Fabrizio Barca, the animator of the Forum Disuguaglianze e Diversità (Inequalities and Diversity Forum) and Enrico Giovannini, the founder and spokesperson of the Alleanza per lo Sviluppo Sostenibile (Alliance for Sustainable Development), have written up a dialogue – edited by Gloria Riva – which is also an agenda for the future. Not the future as it is currently unfolding, but as they would like it to be.
“Another world is possible,” said the young protesters in Seattle, twenty years ago. It is easy to calculate: they will now be mothers and fathers of families, adults who are aware and, as conventional wisdom has it, mature. However, they did not lack maturity back then, when they dared to assert the famous invocation, or prophecy, that stood in complete contrast to the mainstream mindset. However, those were also the years in which a right, dressed up in modernity, motivated the course of history with the acronym TINA (there is no alternative): the unchallengeable negation of a potentially different path of human development.
Two decades later, we could console ourselves by telling Greta Thunberg’s generation that those visionaries – who, over time, at least in age, have become their parents or older brothers – were right. But honestly, that would be a small consolation. Because, at the end of the day, what needs to be understood are the reasons that prevented the energy of their movement to demolish the cornerstones of a politics that was mesmerised by a too narrow vision of realism.
According to the mathematical genius of Bruno De Finetti (1906-1985), every significant foundation of economics has, necessarily, to be based on utopia, “because thinking of solving problems in another way is a ridiculous utopia”. This is a lesson that might have guided implicitly both authors of this precious compendium of what is needed today to imagine, create, and fight for “another world”.
The idea of a dialogue between Barca and Giovannini dates back to the days before the pandemic that shook the world like an earthquake. It was recorded shortly before the lockdown constrained our lives as never before. Yet, despite this conjunction between the sanitary emergency and the recording of the dialogue, their arguments seem in no way indebted to the news of the day. The issues that are dealt with (capitalism without reins, a politics that has shrunk to the immediate present, the need to regenerate political parties’ ethics, up to the question of the limits of active citizenship), all converge to the idea of a historical age, the current one, that accentuates even further the need for that radical transformation of strategies and values, words that the two authors put at the centre of their dialogue.
But what is meant by capitalism without reins? I must confess that I am biased, but having found, right in the first pages of the work, a reference to a text that I consider fundamental (Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, Penguin Press, 2010) has encouraged me. We know that the idea of a free market without constraints and snares, uncritically admired by the right in the last 30 years, does not solve the contradictions of a society characterised by deep and growing inequalities. But its analysis helps considerably to grasp the root of the ‘failure’.
What we are talking about is a cultural subordination to the neoliberal right, even of progressives: a disease they have been afflicted with for longer than they thought. Judt had described it very well: for at least thirty years, the left has been voiceless in the face of a deeply ingrained social structure, paralysed by fear and overwhelmed by growing inequalities and the nightmare of impoverishment.
Was it just the primacy of technocracy over politics? Perhaps, even if that would be a little easy to get away like that. In Italy, over the last 30 years, we have experienced the formation of so-called ‘technical’ governments. This has been a response to the crisis of the political party system. The considerations and the proposals laid out in the book by Barca and Giovannini try to overcome the limits the political party system has bumped upon, and to give the parties – particularly those of the left – back their dignity, autonomy, and individual profile.
Moreover, in the about hundred pages of their dialogue, Barca and Giovannini shine a light on the progressive forces’ inability to understand an essential novelty: the fundamental parameters for judging and classifying development have changed. The GDP alone is not enough to measure comprehensively the nature of society (it ‘measures everything except that which is worthwhile’, as Robert Kennedy had put it almost poetically in a distant past). The two authors dissect every angle of this subject and give it back to us in all its significance.
Barca and Giovannini refer to fundamental texts, from Amartya Sen to Jean-Paul Fitoussi. They discuss the limits as well as the potential of supranational institutions (which have been mostly absent in the era of Covid-19, with the notable exception of the European Union, which has found in the pandemic crisis the incentive to bring about a historical change to its own development). They mention the vital fabric of civic sense and participatory citizenship. They indicate objectives that can be pursued. But only if politics manages to come out of the shell of its old and tired convictions.
The synthesis becomes perhaps the clearest in the formula of the newly installed minister Giovannini (who joined Mario Draghi’s government at the ministry of infrastructure and sustainable mobility) when he explains why sustainable development has replaced the idea of a necessity of progress. Adding immediately afterwards that it is a “difficult, yet possible” goal. Implicitly this can be read as an evident and definitive acknowledgment of the error that held sway for decades: trusting the infallible and indisputable virtues of a market, capable of self-regulating by allocating resources in the most efficient way.
The pandemic, if that is even possible, has made the debated issues even more pressing, with the addition of, or aggravated by, the “fragility” of our democracies, as Joe Biden put it in his inaugural speech. The warning, in this case by Fabrizio Barca, coincides with the belief in a democracy that does not find its essence in the final act of the decision, but in the process through which it is taken. Difficult to say it better. It is hard, but necessary, to equip democracy with the means to safeguard that process. Now, and for the years to come.