Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Sad Primacy of Today’s Politics--Angelo Panebianco

Phone taps, Unipol and the Wall Street Journal

As the world of Italian politics squabbles over the content of phone taps made during the Unipol-BNL affair two years ago, and the Democrats of the Left (DS) react to the “image impairment” by pressing for a new law on tapping to put a stop to the customary mudslinging, we should not lose the bigger picture. While the much-invoked but never passed law may now actually emerge, since it is no longer only the Right that has suffered, the bigger picture is one of a country where politics may be weak and tattered – or perhaps it is tattered because it is so weak – and has, in a completely changed world, conserved the practices of the First Republic. In the fifteen years that now separate us from the demise of the Christian Democrat era, politics has failed to take a crucial step back from the market and the business system.

In order not to lose sight of the bigger picture, it might be useful to look at this and other events through other people’s eyes. International observers normally know much less of these matters than Italy’s sophisticated analysts, but for precisely that reason they do not linger over the details, and frequently grasp the essence of the problem. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried an article on the Unipol-BNL affair, and the role of DS politicians as it emerges from the phone taps, putting this in relation to other episodes that have characterized the Centre-left’s period in government from the clumsy attempt to bring Telecom back under state control, to the heavy-handed government intrusion in the Abertis-Autostrade affair.

The cases are very different, but the Wall Street Journal hints that they have a common denominator in politicians’ inability to relinquish what remains of their former hold over Italian capitalism. This is not actually state control, which may always be deplorable from a liberal point of view, but can still be serious and even on occasion extremely effective. Italian politics is too weak to have any genuinely dirigiste qualities or capacities. This is something else. This is a homespun version of what is known as the “primacy of politics.” It is a phrase that should always arouse suspicion, particularly when it is used by politicians, who generally mean that they should be calling all the shots, including the nonpolitical ones. It is a phrase of which we should be suspicious in the extreme in Italy.

Since the ability of politics in Italy to pursue general ends is grossly inadequate, the “primacy of politics” boils down to a mere synonym for the exercise of political control over vast swaths of jobs and resources. Politicians make mistakes everywhere, but Italy’s problem is their limited ability to learn from their mistakes, and then initiate major changes of direction. What international observers see is actually a vicious circle: Italian politics is weak because it is discredited in the eyes of many people. It is discredited because it is seen as capable of interfering in all kinds of affairs, but incapable of rigorously, seriously pursuing general goals. This weakness in turn accentuates the temptation for politicians to occupy all the available space. As a result, lack of confidence continues to grow. And there don’t seem to be any Blairs or Sarkozys around to break that vicious circle.

English translation by Giles Watson