By Patrick Lawrence / Original to ScheerPost
We are but weeks into the autumn, and already the new season has something important to tell us. Its lessons this past week could scarcely be more plainly indicative of the trouble we in the West are in, as those purporting to lead us wander into a future the color of an October dusk.
A terrible clarity is suddenly upon us. We approach the end of pretend, in my read.
Last Sunday Italian voters went to the polls and backed a populist party of extreme-right persuasions, Fratelli Italia, Brothers of Italy, by a wide margin. When the Italian Senate names party leader Giorgia Meloni premier at the end of October, as is widely expected, Italy will be the first founding member of the European Union to be governed by a vigorously nationalist coalition.
Britain’s financial markets—stocks, bonds, currency—swooned into something close to chaos this week in response to Liz Truss’s plans to reduce taxes by ₤45 billion, $48 billion, with no provision to fund the cuts and no apparent thought to the inflationary effects of this policy. With the pound hitting record lows against the dollar and U.K. pension funds caught with their pants around their knees, the Bank of England was forced to intervene Wednesday to protect the economy against the prime minister’s self-evident recklessness.
Following referendums in eastern and southern Ukraine this week, Moscow announced Thursday that the four regions where they were held will be formally reintegrated into the Russian Federation by way of treaties to be signed at the Kremlin Friday. That makes four new facts on the ground for the Kyiv regime and its Western supporters, for which Washington ought to answer.
What does any of these three news events have to do with any other? I am pleased you asked. These developments are not so disparate as they may at first appear. It is a matter of connecting dots. Then we will have, as in the primary school exercise books, a picture in outline of things as they are.
I have to marvel at Italian political culture. It reminds me of those eight balls children used to play with: Roll it around and a surprise message appears through a little window from the dark within. Fratelli Italia’s political bloodlines run back to the remnants of Mussolini’s Fascists. Meloni’s coalition government is expected to include two variations on the theme—the Liga, Matteo Salvini’s nativist operation, and Forza Italia, the party led by the man with nine political lives, Silvio Berlusconi.
These three share various positions. They are adamantly anti-immigration and oppose any kind of open door: It’s Italy for Italians as Meloni, Salvini, and Berlusconi see it. They are critical of the sanctions regime imposed on Russia and question the E.U.’s support for the Kyiv regime. Most of all, they are vociferously against the dictates Brussels imposes on E.U. members, notably but not only the strict, neoliberal limits it sets on budgets and public debt as proportions of gross domestic product.
You read a lot about the far-right character of Fratelli Italia and its coalition partners. This is not to be dismissed as a turn in European politics, but I do not think it is what now has Brussels and the policy cliques in Western capitals quaking. It is the euroscepticism Meloni shares with her partners that most distresses political elites on both sides of the Atlantic.
Meloni already signals she will moderate some of the positions that won her the support of voters. She is now O.K. with NATO, which she once spoke against, and she will go along, however reluctantly, opportunistically, briefly, or all three, with E.U. support for Ukraine. She no longer proposes to pull Italy out of the euro, as she once did.
But the E.U.’s prevalent neoliberalism and the austerity policies that reflect it are another matter. Meloni may speak more softly than before on these questions, but it is a leopard-and-spots question: The E.U. now has another voice that will speak out of national interests in the name of voters. The others at the moment are Poland and Hungary, but the Poles and Hungarians are post–Berlin Wall members; Italy is Core Europe, inner circle. Whether or not she intends to do so, Meloni raises the question of the E.U.’s long-term coherence. This is an excellent thing to do.
It is interesting to listen to the think tank inhabitants who reflect the Western orthodoxy as they consider Meloni’s rise to power. They worry that Meloni will “disrupt the policy process in Brussels.” They worry that she will “gum up the works.” Charles Kupchan at the Council on Foreign Relations: “The direction of political momentum is changing. We had a wave of centrism, but now it feels like the political table is tilting back in the direction of the populists on the right. And that’s a big deal.”
As to the Ukraine question, Kupchan sees Meloni’s premiership this way: “The balance of power in Europe will tilt more toward diplomacy and a bit less toward continuing the fight.” This is because parties labeled populist tend to favor a negotiated settlement of the Ukraine crisis more than “mainstream parties.” Negotiations, bad. War, good: This seems to be the point among Kupchan’s mainstream parties.
What are we listening to? What is all the fretting about?
I go back to 2015 to answer these questions. Greece was deep in crisis at that time: The economy had cratered under the weight of E.U. austerity; people were living in camps on the street and scouring garbage cans for dinner. Then they voted in a referendum on yet more E.U. austerity in exchange for a bailout. When they voted against it, Brussels and Frankfurt, seat of the European Central Bank, simply ignored the result, shoved the Athens government against the wall, and imposed the new regime anyway.
Bondholders and technocrats, sí! Democracy, no! This is what the E.U. had to say to the Greeks back then.
I got off the E.U. bus at that point. You had to call one of the magnificent ideals of the postwar half of the 20th century a corrupted failure. It has been clear since that the E.U. is little more than the instrument with which intolerant ideologues impose the no-exceptions rigors of neoliberal orthodoxy on those Europeans who, whatever their stripe, defend the mediating, democratic institutions through which they can express their will. There is a straight line between Brussels’ antidemocratic conduct and the rise of Meloni and her coalition partners in Italian politics.
Here we must make an important distinction. One can stand against the right-wing ideas and policies of the so-called populists in Budapest and now Rome. But it is imperative to recognize that, however they address their circumstances, they stand in defense of something worthy that is in danger.
A case in point occurred just before Italians went to the polls. Ursula von der Leyen, who incessantly oversteps her brief as president of the European Commission, warned that Brussels had “tools” at its disposal to get the Italians in line if a Meloni government took the nation in a “difficult direction.”
It was a bold suggestion that Brussels could deny Italy some or all of roughly $20 billion in E.U. funds it is currently scheduled to receive annually. This would amount to Athens 2015 all over again.
There are many things about Matteo Salvini that do not recommend him, but there are a few that do. “What is this, a threat?” he asked in response. He then accused von der Leyen of “shameful arrogance and institutional bullying” while insisting that she “respect the free, democratic and sovereign vote of the Italian people.”
I am with the incoming coalition in Rome on this point, if not on various others. Whatever else they get up to, they wage a war against the tyrannies of technocrats that must be fought if we are to find our way beyond the liberal authoritarianism that now overtakes us. Do you want to complain about their positions? O.K., but remember, it is this liberal intolerance that encouraged them.
Something to think about to round things off. When was the last time you read a news story with a Strasbourg dateline? No need to answer. The European Parliament is supposed to be the third leg of the E.U. structure: administration in Brussels, the central bank in Frankfurt, and the democratic process in Strasbourg. Forget it: The E.P. is at this point is nothing more than a pitiful sideshow of no consequence, the presence of a minority of principled members notwithstanding.
I have gone a little long on the Italian election and its implications in part because it is useful to us, we Americans, as our midterm elections approach and we try to understand what is most fundamentally at issue. In our own way and with our own many variations, the fight against the tyrannies of technocrats is our fight, too.
In all honesty, I do not think Liz Truss rises even to the level of a technocrat. Technocrats at least think, if perversely. By all the evidence, the British PM does not, I suspect because she cannot.
There were some amusing comments from the British establishment, notably but not only among the Tories, in response to Truss’s outlandishly miscalculated—or uncalculated, better—economic plans as announced last week. “Inept madness” was a good one. “A lead balloon” was O.K. In the straight-to-the-point category, there was “an absolute shit show.” I love the Brits for their understatement.
As I write there is a growing chorus in high places demanding Truss step back from her program, which amounts to warmed-up supply-side economics, the old, very old “trickle-down” hoodwinkery dating to the late 1980s: Cut taxes on wealth and corporations and everyone will get a few bits of the manna. I hope for all of our sakes she does so, as she could put a hole in the global economy’s bow if she persists.
But what led the new PM into this irrationality?
If you follow Truss’s rise in British politics, it is not difficult to detect an obsession—not too strong—with Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher cut taxes, boldly. I will boldly cut taxes. Thatcher was tough with the Russians. I will be tough with the Russians. Thatcher posed heroically atop a British tank in Eastern Europe. So will I. Thatcher wore a ushanka of elegant fur in Red Square. I’ll wear one, too.
I do not find a single feature of Truss’s public posture that does not derive from reenactment in this fashion. Aping the Iron Lady became Truss’s substitute for thinking. This way at politics constitutes a remove from current circumstances and predicaments. Decisions can be made, but there is no need for a grasp of reality.
And what you heard across the Atlantic last week was Liz Truss crashing into reality. There was the Bank of England, raising interest rates at a precipitous clip to tighten money and stave off inflation, when suddenly, on Wednesday, it announced plans to inject ₤65 billion of emergency liquidity back into the system to save Britain from its prime minister. It is what Brits call, a little rudely, a balls-up.
Truss strikes me as an extreme case of empty-headedness, but she is otherwise typical of her cohort of purported political leaders–an of a great many ordinary people, for that matter. . It is a question of “the vision thing,” as George H.W. Bush, lacking any himself, famously put it. Politicians always think of themselves and their climbs up the greasy pole, of course. But in our time this seems to be all they think about. Few, and it is hard to think of any, have any vision of the larger questions facing the people they pretend to lead.
I can think of no other passage in modern history when the nations comprising the West could so little afford blindness, indifference, and irresponsibility of this order. Liz Truss has just done us the favor of showing us where this can easily lead.
Mention of irresponsibility brings me—how could I think of anything else?—to the referendums in eastern and southern Ukraine last week and those new facts on the ground. This crisis seems never to stop spinning from bad to worse. We now have Washington and Moscow trading accusations about nuclear blackmail. We now watch as political maps are redrawn.
I cannot help thinking that, whatever President Putin’s military and political objectives as he reintegrates parts of Ukraine into the Russian Federation, he also means to poke Washington in the eye with a sharp stick: You think you can act this irresponsibly in response to my efforts to negotiate a security order in Europe that benefits all sides and there are no consequences? Here are four of them for you.
Is there a parallel between Liz Truss’s inability to think and Washington’s determination to prolong the fighting and dismiss all thought of a diplomatic settlement? Nothing too exact, but I see one. What Margaret Thatcher is to the British PM, America’s ideology of invincible righteousness is to President Biden. The latter seems to be thinking through the ever-changing circumstances no more than the former. One feature of ideologies, after all, is they remove the necessity of rational inquiry.
It is said here and there these days that Biden’s foreign policy is the most aggressive and warlike of any in the postwar era. This may be so. To the extent it is, I read it as indicative of a paralysis—a sclerosis, maybe—that has been evident among the policy cliques for some time but now grows more acute.
These people did not have to think after the 1945 victories. America had won, and the task was simply to keep on course. This changed after Germans dismantled the Berlin Wall and a new, more fluid community of nations came into being. It has changed again with the emergence of new powers such as China and post–Soviet, post–Yeltsin Russia.
But nobody in Washington had any practice in responding to circumstances changing so dramatically as these. The act of thinking had been forgotten. The resort has been to ideology and to nostalgia for a lost time.
Biden’s misfortune, apart from the ineptitude of the people he appointed his secretary of state and national security adviser, is that the music stopped more or less as he took office. It fell to him to manage the passage of American primacy into history and greet a new epoch with new ideas as to America’s place in the world. The end of pretend has landed on his watch. Biden is plainly not up to this moment, although in fairness it is hard to imagine a U.S. president who would be, given the kind of people our political process thrusts forward.
Nostalgia for an unchallenged predominance is most evident across the Pacific; it is ideology that drives the policies that got us into the Ukraine crisis and keeps us in it. Neither any longer carries the day. In both cases America is slouching toward calamity at a rate I couldn’t imagine even a few years back.
The tyrannies of anti-democratic technocrats, incompetence in high office, the blindness of ideologues: The lesson that lands so squarely upon us this autumn is that leadership in the West is now in critical decline. It has nothing to do with Russia, China, or any of our other scapegoats. Our crisis is ours alone, a rot within that reminds me of the slow demise of the Soviet Union by way of internal decay. This is the truth of events of the past week pushed unkindly before us with a savage clarity.