A few weeks ago, the Italian people finally broke the political framework that dates to the end of the second world war. The M5S Five Stars Movement, a party without a heritage, won the most popular votes. The M5S has been on a wave of growth since winning mayoral control of some Italian cities.
The second-ranking parties are also new in their outlook, since they are right wing populists, anti-immigration, anti-European, or pro-capitalist oligarch fronts.
Berlusconi returned from the political wilderness, elderly now and still infamous for his bunga-bunga orgies with minors, but carrying on his personality cult as if nothing had ever happened.
The true loser is the democratic party, the pro-NATO centre-left, the stabilising major coalition party which gave many Italian premiers and presidents and set the twentieth-century tone of Italy as a founder of Europe and a pillar of the welfare state. This establishment party almost disappeared from the ballots of their faithful supporters, and the other leftists, socialist and communist coalition did little better.
It now remains to assemble a governing coalition out of this new political landscape, a tough prospect given that few of the new players have ever done any governing or even shown serious interest in the prospect. Italy is famous for short termed governments, with rotating parties and replaceable politicians. The ruling philosophy has been that the facade changes rapidly so that things can stay the same.
It is an old, conservative, pragmatic, functional and very Italian way of getting by, and avoiding spasms of turmoil, bloodshed and disaster.
This situation is different now, though, because there is nobody left in office who knows how to remain calm and sell out to the status quo. The people have renounced the political order and voted for visionaries, demagogues, adventurers and amateurs. Is there any democratic ideology of governance that still works in Italy? Has power passed from Rome into the hands of Brussels, or social media, or offshore investors? If there is no system left except for rebels against the system, who will pave the streets and run the schools? Italy is famous for its deep superficiality, but no living Italian has ever seen an Italian state of affairs so profoundly superficial as this.
In the Italy of the remote nineteen-seventies there was once a popular rock band called The Rich and the Poor: “I ricchi e i poveri.” The band was a quartet of two couples, a blonde man and woman, and a second pair who were brunettes.
Of course the rich were the blondes, while the poor were the others. Nevertheless they Rich and the Poor were singing and dancing together, and there was no big difference in their vocal or musical capacities, even if everything in Italy of the 1970s understood the stark reality of wealth and poverty in everyday life.
A rock band of the 1970s could elide these differences or even make them entertaining, singing and dancing together! Now the divisions are stark.
Poverty is normal, it’s the life of billions in slums all over the world. If you have a roof above your head, soup on the table , emotional fulfilment and a few cheap thrills, then you share the human condition with centuries of your ancestors. You may lack capital, but you’re well above the abject miseries of prisons, hospitals and refugee camps. It’s not that bad, and personally, I wonder if demanding more might be more trouble than it’s worth.
However, it’s the rich who have soared abnormally above this baseline. They have hoards of capital, they live in castles, they have wealth management services to maintain their unearthly standards, and there’s no way that a song-and-dance can bridge these emotional differences.
During the ski season in the Dolomiti, a resort can charge 2000 euros per night nowadays. It doesn’t matter if most of the hotel is empty; these outsize fees underwrite the new exclusivity. If you can’t spend a middle-class monthly income on a hotel room, you might as well sleep in the snow. Resort hotels become gated communities, and the middle class vanishes, replaced by the rich and the seasonal workers of the service class.
Instead of being an arena for popular sports, the slopes become meeting grounds for the normally invisible ultra-rich, whose market power has re-arranged resort society so that they meet no one but one another. Mass culture vanishes and our resorts, our cities, our houses, are occupied by capital. The money still flows, the hotel does pretty well, the banks don’t complain, but in the meantime we’re displaced from our lives.
Some define our new society, with this sharp division of income and equity, as a new feudalism. But history just rhymes, it doesn’t repeat itself exactly: in feudalism, the serfs actually mattered. The castles weren’t automatic, they weren’t owned and controlled by distant sovereign wealth funds. In feudalism there were consequences if a castle was de-populated; it couldn’t guard itself with drones and robots.
A feudal aristocracy was anxious for glory and honour; they spent a lot of time dressing up in iron and lace, displaying courtly manners and cavorting as cavaliers. They were very keen to behave in lordly and ladylike ways that marked a sharp division with the vulgar. They wanted to be visibly different from the 99 percent of their day, and without just crassly declaring that they had a lot of money.
I’m starting to worry about the ultra-rich, who seem to be more like Russian oligarchs than the Medici. They’re very rich, and they don’t lack for intelligence, but they’re starting to look frankly monstrous.
Some kind of “post human turn” has a grip on them, when you glimpse them in their exposed moments between the private jets, the limos and the penthouses. Their clothes aren’t much to boast about — they don’t wear ball gowns or tuxedos — but they are sinking a lot of money into gym routines and plastic surgery.
When they’re old, as they most commonly are, they don’t want to look it. They want to be perceived, or they see themselves, as dynamic surfers, golfers, skiers, or maybe as dance-all-night club kids who are nevertheless in their seventies. They’re a quantified software version of Frankenstein: with unnatural longings than can never be appeased, they are lonely and soul-less, poised on the brink of some Donald Trump snappish rage that will defend their own fakeness at any price.
They have become the new post-global class of yacht monsters. They dock up in sleek vehicles, commit their various off shored, tax-sheltered, poorly-defined crimes, frauds and misdemeanours, and then sail over the horizon, unreachable, beyond reckoning.
Worst of all, although they are a ruling class, they don’t have the look of one. They have the furtive look of embezzlers and gamblers. Instead of being charismatic Prince Charming, they’re the kind of guy who provokes a #metoo outbreak; instead of being captains of productive industry, they are fixers who game systems to make sure no one can prosper without them getting a cut. They build castles, but they’re secretive and hideous, like the Yanukovych hunting lodge north of Kiev.
They have the swollen, weary look of white elephants; they’re marching toward a graveyard. Some day they will be gone, maybe sooner than anybody can intuit, and then nothing will be the same.