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An end to Collective Identities? Political Culture and Voting Behaviour in Sesto San Giovanni and Erba

  • Anna Bull (a1)


This paper addresses the question of the demise or resilience of political subcultures in Italy today, focusing on two areas, Sesto San Giovanni and Erba, characterized until recently by a socialist/communist subculture and a Catholic/interclassist one. The voting behaviour and political values of key social groups, above all industrial workers, in these two towns provides evidence of the persistence and indeed revival of political subcultures in Italy. The paper argues that their function has changed, though. Whereas in the past a political subculture encompassed the whole spatial community, nowadays it appears to represent the interests and needs of specific groups within a territory, thus becoming one of many political instruments and choices open to social actors and voters.



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This article contains preliminary findings of a research project on social identities and political cultures in France and Italy, carried out by the author in 1994 in collaboration with Dr Susan Milner, Senior Lecturer in European Studies at Bath University. The project was funded by Bath University Research Strategy Fund. In the present article only the findings relating to Italy have been taken into consideration. The author wishes to thank all those who collaborated with her survey in Sesto and Erba, as well as her research assistant, Sarah Wild.

1 Mannheimer, R. and Sari, G., Il mercato elettorale, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1987. Mannheimer, R. and Sani, G., La rivoluzione elettorale. L'Italia tra la prima e la seconda repubblica, Anabasi, Milan, 1994. See also Revelli, M., ‘Forza Italia: l'anomalia italiana non è finita’, in Ginsborg, P. (ed.), Stato dell'Italia, Mondadori, Milan, 1994, pp. 667–670.

2 Lipset, S. M., Political Man, Doubleday, New York, 1959. See also Almond, G.A. and Verba, S., The Civic Culture: Political attitudes and democracy in five countries, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1963.

3 Bell, D., The End of Ideology, Cambridge, Mass. and London, Harvard University Press, 1988 [1st edn 1960]. For an interesting and controversial re-proposition of this interpretation see Fukuyama, F., The End of History and the Last Man, Penguin, London, 1992.

4 Franklin, M., The Decline of Class Voting in Britain, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1985. Rose, R. and McAllister, I., Voters Begin to Choose, Sage Publications, London, 1986.

5 See especially Crewe, I. M., Sarlvik, B. and Alt, J., ‘Partisan dealignment in Britain, 1964–74’, British Journal of Political Science, vol. 7, 1977, pp. 129190. Also Crewe, I. M., ‘The electorate: partisan dealignment ten years on’, in Berrington, H. B. (ed.), Change in British Politics, Frank Cass, London, 1984.

6 Heath, A. et al., Understanding Political Change: The British Voter, 1964–1987, Pergamon Press, Oxford, 1991.

7 Todd, E., The Making of Modern France, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991. Revelli, ‘Forza Italia’, p. 668.

8 A detailed study of both the Catholic and Communist subcultures is in Trigilia, C., Grandi partiti e piccole imprese. Comunisti e democristiani nelle regioni a economia diffusa, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1986. A historical overview of cultural continuity and social change in a Catholic area is provided by Bull, A. and Corner, P., From Peasant to Entrepreneur. The Survival of the Family Economy in Italy, Berg, Oxford, 1993.

9 Cartocci, R., Elettori in Italia. Riflessioni sulle vicende elettorali degli anni ottanta, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1990. Also Cartocci, R., Fra Lega e Chiesa, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1994. For a long-term view of the persistence of Italy's socio-political cultures see Putnam, R., Making Democracy Work. Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1993. An interpretation of electoral patterns in Europe which stresses continuity rather than change and therefore rejects the dealignment thesis is provided by Bartolini, S. and Mair, P., Identity, Competition and Electoral Availability. The Stabilization of European Electorates 1885–1985, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

10 Diamanti, I., La Lega. Geografia, storia e sociologia di un nuovo soggetto politico, Donzelli, Rome, 1993. For the concept of the ‘two Norths’ see especially Diamanti, I., ‘Lega Nord: un partito per le periferie’, in Ginsborg, P. (ed.), Stato dell'Italia, Il Saggiatore, Milan, 1994, pp. 671–677.

11 There are numerous studies on Sesto San Giovanni, its history, industrial development and working-class culture. I can only name a few here. Cadioli, P. L., Sesto San Giovanni dalle origini ad oggi, Il Cavallino d'oro, Giovanni, Sesto S., 1964; Petrillo, G., La città delle fabbriche, Sesto San Giovanni 1880–1945, CENB, Cassago, 1981; Bell, D. H., Sesto San Giovanni: Workers, Culture and Politics in an Italian Town, 1880–1922, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1986; Petrillo, G., La capitale del miracolo: sviluppo, lavoro e potere a Milano 1953–1962, Angeli, Milan, 1992; Berti, L. and Donegà, C., Sesto San Giovanni. Gli scenari del cambiamento, Angeli, Milan, 1992. Various articles on Sesto have also appeared in the journal Storia in Lombardia.

I am indebted to Sig. Carrà and Sig. Pennati (an ex-mayor and the present mayor of Sesto) for the information regarding the new housing estates.

12 Berti, and Donegà, , Sesto San Giovanni.

13 Hirschman, A., Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1970.

14 Trigilia, C., Grandi partiti e piccole imprese, 1986; Cento Bull, A., ‘Proto-industrialization, small-scale capital accumulation and diffused entrepreneurship: the case of Brianza in Lombardy’, Social History, 14, May 1989, pp. 177–200.

15 Hollinger, F. and Haller, M., ‘Kinship and social networks in modern societies: a cross-national comparison among seven nations‘, European Sociological Review, 6, 2, September 1990, pp. 103124, p. 108; Ginsborg, P., ‘Familismo’, in Ginsborg, (ed.), Stato dell'Italia, pp. 78–82.

16 Berti, and Donegà, , Sesto San Giovanni, pp. 99113.

17 The interview took place in April 1994. Sig. Pennati argued that left-wing organizations in Sesto were well rooted in the local society but that this was changing, requiring a rethinking of his party's identity. He also maintained that Rifondazione Comunista had been able to attract only old and nostalgic working-class voters, and that even the electorate of the League was made up predominantly of old people. He seemed to suggest that a party with subcultural connotations would have no future in the town.

18 It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that at the 1996 political elections the Sesto constituency elected the candidate of the Left, thus reversing the 1994 outcome.

19 As Bartolini and Mair have reminded us, following Lipset and Rokkan's pioneering study of electoral stability in Europe, traditional socio-political divisions may persist even when the parties which had originally expressed them disappear. ‘There is no simple correspondence between an individual party organization and the presence of a cleavage […] while individual parties may rise and fall, the major “alternatives” may therefore persist’, Bartolini, and Mair, , Identity, Competition and Electoral Availability ; Lipset, S. M. and Rokkan, S., ‘Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments: An Introduction’, in Lipset, S. M. and Rokkan, S. (eds), Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross National Perspectives, The Free Press, New York, 1967.

20 Cento Bull, A., ‘Ethnicity, Racism and the Northern League’, in Levy, C. (ed.), Italian Regionalism: History, Identity and Politics, Berg, Oxford, 1996, pp. 171187. Diamanti, , La Lega.

21 Cento Bull, A., ‘The Lega Lombarda. A new political subculture for Lombardy's industrial districts’, The Italianist, 12, 1992, pp. 179183. Cento Bull, A., ‘The Politics of Industrial Districts in Lombardy. Replacing Christian Democracy with the Northern League’, The Italianist, 13, 1993, pp. 209–229

22 The collective identity of Northern Italy's ‘areas of diffused industrialization’ was forcefully reasserted at the 1996 political elections, when the League strengthened its position. In Erba the League obtained 32 per cent of the votes, as opposed to 27 per cent in 1992. In towns forming ‘industrial districts’, where people are predominantly employed in the manufacturing sector, the League obtained ‘bulgarian-style’ results (over 50 per cent – in some cases over 60 per cent – of the votes).

23 Giddens, A., ‘What's Left for Labour?’, New Statesman and Society, 30 September 1994, pp. 3740, p. 39. Giddens' ideas of the ‘pre-modern’ and ‘modern’ social orders and the ‘disembeddedness’ of modern social relations are best explained in his The Consequences of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990 (especially Chapter 3). See also A. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991.

24 For a view which reconciles rational choice theory with group or collective behaviour see Hechter, M., ‘Rational choice theory’, in Rex, J. and Mason, D. (eds), Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986. In the same volume, in a chapter entitled ‘The role of class analysis in the study of race and ethnic relations’, John Rex put forward an alternative view and argued that ‘The key notion which connects explanations on the individual level with structural explanation […] is that of “interest”. What Marxist and some other structural forms of explanation rightly suggest is that the realization of actors’ aims may be dependent upon their relationship to other actors organised in a particular way and to the external world’ (pp. 8182).

25 Giddens, , ‘What's Left for Labour?’, p. 38.


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