Silvia Binenti is a PhD candidate at University College London (UCL), specializing in Italian politics and the role of popular culture. Jason Dittmer is an author and professor of political geography at UCL.
To most Europeans, British politics has historically been associated with a specific stereotype: decent and dignified in appearance, regardless of how unscrupulous both its domestic and foreign policies might be.
More recently, however, many in and outside of the United Kingdom have been struck by the breakdown of political decorum in the government, with remarkable shamelessness repeatedly granting leaders a political advantage.
A dizzying array of examples come to mind here: so-called Partygate and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rewriting of the ministerial code to water down its consequences; the government’s threat to disavow the recently agreed Northern Ireland Protocol; and just last week, the refusal of the Labour Party’s request to hold a vote of confidence in the House of Commons.
With its emphasis on dignity and resignation, the British constitution has repeatedly proven incapable of confronting this new culture of norms-busting and shamelessness, leaving many to wonder how to deter this behavior, now that it’s become a winning tactic in the political game.
Interestingly, the answer may just be found a mere 900 miles away in Italy, with Fantacitorio —a fantasy game conceived to make sense of political absurdity.
Home of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Bunga Bunga parties and a political stereotype closer to Johnson-ism than not, Italy has long confronted questions about its politics that are similar to those being asked of Britain today — and it has finally come up with an answer: Treating politics as merely a game, with a fantasy version for people to play at home, just like football.
Adding the prefix fanta, as in fantasy, to the name Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, the game’s premise was first presented on popular TV talk show “Propaganda Live.” In a satirical monologue, a distressed citizen confessed: “I have not followed politics for some time; I no longer understand it. The absurd statements of a minister or a governor or a party leader leave me astonished, bewildered.” Then, he explained, the words of a friend opened his eyes:
“Are you seriously telling me that you have always listened to the statements of politicians, without ever connecting them to [fantasy] points in Fantacitorio? I mean . . . you always took everything to be real?”
After the monologue’s success, the show’s producers decided to officially launch the game in February — one week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — with over 1,500 teams competing until the end of the championship in June.
The rules are as follows: As the game begins, participants receive an endowment of fanfani — the currency of Fantacitorio, named after a former prime minister — which is used to buy and assemble a “team” of politicians. Much like fantasy football, players then accumulate points based on the ridiculous, self-righteous and self-contradictory things that members of their team say or do: “82 points to the former prime minister who, in times of war and during a pandemic, posts about going running with a weight target of 82 kilograms.” Or, “50 points to the senator who, in times of war and during a pandemic, calls for a new airport in Cortina,” a posh mountain destination.
The premise of the game soon became inverted, however, as some politicians began trying to intentionally score points to gain publicity. A relatively unknown MP even shared a video thanking his fantasy managers for having invested in him: “A shot for true connoisseurs, I promise to win you many points until the end of the parliamentary term!” he said, shifting this satire of politics into politics as satire.
Of course, this is nothing new — the collapse of politics into entertainment is a well-documented trend. What’s different here, however, is that Fantacitorio’s producers somehow refused to be co-opted in this way. For example, in somewhat of meta-satirical move, an MP – a top player in high demand in the Fantacitorio market — was given a seven-day suspension for purposefully seeking attention on social media through the game.
Timing was also everything. The seriousness of current political events — especially after the invasion of Ukraine — called for a different kind of politician, one who doesn’t contort themselves so shamelessly. So, when right-wing populist Matteo Salvini declared Ukrainians were to be welcomed with open arms as “legitimate refugees,” he also fell afoul of the game’s rules.
As had been clearly explained in the original monologue, “a leader of a nationalist party who, to solve the problem of migrants, proposes to sink their boats is worth 15 points. Yes, that’s not much now. Before it was 200 points, but then it devalued.” Conversely, in the then unthinkable scenario where a nationalist and anti-immigration leader might have decided to welcome refugees, the move “wouldn’t be a bonus, that’s a malus! It’s worth minus 50 points, it’s like an own goal,” the game had said.
From this perspective, Fantacitorio has also become a forum for holding Italian politicians accountable. The game’s unflinching focus on political shamelessness, and its popularity on social media, has actually put some pressure on the country’s politicians to decorously face the times in which we live, as both the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Europe threaten to undo the progress of the last century.
When a grossly sexist joke between two members of the same party was caught on camera, for example, the game’s producers decided to deduct points directly from the party’s leader, Giorgia Meloni, in hopes that “she might educate” them — even a fantasy game could not endorse such conduct.
Now, as it looks to a post-Johnson future in which economic and geopolitical clouds are gathering on the horizon, the U.K. needs a similar mechanism for drawing attention to, and sustaining critique of, a whole generation of politicians who have come to power during the shameless fabulations of the last decade.
How many points for the former chancellor who runs for prime minister by offering to fix the economy? Or how many points for the child of South Asian immigrants who campaigns against “woke” views on race and empire?
Given the fact that the guardrails of the British Constitution have proven vulnerable to such shamelessness, we must devise new mechanisms for disciplining politicians — and this could, undoubtedly, prove to be a fun solution.