Italy has long been known among lovers of political movements as a kind of laboratory for experiments that later reach the rest of the world. From there, for example, fascism – invented by Benito Mussolini – infected not only Adolf Hitler’s Germany, but also Francisco Franco’s Spain and António de Oliveira Salazar’s Portugal.
A more recent example is Silvio Berlusconi’s political one-man circus. By placing shock-jock marketing at the service of conservative politics, the media mogul and three-time Prime Minister dominated Italy for decades and hinted at outbreaks of similar political styles from France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and the US Donald Trump.
Today Italy is doing another experiment. The government of Mario Draghi – a prime minister credited with bailing the euro area and partly backed by parties that once loudly called for their exit – could be the purest expression yet of the hot new political formula of the era: technopopulism.
Although the term was originally coined In 1995 to describe populism powered by technology, technopopulism has since evolved to take over a new meaning: the post-ideological mix of technocratic governance and populist politics. The mix isn’t obvious. Technocrats (bloodless, apolitical administrators who often rule as administrators) and populists (inciting demagogues who claim to speak for “the people”) are mostly viewed as polar opposites. For example, the 2017 French President duel between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen was seen from a few as the quintessence of the showdown between a technocrat and a populist.
In a recent book, however, political scientists Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti argue that technocrats and populists actually have a lot in common: Both are products of the fading of right and left ideologies, caused, among other things, by the diminished role of religious affiliation and the The collapse of the Soviet Union, which gave the impression that there was “no alternative” to liberal democracy.
Instead of just representing part of society (as a traditional political part– doing it), both technocrats and populists claim to stand “in the interests of the whole of society,” write Bickerton and Accetti.
“In the case of populism,” they continue, “this whole has been called the ‘popular will’, while in the case of technocracy it is the specific kind of political ‘truth’ that technocrats have access to by claiming their competence or theirs Expertise. ”
The birth of a movement
The modern form of technopopulism was not born with Draghi. Berlusconi also looked into it. By presenting himself as a successful entrepreneur who could do something where Italy’s discredited political parties couldn’t, he was able to win over both socialists and conservatives.
But it is precisely in Italy’s current government that the political style comes into its own.
Draghi, the 74-year-old former president of the European Central Bank (ECB), is in many ways the ultimate technocrat. Famous for halting a possible onslaught on eurozone debt by promising to “do whatever it takes”, Italy’s experts saw him as a steward long before a crisis emerged that required his steady hand.
Italy’s parliament, made up of a kaleidoscope of political parties, may not be post-ideological, but so purchasable it might as well be. After the 2018 elections, she initially supported a government made up of two populist parties – the right-wing extremist league and the anti-establishment movement 5Stars – that were toying with leaving the euro zone. Then it changed direction and supported a pro-European coalition made up of the center-left Democratic Party and the suddenly centrist 5Stars.
When Draghi – whose followers had repeatedly crushed rumors that he wanted to become prime minister – raised his hand to take the reins, Italy’s parliament had no problem getting behind him. He now rules with the support of all political parties – including the League and the 5Stars – with the exception of Italy’s post-fascist brothers who remain alone in the opposition.
In office, Draghi has drawn legitimacy from the technocratic side of the ledger, presenting himself as the responsible guarantor of Italy as he battles the pandemic, reforms the economy and prepares to spend hundreds of billions of euros on loans and grants granted by the European Union get supported .
But he is also not afraid to occasionally add populist accents. As President of the ECB, he was sometimes seen on the flight to Frankfurt in economy class. As Deputy Chairman at Goldman Sachs in London it was possible to meet him on the tube.
And as Prime Minister, he refused to accept his salary of 110,000 euros – a move that as “Populist gesture” since he had earned almost € 600,000 In 2019, the majority of this will come from state pensions from his previous activities as Director General of the Ministry of Finance and Governor of the Bank of Italy. Italian officials insist that Draghi did not make his pay cut public.
Italy’s newest export
It’s safe to say that like the country’s earlier political descendants, technopopulism is unlikely to be confined to the Italian peninsula. In fact, some have already identified Macron as a possible proponent of the movement.
Macron, a former investment banker who – never elected – was named pro-business minister of economics before stepping down for the presidential run appears to be falling out of technocratic form. He is also obviously post-ideological in that he served in and as a socialist government “Radical centrist” and moved to the center during his tenure.
Nevertheless, President Macron and his party La République En Marche also have an “undeniable populist dimension,” according to French political scientist Renée Fregosi. In the political language of En Marche, “the youth necessarily stands for renewal, that is, the good, the beautiful”, they wrote. “Every change, every novelty is good in itself.” This is then combined with a “moralizing” component typical of populist rhetoric.
For Draghi, technopopulism is embroiled in its mission: to use the money to restore the coronavirus, to boost the Italian economy, and to make the EU’s decision to show solidarity a success by issuing debt backed by the bloc as a whole to lead.
The money entrusted to Draghi has enabled him to create a new kind of post-political politics – “because the emphasis is on reconciliation rather than conflict,” said Accetti, one of the authors of the book on technopopulism.
In the current Italian context, political parties are not bad. you are irrelevant. When the league struggled with a government tax proposal in October, Draghi simply made it clear that he wants to move on. “Draghi arrived in Italy with this money in his backpack [that] became the tool with which he could take up the conflict, ”said Accetti.
The question is how long this equilibrium can hold. Draghi’s personal prestige and centralization of authority in the Prime Minister’s office during the pandemic have given him a power that has few precedents in modern Italian history. But both the league and the 5Stars lost popularity during his tenure, despite the opposition Brothers of Italy party growing in strength.
None of Draghi’s disgruntled coalition members are likely to move while ruling the country. But they have an incentive to complicate the government’s life – if, as some predict, Draghi is elected president of the republic early next year and gives way to his finance minister, Daniele Franco, to take over the post of prime minister.
The Italian Presidency is not without powers, but it is mainly a ceremonial position. And without the typical techno-populist at the helm of government, the tension inherent in Italy’s novel political formula could quickly bubble to the surface.
Like the German political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller pointed out, Technocrats and populists also share the belief that there is only one right way. Where populists claim to represent “an authentic popular will”, technocrats present themselves as “the only rational answer to political challenges”.
“To disagree with a populist means to be ‘declared a traitor to the people’, while rejecting a technocrat means that“ you are politely told that you are not smart enough, ”writes Müller.
To reconcile these two forces it takes someone who can argue that the popular will and the rational response are one and the same – never an easy task, especially in the Italian political laboratory.