This Charming Man – The dapper, cosmopolitan face of post-democracy

smithsAutocracy will return to Europe not dispatched by colonels atop tanks this time, but by cosmopolitan civil servants, economists and public intellectuals who as likely as not give money to Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres. Its partisans will be witty and dapper and subscribe to the RSS feed of The Sartorialist. And the passage to post-democracy will be unhurried but throughout, it will be tweetily endorsed and blogged about and the videos explaining why it is necessary will be uploaded to Vimeo, the ‘artisanal’ online video service, not just YouTube.

Currently on rolling release throughout Europe, there’s a slick new documentaryGirlfriend in a Coma, by Italian journalist Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott, the natty former editor of The Economist, based on his 2012 book, Good Italy, Bad Italy, about the risible state the country finds itself in.

The film charts the decline of the country under the rule of Caligulean Berlusconism over the past two decades, and takes a broadly pro-Monti shock-therapy line. It takes its name from the song by seminal Eighties sensitive indie-boy (and allegedly David Cameron) favourites The Smiths and features the thinking girl’s (or boy’s) piece of crumpet, Benedict ‘Sherlock’ Cumberbatch, as the voice of Dante. It’s high-brow, art-house, but classical-liberal Michael Moore.

(Quite literally art-house, as it happens. The continental premiere in Brussels, which features a Q&A with both filmmakers, will be at the Italian Cultural Institute on Thursday (17th January) and is sponsored by one of the only two picture houses on the continent that shows silent films accompanied by a live pianist, the city’s Cinematek. And its UK premiere in December was at the Institute for Contemporary Arts – the fountainhead of Britain’s arts avant-garde).

The problems with the Montabulous package of austerity and structural-adjustment economics backed by the film’s authors – further public sector cuts, spending limits, flat taxes, privatisation and labour market deregulation – are actually not that interesting to me. They would of course be economically disastrous and unjust, hitting ordinary people hardest, but the filmmakers and other partisans of such liberalising policies are certainly within their rights to their position and to fight their corner.

What is much more worthy of being flagged is how the filmmakers even as they lament the dismantling of democracy under Berlusconi, they fawn over Mario Monti and effectively endorse the undemocratic shenanigans that it took to parachute him into power, as well as the ongoing democratically unorthodox manoeuvres that have been employed to achieve such policies both domestically and across Europe.

What is also striking is how Emmott and Piras have clearly learnt from the mis-packaging of shock therapy elsewhere, dropping the wooden-tongued language of troikas and European Council presidents, and instead talk of a risorgimento, or even rinascimento - a renaissance and transformation of Italian society. The Bunga-bungocracy of Berlusconi naturally has made this sort of discourse so much easier than elsewhere, allowing the filmmakers to focus as much on corruption, patronage, nepotism, tax evasion, defeating the mafia, media monopolies – and, crucially, the denigration of women – as they do on the alleged barriers to ‘success’ constructed by the usual villains: trade unions, the public sector, and ‘overspending’.

And it’s not supposed to be just a film – it bills itself as the “Campaign to Wake Italy Up”. It wants to be a movement, an Italian Spring, aiming to both convince foreigners of its authors’ narrative of events in the country and galvanise the young Italian diaspora – the million or so expatriate Italians outside the country, many of them graduates – into participating in a liberal transformation of the country. Viewers are encouraged to upload their own ideas to the film’s website, while the oven-ready hashtags #wakeitalyup and #italiandiaspora are waiting to go viral (albeit presumably only amongst those bilingual ex-pats).

I imagine it will be embraced by a number of my mates of the Italian disposition and otherwise in the Belgian capital too. A week ago, I wrote a piece entitled the Shepherding of Italian Democracy, critical of unelected technocrat Prime Minister Monti and his cowardice in not presenting himself and his ideas for election. A reader tweeted me, responding to the article and saying: “If Italians in the eurobubble could vote, Monti would easily get 70% of preferences.”

I don’t think everyone feels this way in the eurobubble. I know far too many people in Brussels – true believers in the European project – that are horrified by what Brussels (and Frankfurt and Berlin) is doing.

But there probably is a glint of truth to this figure. And these people are not natural conservatives. These are people who adore Obama and hated Bush. People who support gay marriage – who may even be gay. People who support EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding’s push to get more women in the boardroom.

And they’ll say that they of course support democracy – and think that they mean it. But at the same time, when you really push them, they say that they just don’t trust ordinary people to vote ‘the right way’. They support EU efforts to take fiscal decision-making out of the hands of parliaments, lest voters spend their way to oblivion. After a few drinks, they dismiss ‘most people’ as stupid. A few drinks more and they call them ‘the mob’.

It’s this lack of trust in regular people, this unacknowledged attitude that there is a group of experts who know better than everyone else, this belief that there need to be checks on democracy, that frightens. Girlfriend in a Coma‘s emphasis on the bright, young, hyper-educated Italian diaspora speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ lack of confidence in all other sorts of Italian voters.

The Erasmus-generation fans of this film will be hip. They’re crisply dressed. They like independent cinema and museums and all the right music. They’re friends of mine, and they’re a great laugh and multi-lingual and smart.

And they’re autocrats.

A quick word on what this blog’s going to be about.

Girlfriend in a Coma website:

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  1. #1 by Matt Ward on January 16, 2013 - 9:47 pm

    I wonder if the split that Phillips is talking about is yet another leftist civil war between communists (Phillips’ beliefs: collectivist economics that produce a comfortable mediocrity; anti-EU like Greece) vs. fascists (the bright young things who prefer more efficient corporatist economics; pro-EU like Germany). Neither has much use for democracy. Ninety years ago, fascism was seen as the young, rational, and energetic alternative to communism. Europe has seen this before, and like before, it seems to be starting in Italy.

  2. #2 by jon livesey on January 16, 2013 - 11:14 pm

    Back in the Seventies, I worked in the Soviet Union for a few years. Just why it was the way it was puzzled me for a long time, but I got a bit of an insight one day when a Russian colleague remarked: “Of course, we don’t have to worry so much as Westerners about politics, because we have experts to handle all that for us.”

  3. #3 by Jon on January 17, 2013 - 2:52 am

    Yes, yes, them youngins with their elitism. Only you have a monopoly on understanding freedom.

    What you seem to be forgetting is that democracy is a means to an end – that end being liberty. I believe those are the words of Friedrich Hayek. If a democratic government threatens liberty (as B’s did in Italy), then an autocratic government may step in and make an effort to protect it. Of all autocrats, the ones I trust the most to give up their power when their mandate is up are the Eurocrats. I can’t say nearly that much for Italy’s previous flawed B-dominated ‘democracy’.

  4. #4 by Roger Cole on January 17, 2013 - 1:25 pm

    Leigh Phillips article as I understand it, is about democracy in the European Union and not about a left/right divide. In Italy the leader of “the left” Pier Luigi Bersani, is willing to form a coalition with the block effectively led by Monti, who refuses to even stand for election himself. In Ireland the “left” Labour Party is happily supporting massive cuts in social welfare and health. In the area of democracy however they also supported the spending of state money on the children’s referendum which the Irish Supreme Court declared illegal. It would be my contention they did so in order to be able to do more of the same in the next EU referendum. In short, the Irish political elite are more that prepared to actively attack democratic values for the sake of the emerging European Empire. If the Empire is to be defeated then all those who support national democracy throughout the EU need to work together.

  5. #5 by Mauro Petriccione on January 17, 2013 - 8:08 pm

    I loved Leigh Phillips’ description of the Italian diaspora, though I fear that age alone would exclude me from that category. Precisely because these are your friends, Mr. Phillips, would you do them the courtesy of looking at facts before passing judgment? I would have thought that allegation of lack of democracy should be based on lack of respect of democratic processes, or at least on their perversion away from their purpose and object. So, here are a few pointers: the Italian Constitution’s mechanism for choosing a Prime Minister is simply a mandate from President to whomever he thinks could form a government and have a majority when that government is presented to Parliament. President Ciampi appointed Mr. Monti because prior consultations with political parties made him believe Mr. Monti would have a majority, which he did. Why? I fear another case of “It’s the economy, stupid”. He was felt capable of addressing the root of immediate problem, that is, the total lack of international credibility of Italian economic policy. The method chosen was neither new nor untested. President Ciampi (then Governor of the Bank of Italy) himself entered politics at the head of such a “technical government”, and so did Mr. Prodi (a professor of economics and former head of a State-owned industrial conglomerate). Both stayed in power as long as the political parties represented in Parliament considered it appropriate to give them a majority, and left when they no longer did, followed by fresh elections. Exactly the case for Mr. Monti’s government. It was always clear – and made publicly so – that 2013 would see new elections, sooner or later. As soon as Mr. Monti no longer had a majority in the (democratically elected) Parliament – and more precisely, that majority who put him there – he resigned as expected. Where is the absence or the perversion of the democratic process as it is both in the Constitution and in constitutional practice as it has developed over 60 years? I will stop taking up space in your blog, but I do hope this will be seen as a useful contribution and not (only) a boring diatribe.

  6. #6 by Tamas Calderwood on January 19, 2013 - 7:44 am

    A very interesting article Leigh.

    One might add that this is nothing new for the EU. When The Netherlands and France had referenda on the EU Constitution in 2005 their “No” votes were simply ignored. It was re-named a treaty and stuffed through anyway – an example of the silly people getting in the way of the elitist’s grand project and being overruled.

    Similarly, the Irish voted against the Lisbon treaty in 2008. This was deemed the incorrect answer, so they were forced to vote again to get the answer right. They yielded in 2009 and passed it.

    There is only so much free people will take though. The EU’s autocratic ways will be a major factor in its downfall, whenever that comes.

  7. #7 by Annalisa Piras on January 20, 2013 - 2:43 am

    Dear Leigh,
    thank you for your interest in our documentary ” Girlfriend in a coma”. I am the director and one of the authors. I was browsing the web in my crisp designer pyjama when I stumbled into your spectacularly entertaining post. Your article is as amusing as entirely fictional. I cant help imagining what amazing piece you could write if you actually took the time to watch the film !!! Where can we send you a screener? Yours sincerely
    Annalisa Piras ( the autocrat wears Prada)

  8. #8 by Marc on January 20, 2013 - 5:21 pm

    What we need is a revolution and hang everyone in Brussels who proclaims to support the Eurosoviet Union and/or the wealth destroying Euro.

    It will never happen, I know that, but it should.

    These people are enemies of democracy, enemies of the poor, enemies of the middle class and do nothing but listen to lying and manipulating banker scum and financial ‘markets’.

  9. #9 by Leigh Phillips on January 21, 2013 - 12:38 am

    Hi all. Leigh here. I’m not ignoring you. I’ll respond to some of the comments hopefully in the next 24 hours, most of which raise interesting points, but I’m stakhanovitically busy until tomorrow evening.

    Analisa! Thanks for stopping by! Perhaps you can point to which parts of my analysis are fictional? I was deliberately spiky for the sake of argument. Surely you don’t think anything can be learnt if all your reviews are glowing (as they have been so far). And to be clear: I’m not saying you don’t have the right to your neo-liberal views (however economically suicidal and data-poor they may be). I just want such views to be democratically contested and not imposed in an extra-democratic fashion.

    BTW – I linked to your website in the original post, but perhaps it wasn’t prominent enough. I’ll add it again at the end of the text.

  10. #10 by Betterworld on January 21, 2013 - 12:14 pm

    Analisa, it would be useful if you could address the point raised about your alleged neo-liberal agenda. Even from inside your crisp pajama, a simple one line answer addressing the charge, without abusing the charger, would be appreciated. Do you believe that curbs on democracy are necessary to secure the economic recovery desired by all Europeans and to safeguard their future?

  11. #11 by Martin P. on January 21, 2013 - 12:51 pm

    Hi Leigh,

    interesting piece, even though on the verge of excessive sociological generalisation sometimes. And unfortunately mobs do also exist. I think the compound “libéral-libertaire” is closer to what you’re describing than classic autoritarianism.
    Which could also be described, in the period, as the mere, old and actually stupid egoism of the powerful who are slowly forgetting, as history passes, the consequences of this behaviour on society at large.

    “Entre le fort et le faible, entre le riche et le pauvre, entre le maître et le serviteur, c’est la liberté qui opprime et la loi qui affranchit”. (Lacordaire)

    “I do maintain that if your hair is wrong, your entire life is wrong.” (Morrissey)