Italy keeps investing itself in false hopes. No one person can provide magic fixes.
In a country that will soon have its 64th government since 1945, it is no surprise that people pin their hopes on men (yes, always men so far!) who are casting themselves as transformative figures.
Overrating the power of personality
For a long time, the man who was supposed to fix things was Silvio Berlusconi. A shifty television magnate, Berlusconi entered politics largely for one reason — self-aggrandizement.
After many years of fireworks and several terms in office, the net result of all his machinations was basically nothing in substantive terms. Meanwhile, Berlusconi kept Italians entertained — and entertained himself.
In the end, most people in both camps were contented in their own way: Berlusconi had lived up to their expectations. Italy, meanwhile, more or less ended up wasting a decade.
The next deus ex machina
In February 2014, Italy had another “deus ex machina” moment – for the umpteenth time in its history. At that occasion, it was Matteo Renzi, the youngish former mayor of Florence, who was vested with high hopes for a fresh start.
Renzi, never shy to profess his ambitions, surely was a breath of fresh air. For a while, there was hope that he would deliver magical salvation to the country. Following the loss of the referendum vote over his planned constitutional reforms, he is exiting stage left.
It appears as if the Italian people have been conditioned to await the periodic rise of a new Caesar who momentarily excites the masses. That saga has indeed been going on in the city of Rome since the year 44 BCE, when Brutus killed Caesar, for fear of him accumulating too much power.
The only good news in the 2016 version of the story is that Brutus has now been democratized. Renzi was not slain by one of his colleagues in the political arena, but by its collective technocratic equivalent, a national referendum.
Simply not serious about governing
All of which leads to a broader question: Do Italians acknowledge the need that any polity needs to be governed in some fashion and by someone? One must have strong doubts.
This is all the more peculiar as even on the lowest and least complex level of government — municipalities — the Italians fail to have leaders who can manage to get the trash removed properly.
The inability of the city governments first of Naples, then of Rome to deal with trash mountains made global headlines. They also are a fitting indicator of Italian politics.
While the resulting smell was curiously reminiscent of waste management problems going back to the days of the Roman Republic, today’s Italians did not really get too upset with it all. They delight in their own ungovernability. They are even lucid enough not to blame the mafia for all the inaction.
The key question is this: If a country cannot solve its waste management issues, what can it actually resolve?
Italy has a strange obsession about politicians fighting each other, turning the entire country into a toy to be played with. All the people expect is … good entertainment.
To make it suspenseful enough, the country has a love affair with political intrigue, if not political murder. The latter extends from the afore-mentioned Senatorial games over who killed Caesar all the way to former Prime Minister Aldo Moro’s assassination in 1978.
As Renzi’s fate shows, in the more symbolic variant of killing the leader, that same game is still on today 2,050 years later. The pattern is always the same: An initial wave of hype is soon enough followed by ennui and disillusionment, which inevitably leads to the leader being toppled.
And then, when competent politician-managers are appointed in between the latter-day Caesars (à la Berlusconi from the right and Renzi from the left), the Italian public quickly complains about not wanting to live under an unexciting, technocratic government.
Fratricidal pattern of political interaction
What all of this points to is a massive collective failure— both at the level of politicians as well as of the public at large.
Italy’s politicians and the public at large excel at engaging in a fratricidal pattern of interaction that ultimately negates the entire meaning and purpose of politics.
Ostensibly, the purpose of politics is the management of the public process to improve the lives of the entire (national) community through smart legislation.
The Italian public, for its part, continues to see politics as a massively entertaining soap opera. Entertaining though this may be, they still do not comprehend that the joke is ultimately on them.
The few people who do see things differently and pursue a more long-term oriented, nuanced approach – the Mario Montis, the Enrico Lettas, the Carlo Padoans – are usually cast aside unceremoniously, typically only after a short stint in office.
Why? Because their way of treating politics as the national art of drilling through thick boards in order to arrive at a better future for all does not mesh with prevailing Italian mindset.
True, all of these lesser “big men” have their weakness and foibles too. But they have got one thing right: Nation comes before ego. That is a lesson lost on the Berlusconis and Renzis.
**Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine on the global economy, politics and culture, which he founded and launched in January 2000. He also is the President of The Globalist Research Center.
In addition, he is the presenter of the Marketplace Globalist Quiz, which is aired on public radio stations all across the United States as part of NPR’s Morning Report. Mr. Richter has also frequently appeared on leading television and radio programs such as CNN International and PBS’s Newshour.
He has moderated more than 150 policy events in Washington, D.C., featuring prime ministers, CEOs, Nobel laureates and heads of international organizations.
His articles and views have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Le Monde, Singapore’s Straits Times, South China Morning Post, Bangkok Post, Al Ahram, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, Die Welt, Die Zeit and Foreign Affairs.
From 2002-08, Mr. Richter was a monthly columnist for Les Echos, the leading financial daily in France. He was also the U.S. correspondent for Rheinischer Merkur from 1990-98, as well as a monthly columnist for CEO Magazine.
In addition, he has been a keynote speaker on geopolitical and geoeconomic issues and trends at major international conferences organized by asset managers, investment banks and public policy institutions in Europe, the United States and Asia.
Prior to starting The Globalist, Mr. Richter led a global strategic communications firm based in Washington, D.C., advising governments, leading global banks and corporations, international organizations and foundations around the world.
In that capacity, he served as North American advisor to the German Economics Ministry and Vice Chancellor in the early 1990s, when he successfully shaped the “New Federal States” campaign, designed to create a dynamic brand image for the former Communist East Germany.
In the fall of 1990, at the request of the U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, he drafted the Sense of the U.S. Senate resolution calling for forgiveness of Poland’s Communist-era public debt. It proved a crucial step in the successful conclusion of the April 1991 Debt Agreement in the Paris Club.
For those activities, he was awarded the Cross of the Order of Merit by the President of Poland in June 2014, as part of the country’s celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the arrival of freedom.
Mr. Richter received his J.D. from the University of Bonn, Germany in 1984, was a Rotary Foundation Award recipient in 1980-81 and a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association in 1986-87.
His 1992 book, “Clinton: What Europe and the United States Can Expect,” correctly forecast the Clinton Administration’s emphasis on fiscal consolidation in U.S. public accounts.
In 2013, he was the co-editor of the book, “In Search of a Sustainable Future: Reflections on Economic Growth, Social Equity and Global Governance.”