M5S Party movement's founder Beppe Grillo in Naples, Italy on February 12, 2018 during election tour for the March 04, 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved. Italy’s political campaign for the national election due next weekend, has probably been the worst in the country’s history. Italians have been bombarded by promises which are simply not technically feasible, while reciprocal offences amongst political parties fighting for their survival have been daily exchanged.
Very few or no ideas have been heard on how to rescue a country which has been struggling with an apparently unstoppable decline for twenty-five years. And yet, although the elections head towards an outcome with no clear winner, it is getting close to the moment when Italians will have to make a choice amongst three very different routes which only partially coincide with the alternatives offered by current political offerings. It is a choice which will not only decide the future of the country, but also the direction and the intensity of much needed reforms in the European Union itself.
The first option that Italians have got is simply to believe that they can draw their bridge up and go back to some mythological past which preceded the globalization game that the country has lost out in. It is the choice that America and the UK narrowly made with the election of Trump and the referendum on the BREXIT in 2016. This is what the “League” and “Brothers of Italy” are proposing with their “Italians first” call.
The paradox of Trump and BREXIT was that the end-stop put to globalization came from the two countries that literally invented and, from time to time, imposed a free-trade-based order on the world. In Italy’s case, to raise bridges would be even more absurd, as Carlo Calenda, one of the very few Italian politicians who is still using his common sense, recently noticed: it would be economic suicide for a country which continues to run a current-account balance (the difference between exports and imports) which is positive at 60 billion dollars (whereas in the case of the USA and the UK this is negative respectively by 450 and 120 billion dollars).
In fact, it is not even a question of economics: Italy is historically defined for being a broker of ideas amongst different civilizations: to close borders would be a denial of its own history. And yet the coalition of the Centre Right is close to winning by promising to go backwards, and the argument gets no look-in that its leader is the 82-year-old Berlusconi who has already governed the country for half of its two-decade-old crisis with no solution in sight.
The second possibility is to continue to micro-manage the decline. It is what the Centre Left governments have done recently. It is a view that assumes that the country can only afford marginal adjustments. As a matter of fact, Italy is burdened by a huge debt and it is constrained by the EU rules on public deficit. More importantly, however, as Matteo Renzi discovered, any reformer has to face not only all sort of political legacies but also the power of a bureaucracy which will water down any attempt at change (as happened with the attempt to change the way public schools operate).
The problem with this approach is that the solution to most structural problems is postponed to a very distant time which is beyond any reasonable political cycle, and therefore, no politician will invest her own political capital in its achievement. The result is that the “sick lady of Europe” is only getting placeboes, methadone or pain killers with no substantial recovery from a disease that risks becoming agonisingly chronic.
An example of this is the huge misallocation of public resources between generations: after twenty-five years of ‘reforms’ on pensions, the Italian government is still paying four times more in retirement benefits for the people who left the labor market than it invests into education – from kindergarten to universities – for the young who still have their working life ahead of them. It is evident that a country with these numbers seems simply devoid of a future, and yet according to the analyses supporting the most recent financial law presented by Italian government to the European Commission, expenditure on pensions will continue to grow until 2040 and the one on education will keep on shrinking.
Schumpeterian destructive creation
The third route is to really embrace the radical reforms that the country needs and to accept the idea that change happens only as a process which involves a large portion of the population. The problem with this kind of radical innovation is that it requires a process of Schumpeterian destructive creation that Italy has still to go through, notwithstanding such a long, soft decline. Italy still needs to get rid of an establishment which has a profound conflict of interest with any prospect of change.
Can the Five Star Movement (M5S) help to move things forward? Yes and no. Yes, because it may accelerate the dismissal of an establishment empty either of vision or ideas. No, because it still lacks what is required not only to govern, but also to transform a country which is still one of the founding members of the western world order. Bill Emmott is not wrong: M5S is like Macron’s movement – En Marché – without the Macron needed to transform energy into politics.
Personally I believe that Italy provides an almost perfect snapshot of an Hegelian evolution which is going to be central for all western countries. The establishment is like an obsolete thesis to which the M5S is opposing an ambiguous antithesis, whereas the term “populism” is too generic to still be used by any serious political scientist.
We do however need – in Italy and elsewhere – a Thesis which can only come from a new breed of intellectuals and political leaders who have the guts, integrity and intelligence to respond to the radical challenges that the XXI century is posing to a world conceived for a different era.