Politics and competence

A spectre is haunting Italy”: the spectre of Competence.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, in Europe we witnessed, within the compass of one generation, a deep crisis in politics, as my generation had never known before. The ruins of the Wall not only changed those nations to the East of it, but also to the West. A major result was that the political Left crumbled, not only in Italy, but also all over Europe.

In Italy, two words, “socialism” and “party”, were dreaded to the point that it was necessary to get rid of them. These seemed to frighten the heirs of the Italian communist party (PCI), who decided to cancel ominous symbols (hammer, star and sickle were replaced by a harmless oak, with grass - and later a red rose - beneath). The same occurred, in other forms, all over Europe.

Instead of taking advantage of the disappearance of Real Socialism in the Soviet Union and its satellites, (Rossana Rossanda said, “Socialism made terrible mistakes, but it was not a mistake”), the result was the slow, painful, unexpected (?) decline of glorious social democracy. The European Left sought to gain respect in the eyes of the winners smoothing its historical profile, committing to the Modernity tout court, wanting to appear always Young, Efficient, Technological and, first of all, reliable for the ruling classes (Blair, but also Renzi … si parva licet!).

Thereafter, the Left parties competed to win the prize as the most neo-liberal. The market mechanisms became indisputable and often – see the German chancellor Schroeder’s politics – social democrats became more catholic than the pope. The lack of dialectics, the overwhelming spread of the so-called “there is no alternative” (the liberal-liberalist one) has brought also to a slow, not yet clearly perceived death of politics. Accordingly, the economic dimension, the “animal spirits”, as a great thinker said, won.

If we consider the origin of politics, in ancient Greece of Hesiod and Solon, we find that its only reason is to temper the power of the upper classes, in the name of a general principle of equality among the citizens.

This principle assumes that the poor illiterate has the same rights as the rich intellectual, the “Rogue”, as an anonymous aristocrat, fierce enemy of democracy, defined the Athenian democratic regime at the end of V century b.C., should vote for as the “competent” people.

From this point of view, democracy and politics are the same. If politics dies, the principle of equality dies, and democracy dies, as a useless burden put on the shoulders of those “who know best” and therefore are empowered as such to administrate public affairs.

If we dig to the roots of the word “competence”, we realise that it does not exist as absolute competence. To say, “this human being is competent” makes no sense at all. Competence is rather a category, a relationship, as Aristoteles says, “What acts in a certain way towards something else”.

On the contrary, we witness nowadays a broad use of the word “competence” as a quality in itself. Therefore, we must quietly tolerate that someone speaks of a “technical cabinet” (yesterday the Monti government, today the Draghi government), as if there were technical choices, that do not need politics; moreover, we often hear that, “unfortunately”, the political parties dare even to decide against the laws that the “competent people” have already issued. Politics as a nuisance, as a waste of time. 

In October, Rome’s citizens will elect a new mayor. It is very difficult, for the right wing as for the left wing, to find a reliable candidate. Today the mayor of Rome is a woman, Virginia Raggi, who belongs to the Five Stars Movement (FSM), a movement that won to 32% of the votes in the last general elections. The upper middle-class, filled with self-styled “left oriented people”, those who live in the best neighbourhoods, have the best jobs (the competent people) and benefit of the unconditional support of the most important newspapers and infotainment broadcasts – by the way, less and less followed – are blindly enemies of this movement and it is no accident that the most frequent offence it is accused of is to be incompetent.

Paradoxically, I think that the FSM is an extreme, only sketched attempt to re-establish the primacy of Politics, the principle of equality (one of its slogans is “uno vale uno” = i.e. “one is worth for one”), the attention towards social justice and the acknowledgement of rights for many destitute peoples of the outskirts of the cities. No doubt, the FSM has made many serious mistakes; most of its members are young, naive, but, notwithstanding, they still represent a political choice.

Now, the “Competents” have found a candidate for Rome’s mayor, Carlo Calenda, who, meaningfully, will present an electoral roll, a “Lista Civica” (Civic Grouping), outside the main parties, where “all the competent people could rally to beat populism and incompetence”. Of course, future policy does not matter, as concrete choices of this group of competent people, who presumably will orient themselves towards expansive liberalisation (privatisations) of the biggest public assets.

It is fun to observe how, usually, the Competents identify themselves with neo-liberal politics.

Here I see the core of the question: the decline of the parties, in particular of the left parties, has determined the crushing of the social classes and the impossibility of finding political syntheses between opposite interests, which, free from any conditioning, claim to be absolute (in the literal meaning of the world).

For this reason, I think that politics must not identify itself with competence, but rather it must go beyond, towards a “democratic Metacompetence”, i.e. capable of reconciliation of opposite interests, without acritical veneration for the absolute knowledge of professors, bankers, high-profile technicians and so on. During the pandemic, we have assisted the Competents by giving them a blank proxy, as done by the political authority to virologists, immunologists and so on. It is wrong to think that, to do the best, for example, it is enough to put a professor at the top of the Education Ministry, or a physician of that of Health. Politics is not the sum of various competences in a row side by side. Politics implies choices, taking in account that society is never a “reasonable mechanism”, that the reasons of politics are other than those of an illuminated Raison.

The European Left - and the Italian in particular - was born within a cultural tradition permeated by historicism. Today, we rather tend to the uncontainable victory of a neo-illuministic thought, where absolute values and concepts such as Good, Evil, Happiness etc. dominates, together with an exasperating Individualism. This “radical thought” has largely contaminated the Left too, that lives in a flattened perspective, where the “ideological”, abstract claim of the Universal Human Rights has substituted the analysis of the very complexity of the real world. This is not fortuitous: rooting the choices and the destiny of humankind in a historic and social context results in individuals simply being treated as wares, to buy and to sell freely on the market.

Only in a framework capable of recovering the full and non-dogmatic sense of historical development will the category of Competence be able to recover its function of action aimed at achieving a political objective, without exchanging means for ends.

Claudio Salone

Professor of ancient literatures, Rome - https://claudiosalone39.wordpress.com/

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Free thinking for global social progress