Crowd, Power and Post-democracy in the 21st Century
Lapo Berti's interview on digital populism and recent European political phenomena, held on 19th November 2013 with the author of Obsolete Capitalism
Lapo Berti is an Italian economist. He worked at the Italian Antitrust Authority from March 1993 to July 2010. He was Professor of Economic and Financial Politics. His practice looked at problems of monetary theory and the history of economic thought, as well as economic politics. He is the author of the books L’Antieuropa delle monete (with A. Fumagalli, Il Manifesto 1993) and Saldi di fine secolo. Le privatizzazioni in Italia (Ediesse, 1998). Most recently, he published Il mercato oltre le ideologie (Università Bocconi Editore, 2006), Le stagioni dell'antitrust (with Andrea Pezzoli,Università Bocconi Editore 2010) and Trattatello sulla felicità (LUISS University Press, 2013). Between 1964 and 1966, he worked with the left workers group on the magazine Classe Operaia, which was founded by Mario Tronti, Massimo Cacciari and Alberto Asor Rosa. During the seventies, he was one of the editors of militant projects, such as Primo Maggio among others.
Rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran's fascism... fascism of the couple, family, school, and office. Only the micro-fascism can answer the global question: 'Why does desire long for its repression? how can it desires its very own repression?'
— Gilles Deleuze, Fèlix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus)
- On the micro-fascism
Obsolete Capitalism Let us start from the analysis Wu Ming set out in their brief essay “Grillismo: Yet another right-wing cult coming from Italy” and which interprets Grillo’s Five Star Movement as a new authoritarian right-wing faction. Why did the desire for change of much of the electorate long once again for its very repression? We seem to witness the re-affirmation of Wilhelm Reich’s thought: at a given moment in history the masses wanted fascism. The masses have not been deceived: they have understood very well the danger of authoritarianism; but they have voted it anyway. Even more worrying is that the authoritarian Berlusconi's Freedom People (PDL) and Grillo’s Five Star Movement (5SM) conquer more than half of the Italian electorate together. A very similar situation arose in the UK in May 2013, with the UKIP’s exploit in the latest local elections. Why and in what measure are the toxins of authoritarianism and micro-fascism present in contemporary European society?
Lapo Berti We have long since ceased to live in a political regime that can be defined as purely democratic: this is proved by the way citizens elect their representatives and monitor their work. Nowadays citizens are denied the chance to lead the process through which decisions become relevant for the community. In some extreme cases, such as the Italian one, citizens are also deprived of the power to choose their own representatives: this option has a unique political value and should be the hallmark of any representative democracy. Paradoxically, in most cases this power seems to be guaranteed, and yet the real power is constantly transferred to other institutions : the citizen can only participate in fake democratic elections.
This ‘carnivalesque’ celebration lasts four- or five-year, during which it is made impossible to control the objectives pursued by the elected representatives and the ways these objectives are achieved. No democratic regime has ever allowed a real 'people's power' probably — except during its initial phase. However, it is likely that during certain periods, which vary from country to country, the elected representatives mediate popular objectives and are able to turn those objectives into effective policies. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case in any of the countries that we still call democracies.
For a long time - and not only in Italy - governments’ power has been constantly appropriated by elites, whose significance is determined by their dominant role in the economic, political and social sectors. These groups - which are generally interconnected and which usually exchange favours to maintain their position of power - form an oligarchy based on and determined by finance. In order to fully understand the scope of this process, one needs to realise how globalization is not the result of some spontaneous market dynamics- as it is often claimed - but rather it is a phenomenon consciously pursued by the world economic elites; this to avoid the possible political constraints and the limits imposed by national courts, where the old and obsolete power of states express itself.
Globalization is mainly the product of an area that has been freed from politics and law, a space in which the financial oligarchy can freely unfold its plans for achieving wealth and power. It is the extreme result of a war that was fought throughout the XX century: the conflict between those who wanted politics to control the world of economics and finance - on behalf of the community - and the economic elites who eagerly pursued the return to the pre-crisis status of laissez-faire capitalism. This fracture had developed during Roosevelt's New Deal and the decades of social democratic compromises that followed the Second World War, which were inspired by the Keynesian doctrine. The aim was to make the coexistence of democracy and capitalism possible, in a situation where the state acted as a regulator of social conflicts through the medium of public welfare.
Since the beginning, this change–which was imposed by the trauma of the Great Depression - was perceived from one part of the world-capitalist-elites as a dangerous drift for the capitalist system; for this reason, reformist projects were brought into being, such as the thirty years long period of neo-liberalism, which was then added to the grand scheme of globalization. This is the result – one that is today confirmed on a universal level with the emergence of a global hidden oligarchy - of a long process that saw the generation and social affirmation of the power of the elites in all sectors of life. This process can be identified throughout the spread of democracy, which took place all over the world.
The first wave of democratization was a reaction to the crisis of the '29; this economic downfall was perceived as a clear manifestation of the limits of the ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism. It became clear that the leaders of the capitalistic world, and especially the American ones, were under attack; for this reason, initiatives were established to resist against the "excessive" demands of democracy. These initiatives supported the interests of industrial and financial capitalism, which started to take form at that time. Throughout the West, political parties were caught in the process of social penetration of the elites, becoming the nucleus of the elite power and transforming themselves into powerful elites; they were meant to represent the citizens, but instead they governed following the interests of the above-mentioned capitalist elites. In return they would participate in the economic power and the wealth it creates.
Democratic systems have collapsed because their party leaders have subjected themselves to the strategies of the economic elites. Parties, even popular ones as mass parties, turned out to be easily affected by their leaders’ connections with the economic and financial power. Corruption has become a stable element of the political landscape; it is the perverse instrument through which democratic mechanisms favour the interests of the ruling elites. People’s response has varied.The main reaction has been one of estrangement from a voting system that is more and more perceived as useless, if not ridiculous. The political world, in fact, has become entirely self-referential.
Generally, we tend to consider abstention from voting as an act of moving away from politics. It is not always true. Abstention may also be the product of a higher political awareness, which leads to skepticism in a faster and clearer way. The effect on democracy does not change. When people start voting at random because there is no longer any hope of making your voice heard, something is irrevocably broken in the mechanism of representation. And when -as in the case of the last Italian elections- abstention reaches nearly half of those entitled to vote, the fracture is serious and it is very unlikely to be reversible in the short term.
The second reaction to this situation is even more insidious, since it tends to transform and to distort the entire democratic ethos. The populist response is the one showing increasingly conservative and anti-democratic traits - if not reactionary. It doesn’t matter if its origins are in the left wing or right wing area. Populism becomes a possible perspective when a huge void characterizes the relationship between the expectations/needs of the citizens and the political life; this relation finds its expression either in the abstention from voting or in the refusal to participate in what is now perceived as an empty ritual: the mandate to the representatives of the people.
Populism makes its way into democracy when citizens lose their hopes of being the protagonists of the democratic life, and therefore they search for a surrogate who can represent their aspirations. This person is usually seen as a savior, a character who imposes himself/herself through his/her communicative skills, which are very often enhanced or made up by the media.
Italy has two forms of populism today; they seem to be very different, but they are essentially caused by the same impulses and they have the same social- political consequences. They result from the crisis of XX century politics, a system where large mass parties reflected and represented the social composition generated by Fordism. These traditional parties have become an oligarchic self-referential power, which aims at reproducing a static ruling class. Moreover, the interests of different social groups have gone into the background, being replaced by a dense network of clientelism.
Large slices of the population don’t believe that the solution to social problems can come from the parties anymore. Politics’ rituals have become an abstruse reality for the majority of the population. Populist parties have been seeking shortcuts, and direct and simplified solutions. The illusion of a web democracy, the fake relation with people, a false agenda oriented to people’s needs and trivial surveys have cleared the ground for ‘miracle workers’. In this context, Grillo and Berlusconi are identical. Paradoxically, in a angry and constantly alarmed society, they both detected a desire for a real change and for the modernization of the country; yet they both used this desire to their advantage. Therefore, the original spirit of reform was turned into a conservative strategy, which asked people once again to wait for the Messianic man who will save the world and find solutions.
Populist outcomes are probably inherent in societies that have been forged by globalization. A feeling of discomfort takes over millions of people once they realize that their lives do not depend only on their neighborhood; instead they hinge on what millions of strangers in different parts of the planet do and decide. When people don’t feel in control of their lives anymore, when they feel threatened by external obscure forces, and when the world seems to become too complex, a collective need for simplification emerges. And here again populism appears, with its intriguing selection of shortcuts, with the illusion of being able to delegate to someone else the solution of all the problems, in exchange of a visceral and faithful membership: this does not necessarily require its members to commit to a shared welfare. In this sense, populisms are always right-side and undemocratic.
- 1919, 1933, 2013. On the crisis
OC In 2008 Slavoj Žižek said that when the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for a ‘discursive’ ideological competition. In Germany in the early 1930s Hitler won the competition to determine which narrative would explain the reasons for the crisis of the Weimar Republic — the Jewish conspiracy and the corruption of political parties. Žižek ends his reflection by stating that the expectations of the radical left to get scope for action and gain consent may be deceptive as populist or racist formations will prevail: the Greek Golden Dawn, the Hungarian Fidesz, the French Front National, the UK Independence Party are examples. Italy has had farcical groups such as the Lega Nord or the recent Five Star Movement, a bizarre rassemblement that seems to combine Reverend Jones People's Temple with Syriza, or ‘revolutionary boyscoutism’ with the disciplinarism of the societies of control. How can one escape the crisis? What discursive, possibly-winning narratives should be developed? Are the typically Anglo-Saxon neo-Keynesian politics an answer or, on the countrary, is it the new authoritarian populism that will prevail?
LB If, as I believe, we are faced with a ‘paradigm’ crisis - and by this I mean that some parameters of the capitalist paradigm that were at work until the 2008 financial crisis have exploded and the main processes which structured its ‘mechanics’ no longer exist-,as a consequence this paradigm as a whole is no longer able to control society. It follows that (1) the analysis should focus on the symptoms that herald a new paradigm, and that (2) the collective imagination should commit to plan possible developments. In the case of Italy, but the same can be said for any capitalist country, nobody should interfere with this inevitable transition, in order not to influence its outcome with traditional economic policies, whatever doctrine has inspired them. Furthermore, it is necessary to consider one of the fundamental ideas of the ‘short century’ that is the impossibility to influence economic and social processes and to guide them toward predetermined goals. Governments’ policies are but a channel, however powerful it may be, through which an actor, that is the political apparatus, seeks to interfere with the processes caused by the millions of decisions that are constantly being made for the most diverse reasons. Being aware of this fundamental limit of ‘global societies’, it is possible to indicate some valuable options for pursuing the highest degree of collective interest possible.
Something that has to be eradicated from the old order through an external action - as there is no method within the system that can effectively counter it - is the privatized economic and financial power, since it acts outside of any rules and jurisdiction. This issue characterizes the constitutional system of our democracies. When constitutionalism was born, economic power was not taken into account, perhaps because it was part of the change that was taking place: the aim was to defuse the power tensions fostered by the new political order, by subjecting them to rules and balancing policies. The institutional context in which economic power was left free to develop its own exclusive interest caused the development of powerful economic activities, which were led by those who sought access to wealth - once a monopoly of the landowners.
This issue is one hundred years old; it entered political agendas when Americans became wary of the disruptive power of trusts, and therefore they invented a means of control called Antitrust: an instrument which was supposed to tame the trusts’ power by trying to convert it into another democratic process. We know what happened next. The Antitrust - today it is present in almost every country in the world - turned out to be always late, always chasing the transformations of capitalist enterprises, and, above all, incapable to act effectively on a global level in the contemporary world.
Since the Antitrust was established, large firms have abused their monopoly of power - would this be temporary, permanent, local or global - while looking for solutions, tricks, organizational changes in order to avoid the rules and control of the so-called trustbusters: organizations that oversee the proper functioning of the market. To a certain extent, globalization is the result of the pressure on society by large companies, which circumvented nationally imposed rules. An un fair competition began among jurisdictions aiming at attracting global enterprises. ax havens multiplied, and a shadow banking system encouraged the formation of a global finance, freeing it from the rules that states are trying to set.
A movement, possibly a global one, is needed. A movement that would drive attentions to this issue and promote awareness campaigns. Occupy Wall Street, with all its possible variations in different countries, is not enough, although its efforts lively demonstrate that a global civil consciousness is far ahead of the academic and political discourse. A different capitalism, for this and nothing else can taken into account, in line with the new demands of the global society can only be engendered by a new constitutional pact: this would limit economic activities, starting by controlling levels of wealth, inequality and economic power that a society can tolerate in order to be a cohesive and attractive system.
The second point is a joint one or, better, a projection of the first. A sustainable capitalism can only be the product of a collective movement, one that is large enough to provoke significant disruptions in the trajectories of current economy – at the moment dominated by strong actors, big business and Governments. Through the viral spread of (small) individual choices from within the market (and not against or outside of it), an alternative model can affirm itself,. It would force large and globalised companies to acknowledge a framework determined by the citizens’ preferences, rather than by a wild use of advertising. What is first and foremost needed is a cultural revolution that can generate a collective need for a change of our model of society, reaching again a level of quality life that is rich in values and uses economic resources equally.
- On the organisation
OC In his La Peste brune Daniel Guérin argues that the conquest of Hitler’s power in Germany in 1933 occurred primarily due to "micro-organizations giving him "an unequaled, irreplaceable ability to penetrate every cell of society." The movement of Mr. Grillo has branched into society thanks to the territorial formula of meet-ups borrowed directly from the American politician Howard Dean (see Wired). However the movement is even different from the meet-ups: is it possible to propose an analysis of its escalation as a new-energy carrier in swirling mutation (Félix Guattari would have called it "the absolute motion” of Grillo-machine)? What segments, threads, streams, leaps and heterodoxies make up Grillo’s abstract war machine?
LB I find it quite difficult to grant the status of social / political movement to the phenomenon of Grillismo. I’m not underestimating the extent and novelty of a phenomenon which has unsettled the traditional political categories. Yet as a simple observer of grillismo, I have the feeling that Grillismo is the joint and transient product of very diverse processes acting within Italian society. I want to suggest four different analyses, that are interconnected and partially overlap, as everything does in reality.
The first suggestion is the existence of a fraction between the public opinion and the political class. This separation has seen a gradually diminished faith in political parties as organisations able to, although in their imperfect way, guide society towards shared goals, and thus achieving greater wealth for a greater number of people. This general lack of faith in the political system has sometimes resulted in an open hostility towards its main representatives. This negative attitude towards parties has often generated simple and visceral reactions,, as well as the negation of any form of mediation through representation — without which it is unlikely for a democracy to survive. This widespread political situation has got to the point of becoming mere, rude indifference, a common sentiment marked by ferocious but effective slogans such as ‘’they are all the same / they are all thieves’ and the highly popular ‘vaffa’ (‘f**k off’). Political debate and political reasoning - which together with the ability to mediate and compromise are the essence of politics - have been replaced by a stream of invective. The sacrosanct right of free speech, substantially enlarged by Social Networks, gave rise to a political Babel without resolution.
A new space was born, and this is my second point; here the most extravagant solutions were advanced in conjunction with the illusion of a direct democracy, which would have been enacted by social networks on a virtually unlimited scale. In this way, the very inherent limitations of this form of democracy would have been overcome. Yet the complexities of Grillismo show how uneven this road is. This political empty space, in fact, made explicit an attitude that is both a resource and a problem: the will of a growing number of individuals, especially young people, to embark on political projects. These people are reluctant to delegate decisions, and therefore they don’t accept representative rituals. The best kind of Grillismo is the one that stimulates this energy, as a starting point for the re-appropriation of a democratic life that can tackle non-constitutionalised powers, from economy to communications. One of the key issues that politics has to deal with today is how to input such energy into the representational system of in new, or at least revised, way.
The third observation is that Grillismo now is mainly a means available to those who wish to express their detachment from the current ruling class, and not just the political class. As such, its methods have been pursued by the left-wing electorate unsatisfied with its incompetent representatives.
While my previous observations concerned the questions and expectations of the 5SM movement, the last point I wish to make considers the way in which Grillismo tries to answer those questions. Without any doubts it is its eclectic populism that conveys the protest, in the attempt to seize power for an illegitimate team of people. Most importantly, this populism is enacted by a comedian, whose role as a showman is used to represent the protest and easily obtain consent in the piazza. The 5SM’s agenda is not meant to embody the interests of the majority of people, but it wants to get immediate consensus, without the effort of conceiving a coherent program.
To sum up briefly,, Grillismo presents itself as a double-faced phenomenon. On the one hand, it collects the need of a protest and the dissatisfaction with a political class that blatantly looks after the interests of an oligarchy, a structure built on economic relations. On the other hand, it attempts to turn representational politics into a mediated form of direct democracy, which is enlivened by a charismatic leader who empathizes with his people. These people are solely entitled to applaud. The recurrent and delirious will to conquer the 100% of the electorate is the utmost example of the negation of politics and of a totalitarian surge.
- On tidal waves
OC Franco Berardi wrote on MicroMega.net that the defeat of “liberist” anti-Europe begins in Italy with the last general election. According to him Italians would have said: “We will not pay the debt”. Insolvence. According to your point of view, what happened in Italy on February 24th, 2013? Gianluca Passarelli conducted an electoral study for Istituto Cattaneo that showed how the Five Star Movement electoral datum was the most homogeneous in terms of votes on the whole national territory. The “party nationalization”, defined as the extent to which parties compete with similar strength across sub-national geographic units, obtained a score of 0.9 out of 1, more than the PDL (0.889) and the left-wing Democratic Party (PD) (0.881). How could a newly-born movement not only compete with, but even beat well-established voting machines such as the ones of Mr. Berlusconi and of the organized left?
LB To put it simply, the representational system jammed and stopped producing meaningful results. The electoral results of the 24th of February both confirmed this jam and represented a dead end for the Italian political system. The most straightforward way to describe this representational problem is through the metaphor of the market. For a number of renowned reasons, the political offer, or ‘supply’, and the political ‘demand’ drifted apart inasmuch as nearly half of the potential voters don’t express their interests by voting anymore. Other large portions of voters hesitate but are still looking for someone who could embody their anger. The following are some additional considerations:
♦ The ideological barriers within which both traditional parties and new ones, albeit to varying degrees, use ideological stratagems to get consensus that no longer reflect the composition of our society and social interests. These ideologies are a facade masking sectional interests, which help an inept ruling class to maintain its position of (personal) power. Against this situation, a movement capable of giving a coherent expression to shared interests and shared perspectives must emerge. Representational bodies must go back to representing something actually existent and active in society. Unfortunately, we have not reached this point yet. The extremely degenerate nature of contemporary politics is ensuring the survival of a ruling political class that can still benefits from social inertia. The decreased number of voting people has not been productive so far, as it is absorbed by the purely formal operations of democratic representation. Radical changes are still not visible on the horizon.
♦ The destruction of social composition, the oligarchic tendency of politics, an economic power capable of dictating the agenda of governments and the disappearance of those ideologies typical of the popular cultures of the XX century are obstacles to achieve a new shared social programme. Ephemeral alliances prevail: they are limited in range and overall incapable of having a significant impact on those power structures of the era of social-democratic compromise. Occupy Wall Street is a clear example; although it appeals to the majority of citizens’ interests, it fails to be an effective political opposition. Seemingly, the only solution available to the State for leaving the ‘ghetto’ of political irrelevance is to recreate the ‘society of the middle’: once the most represented body, today it is largely nullified by our political system. This means starting from scratch, from those forms of coming together through which behaviour and lifestyle can change, and from those forms of resistance to economic power which operate locally and face the challenges of globalization.
♦ The biggest and almost insurmountable problem of Italy is that it is a society which evolved but was sheltered from the real process of modernisation, thus enabling the survival of cultures, customs, behaviors, values and forms of relations that drew from a pre-modern social context and which ensured the survival of both specific individual and community. This world was barely touched by the capitalist methods and the pressures of globalization. This incomplete modernization has strengthen a series of hostile attitudes among the deepest layers of society, where people’s opinions form; the ‘modern’ seemed to be rejected in all its forms, despite an increasing feeling of excitement for its ‘inventions’. These people were inflamed by the fascist narrative; they embraced the deep cauldron of Demo-Christian reformism without being changed by it; then they returned to exalt the anomaly of Berlusconism, which, once and for all, revealed its populist and undemocratic nature. They represent today, as they did yesterday, a good half of the Italian people. When active, they influence the destiny of the country, then as now.
- On the missing people
OC Mario Tronti states that ‘there is populism because there is no people.’ That of the people is an enduring theme which Tronti disclaims in a very Italian way: ‘the great political forces use to stand firmly on the popular components of the social history: the Catholic populism, the socialist tradition, the diversity in communism. Since there was the people, there was no populism.’ Paul Klee often complained that even in historical artistic avant-gardes ‘it was people who were lacking.’ However the radical critique to populism has led to important results: the birth of a mature democracy in America; the rise of the theory and the practice of revolution in the Tsarist Empire, a country plagued by the contradictions of a capitalist development in an underdeveloped territory (Lenin and bolshevism). Tronti carries on in his tranchant analysis of the Italian and European backgrounds: ‘In today's populism, there is no people and there is no prince. It is necessary to beat populism because it obscures the relations of power.’ Through its economic-mediatic-judicial apparatuses, neopopulism constantly shapes “trust-worthy people” similar to the "customers portfolio" of the branded world of neoliberal economy: Berlusconi’s “people” have been following the deeds of Arcore’s Sultan for twenty years; Grillo’s followers are adopting similar all-encompassing identifying processes, giving birth to the more confused impulses of the Italian social strata. With institutional fragility, fluctuating sovereignties and the oblivion of left-wing dogmas (class, status, conflict, solidarity, equality) how can we form people today? Is it possible to reinvent an anti-authoritarian people? Is it only the people or also the politics itself to lack?
LB I do not know if it is possible to invent a new population. Perhaps democratic people were a great invention, one that for a while persuaded us that rights and individual freedoms had finally been resolved. The concept of people is, in fact, a metaphor that tries to unite what is not unitary: society is far from being a unitary body, and rather it is made of a myriad of cracks, splits, joints which transform it deeply. Changes are the outcomes of contrasts and local conflicts, be these intermittent or permanent contrasts, and they eventually find their way to reunite politically through the thousand streams of political representation. At any moment in history, this is the very essence of society and what determines its evolutionary dynamics.
However, we have always needed politics and those institutions able to reduce social complexity, turning it into a subject on which it is possible to decide. Precisely this aspect seems to be missing today: over the last thirty years politics has drifted away from social dynamics, it has encapsulated economic interests and it has become self-referential. The process of public decision-making, the fundamental output of a democratic society yesterday as much as today, has become a private affair of few groups of small elites that are interconnected with each other.
Thanks to the globally dominant oligarchy, a mischievous individualism gained momentum and became the most widespread and shared ideology; it undermined those elements of connection, culture, politics and organization which formed the basic social nexus of a collective life. Society is falling apart and seems to have lost the ability to produce cooperative values and behaviours.
- On control
OC In Postscript on the Societies of Control, published in 1990, Gilles Deleuze states that, thanks to the illuminating analyses of Michel Foucault, a new diagnosis of contemporary Western society has emerged. Deleuze's analysis is as follows: control societies have replaced disciplinary societies at the beginning of the twentieth century. He writes that ‘marketing is now the instrument of social control and it forms the impudent breed of our masters.’ Let us evaluate who stands beyond two very successful electoral adventures such as Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s first party) and M5S: respectively Publitalia 80 owned by Marcello Dell'Utri, and Casaleggio Asssociati owned by Gianroberto Casaleggio. The incontrovertible fact that two marketing companies stand behind these political projects reinforces Deleuze’s analysis. Mechanisms of control, media events such as exit polls and infinite surveys, im/penetrable databases, data as commodities, continuous spin doctoring, influencers that lead consensus on the net, opaque bots, digital squads, dominant echo-chambering. Evil media. These are the determinations of post-ideological (post-democratic?) neoliberalism. The misery of the new control techniques competes only with that of the glass house of transparency (web-control, of course). Jacques Ranciere says we live in the epoch of post- politics: how can we get out of the neo-liberal cage and free ourselves from the ideological consensus of its electoral products? What will the reconfiguration of left-wing politics be after the exhaustion of Marxist hegemony?
LB I am not convinced by the notion that neo-liberalism means being imprisoned. Today the ultimate phase of this process is unfolding; neo-liberalism ideology derived from the large family of ‘liberalism’, but in truth it shared only few traits of classical liberalism. Neo-liberalism ideology was inspired, appropriated and most of all supported by some epicenters of world capitalism, which sought to recover their cultural hegemony in order to establish their dominion over politics and economy. Cultural hegemony was the driving force behind the constant effort to dismantle the ‘social democratic pact’, or so-called ‘Keynesian compromise’: in other words, the concept of ‘mixed economy’. Only the era of ‘mixed-economy’, with all its variants, granted life to democratic governments, ensuring cohesion and social progress through the compromise with the demands of global capitalism. As capitalist powers were weakened by the Great Depression, they had to agree on the premises of a social project that limited their freedom to act and, more importantly, they were asked to co-operate in the creation of a more equal reality.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, we have found ourselves at a similar turning point. Global society seems to be not able to impose a new compromise, the concept of a global economy; hence economics and politics will be jeopardized by the oligarchy that managed to dismiss the Keynesian compromise. This oligarchy produced world based on the dynamics of the market, which will be dominated by a small group of mega-organizations linked by a dense network of mostly hidden relations.
This accumulation of interest on a global scale is the consequence of an ideological war that was fought at all levels, in order to conquer cultural hegemony around the world. As a result, those major ideologies that had inspired political struggles during the XX century weakened; they were not able to face or acknowledge the capitalistic challenge, thus they failed to renew their analysis and future prospective. The most serious consequence of this defeat was the collapse of socialist ideology, in particular the whole political-institutional apparatus disintegrated, and especially political parties which had been the key protagonists of the last century’s conflicts. In representative democracies, the Parties gave voice to the needs and aspirations of people, gathered consent, defined the ruling class, organized governments and shaped their programs, and monitored the implementation of laws. Without these basic functions, a democracy cannot exist, or rather it turns into something different from a democracy. This is our situation today; the real power has been transferred elsewhere, and it is used without any legitimacy, without any democratic control and in a secretive fashion.
At present, in all societies of the world citizens, more or less consciously, are trying, to find a solution to this situation, for example by returning to communicate with the democratic branch of formal power. However, most people’s initiatives are hopeless and powerless, and they hardly deal with the need for a new democratic start. Over the last thirty years, both the economic and political processes destroyed the social cohesion of Western communities, threatening the coming together of a collective will that can be partially translated into a government of social ambitions.
The typical modern illusion of a political system able to guide society towards shared goals has vanished. The idea of politics as project belongs to the past. What is left is a huge void, which was created not only by the failures that politics caused, or by the illusions it fed or the suffering it imposed; this is a huge void because nobody else can fill it up, and because those elites of the global oligarchy are left free to enlarge it.
The decline of the left-wing culture, whether of Marxist, socialist or communist origins, is largely due to the fact it didn’t take into real consideration liberalism, and consequently it failed to advance its own market strategy. Thinking – an action that left-wing parties have disregarded in the recent decades - of the market meant to consider it as a transient institution, a cruel and barbaric kingdom reigned by the animal behaviours of capitalism; hence an institution that would have had to be controlled by a rational order pivoting on the state. What was needed was to understand that the market is, in fact, a necessary institution in a capitalist structure and one that, when properly understood, could tame the animal behaviours of capitalism and make them compatible with the democratic social order. Perhaps, capitalism was intended as a temporary phenomenon, it was expected to be substituted quickly,, and it wasn’t seen as a lasting structure of our economies and societies. People gave up reflecting on capitalism, as it was possible to identify possible ways for it to exist within a society that was rich of democratic institutions, at the time of global challenges. As a result, the political culture of the left doomed itself to be irrelevant, and it sought refuge in a sort of haven, inside which it appears to be satisfied at times, tucked away from the harsh challenges of the present time, and from memories of better past times.
Today a striking aspect of the left is its obstinate clinging to an ideology that is mostly unable to grasp the essential needs of our society; therefore it is not capable of imagining corrective measures that have a coherent view on the existing reality. People behave as if they could still engage, with solutions belonging to an imagined past; a time that has become mythical for the members a community that has long dissolved. Culture is the ultimate political defeat of the left: its unjustified belief in its anthropological superiority alienated the left from the rest of society. This is why the political culture of the left cannot produce an analysis on the social structures, and indeed it continues to attract new enemies and ephemeral conflicts, which dissolve without leaving trace.
To break free from the neoliberal hegemony that has emerged in the last three decades - as a result of a cultural fight that had started much before - a new civilized fight is needed, one that counters the previous one and that can stimulate shared and sharable ideas on society. It is not an easy challenge; the average citizen does not have the same means to conduct campaigns as the neoliberal organizations had. However, a way to start is to leave behind any ambition to recreate scenarios from the previous century, giving rise to a ‘left’ alternative to a ‘right‘ which also lost its solid roots in social realities. Furthermore, a careful investigation on the boundary existing between two fundamental ideas of society and two opposed understanding of power must be started. In order to do so, another false myth of the left must be revealed: the idea that the throughout history the origin of social conflict is always and exclusively to be found in the relationships inside the workplace. Work is still a fundamental dimension of social life, but it is no longer one that structures the fundamental functioning of society.
At present, the division of the social body and the geometry of power relations are no longer determined by the relations typical of the world of production, such as - employees / managers, workers / staff, employed / unemployed, manual workers / intellectuals, labourer / freelancer ; instead they are decided by the separation between those who condition the destiny of the world, moving enormous resources and powerful organizations, and everyone else. The 99% against the 1%. The powerless mass against a totalising oligarchy.
The future conflicts, if any will happen, will take place in the squares first and in the workplaces later; protests will interrogate the quality of our lives, our environment, and above all they will express the need to set limits to an oligarchic power that has taken over the world without knowing how to manage it. Today individuals - and not the mass incapable of expressing subjectivity - must acknowledge the fact that their lives, can be free and righteous only if they cooperate with each other on a global scale, by rediscovering the ways to express that collective’s will that wasn’t protected against the disrupting action of elites. We cannot do without politics: politics creates culture and it tames those powers threatening society. Nor can we do without parties, in theory; yet by this I don’t mean current parties, I mean intermediate bodies which turn individuals into the protagonists and engine of politics.
(Translated by Giulia Damiani, Letizia Rustichelli and Francesco Tacchini)
(Translated by Giulia Damiani, Letizia Rustichelli and Francesco Tacchini)
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EDIT: We collected the Berti's interview in one PDF file that you can download or read online. All interviews on digital populism - in Italian language - are collected into a single file HERE.