Italy: still better than any developing country

Or so goes the implied message of some commentary and reporting about post-Berlusconi Italy. In offering useful scenarios about the kind of government that might emerge in the coming days and weeks, The Guardian’s Rome correspondent John Hooper lapses into some pretty undisguised, patronizing disdain for governments of the “developing world”, presenting some types of government as simply being unbecoming of Western industrialized democracies. Good enough for the Third World, but not good enough for a European country, so goes the sentiment.

In two of the options, he writes (emphasis added):

“A cabinet of technocrats
This is the way out favoured by the markets and the Italian centre left: a government filled with specialists who could pass the unpalatable legislation needed to revive Italy‘s flagging economy without having to worry about re-election. It is the solution more commonly associated with the young democracies of the developing world, but it has had success in Italy…

The grand coalition
Otherwise known as a government of national emergency or salvation. This too might be seen as a developing world solution. But with the interest rate on its sovereign bonds heading for the fateful 7% mark and the Milan bourse dipping south, Italy certainly has an emergency and needs salvation. Could its notoriously querulous politicians agree to govern together, though? It would probably need a politician – and a deft one – to run such an administration….”

Should some possible forms of government, because they are “developing world solutions”, be ruled out for European societies? Underpinning this claim is an attitude that posits an essential difference between the Western and non-Western worlds, one which gives the former a unique status as the model for the latter to emulate; the non-Western world is judged in terms of how closely it conforms to the ideals and standards of the Western world, even if these are always only ever imperfectly met in Western liberal democracies themselves.

Not so long ago, towards the end of the 1980s (and still ongoing to this day), international donors and financial institutions championed what became known as ‘good governance’: a demand made conditional to development assistance that recipients of aid had to meet certain standards of governance, emphasizing civil and political rights, such as multiparty elections. A failure of governance was identified by donors and international agencies as the reason why the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s had failed to work: the problem weren’t the economic policies, they were the economies and societies themselves, which had to change, and made more receptive to the paradigm of economic neoliberalism.

Without rehashing this whole history (for that, see Rita Abrahamsen’s Disciplining Democracy), the simple point, made in the current context of Italy and the eurozone’s monetary and political crisis, is the continued construction of “difference” between the West and the rest. For too many commentators, the West is still the best, the end-point of the roughly linear progress of human history, presuming to know – and dictate – how the rest of the world should live. And some types of governance, it seems, are just not good enough.

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