I tend to avoid the word liberal as much as possible in conversation. My reticence does not come from any ideological aversion (although that could be forgiven), but from an abundance of caution. What exactly do my peers mean by liberal? ‘Does it include respect for the rule of law, freedom of expression and other unenumerated rights?’ Yes, they nod. ‘What of free markets and a rules-based international order.’ Their enthusiasm is now palpable. Here, I cannot help but goad them. ‘Or does it merely guarantee that my rent increases without end and that I’ll never actually own anything?’ A dose of cynicism and the conversation stalls. ‘That’s not the point,’ they usually reply! ‘It’s dishonest to confuse neo-liberalism with classical liberalism, and besides, it’s certainly better than the alternatives.’ Ah yes, the perfunctory defense: it could be worse. ‘Is that the best we can do?’ I ask. ‘That it could be worse?’ On cue, the coffee machine growls, and the conversation ends. The comment is barbed, but not without making a point. What are the liberal values worth defending? And why does it matter now?
To understand Italian politics today, look no further than Cappuccino. Originally a Viennese invention based on the exotic beans of the coffee plant, Italians adapted the beverage by adding hot milk and a layer of milk foam to a double espresso base. Made in Italy, it spread across the globe. Just like in the case of cappuccino, Italy has just put another layer on its adoption of another foreign invention – the country is about to offer a new blend of modern Western populism.
The new Italian governing coalition mixes right-wing extremist and left-wing elements in a way unimaginable for a traditional party. Some worry that the coalition amounts to Italy opening the door to ‘the modern Barbarians’: The ‘odd couple’ is considered an unprecedented formation of ‘magical thinking’, whose implications for Italy, Europe, and the larger international order are expected to be dramatic. In this post, I explain how the ideological nucleus of populism serves as the common foundation of the coalition. Besides fighting economic stagnation and pushing back on immigration, the plans to overhaul a morally corrupt establishment in Italy and Europe form a key part of the new coalition’s programme and appeal.