Post Democracy in Italy

by Henry on March 5, 2018

Written five years ago

The Italian Democratic Party is caught on one tine of the post-democratic dilemma. It is trying to work within the system as it is, in the implausible hope that it can produce real change within a framework that almost seems designed to prevent such a thing. As the party has courted Grillo, it has started making noises about refusing to accept austerity politics and introducing major institutional reforms. It is unclear whether senior Democratic figures believe their new rhetoric; certainly no one else does. If the party does somehow come to power, the most it will do is tinker with the system.

The Five Star Movement has impaled itself on the other tine, as have the Indignados in Spain, Occupy in the US and UK, and the tent movement in Israel. All have gained mass support because of the problems of post-democracy. The divide between ordinary people and politicians has grown ever wider, and Italian politicians are often corrupt as well as remote. The Five Star Movement wants to reform Italy’s institutions to make them truly democratic. Yet it, too, is trapped by the system. As Grillo told the Financial Times in October: ‘We die if a movement becomes a party. Our problem is to remain a movement in parliament, which is a structure for parties. We have to keep a foot outside.’

… All are embroiled, in different ways, in the perplexities of post-democracy. None has any very good way out. Ever since France’s president François Mitterrand tried to pursue an expansive social democratic agenda in the early 1980s and was brutally punished by international markets, it has been clear that social democracy will require either a partial withdrawal from the international economy, with all the costs that this entails, or a radical transformation of how the international economy works.

It is striking that the right is not hampered to nearly the same extent. Many mainstream conservatives are committed to democracy for pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons. They are quite content to see it watered down so long as markets work and social stability is maintained. Those on the further reaches of the right, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, find it much easier than the Five Star Movement or Syriza, the Greek radical-left coalition, to think about alternatives. After all, they aren’t particularly interested in reforming moribund democratic institutions to make them better and more responsive; they just want to replace them with some version of militaristic fascism. Even if these factions are unlikely to succeed, they can still pull their countries in less democratic directions, by excluding weaker groups from political protection. The next 10 years are unlikely to be comfortable for immigrants in southern Europe.

Post-democracy is strangling the old parties of the left. They have run out of options. Perhaps all that traditional social democracy can do, to adapt a grim joke made by Crouch in a different context, is to serve as a pall-bearer at its own funeral. In contrast, a new group of actors — the Five Star Movement and other confederations of the angry, young and dispossessed — have seized a chance to win mass support. The problem is, they seem unable to turn mass frustration into the power to change things, to create a path for escape.

Perhaps, over time, they will figure out how to engage with the mundane task of slow drilling through hard boards that is everyday politics. Perhaps, too, the systems of unrule governing the world economy, gravely weakened as they are, will fail and collapse of their own accord, opening the space for a new and very different dispensation. Great changes seem unlikely until they happen; only in retrospect do they look inevitable. Yet if some reversal in the order of things is waiting to unfold, it is not apparent to us now. Post-democracy has trapped the left between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. We may be here for some time.

{ 11 comments }

1

John Holbo 03.05.18 at 4:32 am

“it has been clear that social democracy will require either a partial withdrawal from the international economy, with all the costs that this entails, or a radical transformation of how the international economy works.

It is striking that the right is not hampered to nearly the same extent. Many mainstream conservatives are committed to democracy for pragmatic rather than idealistic reasons. They are quite content to see it watered down so long as markets work and social stability is maintained.”

Ugh.

2

John Holbo 03.05.18 at 4:35 am

By ugh, I mean: radicalism on the right is just structurally easier.

3

dtornabene 03.05.18 at 8:34 am

“we have become squatters in the ruins of the great democratic societies of the past”. wow, quite a powerful line, that.

4

kidneystones 03.05.18 at 10:57 am

Thank you for the re-read and your usual sharp analysis and prose. I disagree.

Nostalgia for the great, long-lost democracies of the past seems just as fanciful and poorly-grounded as MAGA. You’re the economist and pretty much my entire understanding of labor and political power is that when there’s an excess of available labour, wages and political power for workers goes down. In the first-world, particularly, we see machines replacing jobs at a rate that frightens the masses, if not the elites.

Modern democracy, however, is less that a century old in many parts of the world. Illusions of democracy in soviet-style socialist states offered real improvements to workers living under near feudal conditions at the beginning, and through, the 20th century.

The 19th century industrialized west’s version of democracy is encapsulated by the little match-girl in England/France, and the failed Reconstruction and lack of worker’s rights in the US.

On balance I see plenty of grounds for optimism once we start to observe the real marks of progress, both globally and in many individual cases. Josh Cohen noted last year that whatever one wants to say about globalization, the fact is that for the first time ever less than 10 percent of the population lacks potable water and access to food. Nobody familiar with the last Chinese history from 1850 to even 1970 is likely to look back to 1928 and observe – those were the days.

The enterprise of moving the ball down field incrementally, as Henry notes, is laborious and a lot of work. Unfortunately, that’s been my personal experience with everything of value in my own tiny life, so perhaps that’s why I don’t find much cause these days for dismay. We need recall that media companies exist to make money. In my modest experience in print media, magazine design was fairly simple a story of some ugly complex problem, ideally with some well-composed graphics featuring horror, or disaster, (examples of Pulitzer prize winning depravation porn – starving and burned children grab eyeballs and hold them fast – are ‘ideal’) and on the opposite page we have a full page ad offering the illusion of stability or security for a price – from an insurance or car company.

We are told by corporate hacks, 27 year-old know-nothings, and axe-grinders of various political stripes, what are actual options are. The fact that folks within a nation-state now, almost for the first time in recorded history – women, people of color, and ordinary men – almost never comes up in any conversation. In the US we’re talking less than 4 decades in states like Virginia. We do need to be sober and Henry is certainly that.

But clinging to ideologies of the past, a la NRO, seems worse than silly. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and my own experience is that I don’t have much choice but to make common cause with folks who do not share my views, if I want to avoid war and provide some sense of stability for our kids.

I won’t bang all the drums, but I will say that most of the left’s current problems are largely of their own creation, whether these stem from supporting wars that benefit elites, or for supporting immigration policies that do very little to advance the economic and social security of the people who traditionally look to the left to protect their interests, instead of advancing policies that impinge upon the poorest.

Trump is my imperfect champion and I can assure you I’d love to dump Trump at the first real opportunity. But no other politician is talking about reversing globalization. The traditional left favors wars of intervention, is on board with bailing out the rich, and favors identity politics over taking care of citizens of the nation state first. Had Labour remained neutral on the referendum, for example, there would be no UKIP and probably no Brexit either.

Democracy for all began less than 50 years ago, in many respects. It’s early days. The problems we face are considerable smaller than those facing Britain, or America, in 1950. So, no, I don’t think times are bad, or particularly tough. We can say no to corporations, facial-recognition, appliances the record our every move, and endless war.

Wrap that up in mom, apple pie and standing for the anthem and folks might see the back of Donald Trump.

5

MisterMr 03.05.18 at 12:15 pm

The short story is that the center left (Renzi) had a platform that is mostly budget neutral, whereas Berlusconi has big tax reductions for the rich (a flat tax!) and the M5s have a sort of UBI, both of which are likely to create a really big hole min the budget.

This is the main problem, and the question is rather why the right is “allowed” (or feels allowed) to create big holes in deficits whereas the (center) left does not.

It seems to me that this has been the problem of the center left in Italy for quite some time, and that the problem is similar in the USA where R presidents sem to blow much bigger deficits than D presidents.

6

MisterMr 03.05.18 at 12:23 pm

As an addendum to my former comment, this is a stime of the costs of the various parties platfoms:

http://static.euronews.com/articles/stories/03/08/99/24/808x508_story-30ab6816-6c89-5d47-8fdc-17fee10aec36_133141.jpg

blue are expansionary measures, orange are covers, and white is the difference (the hole in the budget).

The center left (third party from the left, the PD) is clearly the stingiest party , the “far left” (Liebri e uguali , fourth from the left) and the M5s (last one on the right) are more or less the same, whereas the two right leaners (Berlusconi and the northern league, first and second from the left respectively) have clearly the largest holes.

Link to the article from which I got the picture, in italian.
http://it.euronews.com/2018/02/28/elezioni-italiane-quanto-costano-i-programmi-dei-partiti-

7

MisterMr 03.05.18 at 12:44 pm

A third comment:

while I understand that the term “post democracy” refers to voters feeling disconnected from politicians, the fact that a party that you like lost an election is clearly normal in democracy, so I think the post title is quite problematic.

8

Z 03.05.18 at 1:59 pm

Yes, a very powerful text. I had not understood how badly things were, at the time (for the pivotal year was 2015, when the few illusions I had that the EU was a union evaporated in the face of the migrant crisis and the treatment of Greece; in retrospect I think I was at least 10 years behind events).

it has been clear that social democracy will require either a partial withdrawal from the international economy, with all the costs that this entails, or a radical transformation of how the international economy works.

Aside from social democracy – that I would replace by the more neutral “reversion of the trend towards increased inequalities” – I think that is another powerful line, but I am having a hard time to really get its implications (and I think I’m not alone). No polity except perhaps the United States can single-handedly radically transform the international economy so it’s got to be the first horn of the dilemma or post-democracy in its final form. Considering Italy’s subordinate status within the Germany led European Union, post-democracy would in turn mean endless economic suffering, so the actual end of democracy soon.

Putting everything together, either a populist government (maybe the next one) takes Italy out the EU, and in some sense out of the contemporary system of economy, with all the destructions that we see with Brexit but magnified (not to mention the very real possibility of a domino effect since Italy is in the Euro), or – and that seems to me more probable – that country is well on the trajectory to abandoning even the pretense of being a democracy. I can’t say that conclusion (which probably holds equally well for a number of other European countries) makes me very happy, but I just don’t see the realistic alternative.

John Holbo By ugh, I mean: radicalism on the right is just structurally easier.

That’s probably true (in a sense, it’s a corollary of Corey’s observation that reactionary have always been quite happy to smash everything), but I think it misses the point, somehow. Right or left, radical or moderate, every political force has to come to term with the vanishing of democracy. The forces that are by definition democratic (in the sense that their political project is to give power to the people; not by far an exclusive provision of the radical Left) are destroyed in the process, those whose project is at the very least compatible with the absence of democracy do better. So, yes, the radical Right, if you wish, but also the contemporary incarnation of standard Democrats in the US or Macronism in France. In the longer term, that’s not something to take confort in.

9

Z 03.05.18 at 2:28 pm

the fact that a party that you like lost an election is clearly normal in democracy, so I think the post title is quite problematic.

I think that’s unfair to Henry: what makes this election post-democratic is not so much that the PD was soundly defeated, it’s that instead of being a conflict between the political proposals of different segments of the population mediated through political parties, it was a conflict between a political force whose political program was to implement policies forged elsewhere (the EU, international markets, the business community…) and political forces fueled by anger towards the system (or migrants and foreigners). Or that’s how I read it anyway, of course Henry can correct me if I’m wrong. I think for instance that the 2017 presidential election in France with a second round Macron/Le Pen would equally qualify as post-democratic even though Macron won easily.

10

MisterMr 03.05.18 at 4:04 pm

@Z 9

Yes, I understand this, I just meant that the title is poorly worded.

By the way I don’t think that “a conflict between a political force whose political program was to implement policies forged elsewhere (the EU, international markets, the business community…) and political forces fueled by anger towards the system (or migrants and foreigners)” is a reasonable description of Italy’s elections.

Both Berlusconi and the Northern League are basically low tax guys, who blame stuff on immigrants to pretend they are populists and that the low wages are caused by the immigrants (and not from their own policies – ha ha!), so I think it’s quite clear that they represent certain groups of the population – basically businesses and self employed people.

The main problem of the (center) left is that it can’t spend its way into prosperity, and can’t say “ok more services and government investiment but also more taxes”, I’m not sure that this can totally be blamed on international groups: are we sure that Italy outside the EU would apply less austerian politics? Are politics in Italy (inside the euro) so different from politics in the UK (outside the euro and shortly ouside the EU)?

It’s quite normal that politics inside a non-superpower are partially influenced by outside powers, for example in Italy up to the 90s the main opposition party was the PCI, which was pro-Moskow and thus could never be part of any government.

11

Ronan(rf) 03.06.18 at 12:13 am

Not sure why these movements are seen as potentially ‘pulling their countries in less democratic directions.’ They seem to be answering a strong enough demand in society for certain things(less immigration, more ethno cultural politics) It’s not my cup of tea, and it might well be illiberal, but it’s not undemocratic.

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