Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for wpfdc.org
With the financial crisis came a political epiphany. As a consequence of the economic crisis a number of national political systems have changed dramatically. The popular support for traditional parties, both on the center-left and center-right, has sharply declined. New populist parties have boomed. Major economic policies have been “agreed externally” within European and international institutions. Trans-ideological coalition governments have been created, with both conservative and progressive parties sharing power.
While at a first sight such changes may appear contingent, I will argue that they ultimately reveal a fundamental transformation of politics in the age of globalization. Politics is not the realm of rationality: these changes may perhaps fade away at some point in the future for a number of different reasons including mere electoral tactic, but their ultimate ground stands to suggests that the principal political cleavages today have to do with economic policies, in which the tension between supranational integration versus national fragmentation remains central.
The financial crisis that is affecting so badly the European economy has caused a severe social suffering, but it has also been transforming the political landscape. With the economic downturn, came a number of harsh socio-economic consequences including: the rapid loss of companies, increase in unemployment (particularly youth unemployment) , collapse in investment in R&D, increase in taxation, cuts in the welfare spending, and increase in social inequality.
Together with these socio-economic effects, came a profound transformation of the political landscape in a number of European countries, including Greece, Italy, and to a certain extent also Spain and Portugal. Those parties who were traditional political competitors are now partners in government. The long-standing division between conservative and progressive forces is increasingly blurred. The antagonism between established enemies (e.g., the Italian case of the last two decades centered on the cleavage for or against Mr Berlusconi) now cedes the way to pragmatic alliances in the name of EU orthodoxy.
If we stick to the traditional paradigm of politics of left vs. right we are simply unable to account for these radical changes. Specific circumstances, contingent tactical decisions, or “no alternatives” are all partial answers to account for these circumstances. The truth is that we are left with a phenomenon that we struggle to explain fully. The crisis is reveling a new political constellation that can hardly be interpreted with the old political categories of leftwing and rightwing. The concepts that have helped us giving a meaning to our political experience throughout large part of the XX century are now emptied of their heuristic power. They do not explain our current reality anymore, and therefore they provide us with a limited guidance to navigate our political circumstances.
A better framework for interpreting the current political constellation is centered on the issue of globalization. It is with reference to the political positioning on key policy issues, such as: market integration, delegation of sovereignty, participation to regional organizations, but also acceptance of transnational orthodox policies, and adoption of universal standardization that we can better understand the key political cleavages, simply where the action is in today’s politics.
With this, I don’t want to suggest that the traditional principles associated with the right-wing or left-wing understanding of politics are of no value, or no use anymore. Normatively, they still play an important function in guiding the assessment of many political decisions (e.g. equality versus individual freedom from state intervention). However, what I want to suggest is that these ideological points of reference are of little use when we need to decipher the fundamental policy decisions taken by national or international actors. What really matters there is the attitude towards globalization, which does not coincide with the positioning of political parties along the left-right continuum. In today’s politics, the first thing is to settle the ultimate framework, i.e. to decide where to stand in relation to the issue of globalization. Once this is done, the realm of traditional left vs. right politics emerges. Normative disputes, I submit, come only later in the discussion.
Now, we usually live in a system in which the fundamental decisions in favor of globalization are taken for granted. They are not really discussed either in national or regional parliaments, or in the public debates. They are simply taken as a given. The consensus in the establishment is so widespread that the old Thatcherite say of TINA (there is no alternative) seems almost fully realized by now. Once these fundamental decisions are set conjunctively, then secondary political disputes may arise. Left and right wing parties may then compete even harshly for winning the electorate, provided the ultimate pro-globalization position is left aside from the political agon and kept as a common, unquestionable background. Current politics is characterized by a competition that is not ultimate, for it lays on a common platform.
However, it is precisely in the age of crisis that the debate on the ultimate issue of globalization re-opens. And it is in this moment that we can more clearly see the fundamental political splits characterizing our polities. During the current financial crisis, the political debates moved from secondary issues to key macro-economic and (eminently) political decisions, that have to do with the positioning of a country vis-à-vis the global/regional economic integration. Accordingly, the political ideological framework changed dramatically. The case of Italy is illuminating in this sense.
In the summer of 2011 the Berlusconi government was forced to leave the office from a mounting national and especially international pressure, both economic and political. With the fall of the Berlusconi government, the financial crisis hit the Italian political system and began to transform it. A new government was created without election, the Monti government. This was an allegedly technical government, with a mandate to save Italy from bankruptcy. The most extraordinary feature of the Monti government was the support received from both the center-right party of Mr Berlusconi (Popolo della Libertà, PDL), and the center-left party of Mr Bersani (Partito Democratico, PD). This is indeed a remarkable exception in Italian political history (the only other trans-ideological coalition government occurred in the ‘70s as a response to the terrorist threat). Against the government were all of those parties that opposed “integrative” economic policies, i.e. policy decisions intended to enhance Italy’s integration into the regional and global economic system. Against the Monti government were then localist parties from the populist right (Lega Nord), from the left (Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà), and the then recently emerged populist party created by Mr Grillo (Movimento 5 Stelle). The Monti government proceeded with a number of structural reforms as requested from the triad ECB, EC, and IMF: the pension system and the labour market were restructured, the national budget managed with conservative rigor, and a few liberalizations attempted without much success though.
At the beginning of 2013, new elections are called in Italy. The results are particularly detrimental to a clear-cut government. To make a long story short a new coalition government (Letta government) is created again with the conjunctive support of Berlusconi’s party (PDL), the Partito Democratico (PD), and the Monti’s party (Scelta Civica). Despite the previous electoral alliances between Berlusconi and Lega Nord, and between Partito Democratico and Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà, at the opposition to the current government we find precisely the same heterogeneous group that was against the Monti government, i.e., localist parties from the right (Lega Nord), from the left (Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà), and the much strengthened populist party of Mr Grillo. The new Letta government is ultimately following the direction of the previous Monti government, except for an increased sensitivity towards the issue of economic growth. Key macro decisions in the direction of aligning Italy more and more to European and international standards of economic correctness are unquestioned and in full continuity with the previous Monti government.
What is striking of the governments led by Mr Monti and Mr Letta is that, on the one hand, that center-left and center-right parties are supporting them and, on the other hand, the opposition is made by both radical left and radical right parties (which were previously electoral allies of the parties now in government). From a mainstream perspective, based on the traditional left vs. right split, these two governments cannot easily be explained.
An alternative, more convincing way to look at it is by adopting the perspective of the debate on globalization that I have outlined earlier. From this perspective, what was unclear becomes crystalline. The parties supporting the two last governments, regardless of their ideological affiliation, are all parties that share an overall pro-globalization attitude. With minor differences, they all agree that is imperative to comply with the international and European standards of good governance, even if this means ceding part of the national sovereignty and paying high social costs. Political and economic integration is considered a default position, which promises widespread benefits in the mid/long-term.
On the contrary, the parties that are at the opposition to these governments are all “localist”. While having very different ideological orientations, they share the view according to which the local/regional context needs to be prioritized. They share a suspicion of any process that dismantles this rooted, participatory context in the name of supranationalism. Political and economic integration is here considered an elite-driven project that ultimately benefits the transnational centers of power by making the local contexts weaker and poorer. Especially serious is the progressive deprivation of political resources that is associated to the process of supranational integration. From this perspective, the more you delegate power higher and further, the less you are able to democratically control it.
The transformations taking place in Italy are also occurring in other European countries. This way, the politics of crisis is revealing the inner nature of the political cleavage underpinning many contemporary western political systems. In normal times, such fundamental cleavage may be more difficult to be seen because it is taken for granted and rarely discussed: politics usually plays on a more superficial playing field. It is especially in times of deep crisis, however, that the fundamental cleavage emerges. It is in these times that we can better understand the contours of the political framework of many political systems and understand what is really at stake in our polities.
 The euro area youth unemployment rate was 24.4% in April 2013, but it was 62.5% in Greece, 56,4% in Spain, and 40,5% in Italy (Source: Eurostat)