Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Italy's Referendum: the Great Defeat of Matteo Renzi, as commented by Leon Tolstoy

Matteo Renzi, Italy's prime minister, portraited as Napoleon Bonaparte on the front cover of an Italian magazine of a few years ago. For some reason, successful leaders tend to embark in risky enterprises that put their leadership at stake and, often, they fail utterly. It happened to Napoleon with the invasion of Russia and it happened to Matteo Renzi with the recent constitutional referendum that ended up with a disastrous defeat for him.

There is a clear parallel between the results of the Italian constitutional referendum of Dec 4th, 2016 and those of the Brexit referendum and the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the US. In all cases, we saw devastating failures for the mainstream media. People refused to listen to the messages beamed to them. They had the feeling of being swindled and probably they knew that, when you start suspecting that you are being swindled, you probably are. And they reacted accordingly.

Something is deeply changing in the world. Top-down, government-controlled propaganda has been used with great efficacy for more than a century, but now it is being defeated by bottom-up, viral information that ebbs and flows in the Web. Is it a good thing?  For sure, the defeat of the Empire of lies is a good thing, but it is also true that the  opposite of a lie is not necessarily the truth. All we can say is that it is happening and that the old ways don't work anymore.

On this point, perhaps it is worth re-reading Tolstoy when he describes the surprise that Napoleon felt at the battle of Borodino, during the Russian campaign, when he, too, found that the old ways didn't work anymore.


Alexander Tolstoy: "War and Peace", Book 10, Chapter XXXIV

Napoleon was experiencing a feeling of depression like that of an ever-lucky gambler who, after recklessly flinging money about and always winning, suddenly just when he has calculated all the chances of the game, finds that the more he considers his play the more surely he loses.

His troops were the same, his generals the same, the same preparations had been made, the same dispositions, and the same proclamation courte et energique, he himself was still the same: he knew that and knew that he was now even more experienced and skillful than before. Even the enemy was the same as at Austerlitz and Friedland- yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent.

All the old methods that had been unfailingly crowned with success: the concentration of batteries on one point, an attack by reserves to break the enemy's line, and a cavalry attack by "the men of iron," all these methods had already been employed, yet not only was there no victory, but from all sides came the same news of generals killed and wounded, of reinforcements needed, of the impossibility of driving back the Russians, and of disorganization among his own troops.

Formerly, after he had given two or three orders and uttered a few phrases, marshals and adjutants had come galloping up with congratulations and happy faces, announcing the trophies taken, the corps of prisoners, bundles of enemy eagles and standards, cannon and stores, and Murat had only begged leave to loose the cavalry to gather in the baggage wagons. So it had been at Lodi, Marengo, Arcola, Jena, Austerlitz, Wagram, and so on. But now something strange was happening to his troops.

Despite news of the capture of the fleches, Napoleon saw that this was not the same, not at all the same, as what had happened in his former battles. He saw that what he was feeling was felt by all the men about him experienced in the art of war. All their faces looked dejected, and they all shunned one another's eyes- only a de Beausset could fail to grasp the meaning of what was happening.

But Napoleon with his long experience of war well knew the meaning of a battle not gained by the attacking side in eight hours, after all efforts had been expended. He knew that it was a lost battle and that the least accident might now- with the fight balanced on such a strained center- destroy him and his army.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)