Italy’s new coalition government, composed of the Five Star Movement and the Democratic party, has been praised internationally in a plethora of unlikely plaudits from Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing European Commission president and US President Donald Trump to the Vatican.
This alliance of former sworn enemies cannot be explained simply as an effort to keep Matteo Salvini’s far-right nationalist League out of power. Rather, Italy’s new political experiment also represents a synthesis of the two main forces that have defined European politics over the past decade: populism and technocracy.
The Five Star Movement is a quintessentially populist party. It first rose to prominence through its founder and charismatic leader Beppe Grillo’s vehement denunciations of political elites (la casta) and remains committed to a bottom-up form of direct democracy, which sidelines the role of Parliament and intermediary institutions. Yet, the party is now calling for a “responsible government” to avoid a confrontation with the EU over the upcoming budget. Mr Grillo even suggested that the governing team should be made up of independent “technicians”, though in the end only a few key ministries were not assigned to explicitly partisan officials.
The PD has historically been the party of institutional propriety and stability. It sided with the country’s judicial system in its struggle against former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and was one of the main supporters of Mario Monti’s technocratic government after the 2011 economic crisis. Yet, it is now calling for a “radical turn” in the way the country is run and has proposed the new executive be labelled the “government of novelty”.
What is taking shape in Italy is a paradoxical cross-breed of populism and technocracy — or techno-populism. It marries an anti-establishment appeal and calls for radical political change with claims to institutional responsibility and fiscal competence, designed to reassure international partners and global investors. What holds them together is what they both stand against.
Far from being at odds with one another, populism and technocracy are actually two sides of the same coin. As political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has pointed out, “populism holds that there is only one authentic will of the people”, whereas “technocracy holds that there is only one correct policy solution”. They therefore share a deeply anti-political strain: each claims to possess some kind of “truth” which makes parliamentary politics redundant and leads them to see opponents as enemies.
It is no coincidence that both Mr Grillo and former PD prime minister, Matteo Renzi have described Mr Salvini as a “barbarian”. Yet Five Star is just coming out of a coalition with the League, and Mr Renzi’s government once relied on votes from the centre-right to keep the “dangerous” Five Star Movement out of power.
In a system in which populism and technocracy are the only options on offer, every government is bound to present itself as a way of staving off catastrophe, since the opposite of the “one authentic will of the people” or the “one correct policy solution” must be either political error or malice.
Mr Salvini participates in the same logic, alternating between claims to represent what “true Italians” really want and to offer responsible government in the name of “common sense”. This explains the virulent rhetoric he has already begun to deploy against his former coalition partners — which may well benefit him at the next electoral round, especially if the country goes into a recession. He remains on the populist spectrum.
In truth, techno-populism cannot really serve as an antidote for nationalist populism. To the extent that populism and technocracy are able to go hand-in-hand, more of one does not necessarily imply less of the other. Rather, the two prove to be mutually reinforcing, since they share the same underlying conception of what politics is about and how to deal with political opponents.
If either is seen as a problem, they can only really be overcome together. This requires reviving what they both implicitly stand against. That is, the traditional view of multi-party democracy as “regulated rivalry” among legitimate political projects, each representing different interests and values within society. Coalitions are of groups with shared interests rather than emergency moves to keep the barbarians out.
What Italy needs right now is more old-school parliamentary politics, focused on extracting a positive political project out of competing ideological platforms, rather than the anti-politics of techno-populism.
The writer is an associate professor of political science at City University of New York
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