Saturday, December 3, 2016

Meanwhile in Italy

Orecchiette con cime di rape and ample pancia. Screenshot via YouTube.
So stop me if you've heard this: there's this popular comedian taking an anti-government pose, and saying we ought to stop relying too much on our brains:
We're not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We're not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That's where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say "I did look it up, and that's not true." That's 'cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that's how our nervous system works.
Only in the case I'm thinking about the comedian is speaking Italian, and he's not joking. It's Beppe Grillo, more a former comedian than a working one, the leader of the MoVimento Cinque Stelle or M5S, a party that says it's not a party but a Five-Star "movement" and something of a personality cult (for the first six years of its existence, 2009 to 2015, its Web address was, and the official party program is still there instead of the party's own website, which is pretty weird), discussing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's referendum to reform the mechanisms of Italian government, in particular the ability of the Senate to stop government from going on altogether:

Il No - non lo dovete decidere con la testa ma con la pancia. Fidatevi della vostra pancia e non della vostra mente che è stata assimilata. Sentite le persone se sono vere o fasulle, andate per istinto e poi votate. Io Renzi ho capito chi era guardandolo in faccia.
[The No—you shouldn't decide on it with your head but with your gut. Trust your gut and not your mind, which has been assimilated. Listen to whether people are real or fake, go by instinct, and then vote. I understood who Renzi is by looking him in the face.]
One of the interesting things going on here is that the quinquestellar movement isn't anything like a right-wing movement; the "five stars" of its basic principles are "public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to Internet access, and environmentalism", things no serious progressive would be opposed to, and its ancillary demands for things like "e-democracy" and non-violence and against military interventions and "globalization" are not of the right. The main surface thing that distinguishes it from Renzi's Democratic Party (which has itself existed only since 2007, as a merger between the Democratic Left, the centrist "Daisy", and most of the defunct Greens) has been its "populism" in the new neither-right-nor-left usage of the term, a kind of nostalgia for the protective tariff and talk about "direct democracy" which bypasses the parliamentary institutions for some kind of direct contact between the government and all the people, and that suspicion of regulation from Brussels that we've been hearing about so much since the Brexit vote in Britain.

But then if you get down into the weeds of their position papers, such as they are (which is pretty skimpy, really just one-liner wish lists), that's not so clear either. For example, the direct democracy isn't so populist when you add "Referendum sia abrogativi che propositivi senza quorum" (No quorum for a referendum whether it is abrogating a law or proposing one), meaning a procedure where a tiny minority can run away with a vote if enough people stay home.

What it seems to me the debate in tomorrow's referendum is about isn't what the government ought to do but whether it's to be effective or not, between Renzi's social democrats who want it to accomplish the things that the traditionally sclerotic Italian government hasn't managed to do, and the "populists" who want to make all sorts of demands of government but not allow it the means to meet them, whether through a less handicapped parliamentary system or a tighter European integration.

Which is a contradiction, of course, of the kind libertarian capitalists love, stopping a representative government from representing the people and then blaming it for being unrepresentative. When Grillo tells Italian voters to vote with their pancia and leave their cervello at home, it's that same fascist irrationality that's been going around a lot lately. I hope the wins, but it's not looking good.

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