When visiting Florence at the beginning of the 19th century, the great French writer Stendhal, confronted with the extreme beauty of the city and exposed to its rich art history, had a malaise: ‘I was in a sort of ecstasy, absorbed by the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I had reached the point of celestial feeling [...] I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.’
In Florence and beyond, Italy is a country of exceptional taste in art as well as in food, wine, fashion, and cars. For many, including me, it is as close to heaven as one can get on earth.
Except when it comes to politics. Following decades of mismanagement, the nation had no margin for error when COVID hit and is now in dire straits: an economy on the verge of deflation, an unemployment rate in double digit territory, an impossible fiscal balance with a 160% government debt/GDP ratio – and no ability to devalue its currency to support the economy.
Enter Mario Draghi, aka Jack Bauer as per these notes in 2012. The new prime minister is now in charge of the country as the leader of a technocratic government.
A contemporary of Stendhal and a political theorist, Henri de Saint-Simon, is seen as the father of the concept of technocracy, a system designed ‘to apply the scientific knowledge of competent experts to the problem of society’. Technocracy has a positive connotation: it is assumed to rely on apolitical, facts-based, no nonsense expertise, supported by some form of national, depoliticized unity. In the case of Italy, the financial markets are certainly responding favorably to Mario Draghi’s appointment when considering the Italy BTP vs Bund spread.
That said, technocracy is only the result of the failure and abdication of democracy. In lieu of the people’s voice represented by elected political leaders, expertise, dressed with some sort of scientific mantel, takes over.
Many countries have turned into a pseudo-technocracy under the threat of COVID-19 as political leaders claim to ‘follow the science’. The issue, of course, is that science comes with its own dogma and tyranny. It leaves no room for debate. Any reference to new scientific evidence to support a government policy can placate a majority with a carefully mediatized propaganda. Today, the specter of uncontrollable COVID variants can be used to justify freedom restrictions for an indefinite period. The people are powerless.
Some compare the war against COVID to the world wars of the 20th century. It is not appropriate in many ways. Back then, the people were compelled to risk their lives for freedom. Now, they are required to compromise on freedom to save lives.
However dysfunctional, democracy must be vastly preferred over technocracy as the latter opens the door to totalitarianism. But perhaps in the case of Mr. Draghi, an exception can be made. As demonstrated by his acumen when at the European Central Bank, he is actually a politician in disguise.
And with more than Euro 200 billion to spend out of the Euro 750 billion recovery fund, Italy may well finally achieve heavenhood.