The Anna Karenina principle states that:-

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,”

this being of course an English translation of the first line of Tolstoy’s novel of the same name.  The fact that there is now a whole principle based upon it is testament to the profundity of the insight that Tolstoy managed to encapsulate in the space of just a few words. And it’s a line that’s popped up in my mind a lot recently (here, before we go any further I should confess that I haven’t actually read Anna Karenina, I’ve only ever heard the line used as a quotation) because, it seems to me that it applies just as well to different dysfunctional societies as it does to dysfunctional families: each dysfunctional society/culture/country is fucked up in its own particular unhappy way. The two societies I have most in mind here are British and Italian society (I’m adding the proviso here that I know British society far more intimately than I know Italian society, but now that I have a few months of living in Italy under my belt and a lot more of hearing Italians whine about what’s wrong about their country I feel that my qualifications as an armchair sociologist are reasonably solid).

Of course these two countries share a lot of defects in common, but what interests me is the extent that they seem to complement each other when it comes to the positive and negative aspects of the two cultures, with each one holding up a mirror to the pathologies of the other. To take an example that immediately comes to mind: the strange, almost desperate attitude that the British have towards food and drink  stands in clear and marked contrast to the (literally) incomparably healthier food and alcohol culture that prevails throughout Italy. You just need to walk down any typical Italian street and compare what you see with the waddling bodies and obese toddlers of most British high streets to appreciate what I mean. Then there’s the political scene. We’re used to laughing at Berlusconi, or shaking our heads and tutting at the open corruption and nepotism that is virulent within Italian politics, and in Italian society in general. And of course, *that* kind of thing would never happen over in Blighty. No our kind of corruption is much less blatant, but in many respects the effects are worse, and the little clique of bankers and Tory public school boys that runs Britain despises us far more than the Italian elites ever have their populations. There’s so much more to say regarding the differences in opportunity for young people and entrepreneurs, about special interests and the power of unions, bureaucracy and attitudes towards capitalism and workers’ rights, queuing, and how in so many cases the things they get right in these areas correspond to what we do wrong and vice versa. Maybe I’ll get round to writing something longer along these lines soon.


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