Italians voted no to the proposition of institutional and constitutional reforms, which was agreed by the Italian Parliament for the first time after almost 70 years since the “Costituente”. The Italian Parliament was following the strong acceleration of a post-ideological modern Government, again the first of such governments in Italian recent history. But in a time of increased transparency, empowered individuals and bottom-up democratic tools (first of all the use of referendums) the confidence of some Western leaders to appeal to popular support in order to increase their legitimacy has turned to be a big mistake. From Cameron to Renzi, leaders European leaders believed that they could bring the people on the ship of their vision for the future. But they forgot about one thing: the deep culture and identity of their societies. Exceptionalism for British people and conservatism for Italians. Who will be next? We hope no Merkel even if we are not so sure (Hollande avoided such risk with his recent decision to not seek re-election).
Italians don’t like change, they live in open sky museums, adore their traditions and have a culture of self-governance and “make do” that survive better in government instability than in the opposite scenarios. Italians, even if they always criticize the politicians for being corrupted and not wanting to change, prefer weak corrupt governments that keep the things as they have always been (that’s why Berlusconi reigned for around a generation) than strong stable governments that could really change the things, including asking the citizens to behave. Besides that, Italians have always been afraid of Communism, before with Fascism demonization and after with the one of Christian Democracy, making a left or liberal government, almost impossible to survive for long time in the country. That, together with the economic stagnation and the manipulation of information in a post-truth, post-fact society, fueled by opposite politicians with a hate narrative rarely seen before, made the result of referendum. But how Italian referendum result enters in the long run of Western liberal democratic crisis?
As said in the previous article on the US, the three “Ps” are very evident also in Italy: increased Poverty, with inequality and intellectual unemployment (involving in particular the middle class); extreme Polarization, in particular between nationalist and cosmopolitanists (not much between Leftist and Rightist that is not anymore the real division of the socio-political spectrum in Western democracies); and spread Populism, or anti-establishment feelings (in particular distrust for corrupted and distant elites). These phenomena are growing in the Italian society since almost a decade. Since more less the Euro consequences (in particular the raised prices) started to couple with the economic crisis, the social media technology started to empower individuals and at the same time superficialize and polarize them, and the populist feelings started to be fed in particular by the 5 Star Movement birth, apparently bottom up but behind the scene with the Big Brother approach, already in 2005 with around 40 “Friends of Beppe Grillo” Meetups (using the American born Meetup idea).
Besides these “first layer” reasons the democratic crisis in Italy can be seen also as an identity crisis, as said in the article on US, because of increasing immigration, women empowerment and international integration. Italy, like the rest of Western rich countries, started to be afraid of having to share the wealth with poorer people, first of all economic migrants but also refugees, and risk its identity dilution with the creation of a melting pot society (and in the last 3 years the number of immigrants in Italy increased exponentially with the Middle Eastern refugee crisis). Italian men, ruling the country, its families and its society since the Latin times (similarly to the rest of Europe) started to be afraid of having to share the power with women (and this actually was the first government that among other things had 50% of women). And the Italian nation state in itself, existing since 4 century (since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) started to be afraid of having to reduce its sovereignty with new supranational actors, first of all the EU (this was one of the most pro-EU governments, accepting the decisions from the EU even if using the rhetoric of anti-austerity) reducing therefore its ontological security.
Therefore in Italy as in the US we are on the right track towards the democratic natural crisis. We need to see how we use this crisis for the good and not for the bad, not only in Italy but in Europe. Even in the worst case scenario that the EU will fail and disintegrate in a decade or so what is important is to know who will take the lead for future new alliances and integration processes. We will not have a pre-WWII scenario because of economic integration and because Russia will always be there to make European continent cohesive (hopefully with the constant support of NATO). But as a recent article on Foreign Affairs said: “Populism is gaining ground. Around the world, economic hardship and growing unease with globalization, immigration, and the established elite have propelled such movements into power, leading to a groundswell of public support for parties and leaders viewed as capable of holding the forces of cultural and social change at bay.”
What we know is that strong leaders will not make a democratic renaissance against the establishment, as they promise, on the opposite they will deepen the democratic crisis, gradually eroding the liberal elements of our countries, as expert populists around the world from Chavez, to Erdogan to Putin, showed. This is the risk in our liberal Western democracies crisis too, at least until the citizens will not take back the lead of the future in their hands through their civil society, with new associations, movements, parties and organizations at grassroots level, and not lead from top-down. The political establishment has to be checked and controlled by these civil society associations to reduce corruption and increase vision, but cannot disappear as representative democracies needs politicians. Otherwise you have fake “direct democracies” that hide what they really are: autocracies, or as Plato said about the failing of democracy: new tyrannies.
 Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz. How Democracies Fall Apart. Why Populism Is a Pathway to Autocracy. Foreign Affairs, December 2016.
Will the United States show again that is still one of the healthiest, besides one of the oldest, democracy in the world? Will be able to reform its too old institutions and reconcile its too polarized people, in a society that destroyed many moderate spaces of discussions in the public sphere, from education to media? The prospect of the new elected President doesn’t seem enlightened. Bill Clinton had to move his party to the center, to win two elections. Trump moved the party that hijacked to the extreme right, after the Tea Party and beyond the Alt-Right. Electing Trump the American democracy just chose to take a stop in leading the planetary future. After the first black president of its history, the US didn’t elect its first woman president and instead went towards the most macho chauvinist joker and ignorant president could find, because in the post-modern liberal democracies leaders don’t guide masses: they mirror them. The US went towards a cultural reaction that could reverse the country, and also the West, to a past of racism, nationalism, sexism, and many says Fascism. So apart all the issues on economy, anti-politics and fragmentation these elections have been also about culture, identity and post-modernity.
At a superficial level it seems that three main processes are happening today in the US but also in Europe and so in general in the Western liberal democracies: increased inequality, spread populism and extreme polarization. These trends are caused mainly by three factors: unregulated market and banking systems together with economic globalization as degeneration and contradictions of neoliberal extreme capitalism (see “Capital in the Twenty First Century” by Piketty); focus on technical and scientific education abandoning the liberal arts and humanities (see on this “Not for Profit”, by Martha Nussbaum); and the information technology transformation, including biased private news outlets and uncontrolled, instinctual, post-fact and post-truth social media information (see on this “The Filter Bubble” of Richard Sennet).
But at a deeper identity and cultural levels, and inside a longer historical view, four reactionary processes in reality are happening in the US and the West against the very fast progress that we lived in the last decades: sexism, nationalism, racism and religiophobia (mostly Islamophobia as Islam is the world religion with most impact on the daily life). These identity trends, present in particular among people living isolated and not used to socialize and so create trust, in rural areas more than urbanized centers, represents our ontological insecurity reaction to four changes: the starting of end of patriarcate, nation state, monoethnic and secular societies. We are starting to live in the post-modern societies (not only “Post-modern States”, as Robert Cooper defines the West) with a more equal relationship between men and women, a more broad sense of belonging to an international community, a mixing of races with increased migrations and a return to religion as a political tool. The last one is happening first of all with Islamism but also, as a reaction, with the Christian right wing political stands (especially in the US) making us starting to live in post-secular societies (as defined by Habermas) that fight between religion in politics and religiophobia.
To use the words of Thomas Kuhn, we are living in a “paradigm shift”, not so much in the sciences (that evolve when society evolves) but in the society, in particular in the creation of a new planetary society. Our human nature is struggling on the tension between fear and mistrust on one side of its spectrum and love and trust on the other (see “Love and Hate” by Eibl-Eibesfeldt, the founder of Human Ethology). It is natural and it is good we could say. We cannot only progress going forwards otherwise only chaos will be in our future. The arch of history is always bent towards justice, as Marti Luther King said, but it progresses going forwards two steps and going backwards one. Now we are in the backwards one. The risk is that if we don’t control it, it could be a step back so big that would represent a giant leap towards darkness. An epochal crisis of our civilization. We don’t want that, but human nature sometimes has been ruled by irrational behaviors, and cycles of history repeat themselves, making arise and decline of societies and civilizations. As Plato’s five regimes teaches us after Aristocracy, Timocracy and Oligarchy there is Democracy, but after Democracy we go back to Tyranny and the cycle starts again. So we need to ask us today: which culture we want to choose for our future generations, the one based on liberal values or the one based on authoritarian values? Do we want a Renaissance or do we want to open the doors to a new “Middle Age”, the age in the middle between the enlightened times.
“An ignorant people can never remain a free people” said Thomas Jefferson. “We will give you a Republic, if you can keep it” said Benjamin Franklin. But to keep the ability to manage a Res-publica, the “public thing”, we need to fight ignorance, as ignorance breed polarization, populism and finally authoritarianism. This is one of the deepest crises of American and Western democracies: the increasing ignorance of a fast consumerist but slow (and superficial) thinking society that produced a lack of real knowledge, culture and so wisdom. All the rest comes as a consequence. Therefore to chose the path of evolution we need to go back to read books and travel, instead of googling everything, we need to go back to talk to each other’s in the streets, instead of staying closed inside our houses and cars, and we need to recreate that social capital and human trust that is the foundation of any functional society, in particular a liberal democratic one.
Post-modernization and global/glocal-ization contributed to create this superficialization. It is a physical law: if you go horizontally you cannot go vertically, if you expand you become more superficial. There is a superficialization in many spheres: there is a reduction of general power (see “The end of power” by Moises Naim); there is a reduction of the “public sphere”, as Habermas called the space for social life (instead we created superficial, fragmented and polarized networks); there is a reduction of the importance of the mediation of elites (with anti-establishment sentiments against the casts of politicians, the oligarchies that became our democracies); there is a reduction of differences (from languages dying every day to ethnic mixing); and there is a reduction of active political life respect to economic and social automatism and conformism (see already “The Human Condition” by Hanna Arendt).
Also, post-modernity and globalization destroyed the organized and clear life we had in the past creating a life based on thousands of possibilities but also contradictions. We can, but more “we have”, to choose everything in our life, from the type of morning coffee to the health treatment for our lives, from deciding to marry or not (and at which age, with who, for having children or just for having a life in two and so on) to should I answer to this message or not. So our time is constantly interrupted, our space constantly disturbed, our identity constantly recreated in a process of choices, including political choices that resemble more and more a gigantic shopping mall instead of a reflected decision for our future, because we are living in a post ideological society. But this doesn’t make us happier, on the contrary worsen our satisfaction, as we cannot have the pleasure of surprise or calmness, the “creative idleness” (otium) of the ancient Latins, and we rise expectations and alienations with more disappointments and frustrations (see the TED talk “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less” by Barry Schwartz).
Our post-modernity is living in constant change, constant crises. Zygmunt Bauman calls our society the “liquid society.” Antonio Gramsci, last century, called the social crisis we were going to live the Interregno “Inter-kingdom.” He argued that the crisis of change consisted precisely in the fact that the old was dying but the new could not be born; in this phase a great variety of morbid symptoms and chaos appear. We know from where we escape but not where we are running. That is what is happening to the US and Western world right now: we know from where it escapes from but not where it is running. Nevertheless as again Latins said: dium vitam et sursum corda, long life and lift up your hearts! As the evolutionary trend of the human specie is what makes its survival. And the optimist trends of modernization and improvement of human life around the planet (from increasing literacy to reduction of extreme poverty, improvement of health and individual empowerment) are there to demonstrate it.
My last piece on Fikra Forum