The first part of this article examined the books No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein and L’età dell’oikocrazia. Il nuovo totalitarismo globale dei clan [The Age of Oikocracy. The new global totalitarianism of the clans] by Fabio Armao. Klein focuses on the meaning and consequences of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Trump is labeled as the product of a system of thought that catalogues human beings according to race, religion, and sexuality, and he is seen as the product of a business culture that idealizes those who build their fortune by ignoring laws and rules, and at the same time make war on public services and common goods.
Armao, for his part, extends the analysis of the new networks of power to the ‘clan’, which are distinguished by putting economic (private) interests before political (public). According to Armao, we find ourselves living in the age of a Western countries’ “oikocracy”, a neologism composed of the Greek terms kratos (power) and oikos (from which derives the word ‘economy’). The West demands more and more resources to be able to maintain its lifestyles, while being aware that such a choice implies an increasing impoverishment of the rest of the planet and an increase in inequalities even among its citizens.
Raffaele Alberto Ventura himself deals with the imbalances of advanced capitalism and the Western unease in his La guerra di tutti. Populismo, terrore e crisi della società liberale [The War of All. Populism, terror and crisis of liberal society], published by minimum fax in 2019. If Armao in his study has defined populism not as an ideology but as a mood, Ventura in turn qualifies it as a “contradictory sentiment” that agitates in the unconscious of the electorate the “attraction and repulsion to the State, sovereignist temptations and raptus of anarchy” (Ventura 2019, location 631).
Like Armao does, also Ventura refers to The Great Transformation, the classic of economic history written by Karl Polanyi in 1944, which describes the role of high finance in coordinating the 19th century monetary and geopolitical order. He points out, however, that due to the process of disintermediation encouraged by the populist sentiment, “which allows everyone to compose their own tailor-made informal diet, rejecting certain narratives to the advantage of others” (ib., location 648), the reading of Polanyi may be, because of the ‘cognitive overload’ that characterizes our ‘Age of Suspicion’, “simplified to the point of serving some conspiracy or even anti-Semitic narrative” (ib., location 706).
The community of limited and illiterate people elevated according to Armao to social beings of a superior race by unscrupulous charismatic leaders is the same that Ventura sees induced by contemporary conspiracy to an excess of consideration for their faculties (cf. ib., location 755). Ignorant people who do not know that they are ignorant, i.e., ‘meta-ignorant’ people who lack a critical spirit, stupid people who are unable to grasp the irony of polysemous statements fed to them by politicians in bad faith, whose sole aim is to manipulate consensus.
The meta-ignorant feel therefore entitled to select the narrative of reality that is most pleasing to them but, in a society like the West that allows a large number of people to reach a certain degree of economic prosperity, they also want to be “acknowledged”, that is to satisfy the “need to be socially recognized for what /they feel/ to be or to deserve” (ib., location 2379).
In order to achieve this recognition, it is necessary to access the best social positions, to the detriment of someone else. In order to do this, you need to be trained, to compete with those who have the same ambitions as you, to have more money than your competitors to invest in further training without having to settle for less enviable occupations due to lack of resources. These aspirations are infecting the self-respect of an ever-growing part of the world’s population, which “finally grants the right to desire the same thing that the American and European middle classes want, dragging the entire planet into a mimetic conflict” (ib., location 2465). The consequence? Generations of young people are committed to training for professions that they will never be able to do; the liberal system is ultimately unable to “satisfy the demand for acknowledgment that it generates itself” (ib., location 3905).
The congenital nurturing of desire which is germane to bourgeois societies leads the homo oeconomicus to rival for the consumptions that serve to define a social rank: the so-called ‘positional goods’. This is one of the phenomena on which the reflections of Raffaele Alberto Ventura focus in the book that is sort of propaedeutic to the La guerra di tutti: we refer to La teoria della classe disagiata [The theory of the disadvantaged class], also published by minimum fax in 2017. Here the author connects to the concept of ‘distinction’ developed by Pierre Bourdieu, which is at the basis of the desire to consume positional goods that “serve to establish social roles and access to [… ] the «symbolic capital» that is accumulated and exchanged through the ostentation of certain cultural consumptions” (Ventura 2017, loc. 127). The reader’s attention is then drawn, in the footsteps of René Girard, on one of the most sensational paradoxes of the democratic system, “that wanting to make us equal puts us in the condition of a permanent war of all against all” (Ventura 2017, location 2067).
The rush to invest in training in order to win the ‘acknowledgment’ of their social rank is often a source of great frustration for many graduates, who end up being overeducated compared to the qualifications required by the labour market. It is not true that being good, tenacious and determined is enough to achieve success, since everyone else does the same thing. Most fail to access the positions of their dreams but refuse to demote themselves with respect to their aspirations: the result, given the “impossibility to derogate from their class of origin” (ib., location 2291) and their social hopes, is often a ‘voluntary’ unemployment. Today, part of the population does not have the resources to participate in the dream of mass gentrification. Yet it finds itself participating in what Ivan Illich called a scamming and «mandatory lottery». Another lottery, after the ‘birth lottery’ evoked by Armao, which prepares “the poorest to enter a well-off mass society in which they will never enter” (Ventura 2017, location 2466).
The Well-off Mass Society is also the one evoked by Luca Ricolfi in the book with the same name published by La nave di Teseo in 2019, thanks to which we complete this brief excursus on five books that in the last three years have dealt with the crisis of liberal society.
Ricolfi focuses on the case of Italy, in which, net of 5 million non-citizens (immigrants), the citizens whom the author defines as ‘not-poor’, of course distributed over a wide spectrum of economic and social conditions, would amount to 52 million individuals (out of 55). 94% of those who have Italian citizenship, therefore, would belong to the ‘well-off mass society’, whose economic nucleus the author identifies in the combination ‘opulence + stagnation’, while the social one would be the fracture “between a minority of producers, who work and generate the surplus, and a majority of unemployed, who can access the surplus without contributing to produce it” (Ricolfi, location 224).
The structure of Italy according to Ricolfi is composed of three segments: a 7.9% of foreigners (of which a third in absolute poverty), a 39.9% of working Italians and a 52.2% of not working Italians, the latter often related to the previous segment. The process that led to the formation in Italy of a well-off mass society required about half a century because of three conditions: the collapse of the employment rate, the opulent consumption, and the end of growth.
The first condition that defines a well-off mass society ‒ more unmeployed than employed ‒ was already reached in the mid-sixties, when companies drastically reduced the hiring of young people, women and elderly. The transition to the second condition ‒ the mass access to opulent consumption by citizens who do not work ‒ took place between the eighties and the early 2000s: second cars, second homes, diving and ski equipment, long and frequent holiday weekends, all-inclusive packages for exotic locations, TV with satellite connections and subscriptions on demand, language and sport courses for children, outdoor aperitifs, alternative medicine have become more and more common behaviors and consumptions.
The third condition ‒ the stopping of the economy’s growth ‒ occurred with the double recession of 2008-2009 and 2011-2012. Since 2009, Italy’s five-year average growth rate has become negative or close to zero, signalling the entry of our country into a stagnation regime. Once these conditions have been met, the well-off mass society rests, according to Ricolfi, on three fundamental pillars: the first is the enormous real and financial wealth accumulated by the generation that “made war” and by the next one; the second pillar is the destruction of the school (the consequences produced by the lowering of the education standards are also treated by Ventura 2017); the third pillar is the formation of a slavery-like system formed by immigrants from countries much poorer than ours.
It is precisely the third pillar identified by Ricolfi that allows us to close the circle of our reasoning, as it opens your eyes to the fact that the well-off mass societies that are characteristic of Western Europe ‒ we recall by the way that Italy is the only one among the twenty-nine advanced societies in the world to present both the three primary conditions mentioned above and all the five secondary features that are: 1. a high number of young people who neither study nor work (NEET); 2. an unequal allocation of work; 3. the primacy of leisure; 4. the ageing of the population; 5. the tendency of women not to have children ‒ , would not be conceivable without the availability of slavery-like labor.
Seasonal workers concentrated in ghettos, street prostitutes, personal service staff, undocumented employees. A part of the resident population is therefore placed in servile or exploitation roles, mostly for the benefit of Italian (and other European countries’ citizens) . A condition that, in the case of immigrants, “is aggravated by the impossibility of exercising the right to vote, just like the real slaves in ancient Greece, the cradle and origin of democracy” (Ricolfi, location 659).
It is goods found in the most derelict areas of the planet, excluded from the war for acknowledgment engaged by the discomforted bourgeoisie, placed at a step just above the damned of the Earth who are enslaved at home, epitome of the intolerable world that is vomited by the neoliberal Behemoth.