The Fall of Rome
Bankrupt and bloodied, Italy’s political elite clings to power
May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Worst of all, the government cannot find a way to balance its books that the public will tolerate. That is why February’s elections produced a deadlock between three irreconcilable forces. The left-wing Democratic party (PD), which had successfully prevented reformists from ending the stranglehold of the party’s Communist-era leadership, got the most votes for the lower house. The 76-year-old media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the populist conservatives, spent months attacking German bankers and Italian taxmen, and stunned the country by nearly winning the Senate. A quarter of the country voted for the Five-Star Movement (M5S) of comedian Beppe Grillo, which seems to want to do away with the country’s political system altogether. Mario Monti, who led the “technocratic” government installed in 2011 to please Italy’s EU creditors, was left in the dust. It is not surprising that it took two months of calumny, threats, and purges before the Berlusconi-ites, the Democrats, and the rump of Monti’s forces could unite to fend off the Grillo movement and form a government, however shaky.
Americans uncertain what to expect from Letta’s new government may find it useful to think of him as a younger, more Italian version of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. Letta comes from the center-right. His political family is the old, anti-Communist Christian Democrats, the youth wing of which he once led. His literal family includes Gianni Letta, an uncle, who is an intimate of Berlusconi, the longtime prime minister. But there came a moment about 10 years ago when Silvio Berlusconi turned into a politician no well-bred young Italian could be seen in public with. Enrico cast his lot with the center-left.
That is how he and I came to share a pizza one lunchtime in Rome in 2003. Letta was trying to explain how the future lay with his Margherita party, which rejected both Berlusconi and the Communist heritage of the left. I had the (immodest) impression that I understood Letta’s situation better than he himself did. His centrism was temporary. The left had already captured him. Berlusconi’s charisma and money were essential to the right, but the left could get rid of the Communist stigma by merely changing its name, which it had already done a number of times. When the various Communist, post-Communist, socialist, and antiglobalist groups reconstituted themselves as the Democratic party in 2007, Letta was among its founding members.
But Letta knew what he was doing. Here is the difference between a “moderate Republican” in the United States and a centrist on the Italian left: No one needs a moderate Republican. But for two decades Italy’s leftists have had a desperate need for moderates, as a means of staving off reform on the inside while implying to everyone on the outside that such reform was actually taking place. That pivotal position has now made Letta prime minister, with a lot of help from the financial crisis of the last half-decade.
In 2009, two longhaired baby boomers—a shaggy, grumpy comedian named Beppe Grillo and his somewhat spiffier adviser, the futuristic PR man Gianroberto Casaleggio—started a party called the Five-Star Movement (which they deny is a party at all). They had noticed that the followers of Grillo’s blog were responding to his pox-on-both-their-houses riffs with a frenzied enthusiasm. The frustrated grillini (which means “little crickets” in Italian) were similar to the people who flocked to MoveOn and Meetup in the middle of the Bush years, except that they lacked a single hate object. Grillo’s people have an almost religious faith in the Internet, and in the ability of “direct democracy” to solve Italy’s corruption problems. Over the Net, they began to organize “V-Days,” messageless, rather primal gatherings where mostly young participants would rally behind the slogan Vaffanculo, the Italian version of the universal insult telling people where to stick it.
It is tough to say what Grillo and his followers stand for. They don’t really have an economic plan. Grillo himself believes in French ideas of décroissance, or “ungrowing,” associated with the economist Serge Latouche (and attractively expressed in decades past by such thinkers as Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich). One of the new Five-Star deputies in Rome explained to me that the party would like to scrap a proposed high-speed train in order to hire people to make buildings more energy efficient, and in general to have more people work at home. “Progress does not mean doing the same thing,” he said. “It’s doing things with fewer resources.” This may sound bizarre, but in a country where low birthrates mean Italy will lose a quarter of its population in a generation or so, to believe in shrinkage is to be on the side of history. The Five-Star deputies are among the only Italians to have faced this question somewhat squarely.
Grillo’s people have fought against NATO bases in Sicily and trash incinerators in Parma. They want tax cuts and say the Italian tax authorities are a tyranny. They have called for a referendum on whether Italy should stay in the common European currency. Like the left, they want to claw back the wealth that rich people won before the financial crisis (il bottino, Grillo calls it, “the booty”). Like the right, they are not crazy about the idea that everyone born to a member of Italy’s rapidly growing immigrant population deserves Italian citizenship. And there are echoes of Mussolini’s rhetoric in some of Grillo’s rhetoric, including his warning to the political class—“Surrender! You are surrounded by the Italian people!” A millenarian video made by Casaleggio descries the machinations of “masonic, religious, and financial groups” in contemporary politics, and Grillo’s website was lit up last week with discussion of Letta’s having addressed the international businessmen’s roundtable known as the Bilderberg Group.
Most of all, the Five-Star Movement hates corruption. It distrusts Berlusconi and his People of Liberty party (PdL). It dislikes Berlusconi for the familiar reasons injected into the international press by Berlusconi’s opponents in the Italian literary elite: his influence-peddling, his control of Italian television, his dalliances with teenage girls, and, less avowedly, his wealth. Unlike the Italian literary elite, though, the M5S brings skepticism to Italy’s Democratic party as well. The PD is the home of trade union patronage, and Grillo warns that unions are “just like the parties: old organizations that history, not me, will shut down.” The PD builds its prestige and lines its pockets and then erupts into dudgeon should anyone suggest that it cares about anything other than the interests of the poor. Grillo calls it the “PdL without the L.”
In the short term, the M5S has two major gripes about political corruption: First, the metastasis of parliamentary seats—Italy has 315 senators, not counting its appointed “senators-for-life,” and these seats are all starting points for little empires of patronage. The second gripe—and do note the contrast to American ideas of fighting corruption—is the public funding of campaigns, which provides the money that lubricates those patronage empires. Ending public finance of political parties is the one M5S reform plank so popular that Letta on his first day as prime minister announced he would pursue it.
The M5S, however wackily, aims to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. It chose its list of deputies and senators in an Internet election. In the first days of parliament its members objected to sitting in a bloc as part of the usual left-to-right fan; they preferred to sit in the back rows, as the montagnards of the French Revolution did, and for the same symbolic reasons—they want to remain away from, but above, power. The M5S deputies call each other “citizen” rather than “honorable.” There have been dozens of convicted criminals in Italy’s parliament in recent years, and high on the list of its rules is the exclusion of members with criminal records. That excludes Grillo himself, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 1981 for a driving accident in which three passengers were killed.
The M5S opposes what it calls the casta, the Italian political “caste.” All party members are emphatic that the Italian press is part of this caste. “They want to speak to you just to make a movie of you,” one of the M5S deputies told me, “to put you in a bad light.” He did not think the press owned by Berlusconi was any more scurrilous than the press owned by his opponents. Grillo gave no television or newspaper interviews to the mainstream media during the campaign, and his followers have imitated his example. (This distrust does not extend to the foreign press.) With some exceptions, Italy’s big papers have reciprocated the indifference. Il Fatto Quotidiano, a newspaper obsessed with sending Berlusconi and his wife to jail, has taken up Grillo’s cause.
The ideology of throwing the bums out has a name in Italy. It is called qualunquismo (“whoever”-ism). February’s election came within a hair’s breadth of bringing qualunquismo to power for the first time since the Second World War. People liked the Grillo message. A quarter of the country voted for it, including 40 percent of factory workers, according to a study at the University of Urbino. The result had been, until the naming of Letta last week, two months of deadlock. Much that happened in those two months has strengthened the M5S case that the state is corrupt. Little about Letta’s appointment will change this feeling.
The February elections ended with 26 percent for M5S, 25 percent for the left-wing PD, and 22 percent for Berlusconi’s PdL. Mario Monti’s technocratic government, which had been appointed at the urging of the European Union to facilitate Italy’s cooperation with international monetary demands, had “balanced” Italy’s books by leaving $92 billion in government contracts unpaid—many of them to small businessmen. When Monti’s Civic Choice party won only 8 percent of the vote, it surprised nobody but the casta. But this three-way split did not yield the results that one might expect in an ordinary electoral system. A decade ago, Berlusconi passed a reform guaranteeing a parliamentary majority to the largest party, no matter how small its percentage of the vote. Meant to rig the system in favor of his own struggling party, it backfired. It has wound up benefiting the PD. Because it ran in a coalition with a few smaller parties, the PD could claim an extra 3 percent of the vote—its 29.54 percent gave it 340 seats. Berlusconi, through the same means, bumped up to 29.18 percent, for 124 seats. Although, in narrow terms, Grillo had the largest party, his 25.55 won him only 108 seats.
So the left had a majority in one of the two houses, but this was a majority with very little legitimacy. What legitimacy it had was further diminished by the way it had run its campaign. A year ago, the PD was rallying behind Matteo Renzi, the 37-year-old mayor of Florence who proposed to reform the party and purge its old-left cadres in the way that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair had done in their respective countries. And the party’s perennial foe, Berlusconi, looked to be in permanent decline. Berlusconi was weakened by various tabloid stories about teenagers, escort services, hair implants, and dissolute parties characterized by what he called “Bunga Bunga.” All polls showed it was an impossible election for the PD to lose. So strong did the PD’s position appear that its leadership began to ask: Why reform at all? The party changed its nominating rules and arranged that the wheezy old apparatchik Pier Luigi Bersani be given the top spot. It was an act so brazen that it brought Berlusconi back from the dead.
It also left the PD in a tricky position when the time came to build a coalition. With few workable political programs of its own, it had spent the past several years riding a moral high horse about Silvio Berlusconi, and chasing him through the Italian justice system. Was Bersani now supposed to promise Berlusconi (behind the scenes) some kind of immunity from prosecution in order to cling to power? Or was he supposed to approach Grillo, in hopes that an anticorruption party would form a governing alliance with the party it was accusing of corruption? Bersani chose to ask Grillo. Grillo’s response was to ask if Bersani was joking.
Elites on the left did not find Bersani’s approach to Grillo as ridiculous as everyone else did. They assumed Grillo was, at the end of the day, someone just like themselves. To the extent he had any intelligent protest to make, they figured, he would come to realize that they had the answer to every discontent. Writing in the philosophical review MicroMega, which plays the same role in Italian political-intellectual life as, say, the New York Review of Books, Giovanni Perazzoli seemed astonished that Grillo would not want to help liberate Italy from Berlusconi. “For Grillo, the PD and the PdL are really the same,” he wrote. “They’re the same because they’re both parties.” But that is to underestimate Grillo’s discrimination. They are the same in his view not because they are both parties but because they are both corrupt parties. If anything, the PD is the more dangerous to Grillo, because it is the party of skilled political operators. For a party of genuinely provincial and trodden-upon qualunqui like the M5S, the PD’s invitation to “share” power was an invitation to get taken to the cleaners.
The result was the deadlock that lasted until two weeks ago. It seemed worse because of a quirk in the Italian constitution, and the role played under it by the president, the 87-year-old ex-Communist Giorgio Napolitano. The presidency is mostly a ceremonial post, but there are a couple of important exceptions. First, it is the president who invites a party to form a government, rather as the queen does in Britain. And second, the president has a potential role in adjudicating future legal complaints against politicians, including (but
Letta wants a looser fiscal policy, along the lines of the one Berlusconi campaigned for—but minus the anti-German rhetoric. The property tax that Monti’s technocratic government introduced to help balance its books is not, Letta promises, gonna happen. The Italian people will like that. Letta has won himself some breathing room. But he has merely replaced Monti’s strategy (solving economic problems by creating political ones) with something equally risky (solving political problems by creating economic ones). Europe’s leaders still have not figured out a way to send the bill for recapitalizing the continent’s banks to anyone other than the continent’s voters.
Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek leftist party Syriza, told voters during his country’s last elections that they needn’t ever worry that an anti-European vote would mean the cutoff of European bailouts, because bailouts are for the bankers, not for the people. For a couple of years now, this viewpoint has been a mainstream one in Greece. It is now moving to Italy, and thus to Europe’s core. The consequences won’t be long to await.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
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