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No country for wise men

From PM Monti's technocracy to President Napolitano's ten 'wise men', Italy is turning to technical expertise to rescue it from political lethargy. But the rise (and fall) of Italy's technocrats only hides the chronic frictions between the country's political class and its educated – and forgotten – youth. 

Leonardo Goi
11 April 2013

A technocracy redux?

What's going on with Italy's recent flair for technocrats? In his latest attempt at dislodging the ongoing political impasse, Italian President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano appointed ten “wise men” on March 30 with the delicate mission of formulating political proposals that could appeal to the three quasi-winners of the February 24-25 elections, and serve as the basis for a new cabinet.

With the prospects of a new government still nowhere in sight and financial markets looking increasingly worried at Italy's political stagnation, the wise men will have to come up with policy proposals to make up for the country's socio-economic and politico-institutional deficiencies, and make these palatable to Bersani's centre-left, Berlusconi's centre-right and former comedian Grillo's anti-establishment 5 Star Movement. Leaving gender parity aside for the time being (wise men is, at least on purely statistical grounds, an accurate description of Napolitano's inexplicably women-free team), the whole scene could easily come across as a déjà-vu. Isn't this just a technocracy redux? True, alongside constitutional law experts, Central Bank officials, statistics agency officials and Competition Authority heads, former and current politicians still figure amongst Napolitano's chosen ones. But this is not the key point.

Over the past two years, Italy has turned to its intelligentsia at an alarming rate. Monti's technocracy took office in late 2011 to shore up the country from the financial abyss of its Berlusconi hangover. And now, more than 40 days after the indecisive February vote, ten wise men are called upon to end the ongoing political lethargy. At the moment of writing, meetings are being held between former PM Berlusconi and centre-left leader Bersani. So perhaps the stalemate will be solved by a bridging of Italy's opposing poles, and the wise men's efforts may not prove vital in the end. But regardless of the final verdict, the solution to Italy's political mess required, once more, a propelling force from outside its established political arena. And the chosen ones owed their appointment to a merit of some sort. President Napolitano's vocabulary was unequivocal – these are wise men. And it is their wisdom – that is, their technical expertise – that Italy so desperately needs.

From Napolitano's wise men to Monti's government of professors, Italy is turning to the knowledge of its educated elite as the cure of all political ills. But a government of technocrats does not reflect a healthy education system. Directly and indirectly, through mindless cuts and harmful tropes, Italy's technocrats have only marginalised an educated youth at the moment when its support is vital to move the country forward. Italy certainly needs wisdom. Now more than ever, it needs the knowledge and commitment of its younger generations to face the challenges which Monti's austerity measures have seemingly only postponed. It is ironic, not to say appalling, that a government of professors has done so much to devastate an education system to which it would seemingly owe its very existence.

A lost generation

With the Lower House's approval of the Stability Pact on December 20 2012, Italian Deputies agreed on PM Monti's plan to save the country from financial collapse. Credibility before markets came at a huge cost. Of the 400 million euros required for the effective management of Italy's universities, the Stability Pact was to provide only 100 – an amount which, in the words of education minister Francesco Profumo, was poised to lead half of the country's universities into default. Funds for schools were also curtailed by € 47.5 million, triggering a reduction of basic services and extra-curricular activities. In a country which currently devolves a meagre 8.5% of its GDP to education (as opposed to the EU's 10.9% average), Monti's measures could have further deteriorated what was an already weakened system. OECD's 2012 Education at a Glance report rightly emphasised the extent to which many children of low-educated parents are now being caught in low-education traps. That is, only 9% of those whose parents did not obtain a secondary school diploma go on to achieve a university degree. Coupled with the chronic disparities between the country's North and South, an ill-funded education system, far from being a cementing force for Italy's youth, can potentially exacerbate divisions.

The blow is discursive as well as material. Monti's professors did not simply contribute to the shattering of a generation by reducing the vital lymph of state funds to schools and universities. They also marginalised it by portraying it as inherently capricious and naïve.

As Labour and Welfare Minister Elsa Fornero so eloquently put it last October, unemployed youth had better stop being “so choosy” when searching for the first job. Put otherwise: the break is over, and it's time for graduates to get a grip. With temporary unemployment poised to make the current one a lost generation, the words of Minister Fornero were as misguided as humiliating. Employed university graduates aged 25-34 earn only 9% more than those employed with a secondary diploma, with the OECD average being a 37% extra. With the unemployment rate amongst youth reaching an astonishing 37.1% last November, the context is far from being one in which young people were given the privilege of picking in the first place. Being choosy was never an option. 

Some things just cannot be taught

Enter Berlusconi. With the former PM's decision to step back into the political game in late 2012, Monti turned from from being the country's (temporary) antidote to financial insecurity to Angela Merkel's most favoured puppet. Amongst the narratives championed by the media magnate, Monti's shortcomings and his being purportedly spoon-fed to serve the interests of German authorities figured most prominently. The professors failed. The simple mantra resonated across a society that had been disfigured by austerity measures, and merged with the youth's own disenchantment with a governing class from which it had been ignored – and insulted. Technical expertise was not enough. And Berlusconi was quick to realise the magnitude of the repercussions.

Commenting on Monti's decision to have an active role in last February's elections, the former PM bitterly remarked on the choice of his opponent's words to embark on his bid for presidency. While Monti claimed he would “step up” into the political arena, Berlusconi observed he himself only had to “step down” into it, coming as he was from a “superior rank”. But if Berlusconi can descend back (from above) into Italy's political labyrinth and Monti must step into it (from below), then there must be something which technical expertise quite simply cannot teach. Whatever the political superpower Berlusconi is bestowed with, the choice of words is illuminating. Political know-how is something that cannot be taught to outsiders – it is something that must be acquired from within. But doesn't this just threaten to turn politics into ever more self-referential bubble? Isn't this equivalent to making the country's administration an incestuous game which novices can only play with the blessing of a superior caste? And if so, what does this say about the prospects of a generational shift in the country's ruling body?

A lesson failed twice

The rest is history. Monti's centrist experiment never saw the light of day, suffocated by Grillo's anti-establishment 5 Star Movement, which emerged as the inconvenient neighbour standing in between Berlusconi's right and Bersani's left. Italy's bi-polarism was gone, and so was its traditional centre. If credibility before financial markets was a task which Monti – arguably – fulfilled, credibility before the Italian people was a completely different story.

By exacerbating the youth's detachment and disaffection toward politics, the PM's government missed a great opportunity. Because for many, the appointment of the likes of Monti embodied the much-needed revenge of an educated class that could finally have its say in a realm from which it had been for too long excluded. For once, Italian politics had a kind of logic. Politicians were chosen on the basis of their expertise, for it was expertise that was required to fix the country's ills. It was like politics realising that knowledge mattered – and suddenly starting to reward it. The PM's government was placed in the ideal position to show the youth that studying, after all, was worth it. 

Monti's professors failed twice. They failed to bridge the gap between an increasingly marginalised youth and a political class out of touch with the dramatic reality faced by its people. And they failed to make the most of a moment in which knowledge from outside the corridors of Rome's palaces was portrayed as the sole antidote to the country's failure. Berlusconi's populist narratives notwithstanding, Italy is still in search of wisdom. The worry is that the quest might have skipped a whole generation.

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