What constitutes a threat to democracy?

Following yesterday’s Italian elections, it seems likely that a coalition of right-wing parties led by Giorgia Meloni is likely to assume power. Her opponents in both Italy and Brussels have described this prospect as a threat to democracy.

Indeed, the EU’s commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned prior to the election that there would be consequences if Italy was to “veer away” from democratic principles, and cited the EU’s treatment of Hungary and Poland, who both faced funding cuts for offending Brussels, as examples.

But what constitutes a threat to democracy, and is Meloni such a threat? Firstly, it must be restated that she has come to power on the back of free and fair and transparent elections. Secondly, she is not the only such leader or party to do so in Europe in recent times. A similar coalition has recently assumed power in Sweden, featuring the Swedish Democrats party, who, like Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, are regularly accused by opponents of being far-right or proto-fascist. Thirdly, there are a number of obvious routes to threatening democracy and indeed Italy arguably has recently experienced one, largely without any complaint from those concerned about Signora Meloni. Let’s take these in turn.

Giorgia Meloni on Sunday.

It has been argued in the past that whereas far-left parties come to power in revolutions, far-right parties come to power in elections, only to eschew such niceties once power is secured. This is something of a red herring and is hardly a consistent rule of thumb, but of course much depends on how one defines the prefixes ‘far’ or ‘hard’ in this context.

It is of course true that Mussolini was elected in 1924, and Hitler in Germany in 1932/3. There are questions about the fairness of both elections in retrospect, but similar questions do not apply in the case of the Brothers of Italy and their coalition. Additionally, many right-wing dictators, from Franco, to Salazar, to Papadopoulos, came to power by means other than elections, primarily military.

Meloni’s party’s stratospheric rise, partly at the expense of her coalition partners, the Lega, is not unusual in the current European climate. Nationalist sentiment and a desire to limit immigration has fueled parties like hers to power in a number of elections in recent times, including in Hungary, Poland, and Sweden, and in France, Marine Le Pen made much ground in the recent presidential election. Despite their often sudden rise to influence, none of these parties was created overnight. They all have lengthy prehistories of not being elected, during which none of them threatened the democratic structures which bring governments to power in their countries. There is, in other words, no inherent threat to democracy arising from being elected.

Furthermore, in other nations, such as Scotland or Ireland (north and south), as well as previously in Catalunya, independence movements akin to nationalist parties but espousing left-wing politics in the main have outperformed expectations, to the extent that the leaders of an attempt to declare Catalunya independent were arrested, and Sinn Fein, the largest party on both sides of the Irish border, was kept from power (as previously were the Swedish Democrats) only by a large coalition of other parties with little in common other than the desire for power and to keep SF out.

So there appears to be a general swing towards self-autonomy and the Westphalian nation state, and away from the collective technocratism of the EU, manifesting across Europe currently. It is beyond the scope of this article to ascertain why, but undoubtedly immigration seems to be a factor (as it was in the Brexit referendum) and a general rejection of the EU’s top-down technocratic modes of enforcing convergence in the bloc.

Finally, there are a number of clear and present dangers to any democracy. History tells us that invasion by another nation, such as Ukraine is currently experiencing, completely undermines democracy, as does the assumption of power by the military during a coup, as often occurred in the past in nations such Greece, Argentina, Brazil or Turkey. There is no evidence or suggestion that Italy (or indeed Sweden) is being invaded nor that its military is assuming control by force.

It is no coincidence (the template here is the Crimea a few years back) that Vladimir Putin has sought to legitimise his gains over Ukrainian territory by holding referenda which would facilitate the merging of the occupied areas of Donetsk, Lukhansk and others into a Novorossiya, or New Russian territory, and part of the federation. Putin, as in his own elections, seeks that precious fig leaf of legitimacy for his actions.

And here is where we really face tough questions. If the people of Donetsk and Lukhansk vote to join the Russian Federation, as the people of Crimea did, where does that leave democracy? Clearly the territories would not even be discussing such a move were it not for the Russian military advance this year, and the presence of an occupying army, as well as the difficulties of running a vote in a conflict zone, clearly count against the results being taken seriously by the world.

No such army occupies Rome or Milan. And no one is questioning the credibility or the conduct of the elections in Italy, either. So in what sense can Meloni, her party, or her coalition, be considered a threat to democracy? Obviously if they attempted to retain power without the mandate of the people which they just received, that would be an anti-democratic move, but right now they are the mandated government chosen by the Italian people, just as Orban’s Fidesz party is in Hungary.

Another anti-democratic move would be to attempt to suspend the normal proceedings of parliament and rule by diktat. This is an accusation which has been leveled against Orban in Hungary on a number of occasions, and carries water. In each instance, Orban claimed that emergency circumstances, such as the migrant influx from Syria or the Covid pandemic, required the temporary assumption of such powers.

If we examine how they were used, and most specifically how long they sustained, it is hard to argue that Orban did not revert to ordinary parliamentary procedures relatively quickly. In other words, given the chance to copper-fasten his grip on power in an undemocratic manner, Orban did not pursue it on multiple occasions. Nevertheless, his assumption of such powers at all disconcerted the EU in particular.

However, such is the political flux in Italy, that coalitions often collapse in acrimony. This recently happened only a couple of years ago and led ultimately to an Italian solution for an Italian crisis – the appointment of a technocratic government under former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, whose government has recently collapsed in turn. History therefore suggests that Meloni may not be long in power anyway. But equally, unlike her immediate predecessor as Prime Minister, she does hold a mandate from the people.

This is not to say that technocracy is also a threat to democracy. As Italy has immediately returned to democratic process, this is clearly not the case. But nor is technocracy the same as democracy, and the kind of accusations levelled by Von Der Leyen and others perhaps stems from an attachment to the EU’s own technocratic mode, in which the elected chamber of MEPs has only an advisory role to the actual executive, which has always been unelected by the people of Europe.

Meloni’s democratic credentials can only be tested now that she is in power. Will she seek to circumvent parliamentary procedures and rule by diktat? Unlikely. Will she seek to circumvent future electoral processes? Again, unlikely. Nevertheless, it is clear that her opponents will be watching like hawks for any sign of eroding Italy’s democratic values. She herself refutes the suggestion that her party are anything other than democratic, but that’s easier to do after winning an election than it is when a government is beleaguered and making unpopular choices.

If the EU, or indeed Meloni’s left-wing opposition, are truly concerned, then they will seek to do something they have failed to do in relation to Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Hungary, France and other places in recent times. They will examine what got the Brothers of Italy elected, and whether in failing to offer those policies to their people, they have facilitated this swing towards nationalist sentiment across the continent.

It seems to me that primarily this is concern about immigration in many instances. Whether legitimate or not, this concern appears to be a paramount issue for many European voters. It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming winter, and projected fuel shortages as a result of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia’s failure to deliver fuel, will ameliorate or exacerbate that tendency.

Speaking as a migrant myself, firstly to Britain and more recently to Italy, of course this sentiment is a matter of concern for me. But similarly, ignoring the will of the people as ‘populist’ seems also to be implicitly threatening the democratic process. Perhaps the EU would prefer to have technocratic rule in its constituent states, but there is no appetite for that among the electorate currently. In which case, they should invoke the soft power they are famed for perfecting, and aim to persuade the hearts and minds of voters that the bloc, which has delivered peace and prosperity to the continent for many decades, still has their interests at heart.

Elena Ferrante is a man – but does it matter?

Elena Ferrante has probably been the biggest literary fiction phenomenon of the 21st century to date. Translated into multiple languages, prize-winning and universally lauded, Ferrante’s work, especially the Neapolitan quartet of novels, have generated intense curiosity about the notoriously reclusive and pseudonymous author.

Attempts to ‘out’ Ferrante have been made almost from the beginning, but the push in recent years to examine Ferrante’s work stylometrically and algorithmically has apparently closed in on a single suspect. And he’s a man.

Elena Ferrante: quadrilogia de “L'Amica Geniale” | RecensioniLibri.org
The Neapolitan Quartet, in Italian paperback editions.

Lithub has a decent precis of how this came about, which I won’t reprise too much here. Suffice to say that enterprising and persistent scholars used a series of methods to compare the style of Ferrante’s writing throughout her career, and then sought to find close similarities with any other writers, including some, such as the prime suspect Anita Raja, a literary translator.

What these various scholars with their various stylometric methods discovered was curious – Ferrante’s style had a number of different eras or phases, and the changes between them mapped almost exactly onto similar stylistic developments in the work of another Italian author – Domenico Starnone, who happened to also be Raja’s husband.

It now appears that Starnone may have adopted the persona of Ferrante while writing in a female voice for a lesser known publishing house, while retaining his own male name for novels with a more prestigious publisher. Furthermore, Starnone’s fiction, which apparently like Ferrante’s also deals with issues of class and identity while growing up in Campania, is unknown outside of Italy, whereas the Ferrante novels have proven a global success, especially in the ever more female readerships of the Anglophone world.

There are questions of authenticity here, in terms of the validity of men writing from female perspectives, but there is also surely some remit for literary creativity, as well as the extremely lengthy tradition, extended to almost all historical authors in the Western tradition (with the possible exception of Jane Austen), of authors writing from the perspective of characters irrespective of gender.

If we are to deem gender relevant here, perhaps the more intriguing issue is the relative successes of Starnone and Ferrante nationally and internationally, against the backdrop of an ever more female reading public. If Ferrante does transpire to be Starnone, as seems likely now, he would not be the first white male author in recent times who sought to pass himself off as something he was not.

There was, for example, a lot of controversy in particular over the case of Michael Derrick Hudson, a poet who in 2015 won an award for writing one of the best poems in America that year. Having had the same poem rejected over 40 times, he submitted it under a female Chinese name – Yi-Fen Chou, and subsequently it was accepted.

Adopting such personae and noms-de-plume seems a rather high-stakes gamble for white male authors, who are not exactly unprivileged in the international publishing world even if the tide has begun to turn away towards amplifying the voices of a wider and more diverse range of writers. After all, the ramifications of being found out in ‘subterfuge’ of this nature are potentially career-ending.

Nevertheless, the editor who included Hudson’s poem in that anthology, even after discovering the truth, acknowledged that the poem itself retained its quality even when the provenance had shifted. It did not, after all, trade heavily upon Chinese cultural attributes for its strength. Returning to Ferrante, this is a more fraught concern, as the Ferrante novels are written from female perspectives, feature female lives as their central thematic concern, and focus heavily on how female friendships and relationships are constructed and deconstructed.

I offer the following suggestion, therefore: if millions of people have enjoyed Ferrante’s novels, does it matter who wrote them? The figure of Ferrante has been throughout a somewhat shadowy one anyhow. As with notorious recluse Thomas Pynchon, Ferrante has largely let the novels speak for the author.

The more concerning thing arising from this artful piece of academic detective work is the eradication of pseudonymity, which could have significant ramifications online as well as elsewhere. When we did a conference on invented languages for Ponying the Slovos in 2016, we heard a paper by Professor Patrick Juola, a forensic linguist who had developed an algorithmic methodology for identifying authorship in any language. His paper for our conference demonstrated how he could detect whether Tolkien or a fan had written any particular poem in Tolkien’s invented Elvish language.

And here we are a few years on and similar technology has outed Starnone as Elena Ferrante. Perhaps in another year or two, it will be exposing the identities of offensive posters and tweeters online. A lot of people may welcome such a world, a world in which the current tendency towards extreme opinions is fuelled by a sense of security offered by pseudonymity. But it would have other ramifications too, in terms of whistleblowing for one.

It may not matter whether Elena Ferrante is a man or not. But it may well matter a lot that we now live in a world where it is impossible for him to keep that hidden any longer.