Spotlight Populism: Politicians should rediscover frugality

A great deal of representatives of Italian people have adopted a redundancy lifestyle that reminds of football players or star system VIPs.

„All together tey are a caste.“ Italian Senate Foto: dpa

How do we survive populism? Bringing back popular parties. In today's Italy, demagogic movements capitalize on the elitistic politicians, who regard their empoverished electors with a Queen Marie Antoinette's approach: «Let them eat cake».

According to an Euronews report, the Italian members of Parliament earn 176.257 Euros a year. More than their european colleagues (the Germans earn 108.894). And way more than their fellow countrymen: 5,2 times more than the average income (31.680).

But it is not only a question of money: it's a question of status. A great deal of representatives of Italian people have adopted a redundancy lifestyle that reminds of football players or star system VIPs: penthouses, armed guards, false blondes, boats, brand-name dresses and handmade shoes…

Of course, they are not all the same. The former President of the European Commission Romano Prodi, for instance, used to assemble by himself Ikea furniture. Also a current minister used to go to Ikea. But accompanied by three armed guards, pushing the carriage on her behalf („The one who pushed the carriage was a driver“ she pointed out).

In December 2016 the European Academy Berlin invited 20 journalists from Southern Europe to visit Berlin. taz was part of their official tour programme. The meeting quickly turned into a talk about our shared need for international cooperation, aiming to find a media counterbalance to current crises in Europe. To start with, we decided on a question that concerns us all: How will we survive populism in Europe?

A venial sin: Italian politicians have accostumed us to much worse. Apart from the countless corruption cases, in these last years one politician appointed his son future secretary of his own party, another pretended that somebody had paid him (behind his back) a flat with a view on the Colosseum, another held «elegant dinners» with escorts and showgirls, another one was filmed taking cocaine with a transexual…

The „Casta“

All this in a country where an average labourer earns 43 per cent less than his German counterpart. No wonder that Italian politicians have been labeled as members of the «Casta» (caste, from the successful title of an award-winning book). «Brahmins, here's what italian politicians have become» write the authors Gian Antonio Stella e Sergio Rizzo. «Generated not by Brahma (…) but by a ‚partitocratico‘ system affected by elephantiasis (…) All together they are a caste. Who feels above the society which it proclaims to serve».

Auf Einladung der Europäischen Akademie Berlin besuchten 20 JournalistInnen aus Südeuropa im Dezember 2016 Berlin und die taz. Schnell wurde deutlich, wie groß das gemeinsame Bedürfnis nach internationalen Kooperationen ist, einem Medien-Gegengewicht zu den aktuellen Krisen in Europa. Wir haben uns zum Auftakt für eine Frage entschieden, die uns alle gleichermaßen umtreibt: Wie überleben wir den Populismus in Europa?

It has not always been like that. In our recent past our politicians had what we call «senso dello Stato» (sense of State). Till the Seventies, italian lawmakers had a very low profile, with a hint of moral ascetism. From the Communist party to the neofascist Movimento sociale, passing through the Christian democrats, they all shared austerity of mores, thinking that public money had to be «respected».

Enrico De Nicola, the first president of the Italian republic in 1946, never touched the 11 million lire allowance that the State granted him: he paid everything with his own money. Not to talk about Giuseppe Dossetti, the vicepresident of Christian Democrats waiting to become a priest, and Giorgio La Pira, about to be elected mayor of Florence: in Rome they lived with other Christian democrats (including a minister with family, Amintore Fanfani) in a sort of a catholic commune. In these two big apartments with one bath only, they ate all together pasta and beans.

An austere life, where poverty was theorized. When our first prime minister Ferruccio Parri took office in 1945, he installed himself in his office eating bread and salami and sleeping in a camp bed. When his successor Alcide De Gasperi went to the United States to meet president Henry Truman in 1947, he had borrowed the coat from his right-hand man, Attilio Piccioni.

«This was the anti-fascist ruling class who had just come out from prison and exile, used to sacrifice and toughen up by adversity» comments Paolo Zanini, a young researcher of contemporary History at Milan State University. «But even later, that generation kept a similar approach. One of the best examples of a popular politician was the socialist leader Pietro Nenni. His tribunitian style allowed him to empathize with popular wishes and needs, without sliding into populism. This is the secret: being able to understand the people without pandering to the worst instincts». That's the lesson our politicians should learn if they want to survive populism.

Elisabetta Burba is an italian journalist specialized in international affairs, holds a Master's degree in Contemporary history

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