42:30 +1100