History, as Marx taught us, likes to repeat itself: the first time in the form of a tragedy; the second, a farce. What may be unique about Italy, though, is it’s often hard to distinguish between the two. This is a country where the situation is often tragic but never serious.
Leaving aside the farcical aspects such as toga parties or bunga bunga, what we are witnessing now is a replay of the political crisis that, at the beginning of the 90’s, wiped out the so-called Italian First Republic. Now, as then, the crisis is brought about by two different but interrelated factors: the first is a series of corruption scandals involving politicians from almost all parties, the second is public finances, badly mismanaged by the abovementioned inept and corrupted political class. Now, as then, an angry and disoriented public is presented with two alternatives to party politics: a technocratic option and a populist one. In the early 90’s the technocratic option was represented by Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, former governor of the central bank who led a non-partisan government in 1993. The populist one, meanwhile, was embodied by Silvio Berlusconi, a media tycoon who won the 1994 general elections and has dominated Italian politics ever since.
Today, those same roles are taken up by two new actors — Mario Monti, former EU commissioner and actual prime minister, and Beppe Grillo, leader of the newborn populist political movement “Movimento 5 Stelle“.
Unfortunately, both the technocratic and the populist option will, once again, prove inadequate to solve Italy’s long lasting problems.
Mario Monti, was appointed Prime Minister by the President of the Republic in November 2011, with the public finances in a desperate state, the country on the verge of bankruptcy. He then formed a non-partisan government and took up the unpopular role of imposing necessary but painful reforms that the previous political class did not have the willingness nor the political legitimacy to implement. We could compare him to the Dictatores rei gerundae causa of the Roman Republic — highly regarded personalities to whom the Senate attributed full powers in times of grave danger for the State.
What the Romans knew however, is that an emergency situation is by nature temporary and it is acceptable only insofar as it remains so. Mario Monti has never been elected by anybody and it can be argued that his tenure of office represents a de facto suspension of democracy. At the same time, a year of good governance is certainly not enough to fix Italy’s problems and it is increasingly clear that, after the general elections foreseen for next spring, the country cannot afford to go back to politics as usual. That is precisely what happened after the technocratic parenthesis of 1992-1993, and the result has been the disastrous “Second Republic” dominated by Silvio Berlusconi (aka The Brodello State).
The second answer to the present crisis, is embodied by Beppe Grillo, a former comedian who has become the spokesperson for many Italians outraged by the current political class, and no longer willing to make any distinction between left and right. Grillo’s new movement, a ‘non-party’ as he calls it, has 15% of the votes in national polls, making it the third largest political force of the country (and possibly the second if the centre-right remains in crisis).
While he is undoubtedly a rude populist, Grillo is raising very important questions. He should not be dismissed too quickly. His attempt to build a new political movement, taking advantage of the possibilities of direct democracy offered by the web is very similar to the German Pirate Party, an increasingly popular movement. His arguments against existing political parties show an instinctive but powerful grasps of issues well know to political scientists since Kats and Mair’s theorization of the Cartel Party in 1995. His unrefined critique of existing representative democracy echoes a global phenomenon that goes from the Spanish Indignados to the Occupy Movement. Grillo’s success should then be considered as the symptom of the profound crisis of Italian democracy. He is probably not the solution but also he is most definitely not its cause.
Italy is trapped between the Scylla of technocratic emergency management and the Charybdis of angry populism. For different reasons none of them can provide a viable way forward out of the current political crisis. The first can only be a temporary remedy for times of emergency; the second is more apt at venting frustration than at offering viable solutions. What the country needs then, is a genuinely political solution — but none of the existing parties seems able to provide it.
Rocco Pollin is a PhD student at the University of Florence. He holds a visiting studentship at the POLIS department at the University of Cambridge.