The worst always is feared for Italy, but somehow it never seems to happen.

Last week the Italian government fell again. Mount Etna continued erupting. According to official figures, more than 2 million Italians are unemployed, and inflation is running at 16 percent a year.

In Franco Ferrarotti's office in the sociology department of Rome University, the phone was ringing constantly. Hundreds of books were stacked haphazardly on the floor. Oblivious to the confusion around him, Ferrarotti declared with a perfectly straight face: "You know, I think Italy suffers from an excess of stability."

Ferrarotti's remark and the circumstances in which it was made capture the central paradox of Italian life--and help explain both its startling problems and its capacity for survival. For all the outward appearance of chaos, Italy is a country of enormous inner strength that has managed to endure a succession of economic crises, corruption scandals, terrorist campaigns and natural disasters that would have triggered major upheavals in many other countries.

The uniquely Italian phenomenon of continuity amid upheaval is illustrated by the fact that, despite having had 43 governments since World War II, the country still is being run by much the same group of people as it was 20 or even 30 years ago. And, while the forthcoming elections in June could produce small shifts in the relative standing of the political parties, it is a safe bet that they will not produce any change in the overall composition of the center-left coalition dominated by the Christian Democrats.

This means that Italy is, and is likely to remain, the only major country in Western Europe not to witness a transfer of political power as a result of the economic strains produced by the international recession. What could be called Italy's problem of "chronic stability" is all the more remarkable if one recalls the talk about the death throes of Italian democracy common in western capitals just a few years ago when terrorism was at its height and the economy appeared to be crumbling.

Looking back, Ferrarotti describes as "nonsense" the "Italy in agony" stories on the front pages of newspapers and news magazines the world over in the late 1970s. In his opinion, the reason for their exaggerated pessimism was that they ignored the country's underlying strengths, notably the importance of the Italian family, which acts as "a shock absorber" at times of crisis.

Foreign observers in Rome tend to agree. As an American official commented: "Italians have an incredible ability to arrange their lives in conditions that would drive most other people crazy. This is a stronger society than we have given it credit for."

Today the focus of U.S. concern about the reliability of its European allies has shifted northward to West Germany, where pacifists are threatening to disrupt the expected deployment of cruise and Pershing II missiles beginning at the end of this year. Italy, by contrast, is perceived as solidly committed to the NATO alliance, and there has been little substantial opposition to the planned installation of 112 cruise missiles in Sicily.

Yet, with the exception of the defeat of terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades, not all that much has changed in Italy. All the underlying causes of social frustration are still present. Schools and prisons are overcrowded, social services are breaking down and violent crime is increasing.

Italy's economic survival can be attributed at least in part to a hidden second economy based on moonlighting and small- and medium-scale industry. In many ways, this is the most dynamic sector of the Italian economy--even though it does not show up in the official statistics. It is estimated, for example, that 5 million pairs of gloves are exported every year from the Naples area, despite the fact that there is not a single legal glove factory in the region.

Some economists estimate that Italy's actual gross national product is as much as one-third higher than officially reported. A cursory glance at the sports cars cruising up Rome's Via Veneto and the lavish entertaining in restaurants is enough to convince you that there is an enormous amount of wealth here. Whether it is legal, nobody seems to care.

Even the underside of this affluence--the grim poverty, particularly in the south, and the high level of unemployment--is not quite as bad as it seems. The family acts as a built-in social security system for the young and the old, the two groups who otherwise would be most at risk. And many people who are offically out of work are in fact employed in the underground economy.

"In Italy what is important are not institutions but face-to-face relationships," Ferrarotti commented. "This makes Italian society very difficult to understand. What you can see on the surface is only part of the game."

In part, Italians have themselves to blame for the prophecies of despair about Italy that were fashionable not so long ago. The sense of impending doom was heightened by the theatricality of Italian political life and inflated rhetoric of journalists and politicians.

Downfalls of the government, which now occur once every eight months on average, are announced with almost comic solemnity in the Italian press. "The crisis will begin on Friday" was typical of last week's newspaper headlines, almost as though some kind of festival were about to get under way. On Friday, sure enough, Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani, 75,--who headed his first government in 1954--went to the Quirinal Palace to inform President Sandro Pertini, 86, that his latest effort had collapsed.

The fact that political commentators were describing the situation as "exceptionally difficult" did not prevent most politicians from relaxing during the May Day holiday weekend as usual with their families.

Italy's peculiar system of government by revolving door is due in part to the strength of the Communist Party, the second largest party in Italy and the largest Marxist party in the West. For all their insistence on democracy and attempts to distance themselves from Moscow, the Communists still are not trusted by most Italians as an alternative to Christian Democratic rule. The result is that they permanently are in the opposition and the Christian Democrats always are in the government.

A long-time foreign observer points out, however, that the Italian concept of democracy differs from that of the rest of the West.

"Conventional categories of government and opposition don't really apply here. Decisions are taken by a kind of free-wheeling consensus in which everybody, including the Communists, plays a role," he said.

The upshot is that this maddening, fascinating country could go on living on the precipice of democratic Europe for the foreseeable future. But it is unlikely to fall off.