A courageous Italian social reformer reflects on the universality of lessons taught by his own efforts to bring change to a violent and stagnant society.
By Danilo Dolci
Until the age of fifteen, I made no particular effort to learn anything. I lived in a middle-class family and went to school year after year, paying rather more attention to the subjects taught by teacher I liked and less to the rest. I adored music, enjoyed reading, and was delighted when it began to snow and equally delighted when the weather turned warm and I could go swimming.
Since my father was a stationmaster, whenever he received a promotion we moved to another city; I thus had a store of different memories, and more than one avenue of communication with the world. Besides, though my father was Italian, I had a Slovenian mother and a German grandfather, so it was only natural for me, I think, to look to horizons beyond “the fatherland”. During this entire period – that is, until 1939 or 1940 – I amassed sensations and experiences which must have been those of most boys from traditional families in northern Italy, growing up without having to worry about such things as food, shelter, and clothes, and surrounded by smokestacks and factories.
After I turned sixteen, gradually – I still don’t quite know why – the need to read, to acquaint myself through the printed word with the experience and thought of men who had lived before me, became so strong that if I had not found books in my immediate surroundings – on my father’s modest shelves, in the libraries of friends, in shops when I could afford to buy – I would have stolen them. A normal day was now not long enough for me; every morning I got up at 4 (in the winter I would put on my coat, to keep from shivering, and go sit beside the kitchen stove which, although unlit, still retained a modicum of warmth), and for three hours before beginning my regular school day, I silently communed with “my kin”, at first more or less at random, then more systematically.
Every morning I was deep in one of Plato’s dialogues – at least one of the shorter ones – or in a tragedy of Euripides, Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, Ibsen; then, going back to the beginning of things, in an effort to understand how men who had preceded me had interpreted the world and our life in it, I read the Bible, the Upanishads, the dialogues of Buddha, the Bhagavad-Gita, and on to Dante, Galileo, Tolstoy. I was truly happy. Years passed, and the war came, and I emerged from a Fascist prison to cross front lines under fire; when the war ended and I had my first experience of working, my need to know kept growing, until at last, at the age of twenty-five, I had the feeling that I had absorbed what other men had learned and what the best among them had expressed.
For several years I had felt a mounting need to take stock of what those different voices had told me, to distil the essence of what I had accumulated, and to compare it with my own experience of life, my own truth, my own intuition. But where was my own life? There was not much, and what there was had not been lived in accordance with what I had understood with my mind. What did I have that was truly valid that I could hold up against what I had learned? Was not all my learning second-hand? All around me, as I now saw, were people who thought in one way, spoke half the time in another, and often lived, disjointedly, in a third; they were at best disorganized, incoherent, superficial, apparently sure of themselves, but without any deep faith in the possibility of changing themselves or the world. They even used their knowledge of the Gospel as a means of personal affirmation. For me, too, “a new heaven and a new earth” was only an intellectual ideal. My dislike of violence was more passive than active. I would go to a concert, for example, and sense in Bach’s music a striving toward a life harmoniously serene, and enjoy it; but on coming home I would be no closer to brotherhood than before, and if anyone annoyed me I would lose my temper. At home, the family called me “Let-me-finish-the-chapter”. It was coming in contact with Nomadelfia, a Christian community which gathered together in a vast family boys and girls left homeless by the war, that gave me my first opportunity to acquire knowledge through direct experience. Hoeing weeds, building latrines in the camps, living with orphans, former petty thieves, many of them sick, I discovered what it means to grow together; after several months of common endeavour, even abysmally stupid faces became more human, and sometimes beautiful. In the old Nazi-Fascist concentration camp at Fossoli, orphans found a new mother and father. Working together in the wild fens of the Maremma, we were able to transform the brush into orderly fields of grain, use the brushwood for bonfires to roast limestone from the nearby hills and make lime, take from the fields the big rocks dislodged by the plows and use them to build houses to receive new families. I became deeply aware that even as each man must take stock of himself and learn to live according to his conviction, so the life of the group, community life, is indispensable instrument for stock-taking and for individual and collective maturation.
After a year and a half of this truly fundamental experience, through which I cleansed myself and, as it were, discovered my essential self, I began to see Nomadelfia as an island, as a warm nest that tended to breed complacency. Quite unexpectedly, almost as a flash of inspiration, I asked myself one day: and what about the rest of the world?
I am still not quite sure how or why, but one day, after bidding an affectionate farewell to Nomadelfia, I set out for Trappeto, Sicily, the most wretched piece of country I had ever seen.
Ignorant as I was of the problems of the South and of the techniques of socio-economic work (I had studied architecture at the university, but I had always been more interested in the structure of human relations than in the structural relationships of stones), I kept busy by working with peasants and fishermen and by participating in their life from within.
From this time onward, I truly began to learn.
I found myself, while still in Europe, in one of the most miserable and blood-drenched areas in the world: with tremendous unemployment, widespread illiteracy, and Mafia violence reaching nearly everywhere, covertly or overtly. For the most part, the people were bitter and discontented, but they were not committed to bringing about a change in their situation. It was increasingly borne in upon me that as long as people have not discovered through their own experience that change is possible, that even profound and drastic changes are possible, they are all to ready to say: “It has always been like this and it always will be”. I also saw that while this was true of the backward agricultural areas, it was no less true of the industrialized zones, where many people have no idea that development can proceed at a different pace or in a different direction from what they see around them. A man does not make an effort ( toward what goal, since there is no goal where he is concerned? ) unless he knows that he, too, can influence development in a given direction.
Thus I learned that one must work with the people to create new facts, at all levels, so that they can see through their own experience that things can be done, and to provide an opportunity for real communication between persons of many different backgrounds and walks of life.
Faced with the problem of a half-starving and desperate population, the State, instead of giving it the employment and the schools which it needed – actions which would have built up solid trust – responded by imprisoning or killing whoever uttered a protest, whether they be outlaws or those in peasant movements demanding possession of uncultivated feudal lands. Not infrequently, the police, with their brutality and their dirty tactics, behaved exactly like the outlaws – indeed, like the “Mafiosi”, many of whom were intimate associates of highly placed politicians and policemen (in some cases, even at highest levels, the police officers merely changed their uniforms ).
These so-called remedies, which killed instead of curing, naturally had the worst possible effects on the region. Just how bad these effects were we attempted to present in a analysis published under the title The Outlaws of Partinico, the purpose being to provoke a searching of conscience, both in the region itself and everywhere. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that this primitive evil, occurring the world over on a different scale and at different levels, must everywhere be identified, denounced, and stamped out.
How is it possible to transform a region when most of the local population can do nothing to help, being either unemployed or engaged in unproductive work? The attempt, in Report from Palermo, to lay bare to the people the tragedy of make-work helped us to understand a phenomenon which is also encountered on a large scale in other parts of the world. There can be no true development unless men have an opportunity to work for it and take part in it according to their own needs and convictions.
The masses were beset by hunger and other evils; exploiters old and new were sucking their blood,
Worse than the lice. But these people, who in fact were idle or nearly idle for much of the year, would have been glad to work and bring progress to themselves and to others if only they had known what they could usefully do.
Water in winter runs down the hillside and is wasted in the sea, and in summer fields that might produce food for all lie parched and yellow; but how can you plan to build a dam if you have never heard of a dam? Manure is burned in heaps on the outskirts of many villages; how can you put it to good use if you do not know how to rot it and turn it into a valuable resource?
Topsoil slides down from unplanted slopes, improperly cared-for crops and livestock produce low yields, while a large part of the population, often superstitiously regarding these evils as punishments from on high, stand around with their hands in their pockets. There is a living to be made here for all; but the people do not know it. In an attempt to assess how great an obstacle to progress a low technical and cultural level represents in every part of the world, although in different forms, we carried out another study among the population, later published under the title Waste. Our questions: how can you solve problems of which you are unaware, which you are incapable of identifying? How can you develop natural resources when the very problem of resource development does not exist for you?
I had gone to Trappeto alone, led by my convictions. I did not find myself in a situation where “some” people were not succeeding and could have done so, given a hand. Rather, I found a mass of people who were in misery, in a situation from which the great majority could not extricate themselves. It was essential to broaden contacts among individuals, to organize these largely isolated men and families into research-and-action groups increasingly aware of the need to develop resources by developing themselves; and to help the growth of those existing groups which were inclined to develop democratically.
A small but stable and competent group (some twenty persons working with the more advanced of the local people through four pilot centres in a great part of western Sicily), known as the Study and Action Centre, was formed. I was no longer alone – a social laboratory, each member of which was in a state of creative symbiosis with the rest, was seeking and achieving. It was an open group of dedicated people. A group, one might say, of conscientious objectors who tended to establish an active relationship with other groups and individuals to give rise to the formation of new groups wherever they went, and to act as a stimulus for fresh undertakings.
To build a dam was important because the water would bring to the parched land, along with bead, the green shoots of experience, the proof that it is possible to change the face of the earth; but it was important also because the building of the dam meant a workers’ union, a democratic management of the irrigation system, grape-growers’ and other agricultural cooperatives. In the other words, it meant the organization of chaos; it means the beginnings of true democratic planning.
In order to build a new world, you must work with three basic tools: man, as the focal point of awareness and discovery, an open resource-developing group; and democratic planning of resource development. (In the first thirty pages of A New World in the Making, I have endeavoured to state with precision the importance of these three basic elements – after having had direct experience with them and discussed them with my keenest collaborators and the most involved local people.)
But is it enough to become aware of a problem in order to solve it? Does it suffice to set up a few sensible targets, no matter how well documented, for the necessary solutions to be automatically brought about? Our experience on this point was consummately clear: When individuals or groups have a problem commensurate with their capacities, they can roll up their sleeves and go to work on it; but when, to go back to my earlier example, the people are convinced that their region needs a large dam, the construction of which is a costly project within the jurisdiction of regional or state authorities, and when a mere request brings no results, the people must be prepared to engage in a struggle to get their dam.
The struggle must be nonviolent – taking the form of active or passive strikes; refusal to cooperate on what is deemed to be harmful; protests and public demonstrations in all the many forms that may be suggested by the circumstances, one’s own conscience, and the particular need. The people should at the same time take advantage of any good laws that may be in existence and help to enact new ones if necessary – but the struggle must be carried on, peaceably but energetically, until common sense and the sense of responsibility have won the day.
Such struggle carries penalties with it, and the people must know it.
Those who want things to remain as they are, to preserve the present order, will try to put out of the running anyone who promotes change. That is how things are; and those of us who have been thrown into jail, labelled as criminals, denounced over and over again, know it well as do all those who are striving toward a new life anywhere in the world. It is naïve to be surprised or shocked by it. Instead, responsible men must diligently look for those methods and strategies which can be used by the weak to bring about the triumph of reason, i.e., effective alternatives to violence. For the antithesis of peace is not conflict, but violence. I no longer think it possible to dissociate the struggle for social and economic development from the struggle for peace; even as we cannot be satisfied with haphazard and inorganic growth, so we have learned that a pacifism which is not rooted in social and economic needs is generally so much verbiage.
The explosions of nuclear weapons have had their share in making us see how wrong it is to concentrate solely on a closed collectivity, or even on the human race as a whole; in other words, how essential it is to look for and discover, step by step, the best and most suitable forms of relations among individuals, among groups, and within the entire human community. Working in this direction from our laboratory in western Sicily, in recent years we thought it particularly useful to analyse the “client group” and the “Mafia-client group”, to gain a better understanding of the region – a popular report on the subject was later published under the title Chi gioca solo “the Man who plays alone”, taken from the sceptical Sicilian proverb, “He who plays alone never loses” – and of much that goes on elsewhere in the world.
I should like to digress long enough for a very brief analysis of the “client” system . Its basic components are:
The crafty “politician”, the public centre of power in the group.
The “clients”, who control votes and who play a major part in determining the prestige and power of their politician. (clients in ancient Rome, according to the dictionary, were persons who, although enjoying “status libertatis”, i.e., not being legally slaves, stood in the relationship of dependence to a “patronus” who offered them protection; in other words, the institution of client was based on the premise that there was a substantive difference between the strong man, the patron – to whom the others pledged their allegiance – and those who submitted to him.)
The “men in the street” who, being unable to recognize where their vital interests lie, allow themselves to be deluded by the politician and his “clients”, lending prestige and power to efforts which are nearly always opposed to their own interests.
Some of the characteristics evident in a group of this type, in its extreme form, are:
No attempt is made to foster individual development.
The relationship between the “politician” and the vote-controlling “client”, as between the latter and his own “client”, (and so on, in a veritable chain of client ship) is one of a systematic endeavour to obtain reciprocal benefits: “You scratch my back , and I’ll scratch yours, “You give me a job and I’ll get you votes”.
The system is often successfully palmed off on the people as a democratic one.
If we look at all closely at the Mafia-client system – whatever fine-sounding name it may bear – we shall see the following:
- The “politician” of this group uses his prestige to cover up criminal acts; if it were not for his ability to manoeuvre, his capacity to make what is now normally regarded as uncivilized appear civilized, his knowing how to paralyse the normal action of the organs of administration of justice, the Mafia system could not continue in existence.
- Some of the “clients”, who can deliverer votes in varying amounts, are actually “Mafiosi” themselves; for that reason, their client chains, in addition to the usual parasitism of the client system, exhibit such typical features of the Mafia as levying of tribute and resorting to extreme violence in order to procure something, with the consequent intimidation, secrecy, and often a total sealing of from the outside. (The word “procure” reminds me that at a very interesting trial in Rome which I attended, and indeed took part in, I heard an Under-Secretary of State – a Deputy Minister –who was accused of being a man of the Mafia and of making election deals with Mafia groups, say candidly to the presiding judge: “No, it was not Tizio who “procured” votes for me in that town, it was Caio”).
The conditions which make this systematic network of parasitism possible are, primarily:
- The low economic level of the broad masses, for whom the search for their daily bread or for jobs is of such urgency that everything else is of secondary interest.
- The low cultural and political level of the great majority, resulting in shortsighted pursuit of their own selfish interests, without a minimum of realistic awareness of the common interest.
The resultant incapacity for a new life of association and collaboration, which forms a fertile ground for authoritarianism, fascism, monopoly, and oligopoly of every conceivable variety.
Thus the client and the Mafia-client systems are made possible by the fact that the people, being isolated, do not know how to make their weight felt and resign themselves to inaction and to nonfurtherance of their own true interests. It is obvious, therefore, how necessary it is for the development of the human resources to form and interrelate new, open, democratic groups, and at the same time to attack and break up the old sclerotic groups, at every level of society.
Violence is not, of course, a phenomenon confined to western Sicily; in different forms, it reaches into every part of the world. I rather think that an understanding of the Mafia-client system is of great interest for all, precisely because it is an extreme form of organized violence, so that studying it is like examining organized violence under a magnifying glass. It has been demonstrated, for example, that in areas of advanced capitalist industrialization, with a higher literacy level – as in the north of Italy – power is concentrated not in the hands of the politician, but often, through a more complex and ingenious mechanism, in the hands of those with the most money (votes are not bought directly with a thousand lire, a couple pounds of pasta, the right word in the right place, or intimidation, but primarily through heavy investment in the press and other instruments of moulding public opinion, and only secondarily in such politicians as may be thought useful). But I do not believe it has been as clearly shown that on the international level the relations within and among groups fall into the same pattern as do the primitive relations between patron and client and those obtaining within the Mafia-client system. (I have found very useful confirmation of this idea in the studies of Johan Galtung and his Institute of the Sociology of Conflict at Oslo.)
Every morning, before daylight has effaced the stars, I continue to search in silence, before plunging into active occupations: I know that to accept being lost in the complexity of this world –
where strenuous efforts to achieve understanding and growth are inextricably mixed with stubborn resistance and enormous waste –means to die a little; I know how reluctant is this world to emerge from the pre-Atomic era into that post-Atomic age in which your life will be my life, and my life cannot but also be yours; I know that we have barely begun to learn and that men cannot truly learn unless they are willing to search and can search together; and that on top of all this there is always the danger of forgetting what one does know.