Italy is the country where, in the well-known expression of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in ” Gepthe ard ” “everything must change in order for everything to remain the same”. He hinted at the smokescreen of reforms that obscures the resilience of Italian power relations. As the election approaches later this month /b.pr. the next early parliamentary elections for the two chambers of the Italian Parliament are to be held on September 25 this year./, some political leaders are once again attempting to occupy the space between the two main coalitions.
Ever since the introduction of a semi-majoritarian electoral system in the early 1990s, which encouraged the formation of blocs on the right and left of the spectrum, individual leaders have tried to appeal to the moderate electorate, who presumably did not feel attracted to the platforms offered. These attempts invariably failed to achieve critical mass, leading to fragmentation and, in many cases, dissolution into the two main poles immediately after the electoral race.
The new thing this time is that the two leaders behind “the third pole ‘ were previously from the Democratic Party (DP) and held important positions: Matteo Renzi, Party Secretary and Prime Minister between 2014 and 2016, and Carlo Calenda, Minister of Development in two successive governments. Both subsequently created new parties built on their sole leadership—another hallmark of Italian politics following the example of Forza Italy of Silvio Berlusconi – and together with the DP supported the government of Mario Draghi.
With almost 40 percent of parliamentary seats allocated to the winners of elections in single-member constituencies, the lack of agreement in the center-left of the political spectrum and the formation of this third pole creates an additional advantage for right-wing parties, traditionally better able to form pre-election coalitions. During the last legislative term, the main right-wing parties took different sides on key decisions of the three governments that took turns in power – regardless of which they reached a pre-election agreement less than a week after the Draghi cabinet fell in July.
Given the significant lead of right-wing parties according to polls, the maximum goal that the new centrist pole can credibly set for itself is to become indispensable for the formation of a government, the main shareholder of which will be the /extreme right-wing party/ Brothers of Italy of Georgia Meloni. This would probably guarantee a place in the government for its leaders, but it would certainly not shape the political orientation of the government itself.
Beyond aspirations for the next legislature, the glue that holds Italy’s centrist parties together is a technocratic approach to politics. The system is not rated as potentially broken or defective, so minor tweaks will suffice. There is no finding of moral or political contradictions to be disentangled or overcome, only technical problems for which the “correct” technical solution must be found.
In the complex world we live in, this is profoundly wrong: every decision about fiscal, trade, industrial or energy policies has substantial distributional consequences affecting individual social groups, regions, countries and even generations. The ranking of outcomes and the identification of ‘correct’ answers are based on welfare judgments and value judgments that remain veiled in technocratic discourse.
The main position that defines this discourse, its hidden ideological basis, is a strong pro-market vision – and it is no coincidence that influential leaders from the left spectrum, such as Renzi and Calenda, are among its main supporters. An economic paradigm becomes fully established when even its opponents begin to view the world through its hegemonic lens.
At its height, the Keynesian welfare state received as much support from conservatives as from progressive circles, while progressive leaders such as Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and Bill Clinton in the United States completed the neoliberal reforms begun by their conservative predecessors after the demise of Keynesianism. In the case of Italy, the main left party, which was officially communist for more than four decades, was forced to adopt pro-market positions after the fall of the Iron Curtain – including to gain credibility with foreign partners – and is performing, domestically and externally , as a credible option for governing the country.
Over the years, through its many mutations, the Italian left has lost touch with its traditional function of promoting social equality and protecting vulnerable groups – and because the very nature of socio-economic conflicts has changed profoundly, which has not been fully accounted for by its leaders. The transformations brought about by globalization and technological progress have created winners and losers and affected different social groups differently, depending on the individual’s ability to adapt and benefit.
The winners were educated people, urban populations working in dynamic and innovative sectors and shareholders of companies operating in increasingly concentrated markets. The losers were generally low-educated individuals, small entrepreneurs, self-employed professionals who lived in the less dynamic areas of the country and/or worked in sectors more exposed to external competition. These people are now drawn to the nationalist and conservative offerings of right-wing parties—their radical alternatives, resonating with citizens’ fears and anxieties, reframed as “immigration” or other perceived threats to the national body politic.
In order to take offensive positions again, the Italian left must restore its original function and give answers to this (overwhelming) part of the population. It must offer the country a new narrative, a revitalizing vision to guide political decisions, an alternative to both the populist right-wing rhetoric and the technocratic discourse that is hindering the overcoming of neoliberalism in Italy (and in Europe in general). Social policy and fiscal redistribution are no longer sufficient in a world of increasing concentration of income and wealth and asymmetry in labor markets.
As Danny Rodrik recently pointed out /translation note renowned professor of international political economy at Harvard University/, we need a policy aimed at spreading productive economic activities across all regions and all segments of the workforce. Supply-side measures to create new jobs are paramount, together with targeted measures targeting marginalized groups to facilitate access to fairly remunerated types of work, with local policies favoring local development in remote areas. These measures must be accompanied by significant public investment to promote the green transition and a renewed commitment in international institutions to trade rules that strengthen the position of states and workers in relation to multinational corporations.
Otherwise, the extreme right in Italy will continue to successfully deceive by promising change – so that everything stays the same.
September 1, 2022
From the site Social Europe, https://socialeurope.eu