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Matteo Renzi: all Italy needs is to believe

For his detractors, Matteo Renzi is a new Berlusconi pursuing charisma, rather than articulate political ideas. Written off by left-wing commentators as ambitious and superficial, Italy’s youngest ever Prime Minister is fighting for Italy’s soul.

Flickr/Palazzo Chigi. Some rights reserved. Flickr/Palazzo Chigi. Some rights reserved.

Matteo Renzi, Italy’s new Prime Minister, first came under the spotlight as a candidate in the Democratic Party’s primaries in 2012. Had he secured the leadership of his party, he probably would have won the 2013 elections. Instead, headed by Bersani, the Democrats failed to win a majority and to form a government. Since then, Italians have been kept away from elections in the name of stability. After winning the latest primaries, Renzi took over the reins of government by asking for a vote of confidence from his party.

In the past, he excluded the possibility of entering Palazzo Chigi (the residence of the Italian Government) without a democratic mandate. He reneged on that promise when he replaced the – equally unelected – government of Enrico Letta, which Renzi dismissed as a quagmire. Letta’s slow pace frustrated the dynamic Renzi. Young, impatient and brash, Renzi, for the Italian left, incarnates the spectre of Berlusconi. Yet, the attack on Renzi for his Berlusconi-like charismatic populism and lack of substance tell us more about the identity of the Italian left than that of the Mayor of Florence, now turned Prime Minister.

The Italian left’s visceral hatred of Berlusconi lies at the core of their identity. They fought the man, rather than the (lack of) political actions, and moulded their own identity in opposition to their enemy. The common enemy gone (for the time being), the Italian left has no identity and no direction, but an immoveable party hierarchy. Renzi has shaken up the party greats by appealing to a wider constituency of Italians than the party faithful. Renzi has donned Obama’s white shirt and charms his audience with quick wit and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the Italian intelligentsia winces at Renzi’s energy and charisma seeing only a younger Berlusconi in the making.

For many on the Italian left, charisma leads to the sacrifice of political ideas on the altar of personality. This is a fundamentally flawed analysis. Charisma, as Max Weber noticed, is characteristic of leaders who emerge in moments of crisis. It is not simply a person’s attribute, but the sign of a relationship between leader and followers that is far from stable and requires constant dialogue. Charismatic leaders indicate a break from past institutions, customs and social relations. Their success or failure, as Weber would have it, is based not on their abilities, but on the ‘routinisation of charisma’ which is the incorporation of the new dynamic into existing institutions and their subsequent transformation.

Renzi wants his party to change but he also wants to put the country first. The Democrats feel slighted and accuse him of lacking political ideas and loyalty to the party. Renzi talks directly to the Italian people rather than courting the Italian left and is thus branded a populist with no substance. But theirs is a misguided conception of form and substance. The former is always connected to the latter: the short skirts and hair of the 1920s were not simply a fashion, but signified an important change in women’s position in society. The psychedelic drunkenness of the 1960s heralded a new era of great shifts in power relations. Clinton, Obama and Renzi are no great thinkers or even statesmen, but applying the yardstick of another era to the present with a good helping of selective memory falls wide of the mark. Today’s leaders need to be judged on how they understand and move in our era of globalisation and mass society.

Renzi is no great orator, but he has shown a very different way of thinking about politics, Italy and Europe. He has a positive message for Italy. A country that defines itself as ‘abnormal’ in every public debate, that has been humiliated by international markets and German power; a country whose media have instilled in people distrust and spite across the board for institutions and politicians; a country that has lost faith in itself.

Against conventional wisdom, Renzi believes in his country. He has thankfully spared us any self-congratulatory rhetoric of national pride; rather he talks of everyday people, their challenges and hopes. Amidst the chorus of Europhobic despair and of Grillo’s defeatism, Renzi talks of the United States of Europe. Many will oppose him to preserve political power, protect their vested interest, and prevent change; yet his success or failure will depend less on the man than on his followers. Renzi is not the man of providence, because no individual can sort out all of the country’s problems. Renzi’s toughest challenge is not to cut Italy’s debt, make Italian business more competitive, or create jobs, but to instil confidence and to inspire hope. Only if Italians believe in themselves, will Italy change.

What do you think of Matteo Renzi - is he the man Italy needs or a left-wing Berlusconi? Please get in touch at europe (at) opendemocracy.net if you'd like to share your thoughts on this topic.


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