Capitalism vs. Tradition in Italy
This article as first published on First Things, May 18, 2018.
Last year, Valeria Ferrara chained herself to the front of a Calvin Klein outlet store in Castel Romano in Rome. While working there as a sales clerk, she had asked the store’s management to allow her to spend occasional Sundays at home with her husband and two-year-old son. Management had then transferred her to a store more than thirty miles away, making it impossible, she says, for her to balance work and motherhood. She says the transfer was intended to punish her. “I was told I didn’t want to work, but I have always been respectful. I only reacted to an injustice.” On Friday, Ferrara won her case against the multi-national Calvin Klein, Inc. Now Calvin Klein is obliged to keep her at the store where she had originally worked and allow her to spend Sundays at home. The company let her know of her victory in the case with a cold email.
Ferrara won her battle against Calvin Klein in large part due to the support she received from the USB, a local labor union. Her case had garnered national media attention, particularly in left-leaning outlets such as la Repubblica. But her case also drew support from Italy’s newly powerful populist movements, which are battling global capital in the name of tradition.
According to capitalist orthodoxy, any cultural tradition or religious command that is at odds with the free exchange of goods must be loosened. This is a conflict that conservatives who support capitalism have trouble addressing, particularly in the United States, where anti-capitalist views are treated as heresy.
In Europe, however, the tensions between capitalism and tradition are increasingly evident. Poland introduced a law in March of this year banning almost all trade on Sundays. The law was seen as the first anti-capitalist stance the country has taken since the collapse of communism in the 1990s. The conservative Catholic ruling party was mainly responsible for passing the legislation. In Hungary, a similar law was introduced in 2015 by conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, then repealed in 2016 in anticipation of a referendum loss. But Hungary’s current laws still guarantee workers the right to take Sundays off.
In Italy, a law to liberalize markets by allowing shops to open on Sundays was introduced by the technocratic government of Mario Monti in 2011, in deference to the European Union’s demands on Italy’s struggling economy. The law was called “Save Italy!” and brought 4.7 million people in the country to work on Sundays.
The law was opposed by both the Five Star Movement and the League, the two parties now poised to form a joint government. Luigi Di Maio, the leader of the Five Star Movement, said in a post on social media that the law would “destroy the family.” The League argued on its website that the law would “damage familial freedom and is a grave threat to small businesses.”
In 2013, a law proposed by the Five Star Movement to curb the power of multi-national corporations by closing shops on Sundays was finally approved in the lower house of the Italian Parliament, but it was subsequently opposed by the Council of the European Union, which described the regulation as an “excessive” burden on “open trade” in the Union. The law now remains stuck in parliament awaiting further approval from the Senate. In the new leaked government program crafted by Five Star and the League, there are explicit points intended to promote protectionism, limit globalization, and help working families.
The Catholic Church will likely support these new measures. The Vatican opposed the “Save Italy!” legislation, with one vicar going so far as to call shopping on Sunday a “sin” that calls for “penance.” The designation of Sunday as a festive day originates in the Sabbath, which provides families with a day of rest. Valeria Ferrara’s story shows how Christian tradition stands opposed to the monopoly held by multi-national corporations. Populist movements are leading the resistance.