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The differences in infrastructure, housing, poverty, and quality of life are clear to the eye as one travels down the Italian peninsula. Both to native Italians and to foreigners alike, it seems that Northern Italy is better off economically than Southern Italy. This is not just something on the surface: data has shown time and again that regional inequality is a real and present phenomenon in the nation. The poverty rate for the Northern macro-regions combined is only 4.4%, while in the South it is 20.6%. The median income per capita is also significantly different by region – in the South, the median income per capita is about 5,000 euro per month, but in the North, it is about 8,000 euros a month. The disparity is undeniable and is a heavily discussed topic in Italy, known locally as the “Questione Meridionale” (Southern Question). Yet from where does the problem originate? The disparity stems undoubtedly from the regional polarity and historic lack of unity yet also finds its roots in the geographical particularities of the country which benefitted the North. Furthermore, the Mafia’s unequivocal influence in the South will also be assessed to ultimately unveil the basis of the issue.
The distinct division between North and South undoubtedly is linked to Italy’s unique regional divergence and cultural uniqueness. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century A.D, the Italian peninsula and islands were subjected to a series of invasions, and political unity was lost. This loss of unity led to a succession of small states, principalities and kingdoms, which fought against themselves and were subject to the ambitions of foreign powers. This rivalry between these small states in addition to tension between the Popes and the Holy Roman Emperors rendered Italy a state of insular, conflicting and largely distinct cultures. And even after the Risorgimento, a 19th-century ideological movement for Italian unification that culminated in the establishment of the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1861, there remain largely distinct and palpable barriers between regions. Indeed, problems arose after the unifications with conflicts in the south in retaliation to the imbalance of power to the Northern state of Piedmont. Most people for Risorgimento had wanted strong provinces, yet they got an unequally strong central state instead. The inevitable long-run results were a severe weakness of national unity and a politicized system based on mutually-hostile regional violence. Political commentator Marco Serino says that “Italian identity doesn’t exist, and it never has.” This regional polarity has been argued by scholars to be one of the primary reasons behind the North and South divide. Additionally, critics have argued that the language and images used to describe the South and general sense of superiority have left a lasting impression on the nation’s divided mentality, the South described as underdeveloped in comparison to the rest of the nation, its people viewed as “barbaric” by the conquering Northerners during the Risorgimento period. Alessandro Manzoni, a Milanese writer, further helped to create the image of a savage south, where “murder is just a gesture in the South” he wrote. The individual and collective histories of the pre-Italian lands and states are an integral part in understanding the regional divide that exists today. There is still a poor sense of nationhood or unity among the regions. Perhaps the most obvious example of the contemporary regional divide is Lega Nord, a Northern political party dedicated to seceding from the South to form two independent nations (Sassoon 1997). This ultimate lack of unity and proliferation of regional hostility has resulted in a divided country where further economic inequality has prevented regional disparities from converging, instead exacerbating them.
The particular geographical form of Italy has been argued by scholars to be a primary motivation of the country’s stark division. Firstly, there are differences in natural resources: water courses and agricultural fertile land were more abundant in the North – in Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia, Friuli-Venezia Giulia. This resulted in higher per hectare productivity and more water energy, which provided basic inputs of labour and energy for the onset of the industrial revolution. These factors undoubtedly played a role in shaping Italy’s regional inequality in the nineteenth century which has been carried on into the modern age (Cafagna, 1989). Furthermore, It is certainly true that Southern Italy was geographically distant from the major European centres of the Industrial Revolution. Due to the North’s access to European markets, and trade routes, it ultimately became more industrialized and economically successful (Daniele and Malanima, 2011). Contrarily, the arid climate and inferior soil in the south made for poor agricultural development and in effect a less developed economy as well. According to the Krugman, market potential and the ensuing success of economies are predicated largely on the location and early success of industrial enterprises. This divergence of economies which ultimately originated during the Industrial Revolution exacerbated the inequality between the North and the South, making it almost impossible for the South to catch up to the North and the subsequent continuing inequality in contemporary society (Alesina et al.) Ultimately the geographical uniqueness of Italy undoubtedly has influenced the modern day economic disparity between North and South Italy, showing how the North benefited and capitalized on its strategically superior geographical position in being able to trade and harness the power of the Industrial revolution.
The Mafia’s manifestation in the South is undoubtedly stronger than the North, not only effecting its inhabitants on a socioeconomic level, withholding many businesses from a larger entrepreneurial capitalist economy, yet also has greatly influencing the politically stagnant nature of the South. Due to the corruption synonymous with the Mafia, the South is ultimately unable to prosper and develop. (Palmowski). Through ‘guaranteeing’ law and order, through the provision of a host of public services the state is deficient in providing, such as managing unemployment, protection of private property, and enforcement of contracts the Mafia has ultimate power over the South. The provision of their services, however, comes at a price, and the penalty for non-payment is often destruction of property, various forms of intimidation, and personal harm which constrain the South to the mercy of the somewhat backwards and traditional values of the Mafia. (ARTICLE MAN) Furthermore, the tax revenue lost to organized crime has forced both local and national government to make spending cuts to vital services such as maintenance of public schools, research and development, and infrastructure improvements. The result is a vicious cycle which simultaneously deprives honest citizens of much needed public services and puts them at the mercy of criminal organizations. It is further estimated that more than 350,000 companies in Italy were forced out of business because of organized crime (“Stratfor”). Ultimately the involvement of the Mafia has made it extremely difficult to achieve any real political goals without the group’s interference, thus inhibiting the South to make any profound advancements towards a ‘better’ system.
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