Jun 3 2019

By Roberto Savio *

The terrible feeling I had on waking up and seeing the Italian voting results at the recent European elections was that my country was suddenly full of strangers. How could the majority of Italians reconfirm a government which has been the most inefficient in history, quarrelling on everything every single day and looking with total indifference to the looming problem of how to establish the next budget without clashing with the European Union or squeezing Italian citizens? Its irresponsible debate on the Italian finances has now led to a spread (difference of value) of 290 points with the Germans.

What is more, the results have rewarded Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has spent a grand total of 17 days in nearly a year in his office (not of a marginal ministry … should it now be abolished?) and all the rest in an electoral campaign? Well, Italians doubled his votes, from 17% to 34%, while halving those of messy government partners the 5 Star Movement (whose leader Luigi Di Maio came to the post of Deputy Prime Minister with the only a job on his CV that of steward at the Naples football stadium). What has Salvini done concretely, beside blocking ports to immigrants, displaying rosaries, bible and crucifix in rallies, and mimicking Mussolini’s body language?

Then, of course, you realize that Salvini is not alone, and that probably my generation, which is based on the values enshrined in the Constitution (solidarity, social justice, equity, peace and international cooperation) is unable to understand today’s times. On October 31, 2017, Corriere del Trentino published an interview in which I claimed that we needed populists in government in Europe as soon as possible, so it would soon become evident that while their denunciations are correct, they would have no answer to the problems. And when the interviewer observed that the next elections to come were the Italian elections, I replied that as an Italian I was sad, but as a European I was happy, because the Italian populists would fail miserably.

Well, under normal logic, they have failed. The chaotic government has realised few points of its programme, and Italy is the European country close to 0% growth. But the majority of the Italian population has seen things otherwise … so this opens up a crucial question.

Those who are fighting for democracy (look at Poland and Hungary with the progressive elimination of checks and balances, courts, media, teaching system, etc.); for transparency and accountability (think of US President Donald Trump’s refusal to disclose his tax declarations); for social justice (today just  80 billionaires own as much as 2.3 billion people), peace (the arms race reached an unprecedented 1.7 trillion dollars in 2018), and so on, do they really understand why we are becoming a minority in many countries and globally?

Looking at Trump’s very probable re-election, at Marine Le Pen’s gains over Emmanuel Macron in France, are we sure that we understand the new politics, and that we can provide a valid answer? The question is all the more important because the tide is impressive. In the wings behind those in power (the Trumps, Orbans, Kaczynskis, Erdogans, Putins, Salvinis, Bolsonaros, Dutertes and so on) are those in waiting (like Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Jussi Halla-aho and so on).

Of course, all those respond to different realities. If we call the new wave nationalists, we should then add Narendra Modi, Shinz? Abe, Xi Jinping and the very large majority of the world’s citizens.

But, at least in Europe, they call themselves sovereigntists. This makes it easier to understand them, as they basically share a number of points: a) nationalism, tinged with racism); b) xenophobia, within which they include minorities and LBGTs); c) use of moral superiority to depict the adversary as an enemy of the people, whom they represent; d) fight against any international  treaty and structure, which they claim have taken away the sovereignty of their country; and e) echoing Trump: my country first. So, the fight is not between left and right, it is between those who are for their nation and those who are associated with globalisation.

This, by the way, is a gross manipulation. Nations are the basis on which we build international relations and are the basis for our identity. Nationalism is an extremism built on a legitimate concept. And the principles on which United Nations, for instance, was built was the concept of development, which is exactly the opposite of globalisation; the concept and strategy for eliminating national sovereignty to make the maximum use of free flow of capitals and investments and support the transnational system. Development was a concept based on the idea that, in the end, everybody taking part in it was going to be more: globalisation on the idea that, in the end, everybody would have more.

A world in which the cost of advertising per capita surpass that of education, and the financial system reaches volumes 40 times superior to those of production of good and services, is a world clearly against the concept of development. To have fiscal paradises with at least 40 trillion dollars, whose taxes – if paid to nations – would be more than the total cost of all long-term programmes of the United Nations, clearly does not fit with sovereigntism.

And let us also remember that before the economic crisis of 2008, created by a corrupt banking system, there were no sovereigntist parties in sight anywhere, except for that of Le Pen in France. Yet, the new political system has hardly fought against the dramatic power of finance:  Trump’s first year of government had a cabinet with the largest participation of bankers in American history (later replaced by military figures).

But we have no space here for a conceptual debate. Just let us call the attention to the fact that voters seem to have reached a point where they disregard the most basic element of political action: do not trust those who have lied to you, regardless of any political inclination. I will take just three examples: Italy, Great Britain and Lithuania.

As already said, Italy is now in recession, with no growth in sight. The government has already tried to ignore the limit imposed by the European Commission that deficits should not surpass 3% of the budget deficit. This was in fact imposed by the Council of Ministers. It is worth recalling that the Council, formed by governments, is the body which takes the decisions, which are left to the European Commission to implement. The European Parliament was created to introduce the much-needed principle of checks and balances. But politicians from every side conveniently presented unpopular measures and law that they approved in the Council’s meeting as coming from the Commission.

Salvini and Di Maio have already had to make an ignominious retreat and cut the deficit of the Italian budget after trying to force the Commission to accept an unbalanced budget. Now Salvini claims that, siding with the other European sovereigntists, he will force the Commission to change the rules, to accept the next Italian budget, which ignores not economics but mathematics.

There was a recent TV debate between the recently appointed Deputy Minister of the Economy Laura Castelli, a young business administration graduate, and Carlo Padoan, a respected economist, university professor, member of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the World Bank. When Castelli said that she would not fear it if the spread between Italy and Germany continued growing because that had no impact on the real economy and the growth of interest on the enormous Italian debt, a startled Padoan tried to correct her. After a while, the moderator tried to change the subject, observing that Padoan was a world authority on the subject.  Castelli’s answer was emblematic of the distrust of the New Politicians with the elites:  Why? Because he has studied more, does that mean he knows more than me?

Well, it seems Italians trust Castelli more than Padoan. After the elections, Salvini announced that he is going to allocate 30 billion euro for tax reductions, a clear gift to the northern Italy’s business sector.  That means find at least 80 billion euro of income for the next budget. This is clearly impossible, without an increase in taxes and a serious cut in current expenses. As usual, education, research and health will be affected, unless the European Union agrees that the 3% rule be put aside

Well, here is an easy prediction: Salvini will find out that his fellow travelling companions, the sovereigntists of Austria, the Netherlands, the Nordic countries, the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, not to forget Germany, will not agree to put their money to save the Italian budget. Will that show Italians that living in mythologies instead of realities is not helpful?

Salvini won on the fear of immigration. Well, according to the United Nations, the Italian population has been in decline since 2015. Last year, it lost 160,000 people, and projections say it will lose 1.8 million people by 2025. Italy now has 5 million foreigners, which includes 500,000 students, Italians born of foreign parents. There are an estimated 670,000 illegal foreigners, against whom Salvini took no real action: his winning electoral card was to close ports to immigrants. Yet, under the previous government, immigration was as low as 119,000 people in 2017 and 20,120 at mid-September 2018. Immigrants make up 7.5% of the total Italian population, which was estimated at 59.9 million (of which 71.8% urban) in 2018. According to the official statistics, Italy has 1,673 deaths per day and 1.353 births … and 22% are 65 or over, with only 13.5% under 15.

African and Arab immigrants account for 1.5% of the Italian population, and 2.5% are Europeans.  Yet, according to a poll, Italians think that immigrants make up between 15 and 25% of the population. And they believe that the large majority are Muslim, when they are orthodox.

Clearly, without immigration, the Italian economy and the pension system are not viable. But this is unacceptable to say … and it does not help to say that in Japan, the country where identity and culture are defended as untouchable, the aging population and loss of productivity has obliged Abe to accept 230,000 immigrants this year.

The second example is Great Britain, home of the mother of parliaments, considered a politically civilised country. Well, everybody knows the Brexit saga. But what is impressive is that in the recent European elections Nigel Farage won more votes than the Conservative and Labour parties together. He created the Brexit Party just six months ago. He was fundamental in forcing the famous Brexit referendum in 2016. That referendum was based on much clearly false information, and Farage admitted so after winning. Among them, one made by Farage was that 76 million Turks were joining Europe and would invade Great Britain: Turkey has no chance of joining the European Union. Boris Johnson claimed that every week Great Britain was giving the European Union 350 million euro, which should go instead to reinforcing the country’s National Health Service:  another figure that was so false he is being brought to court. The British gave Farage 31.6% of the votes (Labour 14.1% and Conservatives 9.1%) and Boris Johnson is in pole position to be the next Prime Minister. Of course, there are many explanations for that, but all exclude any consideration of the eligibility of proven liars.

The third example is Lithuania, which had general elections just before the European elections.  Lithuania had 3.7 million people at the end of the Soviet Union. By 2018 this was down to 2 million because of steady emigration, especially by young people. The Farmers and Greens Union party brandished the anti-immigration flag and won easily. Last year, the “invasion” was in fact of 54.000 people, of whom 69% were returning Lithuanians.  Of the real immigrants, all basically from Eastern and Central Europe, the Arab-Africans were a grand total of 208, of whom 120 have already left the country. As an excuse for the Lithuanians, we can say that they have a history of invasions, repression and resistance, and identity is a strong feeling, like elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe.

By the way, eastern Germany is the heartland of the extreme Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) and it has few immigrants, unlike western Germany where the AfD did poorly). But, from any logical viewpoint, it is hard to believe that feelings and not reality could play such primary role. Of course, there are many difficult questions.  Look at Ukraine, where 73% of the voters elected an untested comedian, Volodymyr Zelenksy. That shows that feelings are in fact reality. But then why in the United States, cradle of feminism, were 43% of Trump’s voters women, who elected a clear champion of misogyny and a well-known womaniser?

In other words, reality is no longer a factor in elections. Other factors like feelings are more important. And while we have no space to present a serious analysis of this, let us just offer some considerations on which to reflect.

1)   Historians agree that greed and fear are probably the most important elements of change. If that is so, let us remember that with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and ideologies declared dead, the winners introduced globalisation as the route for which there were no alternatives (TINA, Margaret Thatcher). This was embedded in the so-called Washington Consensus, which reduced the role of the State as much as possible to give free way to the movement of capital. Social costs were considered unproductive, then came elimination of the difference between deposit banks and investment banks (Clinton 1999), which gave birth to the finance that we now suffer from. Among other changes for unregulated greed, let us not forget Tony Blair’s Third Way, an acceptance of globalisation from the left, to give to it a human face and make it less damaging.  The result has been a separation of the European left from its base, and the progressive disappearance of a value-based debate, which put humans at its centre, in favour of the new values: competition, individual success, wealth as the basis of social relations, markets as the centre of the international relations.

2)   That was accompanied by a decline of multilateralism, peace and international cooperation. The United States was the main engine for the creation of the United Nations, with an engagement to provide its headquarters and pay 25% of the budget. But, in 1981, Ronald Reagan took a distance, declaring that his country could not accept having one vote like others, and it would not accept binding resolutions from a majority of smaller countries. And then Trump came with the last straw, with the ‘America First’ campaign, which means in fact ‘America Alone’, preaching that the United States had no friends or allies to limit its action. This was the final act against multilateralism.

3)   In 2008, a world economic crisis spread worldwide from the US banking system, creating a wave of fear, unemployment, reduction in salaries, loss of jobs and precarity that the political system was largely unable to address because its global dimension went beyond national capacity of response, accompanied by a sharp decline in political competence. This was accompanied by a rise in corruption, as politics became short-term and directed towards administrative problems, without any ideological framework.

4)   Trump has created a ripple situation, with the New Right (or Alternative Right, as Steve Bannon calls it), free from the moral and ethical considerations that emerged from the Second World War. The New Right can conduct politics based on greed, and much more fear, using immigrants and minorities as the enemy to fight, for defending national identities and histories. This narrative has created new divides: rural against urban, elite the enemy of real people, any international agreement as a straitjacket of the nation, recovery of a glorious past as the basis for the future. Trump has legitimised behaviour previously considered unacceptable, and during his very probable second term he will change even more the world that we have created from the ruins of the Second World War.

5)   Internet has gone wrong. Instead of being the new instrument for horizontal communication and sharing, it has become a creator of fragmented and virtual worlds, where people group along partisan lines, no longer exchange views and ideas. It is an arena for insults and hate, run by false identities with fake news, and where citizens are sold as consumers by a number of logarithms, based on maximisation of profit. It has created the largest fortunes in human history, multibillionaires who do not feel accountable to social values and interests. This has helped to create the loss of quality in the political debate, and the use of feelings and guts, instead of political rationality. Trump has 60 million followers on Twitter, more than all American media combined. They do not buy newspapers, and believe whatever Trump says. This will lead to his re-election, unless some serious blunder occurs, but with the bar of tolerance being raised continuously.

Let us stop here. There are, of course, many more points of reflections.  But whatever reflection we make, let us remember that political ideas come and go in history. Certainly, sovereigntism is not as structured as communism or fascism. It was normal for politicians to write books. Now, Trump even brags that he does not read them, to avoid having his ideas influenced. The New Right is basically content free, although expert in mobilising people’s feelings.  So, this wave will also finish.

The question is: will humankind be able to create a values-based political system again? And, before that happens, will the New Right with its extreme nationalism lead to wars and blood? Looking at the mobilisation on climate change, led by a young girl from Sweden, a winning card in the European elections, there are reasons for hope (but now climate change has become a left-wing issue).

We face a dramatic risk:  if we fail, once the mythology of sovereigntism collapses in the face of an unsolved dramatic reality, people who have lost hope and trust in politics will tend to look for the way out of chaos in a Man of Providence, as Pope Pius XI called Benito Mussolini.


*Publisher of OtherNews, Italian-Argentine Roberto Savio is an economist, journalist, communication expert, political commentator, activist for social and climate justice and advocate of an  anti neoliberal global governance. Director for international relations of the European Center for Peace and Development.. He is co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS),  news agency that he headed for almost 40 years and of which he is currently its President Emeritus.