David Broder’s new book ‘First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy’, charts the rise of Italy’s nationalist right through the malaise of neoliberalism and austerity. Conter spoke to him about the lessons for socialists throughout Europe.
Conter: What do the politics of figures like Matteo Salvini represent? ‘Populist’ seems to do a lot of work in descriptions, but what is the content of his politics and how dangerous is he?
Broder: Salvini’s role is most visible in terms of how he’s changed his party, from a Northern-regionalist one to an Italian nationalist one (so now, it is called League not ‘Northern League’). While the Italian right has since the 1990s usually been divided into three main chunks, including the League, but also Berlusconi’s party, and then the postfascists (today known as Fratelli d’Italia), Salvini’s project was basically to unite all of their base around a single nationalist force cohered by his personal leadership, and made a lot of headway in 2018-19 as Interior Minister, when the League polled over 35 percent. Salvini’s aggressive polemical style, claims not to be like ‘politicians’ and claim to represent all classes are classic populist framing devices. But in reality the Lega combines harsh national-Christian identitarianism (still with a federalist edge) with calls for sharp deregulation, climate denialism, and tax-cutting. It shows less of the features of ‘welfare chauvinism’ than a party like the Front/Rassemblement National in France, and is more straightforwardly free-marketeer and anti-statist.
But none of this is all that new: rather, it’s the culmination of atomising and privatising trends that have been going on for three decades, pulverising the social base of the postwar parties. Salvini is the latest, and for a while most successful, attempt to assemble these fragments, but what he actually proposes to do, other than pick fights with migrant rescue NGOs, is heavily determined by neoliberal assumptions about the retreat of the state.
Conter: Is this kind of rightwing nationalism stable? Has it developed a durable base in Italian society?
Broder: Rightwing nationalism has, but the response has two complications. First, Salvini has temporarily rallied most traditional right-wing voters behind the Lega, but this voter base has always been fickle about its particular party allegiances. This is all the more true since Salvini has substituted the old Lega Nord focus on building territorial roots for the party, with his own personal media platform, and in southern-central Italy it has no regional governments either. The Lega rose from 6 percent in 2013 to 17 percent in 2018 and 34 percent in 2019 — but in the last seven months it has lost about ten points to Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) which could well become the next big thing. FdI is from the postfascist tradition, but also seeks to become a ‘normal’ conservative party and has better relations with Trump (and is more sharply anti-Russia and China).
Conter: To what extent is this kind of politics specific to the Italian experience? Does it lead on from Silvio Berlusconi?
Broder: I would say that the Italian case is an accelerated version of what’s taking place everywhere in the West. The collapse of its party system in the early 1990s (no party from before 1989 is represented in parliament) the volatility since, plus the social effects of permanent austerity, mean that the radicalisation of the right on themes of national identitarianism, and the atomisation of the popular classes, very directly translate into the electoral arena. This is much unlike the Italy of 1947-1992, where the Christian Democrats were always in national government (alone or in coalition) and the Communists a permanent opposition strongly attached to national institutions, the Constitution etc. Of course each country has its particularities, but I totally reject the kind of ‘exceptionalism’ which alternatively ridicules or romanticises Italy as inherently chaotic or backward or fragmented.
Berlusconi‘s media power (prepared by a ‘liberalizing’ Socialist-led government in the 80s) allowed him to embody the privatisation of public life, and his first government also allowed former fascists into the political mainstream, undermining a cordon sanitaire that had existed since the 1960s. But if we look at the conversion of ‘89-era liberals into the far right in Poland or Hungary, or indeed at Donald Trump, clearly he was not such an oddity.
Conter: How important is the crisis of the EU ‘periphery’ in the rise of the new Italian right?
Broder: Euroscepticism has soared since the foundation of the EU. In the 1990s there was near-transversal support for joining the euro and breakneck austerity in order to meet convergence criteria. But its actual economic record (committing Italy to over two decades of austerity, rising debt and zero growth) has greatly disappointed the initial high expectations, and liberals’ claims the euro would make Italy ‘like Germany’. In fact it has made them far more unequal. In Italy, both the fact of having an overvalued currency and the specific cuts and privatisation measures imposed by the European Central Bank in exchange for liquidity in 2011, have hobbled investment and driven the tendency toward a low wage economy without skilled jobs.
That said, it’s hard to see how the majority loss of faith in EU institutions, would translate into an actual confrontation or split, except by some sort of ‘accident’. Salvini (and even more so Fratelli d’Italia’s Giorgia Meloni) does not want a split, but rather pick fights with Brussels over immigration, because it’s easier to score victories and doesn’t divide the rightwing base (including many small and not so small business owners) in the same way as questions like debt, Italexit, and potential bankruptcy. The Five Star Movement, which in its spell of success in the early 2010s drew far more on former leftwing and working class (especially public sector) voters, expresses an amorphous distrust for EU institutions and, weakly, its instruments of austerity, but has never outlined the slightest coherent idea of how it would actually change anything, and in practice its main leaders have all been pulled into a conventional practice of loudly making demands on Brussels then swallowing whatever it decides.
So while the liberal centre is defined by enthusiastic pro-Europeanism, what exists outside it is not a similarly strong separatism, but various kinds of amorphous distrust of the EU, never cohered into a project for either Italexit or some sort of reform of the EU, except by raising the volume on anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Conter: In many countries, including Britain and Scotland, there is a fear of the mutually reinforcing character of hard rightwing forces and centrist, technocratic and neoliberal parties and administrations. Does Italy help us understand that relationship?
Broder: Yes, mainly in the sense that the postcommunist ‘centre left’, today embodied in the Democratic Party, has so demobilised its own traditional base that they no longer vote at all, or vote for Five Star (which, in 2018, gave the Lega a leg up into government). Its turn to liberal centrism (allied to the claim that ‘blue collar workers don’t exist anymore’, thus vastly misrepresenting the variety of the working class, public employees, independent artisans and professionals etc who backed the old Communist Party) has disappeared and excluded the politics of workplace rights, state welfare and public investment.
In my book I feature some surveys showing that very few Lega voters directly come from the Left: for instance, among 1987 Communist voters, only one in fourteen has today become a Lega voter.
The mutual reinforcement of which you speak is thus mainly a matter of what are assumed to be the parameters of public debate, and in this sense the process goes both ways: in Italian public debate there is almost no dissent from the idea of austerity to cut debts, ever just a little more – then rival cultural explanations of the reasons this doesn’t ‘work’ (lazy young people, the ‘functionally illiterate’ workforce — as liberals see it — or else too many immigrants and communists). It’s indicative in this regard that in the mid 90s the Lega cooperated with socially liberal, neoliberal forces on a series of referendums on deregulating labour law and breaking up public monopolies.
Conter: Italy once had among the strongest socialist traditions in Europe, with a huge communist party and militant workers’ struggles. How and why did that unravel so quickly, and what are the obstacles to the construction of a viable radical left?
Broder: One small part of the answer is about ‘roads not taken’: in the 2000s, Rifondazione Comunista was on up to 10 percent of the vote, but its role in government in 2006-8 was awful and it thus collapsed in the 2008 election, just before the Lehman Brothers collapse and the takeoff of Five Star. While the anti austerity protests were far weaker in Italy than Spain or Greece, where social democracy was in an unprecedented crisis, the failure of Rifondazione also had a powerful effect in making sure the mood of social discontent was instead channelled in a nihilist and apolitical direction by Five Star.
In its day, the Communist Party sought not just to express the militancy of industrial workers but to cohere a wide array of social groups, many without strategic or workplace rooted power of their own, into a strong and united force, thanks to a hierarchical and institutionally rooted party. Indeed, the Communists’ electoral advance lasted well after the peaks of labour militancy in the late ‘60s-70s. But this also made it easier to flip the party’s political identity in 1991, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and then continue driving it in a liberal direction, with relatively little pressure from the base.
Rifondazione expressed resistance against this, but was internally incoherent (bringing together both the most Stalinist wing of the old party, with Trotskyist and autonomist forces from outside it). The fact it continually split over electoral tactics, cohering itself alternatively by anti Berlusconism or celebration of the myriad forms of protest, reflected its difficulty on forming a general political strategy or even a programme for government. If we look at the Lega’s ability to be an ‘opposition’ even while in government with Berlusconi, or the supposedly junior partner in the coalition with Five Star, Rifondazione was far less effective. This is partly because of the limits of pushing any kind of pro-welfare or pro-investment policy while also being a Eurozone member state, but also in more electoral terms, a failure at the level of subjective choices and who you think you are speaking to.