Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini)
Let’s move away from the daily hurly-burly of the hyper-volatile financial
markets and the equally wild ups and downs of European politics. Let’s move as
far away as possible and consider the very long-term processes that are at work
– far beneath the surface and far removed from the noise that passes for news in
the mainstream media.
The entire European sovereign-debt crisis has to be
seen in the light of long-term trends in a range of areas – from economics and
finance, through politics and administration, to social mores and personal
morality. This is in contrast to the accepted way of looking at the crisis,
which is exemplified in this week’s obsessive coverage of whether and when the
prime ministers of Greece and Italy had, would or might resign and who would
replace them if and when they did.
Underlying the idea that the departure
or removal of, say, Berlusconi would represent a significant move forward and
might open the way to a “resolution of the crisis” are a number of assumptions,
all of which are either wrong or stupid, or both. One is that Berlusconi is
responsible for the current mess, which in turn assumes that the mess was
created on his watch. However, while it is undoubtedly true that Berlusconi
contributed significantly to Italy’s problems over the period of his
premiership, it is also true that they predate him by far.
argument is that he should have done more to address the problems – and,
implicitly, the assumption here is that someone else would have done so and his
successor will do so. In fact, no one would have and no one will, unless the
Germans and the European Union, or the Americans and the Chinese via the
International Monetary Fund, force them to.
These fallacious assumptions
about who is responsible draw us much nearer to the heart of the issue. After
all, Berlusconi did not seize power. Whatever his (numerous) failings, he is not
a Saddam-like tyrant who rules through fear and terror. He was elected in what
is, despite everything, a highly democratic system. Yes, he is rich and
ruthless, and he employed these assets to the full in obtaining election and
reelection – and in avoiding being tried and jailed on any of a range of alleged
crimes. But this was not a secret. Everything relevant was known – not the
details, perhaps, but more than enough to persuade the man (and certainly the
woman) on the Italian street to vote against him.
That they voted for
him, repeatedly, is thus a massive indictment of the Italian people. The defense
arguments, that it was ever thus, that that’s how the system works, that “what
can you do” are all, on closer examination, additional items on the charge sheet
against the Italian people.
In general, and certainly in a democracy, you
get the leaders you deserve. And the Italians richly deserved Berlusconi, who,
arguably, was not worse than some of the country’s previous premiers, with their
Mafia connections et al.
If you have a system in which lying and cheating
is the norm (older readers may perhaps recall the revelations regarding the
Italian welfare system in the early 1990s, including such gems as the man
recognized as blind by the national insurance institute and compensated
accordingly, while he continued to work as a bus driver) you will end up with
Berlusconis as premiers. If paying taxes and even being registered in the system
is regard as a mug’s game, then society is sanctioning systematic stealing from
your neighbor – not by taking his goods, but by making him pay your share of the
common burden. In a system with those mores and morals, the government will
eventually go bust.
And if people in a country consistently work less –
in terms of hours per day, days per month and weeks per year – than those in
other countries, they will fall steadily further behind. But if they still,
despite their institutionalized sloth, demand a high standard of living, they
will have to borrow from others to pay for it. And as their debts mount, their
promise to repay becomes a lie and their loans become implicit
However, these amorphous concepts – “productivity” in the
economic sphere and, more fundamentally, “morality” in the personal sphere – are
easily explained or excused away or, better still, ignored. The daily rush
allows them no time, and they lapse from ignored to forgotten to, ultimately,
unknown. When they then reemerge, in the wake of some “sudden crisis,” which has
actually been brewing all the time like an earthquake on a fault line, they have
to be rediscovered, relearned and reapplied.
That, too, will happen, in
due course as part of the same long-term process that brought the crisis.
Although in the case of Italy, which has become so self-absorbed it has given up
having children, there may no longer be a long