In an unwitting manifestation of what Gramsci called trasformismo, former leaders from the Italian left have joined forces to form a centrist coalition.
Italy is the country where, as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa famously put it in The Leopard, ‘everything must change so that everything can remain the same’. He was hinting at the smokescreen of reform which hides the stability of Italian power relationships. As elections loom later this month, once again some political leaders are trying to fill the space between the two main coalitions.
Ever since the introduction of a semi-majoritarian electoral system in the early 1990s, which promoted blocs on the right and left of the spectrum, individual leaders have tried to attract the moderate electorate (allegedly) uncomfortable with the platforms on offer. These attempts have invariably failed to achieve critical mass, leading to fragmentation and in many cases dissolution into the two main poles, right after the electoral contest.
The novelty this time is that the two leaders behind the ‘terzo polo’ were formerly in the Democratic Party (PD) and occupied important positions: Matteo Renzi, secretary of the party and prime minister between 2014 and 2016, and Carlo Calenda, minister of development in two consecutive governments. Both subsequently created new parties around their uncontested leadership—another distinguishing feature of Italian politics since Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia—and, along with the PD, supported Mario Draghi’s government.
With almost 40 per cent of parliamentary seats assigned to first-past-the-post, single-member constituencies, the lack of an agreement on the centre left of the political spectrum and the creation of this third pole is giving further advantage to the right-wing parties, traditionally more able to form electoral coalitions. During the last legislature, the main parties from the right took different sides when it came to crucial decisions on the three governments which took turns in power—yet they reached an electoral agreement no more than a week after the fall of the Draghi cabinet in July.
Given the strong lead of the right-wing parties in the polls, the maximum ambition the new centrist pole can credibly entertain is to become indispensable to the formation of a government whose main shareholder will be Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia. This would probably guarantee a seat in the government to the leaders but would certainly not shape its political orientation.
Beyond the aspirations for the next legislature, the glue that keeps Italian centrist parties together is a technocratic approach to politics. The system is not regarded as potentially broken or flawed and so small tweaks will suffice. There is no recognition of moral or political conflicts to be disentangled or traded off but merely of technical problems for which the ‘right’ technical solution has to be found.
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In the complex world we inhabit, this is profoundly wrong: any fiscal-, trade-, industrial- or energy-policy decision bears important distributional consequences, across social groups, regions, states and even generations. Ranking outcomes and identifying ‘correct’ answers relies on welfare assumptions and value judgements, which remain veiled in the technocratic discourse.
The main tenet informing this discourse, its hidden ideological foundation, is a strong pro-market vision—and it is not by chance that important leaders from the left of the spectrum, such as Renzi and Calenda, are among its principal sponsors. An economic paradigm becomes fully established when even its opponents start looking at the world through its hegemonic lens.
At its peak, the Keynesian welfare state received as much support from conservatives as it did from progressives, while progressive leaders such as Tony Blair in the United Kingdom and Bill Clinton in the United States completed the neoliberal reforms initiated by their conservative predecessors after the sunset of Keynesianism. In the case of Italy, having been formally Communist for over four decades, the main party of the left was pushed to embrace pro-market positions after the collapse of the iron curtain—including to gain credibility vis-a-vis foreign partners—and presents itself, internally and externally, as a credible option for governing the country.
Over the years, through its multiple mutations, the Italian left lost contact with its traditional function of promoting social equality and defending vulnerable groups—also because the nature of socio-economic conflicts profoundly changed and this was not fully appreciated by its leaders. Transformations induced by globalisation and technical progress produced winners and losers and affected different social groups differently, depending on the individual’s ability to adjust and take advantage.
The winners were educated individuals, urban populations, those working in dynamic and innovative sectors and the shareholders of companies operating in increasingly concentrated markets. The losers were by and large poorly-educated individuals, small entrepreneurs, self-employed professionals who lived in the less dynamic areas of the country and/or operated in sectors more exposed to external competition. These individuals are now attracted by the nationalist and conservative proposals of right-wing parties—their radical alternatives resonating with citizens’ fears and concerns, recast as ‘immigration’ or other purported threats to the national body politic.
To go on to the front foot again, the Italian left needs to recover its original function and give answers to this (vast) part of the population. It needs to propose to the country a new narrative, an animating vision to guide policy decisions, an alternative to both the populist right-wing rhetoric and the technocratic discourse which is slowing the transition from neoliberalism in Italy (and in Europe more generally). Social policy and fiscal redistribution are no longer enough in a world of increasing concentration of income and wealth and asymmetry in labour markets.
As recently emphasised by Dani Rodrik, we need policy designed to disseminate productive economic opportunities throughout all regions and all segments of the labour force. Supply-side measures to create new jobs are of paramount importance, along with specific interventions aimed at marginalised groups to facilitate access to fairly remunerated posts, with place-based policies favouring local development in remote areas. These measures should be accompanied by important public investments to foster the green transition and by a renewed commitment in international arenas to trade rules empowering states and labour vis-à-vis multinational corporations.
Otherwise, the far right in Italy will get away with continuing to promise change—so everything stays the same.
Piergiuseppe Fortunato is an economist at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, where he leads projects on global value chains and economic integration, and an external professor of political economics at the Université de Neuchâtel.