The government of national unity led by “technician” Mario Draghi has imploded due to political divisions that the former president of the European Central Bank could no longer contain.
Few know that, among the many topics to which he devoted his interest, Marx also dealt with the critique of the so-called ‘technical government’. As a contributor to the New York Tribune, one of the widest circulation dailies of his time, Marx observed the political and institutional developments that led to one of the first technical governments in history: the Earl of Aberdeen cabinet that lasted from December 1852 to January 1855.
Marx’s reports stood out for their perceptiveness and sarcasm. The Times celebrated the events that occurred in 1852 as a sign that Britain was at the beginning of a time ‘in which party spirit is to fly from the earth, and genius, experience, industry and patriotism are to be the sole qualifications for office’. The London-based newspaper called on ‘men of every class of opinion’ to rally behind the new government because ‘its principles command universal assent and support’. Similar arguments were used in February 2021, when Mario Draghi, the former President of the European Central Bank, became Prime Minister of Italy.
In the 1853 article A Superannuanted Administration: Prospect of the Coalition Ministry, Marx had scoffed at the viewpoint of The Times. What the major British newspaper found so modern and enthralling was for him sheer farce. When The Times announced ‘a ministry composed entirely of new, young and promising characters’, Marx mused that ‘the world will certainly be not a little puzzled to learn that the new era in the history of Great Britain is to be inaugurated by all but used-up octogenarians’. Alongside the judgments of individuals there were others, of greater interest, concerning their policies: ‘We are promised the total disappearance of party warfare, nay even of parties themselves’, Marx noted. ‘What is the meaning of The Times?’ The question is unfortunately all too topical today, in a world where the rule of capital over labour has become as feral as it was in the middle of the nineteenth century. The separation between economics and politics, that differentiates capitalism from previous modes of production, has reached a highest point. Economics not only dominates politics, setting its agenda and shaping its decisions, but lies outside its jurisdiction and democratic control – to the point where a change of government no longer changes the directions of economic and social policy. They must be immutable.
In the last thirty years, the powers of decision-making have passed from the political to the economic sphere. Partisan policy options have been transformed into economic imperatives which disguise a highly political and reactionary project behind an ideological mask of apolitical expertise. This shunting of parts of the political sphere into the economy, as a separate domain impervious to change, involves the gravest threat to democracy in our times. National parliaments, already drained of representative value by skewed electoral systems and authoritarian revisions of the relationship between executive and legislature, find their powers taken away and transferred to the ‘market’. Standard & Poor’s ratings and the Wall Street index – these mega-fetishes of contemporary society – carry incomparably more weight than the will of the people. At best political government can ‘intervene’ in the economy (sometimes, the ruling classes need to mitigate the destructive anarchy of capitalism and its violent crises), but they cannot call into question its rules and fundamental choices.
A prominent representative of this policy was former Italian Prime Minister Draghi, for 17 months leading a very broad coalition including the Democratic Party, his longtime enemy Silvio Berlusconi, the populists of the Five Star Movement and the far-right Northern League party. Behind the facade of the term ‘technical government’ – or as they say of the ‘government of the best’ or the ‘government of all the talents’ – we can make out a suspension of politics. In recent years, it has come to be argued that new elections should not be granted after a political crisis; politics should hand over the whole control to economics. In an article of April 1853, Achievements of the Ministry, Marx wrote that ‘the Coalition (“technical”) Ministry represents impotency in political power’. Governments no longer discuss which economic orientation to take. Now economic orientations bring about the birth of governments.
In recent years, in Europe the neoliberal mantra has repeated that, to restore market ‘confidence’, it was necessary to proceed rapidly down the road of ‘structural reforms’, an expression now used as a synonym for social devastation: in other words, wage cuts, attacks on workers’ rights over hiring and firing, increases in the pension age, and large-scale privatization. The new ‘technical governments’, headed by individuals with a background in some of the economic institutions most responsible for the economic crisis have gone down this path – claiming to do this ‘for the good of the country’ and ‘the well-being of future generations’. Moreover, the economic power and the mainstream media have attempted to silence anyone who has raised a discordant voice.
As of today, Draghi is no longer the Italian Prime Minister. His majority has imploded because of the too-different policies of the parties that supported him, and Italy will go to early elections on September 25. If the Left is not to disappear, it must also have the courage to propose the radical policies necessary to address the most urgent contemporary issues, starting from the ecological crisis. The last people who can carry out a program of social transformation and redistribution of the wealth are the ‘technicians’ – actually very political – like banker Mario Draghi. He will not be missed.