The lab leak in Italy: Technopulism – POLITICO


Among aficionados of political movements, Italy has long been known as a kind of laboratory for experiments which then spread to the rest of the world. It was from there, for example, that fascism – concocted 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 one-man political circus. By putting shock marketing at the service of conservative policymaking, the media mogul and triple prime minister dominated Italy for decades and foreshadowed outbreaks of similar political styles from Nicolas Sarkozy in France and Donald Trump in the United States.

Today, Italy is leading a new experiment. The government led by Mario Draghi – a prime minister credited with saving the eurozone and backed in part by parties that once demanded his exit – is perhaps the purest expression to date of the scorching new political formula of that time: technopopulism.

Although the term was originally coined in 1995 to describe tech-fueled populism, technopopulism has since evolved into a new meaning: the post-ideological mix of technocratic government and populist politics. The mixture is not obvious. Technocrats (bloodless apolitical administrators, often governing in an interim capacity) and populists (scum-shaking demagogues who claim to speak for the “people”) are generally viewed as polar opposites. The 2017 French presidential confrontation between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, for example, was considered by some to be a confrontation par excellence 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: religious affiliation and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which gave rise to the impression that “there is no alternative” to liberal democracy.

Rather than representing only a part of society (as part-ies do), technocrats and populists claim to defend “the interests of the social whole,” write Bickerton and Accetti.

“In the case of populism,” they continue, “this set was said to be ‘popular will’, while in the case of technocracy, it is the specific kind of political ‘truth’ to which technocrats claim to have access by virtue of their skill or expertise.

The birth of a movement

Certainly, the modern form of technopopulism was not born with Draghi. Berlusconi also touched on it. Presenting himself as a successful entrepreneur capable of delivering where discredited Italian political parties could not, he has succeeded in attracting both socialists and conservatives to his side.

But it is in the current Italian government that the political style has taken on its full meaning.

Draghi, the 74-year-old former president of the European Central Bank (ECB), is in many ways the ultimate technocrat. Famous for having stopped a possible race for the debt of the euro zone by committing to do “whatever it takes”, he was chosen by the Italian experts for a role of guard well before a crisis which required his firm hand does not show up.

The Italian parliament, made up of a kaleidoscope of political parties, may not be post-ideological, but it is so venal it could just as well be. After the 2018 election, he first backed a government made up of two populist parties – the far-right League and the 5-star anti-establishment movement – which flirted with exiting the eurozone. He then rocked and supported a pro-European coalition made up of the center-left Democratic Party and the suddenly centrist 5Stars.

So when Draghi – whose acolytes had repeatedly quashed rumors that he wanted to be prime minister – raised his hand to take the reins, Italy’s parliament had no problem lining up behind him. He now rules with the support of all political parties – including the League and the 5 stars – with the exception of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, who remain alone in the opposition.

In power, Draghi has drawn his legitimacy from the technocratic side of the ledger, posing as the responsible guarantor of Italy as he battles the pandemic, reforms the economy and prepares to spend hundreds of billions of dollars. euros in loans and grants supported by the European Union.

But he also does not hesitate to occasionally deploy populist flourishes. As President of the ECB, he could sometimes be seen traveling to Frankfurt in economy class. As vice chairman of Goldman Sachs in London, it was possible to run into him on the underground.

And as prime minister, he refused to take his salary of € 110,000 – a move that has been described as a “populist gesture”, given that he had earned nearly € 600,000 in 2019, the vast majority from state pensions from his previous jobs as Director General of the Treasury and Governor of the Bank of Italy. Italian officials point out that Draghi has not made public the fact that he has refused his salary.

The last export from Italy

It’s safe to say that like the country’s previous political offspring, technopopulism is unlikely to remain confined to the Italian peninsula. Indeed, some have already pointed to Macron as a possible exponent of the movement.

A former investment banker who, never having been elected, was appointed business-friendly Minister of the Economy before stepping down to run for president, Macron appears to have emerged from the technocratic mold. He is also clearly post-ideological, having served in a socialist government, campaigned as a “radical centrist” and moved to the center just during his tenure.

And yet, there is also an “undeniable populist dimension” to President Macron and his La République en Marche party, according to French political scientist Renée Fregosi. In the political language of En Marche, “young people necessarily represent renewal, therefore the good, the beautiful,” she writes. “Any change, any novelty is good in itself. This is then associated with a “moralizing” component typical of populist rhetoric.

For Draghi, technopopulism is entangled in what he sees as its mission: to use the money from the coronavirus recovery to help turn around the Italian economy and to succeed with the EU’s decision to show solidarity by issuing a debt backed by the whole bloc.

The money entrusted to him enabled him to create a new form 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. They are not relevant. In October, when the League had some trouble with a government tax proposal, Draghi simply made it clear that he intended to move forward. “Draghi arrived in Italy with this money in his backpack [that] became the tool for which he was able to absorb the conflict, ”said Accetti.

The question is how long this balance can last. Draghi’s personal prestige and the centralization of authority in the prime minister’s office during the pandemic gave him power that has little precedent in modern Italian history. But the League and the 5 Stars lost popularity during his tenure, even as the opposition Brothers of Italy party gained momentum.

None of the disgruntled members of Draghi’s coalition are likely to budge while he rules the country. But they are urged to complicate the life of the government – if, as some predict, Draghi is elected President of the Republic early next year, making way for his Treasury Minister, Daniele Franco, to succeed him. Prime Minister.

The Italian presidency is not devoid of powers, but it is above all a ceremonial function. And without the quintessential technopopulist at the head of government, the tension inherent in Italy’s new political formula could quickly surface.

As German political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller has pointed out, another thing that technocrats and populists share is the belief that there is only one right way to do things. Where the populists claim to represent “the only genuine popular will”, the technocrats present themselves as knowing the “only rational response to political challenges”.

“To disagree with a populist means to be ‘declared a traitor to the people’, while to disagree with a technocrat means to ‘you will be politely told that you are not smart enough,” writes Müller.

Keeping these two forces aligned requires someone who can argue that the popular will and the rational response are one and the same – never an easy feat, especially in the Italian political laboratory.


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