Cartographies

England is turning into nineties Italy (and vice-versa)

leaf graphicIt’s 1994, and the place is a sizzling hot beach in Southern Italy, crowded with working and middle class. The 11-year old-me, skinny and clumsy, is sitting by the shore. I am trying to grasp some sense from the newspaper, open right in front of my nose, for dad said that terrible things are happening in the country.

To begin with, there is a ruthless television magnate who, defying all predictions, has humiliated the Left at the general election. With his laboratory experiment Forza Italia, a party whose paper-thin ideology could be summarized with, “I’ll take care of it”, Silvio Berlusconi has swept over eight million votes and led a Center-right coalition to victory for the first time since 1946. The once mighty Communist Party (PCI), now dissolved and refounded as the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), is beaten down and confused, trying to find a new corporate-friendly identity. Even more worrisome are the separatist ambitions of the racist Northern League (Lega Nord), who has triumphed in the country’s richest regions, with unpredictable consequences.

Unsurprisingly for a nation whose mutinies have pretty much all been a prerogative of bull-necked fascists, I wouldn’t say I can perceive a sense of real emergency; but yes, I can feel this is the end of an era, what people call the “First Republic” is collapsing (and whatever this means) and the country split in half

Now fast-forward about 21 years: I am living in a matchbox-sized flat in The Bronx, keeping in touch with my best friends via Skype; they are spread all over Europe. Bunches are in London, where many have found their fortune, a new family, and the chance to procreate. But now it’s their turn to sound worried, with a feverish tone in their calls reminding so much my dad’s two decades earlier. And what scares them the most, what keeps them upset and concerned, is not really the desolated political landscape in Rome; it’s the traumatic experience of going through two consecutive Tories governments in UK; it’s Theresa May threatening to kick migrants without a job out and reduce entries from the European Union; the scrapping of the Human Rights Act; it’s the fear of having signed up for a certain type of society, and being handed another, unspeakably vile.

For two decades, Italy has been likened – and rightly so – to a banana republic where a media tycoon had the power to influence public opinion and win electors with his shameless puffery. An unstable nation, politically and financially, on the verge of being expelled from the EU and lacerated by centrifugal forces. In contrast, the British Nineties and early Noughties were branded as a time of progressive grandeur and renovated pride in pop culture.The young Blair had just toppled the Tories, London was being transformed by gigantic and useless mega-projects; a flexible labor market had helped unemployment fall quickly, and by the end of the decade the government even record a budget surplus.Never mind that mainstream culture was everything we now despise – Keith Allen, Alex James, Damien Hirst, Loaded magazine, Princess Diana, the Millennium Dome, the Peter Gabriel Show – that was Cool Britannia. Or so it seemed; at least back then. Here and there optimism was growing.

In the meantime, bounding off their Alitalia planes, heading to the Great London Souvenir and Gift Shop, were the offspring of the last generation of Italian socialists who had just been defeated by Berlusconi. Happy-go-lucky on their first Erasmus experience, certainly not broke and bereft of hopes, those kids were shown the Left capable of winning the public, seducing it with a remorseless trust in capitalism. Three were the icons of the progressive intelligentsia in Italy at the time: Blair in the UK, Bill Clinton in the US and – believe it or not – José Aznar in Spain; all of them skilled seducers and decision-makers, but the British PM was probably the coolest, the leader of a party kept away from power since 1979. So what happened was that these early Millennials didn’t use their school trip money just to buy just a long-lasting memory; they’d discovered the perfect role model, to be idealized and imprinted in their political narrative. It was all about, “When would it be sinistra’s turn?”.

But here is the changed paradigm of the last 24 months. These kids have grown up, moving from an age of powerlessness to one where they have finally found a new hero, the most advanced demolisher of Old Left orthodoxies ever produced in the country. This person is Matteo Renzi, the 40-year old leader of the Democratic Party (PD), appointed Prime Minister after replacing the previous Head of government through political maneuvering. A leader who encounters little or no opposition – the two biggest threats are Beppe Grillo’s populist 5-Star Movement and the racist Lega Nord – while the charisma of Berlusconi is in steep decline, relegated to a sinister yet influential offstage presence. Minor parties can bite and sometimes win popular vote in the peripheries, but in Rome is Renzi the only reliable leader.

Just like the 1997 Blair, the 40-year old Prime Minister is a fresh-faced innovator with an uncanny ability to communicate, to engender enthusiasm in his staff and audience. The points in the favor – his supporters say – are that he’s young, he’s a break from the old nomenclature, and it’s his turn. If the First Republic was over in 1994, now was time to say goodbye to the Second Republic; after 20 years of immobilismo, or political paralysis, Renzi and his magical circle of tech-savvy loyalists put an end to the Cold War around Berlusconi. As they did that, the typically post-communist moustache and brownish suit was replaced with open-necked white shirts – which became the staple uniform of this new course. Prominent pundits who had close ties to Berlusconi are now embracing the arrival of this wannabe Blair. Giuliano Ferrara is a prime example – the founder of the conservative daily Il Foglio has called Renzi the “Royal Baby”, one fated to embody the New Labour experiment in the country.

Maybe it would be a bit stretched to define the Italian PM “unstoppable”, as The Economist did in May this year, a few days before Britain’s general election. But as people in UK braced for a vote turnout that could have resulted in a messy coalition or minority government, while the Italian parliament approved a reform that aimed at a decisive two-party (or even one-party) rule, the financial weekly seemed on point in talking about a reverse of fortunes for the two countries: One seemed stuck in the muck, the other running fast-forward to governability and reforms.

Things didn’t go that smoothly. Cameron won an absolute majority leaving progressives in tears and disbelief, while Renzi’s coalition government, triumphant at the European elections in 2014, stumbled a year later in local vote, still needing the backing of the mafia-ridden Nuovo Centrodestra party – led by the once Berlusconi’s protégé Angelino Alfano – to survive. The case for Renzi remains, indeed, outstandingly thin. His age, charm and pitch haven’t helped towards a truly progressive agenda. In the first year of legislation the government delivered reforms that made the job market more flexible, the school system more competitive, strikes more difficult, while it kept sleeping on conflict of interest, gay marriage, minimum wage, military budget cuts. While the PD is now appealing to young entrepreneurs and celebrities, the party’s membership registers an all-time low.

Quite predictably, the possibility of a Blairites’ takeover of Labour had more than a few supporters in Renzi’s inner circle. Filippo Sensi, a brilliant blogger who became the prime minister’s foremost spin-doctor, has a longstanding admiration for Alistair Campbell and Baron Mandelson; in the wake of the Labour’sdefeat at the latest election, neoliberal commentators like Gianni Riotta, Stefano Menichini, Federico Sarica or Christian Rocca – all rewarded with the access to the PM’s cabinet of house advisers – blamed Milliband for having gone too far into class war. Sometimes Renzi’s boys do superb journalism: Their magazines are beautifully curated for the high flyer, while the adversarial outlets of the Hard-left are often messy and imprecise, in comparison. But it is no coincidence that most of the loudest voices of the press invoking a New Labour-inspired PD are white, affluent and privileged, unused to question their status. A dream they have in mind is to see a business-friendly Labour in theUK, a Clinton presidency in the States and a PD grounded in the political center, aggressively pro-Israel and interventionist in foreign politics. Just like in the times of Damien Hirst and Cool Britannia.

Unfortunately for them, that was before Sanders and Corbyn. The reality now is that there are two contenders for major offices, in the US and in Britain, who look like your sloppy, eccentric professors in college – the kind of embarrassing 1990s Left that Renzi wanted to bury. By snubbing these two Bad Boys of the West, the PD is wishfully trying to reposition itself as the moderate lighthouse of the Continent, yearning for this radical fantasy to go away as soon as possible.

And yet, England and Italy are really swapping places in the imaginary space of a time-travel travesty. Take, for example, the way the Scottish National Party wiped out Scottish Labour in spring. As the Italian Lega Nord in the early Nineties, the SNP was dismissed by the mainstream Left as a product of economic grievance. It was, in fact, “essentially a form of plebeian national leftism”, as Channel 4’s Paul Mason has put it; the SNP’s victory was deeply affected by the collapse of the Lib-Dems and the surrender of Labour to the politics of austerity. Similarly, the surprise outcome of the Lega at the 1994 elections wouldn’t have been possible without peeling off a significant number of working class voters stemming from an emptied post-communist party.

While Berlusconi is slowly putting some of his assets on sale and decreasing his presence on television, Rupert Murdoch is still using his media empire to influence politics and bludgeon political enemies. Not that public television is much better, anyway. Federico Campagna, a London based writer and philosopher, watched BBC ONE’s coverage of the elections. “I spent over 15 years in Italy under Berlusconi, but never before I’ve seen such a complete right-wing monopoly over the mainstream media as in the UK today,” he wrote.  “[S]imulating rumors, pushing the EU referendum agenda, awful right-wing sources with extended airtime, [it] made Berlusconi’s privately owned TVs look like beacons of democracy.” This is interesting because while the general tone accompanying Cameron’s speeches on immigration and “British values” is usually grim and catatonic, Renzi defended his long-delayed reforms through the release of videos where he appealed to the “humanist culture” of the country and adopting accommodating manners.

And, last but not least, there’s the anthropological shift. Blair is as likely to disappear from politics and face a war crimes trial, as Jeremy Corbyn is likely to become Prime Minister without massive ambuscades and media trials. But in this rushed leadership contest the party base proved to be still left-wing, with militants unwilling to give up to what Mark Fisher called “Capitalist Realism” – a pervasive atmosphere where the imagination of alternative social structures has no space –, and yes, this is a partial consolation. Fisher said the victory of Corbyn means that the long, revolting 1990s of Britpop and Keith Allen are finally over, and I am not really sure about it; but for sure Italian progressives, in contrast, have incorporated capitalist realism fully, only with a ten years delay; so desperate to overcome unemployment and neglect that they have embraced the mythology of individual risk and free market, all while becoming wary of the Big Government. Youth is way busier founding startups or borrowing family money for a food truck than fighting for budget cuts; they are becoming a perfect bio-product of a Blairite society without Blair.

What about the country that once fascinated post-communist teens? Well, Britain is living the 1990s they never had: they too, now, have a “joyous war machine” at the opposition, with Russell Brand maybe playing the role of the mystic, and the world of academia fragmented in identitarian skirmishes. Britons have been used as guinea pigs for globalization; they rode it, enjoyed it, and suffered the mental exhaustion of it. From the Souvenir and Gift Shop that once was, London has turned into the Dubai-on-Thames. Italians are not there yet, but they are catching up. It is maybe time for the European Left to care less about their exceptionality and contemplate, better if together, their baroque contradictions and their tragedy.


This story first appeared in Counterfire, published on september 28, 2015.

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