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.


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