Monday, January 28, 2013

Just a Joke

Oh Silvio, you joker. Of COURSE you didn't really mean it when you praised Mussolini as a man who "did well"for Italy, apart from a few little mistakes. Like the race laws and the deportations. And what timing. You must have thought you were back doing stand-up comedy, Silvio you old trouper, there at the Milan rail station, at the site of the deportations themselves, on the actual European Day of Remembrance for victims of the Shoah. Who but you, Silvio, would have the BALLS--yeah, Silvio, you got 'em--to crack your little joke there, of all places. And did you let your pal Brunetta in on the joke, or was he just improvising--chip off the old block--when he chimed in with "It's what most Italians think"? As if it's not just you, Silvio, but the whole Paese that's a sick joke?

And leave it to the Swedes and their EU commissioner Cecelia Malmström to throw the wet blanket. Can't those people take a joke? Malmström--and hey, Silvio, is she hot or what?--she thinks it's a problem that pols like you are running around all over Europe stirring up "hatred and extremism." Tell her, "Who, me?" Silvio, 'cause of course it's not just you. It's Golden Dawn and Copé's pal Michèle Tabarot and indeed his whole wing of the UMP cozying up to France's right-wing terrorist legacy. It's the jackboots in Budapest, it's the xenophobes in Amsterdam, it's the True Finns, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Norwegian Democrats and the Danish People's Party ... You're not alone, Silvio, you're part of something big, really big. Why, you could even win this thing, and if you do? Well, won't the joke be on the rest of us ...

Update: While many have expressed outrage at Berlusconi's untimely remarks, Nichi Vendola has offered the most useful and concise version of what exactly Italian fascism was and did:

"... the suppression of basic liberties, censorship of the free press, the violence of militias, exile, prison, torture, and death for the better elements of the Italian population at that time... 27,735 years of prison sentences for thousands of free minds... in the first months of 1921 alone 17 newspaper offices and printing presses were destroyed and 59 community centers burned down along with 119 union halls and 117 cooperatives, 83 granges, 141 left-wing party headquarters, more than 100 libraries and cultural centers ..."

[...] cosa è stata la privazione delle libertà fondamentali, la censura sulla libera stampa, le violenze squadriste e di regime, che cosa è stato l’esilio, il carcere, la tortura, la morte per la parte migliore dell’Italia di allora. Berlusconi è un falsario, quando finge di non sapere che il Tribunale Speciale del fascismo condannò a 27.735 anni di carcere migliaia di menti libere, le persone più belle del nostro Paese.Berlusconi èun falsario, quando finge di non sapere che gia’ nei primi mesi del 1921 i fascisti riuscirono a distruggere 17 fra sedi di giornale e tipografie , diedero alle fiamme 59 Case del Popolo e 119 Camere del Lavoro e 117 cooperative, 83 Leghe contadine, 141 sezioni del Psi e del Pci, oltre 100 circoli culturali e biblioteche.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


Given the extraordinary flux in Italian politics, with new parties forming and re-forming, some would-be candidates heading off to prison and others pleading to be elected specifically to obtain judicial immunity, and alliances that form and dissolve like middle-school romances, I am hard-pressed to find the organizing principle, the 10,000-feet view that makes sense of it all. But this morning, in that first light of dawn that is half-dream, half-vision, it came to me: Freud's meta-psychology, where so much is explained--that's the matrix for grasping the incredible slip-slide race for the Palazzo Chigi.

Of course Freud's meta-psychology is itself a complex thing. In the beginning there was consciousness and the unconscious, the visible, rational agent and all the unseen forces at work to derail him. On one side the public sphere, policy debates, the constitution, and on the other, media, image, innuendo, private deals. So far, so good--we recognize the terrain.

But the Master wasn't satisfied with this topological model: these were forces in dynamic interplay, a field of combat whose protagonists he renamed Ego and Id. Much as Ego, the rational state, might try to regulate public policy as a mediation among recognizable interests, the libidinous, insatiably desiring Other would be there, insinuating its larcenous intentions into the public sector, substituting fantasy--bunga-bunga--for reasoned analysis.

But this model too falls short of understanding how some higher moralizing authority--Angela Merkel, for example, or the ECB--can exert its sublimely invisible authority on the everyday struggles for dominance of Ego and Id. Super-ego becomes the explanatory tool for this final, structural version.

So here we are, faced with the 2013 electoral campaign. Ego we know: the reasonable, self-deprecating but fatherly former minister and party chief, who neutralizes competing impulses of Left and Center, mediates between austerity and largesse, between business leaders and exigent trade unions while holding to the timeless verities of family and work. Pier Luigi Bersani is Ego for our times.

Id is of course Mr. Bunga-bunga himself, the Cavalier Berlusconi, whose libidinal excesses have come to characterize Italy's failed government for much of the past two decades. But not so fast: Id is by its very natural plural, unstable, forever opening new channels of desire. Thus Signor Bossi of the Northern League, who promised not long ago to shoulder his rifle and compete for a seat in Parliament; or Signor Grillo, whose off-color jokes and general repudiation of all that is established are notorious features of the Id. And the hosts of abstainers, refusing the claims of citizenship and duty, denouncing parties and governments in all their forms, an uncharted field of Id waiting--in Freud's hopeful phrase--to become Ego, to be brought to reason. Not to mention the parallel government, the Camorra and other regional Mafias and crime rings that are nothing if not machines for slaking the libido, and will be silent players--who knows to what degree--in this election. Yes, there is plenty of Id afoot in this Italian political season.

And above it all, surveying with a certain disdain the unsavory deal-making, the alliances with which--now that his advances have been spurned by Left and Right--he will have no part? What better Super-ego could a nation ask for than Super-Mario Monti, Mr. Holier-than-thou, sole bearer of European Enlightenment values into this partisan wilderness?

So there they are, the structural elements at work in the neurotic psyche of this national patient. It would take Dr. Freud himself to bring understanding to such a tangled subject, but--alas--we are in the hands of the Italian electorate, so beautifully figured by the Homer Simpson of our illustration.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Choose Your Partners

Bersani executed a lovely two-step today, a step to the left, a step to the right, no funding for the F-35 stealth fighter jet,  but a little campaign do-si-do with Matteo Renzi to assure the centrists that he's dancing to their tune. It's harder than it looks, and Bersani executes like the pro he is. But who will be Nichi Vendola's partner? Ingroia is waiting on the sidelines, but my guess is that he will remain a wallflower, even if Nichi has to dance all by himself. As he remarked to Ingroia in a sort of open challenge yesterday: some on the left are there to make pronouncements, but his goal is to govern. You can say that again says Pier Luigi Bersani.

Friday, January 18, 2013

All That Is Fitting ...

Ex-Communist PD candidate Bersani can name his party the 'Democrats' and promise all he wants to support the ECB line of 'reforms.' He's still a socialist or worse in the eyes of ... the tiny handful of Americans who know his name, which may explain the pains he took to strike a moderate, reasonable pose in last Sunday's Washington Post, and a previous interview with the Wall St. Journal. His campaign video pointedly pictures him with the un-intimidating François Hollande, and he has made overtures to the autarchs in Brussels and Frankfurt--all in a pointed effort not to frighten the financial class with the specter of a left-wing Italian government.

But if such is his intention, the big prize has so far eluded him:recognition by the Global Paper of Record, the NYTimes. This was poignantly displayed yesterday as the Times devoted rare column space to the Italian election. Rome correspondent Rachel Donadio treated readers to news of senescent buffoon Silvio Berlusconi's "rakish, retro" fedora, and recited his antics on Michele Santoro's recent TV broadcast. She expressed the appropriate regret for Mario Monti's less than galvanizing campaign, and noted the (dubious) threat of Beppe Grillo's anti-political M5S. What Donadio failed to do, though, was to note that all polls show Bersani's Democrats as odds-on favorites to win the election and elect him premier. In fact she didn't even mention his name. That's right: a rare feature story on the election didn't include the name of the front-runner, much less report on the curious machinations of various left-of-center political figures. That is, she completely failed to discuss the actual shape of the probable government to come. 

Does this matter? Considering the still-hegemonic role of Washington and the dollar in international finance, and the hyper-sensitivity of Italy's political class to its delinquent reputation--personified by Berlusconi--I'd say yes, it does. Bersani is clearly hoping to achieve legitimacy for his prospective government, and with it the reduced borrowing costs that will make governing possible. For whatever reason, and perhaps without meaning to do so, Donadio's "memo from Rome" suggested he was beneath the notice of the Times's readers, and in that gesture she made his job a little harder.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What's New? Civic Revolution ...


I'm new here in the world of Italian politics, and the surprises just keep coming. For weeks I have been plugging Nichi Vendola and his SEL party to keep Bersani honest to his left-wing roots, as pressure mounts on him to run to the center. Now I read in yesterday's Stampa that Vendola and SEL are being out flanked on the left by a party I had never heard of: the Rivoluzione Civile. Its candidate, Antonio Ingroia, is something of a hero, one of the anti-mafia magistrates who have tried to restore some measure of law and decency to Berlusconi's morally depraved political order. His new party, which gathers up the old Communist Rifondazione movement and some other small left-wing formations, is clearly focused on working people, though I don't find a very full program. For his personal stature, and the fact that, according to La Stampa he is drawing substantial support away from Vendola, his Civic Revolution will be worth watching.

Meanwhile the contortions involved in being Vendola, faithful to his own principles and to Bersani's PD at the same time, are sometimes arduous even to watch. I saw a clip from his appearance on the debate show Piazza Pulita where he strained to justify his insistence that he couldn't participate in a government with Monti, but might collaborate on a political program ... Thus the trials of a radical gone mainstream. Will Ingroia take away the oxygen his insurgent politics breathes? One more story to follow in this crowded election.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gauche contre Gauche

In a stimulating post on his blog a few days ago, Jean Luc Mélenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche and chief spokesperson for France's far-left, made the sweeping claim that his recent televised debate (titled "Gauche contre Gauche") with Socialist minister of the budget Jérôme Cahuzac was "the founding moment of a new era for the Left." Now as long-time reader (and sometime admirer) of Mélenchon I'm used to his extremes of mood; irascible and euphoric by turns, he has never been accused of understatement. Still it is worth thinking about his claim, not just on its merits but in relation to the evolutions of Italy's left and left-center parties.

What Mélenchon seems to mean is that his debate clarified the lines of demarcation between Cahuzac, a first-rate technocrat with primary responsibility for Hollande's austerity politics, and the authentically Left resistance to  those policies. Between soi-disant Socialists and the real thing, quoi, between the Left and its social-democratic impersonator. With parties like the French PS, as with Blair's Labour (or Obama's Democrats)  it has been possible to misconstrue centrist, neo-liberal policies as the only available version of the Left. But no, says Mélenchon: as the French Communists start to place themselves in opposition (note their hilarious New Year's  greetings video), and as he himself defines an implacable oppositional stance, it opens space for a resurgence of a true Left, and not just in France. Mélenchon goes on to cite the German SDP, the Greek PASOK, Spain's PSOE, as well as "the Italian party that changed its name," i.e. the PD, as European left-center parties in need of such opposition.

Whether Mélenchon's remarks prove relevant for France will not be clear for some time, as France will not have a national election for another 4 years. But in Italy we may see a test much sooner, particularly if Vendola chooses to pursue his strident criticisms of Monti and the centrists. I have been intrigued over several years to observe certain terms of resemblance between Vendola and Mélenchon, despite the near-total absence of any discernible rapport. As an MEP Mélenchon affiliates with the radical bloc GUE-NGL; Vendola follows the PD in its adherence to S&P, the more moderate social democratic group. Mélenchon has occasionally deplored the collapse of the Rifondazione movement, in which Vendola played a part. I noticed the other day on Le Monde's Campagne d'Italie blog that some commentators called Vendola a 'Mélenchoniste'--and not in a good way.

But as Mélenchon leads his Parti de Gauche towards Eco-socialism, as he began to do this past December, he will discover that Vendola is already there, and has been for a while. And if Vendola comes to realize that Bersani has no intention of breaking with Monti's neo-liberal economics, he may feel the need to look for that space to his left. If so, he will discover that like Die Linke, Mélenchon's FdG is in the field, a prototype, and not so improbable a one as some would like to think.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Balancing Act

The high-wire act is in the air. Exhibit A: Antonio Polito's column in today's Corriere, where he lays out the triple game Bersani must play as he lays siege to the Palazzo Chigi and prepares to govern. On one side are those who want to reassure the outside world (read 'bond traders and ECB administrators') that Bersani is really Monti redux with better political skills. Senior commentator Eugenio Scalfari said as much in Sunday's Repubblica, claiming that their programs are much the same (paywall, but quoted here). And Matteo Renzi's call for an 'American-style' Partito Democratico is of a piece: a plea for a big-tent, built-to-last coalition party not susceptible to the ideological fragmentation and collapse, à la Prodi's two governments, that continue to haunt Italy's center-left.

On the other side: what Polito calls the "Fassino-Vendola-Camussa axis," the left-wing and labor side of the coalition, which in no way identifies with Monti's austerity policies, and has become increasingly vocal in the last few days. Will these 'allies' bring down a future Bersani government, as they are said to have done to Prodi? Even the hint of such could frighten some fraction of centrist votes into Monti's column, and put Bersani's election in jeopardy. But the fact is, these elements, a substantial part of the PD coalition, do NOT see the crisis in Monti's terms, and are looking for a more interventionist governmental response (at least).

And Bersani? He continues to articulate a middle ground--Monti's program but with "a bit more justice and fairness," as he puts it--while avoiding any specifications that might explain what that slippery phrase is supposed to mean. Can Bersani carry this bland, non-commital message across the finish line? And what then?

So it begins: as I suggested a month ago, Italy's rejuvenated political system, with serious voices debating its future policy direction, is taking main stage in the larger European response to its perpetual crisis. Who will pay? Pensioners? Unemployed young people? Financial corporations? Owners of expensive real estate?  There are no obvious solutions--or perhaps even viable ones--but the Italian left is at least undertaking to explore the trade-offs, publicly, and--so far--civilly. We may not know for some months into a Bersani government where the chips (or which trapeze artists) will fall, but the daily pronouncements of these actors are worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Pols and Polls

While all high-minded readers know that the important stories 6 weeks before an election are about issues, alliances, substantive stuff, deep down what we all want to know is: WHO'S WINNING? Happily, Philippe Ridet in Monday's Monde  is pleased to gratify us with the results of an ispo poll published 1/6 (though I can't find it on the ispo website). So here it is:

  • Bersani                    32-3%
  •     + SEL, other left  38%
  • Berlusconi               19%
  •               + Lega       28%
  • Monti                       14-5%
Ridet doesn't mention Grillo (or other lesser candidates), though others see a drop in 5 Stelle's star to 13% or so. Disclaimer: none of this means anything, with Monti just entering the lists and the PdL/Lega deal still brand-new (and perhaps volatile?), lots will assuredly change. And with Vendola suddenly breaking his silence and swinging freely at Monti ... who knows how the PD/SEL arrangement will hold up? But as things heat up, this benchmark may be worth noting ...

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Why Italy?

As this blog's profile suggests, my interest starts with French far-left politics, and extends to the EU and its navigation through the ongoing crisis. So why am I posting about the Italian election? Here are a few reasons why I think anyone with a general interest in European politics and polity should be paying close attention to the campaign which will culminate with Italy's national election in late February:

  • As in the US, Europe's crisis-bound economy, with unsustainable levels of unemployment, vague hopes for growth, worrisomely aging population with high expectations for a social security net and diminishing revenues to fund it, presents a policy conundrum of the first order. The past 20 years of single-minded market-driven 'reform' have led to an impasse. Traditional social democratic alternatives are in many respects outmoded. The 'mature' societies in Western Europe, like the US, need to discover a new road out.
  • As in the US, the recent Dutch election produced an even split between old-left and old-right ideas, with a stalemated government that seems unlikely to produce much of anything new.   French voters seemed to be choosing a more socialist alternative, but Hollande and the Socialists are unwilling or unable to deliver on campaign promises--as this charming New Year's video from the Communist Party made all too clear.
  • Can Italy do better? A ludicrous question a year ago, but now, with Berlusconi marginalized and two serious representatives of old-left (Bersani) and old-right (Monti) competing for the premiership, Italy's campaign will at least offer a serious reflection on the need for fiscal reorganization and the dangers of austerity. 
  • More interesting to me is the presence, within Bersani's coalition, of an alternative Left (Vendola), with appropriate attention to the social injustices and environmental catastrophe that have resulted from decades of untrammeled free-market capitalism, along with a visceral mistrust of its financialized final stage. Will Vendola's politics (maybe 5% of the total electorate, a small number but perhaps the margin of victory) be enough to push Bersani in more innovative, socially progressive directions? Certainly this seems likelier than the French Front de Gauche or the Dutch Socialists exerting a similar influence, particularly given Italy's more decentralized system of governance.
  • And if not? One of the same-old same-olds, Bersani or Monti, Monti or Bersani, will no doubt form Italy's next government, but the twin threats to any stable governance are also well-represented in this electoral season. On one side, the nationalist, anti-European Lega Nord, always ready to scoop up disillusioned, ethnocentric voters, particularly as Berlusconi seems increasingly far-fetched (and frankly senile). On the other, the vaguely left-populist 5 Stars Movement of Beppe Grillo, with its frankly anti-political appeal to the whole generation of young adults whose social reality exists on-line and whose material conditions--massive unemployment, tiny birth rate--are unsustainable.
In short, all the forces we see in in the post-everything wealthy countries, including our own, are in play in this Italian election, all the more vividly because of the fragmented, coalition-style parliamentary system that rewards even small parties. Italy has its singularities, but it is a modern, industrialized, democratic, rather wealthy country, and the response of its citizens in February 2013 will mark an interesting mile-post in the epochal race for aging democratic capitalist societies to reinvent themselves. Or die.