Politics

Italy’s lab leak: Technopopulism – POLITICO

Among aficionados of political movements, Italy has been long known as a sort of laboratory for experiments that later leak out into the rest of the world. It was from there, for example, that fascism — cooked up by Benito Mussolini — infected not just Adolf Hitler’s Germany but Francisco Franco’s Spain and António de Oliveira Salazar’s Portugal.  

A more recent example is Silvio Berlusconi’s one-man political circus. By putting shock-jock marketing at the service of conservative policymaking, the media mogul and three-time prime minister dominated Italy for decades and foreshadowed outbreaks of similar political styles from France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and the United States’ Donald Trump. 

Today, Italy is conducting yet another experiment. The government headed by Mario Draghi — a prime minister credited with saving the eurozone and supported in part by parties that once clamored to leave it — may be the purest expression yet of this era’s hot new political formula: technopopulism. 

Though the term was originally coined in 1995 to describe populism powered by technology, technopopulism has since evolved to take on a new meaning: the post-ideological blend of technocratic governing and populist politicking. The mix is not an obvious one. Technocrats (bloodless apolitical administrators, often governing in a caretaker capacity) and populists (rabble-rousing demagogues who claim to be speaking for “the people”) are usually seen as polar opposites. The 2017 French presidential face-off between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, for example, was seen by some as a quintessential showdown between a technocrat and a populist.  

In a recent book, however, the political scientists Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti argue that technocrats and populists actually have much in common: Both are products of the fading of the right and left ideologies, caused by factors including the diminished role of religious belonging and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which created the impression that “there is no alternative” to liberal democracy. 

Rather than representing just one part of society (as traditional political part-ies do), both technocrats and populists claim to stand “for the interest of the social whole,” Bickerton and Accetti write.  

“In the case of populism,” they continue, “this whole was said to be the ‘popular will,’ whereas in the case of technocracy it is the specific kind of political ‘truth’ to which technocrats claim to have access in virtue of their competence or expertise.”  

The birth of a movement 

To be sure, the modern form of technopopulism wasn’t born with Draghi. Berlusconi dabbled in it as well. Presenting himself as a successful entrepreneur able to deliver where Italy’s discredited political parties could not, he was able to attract both socialists and conservatives to his side. 

But it’s in Italy’s current government that the political style has come into its own.

Draghi, the 74-year-old former president of the European Central Bank (ECB), is in many ways the ultimate technocrat. Famous for halting a potential run on eurozone debt by pledging to do “whatever it takes,” he was pegged by Italy’s pundits for a caretaker role long before a crisis that needed his steady hand presented itself.

Italy’s parliament, made up of a kaleidoscope of political parties, may not be post-ideological, but it’s so venal, it might as well be. After the 2018 election, it first supported a government made up of two populist parties — the far-right League and the anti-establishment 5Stars Movement — that flirted with leaving the eurozone. It then switched tacks and propped up a pro-European coalition made up of the center-left Democratic Party and the suddenly centrist 5Stars. 

So when Draghi — whose acolytes had repeatedly knocked down rumors that he wanted to be prime minister — raised his hand to take hold of the reins, Italy’s parliament had no problem falling in line behind him. He now governs with the support of every political party — including the League and the 5Stars — except the post-fascist Brothers of Italy, who remain alone in opposition. 

In office, Draghi has drawn his legitimacy from the technocratic side of the ledger, presenting himself as Italy’s responsible guarantor, as he fights the pandemic, reforms the economy and prepares to spend hundreds of billions of euros in loans and grants backed by the European Union. 

But he’s also not shy of deploying the occasional populist flourish. As president of the ECB, he could sometimes be spotted flying to Frankfurt in economy class. As vice chairman at Goldman Sachs in London, it was possible to bump into him on the Tube.  

And as prime minister, he declined to take his €110,000 salary — a move that was described as a “populist gesture,” given that he had earned nearly €600,000 in 2019, the vast majority of it from state pensions from his previous jobs as director general of the Treasury and governor of the Bank of Italy. Italian officials stress that Draghi didn’t publicize the fact that he declined his salary.

Italy’s latest export 

It is safe to say that like the country’s previous political offspring, technopopulism is unlikely to stay confined to the Italian Peninsula. Indeed, some have already pointed to Macron as a possible exponent of the movement.  

A former investment banker who — never having been elected — was appointed as a business-friendly economy minister before dropping out to run for president, Macron seems stamped out of the technocratic mold. He’s also evidently post-ideological, having served in a socialist government, campaigned as a “radical centrist” and moved toward the center right during his time in office.  

And yet, there’s also an “undeniable populist dimension” to President Macron and his La République En Marche party, according to French political scientist Renée Fregosi. In En Marche’s political language, “young people necessarily represent renewal, therefore the good, the beautiful,” she wrote. “Any change, any novelty is good in itself.” This is then combined with a “moralizing” component that is typical of populist rhetoric.  

For Draghi, technopopulism is enmeshed in what he sees as his mission: to use the coronavirus recovery money to help turn around the Italian economy and make a success of the EU’s decision to show solidarity by issuing debt backed by the entire bloc. 

The money Draghi has been entrusted with has allowed him to create a new brand of post-political politics —  “because the emphasis is on reconciliation instead of conflict,” said Accetti, one of the authors of the book on technopopulism.

In the current Italian context, political parties aren’t bad. They’re irrelevant. In October, when the League had some problems with a government proposal on taxes, Draghi simply made clear his intention to go ahead. “Draghi arrived in Italy with this money in his backpack [that] became the tool for which he was able to absorb the conflict,” Accetti said. 

The question is how long this equilibrium can last. Draghi’s personal prestige and the centralization of authority in the prime minister’s office during the pandemic have given him power that has few precedents in modern Italian history. But both the League and the 5Stars have lost popularity during his time in office, even as the Brothers of Italy opposition party has swollen in strength.  

Neither of Draghi’s disgruntled coalition members is likely to make a move while he’s running the country. But they have an incentive to make life complicated for the government — if, as some predict, Draghi is elected president of the republic at the start of next year, making way for his treasury minister, Daniele Franco, to take over as prime minister. 

The Italian presidency is not without its powers, but it is mainly a ceremonial position. And without the quintessential technopopulist at the helm of the government, the inherent tension in Italy’s novel political formula could quickly bubble to the surface.

As the German political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller pointed out, another thing that technocrats and populists share is the conviction that there’s only one right way of doing things. Where populists claim to represent the “one authentic popular will,” technocrats present themselves as knowing the “only one rational answer to policy challenges.” 

“Disagreeing with a populist means being ‘declared a traitor to the people,’ whilst disagreement with a technocrat means that ‘you’ll be told politely that you’re not smart enough,” writes Müller. 

Keeping these two forces aligned requires someone who can make the case that the popular will and the rational answer are one and the same — never an easy feat, especially in the Italian political laboratory. 



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