The exodused

The experiment in post-democracy that was the government of the technocrats in Italy ended in December when Silvio Berlusconi announced his intention to once again run for Parliament as leader of a right-wing coalition and withdrew his party’s confidence in Prime Minister Mario Monti. For his part Monti, who had pledged numerous times that he would not run for office once his mandate had reached its end, changed his mind and joined a centrist coalition alongside Christian democrat war surplus Pierferdinando Casini and former leader of the Fascist Party Gianfranco Fini, proving once again that nobody ever stops being a politician in this country – at least not willingly – and that the doctrine of transformism and creative alliance-forging is alive and well.

The legacy of Monti’s government is intrinsically difficult to evaluate. Did it save the country and possibly Europe itself from the catastrophic wrath of the financial markets, or did it enact a painful and ideological austerity programme whose actual financial benefits were largely cosmetic? How about both? Neither? Nobody seems to know. Monti himself, now that he has to petition for actual votes, is proposing to moderate some of his own reforms, or protesting to his critics that he and his Ministers ‘never asked to govern’, a proposition dangerously close to an angsty teenager’s ‘I didn’t ask to be born!’ Along with the incessantly reiterated necessity to placate the mood of the markets, these pronouncements suggest that a proper evaluation would be as much a work of psychoanalysis as of political and economic analysis.

However there are a couple of counts on which I believe that the technocrats can be more straightforwardly and concretely brought to task. The first is their inexplicable failure to force the Catholic Church to pay tax on its real estate holdings, which amount to over 20% of the property in the country. This was a job ideally suited to a group of salaried experts who didn’t seek re-election (or election, for that matter), yet at first they genuinely seemed to have forgotten to include the Church in the new tax – which hit the poorest home-owners very hard – then they pledged to remedy the oversight only to miss a crucial May deadline, then they repeatedly failed to remedy that oversight too, until finally, besides missing out on roughly 400 million euro in tax take for this year alone, they caused the state to incur a 200 million euro fine from a rightly exasperated European Union. As well as calling into question the notion of the technocrats’ superior competence, this protracted and very sorry episode shows that – contrary to the myth – these alternative arrangements do little to broaden the range of what can actually be achieved in government.

The other charge is an even more serious one and concerns the exclusion from social welfare of over 300,000 citizens who entered voluntary redundancy arrangements with their employers with the expectation of receiving their old-age pension once the severance payments ran out, only to fall into a hole once the same minister who had overseen those very same deals with the private sector – Elsa Fornero – raised the age of eligibility for the pension. Here is Fornero, who achieved some notoriety in the early days of the government for crying during the press conference in which the plans for pension reform were announced, in her final days as a minister, blocking her ears in the Chamber of Deputies in order not to have to listen to a speech from the seats of the opposition:

The theatrical disdain of the unelected for the elected emerged as one of the leitmotifs of Monti’s government, and is a fitting bookend to the experience that had begun with the same minister being moved to tears by the human consequences of austerity. Between these two moments took place the plight of the esodati, the ‘exodused’, as those ex-workers came to be called.

There is a world of meaning in that word, which as a past participle exists solely in the language of bureaucracy and, as such, serves the primary function to denote its subject precisely so that it can be acted upon within a technocratic apparatus. Yet at the same time the root, ‘exodus’, evokes an archetypal human story. The association is certainly unintended, but it’s there nonetheless: for who are the exodused if not a vast throng cursed to wander in the desert of neoliberalism?

The word has proved prophetic, too, in that one year on the issue appears bafflingly intractable. In spite of periodic reassurances by the ministries in charge that a solution would be found and the drafting of amendments by regular elected politicians endeavouring to secure the funds to reinstate the missing pensions, it currently looks like as little as a third of these former workers may end up receiving some form of welfare payment. The others look set to join the ranks of the excluded, the people to whom for various reasons – disability, criminality, nationality, gender preference and so forth – the state sees fit to deny full citizenship and whose basic needs it refuses to acknowledge.

What makes the case of the exodused especially emblematic is that it unfolded in painful slow-motion while the experts were in charge – that is to say, under the most rigorously controlled conditions for validating the notion that a set of rational interventions and regulations abstracted from the messiness of politics and the social is the best means for achieving economic efficiency, thereby reducing injustice. The exodused are an error that becomes rule in order not to allow for the possibility that the system might have produced an error in the first place. As the country laboriously re-engages in the democratic process, it would do well to reflect on this lesson.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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  1. I remember seeing something like this on the ABC television program Foreign Correspondent, where a bewildering set of loopholes were outlined exempting the Catholic Church from paying property taxes etc (down to collecting most of the money from state taxes – a hell of a lot of money – meant for the disadvantaged). ‘Papa’ still rules Rome then, even with groups such as the “exodused”, and those (who can’t find their own loophole) being crippled by the austerity measures?

  2. The special treatment of the Church is hardly new, what is noteworthy is that the technocrats should have been beholden to them at all, seeing as they were supposed to work outside of the consensus machine. We now know that Monti was in fact preparing to ally himself with the UDC, which is an offshoot of the old Christian Democrats and depends heavily on the Church’s capillary reach and lack of qualms about telling people how to vote. Yet in spite of the failure to make the Church pay their taxes, to say nothing of his obeisance to the markets, Monti still runs on his supposed ability to be disengaged from the traditional centres of power.

  3. At the risk of being annoying and showing further ignorance, is there a mood of resistance to the technocratic incompetence and wholesale corruption you have described, whether organised or not; a resistance totally distanced from technocratic and / or political organisations and from the capillary reach of the church, as you put it? That is, are disadvantaged groups such as “the exodused” etc severing ties with the Church and supporting resistance groups should they exist, in opposition to mainstream political formations? What too of such leftist groups and associated splinter groups as the Communist Refoundation Party, Left Ecology Freedom, and the Party of Italian Communists etc? What are they saying / doing about all this technocratic / government mismanagement?

    1. Sorry for the late reply – this was caught in my leaving Italy. Should you actually come back to check the comments: there are various forms of opposition, ranging from the visceral and populist to the analytical and organised. In the end nobody liked the Monti government much, as was entirely predictable: it was, after all, a political project predicated on doing what was unpopular. What is rather more pressing is the question of whether it helped to smuggle chunks of neoliberalism – an ideology that the Right in general and Berlusconi in particular have never been quite willing or, in Berlusconi’s case, able to promote – into the arena of legitimate political discourse. Large sectors of the nominally Left-wing Democratic Party, with whom the Left Ecology & Freedom Party you mentioned is allied, have been for some time the most amenable in our Parliament to those ideas, and could well end up implementing them by ditching the party to their Left and opting for an alliance with Monti’s centre if they should win the election. (Although whether they could break the current alliance under our electoral laws isn’t entirely clear.)

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