Is a revolution happening in Italy? Some said so last week, as the government extended a layoffs ban until December. The plan includes exemptions for in-trouble firms and subcontractors, yet Democratic party-aligned economist Tito Boeri denounced it as an anti-business measure akin to North Korea.
This was no rare outburst. Last month, two years after 43 people died in the Genoa bridge collapse, the Italian government decided to buy back a 33% stake in the Benetton-controlled highways agency. Huffington Post Italia and the centre-right Corriere della Sera attacked the buyback as “creating an Italian Venezuela”.
Three decades since the end of the Italian Communist party (PCI), anti-communism still looms large. Recent initiatives to name streets and squares after neofascists claimed it was “only fair” for Mussolini-nostalgics to be commemorated just like Communist partisans. The PCI was the leading force in the anti-Nazi Resistance of 1943-45, helping to write the country’s democratic constitution, yet today it is often cast even in centrist outlets as morally equivalent to the fascists. Although the PCI dissolved in 1991, lessons about the party’s evils continue to colour the entire political spectrum, with former members self-flagellating about their own past attachments.
It’s true: today’s government, a coalition led by independent law professor Giuseppe Conte, includes some heirs to the PCI (in the Democrats) as well as the eclectic Five Star Movement. Yet Conte’s administration is technocratic and centrist; today’s Democratic electorate is elderly, wealthy, and above all defined by its attachment to the EU. Many of the government’s personnel, including Conte himself, were in power with Matteo Salvini’s hard-right Lega only 12 months ago, and Conte is now making overtures to bring Silvio Berlusconi into his majority. So, why the red scare?
Punished for their defeat.
Despite the make-up of the national government, the hard right is politically dominant in Italy. We see this in the rehabilitation of Berlusconi as a ‘pro-European centrist’, just two decades after liberal media cast him as they would today Salvini or Trump. Before the 2018 election, Angela Merkel christened Berlusconi a “bulwark against populism” – today, liberal daily La Repubblica wants him to join a centrist pact. Yet this centre ground has collapsed: while in 2008 Berlusconi’s party and the Democrats surpassed 70% of the vote, today their poll numbers total less than 30%. Meanwhile, the right-wing vote has radicalised: despite recent setbacks Salvini’s Lega commands 25% support, and Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia 15%.
This radicalisation owes to a wider volatility. If parties across the West have lost their territorial rootedness and mass memberships, this process was accelerated in early 1990s Italy by the self-dissolution of the PCI and anti-corruption trials which destroyed Christian Democracy and the Socialists. This allowed Berlusconi to recast the right around his own media empire, and the Lega to build roots in the north. Entering politics in 1994, Berlusconi promised to “save Italy from the communists”, “men double-bound to a failed past” only falsely posing as democrats. Yet former PCI leaders were also distancing themselves from ‘statism’, while the centre-left administrations which led Italy into the euro in the late 1990s would prove even more dogged champions of privatisation than Berlusconi.
Led by former bank governors and technocrats, since the 1990s the centre-left has squeezed labour rights and sold off state assets – “sacrifices now for jam tomorrow”. But the payoff never came, and, with a 40% fall in state investment, in 2019 Italy’s GDP was lower than in 1999. Public debt, which ballooned with entry to the European Monetary System in the 1980s, continued rising despite two decades of primary budget surpluses. Yet as mass unemployment, low wages and short-term contracts became the norm, centre-left politicians insisted the problem was Italians’ unwillingness to ‘reform’ like ‘normal Europeans’. The result has been to pulverise their social base, as workers stopped participating in politics and the whole spectrum moved in a privatising, anti-statist direction. While even in 1987 the PCI still topped 10m votes, in 2018 the Democrats took barely 6m — fourth-place among blue-collar workers and the unemployed.
The Lega is the latest force to exploit this right-wing shift, though not mainly in the form of winning over old PCI voters. A low-tax, low-spending party, its blue-collar support is rooted in provincial centres and the employees of small firms, the most bound to the fortunes of their bosses and the least unionised. Salvini mainly appeals to workers who have traditionally voted for right-wing parties; the Lega’s territorial strength broadly corresponds to historic neofascist support, while it is backed by less than 10% of former PCI voters. The main factor allowing it to capture old ‘red heartlands’ is, rather, the collapsing turnout among the left’s historic base. Upon his election as Democratic leader in 2019, Nicola Zingaretti promised an Ed Miliband-style tilt toward “re-connecting with communities”; yet this came after three decades in which his party had done everything to alienate them.
This hard-right hegemony has contradictions. Even as Italy has moved from being one of the most Eurofederalist countries to the most Eurosceptic, the call for Italexit has remained amorphous, especially given the hard-right parties’ base among small employers and savers who both suffer the effects of the euro and fear bankruptcy in case of a split. Currently, Meloni’s neofascist party is gaining ground partly on the basis of a “moderate conservative” image, shaped around Cold Warrior attacks on China and Russia and hostility to immigrants, rather than Euroscepticism. More broadly, in an economy so dependent on the whims of the European Central Bank, the field of actual political choice has sharply narrowed. As Thomas Piketty put it, if the state can’t control anything except borders, then the political debate is going to obsess about borders.
Even more than the last crisis, the pandemic has greatly dramatised the government’s position. Despite Conte’s popularity, galvanised by temporary relief measures he has secured from Brussels, he lacks any parliamentary base and the Five Star Movement may well split after next month’s regional elections. But more generally, Italian politics is defined by a kind of shadowboxing. Dominant in the polls but lacking any real project to reboot the Italian economy, the hard-right parties can offer their base only culture war against ‘communists’ and immigrants. As for the centrist parties, they jump from one rickety life-raft to another, gradually integrating former enemies into the ‘anti-populist’ camp. But in reality, the politics of impotent resentment is setting the agenda — what happens when all politicians can do is manage the decline.
David Broder is the author of First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy.