Will Italy lead the way in Fortress Europe?

July 25, 2018

The Italian election in March provided further evidence of the growing strength of the far right in European politics. Three months after the election, a coalition government was formed, led by the supposedly anti-establishment and non-political Five Star Movement and the hard-line right wing League. The new regime won praise from the likes of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in France and Breitbart founder Steve Bannon.

In an interview first published at Australia’s Red Flag, David Broder, a historian based in Rome, talked to Alexis Vassiley about the circumstances of the election and the direction of the government.

CAN YOU give an overview of the current political situation in Italy?

TWO PARTIES were the rising stars in this election. Firstly, the Five Star Movement, who claim to represent the ordinary citizen, not class interests, and to be neither left nor right. They rose from 25 to 32 percent.

The Lega, led by Matteo Salvini, rose from 4 to 17 percent, overtaking the main center right party of recent decades, Forza Italia (Go Italy), led by Silvio Berlusconi.

A lot of the media discussion centered on whether Italy could leave the euro, but that’s not very likely. Rather, what these two “insurgent” parties are succeeding in doing — particularly Lega, the smaller government partner — is shaping politics on an identitarian ground.

Migrant workers march in Rome against racist violence
Migrant workers march in Rome against racist violence (Unione Sindacale di Base)

That is, they claim to stand up for the Italian people and for democracy, and then paint a vast array of opponents — from foreign governments to Italian liberals — as thwarting the democratic will of the people. Politically, the Lega has succeeded in imposing its racist agenda on the coalition government, despite having around half as many seats as the Five Star Movement.

WHY HAS the Lega been able to achieve such an increase in support?

THE LEGA is the child of a party called the Northern League, formed in the early 1990s, which wanted greater autonomy for the wealthier northern regions. Since 2013, under Salvini’s leadership, it has transformed into the hegemonic right-wing party, as a hard-right Italian nationalist force.

Its vote is older and wealthier. It used to combine a Thatcherite economic agenda with a chauvinism against southern Italy, portraying the Rome-based state as wasteful and southerners as lazy and backward.

Now Salvini has shifted this toward a generalized opposition to immigration and refugees. One of its campaign slogans — ultimately included in the government contract with the Five Star Movement — was the expulsion of 500,000 “illegal” immigrants from Italy.

Since the formation of the government, Salvini, as interior minister, has stopped ships carrying refugees from docking in Italy. While the party doesn’t have a background in fascist or post-fascist movements, it is now modeling itself on parties like France’s National Front, which do come from that tradition.

In these elections, it broke through in the south, gaining high single figures in regions where it had never previously organized. Other right-wing voters are gravitating toward it as it has succeeded in making migration the central issue of Italian politics.

This is despite the fact that migrant crossings were sharply reduced by the previous Democrat-led government. The Lega has also benefited from a long-term crisis of the Italian political system dating back to the early 1990s.

WHAT DOES the Five Star Movement stand for? How has it become the most popular party in Italy?

FIVE STAR emerged in the name of anti-politics, saying that ordinary citizens can’t make their way because of the patronage and corruption inherent in the political parties and the state.

It argued for an apolitical, non-ideological government, and pledged not to go into coalition with any other party. The Five Star Movement is a product of the dying out of the old parties. It also isn’t particularly driven by policy.

One popular promise it made was for the introduction of entitlements for unemployed people, which Italy doesn’t have. This was especially popular in the economically depressed South, where Five Star gained 43.4 percent support.

Five Star also polled very well among the young. This is not surprising given that more than one in three young people are unemployed and around two-thirds of Italians aged 18 to 34 live with their parents.

Finally, their claim to have drawn citizens closer to politics through things like online voting has some appeal. Yet while they claim to remove barriers to ordinary people’s participation, in reality, they remove avenues for people to get involved in politics, like local branch meetings and debate.

Five Star is a very top-down party whose members have no say beyond ratifying pre-made decisions.

THE DEMOCRATIC Party (PD) has fallen from grace since the 1990s. How have its policies, particularly in government, led to the current situation?

THE GOVERNMENT of Matteo Renzi, leader of the PD since 2014, implemented harsh austerity measures and radically cut back trade union rights. Renzi made it easier to sack workers, as well as attacking public education.

Renzi declared himself the Italian version of Tony Blair and confronted his base even more aggressively. The PD also supported the unelected, EU-imposed, technocratic austerity government of the former Goldman Sachs adviser Mario Monti in 2011. And the PD criticized the previous center-right Berlusconi government from the right, attacking its “irresponsible spending.” They later formed a coalition government with the center-right.

The Democratic Party is made up of remnants of the old Communist Party and some parts of Christian Democracy, the dominant postwar center-right party. Renzi has now created a fully liberal, U.S.-style centrist party which is openly pro-business, engineering a split between the party and the largest trade union federation.

Renzi remodeled the PD as a pro-European party which seeks to galvanize its support by condemning so-called populism. It does not even claim to speak for young or working-class people. For example, Renzi’s labor minister said of young people emigrating due to the economic crisis: “If they want to leave, better that they leave than stay here and get in the way.”

When there was a Deliveroo workers’ strike in Turin in 2016, the same minister said they shouldn’t expect to get a proper wage for the job because it’s not really work — it’s just pocket money.

In this election the PD got 18 percent of the vote but only around 12 percent among young voters. It got only 10 percent among blue-collar workers, while the Five Star Movement got more than 40 percent.

The class make-up of the Democratic Party vote is inversely proportional to the old Communist Party — the richest Italians are the most likely to vote for the Democrats, and the poorest the least likely.

The big winner of this whole process is the Five Star Movement.

THE EUROPEAN Union claims to protect human rights, democracy and liberalism. Yet more than 34,000 people have died at sea in the last 15 years because of the Fortress Europe policies, right?

IN FOREIGN media coverage of Italy, there’s a tendency to portray the situation as European liberals versus hard right Italy. It’s not this simple. PD interior minister Marco Minniti raised the slogan “Italians first” (today the slogan of the Lega).

There is a convergence of policy positions between hard-right and centrist parties and a general process of closing down free movement even within the EU’s previously uncontrolled Schengen Area.

If you take a train from Italy to France, there are now border checks, which there weren’t three or four years ago. Officials walk through the train, checking passports — if you’re white, they won’t check your passport. In Ventimiglia, on the Italian-French border, there is a massive camp of migrants blocked from crossing into France.

WHY IS the framing of Italian politics as pro- versus anti-EU problematic?

ITALY’S PUBLIC debt has soared to $2.81 trillion, which is crippling the country. It has a lower gross domestic product now than at the beginning of the crisis in 2008. Public investment is down 50 percent in a decade; private investment is also down.

People are leaving, long-term unemployment is skyrocketing, and people in their 30s and 40s are living with their parents. There is social despair.

There’s a tendency in some of the European liberal press to treat Italy as a discipline case. This serves Salvini’s propaganda very well. The problem about presenting it as pro- versus anti-EU is that Lega and Five Star are not at all serious about leaving the euro or EU.

They want to run an endless electoral campaign of identitarian posturing, because if politics is framed as Italian democracy versus European rules, then they’re bound to win.

CAN YOU say something about the case of Soumayla Sacko, the trade unionist and migrant from Mali who was murdered on June 2?

SOUMAYLA SACKO lived in a tendopoli, a so-called tent city, basically a camp of shacks and tents, in Calabria. Mainly migrant workers live there and work picking tomatoes.

Sacko was an activist in the USB union — Unione Sindicale di Base (“grassroots union”) — which has about 400,000 members and is quite radical. It has a special section for farm laborers, led by Aboubakar Soumaoro, who is from the Ivory Coast.

Sacko was trying to organize the workers around not only fighting for higher wages — they often earn only $29 for a 14-hour day in the fields, in a country with no minimum wage — but also fighting for the regularization of workers’ visa statuses.

Sacko had a work permit, but even a work permit means you are vulnerable to a particular employer — if you piss off your boss, you can be sacked. He was collecting some corrugated iron to use to build tendopoli when he was shot dead.

Even in mainstream media, the case became a point of contention.

Racist shootings are nothing new in Italy. The day after the general election, in Florence, Idy Diene, a Senegalese guy, was shot dead. And a fascist and former Lega candidate, Luca Traini, on February 3 shot at a crowd of West Africans in Macerata.

But with this case, Aboubakar Soumaoro was invited on a lot of talk shows. A Black man on Italian TV is like “wow” — you never see that. There aren’t many Black people in politics or in public life. That awful killing did act as something of a wake-up call.

DO YOU see a relation between the racism in parliament and vigilante racism?

ABSOLUTELY. IT’S quite simply encouraged. Take the Macerata shooting. A white woman had earlier been killed, and the shooting (against random people who happened to be Black) was considered somehow a response to that. Salvini refused to condemn the attack. And Renzi said, “Don’t take the law into your own hands” and called for 10,000 more police.

So the guy was immediately legitimized, and it became an issue of not taking the law into your own hands, rather than not being a fascist terrorist!

A demonstration called by some social centers attracted 20,000 people, but it was entirely unofficial and without party backing. The dominant understanding is that the way to fight the Lega’s racism is to capitulate to it.

WHAT HAS been the response of the left to the political situation?

THERE ARE some good initiatives such as the USB union, which I mentioned, although it is small compared to the Italian General Confederation of Labour. There are anti-racist movements, there was a demo in Macerata, there was a demo in Rome after Soumayla Sacko was killed. But the political party left is very fragmented.

The attempt to refound the Communist Party — Rifondazione Comunista — was destroyed in the 2000s because of divisions over whether to join the Democrats in government. The anti-system mood was entirely taken over by the Five Star Movement.

There’s a hope that, now they’ve gone into government with the Lega, they’ll be exposed as right wing. The problem is that, while there are a whole lot of social struggles — such as non una di meno (not one less) against gender-based violence, or NoTav against a high-speed rail line — together, they don’t amount to the lightning rod that is needed to recreate a left-wing pole of attraction or a socialist agenda in national politics.

So Rifondazione is in a small coalition called Potere al Popolo (Power to the People) that got 1.1 percent in the general election, which was a historic low even compared to the far left in 2013.

The situation is very bad — the left is at a historic low point. We are still failing to get over the wreckage of the Communist Party and the collapse of the old extra-parliamentary left which, in the 1970s, had tens of thousands of militants.

But the situation is volatile, and party-political allegiances are unstable. If we look at phenomena like France Insoumise and [the shift to the left in the] Labour Party in Britain, they, too, weren’t expected to happen.

Hopefully, the right lessons can be drawn from those experiences, and the left is able to create a politics that stands up for the rights of workers and the unemployed.

HOW WOULD you situate Italian politics within the rise of the right and political polarization more generally in world politics?

IT’S EASY to see Italy as being particularly chaotic and backward, and to paint its politics as a joke or else trapped in its history of fascism. I actually think that Italy, in a sense, is the future.

Certain trends evident in Italian politics are emerging elsewhere. In a sense, Berlusconi prefigured Trump. Everywhere around Western Europe and the West in general, we see the old political parties of the 20th century weaken, and new parties on the right form. Italy is further down the road than elsewhere because of the more total collapse of the old party system here.

Between 1991 and 1994, all of the dominant parties of postwar Italian politics — the Christian Democrats, the Italian Communist Party and the Socialist Party — simply disappeared. In Italy, we can thus see an accelerated version of developments also happening elsewhere. Here, as across Europe, social democratic parties are losing their hold on the collective imagination of the working class and have failed to replace categories now on the decline.

The traditional bases of the left have weakened, and in many countries, we see the failure to regenerate and put something new in their place. Italy is also bound up with the European crisis because of its inability to recover from the economic crisis of 10 years ago and its potential danger to the cohesion of the euro zone. With the migrant “emergency” and racist politics, it is at the vanguard of pushing and strengthening Fortress Europe.

First published at Red Flag.

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