“Domus means house. Economics is managing the house. Are you here for some advice? ”Unlike his staid English colleagues always dressed in dark colours, Giulio Tremonti has never lost his penchant for irony and for grey suits. A way of the world that goes against the pro-European mainstream as does the tone of his Milan office, where no ground is conceded to the design that fired up an Italy already in decline. “First the enlightened then the élites trounced by history until, finally, the cooks take the ship’s helm. We should look more to the prophesies emerging from history than to specialist studies in order to understand the huge chaos that is investing our lives and risks destroying our houses.”
Perhaps as a lover of the alpine paths that Martin Heidegger thought led nowhere, save perhaps to learn more about ourselves, Tremonti was Minister of the Economy and Finance three times in one of the most challenging periods of the second half of the 20th century, from the introduction of the Euro to the great recession of 2008 and the “financial coup of 2011”. Now a few years have passed and it is clear that he remains what he has always been deep down, a theorist of law with a passion for politics and a mistrust of economists. The feeling is mutual, the latter would say.
“Let us continue to play with architectural metaphors. Our European house seems to have been designed by an architect gone mad, with thousands of corridors that end in the cellars, passageways, ante-bathrooms and broom cupboards. The communal rooms and housekeeping? Buried, when not replaced by rules such as those on toilet flushing – 120 pages withdrawn a few days before Brexit – or ferret passports, about which I always reminded Romano Prodi to make him mad,” he says with one of his familiar smiles. But, apart from the irony and famous silences interspersed with shakes of the head, Tremonti has written valuable books over the years in which he suggests a method, linking different spheres of knowledge from literature to finance, music, poetry, geopolitics and theology. This approach aligns the professor from Sondrio with a great, forgotten and yet unforgettable, Italian tradition, reminiscent of Francesco de Sanctis and Quintino Sella. That of unorthodox intelligences that manage to pinpoint the key moments in history, those that overturn events and make us distinguish between right and wrong, principal and secondary, intelligent and idiotic. A method that helps take the spotlight off the accidental and illuminates the substance, those incongruous facts that, in his latest book, Tremonti calls “prophesies”.
Three prophesies help us understand what is happening. That of Marx on the drift of global capitalism, that of Goethe who, in Faust, explains the Mephistophelean power of money and the digital world, and lastly Leopardi’s intuition on the crisis of a civilisation become cosmopolitan.
It is as if to say: forget Francis Fukuyama and the end of history. Forget Bill Clinton and exporting democracy. Forget also Mark Zuckerberg and the new global digital order. “History is returning, loaded down with back interest, and populism is like a mole digging away at the ground on which the utopia of globalisation was built just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Today, the architecture of our house resembles that of 1920s’ Weimar: a distorted project wherein extreme viruses are born. No longer cogito but digito ergo sum.”
So, even for a jurist lent to economics, the only way out remains architecture or, rather, design. “We must redesign the rules and construct initiatives that favour business and, most importantly, value the soul of the communities.” Tremonti believes there is a simple reason for this. “If you go into a café and suggest a banking union, you risk being kicked out. If, on the other hand, you talk practical things, such as defence or security, people understand – and someone may even pay for your coffee.” The new project for a common home thus envisages the demolition of non-loadbearing walls, such as the “artificial and ruinous universalistic social models”, and the conservative restoration of “everything that is essential and popular: defence, security and intelligence.
In the light of the shortest autumn morning, Tremonti looks more like Walter Gropius as he leans on a chair and searches for something in his pocket. A pipe, an indication that our time is drawing to a close. “You cannot generate money by using money for too long, or debt by using debt. You cannot confuse A&E with long hospitalisation. We have to stop.” Stop? The professor loses his smile. “I have an impression that the crisis is not over, that it has not been overcome but only suspended. Our house is more in danger than ever.”
As he accompanies me out, Tremonti says goodbye with a last calembour. “Do you remember what was written on the banknotes of the Weimar Republic?” Memory is my Lady Luck. “The words of Goethe’s Faust: believe me, trust me.” After five seconds of deafening silence, the door closes. “We saw how that ended.” The last prophesy?
Giulio Tremonti Senator of the Republic, Foreign Affairs Commission, Tremonti (1947) has been a university professor since 1974 and a lawyer. Among his latest publication: Rinascimento (2017) with Vittorio Sgarbi and Mundus Furiosus (2016). He was Vice-President of the Italian Cabinet, Minister of Finance, Minister of the Economy and Finance, and Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies.