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Articles on Italy after 2011
Too big to be saved? The limits of parliamentary democracy and national sovereignty
The demise of Italy
Articles on Italy before 2011

  • (september 2011) Too big to be saved? The limits of parliamentary democracy and national sovereignty.
    In july 2011 Silvio Berlusconi, possibly the most powerful mafia boss on the planet, managed to buy the votes of the most corrupt parliament in the world and remain in power in what is possibly the most failed democracy in the world: Italy.
    There are two men that Italians need to listen to. One is Umberto Bossi, a pathetic clown who is an example of how low Western civilization has fallen, but who also said publicly some absolutely revealing truths:
    "Those who vote for Berlusconi vote for the mafia" (6 march 1996).
    "There is no doubt that Fininvest (Berlusconi's company) is controlled by the mafia" (4 december 1996).
    "Berlusconi is the mafioso of Arcore" (25 october 1998).
    "I do not talk with those [Berlusconi] who made money with the mafia" (13 november 1998).
    Having now become Berlusconi's most loyal ally, you can trust his (old) words.
    The other man is Antonio DiPietro, a former judge who became famous in the 1990s when he indicted the whole Italian political world and caused the old regime to fall apart. Unfortunately, Berlusconi was born out of the chaos that followed. DiPietro might be the only honest man in the Italian parliament these days. Many wonder how long he will survive (physically survive, not politically). Before the corrupt members of the Italian parliament voted as they had been instructed by their master Berlusconi, DiPietro gave a passionate speech that caused Berlusconi and his (male and female) whores to leave the room. Well, at least for a few minutes DiPietro managed to get Berlusconi out of parliament.
    What happened next was grotesque if not comic. Berlusconi, who had lost the support of too many politicians and was likely to lose the vote of confidence with devastating consequences for his personal freedom (he is immune from jail only as long as he remains prime minister, according to a law that he himself passed to protect himself from prosecution), proceeded to openly purchase the votes of the members of parliament that he needed to win the vote of confidence. Some politicians openly admitted that they needed to pay for their mortgage. People who had insulted Berlusconi ended up voting for him. A brothel would have been a better display of integrity than what happened in the days before the confidence vote of december 14.
    Berlusconi is probably the most dishonest and immoral political leader in Europe, and a close friend of both Libyan dictator Qaddafi and Russian dictator Putin.
    It is telling that Italians consistently voted for Berlusconi (the inheritor of the old era of corruption and the creator of the new era of corruption) rather than DiPietro (the honest man who tried to wipe out the corruption). At the end of the day, Italians are getting what they want and deserve: the worst government in the democratic world and, probably, the worst economy in the world.
    Berlusconi is obviously helped by the electoral law that he himself engineered to keep politics as corrupt as possible. That law states that voters vote for a party, not for an individual. The party decides which individuals get elected. The party can even list a candidate in many electoral districts. The advantage is that celebrities tend to get a lot of votes in several electoral districts: a celebrity just picks one and leaves the other winning slots to party faithfuls. Berlusconi's party specializes in presenting candidates who are actors, singers and so forth. Berlusconi basically created a political caste that has to pledge its loyalty to the party, not to the voters. Voters cannot vote out corrupt, despicable and incompetent politicians because voters have no way to vote "against" someone. They can only vote against a party as a whole. All parties simply re-candidate the people who run the party and the most loyal subjects. De facto, Berlusconi has removed the very foundations of democracy. Needless to say, this could not have happened without the initial support of the voters: it was the voters who gave him the large majority that he needed to enact that electoral reform. Just like it was the voters who in 1922 gave Mussolini the votes he needed to seize power. And just like then there is precious little that ordinary Italians are doing to change the political system.
    Berlusconi is also helped by the opposition. If Italy has one of the most pathetic prime ministers in the world, it also has one of the most pathetic oppositions in the world. Not only are they fragmented (which explains why they lose even against Berlusconi), but they advocate a return to demagogic policies that caused the economic problems even before Berlusconi inherited the kingdom. Some of them refuse to admit that we live in an age of globalization in which Italy has lost its competitiveness (and it losts it before Berlusconi's time). Some of them simply blame the rest of the world for the problems that Italians created. None of them seems to have a clue on how to restore confidence in the country. The opposition does not seem to offer more than ideologues whose main claim to power is that they are not as dishonest as Berlusconi (which is not difficult to achieve). The truth is that any opposition that had a sensible plan to improve the economy would not be elected by the Italians. Therefore Italy is stuck with oppositions that are chronically incapable of challenging the dishonest and incompetent prime ministers.
    To be fair, Berlusconi inherited a colossal public debt. He did not create it. His predecessors did. They too were elected democratically by the Italians. Italy's economy relied for decades on government spending. That spending kept the economy going, but at a huge price: a skyrocketing public debt. Berlusconi is correct in blaming his predecessors for most of the economic problems that haunt Italy and will haunt it for generations to come. In fact, Italy's current yearly budget is now one of the "best" in Europe. It is too easy to blame only the current government for the debt that its predecessors created. And it is scary to think that the opposition (the alternative to Berlusconi) includes the very parties that (under different names) created the problem in the first place.
    Italians also voted overwhelmingly against nuclear power. This leaves Italian factories to deal with one of the most expensive energies in the world. The irony is that Italy is still a major consumer of nuclear energy: it imports it (at premium prices) from its nuclear neighbors (France and Switzerland). The Italians are responsible also for the colossal budget deficit (the second largest in Europe after Greece): politicians simply gave Italians what Italians demanded (government jobs with excellent benefits, a world-class pension system, state-of-the-art health care and so forth). Whether these are morally right or wrong is an opinion. That they are contributing to the collapse of the Italian economy is a fact. It is too easy to blame only Berlusconi when in fact most of the crippling decisions of the past were made by the Italian electorate.
    Historically, Italy was united in 1861 (after defeating Spain, Austria and France that owned bits and pieces of its territory) and its first prime minister, Camillo Cavour, said that making Italy was easier than making the Italians. The central government devised a simple way to turn the masses into "Italians": it handed out money. The Italian government has always been one of the most generous governments in the world, and it is unfair to think of this statement as simply meaning "corruption". Certainly a lot of public money went to corporations and to organize crime (i.e., to anybody who could provide votes) but the majority went to ordinary citizens in the form of pensions, free health care, unemployment benefits, etc. Bossi's own wife retired at the age of 39 with a full pension. There are literally millions of baby pensioners, imaginary sick people, and unemployed people who have a lucrative job. There are also millions of Italians who never paid the taxes that they should have paid. This system was nothing but a way to bribe the people into accepting the central government of Italy in a land that had not been united since the fall of the Roman Empire. The only time when all Italians are united is when they root for the national soccer team. That is the truth: the Italian government accrued that colossal debt by mainly paying out generous benefits to its population in return for a recognition of its legitimacy. The moment this system started squeaking the regional factions resurfaced, notably Bossi's Northern League. Now that the government in Rome cannot pay those public debts the Italians are engineering a tactical manoeuvre that basically amounts to asking Germany to pay for it. It's the same kind of contract: Germany wants the Italians to feel Europeans, and the Italians in return are asking for Germany to hand out money, just like for 150 years they asked the government in Rome to hand out money. If Germany wants to save the European Union, it will have to do what the government in Rome did for 150 years.
    This mindset is the ultimate reason why the Italian people created both the governments that created the problems and the lame opposition that cannot offer a viable alternative to those problems. This mindset is responsible for the fact that no solution can be found internally: a prime minister who tries to balance the budget by cutting benefits would be considered a traitor. The only hero in Italy can be the prime minister who brings home money from the European Union.
    The situation is even worse in the south of Italy, where organized crime not only controls a large share of the economy but also controls the votes: organized crime bribes (and sometimes installs) the politicians that allocate funds for public projects, then the same gangs are granted such funds (in many cases coming from the European Union), then the same gangs offer jobs to workers asking that those workers vote those corrupt politicians. The money that comes from the European Union to build a highway or a bridge ends up funding organized crime. The projects are not even completed: a completed project is no longer a source of revenue. The construction companies have a vested interest in slowing down work, in fact in never completing it. The workers are not even required to show up: the less they work the better. Of all the projects funded by the European Union in southern Italy virtually none has been completed. The politicians of southern Italy are mostly busy applying for European Union funds: that's their idea of progress and development. And the voters reward them based on how much money they can get from the European Union or the Italian government. An incredible number of elected politicians is under investigation for fraud, corruption and so forth. The Italian comedian Grillo jokes that a visit by Italian politicians to a gang-controlled neighborhood in the USA would create panic among the gangs. The south of Italy used to be a reservoir of cheap work force, but the population has learned that they also constitute reservoir of votes: no government can be elected without winning the southern regions. This is one of the great inventions of any democracy: your vote counts and therefore you can sell it to the highest bidder. There is no more direct way to maximize your personal profit from democracy. The traditional assumption is that you have to vote a competent and honest politician so that the country will be run properly and then you will profit; but the Italians have realized that there is a much simpler and faster way to profit from democracy, and that's selling your vote. The community as a whole suffers but you as an individual gain. It's a really bad invention that might spread. Its logic is simple. Why shouldn't everybody (in every region that benefits from government funding) do the same?
    Meanwhile, the political discourse has become the most vulgar in the world, with politicians (such as Bossi) mostly famous for the language they speak (a language that used to be exclusive to brothels and street gangs) than for their ideas.
    Italy is a demonstration of the limits of democracy. The majority of its voters would not vote a competent, honest and decisive leader. Therefore Italy will not have one. Therefore the problems will simply get worse.
    The reckless behavior of the Italian electorate (and of other PIIGS countries) leads to a much bigger issue: when a nation is causing an international problem that may cause a global economic crisis (in this case due to that nation's excessive debt), and that nation is incapable (for whatever reason) of electing a government that will solve that problem, the international community should have the right and the power to intervene, just like NATO asked for the right to "protect civilians" in Libya against a mad dictator and the USA asked for the right to attack Saddam Hussein's Iraq to neutralize his weapons of mass destruction. Both interventions resulted in regime change.
    The international community is telling North Korea and Iran not to develop nuclear weapons because it would affect the whole world. Indirectly, in an ever more interconnected world, a new (old?) principle is emerging: that there should be a limit to national sovereignty, to what a country decides to do.
    The world has long lived with the dogma that parliamentary democracy and national sovereignty are absolute values, but when they are used to cause problems (whether military or economic problems) that will affect everybody, one wonders if the world has to accept them and suffer the consequences or if it wouldn't be better (for both the country that caused the problem and for the countries that will suffer from it) that both parliamentary democracy and national sovereignty be suspended. In other words, is it more likely that: 1. Italy's current government (engulfed in all sorts of scandals) solves the problem with approval from the current (corrupt and bickering) parliament; 2. Italy elects a new honest and efficient parliament that will form a new competent government that will solve the problem; or 3. the international community fires the Italian government, suspends the Italian parliament, appoints an international committee to run Italy and this committee solves the problem? Why should the world hold its breath hoping that the Italians find a way to pay the money they owe? And why would the Italians trust that their politicians (the old ones or new ones) will be capable of solving a problem that today affects their own lives and will affect the lives of future generations of Italians?
    The creditors may also ask why so many Italians who benefited from decades of borrowing are entitled to elect the next parliament whereas the creditors who lent the money are not entitled to vote for that parliament. Shouldn't it be the opposite? Who owns Italy? The ones who were born there or the ones who keep it going? The amount of Italy's debt held by foreigners is more than one trillion dollars, almost half of the total. Shouldn't foreigners be entitled to elect at least half of the Italian parliament?
    National sovereignty is grounded in the silly idea of national pride, and parliamentary democracy is grounded in the presumptious belief that you are competent to govern yourself. But national pride does not do much to pay your debts; and you have already proven that you are not very good at governing yourself. In a time of crisis, should the world respect your national pride and give you another chance to govern yourself, or just force you to accept a foreign government in your own interest?
    It is a popular adage that "Italy is too big to fail". It may be that "Italy is too big to be saved".
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • (april 2011) The demise of Italy. Italy is unique among democracies because it has a prime minister who controls media and changes the law to suit his own needs (he is accused of just about every crime that a politician can commit, from bribery to sex with underage girls). Italy is also unique in that the majority that rules the country depends on the support of two right-wing parties, one that descends from the old Fascist Party and one that is arguably the largest xenophobic party in the world. The opposition consists of a myriad small parties with all sorts of funny names. The quality of the political debate is, in a sense, worse than in a dictatorship: Italy's political leaders would probably not even run for mayor in any other nation. They routinely use a vulgar language that makes Mussolini look like an erudite scholar.
    Italy is also unique among developed nations in that 80% of its energy depends on fossil fuels... and Italy has virtually no fossil fuels of its own. Not only Italy depends on the whims of Russia, the Middle East and Venezuela, but it is also forced to import nuclear energy from its highly nuclear neighbors, namely Switzerland and France. The reason for this ridiculous situation is that Italy, one of the countries that pioneered nuclear power (the man who built the first nuclear reactor, Enrico Fermi, was Italian and came from one of the greatest schools of nuclear scientists), has no nuclear energy of its own. Italian factories pay Europe's highest prices for electricity (in a country that is already hostile to business for labor-related and tax-related reasons), almost twice as much as their French counterparts.
    Reluctantly, Italy had decided to build new reactors but the Japanese earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster has convinced a country that was already opposed to nuclear energy to shelf the project for the time being. That project was as lame as it gets: the first reactor would have been in place in 2020. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is not shelving its projects to keep growing at a fast pace. It's hard to stop progress in the rest of the world just because you don't want it at home.
    Italy's competitive ranking is already one of the lowest in the world, and will simply continue to sink. Fiat has already threatened to move operations outside Italy and the real question is why it is waiting so long. Italians are emigrating by the tens of thousands to other (nuclear) countries because Italy cannot create jobs for the future. This is a country that will lose its businesses and its engineers, and replace them with a growing population of uneducated immigrants from Africa. Suit yourself.
    At the end of the day, Berlusconi's opposition (whose most trusted members are actually two comedians, Roberto Benigni and Beppe Grillo) are as much to blame for Italy's decline as the regime itself. Their ideas on what to do are even more terrifying than Berlusconi's self-serving laws. Desperate to find something, anything, to attack the government, they seized on the irrational fear of Italians for nuclear energy, as if erasing the plan for nuclear power plants (which will make Italy even less competitive than it is now) was a vital component of their alternative plan. The choice that Italians have is between a corrupt and fascist government and a suicidal opposition. Both will almost certainly increase Italy's already rapid economic, political and cultural decline.
    Meanwhile, little has been done to tackle the mother of all problems: Italians don't understand English. It sounds like a trivial problem compared with a collapsing social and political systen, but it might actually be its ultimate cause. This is a nation that learns about the rest of the world, and compares itself with the rest of the world, based on second-hand information that comes from unreliable media that compete in posting pictures of naked girls on every page (and often interviewing them as if they were historians and scientists), media that tend to prefer conspiracy theories over scholarly analyses. If Italians could read and listen to foreign media, they would probably make a quantum leap in judgment on many topics, from international affairs to energy policy. But then, again, neither the government nor the opposition have any interest in that the Italian people realize what they are voting for.
    TM, ®, Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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  • Articles on Italy before 2011

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