There is in every town at least one uncle with the rotten look of Silvio Berlusconi in his eyes. They all share those same ancient manners, which skilfully twist the will of the most vulnerable in his favour and rise through bifid language, doggy smiles, to become a trustworthy, affable authority. A week that begins with new government leaders in Rome and Athens, with the old ones dropped amid the markets’ financial wake-up call as it happened in Lisbon last March –as it may yet be replicated in Madrid this upcoming weekend– is an ominous week for uncles in high and lower offices throughout Europe, and a hopeful time for democracy.
In spite of the theatrical laments about savage capitalism-appointed technocrats being invested prime ministers and presidents without the people’s mandate, this can and will easily be corrected later. The truth is that Ponzis and Madoffs have never governed a bourse whereas entire Western political systems are –particularly over the Mediterranean Europe but not exclusively– dominated by big and small uncles.
A paper by Maria Tullia Galanti, of the Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane in Florence, sheds some light on what I’m trying to say here, that is,
“The idea of Southern European exceptionalism, the theme that various similarities among the states of this area set them apart from their Western and Northern European counterpart […] Their party systems and the stability of their governments would suggest the political convergence of Italy, Portugal, Greece and Spain towards the other consolidated democracies. However, the idea of exceptionalism is also linked to the distinctive features of Southern European bureaucracies and to the peculiar evolution of their institutions and welfare states.”
Professor Tullia Galanti finds that these countries, which entered the European Union during the 80s, display a similar model of state, a similar evolution of the political regime and a similar use of the welfare structures. She speaks of the burden of a not-quite-forgotten dictatorial past, and a process to democratisation that owes too much to clientelism, abusing welfare systems as patronage subsidiaries and ‘top bureaucratic echelons’ caught up in party-politics’ webs.
Of course, this is no excuse to rant as in this bad-comedy column:
“Italy and Greece are not Germany. Until recently, Germany did not want them to be. They were lands of the sunny south, of less work-driven, more pleasure-oriented cultures. To Germans, they smelled of sex (see Thomas Mann) and good food. Consider, as one illustration of Europe’s cultural divide, the argument recently advanced by Italy’s embattled (and perhaps outgoing) prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, to demonstrate that his nation’s economy is actually in good shape: “Our restaurants are full of people,” he said. I doubt there’s a single German leader, of any political persuasion, who would measure Germany’s economic well-being by restaurant patronage…”
Nevertheless, what patchy and malfunctioning democracies had let succeed as legitimate governments entangled in diverting public funds and popular will towards personal interest, has only effectively been challenged by the markets’ threat. Those who describe the financial globalisation as a separate and even opposite phenomena from and to democratic advance risk at their peril to leave in others’ hands a powerful tool for the general good.
No one can assure us that something better is taking over the uncles‘ regime, unfortunately. But from the Italian nasty right of Berlusconi to the spoiled Greek socialism of Papandreu, the message is clear: hierarchical administrations push countries to inefficient reforms that impede transparent management of public expenditure and muddles budget performance.
I dare to say that in most EU Mediterranean nations, the attitude with public and private money has echoed for too long what Montaigne once wrote:
“It is true, I am willing enough not to see it; I, in some sort, purposely, harbor a kind of perplexed, uncertain knowledge of my money: up to a certain point, I am content to doubt. One must leave a little room for the infidelity or indiscretion of a servant; if you have left enough, in gross, to do your business, let the overplus of Fortune’s liberality run a little more freely at her mercy; ’tis the gleaner’s portion. After all, I do not so much value the fidelity of my people, as I contemn their injury. What a mean and ridiculous thing it is for a man to study his money.”
Not any more.