Italy 2013: collapse, revolution or renaissance?

It is a strange country that risks killing off Europe having been one of its founding and most reliable members. To move away from the sterile politics of the past twenty years, Italy has to come up with something new - but what?

Francesco Grillo
2 April 2013
Democratic Party leader Pierluigi Bersani announces he failed to form a cabinet. Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.

Democratic Party leader Pierluigi Bersani announces he failed to form a cabinet. Demotix/Stefano Montesi. All rights reserved.

For a country always so obsessed with the concept of power and self-perpetuating institutions, the feeling of political emptiness felt by most Italians when they learned the shocking results of the February 2013 general election was a strange one.

The outcome of the elections did, in fact, leave the country with none of the three main parties being able to elect a Prime Minister - and with a President of the Republic so close to the end of his mandate that the Constitution prevents him from even calling for new elections to solve the stalemate. Italy also happened to be without a Pope, the last one having resigned - something none of his predecessors dared to do for six centuries, while Europe was staring at Italy with incredulity.

And yet, many Italians appeared relieved, just like students liberated from a teacher they could not tolerate any longer.

It is a strange country that risks killing off Europe having been one of its founding and most reliable members. What, then, ails this sick man of Europe? Is Italy the sleeping beauty of Europe, as a recent paper published by the Italian think tank Vision put it, or did the country fall into some sort of economic and cultural coma twenty years ago – as Bill Emmott and Annalisa Piras argued in a movie released just before the elections? 

Fundamentally, Italy’s problem is that after having experienced one of the fastest periods of economic growth in the world in the three decades after World War II, the country came, suddenly, to a complete halt at the beginning of the nineties. Since then, the income per habitant has stayed the same, social mobility has disappeared, and even cultural life has become stagnant, with none of Italy's universities (comprising some of the oldest higher education institutions in the world) being considered amongst the global top 100. The country may even be, according to some, about to become the first member of the developed world to be relegated into the second division of the globalization game, at the very time when most less developed countries are becoming developed.

Twenty years have been almost completely lost in a never-ending ideological clash between two opposite, and yet mutually dependent, ideologies.

Berlusconi has certainly been the foremost player on the stage of Italian politics during these twenty years, but he is not the only one to blame. After all, he was prime minister for only half of the time, while the other half was split between centre-left governments (seven years) and technocratic ones (three years).

On one side, an individualistic society that has had no respect for the State; on the other, a State that tried to tamper with individualism through a bureaucracy whose burden has no equivalent in any other European country.

On the one hand, one of the highest levels of tax evasion and corruption; on the other, one of the most invasive tax systems and most complicated public procurement systems.

Politically, on one side, Berlusconi and the centre-right have given voice for two decades to the “People of Freedom” – that is, freedom from all rules; on the other, the centre-left and the “party of the judges”, whose power became almost unlimited.

The exaggeration of one ideology has fed the survival of the other, in the process leaving no space for a pragmatic redesign of the role of the state and of the social pact between state and citizens, the key issue concerning Italy’s future and for understanding the election results.  

The election outcomes may be read as a vote against Europe or Eurocrisis-driven austerity. This may be a factor, but more broadly, the elections show how profound the disconnection is between the state and the citizens that has been developing in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Financial analysts and political advisors may be worried about this stalemate - and yet these elections may mark the end of a much longer stalemate produced by the never-ending conflict between the ideologies of “too much State” versus too little of it.

The 5 Star Movement may not be the solution, but at least the duopoly has come to an end. Their agenda can hardly be associated with either of the two sides: Beppe Grillo's followers were smart enough to campaign on the politically sensitive issue of taxation, which had deliberately been ignored by the centre-left. Moreover, they cleverly decided to ban from their candidate lists anybody who had ever been condemned for any form of offence, something that Berlusconi’s party could never afford to do.

It is true that the agenda of M5S is vague, sometimes contradictory, often plainly not acceptable. Yet, amongst many new uncertainties, Beppe Grillo's victory produces, at least, an outcome now difficult to reverse: the end of the sweet, slow unstoppable decline of a country that will soon have to decide whether it wants to change, or collapse.

The Vision paper puts forward the five key decisions Italy needs to take, in order to wake up and go back to life and growth. It needs: to rethink public expenditures by decreasing spending on the past and increasing the investments in the future (the country currently spends five times more on pensions than it does on education); mechanisms through which whoever spends public money is held accountable for the results; reduction in the complexity of the tax system as well as in the burden it constitutes; radical reorganization of the judicial system; institutional changes to make policy-making much more efficient, capable of solving problems and representative than it is today.

In retrospect, Grillo will probably prove to be the destructive part of an innovative process that will hopefully be taken over by somebody who is not amongst the leaders who are supposed to give a government and a president to the country by the end of April.

But we're not quite there yet. If a leadership able to take the responsibility of change fails to emerge, collapse will prevail, very likely bringing about the end of the Euro and of the whole idea of a European Union. If, on the contrary, Italy decides to take those few tough decisions, it may inaugurate an unconventional path of political transformation that other European countries would do well to follow. 

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