Foreign correspondents in Rome and political junkies are preparing for a long, sleepless Sunday night. But in all likelihood March 4 will register neither as shock nor epochal change. After the most squalid, empty, and cowardly campaign in Italian history, the eighth largest economy in the world will wake up hungover, paralyzed by an extraordinary headache and a feeling of profound and total weakness.
The scene is this: having spent five years in power with a center-left coalition, the Partito Democratico (PD) is still shaken by the defeat of the December 4 referendum in 2016, in which the party proposed to modify the constitution to render the country more governable. Matteo Renzi, current party secretary and former prime minister, appears confused. Declared persona non grata after the referendum vote, Renzi’s poll numbers continue to decline. The PD is enfeebled. The prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, is incapable of defending the party’s reforms in education, public administration, the labor market, and civil rights. Instead the PD is trying to recover some of its vote share from the right. The party’s new minister of the interior, Marco Minniti, has applied a “zero tolerance” rule to immigration and public order.
The center-right coalition is held up by three legs. The principal one, Forza Italia, is led by the 81-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, ever more a parody of himself: now completely plastic and aware that he isn’t as convincing as he was when he had the wind at his back. The second party is the Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord. Salvini recently expressed outrage at the possibility that Elsa, from Disney’s Frozen, might be gay in the sequel. The third leg is the weakest but the most divisive: the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy). An extreme right party, the Brothers are led by Giorgia Meloni, who a few weeks ago criticized the director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin for offering two-for-one admissions for Arabic speakers. The coalition lacks any credibility. Among its innovative offerings are a dangerous flat tax and vapid talk of earnings that will begin to flow from a free-market citizenry, newly unburdened by regulation. This group of buffoons lacks any capacity to govern, but it benefits from the decline in the PD’s approval ratings.
And then the third pole of Italian politics: the Five Star Movement (M5S), a millenarian party-firm founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo in 2008, which in a few years has been transformed from a Howard Dean-style meetup network focused on the environment, the rule of law, and consumer rights, into a bleak reality, or a real bleakness. Once diffuse and borderline New Age-y, M5S is now wholly dominated, in its entire organizational structure and hierarchy, by a small private business. The so-called “directory” that decides all the crucial questions (the party’s representatives in Parliament are governed by obscure rules and the burdensome “hetero-management” of Grillo and of Davide Casaleggio) renders this “party-crusade” closer to an Orwellian dystopia than a model of virtual direct democracy.
This is the juncture: if the polls are right, neither the PD-led center-left coalition nor the Berlusconi center-right one has the numbers to form a government, thanks to the old electoral system that the December 4 referendum sought to upend. What does that mean? Either we dive straight into a Große Koalition, Italian-style, the second time in two election cycles; or, if the parties cannot come to an agreement (not implausible, as they’ve spent months undermining one another), a new election. What is certain is that the populist M5S, which will probably be the winning party, with around a third of the vote, will remain in the opposition. The mainstream political establishment will likely find itself ever more delegitimized and surrounded by distrust.
This election is at once the most sordid and the most predictable in Italy’s history. None of the main parties appears to promise true changes to the paradigm: the center-right, as was foreseeable, has given itself over to all the anti-Europe and anti-Euro rebellions, and now they only care about stopping undocumented immigration and passing a potentially catastrophic tax cut that will burden future generations. The center-left, seeing itself as weakened and unwanted, having abandoned the political will for reforms and the desire to fight for some sort of Italian New Deal, is ever more focused on short term economic stimulus. Once again, they’ve promised not to touch the budget or deal with the civil service.
What do the numbers reveal (however superficially)? Italy is not on the verge of a Ukraine-style civil war or an Argentina-style financial crisis. The economy is recovering, though weakly; unemployment is declining, though slowly; thanks to an incredibly cynical pact with human traffickers in Libya, undocumented immigration from North Africa appears to have returned to prior levels; crime is at historic lows.
So why, according to some of the PD’s spokespeople, are the next elections a watershed, a path either to civilization or barbarism? And why, according to the opposition, is this the final day of reckoning, in which an entire political class of oppressors will be wiped out? Why, above all, do the newspapers and TV reporters continue to focus on the (few) instances of public disorder, on crimes committed by immigrants, on the testimony of citizens afraid of foreigners, as if our country were on the verge of being invaded? Why is nearly a third of the electorate allied to an increasingly undemocratic movement whose shape and energy resembles that of the medieval Children’s Crusade?
Today’s demented circus, a reality show whose rivals compete for the title of most insensate and most nihilistic, is the result of a crisis more than twenty-five years in the making. At the start of the 1990s, when Italy was preparing to enter the eurozone, the downturn in productivity was already evident, the backwardness of the economic system as undeniable as the total corruption of our political class. The crisis of 2008 and the semi-recent collapse of Europe’s core were only the icing on a rotten cake. The roots of the decline are even deeper. In the ’70s and ’80s, the social, technological, and educational changes underway due to globalization were not understood by the ruling class. Or maybe they just didn’t want to understand. The country remained behind. To change course would have required profound reforms no one had the will to implement.
Hence Michele Boldrin’s call, audible across the world, to abstain from voting. Boldrin, a respected economist with a gift for polemic, teaches at Washington University. “My only desire,” he has written, “is for the Italians to understand that the way they live and the way they conceive of their country are unsustainable. . . . 90 percent of Italians have an immovable dream: returning to the ’70s. And so I say: let’s leave the country to be governed by those who express this idea best, the populist neofascists. Will they destroy the country? Maybe yes. Or maybe no: they could even behave like the usual Italian right, which promises revolution and then continues with the same old routine.”
When I interviewed Boldrin for the Italian edition of Esquire, I couldn’t restrain myself from expressing my discomfort with this line of thinking, because his choice of abstention seemed like political suicide. Is it really impossible to differentiate between Renzi—who for all his demagoguery and confusion seems committed to a certain kind of moderation, as well as a respect for the intelligence of his audience—and his opponents, who seem to me to be the clearest symptom of Italy’s long decline?
Apparently yes, say the PD’s neoliberal critics: the party, they argue, is incapable of attacking the old aristocratic privileges granted to public sector workers and unions; it is unable to reform the economy and make the country more competitive. Yes, definitely, say the radical critics: the PD is incapable of opposing the European Union’s diktat on financial matters, youth unemployment is too high, the South has been completely forgotten, the idea of a universal basic income is overdue. And then there’s PD’s decision to avoid the antifascist protest in Macerata, after a neo-Nazi injured six African immigrants. This showed that the party doesn’t take the matter of racism seriously. What everyone agrees on, then, is that over the last eighteen months, the PD hasn’t gotten a single thing right.
Italy’s decline does not appear to have the characteristics of a cycle so much as a permanent crisis, little of which has to do with the politics of austerity. After decades of uninterrupted growth, spending has flattened in the last two years. The problem is that the state spends badly, in a manner rife with waste and favoritism. Take health care, for example: per capita public spending is nearly identical in the North and the South. The quality of public infrastructure is generally good, but it declines south of Rome. Between a hospital in Venice (in the Veneto) and one in Catanzaro (in Calabria) lies an entire universe.
It has been three decades since the Italian economy began to evolve more slowly than the other European countries, and its educational system is inadequate. The decline today makes itself apparent in the decay of welfare, the degradation of the labor market, the emigration of some of our best scientists, the demographic crisis, and the enduring influence of the mafia. Because of its economic structure, Italy is not a country well-suited to young migrants; even expats may not find much reason to return and stick around. The real problem is not that the ruling parties want to pursue more austerity, but that they have no plan for development, no idea of the country they want to reform. Future coalitions instead appear to share the bipartisan consensus that Italy will only exit the crisis via bankruptcy—it’s the speed of the bankruptcy that’s up for debate. One can recognize the lucidity of the political forces, who in their total absence of a project, of any courage, make clear their desire to absolve themselves of any responsibility.
Even the bourgeoisie represented by the most important Italian daily, Corriere della Sera has made its peace with the Five Star Movement. By giving M5S the space and credibility it did not have before, the paper—fiercely anticommunist in the ’60s and ’70s—has managed to crystallize in an eternal and unreliable opposition every possibility of real reform. All politicians, from right to left, have thundered against the American investment bank that dared to buy the railway company Italo, as if the bank were taking away the country’s rail lines. In the meantime, new populist “left sovereigntist” think tanks have come into being. They argue that the solution is to return to the Lira, go into greater debt, spend more. In response to which Antonio Negri, the old operaista philosopher, told Vanity Fair that he hoped Brussels would hold the reins of government.
In the days leading up to the election, the most shared post was by the journalist Francesco Costa, who wrote:
Whether you are on the right or the left, whether you like or dislike the Gentiloni administration, if you are at least a little serious and informed, and if you have the slightest bit of intellectual honesty, you know that today in Italy there is unfortunately one major party in position to take command of the immense responsibility of governing the seventh largest economy in the world, and that is the Partito Democratico. I say this without any pride, and in fact with great bitterness and worry.
Others, hoping to send a signal to the PD, will vote for the party’s defectors, now gathered into the party Liberi e Uguali (LeU), which has been oscillating in the polls between 4 and 6 percent, but which is composed mostly of ex-legislators who voted for all the labor market reforms responsible for the center-left’s decline in the polls. The party lacks both internal coherence and prospects, at least in the medium term.
So we must resign ourselves: no outcome of the elections will revert the tendencies that have dragged Italy toward collapse. Those expected to abstain from voting may make up the relative majority: upwards of 40 percent. But never before has it seemed more difficult to persuade the undecided. In the end, it is as if all Italians know that the next government will function as “the bankrupt administrator for a capitalism adrift,” as the writer Raffaele Alberto Ventura has said. Perhaps the real hope is that even the most racist right that we have ever had in Italy, once in power, will adapt itself to the single, steady policy of the Italian ruling classes: win consensus via clientelistic spending; pay for spending with high taxes and an increase in debt—all without going too far, because even the populists know that if we leave Europe, we’re doomed.
In a parliament that will in all likelihood be made up of representatives of the right and the center there may be space for a surge of humanity. Born just three months ago in an occupied psychiatric hospital in the disastrous city of Naples, the craziest party to emerge in the runup to these elections goes by the name of Potere al Popolo (Power to the People). Many hold their nose at this because it appears to be yet another tired instance of left-populism, but these post-Marxist semi-Maoists are the only ones who do real social work on the ground, the only ones concerned with integrating foreigners and actively fighting xenophobic neofascism, often enabled by the police and other local institutions. A number of intellectuals such as Christian Raimo, Moni Ovadia, and Guido Viale have worked extremely hard to help this young and perhaps overly idealistic group surpass the minimum vote total (3 percent) needed to gain entrance to the Palazzo Montecitorio. And so have many ordinary people: students, the unemployed, and the precariously employed.
On Monday we will not wake up to a Corbyn moment or a Sanders wave, though the leaders of the Italian left compete to get photos with their respective foreigners. Anyway, the international left isn’t doing so well, either: Alexis Tsipras is considered a sell-out, Mélenchon constantly seems wrong-footed in his exchanges with Macron, and Podemos is in free fall. The reconstruction of a left that can win again, among immigrants and factories and the new non-places of work—the terrain lost to the racist and anti-European right—is a mountain to scale. Rather than looking at external models, Italy needs to understand what kind of post-populist vision it is offering to the rest of Europe and to the world.
—Translated by Nikil Saval