An old man who spoke with another generation’s tongue (that of his great-grandchildren) died last Monday. Stéphane Hessel, the author of a pamphlet that has inspired so many in Europe, passed away last week.
Hessel was 94. He fought Nazism as a fighter in the Resistance, survived Buchenwald and then oversaw decolonisation as a French diplomat. But it was his response to the global financial crisis, Indignez-Vous, which put his name on everyone’s lips in 2011.
Indignez-Vous calls for a return to the values of the Resistance. To a social security system that assures "the means of existence to every citizen". To a full pension that "permits old workers to live out their days with dignity". To a mixed economy in which the utilities and big banks are nationalised.
Those demands are the antitheses of the reforms imposed by international lenders in Southern Europe. And so, for many in the south, Hessel’s demands have seemed to become ever more pertinent as Southern European countries have careened into a seemingly endless recession.
"Indignez-Vous!" cried Spain’s "youth without a future" in 2011 to the rest of the country. A Spanish translation of Hessel’s pamphlet inspired Madrid’s #Spanishrevolution that spring. It helped bring the unemployed and despairing onto the streets in a people power movement. His little tome lent hope to many who had given up. But, at the time, most Spaniards did not join the revolt of the young.
"Indignez-Vous!" cried many Greeks a year ago as they voted against the country’s old political caste. They had had enough of the politicians’ offshore accounts. They judged that politics as usual had failed and wanted a new cadre of politicians. They hoped that the rest of the electorate agreed.
In the end, most Greeks voted to give the people the indignados most despised — from the country’s traditional political parties — one more chance. New Democracy and Pasok continue to govern in Athens. Though they continue to inspire rancour among many Greeks.
A few days ago, Hessel told a friend that he expected to die soon. "’I am coming undone,’ he said, with the exquisite modesty of an old man facing the end," the paper said in its obituary.
Hessel’s voice resounded in European politics last week — even as the man himself lay on his deathbed. The spirit of indignation swept through Rome.
The European economic slump has created a crisis of parliamentary democracy. Voters in Italy have again voted for "none of the above". The Italian result reveals "the old repugnance of substantial democracy (the country as a whole) towards formal democracy (the political system)", wrote veteran Italian journalist Barbara Spinelli in La Repubblica last week.
Italian voters punished those who ignored the pain of an electorate suffering through Italy’s worse recession in several decades. Mario Monti — the prime minister chosen to appease the bond market’s fury in 2011, which threatened to bankrupt Italy — was thrown from power. He scored 10 per cent of the vote.
Monti was a Marie Antoinette, incapable of realising how bad many Italians were doing, opines La Repubblica’s Spinelli:
"Was it not Monti who said, without blushing, that: ‘unfortunately there’s a sort of ‘lost generation’. You can try to keep damage to a minimum but … it’s better to assuage the phenomenon with kind words."
Beppe Grillo, the former comedian whose Five Stars Movement won just over 25 per cent of the vote, is supported by the unemployed and young — 20 and 30-somethings. "Kind words" from Monti are not going to fix their lives, dominated as they are by exclusion and poverty. This was the view of Milan’s Corriere della Sera:
"With certain exceptions, the common feature [they share]is exclusion. Bolognia’s Michela Montevecchi is a substitute teacher at an institute…who will travel to Rome with Mara Mucchi, a struggling housewife and Giulia Sarti, a student from Rimini who worries a lot about her future."
The views of Grillo’s lawmakers range from supporters of Hugo Chavez to fans of internet democracy, continues the centre-right paper.
Yet they are inspired by a desire to end politics as Italians know it. Grillo says Italy’s Third Republic, which began with the collapse of the old corrupt parties in the early 1990s and was marked by the dominance of Silvio Berlusconi, is facing its demise.
"I give the old parties six more months — and then it’ll be all over," Grillo told German news magazine Focus yesterday l. "After that, they won’t be able to pay pensions and public sector salaries any more."
Desire to scrap the old parties powered Grillo’s vote. And now, leaks from the judiciary are putting Italy’s political establishment under fresh pressure. Silvio Berlusconi’s good result in last week’s election was followed by a fresh scandal.
"Senator Sergio De Gregorio has gone on the record, admitting that he received three million euros from Silvio Berlusconi to switch from (his party) to the centre-right in 2006, with the objective of collapsing Romano Prodi’s government," reported Il Fatto Quotidiano last week.
The intermediary who allegely ensured De Gregorio received the cash was Valter Lavitola, a journalist who is under investigation for trying to blackmail Berlusconi. Lavitola allegedly admitted having "bought De Gregorio" on Berlusconi’s behalf in a blackmail letter addressed to il Caviliere.
And, it seems, the bribe money from De Gregorio may have finished in bank accounts belonging to the Camorra — the Campanian mafia — writes La Repubblica. The paper quotes Naples magistrates:
"At the origin and the terminus of certain financial flows that passed through De Gregorio’s companies and accounts …were the then opposition leader Berlusconi or his political party … and, at the other end, individuals linked to a Camorra association operating in the Naples area."
Romano Prodi, like Pier Luigi Bersani, won a victory in the lower house of the Italian parliament. But Prodi, like Bersani, had problems controlling the Senate. Berlusconi returned to power when Prodi’s government fell in the Senate.
The winds of outrage that blew through Italy last Monday may have been strong indeed. But if the Grillini are to fix Italian democracy as they have promised, they will require all their anger in the months to come. Italy’s political establishment is not done yet.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it – but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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