Reader craazyman asked for mathematician and sometimes guest writer Andrew Dittmer to explain what is going on in Europe. Unfortunately, Andrew has many projects and Europe is rather large and complicated to sort out right now. Nevertheless, he did decide to help by translating some lead editorials from the Corriere della Sera to shed light on the reaction of the elite media to the recent elections.
Corriere della Sera is the Italian analogue to the New York Times. It is the most prestigious newspaper in the nation and is center-right, which is also equivalent to center-left in the US. One big difference between the US and Italy, however, is its elites, particularly its top writers, are better educated than Americans. Just as when I was young, secondary schools in Italy cover what would be college-level material in the US. They have a far better grounding in the classics, rhetoric, and history than Americans of a comparable social position would have. That means, in some ways, they should be more aware of their writing ploys than most American commentators are. Yet at the same time, their economic views seem to come straight out of the Economist.
It is also critical to understand why Grillo and Berlusconi are so upsetting to the orthodoxy. It isn’t just that Berlusconi is corrupt or that Grillo is an utter wild card. It is that Italy has a controlled press, which puts a whole ‘nother filter through which political figures are seen. As reader Lidia explained:
Middle-class Italians who aren’t politically-connected have sided with Berlusca against the left and center-left. They are incredibly suspicious of Grillo, even many “youngsters” of thirty and forty, because they are unused to Free Discussion on the Internet. They don’t get democracy and they don’t get the Internet; someone must always be “behind” it, sponsoring it. The idea of having an independent voice is so unusual as to be shunned.
Political discussion is officially restricted to the (party-run) newspapers which are publically financed. [Berlusconi himself was an upstart challenging this system when he started out years ago buying up the first small private TV channels and expanding them into his media empire.] The remaining publically-managed airwaves are neatly divided up with each significant left/center-left party essentially running one of the channels.
You cannot even publish a local shopper or a parish newsletter without an officially-LICENSED “journalist” as political control/cover. It’s illegal to do so. When I asked a leftist why anyone just couldn’t print up a newsletter, he responded—aghast—”but then there’d be no CONTROL!”.
Grillo, in his use of the free Internet as a medium and his rejection of public funds has poked entrenched interests, both ‘right’ and ‘left’, in the eye, and many dislike this lack of decorum purely on an aesthetic level, I am sad to say. He’s the one saying the emperor has no clothes (which everyone says in private) only he’s doing it in public, and with no clear patronage structure.
My guess is that certain Italians’ irrational distaste for Grillo comes from their inability to read into his movement where they would fit in. He wants to do away with the old, rancid systems, but the old, rancid systems are what keep people afloat even to the minimum extent that they are, currently.
Andrew chose one editorial about Grillo before the election, and two after (all three are embedded later in the post). The last one he included to serve as a contrast, not just in terms of viewpoint but also stylistically. You’ll see the others make peculiar juxtapositions or wild insinuations, while the third is foursquare.
The first two, and Andrew says they were typical of most Corriere della Sera coverage, are dismissive, with a thin veneer of giving the devil his due. Look at the damning with faint praise in the first piece, on February 21, titled Con le battute non si governa (“You can’t govern by making jokes”; and the subtitle, I pericoli del fenomeno Grillo (“The dangers of the Grillo phenomenon.”)
However they turn out, whoever ends up winning, these elections will be remembered as Beppe Grillo’s. To point out in what ways he has been assisted [in doing so well, politically] is not to diminish his abilities. In fact, there is no doubt: the electoral campaign of the Movimento 5 Stelle has been carried out with considerable skill and determination – by its opponents.
Notice the en passant mention of Grillo’s abilities, and the abrupt shift to how his opponents made his case? That’s tantamount to saying, “The other side was self destructive.” They then compare him to other protest candidates who got a following and assert that they got a following because they were against the status quo, that if voters had understood what their platform was, they would have voted different. That’s tantamount to saying irresponsible and low information voters vote for people like Grillo. If this supposed to be a recap of his “abilities,” I’d hate to see what an attack on his weaknesses looks like.
More damning with faint praise:
One good thing that can be said for Beppe Grillo is that he has reduced the degree to which people simply abstain from voting. Whatever else one may think about it, the Movimento 5 Stelle is providing a way to vent anger and frustration.
The article then complains about his failure to offer policy specifics. That’s typical for politicians. Why is this so objectionable? Andrew said he thought it was because Grillo was outside the policy apparatus, that he lacked associations with think tanks that would crank out wonky-looking trial balloons. But you have to get a load of how this feeds into the closing bit:
We should require [candidates] instead to give us details, assurances, explanations. Those who do not answer during the electoral campaign – whether to potential voters, to journalists, or to criticisms – will not answer in the future, either. In 1923, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was able to release “Political Declaration 53;” in 2013, Beppe Grillo could not do so. Charismatic leaders must be checked [or “controlled”], for our good and theirs. If we neglect to do so, we can look forward to bitter surprises.
So get that? Grillo is measured against Lenin and found wanting.
The second editorial is from the 24th, Il principio di realtà (“The principle of reality.”). It hits standard neoliberal themes and could just as easily have come from Brussels or Germany. It explicitly says that market demands trump democracy. A representative section:
Unless I am mistaken, none of them [these candidates] has had the courage to explain [to the electorate] that in the Eurozone and in the global marketplace, the traditional instruments with which governments used to direct the economy have largely vanished. It is not possible to print money, to devalue one’s currency, to impose tariffs on imports. In particular, it is impossible to prevent the markets from judging the credibility of our bonds by fixing the interest rate that the Italian State will have to pay to those who lend it money. Perhaps the most paradoxical aspect of this electoral campaign has been the frequency with which the judgments of foreign governments and newspapers have been considered a form of intolerable interference [with the affairs of our country]. We cannot take pleasure in being, notwithstanding everything else, a great global economy, and at the same time expect that other countries will patiently await the results of our elections without expressing preferences. We have the right to elect whomever we please without heeding the advice of Angela Merkel, but we cannot ignore the fact that [we now live in] a [common] European space in which the vote of one country can influence the destiny of another.
The author also hopes for a backlash:
There is one hope that remains: that the result of this election will dissolve the fog that has up to now covered the battlefield, and will provoke a shock [or: “wake-up call”] of realism and prudence [buon senso].
The third editorial, on the 27th, is Atlante populista italiano (“An atlas of Italian populism.”). I hope you read it in full. The author pushes back hard against the formulation that populism is just one step above mob rule. Here is the start:
Is it populist to wonder what “sacrifices” have been made by representative Rosy Bindi or senator LaTorre (to mention two names at random), over the last fifteen months, while hundreds of thousands of Italians have lost their jobs? Is it populist to wonder what effects representatives Bondi and Cesa (to mention two more names at random) have felt from governmental “austerity” during this same period, while 800,000 Italian families were begging to be able to pay their electric and gas bills in installments, and dozens of small businesses and shops were forced each day to close their doors? Is this populist? Who knows, maybe it is. But if so, let’s go from our present wretched situation to a more brilliant time – it follows that the English monarchy was also populist when it decided during World War II to remain in Buckingham Palace in the heart of that part of London that was pounded every night by the bombers of the Luftwaffe. And perhaps also populists – obviously of the worst sort – were the members of the German General Staff that in the autumn of 1942 decided to eat in the cafeteria of Berlin, thereby partaking of the same horrible food that a few thousand miles away their fellow soldiers were consuming while being hopelessly besieged at Stalingrad.
Yes indeed, horrible populists – so we are assured by our extremely knowledgeable intellectuals, who are constantly proclaiming in sermons what is meant by true democracy. Yes, all of them are populists: like Beppe Grillo, of course, and the people who voted for him.
It happens however to be the case that true leaders do precisely the same thing – namely, in key moments, they try to put themselves on the same level as the common people, to share their dangers and concerns, and in this way to deserve their trust. They do not go each day on television to talk with Bruno Vespa or Floris or Santoro [Italian television personalities] (in transmissions which, incidentally, through their loquacious emptiness, have contributed like few other factors to destroy any respect that might have been due them). A political class that has a sense of its own honor and of its own roles must be capable of recognizing when it is time to be on the side of its citizens. If it does not recognize this moment, there you go – that’s when “populism” inevitably arises in order to remind it [i.e., the political class].
Thanks Andrew Dittmer for these translations!
Now having said all that, there is another matter Lidia pointed out that I was unaware of:
My husband grudgingly admits that Grillo is correct in all he says, but holds a grudge against him due to the crime which prevents him from holding office (not “a traffic accident” as Nicole Foss put it, but a drunk-driving incident in which he killed a couple of women, IIRC). Italians drink as a matter of course, but frown heavily on drunkenness…Crimes of excess, like hiring prostitutes, or crimes of fiscal corruption even to the tune of billions of euros are simply not on the same moral level as a crime that immediately takes a life, in their reckoning, which may be mere rationalization, but there it is.
I can see how that sort of “accident” would make one legitimately toxic…I’m not sure how far I would go in supporting a domestic candidate with that sort of history. Now of course, Ted Kennedy had Mary Jo Kopechne, but he was and insider and that incident was seldom mentioned in polite company. Update: There is some question about this incident. Italians are busy in comments trying to sort out the facts. The charges against him were dismissed due to lack of evidence. Grillo may have been reckless (driving on a dangerous road when it was icy) but the drunk part does not appear to be part of any charges and may be pure character assassination.
The rebellion of the Italian electorate against austerity is a plus, in that it is throwing a wrench into Troika’s destructive program and could lead to less blood-letting and more equity in who is made to suffer. However, it is impossible to see how this plays out, and frankly, we are most likely in lose-lose territory as far as ordinary Europeans are concerned. Austerity is clearly a terribly policy choice, but if the Eurocrats will not moderate their stance in the face of pressure, efforts that derails it will come at high short-term cost. Even when revolutions tear down bad systems and succeed in putting a better order in place, they also create a lot of collateral damage.