Italy: populism versus technocracy?

7 Mar

Article originally published here with Le Monde Diplomatique

Written by The Current Moment co-founder, Chris Bickerton, and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti

Italian politics has reached an impasse. In last month’s elections, the vote split three ways. A roughly equal proportion of votes (almost 30%) went to the centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani and to Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition. Ahead by a fraction of the votes for deputies, the centre left won a majority of the seats in the lower chamber. But with the regional basis for the senatorial elections, no corresponding majority was produced in the upper chamber. The third block, which secured roughly 25% of the vote in both chambers, is Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S). Since the other two blocks are coalitions, M5S actually stands as the single largest political party in the parliament. Mario Monti, who headed the Civic Choice party and whose decision it was to have early elections, secured just over 10% of the vote, leaving him far behind in fourth place.

How will this impasse be overcome? The media are full of speculation. Some predict new elections, others some sort of political bargain between the main players. Grillo is so far refusing to strike deals with any side, making new elections likely. But beyond the political quid pro quos, we can draw broader political lessons from Italy’s election, which also illustrate more general structural trends in European politics.

Several commentators have pointed out that the traditional left-right axis appears to be ceding ground to a different polarity, structured around the opposition between populism and technocracy. The successes of Grillo and Berlusconi were denounced by the leader of the German social democrats, Peer Steinbruck, as the victory of two “clowns” – an assessment taken up by the German media and by The Economist. Yet, opposed to the “clowns” are figures like Bersani and Monti, considered more serious and reliable. More than any concrete difference over policy, at issue is the competence, seriousness and expertise of the political actors: Mario Monti is cast as Italy’s technocrat-in-chief, Grillo as his populist nemesis. Even Bersani himself played the card of the responsible centre-left leader. In an effort to distinguish himself from Berlusconi’s campaign, which blamed Italy’s ills on Monti’s EU-backed austerity agenda, he firmly committed himself to respecting Europe’s fiscal rules.

While this opposition between populism and technocracy is emerging as a fundamental dividing line in Italian politics, the electoral campaign illustrated something further: it suggested that populism and technocracy entertain a far more complex relationship with each other, which involves some unexpected points of contact and elements of complementarity. Many of the key players and party coalitions actually seem to display several of the distinctive features of both.

Reading the Italian election results through this lens may help us to make better sense of them. It also warns us that there is something amiss in the common opposition between European technocrats and national populists.[1] These political categories are part and parcel of the changing nature of national politics and mapping them onto a clash between atavistic nationalists and dry Brussels bureaucrats only reproduces the Eurosceptic discourse.

Let us begin with the figure most widely seen as the victor, Beppe Grillo. It is clear there are several characteristically populist elements in his political style and in his message – the attack against the established political order and elites, the appeal to the wisdom of the ‘ordinary man’ and the central role of Grillo himself as a charismatic authority figure. Yet few commentators have noticed the more technocratic side of his movement. A recurring element of Grillo’s rhetoric is the claim that the Five Star Movement is neither left- nor right-wing but, rather, interested in proposing “effective solutions” to “concrete problems”, thus going beyond “ideological disputes”. And it is in this spirit that Grillo has claimed that even though his movement will not enter into a coalition with any other political party, they are open to giving their support to specific policy proposals, to be evaluated on a case by case basis “on their own merits”. Far from the ideological discourse we are used to associating with traditional populist movements, Grillo’s flaunted pragmatism suggests that if he is to be considered a populist at all, we may have to admit the existence of a new specifically ‘technocratic’ populism. The Five Star Movement’s programme reinforces this impression. It is a long list of concrete measures, backed up with evidence from local experiences: there is no justification of the underlying values or assumptions of the movement, and no political vision. Challenging the empty professionalism of career politicians, Grillo claims that his parliamentarians, selected from all walks of life, are the real experts.

Mario Monti, the great loser in the election, presents the inverse picture. The respect he initially commanded, domestically and internationally, stemmed from his credentials as a competent technician. The moment he decided to forego this a-political stance and enter the electoral contest, he revealed something about the way technocrats understand the notion of politics. For him, becoming a politician meant trying to dumb down his message in an effort to appeal more directly to what he thought were people’s real concerns. This led to several awkward moments in his campaign, where he appeared to be desperately trying to use some of the same theatrical tricks as a Grillo or Berlusconi, without any of the flair. The image of the erstwhile sober European commissioner holding a puppy on TV and trying to endear himself to viewers by saying “I can feel its heart” was perhaps one of the defining moments in his campaign. Just as Grillo appears to be the harbinger of a new kind of ‘technocratic populism’, has Monti created the opposite image, as some kind of ‘populist technocrat’?

Bersani’s failure is different, but falls within the same basic framework. The leader of the centre-left coalition had the opportunity to break out of the technocracy-vs-populism model and present a properly political programme focused on the pan-European debate about austerity versus growth. For the Italian Democrat Party, this would have meant challenging some of the basic assumptions of the austerity framework and contributing, by way of substance, to the question of growth in Italy, and in Europe. But Bersani’s party failed to do this: its overwhelming concern was to reassure doubters of its seriousness and reliability as an enforcer of austerity. During the campaign, the Democrats’ economic spokesman Stefano Fassina said his party was against fiscal stimulus and preferred an EU-level deal in which a softening of austerity measures was the sweetener, received in exchange for handing over extensive powers over national budgets to the EU. The counterpart was his denunciation of both Berlusconi and Grillo as politically and economically “irresponsible”. So the real choice in the election, according to Fassina, was between the populists and Europeanists, a position that avoided criticizing the operating assumptions behind austerity policies. Bersani frequently said that he was not against austerity and had sided with Merkel in her criticisms of Berlusconi in late 2011.

Berlusconi’s own performance deserves some comment. Initially written off as a sure loser, he managed to rally a sizeable part of his previous electorate, preventing a clear victory of the centre left. But this (relative) success did not just come from his populist appeal. Contrary to most foreign media reports, Berlusconi did not transform himself into a German-bashing anti-austerity advocate; his attacks on Merkel were a very small part of his overall campaign. The key to his appeal has long been his capacity to combine a specific brand of populism with a more familiar technocratic discourse. His public persona, his identification with the Italian people, the emptiness of his party and the dependence on his charisma all point to a populist figure. Yet his constant references to himself as a businessman rather than a politician, his managerial and corporate approach to politics, and his emphasis on numbers and ‘practical’ solutions are closer to a technocratic discourse. This combination highlights the similarities between Berlusconi and other prominent political figures in Europe, such as Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy.[2]

This all suggests that populism and technocracy are not two poles of a new political spectrum, replacing the erstwhile contest between left and right. Nor does this division map onto a confrontation between nation-states and supranational bureaucracies. Populism and technocracy amount to complementary political styles, not to different political programmes. In fact, their strength comes from the fact that national political life is no longer organized as a contest between competing world-views. It is because there was little to separate the political programmes of the centre left, centre right and the M5S movement that the opposition between populism and technocracy captured the imagination of the media and analysts. Monti tried his hand – very awkwardly – as a populist whilst Grillo’s adherence to evidence-based policies and refusal to present an integrated, ideological vision of change makes him as much technocrat as populist. Berlusconi has combined these two styles for years. And Bersani – fleeing any real engagement with the debate about austerity and growth in Europe – hid behind comfortable reassurances about the safety of a Democratic Party victory.

Why should populism and technocracy emerge as the dominant political styles of our post-political age? The answer lies in their common affinity over political representation: they share an open hostility to parties and to parliaments. The technocratic vision is based on a very clear critique of the partisanship of elected assemblies and the inherent bias of party cadres. Monti’s strength was his distance from party politics. As soon as this disappeared, his aura evaporated. Grillo’s movement is equally hostile to parties and parliaments. Its operational logic is that of sensible local initiatives raised magically to the level of national policy. Its campaign was not about issues or ends; it was about the veniality of the political class itself. Populism and technocracy are the political styles that best correspond with widespread public cynicism and an elitist disregard for majoritarian democracy. They are symptoms of the demise of politics, not expressions of its renewal.

[1] See for instance Mark Leonard’s much publicized essay, Four Scenarios for the Reinvention of Europe, published in November 2011.

[2] On the similarities in political style between Berlusconi and Sarkozy, see Pierre Musso’s 2008 book, Le Sarkoberlusconisme (Paris: Aube). On Tony Blair, see Peter Mair’s 2006 essay, ‘Ruling the Void? The Hollowing of Western Democracy’, New Left Review, 42, pp25-51..

4 Responses to “Italy: populism versus technocracy?”

  1. brent March 7, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    A brilliant, provocative analysis.

    I would raise 2 questions:
    1) Is it fair to see Bersani as entirely accommodating the technocratic, EU line? His inert campaign was hard to parse, but the 8-point program he is now floating challenges the austerity model in various ways … and his ally Vendola posed that challenge even more strongly throughout the campaign.
    2) Perhaps more crucially, is M5S really a symptom of the “demise of politics” or rather, as many adherents claim, the initiatory moment of a new, more democratic politics? Grillo’s use of new tools–his blog, but more especially the electronic meet-ups, on-line pseudo-referenda, tweets, and the promise of some form of on-line debate and consensus-building (coupled with the rejection of paid TV and the standard press conference)–may not pan out, but (in my tentative first-take, at least) they are far more than “magic.” The combination of these new electronic media with that most venerable relic of the old politics–the mass rally in the public square–is formidable, and requires more analysis before it can be shrugged off as ‘the end of politics.’

    But your debunking of the old polarities is a more than useful step toward that fuller analysis–thank you.

    • thecurrentmoment March 7, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

      Thanks for the comments. It is true that in some ways Bersani’s authority was contested by a firmly left-wing part of his party. That may still be the direction taken by the party after Bersani’s exit. But the campaign stands as one of reassurance and there is little to suggest that within the party itself serious thought is being given to the articulation of a critique of exiting EU monetary and fiscal policies. At most tweaking, but nothing very radical. On the second point, it is true that one should always remain optimistic. Grillo has brought new energy into Italian politics in many ways. But it remains that he has mobilized people on the basis of his critique of the politicla elite and that his movement is defined by a point-by-point approach to politics. It is unlikely that the novel elements it does contain, technical in the main, will overcome these limitations. Grillo as such is a symptom of anti-political mood and he will last or disappear based on the evolution in that sentiment.

    • Carlo Invernizzi Accetti March 8, 2013 at 11:27 am #

      Dear Brent,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      In reply to your first question: I definitely agree that the most salient aspect of Bersani’s campaign was its “inertness”. However, you are also right to point out that there were some suggestions at several moments that the he intended to challenge the austerity model. Some of this message was also indeed echoed from the left wing of his coalition (Vendola, of course, but also Fassina). At the same time, however, the more right-leaning elements of the coalition (for example: Renzi and Bindi) always provided a counter-weight. As well as ‘inertness’, therefore, I think ‘’lack of consistency’ was another salient feature of the center-left’s campaign.

      But even on its own terms, I think a useful point of comparison to evaluate the significance and the weight attached to the ‘anti-austerity’ element of Bersani’s campaign, is the case of François Hollande’s Socialist government in France. During the campaign, Hollande was way more forthright than Bersani in challenging austerity, even going as far as saying explicitly he intended to renegotiate the European fiscal compact. After coming to power, however, he was incapable of doing much on this front at all: for him too, being ‘responsible’ ultimately meant complying with the agreements already made at the European level.

      Now, Bersani’s criticisms of austerity during his electoral campaign were far more timid (and contradictory) than Hollande’s. Doesn’t this give reason to suppose that if he had succeeded in coming to power, it would have been pretty unlikely that he would or could have done anything to act upon them? Without a principled critique of the economic model on which austerity relies, inscribed within the framework of a coherent political project, it seems unlikely anyone will do anything more than advance token objections to austerity, which are bound to remain dead letter.

      In response to your second question: I have to say I am not persuaded that the admittedly effective use of ‘online’ tools of organization and mobilization you mention (nor the combination of these with the recovery of “that most venerable relic of the old politics –the mass rally in the public square”) necessarily imply that the movement is initiatory of a “new, more democratic politics”. What is missing in Grillo’s movement is precisely the politics; that is, a concrete and coherent political project that could represent an alternative to the currently dominant set of assumptions and values.

      As far as I was able to understand, his ‘program’ consists essentially in a series of ‘technical’ proposals which, he claims, would solve a number of specific (and disparate) problems in a more ‘effective’ way. One may agree or disagree with any one of these ‘proposals’ (some are indeed ‘common sense’, others – such as raising further barriers to immigration and the expulsion of certain classes of immigrants – I find profoundly objectionable). However, it is difficult to find any political coherence in all this.

      The only things which seem to keep the movement together, beyond the technical proposals, are the expression of resentment against the existing political class and institutions, and the focalization on the figure of Grillo himself as the charismatic leader. While admittedly there might be some potential for change implicit in these two features, it is hard to imagine them leading to anything productive without a clear sense of the direction in which this ‘change’ is supposed to go.

      All the best and thanks again for your comments,


      • brent March 8, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

        Thanks, Carlo, for your detailed response. I certainly share your qualms about Bersani and Grillo, but you lay out the argument in useful detail. Not being in Italy, I am at a disadvantage trying to figure out the evolving situation, and I would ask several more questions:
        1) Is it possible that the grillini, with their apparent idealism and perhaps a range of technical competence in environmental and technological matters, will put together these pieces of reform into a real program that goes well beyond Grillo’s slogans–and perhaps leave behind his utterly counter-productive anger and insult?
        2) Is Bersani’s 8-point plan a substantial improvement on his campaign platitudes, and does it deserve more attention than either author has given it? I.e., does it come closer–than either Bersani or Hollande as candidate did–to articulating the counter-position the EU’s left so badly needs?
        3) Finally, is there any real chance, on the ground, that the grillini and the PD will put together a composite program and pass it, along with a sensible election law? If not, all these questions are academic, and Italy may be headed for a dangerously populist follow-up election. In that case I would be just as worried by Grillo as you are.


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