Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri
fpb

Against the two-party system

Democracy means rule of the majority. No system in which 36% of voters get to kick around the remaining 64% has any claim to be called democratic. You may be happy that your lot get to dictate how the rest of us live, but please don't try to make out it's anything but the power of a minority. (That is valid across the board. I detest UKIP. But the notion that one MP is proper representation for three million votes is a very, very unfunny joke - and I'm being polite.)

"The smack of firm government" is, in my experience, badly overrated. My country used to be mocked for having governments that lasted six months. But these governments, whose ever-shifting names reflected nothing more than constant politicking within a fairly stable majority, somehow managed to get a shattered and starving country out of the shadow of military catastrophe and civil war and into the peaks of the industrialized world - the world's seventh largest economy by 1960, even sixth or fifth for a while in the eighties, still the eight or ninth today, in spite of the rise of China and East Asia.

Sure, much of that was a part of the great recovery that took place across western Europe and Japan in the fifteen years aftter World War Two. It was not only in Italy, but also in Germany – a country that had been at the head of European economy since 1870 – that people spoke of an “economic miracle”. But Italy came from a considerably lower level. The country, which had been the richest in Europe until 1500, had suffered from increasing foreign dominance, and since 1796 and the Napoleonic invasion, had been practically strangled. She had missed the Industrial Revolution altogether. By the time an Italian state was created by brute force in 1860, she was what we would call today a third-world country, with four people out of five unable to read and write, no national transportation, and no capital. As if that wasn't enough, the country had practically no raw materials (except for the food grown from its fertile soil) and certainly none of the great iron and coal fields that had powered the industrial development of America, Britain, Germany and other countries. This meant that any industrial development would require further outflows of capital for raw materials and, for a while, technologies. Since 1860, Italy took great strides, but by 1939 the distance from the great industrial powers – Britain, Germany, America – was still enormous. The progress after 1945 staggered everyone; it was like nothing anyone had experienced within living memory – and it took place as that quarrelsome, six-month-government majority led it.

We are not talking only about economic progress. The much-derided six-month governments improved laws across the board, introduced rights for the disabled and for minorities, took great strides in the protection of Italy's beautiful environment - national parks went from 4 to 21 in twenty years - and its incomparable historical and artistic heritage, broadened the reach of education and built massive infrastructure. Starting in the seventies, the State took on the seemingly omnipotent mafia, fought itt to a standstill (thanks to the sacrifice of many brave and unforgotten magistrates, policemen, journalists, and common citizens) and turned the citizens of Sicily against it. There certainly was considerable corruption, but that could have been tackled too, and at any rate it did not actually halt national progress and prosperity.

From 1945 to 1994, Italy experienced the same kind of politics that is becoming common across Europe now. Basically, in an increasing number of countries, the traditional parties have become unable to form a majority on their own and have seen a third party rise which cannot be trusted with power. In Germany the Christian-Democrats and Social-Democrats face Alternative for Germany; in Ireland, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael see Sinn Fein come out of nowhere, or rather out of the nefarious politics of Belfast, as the real opposition; in Sweden, worst of all, the so-called Sweden Democrats, a party with undeniable Nazi roots, is getting up to 20% of the vote. The result are going to be unstable coalition governments. Likewise, Italy, from 1945, had a large Catholic grouping that may not even be described as a party, since it had an enormous range of groups - called “currents” - within itself, ranging from Socialist to near-Fascist. You must understand that until 1945, the Catholics had been practically excluded from Italian politics, and that they still were regarded as untrustworthy and potentially corrupt. However, the next largest party were the Communists - and they were the real thing, taking orders from Stalin. In this period, the third largest party, the Socialists, blindly followed the Communists and made one bloc with them. Then there were three smaller parties, which represent the secular continuity of Italian institutions since the revolutions of the nineteenth century, the Liberals (conservative), the Republicans (left of centre) and the Social Democrats (exactly what it says on the tin). There was also a legacy Fascist party, but it never mattered. The point is that each of these parties represented something different; and there was a considerable three-way dislike between the secular parties, the Catholics and the Communist-Socialist bloc. The secular parties accepted that they had to govern together with the Catholics, but they never regarded them as better than rabble and superstitious old women (the Liberal and Republican parties had a definite aristocratic touch, and Gianni Agnelli, head of FIAT and the uncrowned king of Italy, was known to be a Republican); and the Catholics regarded them as self-regarding vanity enterprises. And nobody trusted the Communists, who in turn made hay of the bad image of Catholics and the aristocratic image of the secular parties. So any government that was made had to be a coalition of four or five parties - and keep all the “currents” within the Christian Democrats happy, to boot. Clearly this was not going to be a stable set-up, from the point of view of visible heads of government. I remember one crisis being caused by the little Liberal Party - two to three per cent of parliament - walking out on some policy they rejected.

The remarkable thing is that the system worked; certainly better than what has replaced it after 1994. The country grew economically and socially. Necessary reforms were enacted. Business was done. An instance I like to bring is how, somehow, between scandals, yelling, personalities, and early elections, the number of National Parks grew from 4 to 21. Another is the number of laws and court sentences that eventually granted disabled people the rights of full citizens, removing the demeaning status of “protected persons” that had been fastened on them by Mussolini’s Code Rocco The fact is that all the parties, including Communists and Fascists, had learned how to negotiate with each other, making sure that the work of parliament was done; and as the majority, however many government crises and early elections there might happen, was pretty much fixed, people who needed to do business with the Italian government knew who to go to. The country has ceased to progress since 1994, and in my view this is exactly because the messy but functional multi-party set-up that had run the old republic was replaced by an even messier, and entirely non-functional, left-right two-way split, where both parties mostly spent their times in internal quarrels, both being the unwholesome fusion of several different tendencies from the past.

Having a single voice, a single party, in government, inevitably narrows and stultifies all aspects of politics. Let me give you an example of why a multi-party system is more efficient – and, mind you, it is a case in which I dislike the result on principle, even as I admit it was necessary. By the fifties and sixties Italy had become the only Western country with no divorce at all. The Catholic party, the largest in the majority, had repeatedly blocked attempts to introduce divorce in Italy. This was a serious problem, because tens of thousands of Italian citizens living abroad or with foreign spouses had got divorces in foreign countries, and remarried, only to risk prosecutions for bigamy in Italy. In 1967, the non-Catholic parties of the majority made common cause with the Communists and created a parliamentary majority for a divorce law in despite of Catholic opposition. As it happened, there was a referendum on the law in 1973 which showed that numbers for and against it among the electorate were pretty much parallel to the majority formed in Parliament for that particular law. Representative democracy had worked as it was supposed to, representing the views of the people.

Then came Berlusconi. The scandals of 1992 had devastated the moderate and conservative area, who needed a new identity. He offered it to them, and used his great media power and immense wealth to create a new, united centre-right front. Berlusconi had one goal in politics, to force the Italian system into a two-party shape, and he had support in this, for their own obvious reasons, from the former Communists, now the Democratic Party. (The Italian Communists had always had a very individual character, and by 1978 or so could be considered little more than a normal West European social democratic party with a few red trappings.) These two groupings largely succeeded in their goal, and Italian politics was dominated from 1994 to the last few years by the two "poles", as they called themselves. Italy had "stable" governments that lasted whole legislatures.

The result? Catastrophe. The country stagnated. No serious reform was put in place, and those that already existed were left to wither. Administration, civil life, care of the environment and of the national heritage, business, investment , infrastructure, all went backwards, The struggle against the mafia stalled, and the mafia gained a new and terrible fortress in the urban wilderness around Naples, documented in the famous movie GOMORRA.

Why? Because the constant and ultimately productive debate within the majority and between majority and minority had simply ceased, and not just ceased, but been replaced by a sterile and everlasting struggle to get and keep all your ducks in line, Both blocs were really grotesquely heterogeneous, made of groupings that had little or nothing culturally in common - former fascists, Northern League, and Catholic and non-Catholic moderates, on the right; socialists, left Catholics, and radical liberals on the left. The struggle to keep such heterogeneous groups marching in step obviously stifled individuality and effort. So the "stable" structure of Italian government meant that politics really withered on the vine.

The attempt has now effectively collapsed, with Parliament broken up into at least a half dozen rival groups. But the fact that two decades were wasted into a sterile attempt to reduce politics to Left And Right means that the tradition of mediation and debate such as kept Italian politics going in the old days have been lost. The parties of today, which have the thinnest of institutional continuities with the parties of the First Republic – in many cases, none at all – don't know how to do anything except yell at each other. This is certainly at least in part Berlusconi's individual fault. He certainly was and is a lousy politician; and he built his political position on bad manners and insults. But Bismarck or Richelieu in person could not have achieved what he set out to do. I doubt they would even consider trying.

Incidentally, consider and compare the progress made by Italy, across the board - economically, culturally, in terms of rights, in terms of environmental protection, ina ny field you care to mention - from 1945 to 1992, under the messy old system of six-month governments that made the British laugh so much,and the "progress" made by Britain in the same period thanks to the "smack of firm government". I suggest that one system was more successful than the other, and it was not the British. In other words, you people sacrifice your rights to be represented and to have your views heard to a monolith that does not even work as it claims to. Nice deal. And you have the nerve to call it democracy!

One last point: there is one country that has kept an absolutely perfect representative system, with no two-party system, no encouragement to “stability”, no agglomerations. What is this terrible land of instability and inefficiency? The State of Israel. Which, oddly enough, in the intervals of party quarrels and insults, has managed to survive four wars and seventy years of terrorism, develop the most efficient military on Earth, and become a world leader in technology and agriculture from a tiny number of quarrelsome people who originally spoke dozens of different languages and who remain insanably divided on religious, ethnic and political grounds. How strange, eh?
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