Interview with Paolo Flores D´Arcais on post-politics

This is a very interesting interview that has just been published in English and Spanish by El País.  D’Arcais is a very progressive Italian philosopher whose writings rarely reach English-speaking audiences, and who edits a journal called Micromega.

The original article is here.

“Politics has become a profession”

 JOSÉ MARÍA RIDAO – Rome – 07/11/2011

Through his public statements against Silvio Berlusconi’s policies and the reflection that he stimulates in his magazine Micromega, Paolo Flores d’Arcais has become one of the most influential intellectuals in Europe. Born in Udine in 1944, Flores d’Arcais focuses on the Italian political experience, especially regarding the role of parties, the separation of powers and the influence of the media. But he always seeks to go beyond his own country, perhaps because Italy has begun to look like either a warning of what could happen in other countries, or as a symptom of what might happen if nothing is done to fix it.

 Question. On November 20, the Spanish people will go to the polls in an environment of growing distrust towards politicians.

Answer. Distrust of politics and distrust of professional politicians and party apparatuses are two different things In Italy, civil society has mobilized, emphasizing precisely that distinction, with demonstrations like the one that took place on San Giovanni square which was organized, so to speak, by a group of friends, including [filmmaker] Nanni Moretti and myself.

Q. What do all these movements ? including the “indignant ones” ? have in common?

A. They are movements that want more politics, not less politics. But at the same time, they express a total disdain for official politics, which has become a profession. What we’re seeing is a crisis of traditional parties that has been brewing for the last three decades.

Q. And what was the origin?

A. Parties started getting more and more self-referential and falling into the hands of professional politicians; people who don’t do any other kind of work in their entire lives. Their priority is their own career, not representing citizens.

Q. And that ends up erasing the differences between the opinions that the parties represent.

A. Thirty years ago I wrote an essay about this phenomenon, in which I resorted to a French expression. The opposing parties are, shall we say, Bonnet Blanc, on the one hand, and Blanc Bonnet, on the other. Since then, the response has always been, contrary to what I said, that there may be cases that show the opposite in France or in Spain, but Italy is a special case.

Q. Can there be representation if there is no difference between the options?

A. They say that direct democracy is a utopia, and at the same time, that we’re the creators of representative democracy. But then they say that citizens’ desire to feel represented is excessive. When the differences between parties are analyzed, the focus is usually on their election manifestos, never on the party itself as an instrument. They are machines driven by cooptation, which leads the most mediocre individuals to be selected. Because only those who enter that machine at a young age, and agree to compete with its logic, can hope to have a career. That logic excludes, from the get-go, all citizens who might participate in active politics, but not on a professional basis.

Q. These discourses against parties and professional politicians… mightn’t they fuel a new anti-parliamentarianism?

A. If reforms are not made, in order to make parliamentary democracy representative again ? at least somewhat ? then the response of many citizens will be that parliament and democracy are totally different things. Avoiding the risk of anti-parliamentarianism means totally reinventing parliamentarianism. To do this, countless measures need to be taken, from reforming electoral laws to implementing mechanisms to keep politics from becoming a profession.

Q. You really insist on that last point.

A. It would suffice to pass a law that politicians can’t stay in office for more than two terms. You often hear professional politicians say that if they worked in the private sector they would be better off, and that everything they do is in the spirit of public service. Well, then, let’s take all that rhetoric seriously; the rhetoric of politics as the spirit of service. Doing politics, representing others and governing should be a public service, a sacrifice that might last five or 10 years, no more. Let’s make sure that there aren’t citizens who sacrifice too much.

Q. Then there’s the problem of financing.

A. Not only party financing, though, but the financing of politics. I organized a demonstration with Nanni Moretti, and if we had wanted to transform its power into an election manifesto, it would have been impossible. We wouldn’t have gotten even one percent of the votes. We weren’t organized all over the country like traditional parties, and we didn’t have any media space. To put together a public debate, in a theater for example, we would have had to raise money. We need to make it easier for all individuals to enter institutional politics, offering free organizational and communication tools, while making it more difficult for professional politicians to remain in power in a monopolistic way.

Q. All individuals?

A. Marx criticized representative democracy because he only saw the abstract citizen in it, without taking into account specific situations such as the citizen’s status as a property owner or a member of the proletariat. This, which was a criticism, is something that we need to accept as a model. Come election time, only the abstract citizen should vote. There should be a clear, total separation between economic interests and political power.

Q. And how would you achieve that separation?

A. All the colors that want to participate in politics should be financed in an equal, free way. But financed in services […], not in money. Money only serves to keep bureaucratic apparatuses running. If all colors, all movements and all candidate slates had free access to communication tools, now that would be a major change.

Q. Parties often give different answers to the same agendas, but the agenda itself isn’t questioned.

A. I don’t mean to undervalue the differences. The Spanish right takes to the street with their crosses and it’s got its positions about abortion and other issues, and Zapatero has made some of the most cutting-edge decisions in Europe. But some crucial questions are avoided by both the right and the left. In hyper-mediatized politics, you’ve got no choice but to send out optimistic messages. And that’s done at the expense of denying problems.

Q. What might those problems be?

A. Inequality, a fundamental issue: that’s the problem, even from the standpoint of efficiency. But no leftwing party seems to have accepted it clearly.

Q. When a leftwing party loses an election, they say that the left is in crisis. You never hear that when a rightwing party does.

A. It’s true, it seems that the right loses the election but doesn’t go into crisis. But it doesn’t go into crisis because, even though it’s not in control of the government, it still has the power. All leftwing European parties say they are reformist. But you can’t talk about true reformism if the relations between power and wealth don’t change. Years ago, I was asked about the crisis of the left. What left? I said. Citizens can only choose between two rights, and it’s only normal that they prefer the real one.

Q. The polls say that the Right is going to win in Spain. If this does in fact occur, what will it mean for Europe?

A. The crisis that we’re going through now can’t be solved just with more Europe, as they say, but with more radically democratic Europe. It’s not enough to have a European government to fight the crisis; it’s got to be a government capable of reversing the trend toward inequality, which reinstates and reinforces the welfare state. Rightwing governments don’t take on that objective.

Q. Then you’re not optimistic about the future of Europe?

A. It’s not a question of optimism or pessimism, because we’re talking about sensations that can change from one day to another. We’re suffering from a financial, economic and social crisis. That third aspect, the social one, is the one that has been taken into consideration the least, yet it’s key to pulling out of this. There are no parties that accept that logic, although the leftwing parties should be the ones to do so. But they really aren’t leftist anymore, because they’re in the hands of self-referential machines designed to make political careers. It’s true that, in some cases, the left differs from the right in small things, which allows citizens to choose between bad and worse, or even between worse and even worse. There is, however, a vehement desire for change. Sometimes it takes the form of rage, other times enthusiasm or indignation… even despair.

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