Bannon in/on Italy
By Alberto Mingardi
Steve Bannon, as you may know, spends more and more of his time in Europe. He visits Italy quite a bit, as he is rumored to be planning to turn a monastery into a sort of permanent summer school for “populists”.
Recently Bannon was in Italy and had a debate with Carlo Calenda, former Minister of Industry and soon to be a candidate in the European elections with the Democrats of the Left (he has his own movement, federated with them), hosted by Comin and Partners, a PR firm in Rome. I didn’t attend the debate but watched it online, as you can do here.
While I’m no fan of Mr Calenda, and disagree with his reading of globalisation, I think he clearly won the debate. And for a rather simple reason: he brought some facts in support of his narrative. On the other hand, I find what Bannon is doing fascinating, and dangerous, particularly for his own followers in the United States.
Basically, Bannon sees the political world as the stage of a battle. On one side are the “deplorables”, who were badly hit by the crisis and recession of the late 2000s. On the other, the bail-outs and other policies (including QE on both sides of the Atlantic) fostered by the “establishment” went to benefit a self-serving elite which could not guarantee the economic growth they had promised. This is meant to conceptualise the electoral victory of Donald Trump, making it not the product of some specific contingencies (good intuitions in campaign management by Bannon himself, an astonisghingly weak opponent in the person of Hillary Clinton), but a turning point in political history. This merges into a story telling of a grand battle between the nation state and “globalist” institutions, such as the European Union but also technocratic bodies like the Fed, the Europan Central Bank and the IMF.
This story may or may not be consistent with the election of Donald Trump in the US. But it can hardly fit with recent European, and Italian, history.
In his reading, Bannon thinks the Italian economic decline, which is a very real and sad thing, is a product of European making. He calls on the technocrats parachuted by Brussels into Rome to lead the Italian government. Well, let’s clarify one point: that may apply (I say “may”: that government was backed by a wide, bipartisan, parliamentary majority) to one government, the one led by Mario Monti between November 2011 and March 2013. Before that, the last technocratic government we had was the one led by Lamberto Dini, between January 1995 and May 1996: the euro was not in the Italians’ pockets back then. Before the government which took over in June 2018 and which Bannon supports, we actually had, in 2013-2018, three different political executives, led by professional politicians (one, Matteo Renzi, was also the leader of his own party).
Was their freedom of action undermined by Italy being part of the EU? Well, all of them asked for more fiscal “manoeuvre” (higher deficits) and at the same time benefited from relatively low interest rates on the Italian debt. In this way, I suppose you may say that EU membership had a negative impact on Italian reforms, but in quite a different way that Bannon assumes: it reduces the need for them, which was, at times, made urgent by difficulties in financing Italian debts on the market more than by whatever supranational screening. Calenda reminded Bannon (who gave no answer) that the current Italian government faced a sharp increase in the spread between German bunds and Italian bonds in the fall, to which it adapted by moderating its budget law commitments. Still, those commitments are mostly about lowering retirement age (though for a limited time) and a version of a minimum base income (though means tested). Are these policies that Bannon would support?
I think he may not. In the few moments in which he provides the nuts and bolts of an agenda, rather than a narrative, Bannon speaks for the need for positive interest rates (so that savings may once more empower social mobility), lower regulations and privatisation. Calenda challenged him on Trump’s fiscal reform, considering it inadequate to face the challenge of growing inequalities. Bannon did not answer to that. All in all, my impression of the debate is that, if asked to articulate a political program, Bannon may be closer to old style Republicans than he likes to appear. With, of course, a crucial difference: protectionism. This seems to me to signal that perhaps his interest in reforms is very limited: international trade and globalisation could (should) be driving states to streamline their bureaucracies, improve regulations, et cetera. For Bannon, reforms are not driven by contingencies but only by the will of the people. The problem being, here, that people certainly have a legitimate want of better conditions but rarely share any profound vision of how government shall be changed or improved.
On the subject of the European Union, Calenda tried to explain to Bannon that European integration is still limited in scope. For example, immigration is not a matter nation states shall strive to get back in control of: they are in control of it already. Bannon did not reply by mentioning Schengen and free movement of people (Polish plumbers included) within the EU, and he actually added, later on, that the populist movements he is advising do not want to question that. All in all, he seemed to have very limited knowledge of what the EU actually does – and thought the movement towards “unification” is stronger than it actually is. Now, it is certainly a possibility that those tendencies get revived, after the UK exits and if a stronger, new German-French pact is forged. Yet in the last few years almost nobody seemed committed to“more” European centralisation.
Another thing I found weird in Bannon’s narrative was his attempt to add an intergenerational fight to the old story of the establishments against the elites. He says people have been reduced to serfdom by not being able to save to own things any longer and that the gig economy is making us all more insecure. Whatever the merit of this second point, the only examples of the gig economy that are operating in Italy are Airbnb (which is a gig economy for people who _own_ something indeed!) and food delivery, which I suppose may fit Bannon’s description but is limited when it comes to the number of people it employs, and actually seems to me to be a formidable device for allowing low skilled people to have a job in an otherwise difficult economic environment. But more generally speaking, are there many desperate Uber drivers, who feel deprived of better opportunities, among Trump’s supporters?
Bannon seems to me a bit like those singers who made a fortune with a tune and keep singing variations of it. But regardless of fears of all powerful “globalism” so far different national democracies have very different track records and political history, the same narrative can’t make to fit the whole Western world and be credible at the same time.