Archive for category Italy

JP Morgan to eurozone periphery: “Get rid of your pinko, anti-fascist constitutions”

At times, I do marvel how antiseptic, bland even, that the language of the most wretchedly villainous documents can be.

Last week, the European economic research team with JP Morgan, the global financial giant, put out a 16-page paper on the state of play of euro area adjustment. This involved a totting up of what work has been done so far and what work has yet to be done in terms of sovereign, household and bank deleveraging; structural reform (reducing labour costs, making it easier to fire workers, privatisation, deregulation, liberalising ‘protected’ industries, etc.); and national political reform.

The takeaway in the small amount of coverage that I’ve seen of the paper was that its authors say the eurozone is about halfway through its period of adjustment, so austerity is still likely to be a feature of the landscape “for a very extended period.”

The bankers’ analysis probably otherwise received little attention because it is a bit ‘dog bites man‘: Big Bank Predicts Many More Years of Austerity. It’s not really as if anyone was expecting austerity to disappear any time soon, however much EU-IMF programme countries have been offered a relaxation of debt reduction commitments in return for ramping up the pace of structural adjustment.

The lack of coverage is a bit of a shame, because it’s the first public document I’ve come across where the authors are frank that the problem is not just a question of fiscal rectitude and boosting competitiveness, but that there is also an excess of democracy in some European countries that needs to be trimmed.

“In the early days of the crisis, it was thought that these national legacy problems were largely economic: over-levered sovereigns, banks and households, internal real exchange rate misalignments, and structural rigidities. But, over time it has become clear that there are also national legacy problems of a political nature. The constitutions and political settlements in the southern periphery, put in place in the aftermath of the fall of fascism, have a number of features which appear to be unsuited to further integration in the region. When German politicians and policymakers talk of a decade-long process of adjustment, they likely have in mind the need for both economic and political reform.” [Emphasis added]

Yes, you read that right. It’s in dry, banker-ese, but the authors have basically said that the laws and constitutions of southern Europe are a bit too lefty, a product of their having been written by anti-fascists. These “deep-seated political problems in the periphery,” say authors David Mackie, Malcolm Barr and friends, “in our view, need to change if EMU is going to function properly in the long run.”

You think I’m perhaps exaggerating a smidge? They go into more detail in a section describing this “journey of national political reform”:

“The political systems in the periphery were established in the aftermath of dictatorship, and were defined by that experience. Constitutions tend to show a strong socialist influence, reflecting the political strength that left-wing parties gained after the defeat of fascism.”

All this is a load of historical horse-lasagna anyway. Italy for example never went through a process akin to Germany’s denazification, and in Spain, the democratising king, Juan Carlos, played a major role in the transition. Only in Greece and Portugal were there popular socialist insurrections that resulted in or contributed to the overthrow of the regimes: the Athens Polytechnic Uprising played a key role in the Metapolitefsi or ‘polity change’ (although much, much more than the crushed student protests were involved here, including a failed coup d’etat and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus), and in Portugal a proper left-wing rebellion, the Revolução dos Cravos or Carnation Revolution, brought down the Estado Novo regime. Although it is true in the case of the latter three countries that their late-in-the-day construction of welfare states in the 70s and 80s was largely carried out by social democratic forces, the architects of the Italian post-war state were the Christian Democrats, who dominated government for 50 years.

“Political systems around the periphery typically display several of the following features: weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labour rights; consensus building systems which foster political clientalism; and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo. The shortcomings of this political legacy have been revealed by the crisis. Countries around the periphery have only been partially successful in producing fiscal and economic reform agendas, with governments constrained by constitutions (Portugal), powerful regions (Spain), and the rise of populist parties (Italy and Greece).”

Let’s parse that paragraph, shall we? Weak executives means strong legislatures. That should be a good thing, no? Let us remember that it is the parliament that is sovereign. The executive in a democracy is supposed to be the body that merely carries out the bidding of the legislature. There is a reason why liberal democracy opted for parliaments and not a system of elected kings.

Oh, and we want strong central states. None of this local democracy nonsense, please.

JP Morgan, and presumably the EU powerbrokers they are ventriloquising for, finally are being honest with us: they want to do away with constitutional labour rights protections and the right to protest. And there has to be some way to prevent people electing the wrong parties.

Thankfully though, the authors note, “There is a growing recognition of the extent of this problem, both in the core and in the periphery. Change is beginning to take place.”

In particular, they highlight how Spain has begun “to address some of the contradictions of the post-Franco settlement” and rein in the regions.

But other than that, sadly, the process of de-democratization (okay – I’m calling it that. They call it “the process of political reform”) has “barely begun”.

Well, the JP Morgan paper may have been written in English, but there is a venerable Spanish phrase that that all good anti-fascists right across the eurozone periphery know and is probably the simplest and best response to such provocation: ¡No pasarán!

NO PASARÁN poster-8x6

Poster from the Spanish Civil War: ‘They shall not pass!’

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On the use of the term ‘populism’

Sorry for the extended radio silence. Life got in the way of blogging, as it does from time to time. And this post itself is just a heads up to say that I’m working on an essay on the troubled relationship between the green movement and austerity that will be up in a few days, so keep your eyes peeled.

In the coming days, I’ll also have a piece on the trap of neo-Gaullism that some left-wing critics of EU austerity have fallen into. It is a response to this article on national democracy by my genial and perspicacious colleague Craig Willy (his piece taking down the myth of Baltic austerity ‘success’ is a must-read) that, despite this geniality and perspicacity, is wrong, wrong, wrong.

But in the meantime, do have a look at the relaunch of the Statewatch journal, the publication of the venerable European civil liberties/home affairs watchdog. The new issue takes a look at the civil liberties fall-out of austerity, and there are some great pieces on what has been happening in Spain, Italy, Greece and Belgium. In it, I have an extended essay (11,000+ words, eep!) on European ‘post-democracy’ and its flipside, anti-politics, which can buttress post-democracy or transcend it.

Here’s a taster, an excerpt from the essay on the use of the term ‘populism’ in European discourse and a warning against viewing Beppe Grillo as any kind of alternative. The full version of the essay, in all its TL;DR glory, can be read here.

Anti-political and pan-ideological

There should be no time for the lazy category of ‘populism’ that the EU political class, and their useful idiots in the commentariat, apply without ever really defining it, but to really any politics at all that does not fit within the narrow confines of the liberalising Brussels centre-left-centre-right consensus. So for example, both Syriza and Golden Dawn, two parties of radically different perspectives on almost all questions, are lumped together, as are the Front de Gauche of Jean-Luc Melenchon and the Front National of Marine Le Pen, and the Netherlands’ Socialistische Partij and the Partij van de Vrijheid of Geert Wilders. And now, since the Italian elections in February, Beppe Grillo and even Silvio Berlusconi, have been cast as ‘clowns’ out to destroy the eurozone by both Bild, the German tabloid, and the Economist magazine1. When the category of ‘populism’ is so broad and encompasses such widely differing sets of politics, it ceases to have any meaning.

And let us be clear: the soft-Keynesian policy proposals of the likes of Syriza, Melenchon and the Dutch SP are crisply to the right of the positions of the post-war social democratic parties of northern Europe that ushered in the welfare state through to the end of what the French call Les Trentes Glorieuses – the 30 glorious post-war years of labour-capital compromise. A useful comparison is the 1945 election manifesto of the British Labour Party, which declared that it would nationalise great swathes of the economy, take the Bank of England under democratic control, deliver public healthcare, full employment and progressive taxation that would squeeze the rich until they squeaked. Their continental homologues were scarcely different. By this logic, Clement Atlee, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt and Bruno Kreisky – the giants of European social democracy – were all populists and demagogues. For contemporary European social democrats to describe the likes of Melenchon and Tsipras as populists is to deny their own origins and to denigrate their greatest achievements.

The success of Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) in the February elections, winning the most votes of any party, has thoroughly destabilised the political ecology of the country (or it could be argued that the destabilisation of the political ecology of the country allowed Cinque Stelle to succeed). The centre-left coalition led by the Democratic Party of Pier Luigi Bersani barely mustered more support than the scandal-ridden Berlusconi and is unable to form an effective or durable government. Markets had their predictable ‘Democracy – what a bitch’ moment, with share prices swooning across the continent and sovereign bond yields spiking across the eurozone periphery to levels not seen for months.

Again we heard the demand “Tutti a Casa!” (Again: Que se vayan todos! / Kick ‘em all out!) as M5S soared from 1.8 percent support in 2010 to 24 percent within two years; almost two out of three voters backed anti-austerity parties; and a full 90 percent did not vote for the party of European austerity – the Monti coalition. Grillo’s intransigence, refusing to join any coalition (as of the time of writing) makes the country effectively ungovernable at least in terms of the Brussels-Frankfurt consensus. This is, without question, the first major victory of the anti-austerity resistance. Not the Indignados, not the Greek general strikes, not Tsipras or Melenchon have achieved this.

We could even say that Grillo has been braver than Tsipras in that he campaigned on an explicit platform of withdrawal from the euro, and says that Cinque Stelle would buy back €600bn in Italian bonds from foreign holders while delivering a painful haircut to them – in effect a default, while Syriza has been more coquettish on these questions. That a plurality of Italians – historically one of the most pro-European of EU member states – could confidently endorse a break-up of the euro, is a remarkable change in fortunes for the bloc. It changes everything. It is transparently clear that the European elite is losing popular consent for the union even amongst its most committed subjects. The challenge to the political legitimacy of the European Union has arrived at the heart of the project.

There are also aspects of Grillo’s movement (or movement of movements – a coalescence of different campaigns over public water, green energy, etc.) that appear at first glance to have replicated the best horizontal, maximally democratic aspects of Occupy and the Indignados and the resistance movements that have come before: the Seattle-to-Genoa altermondialist movement of the late 90s/early 2000s. His ‘Grillini’, the 163 fresh-faced new deputies and senators, most of them in the 20s and 30s, selected through online voting and arriving in Rome to take up their seats bringing with them little more than backpacks and sleeping bags. Grillo repeatedly declares: “We’re not a political party; we’re a civic revolution.”

There are those who would say that at this early point in the Cinque Stelle’s career, it is too soon to be overly judgemental or sectarian towards the phenomenon. That it is not an expressly progressive movement does not – so far – undermine its theoretical transformative potential goes the argument. A number of progressives emerging from what autonomist commentator Federico Campagna2 (a critic of Cinque Stelle) describes as the Italian “ruins of the post-2001 movements” (altermondialist, Rifondazione Comunista, Tute Bianchi, No Globo, autonomist, anarchist, etc.) have involved themselves with this new force.3

But I want to argue that there is sound reason for reticence regarding Grillo and Cinque Stelle. For the purposes of this essay, I am less interested in some of the political positions of the grouping than the question of whether Cinque Stelle represents a transcendence of the anti-politics that buttresses liberal/technocratic and/or fascist/authoritarian post-democracy – in other words, a progressive/self-governing anti-politics – or whether instead it represents some sort of as-yet-unresolved contradictory hybrid form.

Nevertheless, the party’s political prescriptions and the particular anti-political flavour of the Cinque Stelle are not unrelated.

Rejection of austerity and corruption combine with a focus on public water, environmentalism and a sort of copyleft, digital-rights activism and emphasis on broadband development. Many commentators have referred to the similarities between parts of a Green programme and the Pirate Parties in Germany and Sweden (which are themselves also the beneficiaries of the anti-political mood), and they are not wrong. But Grillo and his Grillini cook up a pan-ideological salmagundi of ideas.

Notably, he is not unfriendly toward the fascists of Casa Pound, a far-right social centre squat named after the fascist sympathising American poet Ezra Pound, whose estimated 5000 members are known for their murderous attacks on immigrants, but which also provides housing for impoverished families.4 Simone di Stefano, a Casa Pound leader and candidate for president of the Lazio regional government, came up to Grillo and said: “They ask me if you are a fascist.” Grillo responded “This is a question that doesn’t regard me. We are an ecumenical movement. If a guy from Casa Pound wants to enter the M5S, and he meets the criteria, he can do that.” The pair chatted in front of cameras for some time, with the pair endorsing many of each others’ positions.

Grillo approvingly quotes Mussolini, opposes citizenship rights for the children of immigrants born in the country, and has said: “The unions are outdated. We no longer need them. We should do as the US does.” So long as workers are represented on company boards, in corporatist fashion, unions can be done away with.

Even the anti-austerity position is not as thoroughgoing as it seems. Grillo backs a slashing of the public debt via “cutting waste and with the introduction of new technologies”. His desire to see a break up of state firms such as the railroads, Telecom Italia and the public power companies surely is no different to the programme of Monti and the demands of Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. The M5S mayor of Parma, Federico Pizzarotti, elected in May 2012, has overseen a programme of municipal cuts.

And he is silent on questions of taxation and appears not to have any analysis of the global economic crisis other than an unexceptional fury at the mysterious puppet-masters of ‘Big Finance’.

These perspectives are clearly a contradictory mess. (Public water but private electric?) Were the M5S to extend its position in an election in six months’ time say, and rather than complete its ‘civic revolution’, a collapse of the Second Republic, in fact be the superintendent of further austerity and structural adjustment – can we be confident that it would any greater popular support than Monti?

Internally, the movement is run on a rigidly hierarchical basis, the personal property and will of Grillo and his partner, web marketing guru Gianroberto Casaleggio. There are no conferences or branches. Members that diverge from the duo’s perspective are briskly and pitilessly drummed out of the party.

All this put together, this appears as less a replication of Syriza, the Indignados, the Portuguese demonstrators, the Front de Gauche, et al – an anti-austerity movement with Italian characteristics – than a genuinely novel phenomenon, an authoritarian pied piper dressing up his charges in red, green, yellow and black livery. Red for anti-austerity, green for environmentalism, yellow for the liberalism, and black both for the flirtation with fascism and dalliance with anarchism.

Parts of Cinque Stelle appear to represent a progressive anti-politics, but parts of Cinque Stelle repeat a neo-liberal-technocratic and authoritarian anti-politics as well. In this way, it is different from pretty much anything that has gone before.

It is anti-politics, ne plus ultra.

My best guess though is that Cinque Stelle is unsustainable.

The ideological contradictions are too profound. The pressures on the party now that it is in the role of kingmaker will be considerable, and, unlike Syriza or the Front de Gauche, it simply does not have the structural analytical chops to deal with the economic and political tempest that surrounds it.

This is not to suggest that the likes of Syriza or the Front de Gauche are not also having difficulties dealing with the world-historical nature of the circumstances they find themselves in as well. But even the sharpest progressive critics of the paths that Syriza and the Front de Gauche have chosen could not deny that within their ranks and in their leadership there lies a defined analytical framework to describe the crisis that Cinque Stelle does not have.

If M5S can be said to have any analytical framework, it is a base, uninformative accusation that there is “La Casta”, an ill-defined ‘caste’ of venal characters, traitors, who need to be done away with. It is La Casta versus the ‘honest people’. It is the anti-political analysis of Vaffanculo! (Fuck off!)5

Why is the Italian case important? The matter goes beyond the scale of the Italian economy, its debt levels and its role in the global economy, which puts Greece in the shade. This case is important because Cinque Stelle is just the extreme example of the weakness that is common to all the resistance movements.

In many ways, Cinque Stelle’s categorisation of the enemy as a ‘caste’ of traitors is not so different from Occupy’s nebulous ‘99% versus the 1%’, but where the latter is a useful slogan on a homemade cardboard placard, the starting point for a more thoroughgoing analysis that is beginning to deepen its understanding of class, markets, financialisation, unemployment, and, in the case of the Indignados and the rest of the European anti-austerity resistance, the eurozone and the EU’s structures, Grillo’s ‘caste’ is a moralistic endpoint. But the 99% analysis is still structurally weak as well and needs to be transcended.

In the years leading up to the crisis, there was a desire, usually unspoken but sometimes explicitly expressed, for a fresh disaster, a true catastrophe to rock international capitalism that would ‘wake people up’. The more sensible analysts reminded that economic crises tended to be very bad indeed for progressive forces, that the empirical evidence shows that it is actually during the high points of economic cycles, with the accompanying near full employment, when progressive demands are achieved, and that in downturns, dark, fearful ideologies take hold. Moreover, heading into the last economic crisis of the current scale, the Great Depression, progressive forces were markedly more hegemonic. There were mass social democratic and Communist parties, and even sizeable anarchist sympathies in many jurisdictions, linked to militant trade unions confident in the power they wielded. Heading into the current crisis, progressive forces were scattered, weak, minoritarian and on the defensive.

This is to say: Anti-politics is not enough. It can be swayed, bent in some very anti-democratic directions.

Some have argued that Beppe Grillo and Cinque Stelle have prevented the birth of a domestic version of the Indignados or Syriza. They have it the wrong way round. It is the lack of a domestic version of the Indignados or Syriza that gave birth to Grillo.

When Cinque Stelle collapses under the weight of its incoherence, there will still be nothing in Italy on the level of these other European movements that can begin to imagine, let alone construct, an alternative.

My great fear is the arrival of a combination of a nationalist Keynesian response to the crisis and a vicious anti-immigrant programme. A variety of anti-politics that arrives with this set of ideas, fronted by a charismatic figure and/or movement, will be very popular indeed.


1The Economist 2 March, 2013 “Send in the clowns: How Beppe Grillow and Silvio Berlusconi threaten the future of Italy and the euro”

2Campagna is a collaborator of the Italian autonomist philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and the co-editor of the collection of anti-austerity resistance manifestos What We Are Fighting For (2012 Pluto Press).

3Novara radio programme “’Five Star Shaman’ – The Meaning of Beppe Grillo” 5 March, 2013

4‘Italy’s fascists stay true to Mussolini’s ideology’, The Guardian, 6 November, 2011

5No, really. See for example his Vaffanculo Day:

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Decree-o-matic: The periphery’s permanent state of exception

decree-o-matic chopper 4

The Greek Frankenstein’s monster of a coalition government – stitched together from the torso of the wounded conservative New Democracy and the decomposing, undead remains of centre-left Pasok and ex-eurocommunist Dimar – passed legislation last week raising taxes on ordinary Greeks and corporations and then this week approved another package of moves restructuring state assets for privatisation and expanding the powers of the finance ministry

I’ll not go into details of the problems with the legislation, termed ‘prior actions’, which was demanded by international lenders in return for the latest round of financing due this month. The imposition of suicidal and unjust economic policies in the European periphery is very much more ‘dog bites man’ these days than ‘man bites dog’. I’ll leave it to others to point out the errors.

Instead, what I find significant is that the different pieces of legislation have not been presented as proper bills, but as edicts in order to prevent debate, which would slow down the approval process.

The coalition felt it didn’t have time for the legislation to go through normal procedure as it wanted the bills to be already in the bag before finance minister Yannis Stournaras headed to the Eurogroup meeting (of finance ministers from the eurozone) on Monday, 21 January, where the first of three bail-out tranches worth €18 billion was to be considered and possibly approved.

Opposition parties, both the socialist Syriza party and the Independent Greeks – the anti-memorandum splinter from New Democracy – accused the government of bypassing parliament.

Their criticisms were – how should this be put politely? – let’s say ‘unvarnished’.

“You are introducing a new form of governing,” Syriza parliamentary spokesman Panayiotis Lafazanis said. “Ministers will issue edicts that will abolish parliament’s rights and will not be debated at all. You are responsible for turning a parliamentary democracy into a parliamentary junta.”

“We are observing a situation where parliament has essentially ceased working,” said Notis Marias of the anti-memorandum splinter from New Democracy, the Independent Greeks. “Your attitude is ‘Eurogroup uber alles.”

It seems strange to be talking about legislation by decree in the 21st Century. The words ‘decree’ and ‘edict’ evoke images of the Catholic Church releasing papal bulls, or absolute monarchs issuing proclamations changing the religion of a realm overnight.

The development of modern democracy placed great emphasis on ‘legislative supremacy’ (also known as ‘parliamentary sovereignty’). Whether called a parliament or congress or house, the deliberative assembly normally has exclusive authority to pass, amend or repeal laws, raise or lower taxes, regulate trade, and declare war. Western societies did not opt instead for a model of elected monarchs (athough Poland famously employed wolna elekcja, or royal elections, on occasion until the late 18th century).

Why did we do this? Well, it’s a long story and whole libraries could be and indeed are filled with discussions of theories of governance. But boiled down, the argument is that the executive branch – the body that enforces the law and carries out the day-to-day administration of the state – is the servant of the legislature, in order to ensure a separation of powers, which in turn serves as a sort of inoculation against tyrants.

By distributing power away from the executive, and maintaining the supremacy of the elected chamber, a polity is supposed to be protected against authoritarianism. In those places where there is little or no separation between executive and legislative branches, the different powers of government by definition are held by one person or one small group of people. (This situation, by the way – other than during times of national emergency, or ‘state of exception’ – is the very definition of despotism you will find in any dictionary)

Yet what happened in Greece this past fortnight is far from the first time that governments in the eurozone periphery have turned to the use of decrees to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. Indeed, though it has received little notice, the use of decrees, edicts and similar manoeuvres – a direct challenge to legislative supremacy – has been sharply on the increase in since the advent of the crisis.

Grand Duke Draghi of Frankfurt

Most controversially, the ECB’s humiliating ultimatum letter to Berlusconi in the summer of 2011 that was leaked to Corriere della Serra, the Italian daily, included not only a series of demands for legislation in return for central bank bond purchases, but the detailed timetable bills needed to be passed by and that they be imposed by edict, only later to be approved in a similar up/down fashion to this past fortnight’s Greek decrees. According to the letter, the package of austerity and structural adjustment bills had to be passed “as soon as possible with decree-laws, followed by parliamentary ratification by the end September 2011.”

The bulk of the shock therapy that unelected technocrat prime minister Mario Monti has applied to Italy have been performed by decree – the ‘Save Italy’ emergency decree, which took place days after Super-Mario took power; the ‘Grow Italy’ decree, the ‘Fiscal Simplification’ decree, the ‘Spending Review’ decree, the ‘Sustainable Development’ decree, and so on.

Some of the actions undertaken by decree any progressive could support; others decidedly less so. But whether one supports or opposes a move is immaterial – the method through which they are enacted is undemocratic.

Over in Spain, in May last year, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy used a decree to avoid parliamentary oversight of the decision to use public funds to bail out its drowning banks, offloading written-down assets into separate financial vehicles. Similarly, in February, Rajoy used the decree format to force banks to set aside certain amounts as cash buffers against losses. In March, there was a labour market deregulation decree in March, and in November an anti-tax-fraud decree and another delinking pensions from inflation.

After a woman killed herself when bailiffs tried to throw her out of her home and under pressure from protests, Madrid also passed a decree suspending home evictions for poor families with small children, the disabled and long-term unemployed. This action should certainly be welcomed, and probably did need to be instituted instantly for obvious reasons. But the question still remains, even for these sorts of measures – why is so much legislative activity now being done without parliamentary scrutiny?

By contrast, this past week, US President Barack Obama unveiled his gun control strategy. Alongside a series of legislative proposals, Obama announced 23 executive orders that are enacted immediately. Republican opponents and hyperbole-mongers have attacked the president for bypassing congress and ‘ripping up the constitution‘.

But in reality, every one of his gun control recommendations – criminal background checks for all gun sales, reinstating an assault weapons ban, a 10-round limit on ammunition magazines, outlawing armour-piercing bullets and providing mental health support services in schools – require congressional approval. The executive orders cover such matters as directing the Center for Disease Control to perform research into the causes of gun violence, requiring that federal agencies make relevant data available to the background check system, launching a national dialogue on mental health and starting a a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.

These are precisely the sort of relatively trivial moves that do not require parliamentary debate and oversight – the sort of direction from the directors of the executive branch of government to its officers and agents managing their operations or the appointment of senior civil servants. In France, these are called décrets (although the president may not rule by decree except during national emergencies) and in the UK Orders in Council. Not all executive actions need to be put through the legislative sausage factory.

But major policy changes with significant impacts, such as cutting pensions, radical overhaul of labour markets, bank bail-outs and so on certainly should indeed be looked over by parliaments with a fine tooth comb. And when they aren’t, if there is genuinely some sort of emergency requiring immediate executive action, there needs to be a bloody good reason, and it should be explained why this exception is necessary.

(If you want to be technical about this, what we’re talking about here is the distinction between primary legislation – crafted and approved by the legislative branch – and secondary or delegated legislation – laws made by an executive authority under powers transmitted to them by the primary legislation in order to carry it out)

Special powers

Citizens’ ears should prick up every time they read that something is being passed by decree or edict. Nine times out of ten, it is a sure sign that democracy is getting a bit of a hair-cut. An historical wander through the textbook exemplars of the use of decrees are instructive for comparison.

Famously, George W. Bush enacted a whopping 262 executive orders, the preponderance of which were a clear usurpation of congress’s position as the legislative branch. In this way, he blocked funding for stem-cell research, sidestepped the Geneva Conventions protection from torture, and offered impunity to US corporations operating in Iraq.

Those for whom the origins of Russia’s current ‘managed democracy’ remain a mystery could do worse than read up on Boris Yeltsin’s privatisation by decree and ultimate disbanding of parliament and rule by decree in the autumn of 1993. Fantastic sums in public funds were transferred to banks owned by major figures in the Soviet state and the former Communist Party higher ups. These banks then spent the effectively embezzled funds to snap up state industries on the cheap in privatisation auctions they themselves conducted.

From 1972 to 2007, governance of Northern Ireland was carried out under what was known as ‘direct rule’ – in effect rule by decree. While the people Northern Ireland still technically elected members of parliament to the House of Commons, legislation administering the region was made through Orders in Council, a situation opposed by by both nationalists and unionists for its lack of democratic accountability.

Similarly, during the Algerian War of Independence, in 1956, the governor general of French Algeria, Robert Lacoste, abolished the Algerian assembly and ruled by decree to deal with the mounting political violence. Then in 1961, President Charles de Gaulle became the only French president to rule all of France by decree during a national emergency, employing ‘special powers’ he requested from the National Assembly in the wake of an abortive rightist uprising in Algiers. Over the course of five months from April to September of that year, De Gaulle enacted 16 decrees expanding police powers, enlarging the power of the courts, banning publications, dismissing civil servants for ‘encouraging subversion’, and establishing special military courts, amongst other measures.

Now, one of the difficulties in discussing Europe’s democracy-on-a-diet approach to the economic crisis is that when anyone suggests that there has been a hollowing out of democracy, the cry immediately goes up from defenders of the strategy: “Where are the tanks? Where are the gulags? Where is the police state?”

But this is a category error, a conflation of autocracy and totalitarianism, as there can of course be creeping autocracy without totalitarianism. The advance of rule by decree does not signify the imminent appearance of a Duce or Fuhrer but with a blue and yellow flag. Mario Draghi is not Kim Jong-un.

Cindy Skach, professor of comparative government at the University of Oxford and one of the world’s leading experts on constitutional design, has described precisely this sort of legislative atrophying phenomenon as ‘constitutional dictatorship’. It comes from the use of emergency powers over a prolonged period “during which authority is transferred to non-partisan, above-party sources, leading to a loss of substance in the democratic process.”

In her work comparing Weimar Germany and the French Fifth Republic, she offers a warning of what results from this overuse of decree: “Such periods are also characterised by opaque, nonaccountable decision-making in which the democratically elected institutions of the polity, such as the legislature, have lost their controlling capacity, as presidents become increasingly less accountable.”

Such descriptions will of course be familiar to anyone who has followed the steady transfer of fiscal powers out of the hands of democratically elected parliaments – both in EU-IMF programme countries and across the eurozone.

To be clear, I am not saying that Italy, Spain, Greece and other countries are being ruled entirely by decree, but a lot of the new rules do come in the form of decree.

This state of exception is becoming permanent.

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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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