An erroneous understanding of conservatism holds that it entails defence of the social order whatever that social order might be. This is somewhat like suggesting that progressives must support change in every instance.
An example of how not to do conservatism was set by the Christian Democrats, who lorded over Italian politics for decades in the years that followed the turmoil of the Second World War. A complex organisation in a complex country, they hosted a faction led by Giulio Andreotti – an austere, wizened little man whose political genius allowed him to maintain a place among the highest ranks of power from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Andreotti, with the aid of his associates, sought to defend a power structure that enabled vast political corruption and tremendous mafia activity. While he was not a mere puppet of Cosa Nostra, many of his allies were, and their actions, and inaction, were devastating for Sicilian and Italian life.
Most obviously, thousands were impoverished and killed: many of them gangsters, killed as part of internecine conflicts, but others doctors, priests, shopkeepers, housewives and children. All the while, “conservative” maintainance of the status quo assisted the undermining of civilisation.
Christian Democrats often resisted legislative change that would have allowed for effective challenges to mafia dominance, posing as defenders of tradition and the rule of law. Yet the rule of law had become an unpleasant joke. Mafiosos offed their enemies in broad daylight without fearing prosecution, whether their victims were rival gangsters or policemen, politicians and magistrates. Heroin flooded into Italian cities, killing thousands. Officials from mayors to priests rolled in bribes and blood money. Politicians refused to allow the use of fire extinguishers as the building around them burned.
Meanwhile, culture and tradition were victims of a power structure that made partners of officials and organised criminals. In the 1960s Salvo Lima, the Christian Democrat mayor of Palermo, and Vito Ciancimino, assessor for public works, allowed the gorgeous buildings of its historical centre to decline while handing out thousands of licenses to criminal contractors who erected c0ncrete monstrosities to replace them. The “Sack of Palermo” saw the beautiful Villa Deliella smashed to pieces while bleak, dangerous estates spread like a rash.
Social trust, one of the greatest assets of civilisations, and something Italy has always struggled to maintain, was further undermined by a culture of conspiracy that inspired everpresent whispers of secret meetings, backhanded bribes and puzzling assassinations. No one, and no word, could be trusted beyond doubt.
In the 1990s, mafia informants told the world that many of these rumours had been justified. Whether Andreotti met and kissed Totò “The Beast” Riina, the depraved boss of the Corleonesi clan, or whether he ordered the death of Carmine Pecorelli, a muckraker who had threatened to expose corruption, is impossible to know for sure. Lima, though, escaped conviction for his mafia alliances only by being gunned by his former associates once their relationship became more trouble than it was worth. Ciancimino was jailed on charges that included mafia conspiracy, fraud and embezzlement.
There are qualifications that must be acknowledged. One is that the Christian Democrats contained heroes as well as knaves. Giuseppe Insalaco, appointed mayor of Palermo, surprised his colleagues with a strong antimafia stance, as was subjected to death threats, blackmail and execution. It must also be said that their Socialist opponents were almost as corrupt as they were, and were almost as corrupt as they were, and proved almost as useless in the fight against the mafia.
Nonetheless, there are some lessons to be drawn from history. One is to guard against anti-communist, or anti-anything, fanaticism. Elements of the Christian Democrats, and their American and European sympathisers, were so desperate to prevent the Communists from taking power, even in the ingeniously limited sense suggested by the doomed Prime Minister Aldo Moro, that the terroristic drug importers of the mafia seemed like good allies on the Sicilian front of the Cold War. There are no enemies so dangerous that one should indulge all others.
The Christian Democrats also illuminated the uncomfortable truth that conservatism, like communism, can legitimise mere self-interest. Some defend the status quo not for the sake of their societies but to maintain their own privilege. There is nothing necessarily lamentable about this. A wise cynic is preferable to a righteous extremist. But the interests of such a man must be aligned with those of his society, so that what benefits him benefits those around him. The greed for power and money displayed by Christian Democrats was satisfied at the expense of their society.
A third lesson brings me back to my introduction. Following the deaths of the exceptional prosecutors Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone, public outcry reached the point where obstructionist politicians were forced to pass legislation which enabled more effective antimafia campaigning. It was a tremendous success. The next decade saw unprecedented levels of arrests and prosecutions, and a near halving of the murder rate. “Reform” is a word conservatives should regard with suspicion, but as threats to civilised existence evolve, civilisations must also evolve to defeat them.
I recommend Alexander Stille’s tremendous Excellent Cadavers, from which much of this was drawn.