Changing politics, the politics of change

As I wrote yesterday on Facebook (Rainy week-end… and mid-term elections considerations), this article is about change and resistance to change.

Why politics? Because it is something that is part of the everyday experience of each one of us.


Probably somebody would expect that I would build the article around a discussion starting from Schumpeter.

But resistance to change is not limited to “paradigm shift”-type changes: also minor changes could generate interesting forms of resistance.

Interesting, because the form and shape of the resistance depends on the environment where the change is introduced- not on the content of the change itself.

As this is a week-end article, I will use case studies derived mainly from non-business personal experiences: the general consequences will be discussed in a later article.

The experiences? If you consider the area (politics), I chose the country I lived in since few years ago (Belgium), the one where I was born (Italy), and the European Union.

Somebody could say that I am lucky- as there is plenty of ongoing change in each one of the three territories covered by this article.

1. Deciding the outcome: Belgium

“Bye bye Belgium” is the title of a TV docu-drama that the State TV on the Flemish side is going to broadcast soon, as announced over the last few days.

As I wrote few days before to a Facebook friend from the area who wrote complaining about the continued quarrel between the Walloon and the Flemish site:

I am reading a book on Zaire since when Mobuto made a coup and took power

in my ignorance, I assumed that issue was recent; but I read that Mobutu used played the Flemish against the Walloons to extract concessions 😦

as I said and wrote: I think that to keep independence [Belgium] should stick together; but continuing quarrels is only costing investments

also if the logistics were better than it is now, a company need[s] political stability to invest in a country, not 500 million Euros with no guarantee that it would ever a) receive it b) able to know who is on the other side of the table

but another worrying issue (because I live here and, also if I will probably have to move again, I am used to at least get in touch with local reality), is that when I read in French/Dutch newspapers about what happens if the country splits- it seems more a pie-in-the-sky attitude

maybe the negotiator should do something unusual- but really scientific πŸ˜€

“ad absurdum” assume that the country is split in three (or four, if Brussels becomes larger and the EU capital, akin to Washington D.C. in the US); and ruling out the idea that any of the neighbouring countries is really willing to get quarrelsome new regions πŸ™‚

and then, do a sustainability study: as independent countries, splitting the debts and assets, not with abstruse formulas on “recovery [of] the investment” πŸ˜€

I think that the numbers will make people think twice

in Italy, when the German side kept asking, eventually the reply was: OK, let’s have a referendum, and if you decide to join Austria, goodbye; anyway, we are all in the EU

the Austrian reaction? if you join Austria, you are Sud Tirol: no more special tax discounts, or anything else

well, the German side decided to stay in Italy πŸ™‚

but I do not know how it would work in Belgium, a similar approach- and who would have the guts to do something that would certainly make enemies- maybe somebody who is already retired πŸ˜€

The third part I was referring to is a small German-speaking minority, close to the border with Germany.

The technique? Assuming that the worst fears on the consequences of change are real, and then see their consequences: and then show that it is not possible to introduce the feared change.

Why it is needed? Because sometimes, and not only in Belgium or Italy, the politicians setting the tone of the debate are basically 5% politicians.

A 5% political entity is, in my definition, a vocal party that has no real expectation to be at the helm of the State, and therefore is focused on keeping its constituency happy- whatever the price for the overall community.

In countries where just 50-60% of those entitled actually vote, the committed but limited following of 5% parties has a disproportionate impact (they can easily grow beyond 10% of the votes cast).

And their main approach is to destabilize and fragment their opponents, while being perceived as a steady, consistently focused group- gradually eroding support from other political parties, and expanding their own base.

By showing the infeasibility of the change, they can be left “off the hook”, as their new expanded role (and enlarged constituency) would allow them to justifiably back down for the common interest, i.e. extracting concessions, but not without making concessions.

The alternative? Keep eroding their opponents’ base, while building extra-political alliances to build credibility (industrialists, trade unions, etc).

But, as shown in a similar path followed by Mussolini and his Fascists in the 1920s in Italy, their “band wagon” organization would have no real shared purpose- just a “fair weather” alliance motivated mainly by short-term profiteering and power acquisition.

2. Coaching politicians: Italy

In one of his books, Henry Kissinger wrote that he considered Italy and Japan to be two of the most stable allies during the Cold War- the governments changed with the season, but the politicians involved were always the same.

The Italian political system was blocked since the first post-WWII elections, with two main parties, The Christian Democrats (DC) and the Italian Communist Party (PCI), and plenty of smaller parties (continuously changing structure: merging, spinning-off, dissolving).

Due in part to the consequences of the famous Churchill-Stalin napkin division of Europe, the PCI was sitting on the fence- and not allowed into any government role.

During the Ost-politik phase in the 1970s, the PCI was “coached” into being able to eventually join the government- by a new power distribution that resulted in their winning of local administrative elections.

In this case, the resistance to change assumed unusual forms- and Italy got what have been called “Anni di piombo”, with reference to the lead used in bullets to terrorize industrialists, politicians, and so on.

Nominally, terrorists from both the left and the right, but with a side-effect: postponing the evolution from the political stasis.

The real change happened in the early 1990s, when most of the current crop of Italian politicians (from the Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri, Mr. Berlusconi, to some of his allies) entered A-league politics.

Both the DC and the PCI had their own way of coaching politicians, including formal training, before anybody could become a candidate.

From the 1990s, it became quite common to find candidates “on loan from society”- a loan that is probably overdue, in most cases: but I will not even try to summarize what you can read online about the current state of affairs in Italy.

My focus is limited to the “resistance to change” issue.

We had a resistance to change in the 1970s, both linked to the Cold War habits and the lack of trust in the new administrations (the PCI focused on building trust on both its competency and lack of corruption).

And we are having now a resistance from untrained politicians who happened to be elected without any prior political experience (or structure to coach them into their new role), or coming from political parties that had been historically excluded from Italian governments (not only the PCI, also the MSI, originally set up by former Fascists, and extreme left parties).

While nominally coming from the “societa’ civile” (i.e. non-professional politicians), the level of debate that you can read on Italian newspapers shows a greater distance between the current politicians and the voters than even before, when politicians were trained and coached for years before they were even allowed to be candidates.

With few exceptions, most of the professional politicians left are actually former party bureaucrats- not politicians: and therefore they too lack the political acumen needed- and focus more on their own turf wars than on real-life issues concerning their voters.

Italian media are famously unable to behave as a third power- and this is another issue in resistance to change within a society, as until recently there were limited or no independent outlets.

It is still too early to say what will happen with Mr. Berlusconi, but let me just say: I never voted for him, but most of the stories that are going around now are similar to others published on foreign newspapers once in while since at least late 1990s.

Most of the people now attacking him simply turned a blind eye while it was convenient, honouring an old Italian tradition: change does not come out of the polls, but by a political ousting and usually the creation of a “technical” government (since WWII, we had few governments headed by former governors of the Bank of Italy).

The difference now is, as you would expect, the availability of an independent political information outlet, represented by Facebook and other online social networks.

I would dare to say that the Mr.Berlusconi could probably bring down with him the Second Italian Republic (the first one ended when he entered politics, at a time when 1/3 of the members of the Italian Parliament were under investigation for corruption and assorted crimes, in the early 1990s).

But what we are seeing now is the side-effect of a new assertiveness from the voters, who showed their disappointment with the current Italian political elite by electing a Governor in Apulia, Mr. Vendola, who had been cast aside by the alliance of the left, the Democratic Party, as they had tried to impose a candidate selected by the party.

The resistance to change was overcome from grass-root activities using online media to bypass the subservient traditional media.

But it is still to be seen if, beside disrupting the existing “political games” the magmatic “popolo dei blog” (the “blog people”, as they are called in Italy) could contribute toward creating something new, or just fall prey to yet another politician promising change.

Breaking the resistance to change can be both a “one off” event- or generate a long-term attitude toward considering change as immanent- the old “everything changes”.

The Italian attitude to change was brilliantly summarized by Tomasi da Lampedusa, in “Il Gattopardo”: “bisogna cambiar tutto perche’ nulla cambi” – we must change everything so that nothing changes.

3. The geography of interests: European Union

I apologize with Kenichi Ohmae and my professor at LSE- but I think that the title of this section summarizes what I observed over the last few years.

We are shifting from the usual “thinking globally, acting locally”, to a re-definition of the concept of “local”, focused more on a continuity of interests than on geographical boundaries.

Italy is a long country (8000km of coast)- and its environment is quite diverse.

Since the decentralization, any Regional government received powers previously available only to the semi-autonomous regions.

The regional government of Apulia decided to invest on renewable energies- and started developing its own foreign policy built around energy: China, The Netherlands, California, New York.

Of course, Italians would tell you that it is not a matter just of energy, but part of a broader evolution in the relationship between the Northern and Southern half of the country.

But this is part of the restructuring within the European Union borders resulting from the increased integration (Schengen, Euro, etc).

Each region within each European Union member, notably in larger countries or those with a weaker national identity, has been required to move fast forward into the XXI century, while in some cases the governance structure and its associated processes were still firmly set in the XIX century.

As an example: today I watched a TV announce from the Ministry in charge of streamlining bureaucracy: it was announcing a website, created to post online on a single, unified, free website all the rules and regulations applicable in Italy.

The announce? We reduced from 400000 (yes, four hundred thousand) to few tens of thousands the applicable regulations, so that you can know the rules that you are supposed to comply with (in Italy you are still supposed to know each law- thousands of them!)

Streamlining the rules and regulation was coupled with introducing changes that made Italian laws more “compatible” with a common EU-wide framework.

Sharing the same EU-wide legal frameworks enables each region to partner with other regions, on specific projects and interests.

It is an historical paradox: strengthening the European Union can weaken its member States, as it allows shifting from negotiating within non-homogeneous States unwilling or unable to balance diverging interests, to negotiating within homogeneous communities built around shared interests.

Yet another approach to overcome resistance to change.


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