Matteo Renzi: A Machiavellian ‘Prince’?

Italy’s new prime minister is not going to bring a radical change.

Matteo Renzi is a young and charismatic politician, but he's lacking credibility, writes the author [AP]

A smiling spectre is haunting Italy’s political scene, and somebody calls it hope. Since February 22, the country has a brand-new prime minister: Matteo Renzi. The former mayor of Florence is actually the third government leader chosen by the parliament and, not through general elections (after Mario Monti in 2011 and Enrico Letta in 2013).

This can hardly be called a sign of a correct functioning democracy. Nevertheless, general public opinion in Italy, and the international finance world seem to welcome him with optimism, as the only and last hope of “il bel paese” after decades of corruption, inefficient administrations and exhausting austerity years.

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No doubt, a courageous, subversive hope is what Italy needs, today more than ever, in order to overcome its economic, political and cultural crisis. But the fundaments of this specific hope on Renzi are fragile and unstable: Neither a cultural nor a political renewal can be built on it. Matteo Renzi is a young, gifted, communicative and charismatic politician, but something absolutely indispensable is missing: Credibility.

Radical change

Matteo Renzi had always championed free elections, transparency and honesty, but he became prime minister without democratic elections. Only last December, as the new leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), he promised his support to Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who belonged to the same party.

Nevertheless, in February he changed his mind, claiming that Italy needed a “radical change” in a quick and more effective way. So Renzi brought down the government and, in effect very quickly, took up the reins.

Yes, Renzi knows what velocity means, he has had a quick career himself. After five years as president of the Province Florence, in 2009 he became mayor of the Tuscan capital city, on December 2013 leader of the Democratic Party, now he is Italy’s prime minister and – as if it would not be enough – from July 1 he will be the president of the EU for the European Semester.

But that is not all, because for him quickness in itself has become a political strategy. In fact, he promised Italy one reform per month: Reducing youth unemployment (which is now at 40 percent) and taxes, simplifying the suffocating bureaucracy and reforming the electoral law.

However, Renzi is not naive. He realised that this prompt change of positions and ideas would not be forgotten so quickly and needed justification. So he motivated his new decisions by appealing to the urgent needs of his country. In other words, he argued that the necessity to help Italy brought him to suspend his promises and coherence.

Renzi’s rise to power

This attitude could be compared with the political theories of an Italian historian, philosopher, politician and intellectual, who like Renzi came from Florence: Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). And yes, at first glance there are indeed some similarities between these two Tuscans, in spite of the half millennium that separates them.

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In his treatise “The Prince” (published in 1532), which is seen as the foundation of modern political science, Machiavelli argued that the person carrying the responsibility to conserve the political power could, in case of necessity, use even violence or disobey the moral laws.

More precisely, the Prince should be like a centaur, half man and half beast, in order to be able to fight using the law (with the help of his intelligence, knowledge and experience) or, if necessary, with force like a beast.

Machiavelli’s Prince was not an ideal, but rather a pragmatic political model. In this model, Machiavelli pinned his hopes that Italy’s states could resist the other military and political potencies of Europe of the time, which were getting stronger and more aggressive.

In this sense yes, Renzi could be considered as a kind of postmodern, Machiavellian Prince, fighting with all the means available to him in order to save Italy (and through that, also avoiding the BCE significant economical interventions). But one central point is missing. A point that often fails in the general reception of Machiavelli, whose theories are mostly presented as exclusively cynical or unscrupulous.

For Machiavelli, one of the most important virtues of the Prince was his ability to understand when force was really needed, and when it was not. Above all: The necessity to use all possible means concerned only the conservation of the state, so a higher instance, and not personal goals – like Renzi does.

No, I am not suggesting that the new prime minister is going to use Italy like a shield to protect his own economic or juridical interests, like Silvio Berlusconi did during his time as prime minister and is still doing today. Renzi’s “kind of greed” is different: He is not in search of money, but of power and political fame.

With a power which is getting more and more absolute, Renzi has already been called “the demolition man”, since he wanted all “old” politicians to retire. Without making any kind of difference between personal characteristics and only age as a criterion.

Result? Renzi swept away not only many of his rivals, but also people who had a long experience with the concrete and complex problems of the country. Out with the old, in with the new. But for Machiavelli, the Prince should learn from older personalities and political models, in order to act effectively and avoid mistakes of the past. Renzi ignores this valuable advice.

But for Machiavelli, the Prince should learn from older personalities and political models, in order to act effectively and avoid mistakes of the past. Renzi ignores this valuable advice.

He seems to dislike the past and focuses only on the undefined present and future. It is no coincidence that he took Blair and above all Obama as a model. From Obama he borrowed a precious weapon: Hope. But hope needs content and because of Renzi’s false (or empty) hopes, “il bel paese” could fall (paraphrasing a famous comedian) from its “grande bellezza” to an irrefrenable decline.

Maybe this is a wrong view. And yes, this is one of those times I would sincerely like to be wrong. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe in the “radical change” the new prime minister is promising Italy, while the parliament and the majority are the same as Letta’s.

Last but not least, if Renzi really wanted to “save” Italy, he could and should have concentrated his efforts on changing the electoral law, so that elections could have taken place – as planned – in 2015 and Italy could finally enjoy a democratically elected government. Now, as soon he got to be prime minister, he declared he wants to stay till 2018, thus leaving Italy in the same political deadlock it has been in for years.

Yes, he might be a young, energetic politician. Yes he may have bright new ideas and yes, he brings much needed optimism to Italy. But it should not have happened this way. Because it is not only Renzi’s career that’s at stake here, it is the democratic future of Italy.

Silvia Mazzini Silvia Mazzini is a lecturer at the Humboldt University and an Affiliated Fellow at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry in Berlin. She is the author of “Fur eine mannigfaltige mogliche Welt. Kunst und Politik bei Ernst Bloch und Gianni Vattimo” (Frankfurt am Main 2010) and of numerous articles on aesthetics, dramaturgy and political philosophy. She edited together with G. Koch and N. Giese the book SozialRaumInszenierung (Strasburg 2013).