Italy was governed for around a year by a so called “technocrat” government led by Mario Monti, and now general elections are taking place today and tomorrow. Newspapers from all over the world seem to have only one question in mind: will Silvio Berlusconi become Italy’s prime minister yet again? If that would be the case, some people would see it as a typical “comedy in the Italian way”; but for many others, including the world-famous Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, it will be an incredible but all too real tragedy instead. Although Vattimo – who is also a Member of the European Parliament – has been denouncing Berlusconi’s crimes and corrupt politics for years, he’s now also alarmed with the possibility of Mario Monti (who unlike Berlusconi is widely respected by in the European public opinion) leading another coalition, aligned with the central-left Democratic Party. The problem with the current Italian prime minister, according to Vattimo, is that he works in the interest of the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But who is Vattimo and what has he done to Italy?
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Vattimo (born in the same year as Berlusconi, 1936) is, together with Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben and Umberto Eco, the most famous living Italian philosopher. Disciple of Hans-Georg Gadamer, author of books translated in a dozen languages, friend and collaborator of Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Zizek, he was the only Italian ever invited to present the Gifford Lectures and has been honoured with numerous prestigious prizes (Max Plank Research Award for Human Sciences in 1992, Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought in 2002, the Georgetown University President Medal in 2006 among many others), books (Weakening Philosophy, Between Nihilism and Politics, Vattimo and Theology), and conferences dedicated to his philosophy. In fact, 30 years ago, he founded the last philosophical innovation from Italy, Weak Thought, a philosophical position determined to weaken the fundamentalist nature of religion, ethics, and politics through hermeneutics. He is openly gay, which is not well seen by the Vatican, but also a Catholic, which is not well seen by many socialists. Despite (or through) these contradictions, one can recognise a clear thread from the beginning of his career till today: the thread of emancipation from every kind of authoritarian power, in other words, the thread of liberty.
Nevertheless the Turin philosopher is definitely more studied and appreciated abroad than in Italy: maybe because he often supports uncomfortable positions. For example, the day before Berlusconi in 2006 began his six-month term in the rotating European Union presidency, Vattimo (as a member of the EU Parliament) distributed to all his colleagues a small brochure (prepared by Marco Travaglio and Peter Gomez, two distinguished journalist) outlining Berlusconi’s ongoing charges of money laundering, tax evasion, and alleged bribery of judges. As some of you recall, the next day after a dozen of Green Party members started waving placards bearing the word “Justice”, Berlusconi lost it and insulted Martin Schulz. This is not all: when Vattimo decided [IT] to boycott the 2008 Turin book fair for having invited Israel as a guest of honour, several Italian newspapers decided to stop running his opinion articles, which he has been writing for decades. But how do these progressive political initiatives relate to his philosophical stances?
Since his first books on Nietzsche, Vattimo shared with the German philosopher a central idea: metaphysics (so the dominant Western thought) has always put the monopoly of “truth” in the hands of the “winner” of history. That is: metaphysics has always been a strong thought, which did not accept differences and diversities outside itself, which was based on violence and a totalitarian power. But thanks to Heidegger, Derrida, and Lyotard’s deconstruction of the “Grand Narrative”, Vattimo manage to elaborate his Weak Thought, that is, a thought that stays on the margins, that accepts and searches diversities and multiplicity, that works for emancipation.
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After his first parliamentary mandate between 1999-2004, Vattimo discovered more strongly the subversive vein in his Weak Thought – which he now actually calls the “Thought of the Weak” – which is the thought of those who are excluded from the monopoly of power and live at the margins of society. In his last book, Hermeneutic Communism: from Heidegger to Marx, written with Al Jazeera contributor Santiago Zabala, he laid down a claim for a sort of communism which renounces an absolute truth and which is founded on an hermeneutic idea of society. In sum, for Vattimo the conflict of ideas, customs and religions is seen as a necessary aspect of a real democracy, where decisions have to be taken together, through a hermeneutical dialogue. As a matter of fact, if all decisions were taken in reference to one absolute truth, democracy would be substituted by dictatorship. Indeed, if one believes in objectives truths (like the dictatorship of the proletariat, the class conflict etc), a group of “experts” (intellectuals, politicians, economists) would lead the state in order to reach a specific, indisputable and unchangeable kind of society.
In Vattimo’s opinion, the same is now happening in Italy with Mario Monti and the dictatorship of the so-called government of technocrats: a government which pretends to be neutral and to work for the wellbeing of future generations, but serves a precise truth: the absolutism of the banks and of the financial market. For Vattimo, Monti’s totalitarian politics works similar to that of the power of the US, which is based on the idea of an objective truth which has to be imposed – also with so called democratic or humanitarian wars. This is why for the general elections, the Turin philosopher will vote Lista Ingroia, a new political coalition which for Vattimo [IT] represents the only alternative to another metaphysical government of technocrats or corrupt politics.
But what does Vattimo think of the recent abdication of Pope Benedict XVI? He is not only pleased that a Pope who opposed gay marriages, birth control, and other socially accepted realities is leaving, but also given the theoretical justifications of his abdication: the fact that Ratzinger cannot submit himself anymore to the compatibility and interdependence between Belief and Reason. Which, by the way, is not very different from the political and economical logic I mentioned above. As Vattimo told me a few days ago, “the Pope finally decided to follow Christ who, I am sure, would also leave the Vatican considering what it has become. But if this is the real justification, then he would have to move to Palestine where a true Christian charity is needed.”
According to Vattimo, both Italy and the Vatican have the opportunity, however unrealistic it might seem, to show a non-violent and more subversive face this year, one which is not only open to other forms of society and ethics, but also to the “Weak”.
Silvia Mazzini is a lecturer at the Humboldt University and a guest fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin. She is the author of Für eine mannigfaltige mögliche Welt: Kunst und Politik bei Ernst Bloch und Gianni Vattimo (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2010), and of numerous articles on aesthetics, dramaturgy and political philosophy.