Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Italy - A vote for change?

Being part of an Anglo Italian company means I get to speak to a lot of Italians. No surprise there. But what I have found surprising and saddening is the sense of resigned despair that has affected so many in recent months. Last nights results in the Italian elections however give me some cause for optimism.

Over the years I have visited Italy and been subject to its frustrations, its  bureaucracy, its crime and corruption and indulged in all the cliched and prejudicial chat which pretty much goes along the lines - “well what do you expect, its an Italian tradition!” I remember distinctly sitting in a restaurant in the far south listening to a learned friend describe a significant aspect of the local economy being what he referred to as “factory farming”. This was not chickens in large numbers but the proliferation of empty factories and buildings springing up across the dusty countryside, empty and redundant and with no more purpose than to access funding and grants that supported their construction, and of course many groups would take their cut. Whilst a lot of the banter we had was good humoured and my Italian friends in the main would josh along but defend their corner well. But later last year I noticed a change. It seemed that many of the educated, intelligent and eloquent Italians I met in Rome were articulating views about Italian institutions being broken, corrupt and hopeless, only this time they really meant it. Worst of all no one could see an answer. There was a hopelessness I had never encountered before and it made me sad. But maybe, just maybe they have begun to find a way to resolve it.

The results from yesterday's election and the success of Beppe Grillo and the Movimento 5 Stelle, or Five Star Movement, is simply not a surprise to me at all. Nor is the lack of support for Mario Monti. The continued, albeit reduced, support for Berlusconi should not surprise us either - even if it may depress me profoundly.

Whilst we hear expressions of surprise at the success of Grillo and his fellow candidates,  described in the UK in hushed tones as “political novices”, this is entirely what one should expect when the established parties have demonstrated to the populace that they are incapable, untrustworthy and inept - surely much more damning than being novices. One can forgive novices their errors. I would be particularly interested to see the demographic of his supporters of Five Star. I would bet they are younger, significantly so, and this is for me cause for hope because it represents a vote for change unencumbered by consideration with convention.

As for Monti - apart from being the architect of Italian austerity and thereby almost inevitably unpopular - he represents a profoundly undemocratic imposition by European and global institutions and vested interests seeking not to change a system that is patently flawed, but to prop it up.

Those inside and perhaps importantly outside of Italy that are fearful  of the inevitable instability that will follow this muddled election outcome are in many cases those that typically do not want change, espouse the idea that there is no alternative because they do not wish to see one, and hope for a return to a “stability” that will see them as winners.

Manuel Castells suggests that as traditional institutions, be they banks, legislatures, retailers, are increasingly seen as failing the people they purport to serve that those same people will now more readily embrace and supply alternatives. And importantly now in our networked world people are increasingly empowered to bring about those changes and create those alternatives and take ownership of the issues because technical tools allow us to collaborate and act with so much greater ease than previous generations. Increasingly they are disinterested in the fate of established institutions and do not seek to reform them, they simply bypass them. So why bother trying to change a bank from the outside by buying a share and attending the AGM? Simply ignore it and build an alternative one. Why stand for a political party or  legislature in hock to vested interests and lobbyists? Ignore or it or start a new one.

I carry no torch for Five Star or any of the Italian parties, I am not closely enough engaged to cast a vote. Nor do I know what the outcome of this particular period of confusion might be. But what I find hopeful is that whilst some are scornful of the idea that a vote for a comedian as an anti vote I can see it as a very positive act. That is a vote for change even if you don't know what that change might be. So oddly and perhaps counter to what many might feel, I consider the outcome a positive one.

Today's result is a wake up call to the Italian political institutions, and the wider European and Global ones so unnerved by this outcome and so concerned what this impasse might mean to “markets”. Reform yourselves now, from the inside or you may well just be by passed by those that care nothing for your traditions. We the people are now empowered to ignore you.