Boredom, frustration, and disillusion: is Italy a post-democracy?

By Caterina Barbi

News outlets and newspapers concerned with Europe and the West have long been discussing the sovereign debt crisis and the conflict between authorities at the state and regional level. Lately, this has been particularly true for the context of Italy, the seventh biggest economy in the world but also the one with one of the biggest public debt in Europe. The skirmishes between Italian Ministry of Interior Salvini and European Union officials has once more sparked the economic sovereignty debate, bringing into question the vertical integration of the Eurozone and more generally, the new role of the nation-state in the age of multi pluralism and postmodernity. If one considers these questions in the context of the rise of the far-right and perhaps, semi-authoritarian governments, as in the case of Hungary, the waves of democratization followed by the ones of authoritarian overturn theorized by Huntington suddenly make sense. This article, however, will not focus on the crisis of the state, nor on the regional expansion of the EU. Rather, it aims to analyze the evolution of democracy into what Colin Crouch defined as post-democracy within the framework of the Italian context.

In his essay, “Post Democracy,” English scholar and political scientist Colin Crouch proposes a new paradigm to conceptualize democratic evolution. As explained above, the author understands the lowering quality of democracy as culminating in a process that brings power and decision-making procedures in the hands of a few. This process is tripartite, and it cannot be understood outside its historical context and timeframe of a globalized and increasingly interconnected world. The context is of particular importance because it is the post-industrial societal structure that induces the first chain reaction, it being the loss of a political identity by the lower classes. In post-industrial societies, in which manual labor is no longer the criterion of identifying the working class, lower classes are confronted with the hardship of finding their political identity and voice (Crouch, 2000). This usually results in their need to define their identity against another group’s and can be seen in episodes of xenophobia, homophobia or more generally violence against those who do not fit the national paradigm. Crouch, then, goes on to argue that in the post-industrial and globalized era, individuals are not the only ones to encounter an identity crisis, as democracy itself encounters one. In the time of interdependence, cooperation, and international organization, democracy struggles to expand in the political sphere beyond the nation-state, which is perfectly exemplified in the integration crisis the EU is undergoing from a horizontal point of view. Finally, he points out that the third element of post-democratic states is the fact that political and economic elites are connected to the electorate through increasingly superficial and weak networks (Crouch, 2000). In his analysis of the crisis of egalitarian politics and of trivialization of democratic practices, Crouch highlights that this is precisely a cycle and that democracy flourishes and is at the apex, usually after big crises, catastrophic political events or right at the birth of the democratic state.

This is in sharp contrast with what is theorized by Almond and Verba in their work about political culture, and the importance of path dependency in the development and evolution of regimes, the validity of the theory will, however, be discussed later in the Italian context. The basis for the author’s claim lies in the development of European democracies: following World War Two, political growth and democratic development progressed in parallel with an economic boom, which allowed the capitalist model to satisfy the claims of the working class. The social compromise reached in the 60s and 70s met its end with the oil crises in the 1980s. The strife brought about by the failure of the welfare state led to the emergence of new political identities, which in turn shaped new forms of political activism which bypassed the traditional vote (Crouch, 2000).

Crouch categorizes active democratic citizenship in two different subgroups: the positive one, which comes to life through petitions and citizens’ initiatives, and the negative one, which is dominated by protests, sit-ins, and actions that are more based on complaints. The fact that the later has been dominating the political scene lately is perceived as an indicator of the malfunctioning of democracy. Further, one should consider the increasingly important role covered by cause groups, such as lobbies, in the agenda-setting and policy-making process. (Crouch, 2018). Although a second essay could be written about the role of lobbies in democracy and the question is still open to debate, Crouch considers this too as a symptom of post-democracy. In his economic-focused and perhaps a bit Marxist understanding of sociopolitical development, Crouch writes that the roots of such a regression are to be found in globalization and the rise of transnational firms as institutional actors. This process is also propelled by the doctrine of New Public Management, which is based on the idea of importing government officials from the corporate sector, to make the bureaucracy as efficient and as competitive as possible (Crouch, 2000). These are known as “technocratic” governments, and Crouch argues they deepen the gap between politics and the people.

In short, a regime slides in the post-democratic state when the power shifts from the people to specific elites and to firms and when the agenda is set by the latter actors rather than the former. While this approach may sound very simplistic and too focused on how the economic policies of the state affect the quality of democracy, the author identifies in Southern Europe examples of post-democratic regimes. As such, an (angry) analysis of Italy is hereby proposed according to the terms of the author. It is of pivotal importance to start by defining the political instability that has been characterizing the country since approximately 2011. While there would be much to write about the evolution of Italian democracy under Berlusconi, it is after the end of his second mandate that no government has lasted a full five years as prescribed by the constitution. All the interim governments lost the Parliament’s confidence or were replaced by the President based on economic matters. In 2008, when the subprime bubble exploded in the United States, the exogenous shock caused a major breakdown in the economy that fell in recession. Unemployment skyrocketed from 6.7%, in 2008, to 12.7% in 2014 (World Bank). To tackle the rising issues and the danger of spiraling into debt, the government, pushed by the European Union, implemented three different austerity plans. The first one, voted by the Berlusconi government in June 2010, had a target of cutting 25€ billion, through stricter fiscal policies and tax control, as well as freezing wages. As the European Central Bank feared this would not be enough, especially considering the low international trust in Italy following many scandals involving government officials, a second target was put in 2011 at 48€ billion, furthering cuts in the public sector and postponing the retirement age. At last in September of the same year, the austerity plan was increased to meet the goal of cutting 53.4€ billion by 2013 (The Telegraph, 2011).

In this very tumultuous time of conflict and debate with the European Union, it is important to remember that in November Berlusconi resigned amid the accuses of fraud and solicitation of prostitution, as well as underage prostitution. This not only propagated mistrust in institutions both internally and in foreign arenas but also brought about a technocratic government, led by Monti, which broke the existing coalition and through the Parliament in general chaos (Repubblica, 2011). Of the four government coalitions that followed, only one was elected democratically, while the others were picked by the President of the Republic to act as interim governments until the end of the prescribed mandate. The scholar Robert Dahl writes that among the five essential traits of a democratic polity, there is enlightened understanding, which is a supposed opportunity every citizen has to learn how to understand one’s government (Dahl in Cordell Paris, 2018). The increasing technocratic presence in the government and the mere fact that only one out of five administration was voted greatly distanced the people from politics and the ruling class, which were increasingly perceived as distant and untrustworthy, especially considering the fact that all wages in the public sector had been and have now been frozen since 2011. In such a context, the Five Star Movement, born in 2009 as the more popular and down-to-earth option, increasingly gained support. While in 2010, the first year it ran for parliamentary election it did not pass the 8% threshold, in 2018, it gained 32,66% of votes in the whole country (Wikipedia). The debates on economic policy and dependency from the EU that characterized the past decade also brought about schisms in the major parties such as the Democratic one and partially, the Northern League.

When one compares the current Italian situation with what theorized by Crouch, the first similarity one finds is the lost political consciousness of the working class, as well as the deep mistrust in long-standing institutions. In such a problematic and complicated political context, Salvini and Di Maio rose as two very outspoken and very anti-establishment figures, who proposed clear and understandable domestic expansionary economic policies. Perhaps most importantly, however, they provided something against which the Italian nation could describe itself: a corrupted, wealthy and somewhat educated elite, the migrants and everyone that does not fit the traditional family paradigm. Further, these leaders heavily utilized and still utilize social media as a way to engage with the electorate, which is precisely what Crouch defines as a superficial interaction. Apart from the domestic scene, Italian democracy is very much struggling with European institutions, in terms of an issue of sovereignty but also in terms of civil society completely ignoring the regional dimension and how much impact the citizenry could have on it. While the Italian case ticks many of the requisites, it is important to point out the fact that despite many ties to the corporate world, the current government is the very opposite of a technocratic government, many mandates are being carried out by individuals that have not even graduated university. What Italy looks like, in fact, is a country that resembles a few core aspects of the post-democratic state but still challenges a notion so very rooted in economics to explain how democratic evolution can be the symptom of deeper social strife.

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