“The Death of Expertise”, by Harvard University professor Tom Nichols, published by Oxford University Press in 2017 and by Luiss in Italy in the following year (under the title “La conoscenza e i suoi nemici”, or “Knowledge and its enemies”), has been at the heart of international discourse on “the age of incompetence and the risks to democracy” for some time. In Trump’s USA and Johnson’s UK, and in the Europe of populism and insidious sovereignism, the book has been read, discussed and disputed, but also – and above all – appreciated by all those who have railed against giving in to the illusion that “one is equal to another”, and to ignorant protests against expertise. Now, the devastating scale of the crisis triggered by the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic recession has confirmed the need for serious, forward-looking responses that address and attempt to resolve the major issues relating to health, safety and development.
Finally, we are realising that the world is too complex to be reduced to a slogan, a tweet, a proclamation made from a balcony or a chat in a bar that subsequently becomes government policy. And so eventually, we are returning to “knowledge and its friends”, giving space and responsibility to those who have this knowledge, know what to do with it and are in a position to use it for good. The Draghi government is a clear example of this.
“If it’s the people who are now asking for an elite”, wrote Antonio Polito in the “Corriere della Sera” (9 February), “the support for Draghi by almost all political forces is the result of the broad approval of citizens.” The government sworn in at the Quirinale and now making itself at home in the Chambers of the Italian Parliament dreams of implementing a major move away from the past, and it is made up of a host of individuals who boast real solid expertise, international credibility and the proven ability to manage complex problems, across the areas of economics, public administration, science, research and educational culture. This knowledge and these skills intersect with one another, creating original syntheses which can decode the new world dimensions, drawing up-to-date maps that can be used to govern radically-changing realities – the process is almost one of metamorphosis. All the so-called ‘technicians’ chosen by Prime Minister Draghi, with the support of the Quirinale, have these fundamental characteristics in common.
Of course, it goes without saying that the Draghi government does not have a magic wand. Nor will it be able to meet all the expectations (some of which are a little excessive) that have arisen over the recent period, characterised by such an enthusiastic call for change. It is a cabinet led by an experienced reformer, who is therefore not inclined towards palingenesis. But we already know that the moves this government makes will be based on solid choices and decisions, without empty rhetoric or false promises.
“Now let’s allow the facts speak for themselves,” the Prime Minister told his ministers during the first government meeting on Saturday morning. No “we’ll do this”, or “we’ll do that”, but rather, let’s listen for “we’ve done this”, or “we’ve done that”. this is a step towards a new style of leadership for the country, after so many years of idle chatter, strutting and preening, jokes, TV appearances, floods of tweets and posts on social media, shrewd “location” appearances and an excess of glittering events – or in short, spin doctoring communications to hide the paucity of the ideas behind them.
This new style, of course, also reveals a change in terms of substance. No more shopping lists, with subsidies and contributions, but rather, a solid action plan for the investment of the 200 billion euros awarded under the Recovery Plan, as well as of the other funds provided by the EU budget and the State, to get Italy’s economic and social machine back up and running, after the pandemic stopped in its tracks, on the back of a host of pre-existing issues (productivity has been at a standstill for twenty years).
Indeed, the new government that stands before us is a very “political” one, which has come to power in the wake of the evidence of a profound and concerning inability of the various parties and organised movements (namely the Five Star Movement) to lead Italy out of the crisis. “Political’ in terms of the experience and skills of the individuals who have now been called upon to lead the economy, steering the ecological and digital transition, infrastructure, justice and security (indeed, they are all “technicians” with a broad vision of the problems that need to be addressed – a “political” vision, in other words).
This government is “political” because it must establish and decide upon “policy” – i.e. the guidelines, projects and programmes to be translated into “politics”.
It is “political” because, as Max Weber and John Maynard Keynes taught us, it will act with the general interests of the country at its heart. Sustainable development, the environment, schools, work, combatting gender inequality and the future for the “Next Generation”, the focal point throughout Europe, our children and grandchildren.
This is why, after so many years of mediocre and incompetent leadership and the failure of these leaders to act as an effective governing class, the elites are back to take charge, to bring about better economic and social conditions and to navigate and guide our democracy in a more cogent and confident manner.
But it is important to recall that we are talking about elites, not a clique. Indeed, by elite, we mean a group of women and men who, through their professional and civic commitment (and we only need read their biographies to find ample evidence of this), have developed a profound sense of responsibility as members of the ruling classes, as well as an acute awareness about the way rights and duties interweave – as well as an awareness of the urgency, right now, at the darkest point of the crisis, to repair the fabric that is the general destiny of an Italy that deserves much more than its political representatives have been able to give it to date. In other words, these individuals are worlds apart from the “new men” – overflowing with personal ambition and quick to trot out illusions – who have dominated so much of recent Italian history.
If anything, the new government is a collection of personalities that are somehow reminiscent of the great civil servants such as Ciampi and Carli, bankers like Raffaele Mattioli, businessmen like Olivetti, Agnelli, Pirelli and Mattei and scientists like Giulio Natta and Rita Levi Montalcini. Those people who succeeded in reviving this country in the wake of the disaster triggered by Fascism and the war, helping it to grow under the new dynamics of liberal democracy and development.
A government of experts, but not of technocrats. Maurizio Landini, general secretary of the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), summed things up well when warning his fellow trade unionists that now is the time to study. Less propaganda, more concrete, practical action.
The characteristics and qualities of the team led by Mario Draghi are also directly relevant to the representatives of the social, business and labour organisations, who are calling for an improved language that is more in harmony with the challenges we face, and for analyses and proposals that are of greater pertinence. Sticking to the facts, examining partisan interests but only as part of the wider whole represented by the general interest, delving into problems and making concrete proposals. All things that have already taken place in Italy at crucial junctures, during some of the most dramatic periods of our history.
In the immediate post-war period, for example, when Confindustria president Angelo Costa and CGIL secretary Giuseppe Di Vittorio agreed that they would focus “first on the factories and then on homes” to get the country moving again, alongside the commitment of the government led by Alcide De Gasperi. Or in the dark years of terrorism and dire political and social tensions, with the ongoing dialogue between Gianni Agnelli representing companies and Luciano Lama for workers’ organisations. With Carlo Azeglio Ciampi’s “concertazione” (a term refering to the government practice of making economic choices on the basis of prior consultation with social partners) after 1992, a dramatic year which saw Italy caught between crises – the political (Tangentopoli), the financial (the collapse of the lira) and the institutional (the Mafia massacres of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino). And with the general agreements to enter the euro.
Now, too, it is time for real change, for the establishment of forward-looking agreements, for a shared commitment to development and security, within a wider European perspective. A dramatic phase, yet one that is full of hope, thanks to the sense of responsibility demonstrated by the Quirinale and the new inhabitants of Palazzo Chigi. And thanks, also, to the ability of Italians to do what they need to do.
Away from the narrow mean-spiritedness of populism, we need to feel like citizens again. We need to remember how to be people (individuals, that is), and not the people (as a collective noun). To become aware that we are no longer the audience for a series of shows of power, nor are we just consumers. We need to become aware citizens. After all, don’t we all agree with one of Francesco De Gregori’s most poignant and civilised songs? “La storia siamo noi” (We Are History).