An interview with Fabrizio Barca Founder, Forum on Inequalities and diversity I Ex General Director, Italian Ministry of Economy & Finance

I’ve done several different things in my life. I did my MSc in statistics, but then I decided to work at the research center of the Bank of Italy, where I was for 18 years of my life. I conducted research on enterprises, on firms and short-term forecasts. When I turned 44, I wanted to make a change and moved to the Treasury. I actually ran in and out of it: I resigned a couple of times, and then I resumed my job. I ran the department for development and was engaged in the south of Italy. After that I worked at the European Union. And then at one point in my life, I became a minister during the governmental crisis 2012, but I resigned from public administration and moved to working with the civic organization called the Forum for Inequality and Diversity.

I worked on the topic of inequalities and justice for quite a long time. It was quite clear to me that inequality is rising while working as an administrator. When I work with the committee to European Commissioner Danuta Maria Hübner, when Poland joined. She was an amazing person to work with.

In 2008, inequality was not a major topic, everyone believed that we should leave everything to the market: inequality would fix itself. We even had a lot of opposition to the Cohesion Policy — the European Cohesion Policy which addresses the problem of abandoned areas — but we still pushed forward. The different in the approach was that we didn’t just give money to people, we tried to empower people. This is what I did as an administrator, but then I felt I wanted to go to the other side of the bench and try to do that with the civic organizations. So, my methodology hasn’t changed, but I changed the side of where I’m working.

Italy doesn’t have a very good public administration to be quite frank, a very poor one. And for people like me, who wanted to change the world, it’s been quite difficult. So, in 1968, me and my friends joined the research center of the Bank of Italy because we thought it was a place where we could drive change. It was the place through which you could become a technocrat, with the right soul, and had the possibility to help change the world. I didn’t choose economics. In fact, I studied statistics, measuring demography, that’s where I started. But then I moved to economics, because I thought that it would be the way to have power and to have more impact.

In the late 70s, early 80s, we had quite a lot of freedom in our research. I carried on having my own views on labor relations, my own views on small enterprises, my own views on inequality. I was able to conduct my research while having access to an enormous amount of data. But we didn’t change the world. At one point in my life, when I was 44-years-old in 1998, I felt it was time for me to role up my sleeves, and I left for the reserves.

Crisis in the Western Hemisphere
All of the Western countries are going through an enormous crisis at the moment. People are angry, they resentment , there’s a so-called authoritarian dynamic. The reason for the authoritarian dynamic are inequalities, social injustice. It’s not only economic inequality, it is access to services, and it is resentment for not being recognized: people in rural areas, the working class, they don’t feel recognized.

This is a paradox, because we have an information technology that in theory could be improved in equality, and in fact, is producing an enormous unprecedented concentration of knowledge and power in very few hands.

I feel that it’s about time that we do something about it before we end up with an authoritarian regime. And the way to do it, is by working together with the working class, with civic organizations. We need to put political pressure on the issues, and try to influence technology.

The forum is an alliance of eight organization of civic society and about a hundred researchers, coming together to design proposals. We put together 15 proposal after a year and a half work on social justice. Ten of these focus on the impact of technology, three on labor, and one is bequeathed with the generation transfers.

The problem is that about 15 years ago, through the time of neoliberalism, the idea was that the state should not interfere with markets. Unfortunately, capitalism can only produce good things, if there is conflict.

If we put pressure on the entrepreneurs, then they will do somehow what we asked them to do, but if we don’t, they don’t. Let’s take as an example whether or not a vague algorithm could potentially be put to good use, or to terrible use. At the moment, large companies transfer the predictability and volatility of the market onto the workers, for example, telling them when to work without any regard for their personal lives. But you could use the same algorithm to predict what benefits the worker. It’s not the algorithm itself which is the problem, but the objective.

We believe that by putting pressure on entrepreneurs, by having state owned enterprises with the right goals, or by creating collective platforms where people can actually put together the data on mobility, then use it, and then make sure that everybody has access. We can actually turn these technologies into something which could increase social justice rather than reduce it.

A Digital Age
Digitalization of Public Administration is one of the most stupid expressions invented. Digitalization doesn’t mean anything in itself. For example, you are running a welfare system at the municipal level and decide to use AI to figure out who should benefit from housing intervention, or from care: then what you are doing is that you are depriving these people from the most important thing — which is even more important than housing — namely to interact with human beings, and to be understood by someone who they can express their feelings to. We could have a technology which could be used to actually understand the people in front of you better, but you are using the technology in a wrong matter.

Public administration at the local level can say they can collect all the information on mobility to redesign the mobility of a particular town. Okay. All right. Fantastic. Only, they don’t share the data with everyone, or with those who are professional, innovative experts who could redesign the mobility. Instead, they allow a single monopoly corporation to become the owner of the data.

Something like 60% of the Italian territory is hard to reach by car in terms of access to services. These are amazing places, which people like you and me enjoy enjoy for a couple of days. Living there could be beautiful. You could become a farmer. You could live off cultural heritage, and so on. But the people actually living there right now aren’t recognized and they aren’t provided services.

Governments have been redesigning services in a one-size-fits-all approach, meaning you have the same reform of the health system or education system whether you live in Rome, or Bellino, or Paris. This means, however, that some people may have to travel to school for 45 minutes. And as a result, they grow a sense of resentment. They feel that the only places where we could live (urban areas) are depriving them of their own sense of being somebody. Resentment doesn’t only grow out of having a lower income, but also out of not being recognized. This kind of abandonment produces anger towards the experts that are perceived as working for “the other guys,” the upper class, the authorities. And the only thing you can do is hate the migrants and call for an authoritarian government which, at least, decides quickly without discussion and participatory “boring things,” what to do. They have lost their trust in democracy.

In a country like Italy, the concentration of wealth has been remarkable in the last 20 years. There are so many people that don’t have much of a choice, they do what they need to do to work, get whatever opportunity that comes along. It’s not a lack of jobs, but it’s the poor quality of those jobs, which have been created through the technological transfer. There is no dignity in the gig economy: at the end of the game, the workers are not in control.

Most people aim in live for substantial freedom. But many people feel deprived from that freedom, which results in resentment.

From Then Till Now
In my first year my life I studied how the Fiat company in Italy was exploiting their laborers. We analyzed a drop in the fertility rate of women which were being mistreated in the factory. I quite honestly believe that capitalism as a mechanism to extract value from labor. And compared to now and then, this hasn’t changed, only the tools have.

Personally, what has changed is how I understand change can be driven. I always relied a lot on political parties, I believed in parties, I was a member of them. I also believed a lot in unions. But, I never quite realized how effective civic organizations could be in gathering around specific purposes. Not only doing advocacy work, but also taking things into their own hands, such as shaping services in local areas.

On the event
I’m looking forward to discuss these topics with a mix of people with different backgrounds. And I mean not just disciplinary backgrounds, but backgrounds in terms of points of view on the world. I am an institutional person that has spent a big part of his life on that side of the table, but working with a civic organization has shifted my perspective. I hope to come back from the event, understanding more on the injustices relating techm and perhaps how my own formed opinion wasn’t complete…

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