In the recent European parliament elections, the two Italian parties that make up western Europe’s first fully fledged populist government confirmed they could still count on 50% of the vote. But the shocking news was that within the coalition, support for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement halved to 17%, while the far-right League doubled its share to 34% and became the dominant player in Italian politics.
How could Five Star, which had successfully pioneered new ways of doing internet-based politics, fall so heavily and quickly? Will the League last? How much damage can the illusion of “taking back control” do to a country so dependent on international markets to finance its huge public debt? And more important, what will be left of Italy’s hopes when Italians find themselves burning one political formula after the other with no sign of reversal in a 20-year decline?
I’m often asked these questions by observers of Italian politics who increasingly worry that Italy’s dysfunction may be contagious to other western democracies. They’re the same questions I ask myself when I stroll around Trastevere, the Rome neighbourhood where I live with my family.
Trastevere is the heart of the Eternal City. It is the only part of the city to have been continuously inhabited since the Roman empire. Film directors from Woody Allen to Federico Fellini have become enamoured with its ivy-clad walls and narrow, cobblestone streets. But for all the glitz and glamour celebrated by the silver screen, today’s sobering reality is that too much rubbish and too many cars have made Rome’s “great beauty” unrecognisable.
This was all supposed to change after the last mayoral elections in 2016, when the neighbourhood (which happens to be the traditional cradle of the Communist party’s Rome branch) voted overwhelmingly for Virginia Raggi, the Five Star candidate. I myself had welcomed her election, as a promising break from the political cycle that had swung between centre-left and centre-right coalitions for the past three decades without any of Rome’s, or the country’s, structural problems being solved.
Three years on, the big disappointment is that nothing has changed. Yes, a series of scandals forced several of Raggi’s aides to resign. And yes, at a national level Italian media continue to broadcast a never-ending saga that features new stars who rapidly and disappointingly burn out. But what strikes me most is how powerless politics seems to have become in shaping daily lives.
One of Five Star’s best initial intuitions was that the environment could become a compelling political narrative, and that innovation could be the route to a better world. You might have expected that at least some restrictions would be imposed on the use of privately owned, fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, especially in a city where a person spends on average 227 hours in a car each year, according to one study. That’s more than twice the figure for any other major Italian city. It would have been logical for a party betting heavily on green innovation to encourage a massive shift to smaller vehicles, to partner with firms providing shared mobility, and to develop infrastructure for electric cars.
The disillusionment of Rome’s inhabitants is as evident as the cars that continue to dominate the landscape of a city that should treasure its power of attraction, not squander it. Just as before, local politics boils down to asking for more money so that new roads and parking spaces can be built. Everything revolves around public expenditure. A tug of war continues between Italian municipalities and the central government, just as it continues between the central government and the European commission.
Real transformation ought to be about how a society can more efficiently use scarce public and private resources. It should be about changing production and consumption models that have been based on technologies like cars, but are no longer adequate for today’s needs. Real change would require new forms of democracy that enable everyone to engage.
Such ideas lie at the heart of what led the technology strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio and the comedian Beppe Grillo to found Five Star in 2009. As a movement, it was based on the belief that the internet had made the status quo obsolete. They were right. But Casaleggio died in 2016, and those who have followed him have lacked the intellectual and managerial capabilities to see through that transformation.
Italy has in many ways been a laboratory for the political crisis that has swept across Europe. But it is also one of the places most conducive to experimenting with ways to solve that crisis.
The very depth of our problems arguably makes us Italians more aware than other Europeans, and readier to accept risks by trying out more radical solutions. The trouble is, we’ve made the mistake of thinking that politicians are the ones who can bring change to society, whereas it should have become abundantly clear by now that change can only happen if a large enough number of people take responsibility for it.
The success of Italy’s future political actors – those who will fill the void left by the collapse of the old establishment and the failure of movements that came to power too soon – will be defined by their ability to present a vision that engages with people and offers pragmatic approaches to getting small things done.
In Rome, for example, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the courage to ban all private cars from entering the historic centre and replace them with collective or shared means of transport. Tourists would rediscover the largest open-air museum in the world, while we Romans would finally feel our community stepping into the 21st century.