June 11, 2018
Guest blog post by Erika Mastrorosa, a graduate of Italian philosophy.
As of June 1st 2018, Italy officially has a new government. Giuseppe Conte was sworn in as PM taking an oath of loyalty to the Italian constitution in front of President Mattarella in the Quirinal, notwithstanding the doubts that were raised over the academic credentials listed on his CV.
The ceremony put an end to a political crisis that had been shamefully prolonged for ninety days after the elections held on March 4th of this year. Neither the League nor the M5S were able to reach the 40% majority required to govern, which dragged the country through three months of hung parliament, ever-changing promises of coalitions and agreements and untenable policy proposals.
A coalition between League (formerly known as Northern League) and the 5 Star Movement has finally given birth to a new government that promises to bring Italy back on its feet and take control of the political turmoil that is jeopardising the already fragile economy of the country.
Di Maio from M5S and Salvini from the League have already guaranteed the constituents that the new coalition will solve Italy’s problems: “We’ll get to work to create new jobs” Di Maio claimed “and we will be expelling migrants” Salvini added, outlining their promises of tax cuts, guaranteed basic income and deportation of 500,000 migrants.
The economic plan that should back up these pledges is not yet clear and one might wonder whether it will ever be. The track record of both leading parties does not look promising. While Salvini – now interior minister – has already travelled to Sicily only to vow to limit new arrivals of migrants crossing from North Africa to Europe, many have doubts over the feasibility of his plans, including the former right-wing governor of Lombardy, who was himself pushing a hard line on migration.
Promises of deportation have been controversial points of political campaigns for two decades, but Salvini’s xenophobic propaganda hasn’t considered the inconsistencies of his call to put an end to «Sicily’s being the refugee camp of Europe» and the government’s hostility to solid international relations.
The anti-establishment and the anti-immigration stance of the newly formed government doesn’t really acknowledge the necessity of the EU support to implement new migration policies nor does it explain the lack of political and administrative experience of many of the new minister, PM included. Although it wants to cut ties to other countries, Italy still needs bilateral cooperation if it wants to keep its economy afloat amid the political turmoil that is shaking Europe.
While the government has been now forced to tone down its skepticism about the European Union and the Eurozone, the rest of the 5-Star Movement’s and the League’s agenda doesn’t provide a clearer picture of their plans. Besides unnerving investors, the tax cuts and the spending binge the government is calling for remains up in the air, since the new coalition still hasn’t explained how their spending plans will be paid for.
Although the political upheaval that is exacerbating Italy’s anti-immigrant and euroskeptic sentiments is far more complex than this brief sketch, the newly formed coalition reflects the political rise of anti-establishment parties and populist politics.
Frustration over the lack of jobs, inequalities, economic uncertainty and general dissatisfaction with the political establishment demonstrate that Italy – like many other counties – is in desperate need for a change. But why choose populist parties over less tumultuous but qualified political figures? Neither the M5S nor the League have demonstrated any competency on the issues that they will supposedly handle with the citizens’ best interest at heart. So how did Italy end up with a populist government?
While the term now sounds like a shorthand political insult, the neutral definition of ‘populism’ simply refers to the support for the concerns of ordinary people. A slightly more complex definition in political philosophy deems populism as the support of the rights of the people against the privileged elite. The tenet of populism is the idea that a dangerous elite of self-appointed individuals is trying to deprive the people of their rights (both in social and economic terms). Hence the dichotomy us/them.
The distinction between ‘the people’ and ‘the authority’ is not new. Rousseau famously argued that by submitting themselves to the authority through a social contract, people did abandon any claim of their natural right, but they remained free because the authority was not a single-handed power but it was the authority of the general will of the people. According to Rousseau, power remained in the hands of the people, whose sovereignty was exercised through direct democracy in assembly.
The majority of current democracies – Italy included – are representative democracies, with elected officials representing the people. While representatives are appointed by constituents, distrust over the private interests of elected officials has fostered people’s disillusionment with the effectiveness of representative power.
Populism is an umbrella term that includes parties from both right and left. Think of Chávez in Venezuela, the ‘Podemos’ party in Spain but also Marine Le Pen in France and, last but not least, Trump in the US.
Europe has seen the rise of right-wing parties, which have concocted the traditional definition of populism with anti-immigrant policies and an anti-globalisation narrative which paddled along the idea that modern liberal systems are behind the economic and social crisis which affects ‘the ordinary people.’
Populism is extremely versatile, adapting to left and right political agendas, but there is an underlying common factor which transformed populism in a dangerous ideology: populist leaders do not simply represent the people, they are the people. This identification with the majority is the reason behind the rise of figures such as Mr. Grillo, founder of the 5-Star Movement.
While theories such as Burke’s believe that representatives do not simply neutrally express the ‘will of the people’ but they are entrusted to use their own wisdom even when their views do not match the immediate wishes of the constituents, populist movements have exacerbated the dichotomy us/them, so much that the political strength of their leaders is not knowledge of their subjects or experience, but the fact that they are honest citizens, just like you and me.
Corruption and dishonesty are indeed a plague for our current political system, but can politics be saved by the paraded honesty of parties like M5S? Moral decency should be the basic requirement for any human being to carry out any task. How can ‘the honest citizen’ be the solution to what clearly is a broken system?
They don’t behave like other politicians, they tell things like they are and they are tough. This is what people like about populist leaders like Mr. Trump.
Populism is not necessarily paired with popularity, but in Italy’s case populism has capitalised on the popular hysteria over the major concerns of today’s average citizen: lack of job opportunities – which, in a very xenophobic twist, links to immigration -, economic instability and taxes. A world that is changing too fast is overwhelming and adjusting to an increasingly idiosyncratic social and cultural environment is challenging. It requires a huge effort to analyse the reality that is in front of us and ask ourselves whether there is something we, ordinary citizens, can do to improve. Taking a hard look in the mirror would maybe provide an answer to these questions, but the pushback against self awareness in the political arena paves the way for that style of politics that puts us against them. Populism proposes a new narrative: we do not bear any responsibilities for the problems populist parties are here to solve. It is the rest of them who are the problem.
The Italian status quo is terribly frustrating and the mere fact that this populist government has developed outside the traditional channels of politics is enough to gain blind support and mobilise the Italian people against the establishment.
Who ‘the people’ are and what ‘the establishment’ means is not clear, which explains the versatile nature of populism and why it can appeal to heterogeneous masses. There is no identification factor that defines the groups populism puts against each other. The ‘enemy’ can endlessly change, conveniently adjusting to the drivers of any particular political crisis.
In the case of Italy the traditional political norms have been blamed for the pitiful stagnation (both social and economical) of the country.
The rhetoric of the 5-Star Movement and the League has taken advantage of the disenchantment with the traditional Italian democratic system. The parties have presented themselves as ‘close to ordinary people’, they have promised ‘to get to work to create work’, as Di Maio, who was sworn in as the new economic development minister, likes to say.
Populism appeals to ordinary people who feel ignored by the establishment, but who seem incapable of noticing the total absence of clear political strategies. Not only have the 5-Star Movement and the League given voice to people’s concerns that others might deem xenophobic, homophobic and undemocratic, but they have also legitimised the anger that characterises the expression of people’s frustration. Beppe Grillo, founder of the 5-Star Movement, is a good case in point: his loud and chaotic rallies are well known to Italians and so is his rude political charisma. The famous ‘Vaffanculo Day’ (‘Fuck You Day’) is a blatant example of the kind of rants Italians have fallen victims to.
The new government springs from the anti-representative stance of the leading parties. It is the sign of the decay of democratic structures in favour of incompetent spokespersons who should allegedly echo the will of the people. Have Italians preferred immediate emotional relief provided by bogus political pledges over the opportunity to seek competent figures that might give the country a chance to rise again in a long-term plan?
Ironically, the new government was sworn in the day before Republic Day, a commemoration of the 1946 referendum, in which the people decided on the form of government the country was to adopt after the end of the Second World War. With roughly 2.000.000 extra votes for the republic, the monarchy was abolished and Italy became what it is today.
Today the Italian Republic is still technically faithful to its Constitution from 1947, but one can hardly say the fundamental principles it is based on are still upheld in the political and cultural environment that spread through institutions and common people equally. Respect for human rights, social dignity, development of humankind, the protection of linguistic minorities and religious belief are among the first principles of the Constitution, but the political campaign that preceded the elections and the populist nature of the newly formed government suggest none of these principle are still fundamental. How do the new propositions about immigration policy pair with respect for human rights? How do the relentless homophobic remarks from authorities and common people foster social dignity? How does the overt misogyny of the whole Italian society respect human development? How does any of the points proposed by the new coalition promise to respect and protect all citizens equally, reproachful but politically powerful scapegoaters and also the outcast, those with no voice, those who do not fill squares just to say fuck you to politicians without putting forward any constructive proposal?