Mavericks and democracy

first, the title: I am referring to a famous business book, not to the movie set in the XIX century Far West

the main concept within the book was a “what if”, in line with previous social experiments in bringing democracy on the workplace

but my scope will be different: what happens when a maverick leads a democracy

and, more important, what did that recent (late XX century) experiment teach us, using a case study that I happened to have to study time and again- not because I wanted, but because I am a citizen of what I can call a “mavericks’ democracy”, Italy

this post has a simple purpose: sharing some observations, and, considering that Italy is undergoing yet another “maverick” change, discussing few hypotheses

as I wrote before: I think that a good analyst should accept the risk of being wrong, by sharing the analysis when the information available is sufficient, and not sitting on the fence to give “99% confidence”: that would be forecasting the past

but before starting, a short digression/disclosure on change

1. introducing change

in the past, I posted on this blog few articles on political communication- using a descriptive, not a prescriptive approach: as I believe that prescription should be preceded by a description of what is already existing, and that prescription has to be defined with specific aims.

in over a couple of decades of business experience on change, at various levels, I think that my greatest value added was to ask “opening questions”, listen, ask further questions, and only then start designing and proposing one or more scenarios

sometimes, the “prescriptions” were a mildly adapted variation of something that I or others did elsewhere

sometimes, it was something innovative enough for others to ask if they could reuse it elsewhere- in business or in academia (I never said no, if the customer did not say no, and I never filed a copyright complaint also when somebody “forgot” to ask, and just switched the logo)

but, in each and every case, the study of the environment was a prerequisite to any brainstorming, analysis, workshop, activity

as my concept is simple: despite what we, coming from the “methods and standards” approach, would like to happen, anything involving human interacting with other humans has to consider the “political” element, i.e. the motivation(s) of those involved

also when, as in companies belonging to a single owner, you are told that you can start with a “tabula rasa”, you have to consider how to move from where you really are to where you want to be: otherwise, you risk superimposing to an existing formal organization a new formal organization, and as anybody who tried to change an organization knows, ignoring the “heralds” (and winners) of the old organization is not the best way to defuse organizational sandbagging, a.k.a. “resistance to change”

actually, forgetting this element often generates an informal organization whose strenght is directly related to the relative stength of the power position that the “herald” kept in the transition from the “old” to the “new”

inasmuch as I would like to apply the “speak now, or forever be silent” approach that I think Jack Welch used, that requires a mandate and a continuous commitment from the stakeholders involved that is way beyond what is available in most environments

whenever introducing change, “preparation” is not enough, “closing” is not enough: the devil hides in the transition, because it is where shortcuts are introduced, shortcuts that, while keeping the pace of change, introduce distortions that, eventually, could hijack the change

but, as I wrote before, change requires first and foremost understanding where you are

therefore, I invite you to follow me through my ruminations on “mavericks and democracy”

2. Cincinnatus, Caesar, Mussolini, Churchill

a little bit of history- as “Cincinnato” is the one that is often invoked by Italian mavericks when they are taking the political lead: they claim that they will “serve the people”, and then get back to their own business

Caesar is often quoted more for a derogatory concept, “Cesarismo”, i.e. the willingness to take over the State

probably, in the XX century, nobody more than Mr. Mussolini tried to claim to represent both models, also if it is curious to see his political itinerary

he was a socialist, becoming eventually the editor of “Avanti”, the official newspaper of the Socialist party, and then he became what everybody knows- the leader of the Italian fascist movement, who, after being called to form a government, gradually chipped away at civil liberties, using the “frog boiling” approach (bit after bit, until nothing is left)

a post-WWII joke said that a former fascist and a former political prisoner, both elected, met at the Italian Parliament

the former fascist said something that could be summarized as: “much ado about nothing- you won, and we are both in Parliament”

the former political prisoner said: “yes, but if YOU had won, WE would be in prison, not in Parliament”

an interesting footnote of history is that, as reported recently by the official (?) history of the MI5, Mussolini during WWI was actually on the payroll of the British government, informing on Italy: keep an eye even on your allies…

why Mr. Churchill? because, as I will repeat later, he had few exchanges with Mr. Mussolini (enough to publish a book): he saw him as more attuned to the Italian “spirit” than representative democracy

for all his merits, Mr. Churchill made the same misjudgement that Italian conservatives (and the Italian monarchy) did: seeing Mr. Mussolini and his fascist movement for what they wanted them to be, and not for what they were

but Mr. Mussolini left a significant trace in the Italian political psyche: and more than once Italian politicians (from both the left and the right) took positions that weren’t really democratic, and received their prize- being represented by political cartoonists in a typical “Mussolini stance”.

and this brings the next step in our journey: democracy and its practice in Italy.

3. Democracy, Italian style

over the last few months, as part of my “continuous improvement”, I decided to participate to weekly lessons that, using history and philosophy, focused on “politics as action”- studying the past to understand the future

why? because I wanted to resurrect old memories and see how my last decade or so of experiences around Europe affected my judgement on what I had studied before- and, as it happens, forgotten

and I am continuing this month, by converting courses posted online by US universities (with class lectures) into the same format I had found so interesting while attending LSE Summer Schools in 1994 and 1995 (i.e. a semester into few weeks: pity that I cannot have a dozen or so of classmates and a lecturer-as-a-facilitator to discuss the reading material!)

as part of the bargain, as often happens when politics and Italians mix-up, just attending those conferences, no matter how institutional, makes you a legitimate target to “test” your political inclinations

but the interesting part, when you have my background in change, is that, whenever subject to tests, as I was told once in Rome, I obtain more information on the testers and their motivations or weaknesses than they probably get in return: but, anyway, since 2009 my ideas are posted online, for anybody to read from the source

as I wrote in the past, once an American colleague told me that if he were to do in the US just a fraction of the kind of “paranoid assumptions” that he was doing in Italy to work in business, he would be confined to an asylum; but not doing that in Italy, at any level, is simply naive

an interesting perspective, that really shows “why” Italy has been a land where, whenever there is a crisis, instead of negotiating democratically a path, we Italians (also if I never voted for them) look out for a “simple” solution, a “white knight”, possibly an outsider (or somebody pretending to be an outsider- and well before Mr. Mussolini)

also if often they were extensive and intensive beneficiary of the system that they claimed to want to improve

the Italian style of democracy bears a distinct fascistic tendency: a basic tenet of democratic dialogue, the agreement on disagreement, is next to impossible

in most political discussions in Italy, either you agree, or you are reputed to be naive, corrupt, or both- or maybe you are harbouring a subversive scheme: and this approach is often cross-party, presented as a “rational” choice

this approach is represented by the “chi tace acconsente” phrase, i.e. whoever does not speak against is not simply listening to your position without necessarily agreeing

I still consider that whoever does not voice his/her dissent, does not necessarily support my view, and I prefer discussing with those who disagree with me- it gives me perspective on my own opinions; as a US Senator said: you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own data (albeit often even this last part is not true!)

whenever there is a major crisis (usually linked to corruption), Italians invoke “Piazzale Loreto”: instead of standing trial, Mr. Mussolini and his lover were summarily executed (for various historical and political reasons) and then hung up upside down in a square in Milan (and this last act had no political or historical excuse)

the same noises (luckily, just noises) were made for Mr. Craxi, another Prime Minister (see next section), and the same can be heard now, for Mr. Berlusconi

frankly, I think that something more “normal”, such as following due process and remembering that in each instance they were elected by voters, would be a significant change, and a sign that finally we left fascism and its side-effects behind us

but the Italian constitutional democracy is still a work-in-progress: and recent events showed that not even members of the Parliament read the constitution (somebody proposed to abolish an organizational structure that is actually prescribed in the Constitution- and the proposal was put to vote before somebody noted that it required a change to the Constitution)

while waiting for a normal process where people either win or lose elections, change is often delivered through the identification of yet another “white knight” who promises to turn Italy into a “paese normale” (a “normal” country)

4. Why a maverick took the lead

while working in Italy until the late 1990s, I often used my foreign colleagues living in Italy to see how we were perceived

as I think that any observation requires a certain distance between the observed and the observer- and learning to adopt the mindset of somebody else was part of my self-training first in cultural anthropology, then in politics, and eventually in business negotiations

after WWII, Italy had about 40 years of “musical chair” governments: heading more than one government has never been unusual (the recordman is Mr. Andreotti: look on wikipedia how many governments he led and was a member of).

Mr. Churchill is often quoted as saying that he did not see Italy as a fertile ground for representative democracy- and that’s why he saw hope in Mr. Mussolini

personally, I prefer to say that we should stop looking for shortcuts, such as importing the “bipolar” system (I voted against it): since introduced, the “migration” of Representatives between political parties reached farcical proportions, as the Italian bipolar system is built around coalitions between independent political parties

if you look at any election since the bipolar system was introduced in Italy, a couple of decades ago, you will see that political parties seem to meltdown with each electoral cycle, and, while claiming to have a “bipolar” system, we have a “magmatic” approach, as if oil and water, instead of being impossible to mix, were mutating partially into water and partially into oil each time that the Italians are called to cast their vote

for my non-Italian friends, a quantitative example: there are still two years to go before the next election for the Parliament, but over 10% of the members of the parliament switched side after being elected since the last election, and some up to 4 times!

moreover, a side-effect of this imperfect bipolar system is that, over the last couple of decades, whenever one side wins the elections, the other side does not spend time to push its own agenda whenever possible, with maybe some bipartisan votes when both agree, but instead… starts to ask for new elections

after Mussolini the socialist party produced another maverick: Mr. Craxi, who presented himself as the one who would change Italy- and eventually the system he oversaw was so corrupt, that few judicial inquiries leading to arrests made the system crumble, along with the three main political parties (yes, also the left had its own system of self-financing)

Mr. Berlusconi, despite having been a significant beneficiary (and supporter) of Mr. Craxi, suddenly became the herald of liberalism, promising to cut taxes, remove corruption, etc, etc- and, as you can guess, an advocate for change

also those who did not vote for him greeted him because (this is really Italian) “he is so rich that he will not need to rob the Italians as traditional politicians did”

my position then? I had studied books written from his managers- and his management style was what you would expect from a self-made man (true or not): with a maverick attitude (I can suggest few old books from the early 1990s on how his companies managed menial issues such as depositing the capital needed to open a company, tax planning, etc)

Italy never had a real “blind trust” law: have a look at the net worth before he entered politics, and look now (counting also his kids)- I rest my case

anyway, he said what we Italians wanted to hear (I never voted for him), and he allowed us (and himself) to be condoned for actually sustaining and benefiting from the old system expanded by Mr. Craxi, while turning a fresh page

for few months, actually corruption declined- then, it resumed with a vengeance (read current reports)

5. How a maverick beats Aristotle

but another lesson from the business book “Maverick” was often lost by those “inspired” by that book: the “democracy on the workplace” was supported by the growth of the company- everybody is willing to vote yes to receive more, but to receive cuts?

and this is part of the political genius, in my view, of Mr. Berlusconi (along with his ability and habit to set the ground on which the political debate is focused- and have the opposition dance to his tune)

he did not simply ask legislators to draft and vote laws to support his own empire- each law was spreading the benefits to any taxpayer

few laws bearing the name of Mr. Tremonti enabled Mr. Berlusconi’s companies to receive significant tax benefits- but the same laws allowed almost anybody with assets to obtain tax benefits

other laws useful for his building companies removed the need for authorizations to change what is within your walls: but any Italian citizen was obtaining a benefit (Italy used to be a country where 2/3 of the population owned their own home)

and this kept going on for two decades- some reforms actually streamlined the bureaucracy, but others created a political machinery that costs, according to the industrialists’ association newspaper, over 23bln EUR each year (to compare: the current fiscal emergency package brings the double of that amount in 4 years- more about that later)

so, the maverick beats Aristotle, who wrote that democracy had the benefit that it was almost impossible to corrupt the many: we Italians proved that you can corrupt also a constitutional democracy- and without lobbyists… “buy” directly the voters’ conscience

but over the last few years, being part of Euroland and the WTO removed the usual “flexibility” that would have been required to “fix” the Italian economy using the pre-Euro methods

and multiplying the number of administrative levels (e.g. the Regional Parliaments) to extend political support simply increased the tax burden, while producing a further bureaucratic expansion, financed by reducing the welfare state

this expansion of the local bureaucracy wasn’t just Mr. Berlusconi’s fault: the opposition joined the feeding frenzy with gusto

at the same time, Italy saw many companies relocating abroad their production facilities, a reduction of the stability in the workplace (people have been working for Government entities for over a decade on temporary contracts), and even the Government and its local branches were reportedly postponing time and again payments to suppliers

to my Italian friends: as with the piling up of the debt, data shows that both the center-left and the center-right contributed, with minor reductions (e.g. when needed to enter the Euro); it started growing decades ago, and kept growing

so, now Aristotle is taking his vengeance: when you lack the resources to corrupt the many, the constitutional democracy gets back to its original aims

or does it?

6. Conclusions

beside the current bipartisan “blip”, i.e. voting the fiscal package that was required by the financial markets, it is more of the usual

the current package was presented as a chance to evenly spread savings: but, to get a credible package together, Italy could not just use the traditional “one-off” cuts, i.e. condoning taxes, booking the potential revenue from future increased tax revenue thanks to the expanded fight against tax dodging in small and not-so-small businesses, etc

therefore, the package aimed at the bottom half of the tax payers, families, employees: cutting benefits and tax deductions

as for the announced cuts in something else that was easily quantifiable, the cost of the bureaucratic machinery of politics (Italian members of Parliament get the highest salaries and benefits in Euroland), it vaporized

even the idea of setting the salary and benefits to the average package of other EU Parliaments is now becoming a discussion about “the top 6”, extended then with “but maybe we should exclude X Y Z”, and even “it could also happen that we will need to increase our benefits” (I am not jocking)

so, this fiscal package, voted by both the governing coalition and the opposition parties only under moral pressure from the President of the Republic and the financial markets (to say nothing about our European partners), introduced structural cuts

but only for those who are underrepresented in Parliament, as even modest liberalization proposals were blocked by guild members seating in the Parliament (e.g. lawyers)

a lost opportunity to show that we are all in the same boat: as, instead of finally having a bipartisan bloc voting something for the good of the country, it is now “business as usual”

some coalition members are flirting with the opposition (extracting concessions for their own political base), others are stating that the legislature will continue, while the opposition calls for elections.

in the end, the risk is that, instead of getting this crisis as a chance to finally become a “normal” country, Italy will again look forward to the next “white knight”

but the differences between now and the early 1990s are quite significant:

  • more people are overqualified for their work (e.g. plenty of University graduates work in call centres)
  • over 50% of those resident in Italy are currently using Internet as their main news source (including the websites of traditional media)
  • the recently voted fiscal package was perceived by average Italians as an insult
  • too many are contending for the role of “white knight”
  • the lack of credibility is so blatant, that some started asking to confirm the current President of the Republic (in his 87th year) for another 7 years
  • last but not least, Italy is now deeply integrated in a mutual series of institutional and structural obligations, from the Euro to the WTO

probably, instead of yet another “white knight”, Italians should vote for yet another “Costituente”, i.e. join the best political minds to rebuild the relationship between citizens and their representatives

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