Opinion

John Lloyd

Beppe Grillo’s anti-disappointment party

John Lloyd
Apr 3, 2013 17:37 UTC

Jim O’Neill, head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, thinks Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement is a greater threat to Europe and the euro than the trials of little Cyprus. That’s because Grillo received more than a quarter of the votes in February’s election in Italy and has since gridlocked the political system by refusing any dealings with the established parties. A government can’t be formed.

O’Neill warned that if growth does not come soon to the euro zone’s third-largest economy, stalled for longer than any other in Europe, even more people will start to support Grillo’s movement and its call for a referendum on membership of the euro zone. What, he asked, does Grillo think? His response: “Does anyone really know?”

I do, Jim.

Grillo and his collaborator, the slightly mystic Gianroberto Casaleggio, believe that the Web is the new form of democracy, infinitely superior to the representative parliamentary kind in which, they say, leaders frame the politics and politics fail the people. The Five Star Movement, said Casaleggio in a recent book, believes the word leader “is a word from the past, a dirty word that leads you astray. Leader of what? It means that you attribute intelligence and the power of decision making to others, so you aren’t even a slave, you’re an object.”

Grillo, Casaleggio and their movement may be a flash in an Italian pan, as brilliant and tasty as many other things in Italian pans, but it may disappear just as fast. Elsewhere in Europe, the Pirate parties, which have largely fallen to quarreling and collapsing, have done just that. But Italian political fads can catch on. Think of Christian democracy, fascism and communism-with-a-human-face. The latter was the forerunner of Mikhail Gorbachev’s politics, the unintended destroyer of the Soviet Union.

This present flash may illuminate the world because it says something about democracy, and not just Italy’s democracy. Grillo thinks politicians (and journalists) should get out of the way and let the people rule directly, through the Web. We who cleave to elections, parliaments and representatives find this horrifying. But we forget several things:

Boris Berezovsky: An oligarch who lost his status

John Lloyd
Mar 25, 2013 18:22 UTC

Among the initial wave of Russian oligarchs, Boris Berezovsky was the first among equals, and among the last.

By the mid- to late 1990s, he had become the most powerful figure, after the ailing President Boris Yeltsin, in the Kremlin. A mathematician and engineer of ability, Berezovsky leveraged an early success as a car salesman at a time of rampant inflation into huge wealth and control of media, auto, aviation and oil assets.

He strongly backed Vladimir Putin for president after Yeltsin’s resignation; indeed, he was his main promoter. In Putin, the apparently modest and amiable former KGB officer, Berezovsky saw somebody with self-discipline. He also saw somebody with the need for financial and intellectual support from somebody who had much of both – somebody like Berezovksy.

A free press without total freedom

John Lloyd
Mar 19, 2013 21:52 UTC

Journalism gyrates dizzily between the dolorous grind of falling revenue and the Internet’s vast opportunities of a limitless knowledge and creation engine. On the revenue front, no news is good. The just-published Pew Center’s “State of the US News Media” opens with the bleak statement that “a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.” Not only, that is, is the trade shrinking, but those who once depended on its gatekeepers have found their own ways to visibility.

Journalists’ task, as large as any they have collectively faced in 400 years of their trade’s existence, is to find a way to continue the journalism that societies most need and citizens are least willing to pay for: detailed, skeptical, truthful, fair, investigatory writing and broadcasting. It’s a big ask. The British are in the process of not answering it. They are staging a sideshow: not an unimportant one, but in a minor key all the same.

Over the past two years, a series of alleged crimes – illegal interception of phone messages, bribery, blackmail, perverting the course of justice, theft – have been committed by journalists working for the British tabloids. The Leveson Inquiry, prompted by revelations of phone hacking, and subsequent police investigations have laid bare a shaming landscape of cruelty and criminality. Many politicians of all parties bowed before the perpetrators, adding to the shame.

Bureaucracy will set you free

John Lloyd
Mar 13, 2013 19:37 UTC

Two movements, fundamentally opposed, are at work in the world: corruption and anti-corruption. The marketization of the economies of China, India and Russia in the past two decades has exacerbated the corruption in those countries. Businesspeople and politicians, often hardly distinguishable, become billionaires in tandem.

But corruption is falling out of favor in more and more countries as more and more governments realize that while it may get things done in the short term, it corrodes everything in the long term. As public anger rises everywhere against the grossest inequalities the modern world has seen, it provides the fuel for future fires. Bribes, the most common form of corruption, are a crime not just against the law but against the public. Those states now climbing the wealth ladder will risk worse than poverty if they do not grasp that truth.

What do they need? A good bureaucracy, that’s what.

For two centuries, disparaging bureaucracy has been a major component of our freedom myths. Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, George Orwell rynd Alexander Solzhenitsyn all made the bureaucrats  villains in their work. In Dickens’ 1857 masterpiece, Little Dorrit, an inventor, Daniel Doyce, goes gray attempting to register his invention at the Circumlocution Office ‑ a tragicomic institution dedicated to squashing all private initiative. He gets a final judgment that:

Cult of personalidad

John Lloyd
Mar 8, 2013 19:09 UTC

Hugo Chavez’s popularity was not confined to Venezuela; it was a global phenomenon. He pulled together a coalition of forces into a kind of “Chavez International,” an alternative to Western hegemony. It was an amalgam of allies whose comradeship was historically weird – communists, Islamists, Soviet holdovers, Western idealists and far leftists – but politically potent. And in the end, irrelevant.

Chavez’s first, closest alliance was with Fidel Castro. It was unconditional devotion on the part of the younger man; on Fidel’s side, it was admiration coupled with a canny estimation of the benefits of Venezuela’s loyalty in a post-Soviet era. Cuba got billions of dollars’ worth of oil; Venezuela got thousands of Cuban medical staff, engineers and other experts. More than that, Fidel gave Chavez an ideology of sorts, or as Francisco Toro writes, “a kind of cosmic morality play pitting unalloyed socialist ‘good’ in an unending death struggle against the ravages of ‘evil’ American imperialism.”

The “American imperialism” was the glue that bound Chavez International together. It united him with a range of world figures eager to court him for his oil wealth, and happy to join with him against a West ‑ and an Amerika (with a “k:), in particular ‑ that was either their active or potential foe. Chavez visited, and loudly proclaimed the virtue, of Bashar al-Assad of Syria, the late Muammar Gaddafi, the even later Saddam Hussein, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Many of those were given the “Order of the Liberator,” Venezuela’s highest honor, though most of these figures were or are deeply abusive of human rights, and some – such as Saddam, Mugabe and presently and most brutally, Assad – waged war on sections of their own population.

Richly deserved

John Lloyd
Mar 6, 2013 14:14 UTC

The tale of two worlds – the fabulously rich and the increasingly poor – is a defining narrative of contemporary life, and it continues to throw up vivid reminders, at once doleful and grimly hilarious.

One of the latest examples was told by the writer and provocateur Matt Taibbi, famed for having described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

In a recent Rolling Stone blog post, Taibbi related a confrontation between Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and the analyst Mike Mayo of Credit Agricole Securities during an investor conference call earlier this year. These calls are where analysts get to question the masters of the financial universe about their actions. Mayo asked Dimon if investors would not prefer a bank – he offered UBS as an example –that had a higher capital-to-debt ratio. The exchange then went:

A pope retires, a Church reels

John Lloyd
Feb 28, 2013 19:58 UTC

“The servant of God’s servant departs in peace,” was the headline on an article by the British novelist Piers Paul Read this week. The piece was a eulogy to Benedict XVI’s papacy, in which Read argued that the pope had left the Church much richer in doctrine – conservative doctrine – than he had found it. Watching the televised images of Benedict touring St. Peter’s Square in his Popemobile ‑ smiling, waving, embracing the babies passed to him from proud parents as he went, speaking about the joy and light he finds in God ‑ you would be inclined to agree.

But in that final address, he also said that in his eight years, “I have had … moments that haven’t been easy … moments of turbulent seas and rough winds … at times it seemed like the Lord was sleeping.” He offered no details on the rough winds nor on what events the Lord was sleeping through, but it’s likely that those that gave him the most heartache concerned the people with whom the Lord’s servants were sleeping with. Sex is roiling the Catholic Church.

Benedict has been accused of much of which he is innocent: his membership, brief and mandatory, in the Hitler Youth when a teenager; his supposed anti-Muslim comments attributing violence to Islam, actually a quote from a medieval emperor, from which he dissociated himself; and an attribution of anti-Semitism because he reconciled the Church with the Society of Pius X, one of whose members was a Holocaust denier. He has been so accused because of his orthodoxy, and orthodoxy has been taken by his more radical critics to include prejudice and worse. But it is unlikely that his prejudices include pro-Nazism, or anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic views.

Italy elects the impossible

John Lloyd
Feb 26, 2013 16:22 UTC

In a parliamentary election this week, a majority of Italian voters – some 60 percent – chose parties that even a cursory glance could tell had no coherent idea of how to run an advanced and complex state (let alone Italy). Forty percent voted for two groups that have a recognizably sensible approach to governance, the largest of which is mainly made up of the Democratic Party, heirs to the former Communist Party of Italy. In one of the smaller ironies of the election, these heirs of an anti-capitalist, anti parliamentary revolutionary ideology were regarded, especially by investors, bankers and politicians of both the center-right and center-left, as Italy’s greatest hope for constitutional and market stability

Just under 30 percent of the vote went to the coalition put together by Silvio Berlusconi, a man not exactly proven at being able to govern Italy well. He is yesterday’s but also tomorrow’s man, who saw his run for office – once regarded as something of a joke – embraced as he promised to return, in cash, citizens’ payments of a property tax for which his party had voted; asked a young woman how often she climaxed; and remarked, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, that former dictator Benito Mussolini, whose racial laws condemned thousands of Italian Jews to concentration camps and death, had done some good things in his time. He didn’t win, but nearly did; which means he remains a major power in the land.

Tim Parks, the British writer who has married and lived for most of his life in Italy, wrote of his adopted people that “nonchalance is perhaps their greatest (talent)”, and continued: “Berlusconi’s political instincts mesh perfectly with the collective determination (of Italians) not to face the truth, which again combines with the deep fear that a more serious leader might ask too much of them. … Only in a country where tax evasion is endemic can one appeal to evaders at the expense of those who pay taxes.” 

Of princesses and tabloids

John Lloyd
Feb 21, 2013 16:48 UTC

When visitors enter the UK, they should be greeted by a life-size model of a dragon (though what is life-size for a dragon?) with a placard by it that says: “Welcome to the United Kingdom. We devour princesses!”

The dragon might be made of newsprint, for it is the newspapers – followed by waddling broadcasters, tut-tutting along – who are the devourers of these women. The latest British royal scandal features two central British institutions, the royal family and the tabloid press, oddly paired with a distinguished writer. The first two have flourished in a swamp of contempt (on the royal side) and addiction (on the press side) ever since the postwar years, when automatic deference to royalty was replaced by a destructive neediness.

The present queen, Elizabeth II, was a young woman of 25 when the death of her father propelled her to the throne in 1952. No scandal of her making attended her as a princess, nor has any since she became queen. Her sister, Princess Margaret, was a different matter. In love in her early 20s with a divorced “commoner,” Group Captain Peter Townsend, she renounced him at her sister’s request and later married the photographer Anthony Armstrong Jones. She later divorced him. Margaret, a heavy smoker and drinker, was a fixture in the popular papers – mostly for real or alleged affairs, especially with the minor aristocrat Roddy Llewellyn, a man 17 years her junior.

Italy’s important election

John Lloyd
Feb 19, 2013 20:13 UTC

“I’ll be back” has been Silvio Berlusconi’s frequent slogan since he first departed from the political field two decades ago. His first government, in 1994, lasted a mere year. It ended in semi-farce when his main ally, the Northern League, pulled out. Prosecutors announced an investigation into alleged corruption while he hosted a G8 meeting in Naples. But he was back in 2001 through 2006, when he lost by a whisker to the left; then back again in 2008, when a stumbling left government lost its majority.

His resignation in 2011 was supposed – even by him – to be the final word. Instead, by the middle of last year, halfway through the austere term of the technocrat Mario Monti, he sniffed the air of a return from the political grave (or, according to his many detractors, recalled that being prime minister with the immunity of parliament was handy for one still facing criminal charges). Thus he inserted himself back into the leadership of the party he created, the People of Freedom. At 76, Berlusconi was on the stump once more. With bravura, he has promised to pay people back – in cash -- for the property taxes they have paid since his departure, he won a shouting match with two left-wing journalists on their own TV show and he grabbed every minute of broadcast space that he could. One could admire his tenacity if he had not been such a disaster — economically, politically and morally — for his country.

Berlusconi has a chance of winning this weekend’s elections. Roberto D’Alimonte, one of Italy’s leading political scientists, argues that the People of Freedom are a mere five points behind the left coalition’s 31 percent poll score. Berlusconi’s tally may be too low if some people are ashamed to tell pollsters they will vote for him. He’s a master of the late surge (as in 2006, where he narrowly snatched victory after trailing badly).

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