We spoke with Emanuele Felice, a former economic adviser to the Democratic Party in Italy, to discuss the party’s ideological direction. He dismisses claims that the PD is moving towards the extreme left.
Mr. Felice, Cottarelli and others are claiming your party is veering toward the extreme left. Do you agree?
The extreme left? Let’s not talk nonsense. Schlein is leading the PD in the direction of all the left-wing parties in the West, fighting against inequality, for labor rights and for the environment. However, we are still living the legacy of a season when these ideas were very much in the minority among the Italian center-left. A season in which concepts such as “labor flexibility” prevailed, in which the environment was not at the center of the political agenda, in which growth and reducing inequality were seen as mutually exclusive. Now the secretariat’s task is to build a new cultural narrative that has the potential to become dominant, one that would explain that the environment and innovation go forward together, that good wages can help growth. This battle, I fear, will be much harder than winning a leadership contest at the party congress.
Why are Blair’s ideas still so popular in the PD?
Because since the 1990s we have not had a true leftist socialist culture in Italy. Many heirs of the PCI (not all of them), lacking this culture, have embraced neoliberalism with the enthusiasm of new converts. Then there is a structural reason: the burden of public debt that is putting Italy in a weak international position. This prompted the kinds of “reforms” liked by the markets in order to avoid financial crises. Until the EU decides to implement different policies, namely massive investments in the ecological conversion and fighting inequality, this constraint will be just as confining. The PD, together with the left-wing parties in France, Germany and Spain, must fight hard to achieve this turnaround in Europe, which also means social policies to offset the costs of the green turn.
Does Cottarelli leaving the party mark the end of the PD’s period of technocratic delusion, which went from Monti to Draghi?
In Monti’s time, the effects of certain choices were not yet known; Draghi basically managed a relatively expansive phase; then, Cottarelli, whom I greatly appreciate for his decision to resign from the Senate, fully represents the legacy of this old cultural approach, which I thought had been overcome with Zingaretti’s leadership, and which instead has resurfaced. That is, the idea that the goal of reforms was to adapt Italy to the dictates of neoliberal globalization. Now the theme is the ecological conversion – we have moved away from the paradigm of unconditional growth.
To adopt one of degrowth?
Those who are saying this are committing the sin of cultural laziness. Talking about green Keynesianism means creating jobs in new sectors, innovating, the opposite of “degrowth.” Schlein’s critics, even within the PD, seem stuck in the 1990s. The point now is the quality of growth.
With these figures leaving, do you see a risk of the party losing its identity as a pluralistic one?
Frankly, no. In my experience, the problems in the PD were not the currents in general, but one particular current, the ex-Renzians, and also certain local potentates. Now it seems to me that the ex-Renzian area is deconstructing itself, after the departures of Marcucci and Borghi, and that Schlein is tackling the issue of the potentates head-on, especially in the south (I am referring here to De Luca). And, indeed, the party is growing in the polls while remaining plural, with a strong Catholic and liberal-socialist component.
Do you fear that more might leave?
The fact that a part of the political class is leaving doesn’t seem to me to be a grave matter: I have seen far more political polemics than genuine intellectual contributions from former Renzians in recent years. Of course, this doesn’t apply to Cottarelli.
I will insist on this issue: aren’t you in danger of losing moderate votes, the ones in the city centers that have always fed into the PD’s voting pool?
The idea of a party that holds everything and its opposite together seems to me to be a thing of the past. There are companies, even part of Confindustria – I am thinking of Elettricità Futura – that are at the forefront of technological and social innovation: it will be easy to build a dialogue with these contexts. If someone doesn’t recognize themselves in center-left policies and is still tied to the neoliberal paradigm, it’s only natural for them to land at a centrist party.
In his letter, Cottarelli challenged the new PD’s positions on the Jobs Act, labor flexibility and nuclear power.
The Jobs Act and flexibility incentivized Italy’s decline by devaluing labor, as several studies have pointed out. Moreover, this has been the subject of reflection in all left-wing parties in the West. The PD was born at the height of the neoliberal season, when there was the illusion that it was enough to administer what was there and that the world economy was fine as it was. Now American liberals have gone so far in criticizing financial globalization that they consider it incompatible with democracy. Instead, in Italy, when we tried to adapt the PD manifesto of values to contemporary thinking months ago, people manned the barricades as if we wanted to establish communism. The same goes for the concept of “merit,” also invoked by Cottarelli, which is the child of an ideological vision from 30 years ago. A modern progressive force does not talk about meritocracy, but about how to expand access to skills to the weaker classes as well by increasing spending in education and welfare. The country will grow if the social elevator is reactivated. Those who argue that these ideas are from the maximalist left, or those who in the face of the ecological crisis are harping on nuclear power instead of investing in renewables right now, position themselves outside the minimum shared framework necessary for a modern progressive force.