Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Italy Votes

It's the comic opera aspect of Italian politics that usually gets the most notice in the media. But this weeks's Italian election also had its serious side. The European Union's anti-democratic ideal of buereaucratized government by elites has always been in conflict with the democratic sovereignty of its members states. Human factors being what they are, people are sometimes citizens and sometimes consumers (the latter perhaps more often than the former). So their aspirations are complex and sometimes veer in one direction, sometimes in another - one reason the EU has survived as long as it has and the clamor for a return to real citizenship in European states has seldom amounted to more than a nostaligic whimper.
The current conflict - as illustrated in this week's Italian election - centers on the obsession of Europe's elite political class on imposing "austerity," a remedy for Europe's troubles which may (or may not) benefit economic elites, but certainly is not benefitting anyone else. Italy is a society where the political class has consistently failed its citizens for as long as anyone can remember (and long before). So it is a fertile field for populist reaction against the apostles of austerity. Sadly, however, populist reactions generally gravitate to solutions that only make matters worse. Populist movements (in Western societies) generally err by equating the faults of the political class with government itself, undermining the admittedly already fragile bonds of political community, and seeking solutions that escape rather than embrace the challenges of citizenship.(One form that takes - in both italy and the U.S.- is resistance to paying the fundamental price for civilization, i.e., taxes).
In Italy (and in the U.S.) populist disenchantment with a dysfunctional governing class  produces an even more dysfunctional governing chaos. In Italy that might mean a short-term rellief from the ideology of "austerity." But unless an authentic national political culture can be created that overcomes people's inherited distrust of government and can bind people together as citizens rather than as consumers, what viable alternative can there be to more of the same?

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