by Gioacchino La Rocca

1 - The dimensions of identity

It is no longer that identity is being called into question. Both biological identity, qualified as a fundamental right by the Constitutional Court to know one's biological origins as foundational to each individual's 'self', and collective identity, are threatened by a globalist vision of the world and human relations. The aim is obvious: the building of an undifferentiated world, with a view to a human being 'other' than the one we have known so far, as deprived of his individual and collective identity.

Not by chance this attack on man - uti singulus and uti socius, jurists would once have said - extends to the family and to that particular social formation designated by an English sociologist as the 'ethnic community', in which he identifies the connective tissue of the nation, as will be further discussed below.

These two social formations are closely interconnected and both contribute to the definition of the human being. Anthropologists are unanimous in claiming that every human society has been structured on a more or less small domestic unit centred on a heterosexual couple and their children. Ever since the early pages of Aristotle's Politics, this cell, founded on the common blood of its members and thus on that 'biological and material substratum' identified as an inescapable moment of individual identity, has constituted the founding element of the person who is born into it, and - at the same time - the basic elementary structure of those kinship ties, on which - anthropologists warn us - social organisations with their political garb have been constituted.

At this point, we can see the parallel between individual and collective identities: both have their roots in a past from which individuals - once again uti singuli and uti socii - cannot disregard: they can adhere to it and in any case re-elaborate and develop it in the future, 'making it the object of their will', as has been said; or they can distance themselves from it; but - whatever their choice - they remain conditioned by it in one sense or another. In other words, the past, the origins represent a legacy from which neither individuals nor groups can escape.

Regarding groups, social psychologists have pointed out elements that were already grasped and elaborated by Hegel: each social group is traversed by identity needs that are able to create cohesion among group members by pointing them to a common purpose. At the same time, the group, its purposes, and the related 'narratives' build and strengthen the identity of each group member.

It is precisely this collective identity need that underlies the idea of the nation. I have already discussed it elsewhere, like when I mentioned the the constitutionalization of the idea of nation, you want when I drew the possible consequences offered on a broadly ideological level from the constitutional and legislative references to the “historical and artistic heritage”: the latter consists of “res signatae” (once more time, Latin!), i.e. in lasting testimonies, materially imprinted on the geographical territory called Italy, of the material existence and ideal yearnings of the generations that have alternated on that territory over time.

2 - Identity and Nation

The normative element, constituted by top-level constitutional prescriptions, is certainly important and significant, as it testifies that the idea of the Nation innervates the existing legal system by offering cues to delineate a particular organisational form of the State and its social structure.

However, it may not be sufficient. More precisely, despite its importance, the normative datum does not exempt us from the need to verify the persistent vitality of the idea of the Nation - as the collective moment of a collective identity - in the 21st century, given the lively debate that has developed on the subject in recent decades.

In this context, a number of aspects emerged in the previous section that are worthy of attention by those investigating collective identity. I refer to 1) the connection between family and social organisations; 2) the connection of both of these to a territory; 3) the cultural heritage, shared by families, wider social groups and peoples, living in a given territory; 4) the formation of a collective awareness of the meaning of this heritage.

Obviously, these aspects did not emerge by chance. They are, in fact, at the heart of the studies that have been conducted on the subject of the nation and national identities in recent decades.

For example there have been those who have relied on a purely biological moment to argue that 'family, place and people generate, transmit and protect life' and on this 'primordial' inspiration have built the idea of the nation. The exponents of this orientation emphasise how these 'elements of primordiality' are not confined to newly constituted states, in which - the North African example is there for all to see - the conflict between the 'need for a rational order', on the one hand, and tribal constraints and legacies, on the other, does not seem easily resolved. In their studies, these researchers argue that elements of 'primordiality' continue to manifest themselves even in the most complex societies and it is unreasonable and misleading not to take them into account.

And again in the aspects highlighted earlier, emerges the idea of those who have considered building the 'nation' on the 'ethnic community', i.e. on that 'human population that has a collective proper name, myths of common ancestry, shared historical memories and symbols, elements of a common culture, an association with a particular territory and a certain degree of solidarity'.

As can be seen, there are many suggestions emerging in the recent debate on the idea of the Nation.

These suggestions are destined to be multiplied when one pays attention to the plural reflection, which in the last forty years has renewed attention to the two closely related questions: 'what is a Nation' and 'when is the Nation born'.

Different views have been confronted on these aspects, which clearly appear decisive in order to establish I) "whether" it is still useful to pose the problem of an "Italian identity"; II) whether such an identity can actually be configured; III) through which criteria one can identify an "Italian individuality"; IV) in what terms one can speak and therefore in what such an "Italian identity" consists.

The importance of these points is self-evident.

For example, it is evident that strong doubts would be justified as to the usefulness of 'working' today on the Italian identity if one were to adhere to the view that the 'Nation' is above all a 'product' elaborated by the cultural elites most functional to the interests of industrial capitalism in the second half of the 19th century, in order to feed the hegemonies in what has been referred as the 'age of empires'. In the view of those who adhere to this orientation, 'it was the nationalists who created the Nation and not vice versa'.

Completely different scenarios open up when one follows perspectives of another kind, which draw comfort from recent and very recent experiences to argue that the 'Nation' responds to those identity imperatives mentioned at the beginning, and that its recovery is - often occasioned by contingent political motives: the example of the 'Speeches to the German Nation' is certainly not an isolated one - destined to mark an epoch.

La rivincita delle identità: gli atti

However, the most careful studies diverge, sometimes sensitively, on the criteria for identifying 'national identities'. Thus, if one considers that a decisive step in the construction of a social group's identity is the adoption of a common language, with the consequent development of a literature in which the group can recognise itself in its integrity (most recently in this sense Adrian Hastings), the traces of an "Italian identity" must be followed in a very precise direction, of which Dante evidently constitutes an unavoidable milestone.

Different consequences will arise if one decides to adopt a different identity criterion. Of particular importance is the thesis according to which an effective national identity can only be configured when an awareness of identity asserts itself as a mass perception and is no longer the prerogative of restricted circles. On this basis, could it be said that an 'Italian identity' arose with the Great War? And even in this case, what would be the specificity of such an identity? And, again along these lines, what role should be reserved for political unification, i.e. the composition of a nation-state, which is generally considered a crucial factor in several ways, both in its relationship with the nation and in the formation of a collective national identity?

3 - Quest for 'Italian identity' and velleitarism.

It would be of little use to continue mentioning theses and orientations in bulk. The aim of these notes is to point out the difficulty of the theme of Italian identity. Seeking Italian identity, in fact, means undertaking the reconstruction of highly complex and articulated socio-political and socio-cultural phenomena, which cannot be tackled seriously without posing the problem of the 'method'.

In fact, it makes sense to reiterate that national identity is a particularly complex phenomenon. Very appropriately it has been observed that "the physiognomy of nations is generally determined by the interaction of a variable complex of heterogeneous factors such as race, ethnicity, territory, language, traditions, culture, a legacy of shared memories, a system of common political institutions”. However, each national identity "always constitutes the product of unique and unrepeatable circumstances, of a specific historical development in which the different elements indicated above - or only some of them - operate in different ways and with different outcomes from time to time".

It follows that - even if we want to maintain a "basic" profile - the Italian identity should be investigated in its artistic, literary, musical, socio-political, war manifestations, in an effort to understand and overcome the dramatic moments of division. It is necessary to investigate and understand the values, the symbols, the collective memories, the traditions, which innervate a finally recomposed Italian identity, in order to establish if and how the same can be expressed in the construction of a collective future, since, without a projection of this type, only a reconnaissance of dubious utility would have been made.

It is not enough, therefore, for Manzoni's evocative idea expressed in 'Marzo 1821'; it is not enough for a community to be or finally perceive itself as 'Une d'arme, di lingua, d'altare, Di memorie, di sangue e di cor'. It is also necessary for this unity to be realised in a conscious future project. The nation - an English sociologist recently wrote, curiously echoing an Italian philosopher of the first half of the 20th century - is 'a perceived and desired community'. In other words, a national identity, the renewed awareness of a Nation, cannot but have repercussions on a collective political project, which can obviously imply adjustments to the overall framework of the constitutional order in force, while obviously respecting the non-negotiable chrisms of unity, democratic nature and representativeness. Nation, in fact, is (also) a political category that moves from certain assumptions and implies a specific vision of society.

As we can see, reflecting on Italian identity imposes a conceptual path that is as challenging and demanding as it is fraught with risks for those who embark on it.

First of all, the risk of exposing oneself to an embarrassing velleitarism, of which unfortunately there is no lack of frequent examples. More clearly, an ineffective research framework, first and foremost, would not respond adequately to the primary need, reaffirmed by several parties even recently, to aggregate the Italian people on a threshold that is as shared as possible, restoring their awareness. A research conducted by a well-known sociologist years ago denounced how Italians ascribed their sense of 'Italianness' to factors that were not always consistent with each other, with a conclusion that the researcher at the time defined as 'polysemy' and that others less benevolent might have called 'confusion'. And the confusion does not seem to have reduced in the meantime, as it sometimes appears even among supposedly 'erudite' people.

The consequences of this are obvious: velleitarism and confusion inevitably give credence to the voices that tend to cast shadows on the theme of Italian identity. In this sense, those who prefer to take refuge in the anodyne, neutral 'fatherland' are flanked by those who, with equal intellectual arrogance, assert that reflecting on Italian identity would be resolved in a useless return to the Nineteenth century, in a naive 'turning back the hands of history'.

It is pointless to question the political matrix of these 'voices'. They press for a deconstructive idea of the Nation, as they basically aim to deny the differences between human communities, between cultures, in function of a globalist vision of the world and human relations. On the contrary, the doctrinal debate of the last forty years restores credence to the constitutional datum recalled at the beginning, which places the Nation among the pillars of the State and social structure prefigured in the Constitution. In other words,

The nation is still today the political-symbolic unity and the aggregative-affective form around which the public political space, group identities and memberships, and international relations continue to be structured, as was often the case during the 20th century in many historically crucial passages.

It thus implies that the rigour of the search for an Italian identity, before being a scientific prerequisite, is above all a political necessity.


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Scientific Advisor of the Machiavelli Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Former Head of the Legal Department of a bank, he is currently Full Professor of Civil Law at the University of Milan-Bicocca. Author of six books and about a hundred articles and minor writings on private, commercial, banking, and financial law.