June 19, 2013
Black comedy, Italian-style
In the late twentieth century, a Londoner who called himself Screaming Lord Sutch ran for Parliament dozens of times as the leader of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party and, on occasion, picked up several hundred votes. The Screaming Lord, who committed suicide in 1999, was in the wrong country at the wrong time. Last weekend, in Italy a quarter of the electorate backed candidates hand-picked by a comedian, Beppo Grillo, who attacks just about everyone and everything, and almost a third voted for the clownish former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a billionaire who outside his country is best known for hosting lascivious bunga bunga parties.
Before the polling booths opened, it was widely assumed that the ex communist and currently centre-leftist Pier Luigi Bersani would coast to victory and form a mediocre but on the whole sensible government. To general dismay, the progressive hope barely managed to beat Berlusconi. As for the amiable technocrat Mario Monti, who just over a year ago was hailed by Italians as the man who would save their country from imminent ruin, he was very much an also-ran, getting slightly more than ten percent of the votes.
Previous generations of Italians would have been unperturbed by the phenomenal imbroglio brought about by these election results. Most took it for granted that their politicians were by and large self-serving crooks, but as their thieving ways did not seem to have much effect on a thriving economy, they limited themselves to applauding whenever someone notorious landed in jail or, like the socialist Bettino Craxi, got away by fleeing to a friendly Arab dictatorship.
Those carefree days are over. As Italy is a member of the Euro bloc, its politicians are expected to take their country’s many problems, especially the economic ones, far more seriously than used to be the case. To make their situation worse, they cannot wriggle out of difficulties by devaluing the currency, as they frequently did with the lira. Instead, they must play by the German rulebook and cut spending, something they, in common with their counterparts elsewhere, are naturally reluctant to do.
Though economists are divided when it comes to the pros and cons of belt-tightening, with enthusiastic Keynesians such as the New Yorker Paul Krugman saying it is utter folly and others insisting there is no real alternative, there can be no doubt that much of the Italian electorate is dead against it. That is why, to the disgust of Monti and his supporters in Berlin, so many voted for Beppo, Berlusconi and Bersani, even though most must suspect that rebelling against austerity would only make things worse.
Germans are opposed to a more Keynesian approach not only because they are thrifty by nature but also because they fear it would mean forcing them to send ever-increasing sums of money to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and France, countries that for a variety of reasons seem unable to hack it in the brave new world of globalization in which manufacturers must compete with their equivalents in places like China. Why, they ask, should we spend good money to prop up the corrupt political establishments that are responsible for the suffering of the many people, such as pensioners and the unemployed, who have fallen into destitution?
Southern Europeans fear the Germans may be right, but many are aware that if they have to depend solely on their own resources their future could resemble Latin America’s present, with a relatively small minority doing quite nicely and the rest striving to survive on a pittance in dilapidated neighbourhoods or shantytowns with few basic services. Even if the southern countries did break away from the euro which, like the currency board arrangement here, means they cannot cushion the inevitable fall by resorting to periodic devaluations, they would be unable to get back to where they were barely five years ago when for most people the standard of living was higher than it is now and jobs were plentiful.
The outlook would be brighter if Italy and, to an even greater extent, the other Mediterranean countries that, to widespread bewilderment, are confronting the spectre of mass poverty, were merely victims of a “cyclical downturn,” an exaggerated willingness to pile up debt or, as many politicians would have it, the crass behaviour of a bunch of ravenous financial speculators, but, unfortunately, there is far more to it than that. Demographic collapse at home and the rise of China abroad, plus an ongoing technological revolution that is eliminating once well-remunerated jobs, have created a situation that is radically different from the one that existed a couple of decades earlier.
Before the 22nd century makes its appearance, Italians, Spaniards and Greeks (and, for that matter, Germans, Russians and Japanese), could well be facing extinction. The costs of the social welfare systems that were created after the Second World War are already too high for comfort; they will soon become unsustainable, but dismantling them when times were good seemed unnecessary and now they are hard it is politically impossible. Had Italians voted en masse for Monti, their collective future would still look bleak; by voting they way they did, the prospects facing them now seem even bleaker, but the comedian Beppo and company should at least be good for laughs.