Italy: fascism for the 21st century?

The Italian elections on Sunday seem likely to return a right-wing coalition, with the largest party led by a fascist. Richard Paul assesses the probable outcome, and explains why the left has failed to become the expression of popular discontent. 

Election stalls on market day – photo by Danny Ayers used under CC licence

Yesterday (at the time of writing), I sent off my ballot for the upcoming Italian elections. In-person voting will take place on 25 September and the polls consistently suggest a win for the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party, along with its right-wing coalition partners. It wasn’t an easy ballot to fill in because there is no strong left in this election, and not one overtly left-wing party running for Senate in my seat.

The international press has often focused on the fact that Fratelli’s likely win will mean Italy will be the first major Eurozone economy to be led by the far-right, as if the worst consequences will be felt by Brussels and Frankfurt. But, if the polls prove right, it is workers, migrants, women and LGBTQ+ Italians who will really feel the consequences – and there will be significant consequences.

How did Italy – a country that had the largest communist party in the West for much of the 20th century – get to an election where the likely-winning proposals are incredibly regressive, and the likely-winning party is post-fascist?

What’s left?

Italy’s radical left has been weak since major corruption scandals shattered the party system in the 1990s.

Outside electoral politics, there have been recent wins in the trade union struggle, such as for Amazon workers and farmworkers in the south. However, despite not suffering the same antiunion laws as Britain under Thatcher, Italian trade union membership has declined significantly since the 1970s. The struggle for worker’s rights is not as central in the national discourse as it used to be. This has impacted election campaigns throughout Italy’s financial and health crises of the last decade.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci explained how crises tended to unmask the capitalist state to reveal ’a narrow clique which tends to perpetuate its selfish privileges by controlling or even stifling oppositional forces’[i]. This should present clear opportunities for the left; but it’s just not doing so in Italy. The lack of an established and well-rooted movement to protect workers in Italy is a significant factor in the reason the Italian left has not capitalised on these crises.

Electorally, it is the Unione Popolare who come closest to that, but it is an infant party. After the national unity government collapsed in July, the former Mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, pushed to unite several small left-wing parties under the Unione. With such a low base of support and small apparatus, the Unione has found it difficult to compete with the established parties and is only polling just above 1%.

Some left-wing voters see their best hope in the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S – Five Star Movement), a big-tent party set-up by comedian Beppe Grillo during the sovereign debt crisis. M5S is often labelled a ‘populist party’ by Anglophone mainstream media – sometimes a ‘right-wing populist’ one – with little attempt at further explanation. It is a bit more amorphous however, with a history of pushing forward progressive proposals like the ‘citizens’ income’ (a conditional benefit payment, not unlike Jobseeker’s Allowance), as well as a history in government with the right-wing Lega (previously the Northern League), where it was complicit in an inhumane policy towards cross-Mediterranean migrants.

Its 2022 campaign has focused on protecting public services from privatisation and introducing a national minimum wage – Italy lacks one – and its standing in the polls has increased as a result. But given its amorphous nature, and the fact that it has not subscribed to a holistic progressive ideology, it is difficult to predict how M5S would govern in a necessary coalition.

Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Fratelli, claims Italy has already experimented with a decade of left-wing governments because that is how she – along with much of the mainstream media – describes the Partito Democratico (PD), another large party with a history of some socially progressive policies (and the indirect successor to the Italian Communist Party).

The PD’s programme is really a pro-business one, however. Its recent Prime Ministers – Matteo Renzi and incumbent Enrico Letta – were former Christian Democrats and they raised Italy’s retirement age and removed workers’ protections against firing. As David Broder, Europe editor for Jacobin who is writing a book about fascism in contemporary Italy and was interviewed for this article, explains, they lack a working-class base because:

It’s been some decades since Italian labour has won important victories. Most working class and young people would see the [PD] as a party that hasn’t brought them material benefits.

[Thus,] what we see is very high abstention among working class people [and] unemployed people., even among those who voted for the first time last time.

… It just means that people are unlikely to imagine that politics is going to do anything worthwhile for their participating.

The populist right

The PD is thus not a party whose base lies in poorer neighbourhoods. This month, those constituencies are more likely to go to the Lega (especially in the north), and Fratelli (especially south). Both position themselves as anti-establishment in order to achieve this, though only Fratelli was absent from the previous coalition government. This has given it a greater credibility and has helped it overtake all other parties in polling (where it tends to poll in the mid-20s%).

Despite Meloni’s rhetoric against the establishment and the powers that be in Rome, Brussels and elsewhere, her claims lack substance. Fratelli has in fact proposed numerous policies that act in the interests of capital, both materially (such as a 15% flat tax proposal) and through signalling (for instance, Meloni explained she would visit City of London financiers soon after the election). This summer, the party even considered using an algorithm to match graduates up with jobs and fine those who refused them.

‘They’re very much posing as a Thatcherite party’, says Broder. ‘They literally pay homage to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.’

While pandering to business, Fratelli has also used cultural attacks on what it sets up as ‘wokeism’, including gender fluidity, and rights for migrants and other LGBTQ+ people. In Marche, a region it already governs, it has even made it harder for women to access abortion medication. Despite gratifying capital, Meloni has even used the disillusionment many Italians feel with capital and institutions to support the conspiratorial white nationalist theory of ‘the great replacement’, or as she puts it ‘ethnic substitution’.

It is through these cultural attacks that Meloni has positioned the Fratelli as distinct from the establishment, while being careful not to threaten it in any material way. Meloni argues vehemently about the European Union (EU) for instance, calling for a system where nation-state power remains sovereign, even though that is no contradiction with EU policy.

This increase of identitarian rhetoric while the material options to voters are limited is indicative of the ‘hyper politics’ described by Anton Jäger. As Broder says:

there is a wild diversity in the stuff she says and how sincerely it’s meant to be taken. [She puts] together stuff like the great replacement theory, and then says things like ‘I am a mother [who can govern Italy with the parental love it needs]’.

Through using identity to rail against a nebulous set of enemies that includes both the establishment and marginalised groups, and by doubling down on its pro-business tone at the same time, Fratelli has managed to have its cake and eat it, rather than be exposed for being contradictory. It will probably succeed in gaining many working class votes, and has been allowed by the establishment to whitewash its neo-fascist origins and symbolism. The mainstream media in general does not cover the party as a post-fascist one anymore.

International media and politicians, who play an important role in Italian discourse, have been complicit in this whitewashing. Hilary Clinton has felt entitled to say that although she doesn’t know much about Fratelli, Meloni’s premiership would be a ‘step forward for women’ simply because she would be Italy’s first female Prime Minister. This move has helped to normalise Meloni and her post-fascist party in the Italian press.

Fascism for the 21st century?

Broder explains that when looking at the rise of the far-right in the West, ‘The reason why the Italian case is interesting is the party is fascist. It’s the same party. It’s the same community of people.’ There is a significant continuity between the explicitly neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano – an earlier evolution of Fratelli in 1946-95 set-up by Mussolini’s followers after Italy democratised – and Fratelli.

Unlike Mussolini’s party Fratelli has mostly subscribed to Italy’s constitution, it doesn’t mobilise street gangs, and it relies primarily on its media vehicles, of which Meloni is at the centre. Rather than show how Fratelli is not fascist – as Meloni claims – Broder claims these elements show how post-fascism has adapted to the 21st century.

And, despite the contradictions of Fratelli, we cannot write off what it espouses. An Italy where it leads the government will have awful consequences for many.

In The great recoil: politics after populism and pandemic, Paolo Gerbaudo explains that the far-right parties’ anti-migrant policy is designed not to keep migrants out entirely, but to criminalise their presence in Italy and disenfranchise them, in order to push them into the informal sector where their labour can be exploited more efficiently than formal workers.

Fratelli have said they would implement a military operation (‘naval blockade’ in their terms) to prevent boats from crossing the Mediterranean with migrants destined for Europe. Depending on how this is enforced, the policy could cause many avoidable deaths.

Meloni has also opposed laws that protect LGBTQ+, especially trans, people, and ethnic minorities from hate crimes, despite a number of recent high profile racist murders and shootings of black people.

Moreover, as Broder explains, Fratelli threatens Italian democracy itself. If the party and its coalition partners get two thirds of seats in the legislature, they would be able to amend the constitution without a referendum. And they have said they may do so to implement a clause to curb political organisations which – in its words – ‘pursue undemocratic purposes typical of totalitarian communist ideologies or of extremist Islamic religious origin,’ creating a false equivalence between communism and fascism (which is already condemned by the constitution).

Ciao Bella Ciao

We don’t know how accurate the polls will be, especially given the fact that they are embargoed for the last fortnight of elections. And even if Fratelli are the largest party it is not a foregone conclusion their coalition will have a majority, nor agree to a Meloni premiership. Broder explains that Italy’s exacerbating energy crisis will also put pressure on any right-wing government to act less laisser-faire on the economy.

However, despite the financial crises that affected Italy in the early 2010s and now, and the health and social crises around COVID-19, it is once again the right to whom many Italians have turned. That may be because of the lack of material benefits the left has won for the people in recent decades, and the success of the mainstream media and right in labelling the PD as left-wing. This has hindered progressivism from being grounded sufficiently for a Gramscian seizing of the moment. The times ahead look bleak, but at least under Unione Popolare the electoral left is reunited in some form. Much more work will now be needed to reground radical left-wing thought among Italians, and bring Italy back from this post-fascist plight.

[i] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p.189.


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