The political laboratory of the worst

On the 27th of October 1922, Italian fascists organized a mass demonstration in Rome which led to a coup d’Etat that established a 20 year long harsh dictatorship. Only a few years later, many nations in Europe decided to try the Italian way of doing politics by having their own fascism. The philosopher Norberto Bobbio describes fascism as a counter-revolution against the values of the Enlightenment, against the revolution of 1789. Bobbio writes that fascism is an ideal of premodernity and is composed of the following elements: a sacralized nation with an indissoluble civil society that sees minorities of beliefs, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity as a threat to the unity of the nation protected, but we should rather use the verb restored, by the supreme leader.  This ideology was made popular by Italy in the autumn of 1922, and later moved on to infect other countries in the West. Alas, this was not the first or the last time, that Italy has surprised Europe in manufacturing the worst forms of politics - how come?

In this article, we want to shed a light on an (in)famous sentence often quoted by the political and journalistic press that describes Italy as the political laboratory of Europe1 and perhaps question its relevance for contemporary political narratives. Since it seems that this idea is less popular in German discussions, I want to explain how Italy has become known to be a political laboratory for experiments that leak out into Europe and in the West. In the past this was not only the case for fascism, that found fertile soil in Germany, Spain, Portugal, Greece etc. but also other miserable ideas, such as the election of billionaires and tv-personalities as head of government. The elections of Silvio Berlusconi (prime minister of Italy 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006 and 2008 to 2011) can be seen as an archetype of this trend. Berlusconi who entered politics in the 90s and fought workers’ rights, limited rights to asylum for migrant people, and pushed through economic liberalizations for the benefit of his billionaire friends. Hello Mr. Trump. Furthermore, in the 2010s under Mario Monti the a technocratic Italian governments was established. Montis technocratic regulation ushered in renewed waves of privatization and a dismantling of the already fragile welfare state. Bonjour Monsieur Macron.

Today once again a new technocratic government has formed with the ex-president of the ECB, Mario Draghi governing Italy as prime minister. It seems there is no alternative to a ping-pong game for the presidency of Italy between extreme-right populists and the ultra-neoliberal technocratic elites. Has then the source of Italian political imagination dried up?  To answer this question and others, a brief review of the last decade is necessary.

From an economic crisis to a health crisis.

Summer 2011. In the midst of an economic crisis, the European central bank ruled by Jean Claude Trichet and Mario Draghi addressed a secret letter to the Italian government containing several requests. In it, they demanded including “the full liberalisation of local public services”; “large scale privatizations”; “reducing the cost of public employees . . . if necessary, by reducing wages”; “reform [of] the collective wage bargaining system”; “more stringent . . . criteria for seniority pensions”; and even “constitutional reform tightening fiscal rules.” All this, it was claimed, was needed in order “to restore the confidence of investors”2 . Berlusconi should pass these measures through parliament according to a set timetable or implement them by decree3. The scope of this letter was to impose a drastic cut on Italy’s already heavily lowered public spending, to reduce national debt and allegedly to boost the country’s recovery.

Sending the letter was part of the broader strategy to preserve the Euro monetary union – no matter the costs. If these demands were not met, the ECB menaced to stop the purchase of Italian government bonds, which would have significantly worsened the country's debt crisis, forcing Italy to go in default. While Berlin and Paris publicly called on Italy to implement austerity measures, the ECB exerted additional pressure on the government in Rome in the background. Draghi’s and Trichtet’s demands lead to severe marketisations: from the privatization of hospitals and schools, to attacks on the pension system and the dismantling of workers’ rights. The policies have brought catastrophic results to an economy already suffering from decades of structural stagnation. As reported by the European trade union institute, the level of salaries in Italy dropped from 2010 to 2017 by 4,3%4.According to this report Italy’s “average living standards in 2017 were lower than in 2008.” The slow recovery during 2018 and 2019 has vanished since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, which led to 162 thousand deaths to this day and a million more unemployed.

Back to the so-called secret letter of the ECB. In September 2011 the letter was captured by journalists of Corriere Della Sera and published. Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, incapable to deal with this crisis, tendered his formal resignation to the President who then dissolved the National Assembly. Berlusconi was not the man to deal with such an economic and political crisis. His major political achievements were placing his people into the higher sphere of the state and breaking anti-trust laws so he could create a media monopoly by buying the biggest newspapers, TV channels and publishing houses, but also banks and construction companies. Most importantly the main political goal of his entire career has always been to stay out of prison due to parliamentary immunity Thus at the peak of the economic crisis, he left the sinking ship of the state and moved on to control the economic empire he had created in his 15 years as the prime minister of Italy.

To deal with the economic emergency engulfing the country, the President of Italy appointed Mario Monti, a professor of economics, who happily started by raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 years and then moved on to cut the school and hospital budgets by hundreds of millions of Euros. Behind all these cuts, gifts to the banks, and ‘we-need-to-adapt-to-these-difficult-times’ policies, another Mario was dictating the dos and don’ts: Mario Draghi.

 

Oh no Mario, not you again!

Born in Rome, Professor of Economics in Florence and Turin, Ph.D. at MIT in Boston, former president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi holds a great curriculum in which prime minister of Italy doesn’t fully seem like a promotion, compared to his previous jobs. Governor of the Bank of Italy, president of Goldman Sachs Europe, Mario Draghi was serving as Director-General of the Italian treasury with the given goal of leading a wave of privatizations of major public companies. After the resignation of Giuseppe Conte5 in May 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, due to the lack of support from the coalition, Draghi was asked to succeed him as Prime minister.

 

Technocratic Realism vs Emotional Fascism.

On 26th July 2012, at the Global Investment Conference, Draghi made very clear, that the which directions he wanted to give to the ECB during his presidency. With his statements, he revealed that the political influence exerted by the 2011 letter was part of a general politicisation of the ECB: But (…) the point I want to make is in a sense more political. When people talk about the fragility of the euro (…), very often non-euro area member states or leaders, underestimate the amount of political capital that is being invested in the euro. And so we view this, and I do not think we are unbiased observers, we think the euro is irreversible. And it’s not an empty word now, because I preceded saying exactly what actions have been made, are being made to make it irreversible. But there is another message I want to tell you. Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.

In order to preserve the Euro Monetary Union, the ECB demanded austerity policies from southern countries to prevent their default which could have led to a backlash even in Berlin. THIS transformation of the ECB from an allegedly pure economic actor to an openly political one was significantly advanced under Mario Draghi's presidency. The letter sent to the Italian governments was a major sign of the increasing politicisation of the technocrats in Frankfurt, who even succeeded in softening employment protection in the Italian labour market, which is clearly outside the ECB's mandate.

And again Italy showed its potential of being a political laboratory manufacturing the worst as the country was used to install a full technocratic government under Mario Monti in 2011. Technocratic governments are not a new phenomenon on the Italian and European political scene6 . Some of them just ruled until the next election without a political mandate to change the status quo7 . Since the beginning of the Global Financial Crisis 2008 and the following European Debt Crisis two full technocratic governments have been appointed (Bajnai in Hungary 2009–2010, Fischer in Czech Republic 2009–2010) and one in Greece between 2011-2012, that was led by the technocrat Papademos, a former vice-president of the ECB. The installation of Monti (2011–2013) in Italy represented the culmination of this technocratisation of European democracies with him and the majority of ministers not being elected and having the mandate to introduce major policy shifts.

The technocrats appeared to the public in a moment of great uncertainty due to the crisis like rational professionals. Their know-how was not to be doubted and the liberal media outlets pushed this unsavory bite down the citizens’ throats: politics without politics. The citizens of PIGS or GIPSI countries, terms used to define the economies of Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Ireland, were forced to accept this new diktat presented as the only logical one: the austerity, the public cuts, the privatizations.

A society ruled by experts, post-ideological on the surface, that believes in the laws of the market and that the distinction between left and right is obsolete – these are the traits that constitute the technocracy. In such a regime, the expert-politician is the one holding the undeniable, manifest and scientific Truth. The law of the market must be respected at all costs – through liberalizations and cuts to the welfare state.

In a technocracy, there are no groups of interest to represent, there are no social classes, rather there is a scientific Truth to reveal and to impose, almost in a religious sense that there is no other way, but the one revealed by the expert. The individuals are being told that there is no one who can represent their particular interest, because there is only the truth of the market law and one has to accept it as dogma, even if the diktat actively hurts them and is against the needs, and values of the individual. This scientific religion makes the subject longing for representation in a community. The citizen finds itself lost in this nondirectional and confusing present, thus seeks shelter in politics that seem to represent him, that tell him “you are part of a group”. In the past the blue collars of Italy were once represented by Communist Party. Now the extreme Right is the major force which gives more and more citizens a sense of appurtenance.  The response of Matteo Salvinis League Party or of Giorgia Melonis Brothers of Italy to the pretended rationality of the technocrats is to evoque emotions of belonging, or even memories of belonging. The millions of voters who are disillusionized by decades of neoliberalism are to be won back that way. (It should be obvious how Trumps “Make America Great Again” campaign evoked such a Memory of Belonging in a similar way).

In Italy, this past community is often represented by the Church or by the fascists. It is due to emotional politics that Matteo Salvini shows up at campaigns rallies brandishing the catholic rosary. He wants to show that Italians are part of a community of destiny, a community constituted by feelings rather than laws and decrees.

 

Decline and fall of the political laboratory of Europe

From Fascism to entrepreneur-politicians and later to technocracy, Italy has shown political initiative that creates copy-cats in Europe and the West. According to Marc Lazar, sociologist at Science Po Paris and the University of Luiss in Rome, Italy is a political laboratory because it first records the political upheaval which then spreads like an earthquake in other countries. This is due to Italy’s centuries old unresolved conflicts, says Lazar, present also in other countries, but not as radical. We could enumerate these conflicts as the never-ending struggle between the Church and the State, the corruption in the private and the public sector, legality vs illegality, and the continuous shift between democracy and authoritarianism. This chronic asymmetry of the political stands, where the state and its elite try to support and to fight the Mafia at the same time; to put Catholic crosses inside secular public schools; or where politicians such as Giorgia Meloni equate the fascists’ and antifascists' war: all these issues stay unresolved and create horrible metastases.  It is not possible to mediate between the opposites, the Italian government cannot support the fascists and the antifascists at the same time. According to Lazar these fractures in in the Italian state and society are so much more virulent than in other countries that the Peninsula records political upheaval earlier than other states.  Due to these simmering conflicts Italy must be considered a political laboratory of Europe. For instance, in Germany, the denazification was surely not completed, thus for a long time after WWII former members of the NSDAP held high positions in the state organs of West Germany and to a lesser extent of East Germany8 . In Italy the de-fascistisation was not even attempted. These unresolved conflicts of acceptance and denial of the fascist state have provoked before anywhere else in Europe the legitimation of the extreme-right parties. In nuce, we can consider Italy as the political laboratory of Europe, and we’d also say of the West, because of Italy’s political fractures which are less apparent but similarly impactful in other Western states.

Today after ten years of the same sauce: technocracts against extreme righters, it is hard to predict whether the laboratory will leak out other ideas, or it will be stagnating on this level. However, I would like to end with a personal experience.

In 2017 I was studying in Strasbourg and while scrolling through the Alsatian city, one could see a graffiti on the walls of the University Campus: Macron 2017, Le Pen 2022.  In other words: technocracy will pave the way for the fascists. According to the polls in Italy9 and France10 , this seems to be plausible.  

To quote this terrible sentence from Gramsci, made popular by Slavoj Zizek: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”

Will these monsters speak Italian?