Yesterday, 14 December 2014, a good friend with a lot of experience in Italy, wrote about an article he’d read by Roger cohen in the N.Y. Times:
“Pretty favorable piece in today's NY Times. Does he have it right?”
The short answer is “No.”
Here is the link
For those who don’t have time to read the article, here is the what I think is the key paragraph about Italy’s young (39) premier, Matteo Renzi:
“He is a man in a hurry: constitutional reform, electoral reform, sales on eBay of a fleet of official luxury cars, women thrust into top jobs (half the cabinet is female), plans to slash the number of members of Parliament and senators (currently almost 1,000 of them).”
The key paragraph because it shows what Renzi’s good at and what journalists now almost exclusively pay attention to: what they like to call “optics”. The constitutional reform proposed by Renzi is still stalled in parliament a year later and it cannot pass without the votes of Silvio Berlusconi’s moribund Forza Italia, which means that it’s not much of a reform at all. Yes, the number of Senators would be reduced but they won’t be elected by the people but by the regional legislatures, taking Italy back to the situation in the U.S. prior to the 17th amendment (1913).
Similarly, the electoral reform is stuck despite Renzi’s promise to have it approved by March 31, and it also guarantees control of the parliament by the party machines – the candidates are chosen by the party secretariats and voters have no choice to vote the candidate of their choice. If you vote for Renzi’s party you vote for candidates selected by Renzi and who are thus beholden to Renzi – or any party secretary – rather than to their constituents. Hmm.
The sale of “official luxury cars” resulted in the sale of 8-10 cars and netted several hundred thousand euros for the state treasury. The optics were great but the substance is invisible.
Perhaps the best example of empty optics has been Renzi’s choice of his female ministers and lieutenants in the party apparatus. They are all his age or younger, without any significant professional experience outside of the party, and have become the object of increasingly popular satirical sketches performed by the country’s top comedians. Italian women politicians of the past were very few, generally middle aged, and homely but they we were women who commanded respect (Nilda Jiotti, Tina Anselmi, Emma Bonino). The current ministers are looked upon as Renzi’s girls.
If Renzi or anyone else wants to change Italy he’ll have to go way beyond optics and he’ll have to take on centers of power that are much stronger and more extensive than Italy’s working class and its unions, which are the adversaries hit by Renzi’s “Jobs Act” and the remnant of what Roger Cohen remembers as a powerful social force from his time in Italy thirty years ago. Not that the Italian unions are not to be criticized. They are just as corrupt as the rest of Italian society and as a result they have lost much of their claim to worker loyalty and thus of their ability to represent the working class. But the unions and the working class ae not the power centers that are preventing change in Italy.
The power behind the national inertia lies elsewhere: industrialists who do not invest in innovation and send their profits to tax havens; rampant tax evasion; a bloated and inefficient public bureaucracy many of whose employees hold off-the-books second jobs in the private sector because their public salaries are pitifully low; a judicial system that seems deliberately designed to unfairly punish the weak and absolve the powerful; a university hiring system based on cronyism rather than merit; the tax free commercial property and political influence of the Catholic Church.
These are just some of the real power centers that Renzi as of yet has failed to take on. He’s had a small victory beating up on the unions with the Jobs Act but real change will be a lot harder and so far he hasn’t shown any interest in achieving it. Renzi’s optics are good but even though he comes from the home of the famous Florentine T-bone steak, he’s way short on beef.