Article 18: political language, media and the shrinking space for evidence in Italy



Italians like to talk about politics. Political talk shows have been popular but they seem to have reached a saturation point. Too many of them. In the morning. Later afternoon. Evening. Some shows are better than others but they also start to all look alike. The same politicians and journalists as guests. Not always but similar shouting and people talking over eachother. The same political and policy issues.

But I like some of these shows. I live in Indonesia and have been overseas for many years and these shows represent one link with Italy. Through them I can follow what is happening in politics and (maybe more importantly) listen to my own language, Italian. What a wonderful language for politics!

A couple of weeks ago, during one of these talk shows, (DiMartedì), Prof. Amalia Signorelli, an anthropologist, made the point that the political language used by Italian politicians (or politici) has changed quite a lot during the last 20 years. Politici of earlier generations, she argues, used arguments (and evidence?) as a starting point for claims used to justify and persuade the public opinion of a particular policy conclusion or course of action. This is typical of deductive arguments where the premises are meant to provide a guarantee of the truth of the conclusion. We could discuss about it, but let’s move on the next point of her argument.

During the last 20 years of poor quality popular TV and 24 hours news cycle we have a new generation of politici which has emerged from the Berlusconi and a leader-centered way of doing politics. This generation is now represented by the centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. For Prof. Signorelli, this new generation speaks a political language which is poorer and more empty than before. The political language they use often takes as a departure point an argument or a premise which is not backed by any strong evidence. This leads to statements and proposals that luck a solid ground under their feet.

Here is an example. The attention of the Italian media is currently captured by the discussion around an article of the labour code: Article 18. Politicians from all sides, trade unions, and the media seem obsessed by it. Article 18 requires companies that employ 15 or more workers to re-hire (rather than compensate) any employee found to have been fired without just cause. Article 18 was part of the 1970 labor code to protect workers. The government wants to change it and make it easier for companies to dismiss or lay-off employees. Why? Because it can encourage companies to hire more people on permanent rather than short-term or fixed-term contracts.

The argument brought forward by the Prime Minister and the government is the following, says Prof. Signorelli: we need to reform the labor code, and in particular Article 18, because Italy has high unemployment and a lot of people working on fixed-term contracts (3,3 millions earning on average 836 euro net per month – Repubblica). The reason for this is a rigid labor code. This rigidity has a negative effect on Italy’s economy recovery because it limits investments from overseas. The emphasis, amplified by newspapers, talk shows, tweets, mini-interviews, etc. is on the link between Article 18 and (lack of) foreign investments.

Is this the whole story? Of course not.

Italy has the largest presence of organized crime (mafia) in Europe. Its turnover is difficult to calculate but is estimated around 10,9 per cent of GDP with profits around 1,7 per cent of GDP or about 23,7 billion di euro in 2012 (Fatto Quotidiano). Italy has one of the highest taxation levels in Europe with an effective tax rate of 54% on GDP but with public services that are far from Scandinavian standards (Il Sole 24 Ore). In terms of easiness of doing business the World Bank ranks Italy 65th over 189 countries and 29th over the 31 OECD economies. In terms of corruption, Transparency International in 2012 ranked Italy 72th over 174 countries (Transparency International).

The debate and language used around the Article 18 is very ideological and heated. The government uses more slogan rather than evidence. The unions depict a labor market of permanent and life long jobs which may be soon extinct. They seem not to recognize new and more flexible ways of working allowed by technology.

Ideology is and should be part of politics. However, what we are witnessing in Italy is a rush to simplify arguments and synthetize them into catchy titles and 140 characters. The risks? Less room for evidence and facts to inform the debate, a trivialization of politics, less accountability.

Sounds like the hybrid democracy described by Prof. Ilvo Diamanti as a democracy where an active participation in politics has been replaced by TV communication and the identification in the figure of the leader who is media savvy and manages an almost private political party.




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