L'editoriale di Tito Boeri

“Does globalisation mean I can buy the same T-shirt in Paris and Milan?”, “Does it mean I can find the same kind of hamburger in Italy that I ate in France yesterday?”. I still remember my children asking me these questions (I leave you to guess which one came from my daughter and which from my son) on a car journey from Paris to Milan a few decades ago. They were both right. Globalisation means the integration of markets, above all in terms of goods and capital, with an increase in competitive pressure, greater circulation of goods and services in different countries and a reduction in price differences. The pressing demand to close frontiers and the revolution underway in terms of political representation in western countries is attributed precisely to competition with countries that have low labour costs and the displacement of unqualified employment in advanced nations.
In the last few years, it has been possible to note in many countries the establishment of parties contrasting the people to an elite, calling for protectionism and the restoration of national sovereignty. The ideology is relatively simple: the people are understood as a homogeneous block, offset by an elite that is equally homogenous in the sense that it is corrupt and too far away from people’s real problems. In between these two entities there is space for intermediate bodies, such civil society associations, technical organisations, independent authorities, trade unions, non-governmental organisations, and more generally institutions belonging to the systems of checks and balances of consolidated western democracies. Representation of the people corresponds to principles of direct democracy, in the name of which many decisions are subjected to online consultation, if not to referenda. The majority principle prevails at all levels, to the detriment of minorities. How is it possible to explain these developments, which radically modify the traditional divisions between right and left-wing, the axes of political conflict, and which have already thrown European social democracies into crisis? This question, which has stimulated considerable economic research in the last few years, will be at the centre of this year’s festival.
An initial explanation for the success of populism-sovereignism, as mentioned, has to do with the increasing vulnerability of large sectors of the population to globalisation and technological change (the subject of last year’s Festival), exacerbated during the Great Recession. This vulnerability has fuelled a strong demand for social protection, the recovery of national sovereignty and the closing of frontiers to goods produced in other countries and above all to the arrival of immigrants. This explains why populism and sovereignism are often synonymous. However, a strictly economic interpretation of the changes taking place in western democracies cannot explain why populism has been successful in countries which have experienced few and short-lived crises in the last ten years, such as Switzerland and Poland, whereas it has not taken off in Ireland or Portugal, where the crisis was lengthy and profound. Nor does it explain why this revolution in terms of representation is only taking place today, whereas it did not happen in the past, when the world was subject to shocks of the same kind. It is not the first time that there has been a powerful acceleration in international exchange: we can consider the end of the 19th century, with the major innovations in communications (railways, steamships, the telegraph). It is not the first time there have been major migratory flows: at the beginning of the 20th century the workforce of the USA increased by a quarter, receiving a million Europeans each year. It is not the first time that there has been a global crisis: before the Great Recession there was indeed the Great Depression of the 1930s.
A second ingredient in the success of these parties is probably linked to lack of confidence in traditional representation. An increasing proportion of citizens no longer has confidence in the ruling class and is turning to alternative political proposals, offered up by parties and leaders who present themselves as being against the system and the “political caste”. There is also a desire to punish the establishment, perhaps at the cost of delegating authority to completely unknown individuals, indeed there is a tendency to listen only to those who present themselves as “one of us”.
Whatever the cause of the new characteristics of political conflict, what do sovereignists do when they arrive at government? Sovereignist recipes often come into conflict with budgetary requirements, the reality of the market and international treaties. How do sovereignist governments solve this situation of economic conflict? And how do non-sovereignist parties and groups respond? In other words, what are the new dimensions of political conflict on economic matters?
We will also deal with these issues this year. Together with political and institutional workers and representatives, economists, political scientists, historians and academics from various disciplines will reflect on this interaction between political and economic conflict, as usual looking beyond Italy and paying attention to relevant changes in American economic policy and the uncertainty of European economic and political unification, following voting for the European Parliament.