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Renzi’s Haste, and the Crisis of Politics (in Italy)

By Andrea Bianchi

What is the main feature of Matteo Renzi’s actions? Haste. The recently elected Democratic Party (PD) leader – and Italy’s next PM – is in a hurry, to leave a mark, to differentiate himself from the rites and times of the old style of politics, to escape the possibility that he may wear himself out prematurely. If there is anything for which Renzi wants to be innovative, it is not for the content, but the rhythm of his politics.

This is the key feature of the PD leader, who wants to present himself as opposed to the traditionally slow pace of Italian politics. And to demonstrate his ability to achieve immediate results, whatever they may be.

In fact, such alacrity is having the paradoxical effect of imprisoning Renzi – like a snared bird that, the more he flaps his wings, the more he becomes trapped in the rites of the “old politics” : the reshuffle, the staffetta, or handing over, the change of gear. And, for now, the announced results are far from being met. If it can only be underscored, once again, the urgency. Which is in line, however, with the logic of the perpetual emergency that justifies the continuation, the scraping along of governments that no voter has chosen .

In any case, the message that the mayor of Florence wants to convey is that, with him, the timing of the decisions will be fast, and for attainable goals. To this end, any means is permissible: including dealing above all, if not exclusively, with a definitely convicted politician [Silvio Berlusconi], who seemed, finally, and incredibly destined to exit the political scene.

This excuse of speed is part of Renzi’s insistence on the nature of the “historic” package of reforms he put first to Il Cavaliere, and then the other political forces. But are these reforms so urgent? One could easily argue that the country’s problems are quite different, starting with the staggering inequalities that were recently, for the umpteenth time, highlighted by Bank of Italy.

Reforms, reforms, reforms

Renzi could rightly say that he is well aware of the centrality of economic issues, but that the reform of the electoral law is a necessary preliminary step to any other intervention. One could certainly agree that this is equally true, however, to tie it to the other two proposals for institutional reform – ending the ‘perfect bicameral’ system where the lower house and senate hold equal powers,  leading to ‘ping pong’ between the two houses – dramatically increases the time spent on the reforms and threatens to prolong the political impasse that imprisons us as a spell. But, for the Democratic Party leader, it is the package of the three reforms that would deliver that historic change of gear needed for his country.

It is on the basis of this definition, persistent and repeated, which has justified means that are less than noble and the “take it or leave it” approach, because it is part of this “historic” trio of reforms on the electoral law that you cannot be too picky, or otherwise risk a set of institutional changes that would be able to take the country to that turning point so long-awaited by citizens.

Taking for granted the necessity of a new election law, why should the other two reforms – scrapping the senate and strengthening the powers of the central government – have such importance to citizens? In reality, little is known in detail. What seems clear is that Renzi is driven not only by the cult of speed, but also the desire to tap into Italians disaffection with the political ‘caste’. It seems that such a delicate and important reform, such as ending ‘perfect bicameralism’ at such a politically and socially complex time, serves mainly to satisfy the hatred of the Italians towards the political class as a whole, serving up the abolition of the salaries of 315 senators.

War against the political ‘casta’

Now, the anticasta sentiment, in the form it has taken in recent years, is a substantially “popular’ thing,and supplants a reasoned reflection on the causes of the degeneration of politics, on the multiple forms of privilege and on the countermeasures needed to promote equality and participation. It is ‘popular’ in the sense that it is the opposite of the critical attitude of the citizens, capable of Francesco Guicciardini’s  “discretion” and an exercise of their rights of citizenship.

The rabble-rousing “us” and “them”, the hatred for politicians tout court, in its most simplistic form, constitutes a convenient diversion from the awareness, on the part of citizens, of their true interests, the nature of the current economic model and the real mechanisms behind the exponential increase in inequalities .

Compared to this type of anti- political mood, Bertrand Russell’s argument remains valid: the strongest argument in favour of democracy is that, when universal suffrage exists, a politician cannot be more stupid than his voters; the more stupid (or corrupt) he is, the more those who have elected him are too. Of course, there remains the problem of how public opinion can be shaped in real autonomy and the need this creates for free and accurate information; a matter to which we shall return.

Renzi emphasizes the savings that would result from the Senate reforms and in particular, exploiting the popular anger with the political class, on the reduction of the costs of councillors, an initiative about which there may nothing to object, but which could not seriously be defined as the key to kick-starting the country’s fortunes. These savings have been quantified at about 700 million euros.

This is not a very significant amount of money, if you think, for example, that the wealth tax in France ( the impôt de solidarité sur la fortune, not abolished even by former rightwing French President Nicholas Sarkozy, while in Italy it is an absolute taboo) raises about 4 billion euros a year and the state coffers could obtain even more with a tax on inheritance and donations following the French model, and even more on financial earnings, all options that are absent from the current debate in Italy.

What is needed, above all, is to question whether, accepting that the country’s problems also need to be addressed at an institutional level, Renzi’s proposals are a step in the right direction. What are the causes of the political crisis affecting all advanced countries and which is evident everywhere with a growing disaffection of citizens towards politics, leading to rising abstention levels, but also providing political space to populist and reactionary forces of various kinds?

The most general cause, which covers the entire West, is that politics now boils down to a choice between the most appropriate means to achieve aims determined by other bodies and that are perceived, as untouchable and part, so to speak, of a natural backdrop that cannot be questioned. It is the total abdication of politics to the financial sector that underpins the traditional popular misconception that “politicians are all the same .”

The power – money nexus prevents politics from offering alternative visions and models of society open to discussion, on an equal footing, among the mass of citizens. Each democratic demand is presented as an attack on the efficient functioning of markets, imposed as the sole, undeniable and self-evident value. This drastically reduces the autonomy of politics, which is limited to the choice between different – minimum – nuances in the application of financial diktat.

Left failures

For this reason the Left, when they are in government, always fall short of expectations, even when, as in the case of France’s Socialist President Francois Hollande, who offered voters a relatively advanced programme (it should be noted, as Krugman has, that the markets disapproved and pressurized the government of Hollande – Ayrault to prioritize in their deficit reduction plan the increase in taxes on higher incomes over welfare cuts. Such pressures are one of the causes of the Hollande’s recent policy shift, defined in France, as “Social Democratic”, a term which, however, in Italy , when applied to the PD would indicate a left turn) .

So, in the end, for Spain’s Socialist PM Jose Luis Zapatero, just as for Hollande, at best success is characterized by their choices in customs and civil rights, while on economics they are perceived as a poor imitation of the right. In Italy, added to this global problem is the abnormal rate of corruption of the ruling class as a whole, the media concentration and the anomalous nature, in terms of democratic rules, of some of the political forces on the scene.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the fact that Italy occupies the 69th position in the world ranking on perceived corruption, while all major western countries are in the top 25. These are the issues that should be addressed through appropriate legislative and institutional change. The priority is not so much diminish what politicians receive legally, as to how to minimize the possibility – and – social acceptability of illegal behaviour.

What would be truly revolutionary for our country would be a serious anti-corruption and administrative transparency law, followed – or preceded – by a subsequent practice (which does not seem to have been at the forefront of Renzi in the choice of candidates in Sardinia). And so too would be a tough law on conflict of interests, especially relating to information and media power, so crucial to the formation of public opinion and perception, on the part of citizens, of political and social priorities, as well as imposing stringent standards on internal party democracy .

Revolutionary discontinuity

Of course it is difficult to table these issues that would mark a truly revolutionary discontinuity with the last twenty years [ a period dominated by the figure of Silvio Berlusconi], if you choose the convicted media magnate and thrice PM as the main interlocutor on the path of reforms. In addition, the more general problem of disaffection toward politics and the crisis of representation would appear  to require, in addition to a profound reflection on the central issue of the relationship between economics and politics, allowing space for the maximum amount of pluralism, to encourage the widest participation citizens, to allow a richer public debate and criticism of the most diverse positions, and thus escape a uniform flatness broken only by populist gasps.

Politics cannot simply be the acknowledgment of the balance of power , but it should, given the gravity of the situation, leave room for the possibility that new forces arise that will revitalize the exchange of ideas and broaden the circle of possible options. Instead, Renzi’s electoral law proposals do the opposite –  in addition to depriving citizens of the choice of candidates with new, blocked lists, they set a high barrier for those forces not allied in coalitions.

Imagine a parliament, reduced to a single chamber, divided between Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the PD and Beppe Grillo’s M5S. Two parties led by a boss, and a third that is likely to get one. It would be a bleak picture for many citizens, left feeling that they are not represented and so forcing them to join the ranks of the disappointed and indifferent. A PD, for years drifting rightwards, struggling even to join the Party of European Socialists, monopolizing the centre-left?  And at a time when many of its new renziani leaders are characterized by the exaltation of an almost Thatcherite liberalism that can only arouse bewilderment in members of a party that is supposed to represent Italy in the European left?

The growing shift to the right of the centre of gravity of the political architecture as a whole means  any critical stance toward the dominant thought is considered radical and extremist, and makes the debate on possible alternatives to the current model of development, on austerity, on the reforms Europe really needs, impossible, and confines us to a suffocating provincialism.

On the other hand, the hope that  Berlusconi’s definitive sentence for tax fraud could pave the way for gradual establishment of a ‘normal’ Right in the European mould is dashed. For the reforms to the electoral law restore a total centrality to the party-company of Il Cavaliere and his  heirs. To give new life to Berlusconi just when he seemed destined to leave the scene is part of a long tradition among the leadership of PD (and its predecessor party, the DS).

Renzi’s  goals

Renzi’s proposals seem to have only two goals: to eliminate smaller parties ( and this is the main reason for the choice of Berlusconi as the main interlocutor ) and to speed up the decision-making process. But it is very doubtful that the main problem in Italy, in the past, has been the lack of governability due to political fragmentation . The difficulties are derived instead from the absurdity of Pig Style electoral law (porcellum).

Berlusconi has governed for a long time, and two of his terms (2001 to 2006, and 2008-2011) were the longest in the history of the Republic and enjoyed large majorities, yet his governments failed to bear much fruit, and it seems, from his own complaints, it was the presence of other forces in his coalition that prevented him from doing even more damage. As for the centre, though undoubtedly the first Prodi government (1996-1998) fell because of communist leader Fausto Bertinotti, the story of the second (2006-2008) is rather more complex, and mainly linked to the choices of former PD leader Walter Veltroni.

Based on the above considerations, the choice of sacrificing the diversity and balance of legislative power to the needs of efficiency and uniformity appear less than appropriate in the current context. With his decisiveness, reminiscent of the Socialist PM Bettino Craxi, Renzi has repeated several times the same impatience expressed by Berlusconi with the slow pace of the legislative process. But is the problem really the lack of speed – for we are prolific in our production of laws – or rather the quality of political action ?

The exaltation of speed, the desire to satisfy the anti-political instincts, the forced aspiration to simplify the policy framework, and the reduction of pluralism – they do not seem to rise to the challenge that politics in Italy is facing. Rather, we need to return to a place where alternative visions are debated, where the issues facing the whole of society are considered, and we need politics to give answers to social problems. We need an end to relentless focus on the present, on the “day-to-day” , on the renunciation of all cultural battles in the name of the status quo and acceptance of rule by opinion poll (which is the modern incarnation Polybias’ Ochlocracy (mob rule), leading to  citizen’s drift into passivity as predicted by Tocqueville) .

Under the guise of discontinuity, and a hypnotic bustle, Renzi’s approach appears, in fact,  in line with the involution of politics – reduced to the technical and administrative management of indecisive programmes by a bureaucracy that is ideologically uniform and incapable of cultural development – that has been going on for years, and that underpins the crisis of representation that we are witnessing today.


Translation / edit by Revolting Europe

About revoltingeurope

Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or @revoltingeurope


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