Latifondi

   As late as the 1940s, land tenure in southern Italy was based on the tradition of the latifondo, or large estate. Such estates practiced an essentially feudal system in which the landowner was entitled to most (as much as 75 percent even after 1945) of the crops raised on his land. Tenants had no permanent right to the terrain they cultivated, but usually rented, for a fixed period of time, several thin strips of land, often far apart from each other, to which they had to walk every working day. Richer peasants sublet such strips to poorer ones, whose entire income thus depended on tilling a patch of (often poor) land on behalf of two classes, both of which were profiting from their labor. The peasants were in constant competition with each other for the best strips of land and for the favor of the landowner’s campieri (overseers) and gabellotti, responsible for tax collection on behalf of the landlord. The campieri enforced compliance and kept wages low among agricultural laborers, the most oppressed of all Italian social categories. Incomes among the landlords, meanwhile, were huge, but only rarely were they ploughed back into farm modernization.
   The social costs of this system were enormous. Southern Italy had a grim rural standard of living by the end of the Fascist period: Hundreds of thousands of peasants lived in one-room homes, without running water or electricity; few southerners had been able to accumulate capital, and hence there was a minuscule entrepreneurial middle class able to lead an economic resurgence; and a cultural pattern of dependency on the powers that be had been established. Perhaps most seriously of all, the mafia was a product of the latifondi. The landowners and the gabellotti, anxious to preserve their positions, paid “men of honor” to intimidate upstart laborers. Convinced that “there is neither law nor justice except by one’s own initiative,” to quote an old Calabrian saying, many Sicilians and Calabrians became mafiosi, a grim and risky form of social mobility.
   The social injustice engendered by the latifondo system periodically caused political turmoil in southern Italy. In the mid-1890s, when the government’s trade policies deprived Sicily of its traditional French market for sulfur exports, with a resultant shift of labor from mining to already overcrowded agriculture, the result was a series of peasant uprisings that were savagely repressed by an invading army of more than 80,000 troops. Under Fascism, the landowners’ privileges were preserved by the full weight of the state. After the fall of Benito Mussolini, however, the peasantry of the Mezzogiorno were politicized by the Partito Comunista Italiano/ Italian Communist Party (PCI). In a series of decree laws, the PCI agriculture minister in the government of Ivanoe Bonomi, Fausto Gullo, authorized peasant cooperatives to take over vast swaths of uncultivated land used by the landowners for hunting, limited the landowners’ tithe to 50 percent, banned the gabellotti, and established state-owned grain stores to which the peasants could take their produce. These policies were wildly popular with the peasants (and account for a good deal of residual leftism in the rural South even today) but were met by unrelenting opposition and widespread violence from the landlords and political obstruction from the Democrazia Cristiana/Christian Democracy Party (DC). The decrees were soon ruled illegal by the high courts, and the peasants had to wait until the agricultural reform of July 1950 for serious improvement in their conditions of life.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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