Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Beyond Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi is back in power once more. Less than two years after he was ousted from office in favour of Romani Prodi's leftist L'Unione coalition in May 2006, Italian voters have granted the billionaire media magnate a third crack at the prime ministership, with sweeping majorities in both upper and lower houses at the head of his new Il Popolo della Libertà party (PdL) and his broader tripartite rightist coalition. The election produced a greatly simplified political scene, reducing the number of Italian political parties represented in parliament from 39 to 9, wiping out both the Communists and the Greens in the process. “Now we'll govern like major western democracies, with one major party in power and one major party in opposition" announced Berlusconi after the election, "With the extremists gone...we'll operate extremely quickly in parliament and get to work modernising this country.” A worthy goal, no doubt, but it is hard to believe that Berlusconi is the right man for the job. Indeed, with his hegemonic grip on Italian television, his myriad judicial entanglements and his listless previous records in government, il Cavaliere is simply unfit to lead a modern open society. Beholden to the protectionist and xenophobic elements in his coalition, his government looks set to adopt a heavy handed and populist immigration policy whilst dodging the painful reforms of which the Italian economy is in dire need.

Of course, had the new centre-left political party, the Partito Democratico (PD), instead emerged victorious after the April 14th poll, there are no guarantees that their candidate for prime minister, Walter Veltroni, would have administered enough of the structural medicines which most economists seem to prescribe to fully revive Italy's ailing economy either. But shorn of a dependence on the hard left, which had served as a check on Prodi's reforms during his latetest period in office, it is a safe bet that the PD would have pushed such an agenda with much more vigour than the current government, whose economic priority seems to be a vain attempt to save Alitalia, the dying national airline, and whose finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, blames globalisation rather than structural deficiencies for Italy's woes. There is even less doubt that had the left held onto power, Italy would now be safe from Berlusconi's promise to force unemployed foreigners into specially constituted camps. But they did not, and they suffered a further setback on April 28th when they lost the mayoralty of Rome to the post-fascist component of the PdL, the Alleanza Nazionale (AN).

Two hefty defeats in as many weeks have left Veltroni under considerable pressure. But despite a lacklustre parliamentary campaign, the Italian centre-left should probably bear with him, for an analysis of the PD's defeat gives grounds for optimism as to their medium-term prospects of power. Berlusconi's victory was not due to a groundswell of support for the PdL. It came as a result of popular disillusionment with the outgoing Prodi government, rooted in the state of the economy and its half-baked attempts to remedy it, and of the protest votes which thus accrued to the bigger of the two junior partners of the new coalition, the regionalist Lega Nord (LN). Back in power almost by default, Berlusconi is much more vulnerable than his large majorities (68 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 33 in the Senate) suggest. He will also, at 71, almost certainly not contest the next election, whether the current administration serves out its full five year term or not. Berlusconi has no coherent plan to kick-start the Italian economy, and without one he will struggle to avoid the wrath of an electorate impatient for an end to their economic decline. His coalition is held together by little more than the power of his charisma, and as his authority begins to wane - as he ages further, as the weaknesses of a lame-duck prime ministership begin to tell, and as his personal ambitions turn to securing for himself the (largely ceremonial) presidency - he will struggle to contain simmering tensions between the LN and the AN, who have long been bitter rivals divided by both ideology and clashes of personality at the top.

Patience, then, may well be rewarded for the PD. But this is not an excuse for inaction. With the far-left ousted from parliament, the PD has emerged as the national voice of the Italian left, and Veltroni has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge it into potent political machine. Within days of his defeat Veltroni began talks with the centrist Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e di Centro party about forming common fronts in opposition, and made clear his desire to "start discussions with those forces that have not made it into Parliament" on the far left. Whilst harnessing a broad swathe of the political spectrum behind it is probably essential if the DP are to best the right next time around, tempting both Catholic-centrists and communists over into an alliance is not without risks, for in doing so the PD blurs its own identity and diminishes its chances of implementing a reform agenda should it find itself back in power. Veltroni is perhaps better off positioning the PD where it can hope to tempt across members of the PdL, should their own current coalition begin to falter or they find themselves chafing under the influence of the LN or AN. But more importantly, Veltroni must stake out clear political ground for the PD. He should make it clear that a new centre-left coalition would not be afraid as it has been in the past to tackle the conflicts of interest inherent in Berlusconi's media empire, and to remedy his attempts to evade the law. He should make the economic case for immigration, and attack the xenophobic 'law-and-order' scaremongering of the right. And, perhaps most difficult of all, he must make the centre-left case for a more economically-liberal Italy. Sooner or later, Italy's new government will begin to falter under the weight of its tensions and contradictions, and the Italian left must be ready for when they do. Unlike Berlusconi, they deserve to bounce back.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Evil 'empire'

Despite the debacle in Iraq, the rise of China, and the threat of terrorism, America wields global power on a hitherto unforeseen scale. But it is not an empire, and it is misleading to cast it as one. It undoubtedly possesses influence over many peoples and places; holds double standards linked to a belief that the 'rules' don't apply to it as hegemon; and exhibits a crusading sense of mission in the world. But so have many other non-empires. Its influence must become recognised authority, and its dominions permanent rather than transitory, before we can start discussing Washington as a new Rome. 'Empire' requires more than just an idea - more than, say, the (now-somewhat-tarnished) notion of democracy-promotion - whether or not this idea is articulated through the barrel of a gun.

In an attempt to make sense of the modern world it is natural to look to the paradigms of the past. But to talk of America as an empire is at best unnecessary and a worst a distraction from understanding the roots and consequences of American power. Take Dimitri Simes' 'lessons' from past empires for America's current 'imperial dilemma', for example. Empires "generate opposition", "have never been cost free", and "often alter their pre-imperial forms of government and ways of life". All of these conclusions are, indeed, true. But we do not need to invoke empire to come to any of them. All societies are susceptible to external pressures and impulses, America included, but of those it feels today, none are especially 'imperial'. Simes links illegal migration to his putative 'American empire', and thence to the experience of the British Empire and immigration from its former dominions, but today people move to the United States because of economics not empire, in flows shaped by geography (across, say, the Mexican boarder) and personal circumstances, not the global structures of American power. Foreign policy and power politics are not cost free for empires and non-empires alike. Indeed, warfare is often easier to bear for imperial powers who can draw upon resources beyond their own, than for states who must carry their burdens alone. Opposition, meanwhile, is intrinsic to politics, and even the smallest power can annoy its neighbours. The crucial distinction between empire and influence is how this opposition is dealt with. Even in Iraq today, with 140000 troops on the ground, America cannot simply call upon Governors and Viceroys to enforce its will, but must instead work with the Iraqi government; when it wants wholesale change, whether in pre-invasion Iraq or Iran today, it must go to war, and it must accept that supposed allies around the world are free to join in or criticise its endeavours as they please. Even if we suppose that America ultimately calls the shots Iraq today, this is no more than temporary dominion. The occupation is a much weaker phenomenon even than 'reluctant empire': Iraq is a responsibility that America is actively trying to shed.

More importantly, despite its ability to generate controversy and heated debate, Iraq and 'empire' is not the best place to look if we are to understand the underlying dynamics of American power; talk of empire leads us to look in the wrong places for its sources and outcomes. Its nuclear arsenal and overwhelming military might are not geared to hold down far flung dominions, but to act as a coiled spring to strike swiftly and decisively when informal pressure has failed and American interests are at stake. Its 'soft', cultural power is arguably America's biggest asset, but it is strong through its independent allures, not through imperial enforcement. America is the biggest economic power through mutually advantageous trade, not through the forced extraction of other peoples' resources. All these things point to an American hegemony; not uncontested, as China rises and Russia complains, but real nonetheless. But this is not 'empire', and the concepts associated with empire usually break down when applied to America's current predicament. Metaphors such as the oft-invoked 'imperial overstretch', are useful in so far as they conjure up images of an overburdened great power, but America's 'overstretch' is linked not to the demands of an 'empire' but to domestic fatigue; if there is an expiry date to the American occupation of Iraq, just as there was to that of Vietnam, it is not because of the strains of manifold imperial commitments, but because it has domestically lost the will to continue the fight. America is a powerful nation, but its power is not imperial. This power has limits, but its limitations are not those of 19th century Britain or ancient Rome. America is not an empire, and it is analytically distorting to think of it as such.