Italy Is Ungovernable. That’s The Point.

In the search to avoid authoritarianism, the government has institutionalized anarchy.

Government Crisis - Incontro di Leone Magno e Attilia
Raphael's Incontro di Leone Magno e Attila, a copy of which hangs in Palazzo Chigi, the residence of the Italian Prime Minister.

In the search to avoid authoritarianism the government has institutionalized anarchy, and crisis has become the default position.

Over the course of twelve hours last Tuesday, the Italian Senate debated a no-confidence vote on Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government, precipitated by Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva party pulling its support, and its ministers, from the coalition. During the proceedings, senators rose and delivered their remarks, which ran the spectrum from incendiary to inept to obedient. One of the most impassioned, and cogent shows of support for Conte’s government came from Senator Loredana de Petris. In her ten minute intervention, de Petris thanked Conte for taking the vote to Parliament rather than resigning for, as she noted, his action was in accordance with the protocols laid out in the constitution. Many applauded her comments. Others seemed surprised to hear that such options were available.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this latest crisis in the Italian government was yet another example of its inherent instability and dysfunction, yet another crack in the crumbling armor of a modern democratic system. Certainly, with 69 governments in just under 75 years, Italy appears to spin in circles rather than being led; consequently, political manouvers tend to suggest seasickness rather than steady hands. But just as the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist, the mist of political upheaval in Italy obscures what should be visible to the naked eye. So you’d be forgiven, but you’d be wrong.

Because the Italian political system is working precisely according to its design. Though it seems entirely counterintuitive, Italian government institutions are expressly meant to avoid a concentration of power in the hands of one individual and as such, success is measured in how often leaders are removed from power rather than their ability to hold on to it. Think of it as a less nuclear version of the Stability-Instability Paradox, where the probability of existential threats decreases while the likelihood of low-level conflicts increases. The Italian political machine has operated on much the same set of assumptions since the foundation of the Republic: by and large, it has successfully avoided the return to authoritarianism that it so feared. But what does it matter if you steer clear of an iceberg when you only wind up running aground? 

The original sin at the roots of the Republic 

Though we could argue about its exact historical starting point, the roots of the modern Italian political system lay in the immediate post World War II period, with the foundation of the Republic. To say that the country was fractured does not even begin to cover the landscape at the time: the Mussolini years had economically ravaged the economy, and the very structure of society had been levelled. However, the more lasting wounds ran much deeper: after the dominance of a fascist regime for more than two decades, there was a moral and indeed almost psychic aversion to the concentration of power in the hands of one individual. Moreover, the fall of the royal family after King Victor Emmanuel III’s support for Mussolini’s regime and his abdication in May 1946 left the monarchy badly bruised and hardly a viable option for the future. Nonetheless, the 1946 referendum which asked Italian citizens to choose their government was split between remaining a monarchy and forming a republic, with the latter only narrowly beating the former and even then doing so on an almost perfectly regionalized split between North and South. 

Thus when the time came to write a constitution for this nascent nation, there was little upon which its representatives would or even could agree. The only thing that was unanimous was the need to avoid another dictatorship and the crimes which few would admit had been committed. When the time came to write the Italian constitution in 1948, the structure of government (after much debate between leftists and the Christian Democrats) was specifically designed to keep the executive branch weak and to make it dependent on the approval both houses of Parliament. The provisions for this process are laid out in article 92, which states that the President of the Republic appoints the President of the Council of Ministers, and in article 94, wherein: 

“The Government must receive the confidence of both Houses of Parliament. Each House grants or withdraws its confidence through a reasoned motion voted on by roll-call. Within ten days of its formation the Government shall come before Parliament to obtain confidence. An opposing vote by one or both the Houses against a Government proposal does not entail the obligation to resign. A motion of no-confidence must be signed by at least one-tenth of the members of the House and cannot be debated earlier than three days from its presentation.”

The appearance of the word ‘confidence’ four times in five lines of the constitution of a nation is telling. The reluctant conferral of power reflects both the fallout of authoritarianism and the discord that both preceded and followed it amongst parties in Italy at large, but it also reflects a genuine effort to aspire to some form of consensus. As Cesare Pinelli rightly points out, “the Constitution was the product of hard times, the most genuine reaction to a moral disaster. It was also written in a vacuum.” This vacuum allowed for one of the few instances where a political order could be established according to ideals, as much of the first section of the constitution shows. However, and crucially, it irrevocably weakened the office and authority of the Prime Minister for all the decades that followed.

Ostensibly, these clauses should have given power to the citizenry to voice their concerns over the direction that policy or ideology took and whenever appropriate or necessary, the means to shift that direction. In practice, this structure instead meant that a very small section of the government could effectively topple it: over the course of seven decades, that would happen only slightly more frequently than the biennial World Taekwondo Championships. While the Christian Democrats held power in Parliament throughout much of the postwar period (thanks in no small part to assistance from the United States in keeping the Communist and Socialist parties from taking control) they nonetheless had a revolving door of Prime Ministers, each representing the fractures within the growing coalition. They became, to paraphrase their founder, “so capable in everything that they became capable of everything.” Yet they too would never confer power to one man for longer than a couple of years. Even Giulio Andreotti, the Prime Minister who inspired the nickname Beezlebub and who was unarguably one of the most powerful men in the country during the post-war period, could not hold on to the ‘poltrona’ for any uninterrupted period. Indeed of his seven stints as Prime Minister he holds the dubious honor — one among many for him — of one of the shortest periods in office before a no-confidence vote was triggered: nine days.  

Just as the world around it swung between two poles, Italy’s political landscape would remain mostly buttressed by the Christian Democrats on the one side and the Communists/Socialists on the other. And while there would be men (always men) that held tremendous power within the political machine, the built-in failsafe of ‘confidence’ would consistently push them into the sidelines, into the shadows, where they could exercise this power freely, and not to the benefit of the state itself. The impact of these shadowy manouvers would be exposed to the world during the tangentopoli scandal and the ensuing mani pulite inquests, which would combine with the end of the Cold War to finally wrestle the stranglehold that the two main parties had on Italian politics for more than forty years. 

But while the names would change, the song would remain the same: even as the second Republic was ushered in and the spectre of Silvio Berlusconi took shape, the government would fail to come under the stewardship of a Prime Minister that could instill institutional confidence and thus it sputtered, rudderless. And so on it went, through technocratic governments, grand coalitions, and a series of electoral laws that made it ever more difficult to follow who was elected, who was allied with whom, and how it would move the country forward. And it wouldn’t. Instead, Italy would find itself in an endless cycle of crises of confidence, held hostage by the very mechanisms that were ostensibly designed to protect it. But this wasn’t chaos, and it wasn’t unplanned. Instead, it was the exact function of a system meant to tread water rather than move forward with any sense of conviction. Crisis became the default position, and it has led to paralysis. If Stockholm Syndrome makes us identify with our captors, then Rome Syndrome makes us numb to their torments.

On a slow-moving ship, timing is everything 

In this most recent display of dementia puglisitica, Matteo Renzi felt it either wise or opportune to pull his support from the Conte II government and trigger a vote of no confidence. His move turned out to be neither of those things, and both the timing and the substance of his overture was denounced in spectacular fashion. Indeed the in midst of a global pandemic and with the largest aid package since the Marshall Plan on the table, the absolute last thing that Italy needed was to have confidence in its leadership so publicly called into question.

Or was it? In its own obscene way, Renzi’s bad timing showed the cracks, showed that the center cannot hold and that it was never meant to anyway. While it was an indisputably vulgar play, Renzi’s move also showed the fundamental flaw in the institutions that constitute the Italian political system and the inherent inability of it to sustain an executive body. In any other time, it would have seemed like one more example of the bald attempts to replace one placeholder with another, and round and round the carousel would have spun. But the gravity of this moment and its consequences for the health of both the country and its citizens shone a harsh light on the dusty corners of political action in modern Italy. Indeed if any confidence should be questioned, it is whether a system meant to avoid dictatorship has instead managed to erect a confederacy of dunces. Matteo Renzi couldn’t have picked a worse time, and his decision to do so at the expense of a viable national strategy for economic and social reform should end his political career. But it should also be the moment that we stop pretending he wasn’t doing exactly what the system demands.

And it should come as no surprise that a figure like Giuseppe Conte would inspire trepidation amongst politicians on each side of the aisle in Italy (and they are legion). One does not have to declare Conte an extraordinary leader, and he doesn’t have to be: that he remains, by however slight a margin or advantage, is threat enough. Whether or not he is truly getting too comfortable on the ‘poltrona’, he is consistently popular both amongst the general public and on the world stage. That alone is cause for worry, but his victory in securing more than 200 billion euro for the Recovery Plan, along with the success of the constitutional referendum in September 2020, edges him ever closer to directing the institutional shape of the country, and ever closer to personifying the bogeyman that the entire political structure is designed to ward off. He likely doesn’t merit the accusations of demagoguery that have been hurled at him, but the poltrona giveth and the poltrona taketh away. So the biggest danger Giuseppe Conte faces by far in the coming days is the danger of becoming a symbol: in Italy, that usually doesn’t end well. 

Speaking of symbols, senator for life Liliana Segre made a point of travelling from Milan to be present for the debate and sat through the interminable parade of platitudes until her time came to vote. She made the trip against the advice of her doctors, who would have preferred that the 90-year-old wait until she had been vaccinated to travel to such a high-risk environment. But she insisted, out of what she called a mixture of duty and civil indignation: “I cannot accept that in such a difficult time, in which millions of Italians are making enormous sacrifices and are looking to the future with anguish, there are politicians who are unable to make the small sacrifice of putting a stop to what Guicciardini called the particulare.” The ‘particularerefers to the idea that evil acts more frequently allow men realize their own advantage, regardless of the outcome on society. She would know. A holocaust survivor who lost her entire family to the racial laws that Mussolini instituted in 1938, Segre witnessed the worst-case scenario that has so haunted the halls of Italian politics, and her presence alone at the Palazzo Madama spoke directly to the widening gulf between what Italy needs and what Italy is. If the woman who lived through authoritarianism cannot suffer the anarchy it has bred, how can the rest of us be asked to? 

It has been almost a year to date since the Conte government first announced a state of emergency to confront COVID-19, and in that year we have heard ad nauseum from politicians and pundits that this is the greatest challenge the country has faced since the end of World War II. If that is true, then let us finally look critically at what Italy became in the aftermath, the insecurity and mistrust it embedded into the position of leadership, and the impact this has had on any sort of meaningful progress. We must look at this order so that we may transform it just as it was transformed in 1945; we must acknowledge the exogenous shock and adjust our internal ability to absorb the blows. It may have been prudent at one time to divest the executive so that no one individual could seize control of the state; at one time, anarchy may have been enough and inertia the lesser of two evils. But all wars end and in their place, new ones begin. Tragically, the arms that Italy bears are relics of the past: sclerotic, occluded and ill-suited for the coming front. And we all know what happens when you try to shoot through a plugged barrel. It blows up in your face. 

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