June 1, 2018

Italy's new "Historic Compromise" in long-term context

Now that it looks like Italy is going to have a government ruled by a coalition between populists of the left (Five Star Movement) and populists of the right (the League) -- as though Bernie Sanders and Steve Bannon had formed a government -- we need to evaluate its prospects in the long-term party dynamics.

Just like the US and other countries, Italy has a political cycle that lasts roughly 40 years, during which one party is dominant and the other is opposition. At the beginning of the cycle comes a trailblazing founder who keeps the coalition in power for a relatively long time (e.g., three or more consecutive terms for an American president), followed by the occasional win for the opposition, then extenders of the original dominant vision, and ending with a disjunctive phase where the coalition is torn between the old way and the new way. After this disjunctive phase, the old dominant party gets dethroned by the old opposition, who go on to rule during their own 40-year cycle. Stephen Skowronek developed this model for the US, but it applies broadly.

Before we get too ecstatic about the new Italian coalition -- or too horrified, if they're not in favor -- we need to see if we're in the trailblazing phase, when all sorts of bold new projects are completed in record time. That would imply a changing of the parties, where the old dominant party has been dethroned and the old opposition party has risen to take its place as the agenda-setter for the next several decades.

As it turns out, this does not look like a whole new world. Five Star got 33% of the vote, far ahead of any other single party. The League was part of a larger coalition with the center-right, whose senior member has been Berlusconi's Forza Italia -- and that entire coalition got 37%, putting the League itself below Five Star. And the Prime Minister, Conte, is aligned with Five Star rather than the League.

Five Star hails from the left side of the spectrum, as revealed by its behavior early after the 2018 election results showed that a coalition government would be necessary. They refused to enter a coalition government with the center-right coalition that the League is a part of, and they attempted to get the center-left Democratic Party to join them instead. Prime Minister Conte is from the left. Their overall platform focuses on improving the material welfare of ordinary people, a left program.

Unlike the US, Italy's dominant coalition for the past 35 years has been left rather than right. See this list of prime ministers of Italy. (This is also true for France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece -- unlike the UK and Germany, where the dominant coalitions have been from the right, like the Americans.)

Beginning in 1983, a prime minister from the left, Craxi, took office for the first time since the founding of the Second Republic in 1946. He lasted four years in office -- and an Italian ruler who lasts four years is like an American who lasts fourteen, making Craxi the trailblazing founder of this current cycle. Despite interruptions by the opposition right (mainly Berlusconi), the left has remained the dominant coalition right up through the previous prime minister, Gentiloni -- and now continuing that trend with Conte.

So if anything, this is likely to be a disjunctive period -- as the dominant left tries to re-invent itself, but ultimately does not get very far with the new vision because it has so much inertia and sclerosis from having been the dominant force for so many decades.

Typical for disjunctive periods, the dominant group has reached out to the other side in a way that looks totally unorthodox, and the gesture is accepted. That is like Trump winning long-time blue states in the de-industrialized region of America, or Jimmy Carter winning over the Deep South after it had been drifting away from the New Deal Democrats for awhile, or Hoover winning Texas when it had traditionally belonged to the Solid South for the Democrats.

In Italy, it means Five Star forming a coalition with populists from the right. It's not a standard "grand coalition" where the orthodoxy of the right and the orthodoxy of the left join to form the most generic program possible. It feels like both sides are shaking things up, and don't mind shaking things up with each other -- it's a carnivalesque, topsy-turvy phase in between two coherent periods. There's the moribund neoliberal Eurocentric period, and the upcoming populist Euroskeptic period -- right now is the twilight phase in between them, rather than the start of the next period, which will be driven by the old opposition side.

But it's not just the old opposition running on its old vision -- it will be a re-alignment, to make a solid break with the past represented by the old dominant coalition. This is like the Bernie group who will take the US out of the Reaganite period. In Italy, it will be groups like the League who are on the right, but with a whole new vision for society -- populism rather than neoliberalism, and Euroskepticism rather than Eurocentrism.

That suggests that the way forward lies more with groups like the League, rather than groups like Five Star. Both will play a role in Italy's future, but since the left has been dominant for the past cycle, it will go into the opposition role in the next cycle, as the right takes over the dominant role. The next cycle will still be populist and Euroskeptic, no matter which coalition is in power at the moment -- just like the past cycle has been neoliberal and Eurocentric, no matter which coalition was in power at the moment.

The most recent parallel to this phase of Italian politics was the Historic Compromise during the second half of the 1970s, between the Christian Democrats (center/left) and the Communists (more-left). Also called the terza fase, or third phase -- and indeed a disjunctive phase is the third and final one of a beginning / middle / end cycle.

In the Postwar era, from 1946 through the '70s, the center/left was the dominant coalition -- including every prime minister of this period -- while the more-left was the opposition. Despite being relatively more on the right, the dominant Christian Democrats delivered the same kind of policies that we got here under the New Deal, whose dominant coalition was relatively more on the left. The zeitgeist matters more than left vs. right.

By the mid-'70s, the Communists had turned away from the Soviet Union as a beacon, and re-aligned themselves under the banner of Eurocommunism -- less emphasis on class struggle, revolution, and internationalism, and more emphasis on peaceful democratic control of government, social issues in addition to class, and adapting the model to the West rather than the East ("Euro" rather than "Soviet"). This re-alignment made the opposition more-left palatable to the dominant center/left, and both agreed to a kind of coalition. The center/left would rule, but with the external support of the Communists, who would get something in return.

Ultimately, the opposition did not get enough, and the compromise fell apart in 1979. But that did not mean the return of Christian Democrat dominance -- they continued to rule for only a few years longer, until they were dethroned completely in 1983. The Socialist Party that the trailblazing Craxi belonged to, grew out of the Eurocommunist re-alignment of the old opposition. It was not focused on working class struggle, or revolution, or the Soviet Union -- in fact, it would carry out the neoliberal revolution, Eurozone integration, and rely electorally more on professionals and managers.

By analogy, today's Five Star party is like the Christian Democrats of the mid-'70s -- not in their policies, but in their dominant status, and in their late placement in the cycle. The League is like the Eurocommunist re-alignment -- not in their policies, of course, but in their opposition status, and late placement in the cycle, as they seek to re-invent what the opposition stands for.

They have already formed a new Historic Compromise, although if history is any guide, the League won't get as much in return as they had been hoping, and the already tenuous coalition will fall apart within a few years. Remember that the two groups were opposed to a coalition when the election results were fresh, and the dominant side (Five Star) wanted to join the other dominant left group (Democratic Party), refusing to join the opposition right (including Forza Italia). Perhaps the left will last for a few years after that break-up.

Before long, though -- 5 to 10 years -- the old dominant party will have failed to deliver the goods on their own re-alignment. The asymmetry is that the dominant party has so much invested in maintaining the status quo of the past several decades -- they were the principal architects of that work -- whereas the opposition party has less to lose by going all-in on a total re-invention of themselves. By that point, the left will fade into opposition status, and the right will rise to take their place, under a re-aligned vision of populism and Euroskepticism.

The League has already begun this re-alignment by radically altering their own program. They used to be a separatist group for the wealthier northern region. Now they have focused on being a part of all of Italy -- as a contrast to belonging to the even larger entity of Europe. And in exchange, they must do what's best for the poorer regions of Italy, rather than try to break apart the wealthy North from the poor South.

By analogy, today's leader of the League, Salvini, may not be the trailblazer when things really start to change. Salvini might be more like Berlinguer from the Communists of the late '70s, who took the first major steps toward changing his party. Someone else might become the trailblazer, just as it was Craxi rather than Berlinguer who became the first Prime Minister of the left.

No matter which individual it is, the future appears to lie with the right rather than the left in Italy -- as presumably it does in the other countries where the left has been dominant for the past 35 years, like France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. And yet, they will still resemble the overall vision of the US and UK, who will come under the influence of the left, as the long reign of the right comes to an end.

It is not so much about left or right, but about the overall vision -- neoliberalism has been implemented by dominant parties from the left (in the Mediterranean) as well as the right (Anglo countries, Germany, Japan). As the cycle completes a full turning, populism and globoskepticism will be implemented by new dominant parties from the left (in the Anglo countries) as well as the right (in the Mediterranean).

So don't get overly excited just yet -- no more excited than we should be about the disappointing Trump administration that we all thought was going to re-write the playbook. At the same time, look at it as the final countdown -- this kind of disjunctive, topsy-turvy phase does not last long, and it means we are finally getting close to the end.


  1. We're turning not only more egalitarian, but also more liberal. Liberal vs. conservative may exist as separate zeitgeists each with a separate set of phenomenon.

    There is a lot of talk about Civil War; yet the Civil War presaged an era of increasing inequality, the Victorian Age. So maybe this time around, the transition will be more similar to the New Deal (hopefully) - the population being mobilized by various government agencies.

    Of course, cocooning also factors in - the last time that the crime rate rose, equality increased, and we had a liberal zeitgeist, were the 1960s.

  2. Only more liberal (populist) economically, not socially or culturally. The last 40 years have been more and more liberal on social-cultural matters, and are a re-birth of the laissez-faire decadence of the Gilded Age and Fin du Siecle.

    The Great Compression saw social-cultural matters grow more conservative -- censorship to keep offensive stuff out of movies, TV, comic books, etc. Prostitution no longer tolerated, gay bars raided, brothels and saloons closed down, anti-gambling fervor so high that New Deal mayor La Guardia had pinball machines smashed b/c they were "games of chance," Prohibition for awhile and then de facto sobriety rather than the saloon culture, pornography outlawed, and so on and so forth.

    It wasn't until the Me Generation of the 1970s that all those restraints came off, in a revival of laissez-faire -- Social Darwinism ("economically conservative") and libertinism ("socially liberal").

    And again, those changes have unfolded regardless of whether the dominant political coalition has been right (US, UK, Canada) or left (Mediterranean).

    "Left" and "right" refer to much lower-level differences. The Italian neoliberals have had a more gentle austerity program, compared to the American neoliberals, since the Italians were ruled by a left coalition, and the Americans by one from the right.

    And libertine culture has flourished more in Spain, where they broadcast hardcore porno over the normal TV channels on weekend nights, compared to the US, where those are still only available on age-restricted pay-cable channels (for the TV medium). Their neolib coalition is also left rather than right.

    But at a bird's-eye-view, both comparisons show highly similar changes from the 1950s to today, whether US-Italy or US-Spain. "Left" and "right" are minor variations on the single, shared themes that separate historical periods.

  3. Andrew Cuomo is going to be the next Democratic presidential candidate, isn't he?
    I don't think it's a good sign for liberal populists that so much narcisstic rage (at Trump) is required of potential candidates by too many Dem voters. That egoism makes for the natural constituency of a Clinton/Cuomo.
    Conversely, I don't think Bernie or any other lib-populist bashing would sell amongst Trump supporters, certainly would not be a requirement.

  4. This process may already be starting. The college I went to had like 5 or 6 bars on-and-off-campus during the early 2000s; after doing some research, I found that only 1 bar is left, the others all going bankrupt.

    The yelp reviews of the bankrupt places say that the college really cracked down on drinking in the 2010s(after deaths from alcohol poisoning); not sure how they would have done that specifically, though.w

  5. Curtis, perhaps we should christen those born in the very late 70's/early 80's the crackhead or binge drinking generation. Steve Sailer recently said talked about how horrible NBA basketball was in the late 90's/early 2000's because these were kids who'd been socialized by the nihilistic climate that first appeared in the very late 80's and got progressively worse, culminating in the insufferable mid-1990's. Sailer also one referenced a study showing that those born form 1979-1984 were much more likely to have done drugs than the cohorts born later and somewhat earlier.

    Illegal drug use decline from the early 80's-early 90's, than shot up in the mid-late 90's. As did binge drinking. If Boomers and most Gen X-ers had a taste for fighting and screwing in addition to or instead of substances, than very late Gen X-ers evidently had a strong preference for getting wasted on drugs and booze but otherwise didn't get into too much trouble. It seems to me that the early 80's cohort was getting wasted to deal with the angst caused by cocooning (which happened as they were in or nearing puberty) and by growing up in Boomer headed households that were unstable and full of the usual Boomer pathologies (bad tempers, narcissism, abuse, police involvement, divorce, etc.). These traumas and the depressed nature of the 1990's (a decade when reported happiness plummeted) caused a lot of joyless self-medicating among late Gen X-ers (by some accounts early Millennials). Those born in the late 80's and 90's don't show the same degree of excess, because they didn't experience as much domestic drama and they aren't as bothered by cocooning (because they came of age in mostly or entirely in the 2000's/2010's.

    Also, in the later 80's/early 90's there was a big crackdown on hedonism, and it was common for pop culture to warn people not to drive drunk or do drugs. We also started sending more people to prison. People got sick of this in the later 90's, which may have contributed to lax attention paid to excessive drinking and under age drinking in the late 90's and early 2000's (albeit not the same large degree of indifference that was common in the later 70's) . I seem to remember a 90210 episode where gambling at the casino is treated like a big deal, and there may have been a fake ID/underage drinking sub plot or episode too.

    My 1983 born brother started stashing beer at my dad's house in the late 90's; it seems like there were two peaks in underage drinking: the mid-70's-early 80's (Late Boomers) and the late 90's (very late Gen X-ers/early Millennials). Of course, for the Boomers it was all fun and games (until you died in a car wreck), whereas for the later cohort it more about self-medicating.

  6. Neil Howe has long maintained that, statistically, Gen Xers had worse drug problems than the Boomers did.

    You see that in the media, for instance, this party scene from the movie "Garden State" - (in one of the lines from the movie, one character says that "the whole town" has developed drug problems). That movie, written and directed by Zach Braff(b. 1975), is strongly autobiographical, so mostly about the cohort born in the mid-70s.


    Per binge drinking, that is related to cocooning and social awkwardness - cocooned generations prefer to get drop-down drunk before they socialize or hookup.

  7. But I know someone born in 1976 who, as the GSS and other studies have indicated, abstained from drug use in the late 80's and early 90's like many earlier Gen X-ers did in high school. Granted, this same cohort also smoked cigs a lot, fought a lot, and screwed a lot, but when they went to high school there was a sense that the 60's and the Studio 54 era is over. There was a huge backlash towards drugs in the mid-80's thru early 90's; this also was due to the awareness of how many Boomers had burned out or died on drugs, with notable deaths like John Belushi and Len Bias in the earlier 80's making the issue more urgent.

    Any history of Hollywood that is honest will tell you that by 1979 the place was over-flowing with coke in addition to whatever else people were doing. In the early 80's, the NBA estimated that anywhere from 50-80% (!) of it's players were moderate to heavy coke users. I heard a movie producer say that in terms of degeneracy, you couldn't beat a movie set in the late 70's/early 80's. In a book I read about MTV, somebody from the music industry said that 1985 was when a lot of people started going to rehab (remember that just about every decade can be split in half, so the earlier 80's weren't unlike the 70's). All of these things hit later Boomers the hardest; they were the cohort who have stories like classmates drinking before or during school in the 70's/early 80's. Secondarily, the mini-generation who went to high school in the late 90's could also be said to have heavily indulged in drugs and booze, but unlike Boomers this generation abstained from other excesses (like fighting, sex, crime, and crashing their cars into phone poles).


  8. "You see that in the media, for instance, this party scene from the movie "Garden State" - (in one of the lines from the movie, one character says that "the whole town" has developed drug problems)."

    We ought to make a distinction between "fun" drug use/partying and self-medicating. The former is associated with an outgoing climate (partying and party drugs peaked around 1980, as did "social" drinking); the latter is associated with civic and psychic decay. In the mid-90's, a lot of people seemed to "turn" to binge drinking and drugs to deal with the rapidly declining sense of social cohesion and consensus. Skateboarder Christian Hosoi didn't become a meth addict until 1994; Depeche Mode Singer Dave Gahan became interested in the Grunge movement and "tried" heroin, which quickly became an addiction in the mid-90's.

    As I indicated earlier, early 80's born people were quite vulnerable, being that they were vulnerable teenagers in the mid-late 90's when our sense of being "lost" deepened, when people became joyless, and all this after the peak of domestic drama and child abuse which late X-ers/early Millennials must've been damaged by. The peak being the 80's and early 90's; the per capita divorce rate may have been higher for Silents and early Boomers in the 70's, but by the 80's ALL Boomer cohorts (and boy were they big!) were heading often very dysfunctional families, whether they'd been through a divorce or otherwise).

    The fact that early 80's born people seem to be, on the whole, doing reasonably well, tells me that they didn't get into drugs for the "wrong" reasons (e.g., just to get a "rush"). I also don't think I can emphasize enough that Boomers, and to a lesser extent early Gen X-ers, can be narcissistic thrill seekers who think that you're lame or a square for avoiding reckless behavior. As a matter of fact, the 1960's-early 1980's were the last period that had any sort of social or civic strength, for which Boomers and early Gen X-ers have little appreciation, seeing as how they went so far out of their way to ignore behavioral limits in the name of pleasure and freedom. As you get to the late 80's, and those whose adolescence occurred then and beyond, you see generations who've never really known a world where most adults could be trusted to do any damn thing right. We are sick and tired of the ethically bankrupt "anything goes" world we were born into, and want to get back on the right track.

    As always, for those who chose to place "fun" and "freedom" ahead of guarding the commons: shame on you.

  9. "Per binge drinking, that is related to cocooning and social awkwardness - cocooned generations prefer to get drop-down drunk before they socialize or hookup."

    I'd say that you're onto something with later Gen X-ers and Millennials, who are naturally inclined to social inhibition (which didn't necessarily stop them from doing Jackass type stunts), that combined with cocooning makes them feel as if they need to drink to relax and/or blow off steam.

    Boomers and early X-ers are also showing signs of over-indulgence (today's older women have much worse rates of alcohol related problems than Silents or GIs ever did), but their drinking culture was different; it was more about partying for the sake of partying, because Boomers and early X-ers are more naturally extroverted and agreeable.

    You can basically cleave the last outgoing era into two lop-sided halves; the very late 50's-early 80's were defined by Silents and Boomers who had a zest for life (which could take some very dark and destructive turns), while the mid-80's-mid 90's were more defined by X-ers who were more angsty, reflective, and often bitter about the social and cultural decay around them (Boomers talked a good game but most just wanted a better car and a bigger house).

    I suspect a big reason that people born in the 70's and 80's are so often resentful and sullen is because there's a feeling that we mostly missed the boat on a lot of stuff:

    - an America that was still fairly homogenous
    - Some of or most of the last outgoing era
    - Greater cohesion/consensus/camaraderie
    - A much stronger Middle Class that started shrinking as soon as mid-period Gen X-ers really entered the work force

    People born in the 90's and thereafter have not even a fragment of memory or experience that reveals just how different the culture used to be. You can't miss what you never experienced. At the same time, X-ers and early Millennials aren't naive enough to fully idealize the 70's or 80's or early 90's. We went thru some grief back then, and also, we had a front row seat to rising levels of corruption and decadence for which we bear no responsibility (I often make the point that those born before 1970 largely got to be master of their destiny and trajectory, while those born later are stuck, from an early age, with every blunder made by Silents, Boomers, and very early X-ers (who often have Boomer siblings and are basically me-too Boomers).

    Frustrating that the biggest wannabe Cassandras, the culture warriors and fundie retards and such, are almost always the very people who screwed everything up in the first place (those born before the 70's). If only today's older generations had put half as much effort into doing things as they did saying things. It also gets very, very tiring hearing middle age-elderly people go on and on and on about their "freedom" and their "rights". STFU. We need to go back to emphasizing responsibilities.


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