The Desire to Change

19.11.12 Publication:

As I sat on Friday in the Sala D’Arme of Florence’s wonderful Palazzo Vecchio, listening to so many young people, from Mayor Renzi to the “pionieri” being celebrated and hunted for by my friends from the Rete per l’Eccelenza Nazionale, the famous song from the movie “South Pacific” kept on coming into my mind. “You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream how you gonna have a dream come true?” Yet I also kept on thinking this: Italy’s problem has been that it has been living in a kind of dream, and that it needs to wake up.

There are, in truth, two types of dream. For years, even decades, Italy has had too little of the first type and too much of the second.

The first type of dream is the dream about something that you yourself want to make happen. It is the dream that is in the mind of every successful entrepreneur, but also every innovator and maker of change, in local communities or schools or charities, or in the grand affairs of national and international politics. Such dreamers do not look to see what has been done or what is allowed to be done. They look at what could be done, by their own hands and brains, to create a completely new reality.

The “pionieri” that the self-described Arenauti are looking for are people like that: people who are inventing new ways of doing things, and new things that can be done or made, in pursuit of their dream, a dream of change. But also the Arenauti themselves, this group of 100+ mainly young professionals from many fields, also share this mixture of dreams and action themselves.

The reason why I have supported them and been inspired by them since I first met them in 2009 is exactly that mixture of dreams and action. There are plenty of people, in Italy as in my own country, who can present their dreams of change in manifestoes and declarations and speeches. There are not so many who work to try to put their dreams into action.

As I, this middle-aged English writer, sat watching Mayor Matteo Renzi give his welcoming speech, wearing his signature outfit of blue jeans, open-necked white shirt and dark-blue jacket, I of course had to wonder about him, too. He is another young dreamer. But is he a man who wants to combine his dream with real action?

Too many politicians dream only of gaining power for its own value, its own sake, rather than to achieve a genuine public purpose. Mayor Renzi, as everyone remarks, speaks far more about abstract principles and vague aspirations than about concrete, substantial purposes. If he was a start-up, he would not succeed in raising capital, for investors would not finance a dream without a real business plan.

Yet he isn’t a start-up. His purpose is to win votes, and he has learned from Britain’s own Tony Blair as well as from Silvio Berlusconi that votes may best be won through aspirational, positive language rather than through policy programmes.

I remember well that one of my worst judgments as direttore of The Economist came when I wrote before Britain’s 1997 election that Mr Blair did not deserve support because he had failed to tell the British people what he would actually do when he became prime minister. This was wrong, because it ignored the fact that Blair’s opponents had lost all their credibility, as well as dismissing the chance that the power of being new and simply symbolizing change had the potential to make concrete action possible.

None of us can know whether this would also be true if Florence’s budding “pioniero” wins the PD primary and then the elections next spring. But it would be a mistake to do as I did in 1997 and to dismiss the possibility just because he is vague and inexperienced. The political establishment is concrete and experienced but it has lost all credibility, just as had Britain’s Conservatives during the 1990s.

The fundamental question has to be whether the Italian electorate has come to believe that change is needed, not just superficial change but fundamental change. Until now, for sure, it has been the second type of dream that has prevailed: the dream, in the minds of so many Italians, that things can continue as they are because everything is really OK, despite what the boring economists and statisticians may say.

This sort of dream is not a dream about creating a new reality. It is a dream about avoiding reality, and about avoiding the need to do anything serious, and certainly anything difficult, to change that reality. That is why we have called my forthcoming documentary film about Italy “Girlfriend in a Coma”, or fidanzata in coma. That coma is partly the result of the negative, selfish actions of what in my books I have called “the Bad Italy”. But it is also a result of the desire to dream, to avoid reality, and to avoid action.

The more I have seen and heard of that desire, the more worried and pessimistic I have become. But then my hope returns when I meet and listen to more of the other sort of dreamers. It is groups like RENA, mixing dreams with action, and pionieri of the sort for which they are hunting, who are keen to kick aside all the obstacles to change and to create new realities, that are needed to produce the Italian revival that all Italy’s admirers abroad are hoping for.

Rottamazione is essential. But so are real actions, to turn dreams into a new, more constructive reality.