A new study of modern Italian politics ‘First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy’, looks at the desolated landscape of the country’s politics. Chris Bambery argues Italian conditions can travel.
In the Italy of today Euroscepticism is as common as in England, and more outspoken. That is a huge change from the days two decades ago when Italians believed the European Union might clean up their political system and help modernise the state.
To understand this sea change you need to recall the imposition of an unelected ‘technocratic’ government by Brussels in 2011, a government charged, by the similarly unelected European Commission, with imposing full-throttle austerity.
Italy has, consequently, seen a 40% fall in state investment, meaning that in 2019 Italy’s GDP was lower than in 1999. Public debt soared after entry to the European Monetary System in the 1980s and has continued rising despite two decades of budget surpluses. Continuous Labour ‘reforms’ have resulted in high unemployment, with youth unemployment standing today at 31% and greatest in the poorer south. Low wages with short-term contracts and precarious employment have become the norm and some 2 million young Italians – many of them educated and skilled – have left Italy since 2008. Added to all this is the stranglehold exerted by old men over government, parliament, public office and much else – it is a true gerontocracy.
Yet centre-left politicians insist the problem is the refusal of Italians to accept yet further ‘reforms’ like ‘normal Europeans’.
David Broder’s First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy looks at today’s neoliberal Italy and how, as from nowhere, new parties have risen to strike down those same centre left politicians and all others who remain cheer leaders for the EU and its insistence on unending sacrifice. As elsewhere in Europe established parties, particularly on the left, have seen their support fall drastically. Broder’s tale is not a cheerful one, but it is well told, to the point and presents us with a clear warning that what might happen there can happen here.
The pervasive moods of political detachment across Europe and the west have focused sharply in the country. Broder points out: “Young Italians are more Eurosceptic, less engaged with parties or trade unions and less likely to vote. They, not the older and richer citizens who make up the Lega’s core base, are the true ‘left behind’ of the Second Republic.”
Reading his book it is difficult to keep in your mind that until 1991 Italy had the largest Communist Party outside the officially ‘Communist’ states. In the early 1970’s it also had a significant extraparty revolutionary left with tens of thousands of members. After the Communist Party dissolved with the collapse of the Soviet Union, becoming today’s Democratic Party, the Rifondazione Comunista, remained a force with over 100,000 members and winning 6 to 8 percent of the vote. But in 2006 it joined the centre left and others to their right in a government whose anti-working class measures meant Rifondazione imploded. Today there is no effective left in a country where in 1945 the Resistance liberated Milan, Turin, Genoa and Venice.
Led by former bank governors and technocrats, since the 1990s the centre-left has squeezed labour rights and privatised state assets. While in 1987 the Communist Party took 10 million votes, in 2018 the Democrats took barely 6 million – taking fourth-place among blue-collar workers and the unemployed.
So, who has benefited from all this? The party currently riding high in the opinion polls is the Lega, led by Matteo Salvini. It is not a new kid on the block having been founded as far back as 1991. Then it was the Llega Nord committed to an independent state north of the River Po and concentrating fire on southerners and the swollen state bureaucracy in Rome. Its support was strong among small business owners, their employees and independent professionals.
Salvini won a bitter internal election in 2013 after the party had recorded its second worst election result, taking just 4 percent of the vote, and with members quitting in large numbers.
What Salvini grasped was that an opportunity existed on the right because of the collapse in support for Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. This ‘party’ was founded by the media billionaire, for whom it was essentially a fan club that relied on his media to win votes. His conviction for tax fraud in 2013 saw his support fall away.
Salvini dropped the attacks on southerners and support for northern independence to concentrate on attacking migrants and – as Broder points out, in rhetoric only – the EU. The Lega picked up support from Forza Italia supporters and the networks of patronage formally loyal to it. As Broder writes: “former fascists, local political bosses from across the political spectrum, and even circles bound to organised crime, all joined the race to become local Lega officials”.
This was a party firmly established on the right. But another newcomer was rather different. The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle or M5S) was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo. It presented itself as being beyond the traditional left-right divide. Grillo now built a virtual party via social media attacking all political parties as corrupt. M5S caught a popular mood, particularly among the young. In reality M5S was as much a one man band as Forza Italia had been.
The shift within the right, the dreadful record of the Democrats in office, resentment at the EU and much else fuelled support for both parties in the 2018 general election when from seemingly nowhere M5S took 32% of the vote, the Democrat’s vote collapsed to 18%, and the Lega got 17.4%, ahead of Berlusconi, becoming the dominant party on the right.
M5S attracted support among the young by promising benefit payments to jobseekers and scooped up votes on the left. But then it went into an unlikely coalition with the fiercely free market Lega. Very quickly the contradictory nature of M5S meant it began to unravel, particularly as Salvini as Minister of the Interior implemented vicious measures against migrants which his M5S colleagues went along with. Broder is spot on when he writes: “M5S is anti-establishment but not anti-systemic. Its opposition to the establishment is limited to the terrain of representation, forms of politics rather than the wider organisation of society.”
By August 2019 the Lega were the biggest party in the polls and Salvini tried to force a new election by resigning, thus breaking the coalition. But he failed as M5S entered a coalition with the Democrats under the current premier Giuseppe Conte, another technocrat.
Salvini was able to point the finger at such an unholy alliance doing the EU’s dirty work. For the first time too the Lega is beginning to win support among former left wing voters on the basis of attacks on migrants.
Salvini must fancy winning a future general election but there are contradictions within the Lega not, least resentment in its northern heartlands over his turn towards the south. It also faces competition from the ‘post-fascist’ Fratelli di Italia (Brothers of Italy) which is currently polling 18%.
Where I think Broder strikes home is by arguing that social movements, while important, are not enough, and appeals to ally with all decent people against the right just does not interest young people and broad swathes of the working class. A left wing party which can build into those communities and give voice to their anger and frustration is desperately needed.
Elements of this tale can be seen in England post-Corbyn but in Scotland we should not be complacent. Any neoliberal turn would be fatal for independence. In 2014 we were able to give hope to working class communities. If we let that drop we will pay a price.