Looking at today’s general election, it is tempting to view Italian politics through the lens of recent populist shocks. After the Brexit referendum, Donald Trump’s presidential win, and the rise of far-right parties around Europe, media have focused on the danger of a fresh upheaval in Italy.
Photos of militant fascist subcultures like CasaPound have been splashed across English-speaking dailies, and business press has warned of a fresh “crisis event” for the euro. The hard right’s strength is explained in terms of old tropes about Italy’s failure to get over World War II, or perennial backwardness, to present a picture of looming chaos.
The campaign has indeed been marked by a rise in racist sentiment. Even a fascist terror attack on African migrants did not weaken the polling position of the gunman’s former party, the hard-right Lega. Not just the Right but figures from the centrist Democrats and amorphous Five Star Movement (M5S) have adopted harsh rhetoric on migration and the need to defend the “Italian race.”
Nonetheless, the aggressive tones of Italian public life conceal the real reason why Italy is a case study for the new politics. M5S proclaims its will to “clear out” the established political “caste” and the hard-right Lega hopes to impose its leadership over more conservative forces. But the most notable aspect of contemporary Italian politics is the lack of belief that anything will in fact change.
Italian liberals have long sought to turn Italy into a “normal country,” to modernize it in line with its less “backward” counterparts. But looking at the political landscape both in Italy and abroad, we might better characterize Italy itself as the country of the future. Not only was the resurgent Berlusconi a forerunner of Trump, but the very dynamics in which he rose to power in 1994 heralded a wider destruction of the political landscape.
From Europe to Brazil and the United States, the appearance of judges and technocrats in the political arena goes hand-in-hand with the rising role of charismatic “outsiders.” What both the right-wing populists and the neoliberal centrists share is “anti-politics,” an ideological offensive against the idea of state action. Italy was an early pioneer of this dynamic, with the sudden collapse of its historic parties in the early 1990s creating a landscape of ruins that became a test bed for a new political era.
The Fire Last Time
The Italian political system certainly looks chaotic. None of its parties are thirty years old, and even those created in the early 1990s have constantly changed their identities. Today’s rising force, the Lega (formally known as the Lega Nord or Northern League) was once a hodgepodge of Thatcherites, libertarians, and former Communists bent on Northern autonomy (or even independence) from the South. Today it is a national movement encroaching on the terrain of the far right.
The Lega is allied to Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and this pact has allowed it back away from its once-sharp calls for euro exit (in any case opposed by much of its middle-class base in regions like Veneto). Berlusconi himself has abandoned past criticisms of the European project, and has even been endorsed by Angela Merkel as a new “anti-populist” crusader. But he could well be the winner of an Italian election defined by an anti-migrant frenzy, with coalition with the hard-right and center-left both on the table.
Even the anti-establishment M5S can be considered an expression of the lack of political choice. Its MPs rarely vote, for fear of undermining the M5S’s “catch-all” identity, and as it comes closer to power it has abandoned its call for a referendum on euro exit. Equally, while earlier in the campaign its leader for this election Luigi Di Maio suggested he would be willing to ally with either the Lega or the center-left Liberi e Uguali (LeU, Free and Equal) party, he now seems terrorized by the very thought of entering government.
The insurgents abandon meaningful political differences, while the centrists use shallow sloganeering to confect the “outsiderish” image which their neoliberal credos would otherwise deny them. Such was the motivation of Matteo Renzi’s posturing as the “scrapper” who would destroy vested interests, and his 2016 appeal for Italians to vote for “less armchairs for politicians” in his constitutional referendum. Fighting his seventh general election, Berlusconi still insists that he “never wanted to enter politics.”
This bid to defend one’s centrist credibility while also damning politics itself reflects the ideological offensive against the idea of social change. The haggling involved in the perpetual process of coalition formation (changes of government in fact rarely result from elections) and citizens’ distrust for any attempt to strengthen now-discredited institutions combine to prevent the parties from being real vectors of change, or even presenting coherent visions of an alternative future.
In many countries the old class-based parties of the twentieth century still soldier on. Even as they weaken they can retain some residual social roots and serve as sites of collective identification: “my granddad was a miner” has long been the cry of the reluctant social democrat. Conversely, the Italian parties that emerged in the post-Cold War era more immediately reflect today’s lack of belief in collective projects or state action. Created at a moment when the “end of history” was so widely proclaimed, they have been unable to cohere new identities.
Indeed, Italy serves as a “sandbox” because its political order is of more recent invention than any other Western democracy. The system marks a sharp break with the postwar period, dominated by the Cold War binary. This was principally concentrated in the clash between the Christian-Democrats — who were permanently in government from 1944 to 1994 — and the Communist PCI. This latter party was a permanent loyal opposition, a powerful force within the republican institutions making a slow and steady march toward the national government.
However, over the 1970s the PCI’s sense of progress began to weaken. Unable to form a coalition with the Christian-Democrats, its base was also weakened by the defeats of the unions and the rise of the Socialists as a middle-class center-left. With the fall of the USSR in 1991 the PCI abandoned its old identity, and the solidity of the Christian Democrats as the natural party of government was in turn undermined. The Cold War binary that had effectively balanced the old system now disappeared.
The ideological shift already underway in the 1980s would in fact bring the end of the “First Republic,” which had emerged after 1945. A series of investigations beginning in 1992 exposed the criminality that built up in five decades of “blocked democracy.” At one point over half of MPs were under investigation; the Christian-Democratic and Socialist parties rapidly folded. This not only fed a judicialization of the political arena, but strengthened a popular distrust of Italy’s institutions and gave strength to the perception of “Europe” as an outside guarantee.
Italy has always had strong regional divisions and a political system based on negotiation between entrenched interests. Though unable to enter national government, the Communists had been integrated into state institutions and able to achieve serious reforms for their base. What changed in the 1990s and 2000s was that the old party blocs collapsed, in a period in which the system ceased to be able to share out material benefits or integrate the young in any enduring way.
Understanding that they had lost their own identities, the leaders of Italy’s parties tried to import them from abroad. Yet the attempt to form a broad-tent “Democratic” party in the US mold in fact saw the old working-class left vote leave in favor of the M5S, in particular following the economic crisis that began in 2008. This latter party offers these voters little promise of economic improvement. But it serves as a megaphone for their revolt against Italian, and European, institutions.
Paradoxically, such processes are also developing in apparently more stable democracies like France, Germany, and Spain. In each of these countries the old parties of center-left and center-right have gradually withered, if not as abruptly as their Italian counterparts. Not only has party-political sense of class identity declined, but it has become more difficult for parties to integrate populations by sharing the spoils of economic growth. Grand coalitions and centrist fudges reflect a narrowing rather than a broadening consensus.
The result is the rise of parties that are defined precisely by their sense of being “outsiders,” in different countries reflecting a hostility to perceived cultural decline brought by immigration (as in Northern and Central-Eastern Europe) and an opposition to austerity (as is broadly true of Southern Europe). Combining both “South” and “Northern” regions, Italian populism concentrates the worst traits of both, reflecting social despair rather than offering a way out of it.
This is itself apparent in the M5S’s focus on railing against institutions (with varying degrees of bitterness) over proposing economic or political reform. It is able to portray its rivals, no longer tribunes of collective interests, as a mere “caste,” “lining their pockets.” The M5S promised to overcome this by using online voting to represent the popular will. In fact, what arose was an even more extreme delegation of power, with the atomized, stay-at-home membership merely rubber-stamping the decisions already taken by the party machine’s leader-owners.
This oddly mirrors its apparent “centrist” opponents, who similarly detach democratic process from the realm of government decisions. The Democratic Party (PD) has introduced primaries, open to anyone willing to register as a supporter and pay a small fee, in order to project an image of direct voter control. In practice, over the last six years the party has been central to governments with no popular mandate, whether in the form of grand coalitions or cabinets entirely composed of technocrats. Its leaders strictly followed ECB criteria while also lamenting their lack of freedom of action.
The M5S’s “direct democracy” produces no more substantial agenda. Certainly, it is more able to present itself as a new force than a party like the PD; and it is easy to understand why young Italians, hit by 35 percent youth unemployment and less attached to the residual political identities of old, are more likely to vote for the M5S. Yet whatever their desire for change, the M5S program is strikingly light on policy, preferring a hodgepodge of tax breaks and small investment projects supposedly to be funded by “efficiency savings” and unspecified cuts.
In practice, the M5S has not only backed away from any significant reforming agenda, but has even cast doubt over the viability of “anti-corruption” politics itself. This is illustrated by a recent scandal over its MPs’ salaries. M5S parliamentarians are supposed to remit half their salaries to a finance ministry microcredit fund, and then post online scans of their transfers. However, over the last fortnight ten of them were caught cancelling the transfers as soon as they published the images online. They along with three candidates with Masonic links were expelled from M5S.
Impossible to withdraw from its electoral lists at this late stage, these expellees from an anti-corruption party may, absurdly, be decisive to coalition formation if Berlusconi’s coalition falls just short. While the M5S did indeed act to remove them, it is worth noting that corruption scandals have in the past badly undermined other parties defined by nothing other than their claim to honesty, notably the one-time “Italy of Values” party led by anti-corruption magistrate Antonio di Pietro.
The Chaos Remains
If this situation seems devoid of hope, it is important to remember that Italy was not always like this. The divisions caused by its late unification or experience of fascism and resistance did not condemn it to mere immobility and continual chaos, as a certain stereotype suggests. Italy’s once mighty Communist Party had a strong conservative and institutional streak, but for millions embodied a vision of social progress. Today, after its demise, the country that once had the strongest Communist Party in the West now has barely any left of which to speak.
As that party disappeared at the end of the Cold War, bringing down with it much of the best of Italian culture, a significant chunk of its former working-class and youth base did indeed turn toward an alternative, reactionary politics. Yet the dominant result of the death of progress has been disengagement. If in the 1970s both national and regional elections saw turnout consistently above 90 percent, the most recent regional contests have seen that figure plunge to below 50 percent. A poll in La Stampa predicts 70 percent of first-time “voters” will not bother to vote.
Polls suggest that the overall turnout today will be higher than recent regional contests but a record low for a national election. Those who bother will have little choice to make. Apart from defining their particular positions on the spectrum of racism, the parties seem lifeless and complacent. With the death of other forms of identity or vision, one’s commitment to “Europe” or whiteness becomes a central arbiter of political preference.
For the young, attachment to a political party perhaps appears less vital to identification than one’s self-presentation; not least when politics offers no hope of change, either in terms of personal advancement or collective aspiration. In Italy, where economic policy is ruled by distant institutions and the parties born of the 1990s have failed to establish their legitimacy, we see the postmodern condition in full force. It becomes accepted that the state does not and cannot work; the citizenry becomes atomized, and ambition abandons the realm of public life.
It is possible that after today the stagnation will not resume the form of a centrist fudge; there may be an upset, and a win for the Right breaking with six years of coalitions and technocrats. But the real shift is the decline of democracy itself, visible around Europe. In the Catalan crisis as in Spain’s two elections, in the German election as in France’s “block Le Pen” front, voters see their choice increasingly detached from any change of government policy. In its backwardness, Italy was way ahead of the rest; in its chaos, it has provided the model for our time.