Sowing the seeds of an Italian spring

The Italian election resulted in a deadlock with no clear winner. But while Italy is stuck between politics as usual and a sterile protest vote, the seeds of a ‘liberal revolution’ have discretely been sown. Could this mark the beginning of an Italian spring?

Francesca E.S. Montemaggi
26 February 2013
Matteo Renzi, the 38 year old Mayor of Florence, embodies a new generation of Italian politicians. Demotix/Federico Scoppa. All rights reserved.

Matteo Renzi, the 38 year old Mayor of Florence, embodies a new generation of Italian politicians. Demotix/Federico Scoppa. All rights reserved.

The Italian election had the most predictable outcome. After broken promises, scandals, and an overabundance of tax, Italians chose Beppe Grillo. He stole the scene with his rhetoric of self-commiseration and tearing everything apart. But he’s not the hero in this Greek tragedy of suffering and purification. A deeper change is under way that might be given further impetus by the debacle of the Democratic Party. A reflection on the main protagonists of the Italian election sheds some light on Italy at a turning point.

Silvio Berlusconi – no verified Twitter account

At the end of the cold war, after decades of American and Soviet interference, Italy wanted to breathe new air. Berlusconi, the self-made man, embodied the dream of a bright future. After a decade nourishing Italian escapism with his TV, Berlusconi brought his glitz and glamour to the political scene. He was king among the fighting factions of Italian politics and society. Today, the king is naked. He is still the most formidable communicator in politics. He is able to change register and be authoritative on one TV programme while appealing to base sentiments on the next.

People tuned in to watch him perform in the left wing ‘den’ of Michele Santoro’s programme ‘Servizio Pubblico’. Playful and self-assured, Berlusconi boosted the audience: nine million Italians watched the Berlusconi show. But despite his spectacular comeback, this time Berlusconi missed a trick.

The 76 year-old did not hold the internet and the ‘piazze’, which have always been at the centre of Italian political life. He didn’t because Berlusconi didn’t plan to run for the elections and only did so to ensure the centre-right coalition would control Lombardy, the engine of Italy. Berlusconi was resuscitated by Matteo Renzi’s defeat in the Democrats’ primaries.

Matteo Renzi – @matteorenzi, 386.374 followers

Young and handsome, Renzi erupted into the political scene with the primaries of the Democratic Party (PD). The Mayor of Florence wanted to 'scrap’ the old structures that stifle Italian social and economic life, such as its closed-shop corporatism, high public spending and taxation, and its unaccountable politics.

Renzi is not the only one working for a ‘liberal revolution’. Another young and handsome mayor, Alessandro Cattaneo, sought to ‘format’ his party (PDL) to bring about renewal of democratic politics (@aleSindaco, 4,859 followers). Yet Renzi lost to the uncharismatic Bersani, the ‘apparatchik’ of the Democratic Party who used the party’s elders and an alliance with the extreme left to quash the Italian liberal spring of Renzi.

One should be gentle with Bersani, the likely next Prime Minister (@pbersani, 278,040 followers), but had Renzi won the leadership of the party, there would probably have been no Berlusconi and more importantly, there would have been no Grillo.

Beppe Grillo – @beppegrillo, 947.875 followers

Grillo is the mystic charismatic leader with a radical vision. Except Grillo has no vision - not a trace. He has created a dual character that speaks in the disembodied universe of the internet and sweats anger on stage in the ‘piazze’. His shouts and his slogans are duly reported and discussed on TV. After all it’s a great show.

Grillo is supported by Nobel Prize revolutionary Dario Fo and the protest singer and actor Adriano Celentano. In a remake of 1968, Grillo ended his ‘tsunami tour’ in the preeminent symbol of Italian politics: the central piazza San Giovanni, in Rome, from which Italian journalists were banned to 'keep democracy pure'.

Grillo doesn’t want to change anything, only to bask in desperation and pride. It is the pain of the economic crisis that gives people dignity. The revolutionary man preaches to his disciples that redemption comes from the humble man. He vindicates the nobility of the everyman and woman. Anybody can be the saviour bringing cleansing to the entire society. The ‘grillini’, his prospective parliamentary candidates (Grillo is not standing), come from a NIMBY civil society that is against all sorts of change and ready to consign Italy to self-destruction. They are crusaders in pursuit of purity in a filthy world, where everything and everybody is corrupted. Only annihilation can bring renewal, only death can bring rebirth. The pure accept no compromise and no human frailty, as Oscar Giannino has learnt.

Oscar Giannino – @OGiannino, 75,269 followers

The economic journalist Oscar Giannino was the leader of ‘Fare’ (‘Action to Stop the Decline’), a civil society party that espouses liberal-reformist positions. The party, founded two months before the elections, proclaims transparency and accountability. A strong message that has already executed a prominent victim: its own leader.

Giannino, who comes from a working class family and sweated his way into public life, was ‘outed’ for having lied about holding a master's degree. As the media gorged on the story, other lies surfaced: he didn’t have the two degrees attributed to him and never sang in the revered children’s programme ‘Zecchino d’oro’ (by far the worst sin). Giannino presented himself as a flamboyant character in colourful garments, long moustaches and theatrical pose. He kept hidden his greatest assets: hard-work, discipline, and aspiration. After school, he worked during the day and taught himself economics and political science at night. He became a journalist and prominent political commentator. Giannino founded a movement with the support of the Italian academic intelligentsia outside Italy, including Luigi Zingales, economic professor at the University of Chicago. It was the Puritan Zingales who unmasked Giannino.


Giannino needed a couple of degrees to be able to stand up to Mario Monti (@SenatoreMonti, 232.614 followers), the professor from the most prestigious Italian university (Bocconi), who peppers his lectures to Italians with English, and who symbolises the aspirations of a meritocratic society, but also the arrogance of stuffy European and academic institutions.

Like Giannino, Italy has an inferiority complex. It is mesmerised by the brilliance of foreign lands, especially the US and the UK (don’t ask!). Thus, the election talk revolved around ‘being European’, which, in Italian political speke, means going beyond political factionalism, particularistic interests and a provincial worldview. There was little anti-German/anti-Merkel rhetoric; the worry was more about not being up to the task. At one of the most important national institutions, the Sanremo Music Festival, comedian Claudio Bisio made fun of the Italian electorate and proposed humorously to get Norwegian electors to ‘au pair’ in time for the elections, as they would choose more wisely.

Italians’ self-deprecation acknowledges, but also forgives, the demoralising powerlessness of Italian society to confront vested interests and power structures, of universities, political parties and unions to name a few, and to overcome the intrinsic factionalism of Italian public life. Never united and truly sovereign, now Italy is required by Europe to be a nation.

Italians pulled together to face the crisis under Monti’s technocratic government. They were betrayed by political parties that blocked Monti’s reforms in Parliament and paid lip service to democratic renewal in their own parties by impeding or manoeuvring the primaries. Italians now drown themselves in the Manichean deluge of Grillo, where politicians, journalists, bankers and the rich are demonised while the pain of everyman and woman is glorified. The shared suffering crystallises in a cathartic vote for a movement that brings no liberation.

The markets plummeted, but they are wrong. Italians are at a turning point. As comedian Roberto Benigni toured Italy proclaiming Dante’s verses and the Italian Constitution, Italians have begun demanding a new political and intellectual class. The seeds of a ‘liberal revolution’ have been sown by people on the left and the right, such as Renzi, Cattaneo, Giannino, and also Ichino (@PietroIchino, 5.387 followers), Crosetto (@GuidoCrosetto, 28.077 followers) and many more. That vision of a free and open society is not dead; it only needs the right mixture of commitment, integrity, and hope at the right time. In the midst of a recession, Italians will learn that hard-work, discipline and aspiration count for much more than two degrees and a master's.

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