Reflections on Italy

Comments on the history, culture and politics of this land of incomparable beauty

Matteo Renzi: A “New Deal” for Italy?

At first glance, Matteo Renzi, Italy’s flamboyant “premier”, would seem to have nothing in common with improbable bed fellows the likes of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Benito Mussolini, John Fitzgerald Kennedy or, even, Silvio Berlusconi. But upon taking a closer look, one cannot help but notice how Renzi’s youth and “pizzazz” liken him more to a Mussolini, Kennedy or Berlusconi than meets the casual eye. Indeed, Renzi’s eloquence and capacity to razzle-dazzle audiences likens him more to charismatic leaders such as FDR, Mussolini or JFK than any other contemporary Italian political leader, that is, other than Silvio Berlusconi.

At thirty-nine, Renzi became the youngest “premier” in the history of modern Italy. Before, him that distinction was held by Mussolini alone, who was a young forty year-old radical firebrand when King Victor Emanuel III, called upon him to form a government in 1923. Renzi was a mere thirty-nine years old when he received a similar mandate from President Napolitano. Mussolini, Renzi and Berlusconi all signaled a break with their country’s political system. Although all of them share common socialist values and political backgrounds, Mussolini was decidedly anti-clerical, whereas Renzi and Berlusconi were raised in the Catholic tradition.

Matteo Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi share the dubious distinction of taking office during the biggest depression since the Great Depression, which – beginning with the stock market crash of 1929 – took two decades and a world war to overcome. Ironically, FDR, a Democrat hooked on big government, applied remedies pioneered, among others, by the Italians under Benito Mussolini in efforts to stem the growing unemployment and poverty made worse by austerity measures adopted by the Republican administration that preceded FDR and his New Deal. If, during his first 100 days in office, Renzi did little more than legislate an € 80,00 a month perk to salaried workers earning less than € 24.000,000 a year, by contrast FDR was a veritable “whirling dervish” that in the same span of time implemented most of the programs and agencies that would characterize his Presidency. Many, like the TVA are still in existence today.

The first thing FDR did when he took office was to try and relax the austerity measures of the Republicans. FDR’s New Deal programs focused on relief, recovery and reform, words that will have a sinister ring to the ears of the average Italian bombarded on an almost daily basis by promises to get the economy growing again through relief and reforms funded by yet more taxes heaped upon a shrinking middle class that is fast swelling the ranks of the nouveaux pauvres. The second thing Roosevelt did was to create a number of public works projects and agencies such as the “WPA” (Works Progress administration) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (“TVA”). Prompted by mammouth unemployment, FDR dilated government intervention in the economy to the point where the US Government soon became America’s biggest employer. Like Italians (then and now) FDR was a fan of big government.

Begun in 1931 under the Hoover administration, the huge Boulder Dam was completed in 1935 and launched under FDR. It was controversially named after Republican President Herbert Hoover who was to take the blame for the stock market crash and the Great Depression that followed, although he had been the first to try and fight unemployment through public works projects such as the construction of the big dam near Boulder, Nevada. The “Boulder Dam” would be built and completed in only 5 years (2 years ahead of schedule) not by public enterprise but in the republican way by a private consortium named Six Companies, Inc. It was responsbile for putting tens of thousands of unemployed men to work. While the TVA brought flood control and water to the Southeast, the Hoover Dam did the same for the Southwest.

Critics of FDR, however, would be quick to point out that the President spent less and taxed more than he should have, thereby prolonging the depression. They blame FDR’s policies for making it more expensive for employers to hire people and harder for them to raise capital. Indeed, these same critics have noted how throughout his presidency (March 1933 to April 1945) a strong anti-employer bias pervaded the administration as never before in American History.

The similarities, however, stop here. While it is still early to judge the Renzi administration, one cannot help but notice that so far Renzi has been more talk than action. The same of course can be said of Renzi’s predecessors, including Silvio Berlusconi, who unlike Monti, Letta and Renzi, however, was elected to office by popular vote rather than appointed by the Head of State. Furthermore, in fairness to the man, Berlusconi was forced to fight an uphill battle from day one. Berlusconi may have repeatedly won the popular vote of the “silent majority” supposedly to the center and right of Italy’s political noblesse but Berlusconi never had the “State” behind him. The millions of public bureaucrats and civil servants that run the complex machinery that makes a country like Italy work, were against him from the beginning. These rank and filers knew too well who buttered their daily bread and made no mystery of their opposition to the Berlusconi administration, the meagre results achieved of which can also be atributed to the beaucracy’s apathy and open “resistance”. In Berlusconi’s case resistance also came from within. In Italy, a “premier” does not have the power to hire and fire his cabinet ministers. In a country where proportional representation makes coalition governments the rule rather than the exception, an Italian “premier” or President of the Council of Ministers is more likely to be at the mercy of coalition party leaders (big and small). Like so many before him, Berlusconi proved to be more bark than bite, unable or unwilling to lead, control and determine events within and without his own government. Only nine months after the landslide victory that saw the birth of the first Berlusconi government (May 10, 1994 to January 17, 1995) Mr. B was forced to resign (December 22, 1994).

But Renzi need not worry about that. He comes from the right side of the tracks. He has the pedigree that comes from years of militancy in the post-communist “Partito Democratico”, albeit tainted by the original sin of Catholicism. Like Mussolini, Renzi hails from the left and uses all of the right words beginning with “sociale” and ending with “solidarietà”. His rise to power was forged on promises to “rottamare”, i.e. to scrap the old “cold war” leadership and make way for the new and the young. And Renzi flooded his cabinet with many young people like himself. But this has all been seen and done before in this land of senior citizens. Italy has a long-standing tradition of placing power in the hands of its elders. Mussolini was the first to break with that tradition. He was helped by a socialist leadership blind with envy and enraged over Mussolini’s belated pro-war position. Indeed Mussolini had gone from pacifist to “gun ho” interventionist. He advocated Italy’s entry into  World War I motivated by nationalism and the belief that war would bring revolution. Turati and the other leaders of the Socialist Party disagreed with Mussolini’s pro-war stance and finally kicked him out of the party in 1914. Unfortunately, Mussolini was not one to “roll over and die”. After serving in the War with distinction, he went into business for himself, attracted a substantial following and by the early 1920’s was ready to replace the old worn out leadership with a rejuvenated one comprised of many angry, unemployed WWI vets like Italo Balbo and Ettore Muti. These men were young, educated and angry. They outnumbered the aging leadership which proved too weak to stop them. They swelled the ranks of the Fascists, Futurists and Nationalists, which together would soon march to power in the wake of leaders like Gabriele D’Annunzio and Benito Mussolini to the tune of “Giovinezza” (“Youth”). Mussolini’s “spring of beauty” was to last 20 years and leave Italy in ruins.

What began as a revolution to modernize Italy led by a young, disenchanted, socialist outcast, would soon degenerate into a regime. In its bid for power, fascism ceased to be a multi-faceted political movement capable of drawing followers and attracting the consent of people from all walks of life and transformed itself into a political party with national aspirations. The Fascist National Party founded on November 9, 1921, in its haste to do away with the opposition, soon became hegemonic. Before long, the Fascist National Party became the only party. By 1925, this one-party system had degenerated into a full-blown dictatorship.

Today, the same leaders that failed Italians before would have them believe that bipolarism is responsible for Italy’s many problems. Thank God it has failed. These leaders, many of whom Renzi would like to scrap, blame everything on attempts to institute a bi-party system (sic!). Now that this too has failed they say, it is time to go back to the multipolar system of pre-Berlusconi days. And, without a major overhaul of the Italian policitcal system and Constitution, that is where Italy could be headed. These cold war leaders are against Renzi and in favor of “hard liners” like Susanna Camusso and Maurizio Landini, labor leaders opposed to any change in Italy’s communist inspired labor laws.

Italy’s recent regional elections underscored the growing discontent of the old hard-line ex-communist leadership with young Renzi’s movement to “scrap” the old and make way for the new. This was only understandable. A heavy drop at the polls did not provoke significant losses in communist strongholds such as Bologna and Modena, where the PD remains in power but the drop was immediately blamed on Renzi by wishful-thinking party bosses of the cold war era, as a clear sign of voter preference for the hard-line politics of the cold war years. Some of these leaders would like nothing better than to rid themselves of Renzi, one way or another. These leaders would, however, be wise to reconsider, given the catastrophic consequences on Italy and Europe the last time a carsimatic leader like Renzi was blackballed by his own party.

Renzi and his “young turks” know that the Italian system of government has failed and cannot be made to work again because the conditions that generated it (bloc politics and the cold war) no longer exist. To insist on making an obsolete system work during the age of globalization is suicidal. Already the country is caught up in economic stagnation and deflation. Italy needs a new and better mouse trap if it wants to become competitive once more. What to do? In recent months there has been growing talk among the elites, including intellectuals and political commentators of the need for a “party of national unity”, in which all “democratic” (?) forces can and should identify. A one-party solution, perhpas populated by Italy’s finest? A return to a one-party democracy such as happened in India with the Congress Party or in Italy with the Democratic Christian Party during the early post-war years? It is hard to say, so far Mr. Renzi has avoided getting bogged down in debates over the feasibility or wisdom of such a solution. For the time being Renzi seems intent on surviving politically long enough to push through his “new deal” reforms for Italy. The question is, can Renzi last long enough to make a difference and will that difference mean a switch from confrontational, exclusive democracy to an inclusive, consensous-based democracy. Only time can tell but should Renzi also fail, his “new deal” could well prove to be Italy’s last.

Done on November 29, 2014

by pparak

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