Is Italy our future?

There is a close correlation between the political history of Italy,caracterized by its deficit of democracyand social trend that has been characteristic of the country where inequalities and poverty have dramatically increased.

What happens in Italy? What can it teach us about the uncertain future of democracy in our globalized world?

These questions, which hover among the most attentive observers outside Italy, do not arouse much attention inside. The only exception was recorded when some of the major newspapers had a piqued reaction, at the end of July, for an editorial hosted by the NYT, entitled "The Future Is Italy, and It's Bleak " (by David Broder of "Jacobin").

Early elections will be held in September after Mario Draghi's resignation, up to then seemingly unimaginable. But the debate focuses on different issues, of quite a lower importance. To say: how to make compatible with the Partito Democratico list, deployed on the "Draghi agenda" in the wake of hyper-liberalism, an openly right-wing list (given by the polls at 6%) and a red-green ecologist-left-wing (given at 5.5%) in order to have any chance of victory on a rightist coalition, favored by the polls, headed by the heir party of the party of the heirs of fascism?

1.    To understand the meaning of the Italian political debate, a good dose of technicalities on the electoral law currently in force in Italy would be needed. Suffice it to say that it was devised with some sophisticated dodges and contrivances in the last days before the previous elections on input from Matteo Renzi. It was focused on the core objective of preventing the victory of both the right and the left so to impose a government "of broad agreements" or "of national unity” (according to lexical tastes). The project, well thought out, has not gone through both because a third political entity, outside the two main coalitions (the 5 stars founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo), came to be the most voted, and because in the right-wing coalition the most voted list – instead of Berlusconi’s party, considered moderate as adhering the Popular Europeans leaded by Frau Merkel – was Salvini's Lega. That is an anti-EU party, in the name of the national identity of the European peoples threatened by the invasion of migrants. Already condemned, by the way, for having collected one hundred million euros of illegal contributions and investigated for having sought new hidden funding ln the surroundings of the Kremlin.

The solution then devised, again by Renzi, was to entrust the government to the two parties considered anti-system. Once they were facing the hard test of governing the country – this was the idea – their consensus, obtained with the protest, would easily vanish. In fact, the anomalous coalition ran into a serious crisis after a year but, once again, the forecasts of the establishment’s strategists were contradicted. The Lega had jumped in the meantime to the top of the polls, thanks to the action on which Salvini had focused, as Minister of the Interior, by ordering the closure of ports to the migrants’ boats (no matter if the law did not allow it). On the other hand, the Cinquestelle were the only who had to pay for the broken promises, despite the measures they had introduced, timidly because of the cohabitation with the Lega, in social and environmental matters. Measures, which in the past had belonged to the left (basic income, limits on precarious contracts, repression of corruption, incentives for renewable sources).

At that point, in order not to go to vote, with the risk of an en plein by the Lega, it’s up to Renzi to devise, as usual, the solution: a government between Cinquestelle and PD. Since the parliamentary group he had formed (among PD congresspeople) after having resigned as secretary for the electoral defeat, would have been part of that government, he would have had the numbers to decide its survival. With the idea of pulling the plug as soon as Salvini should appear downsized in the polls, once he was far from the palaces of power.

2.    The outbreak of the pandemic again upsets these well-designed plans. The new government gains support thanks to a policy of severe restrictions and transparency towards the population. Although the press - 90% in the hands of the largest companies in the country – was obsessively committed to denigrating its activity, nothing could weaken its consensus. Nevertheless, when, in the summer of 2020, the government closes the negotiations with the EU, obtaining the maximum share of non-repayable loans in the entire EU and at the same time the disappearance of the infections is recorded, a press offensive is unleashed so to prepare the conditions for the exit of Renzi's formation from the majority, as planned.

For lack of better arguments, the campaign focuses on rejecting the new restrictions decided by the government in order ro face the second wave that experts had predicted. As a consequence, the second wave arrived causing many more victims than the previous one, which had anyway caught Italy by surprise as it was the first country to be hit, after China.

Renzi finally withdraws his parliamentarians, the government at that point has no longer the absolute majority, but just the relative, and after several hesitations decides to surrender. The longed-for government of national unity was then ready be formed, at last, around the internationally appreciated name of Mario Draghi. Only the far-right party, hitherto the smallest, heir to the heirs of fascism, remained in the opposition and, since then, it has grown in the polls to the point of being, as mentioned, the first in voting intentions.

2.    Starting from this Italian novel, if one wants to understand if there’s some good reason to worry about what is happening in Italy (without the Italians caring much about it), it should be necessary at least to find an explanation about the reason why Democratic Party (which in theory should be the expression of democratic culture in Italy) has abandoned any ambition to implement an alternative program - in the social and environmental fields and as regards the future of international relations on the planet - compared to that pursued by the liberal establishment since the end of the Cold War.

That program, which has at its center the idea of a market-driven policy, goes in the opposite direction to that which, in the "golden" period following the Second World War, aimed at a policy capable of directing the market. The opposite direction, in other words, to that which aimed to achieve the set of objectives, of prevailing rank, envised by the victorious powers through the Universal Declaration at the basis of the birth of the UN. A declaration that had given hope for a new global order and for a development attentive to the balance between the footprint of our species and the reproduction of the fundamental characteristics that allow mankind to be hosted by this planet.

3.    Going back in time, the peculiarity of Italy, which should worry us from a perspective of safeguarding the foundations of democracy, lies precisely in the fact that, coming out of the Second World War, the country was bound to a political order with no alternatives.

At that stage, the division of the world into blocs and the fact that the major opposition-party was maintaining links, part ideal, part financial, with the rival power of the block to which the country belonged (and to which it had been assigned by the winners) weighed heavily. The country paid a considerable price for that limitation of sovereignty. In terms, among others, of corruption, which weighed on the effectiveness of the public apparatus, together with compromises with large criminal organizations, leading to what has been called a "low-intensity civil war ", in the years of massacres and bloody attacks, with an active role of sectors of the state.

When, after 1989, the reasons for the division of the world into blocs have vanished, a vast mass of interests that had formed in the shelter of the blocked democracy, set to work to rebuild the conditions of monopoly of power whose fruits they had enjoyed. Throughout a first phase, Berlusconi was the leader of the front that aimed at that goal, but his personal history and the fragility of the apparatus he had built showed evident cracks.

With the 2008 crisis, which coincided with the return of Berlusconi to power for the third time (thanks to a sale of parliamentarians ascertained in court) Italy found itself in very bad conditions and the solution of a government "of national unity" was imposed. From 2012 to the 2018 elections, right and left have uninterruptedly ruled together and, after the "anomalous" period 2018-2020, that political order has returned. The elections that are in sight are aiming for that result. Once more.

4.    There is a close correlation between the political history of Italy, which I have described in its deficit of democracy due to the lack of a dispute between alternative programs, and the disastrous economic and social trend that has been characteristic of the country. Inequalities have increased dramatically together with poverty, both absolute and relative, with unemployment and with a high share of working poors. While the GDP hasn’t yet reached 2009 figures and pays, the only country in the G20, have even declined. If by chance someone, then, should think that the so-called (for 90% of the press) "Governo dei Migliori” (Government of the Bests) has minimally reversed these trends in its 18 months of life, the statistics say the opposite. And a simple glance at the measures adopted (and at those scornfully rejected) is enough to photograph with great precision the orientation that has dominated in its activity, as could easily have been foreseen.

Abstention in political elections, which remained in the past times at levels around 20%, is now foreseen to be at least 50%. The establishment, that calls out against the “sovereignist” right, for a large part of the population is no less frightening than the alternative they evoke as hell.

For those who consider democracy the least imperfect of all political systems, the framework offered by Italy, and its prospects, gives the idea that there is not a single abyss into which democracy can fall. Maybe Italy is not “the” (only) future: but shows us that the threats are not just from Putin or Trump because also high-finance officials, dressing high-fashion, together with heroes of the new economy who opt for casual-wear, can dig a deep hole in which to plunge us.

Giovanni Principe

Past senior researcher at ISAE (Istituto di Studi e Analisi Economiche) and Director General at ISFOL (Istituto Studi Formazione Orientamento Lavoratori) - From 1984 to 2002 member of the National Board of Direction in CGIL.