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The Italian Elections. A Defeat for the Left, a Chance for the Future

Source: Wikipedia

One cannot understand the recent Italian elections without a minimal background on the recent Italian past. Though certainly we cannot be happy about Giorgia Meloni’s victory, she does not represent the “Fascistic” deviation some simplifying liberal media would have us believe. She is the leader of a political party which, though it has a convoluted past, originates from Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. Moreover, she overtly admires Giorgio Almirante (1914-1988), who served in Mussolini’s German-backed puppet government in 1943-1945, and who later founded the Neo-Fascist party Italian Social Movement. From this information alone, however, one should not conclude that Meloni is a “Fascist.” She is a conservative, reactionary, racist, populist, homophobic right-wing politician of the sort of Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán. Thoroughly examining the present-day global political landscape, in fact, she does not seem as exceptional as some would have us believe.

How did she win? And how did she rise in popularity so dramatically, from 4 percent of the vote in 2018 to 26 percent? The answer lays in the trajectory of the previous government under Mario Draghi, which began in February 2021. Draghi was a sort of banker-dictator who came to power in a democratically questionable way, since he was not elected by Italian voters. His assignment as Prime Minister was justified with the exceptionally bad economic situation determined by the pandemic, which needed a “tough guy” to fix it up (readers should keep in mind, however, that Italian politics is often filled with this “exceptional” rhetoric). In other words, his job was to “stabilize” the Italian economy in order to save the business world at the detriment of Italian workers, who have seen their standard of living progressively worsening since the beginning of the pandemic (enough to think that in 2022 unemployment rose by 21 percent compared to 2021). For example, Draghi quickly approved a deleterious reform of the pension system which raised retirement age.

Draghi’s government was supported by virtually all parties of the Italian parliament, including the PD (Partito Democratico, a similar in some respects to the US Democratic Party).  Giorgia Meloni, a right-wing politician who looks like an Italian version of Marie Le Pen, is the primary winner in this election. Giorgia Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy, was the only party of the Italian parliament which stayed out of the Draghi coalition. This move demonstrates Meloni’s political shrewdness. She probably imagined that Draghi’s anti-labor policies would embitter many Italian workers seeing their standard of living steadily worsening, who would then rush to vote for anybody who appeared to oppose the banker-dictator, no matter how inconsistently and hypocritically. Indeed, with Meloni the hypocrisy is obvious. She once voted for an eight-billion-euro cutback for Italian public education and supported a very unpopular reform of the pension system. And it’s unlikely that she will pursue any radically different policies from Draghi once in power. Moreover, when Draghi came to power, she was open and honest in saying that her opposition was going to be “loyal,” that is, merely symbolic. This merely symbolic opposition, however, together with a persuasive personality and clever social media strategy, brought about a spectacular electoral result for her nonetheless.

Meloni’s meteoric rise of course corresponds to the dramatic fall of other important political players in Italy. In this election the PD scored its worst result since its foundation in 2007. Sadly, this “post-ideological” party, which has always acted against the interests of migrants and Italian workers, represents the “left” of the Italian parliament (here, quotation marks are really needed). Consistently with a global trend explained by Thomas Picketty in a recent book, the PD has become a sort of “professors’ party,” that is, an elitist party supported by the most educated, richest part of the population. Indeed, one wonders why the PD still receives as many votes as it does. Probably (this is an educated guess because, to the best of my knowledge, there is no systemic survey on this subject), the PD is mainly supported by older people who are nostalgic for Enrico Berlinguer, the idolized secretary of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) between 1972 and 1984 (former PCI members later founded the PD). Obviously, you cannot build a political program on nostalgia. Moreover, the PD has swerved very much to Berlinguer’s right on many issues, especially on the protection of workers’ rights.

Rhetorically Meloni might look like a sharp turn to the right. However, the figures show that there is no radical rightward drift in Italian public opinion. The joint result of all Italian main right-wing parties (Meloni’s, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia) deviates little from past ones. Many of her voters came from the same base, the difference being that they saw her as more politically attractive and reliable than her conservative opponents rather than fundamentally different. Certainly, both Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini suffered because of their support for the banker-dictator. The Five Star Movement (a populist party founded by the millionaire comedian Beppe Grillo with the help of a professional marketing company) and the PD suffered because of the same reason. Probably Meloni was also helped by the War in Ukraine and to the corresponding economic crisis, which added on to the already devastating pandemic crisis and the still lingering effects of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Russia and Ukraine are faraway countries, and many Italians know little if anything about them. However, they vaguely understand that the ongoing war is going to have serious economic consequences, and that the poorest Italians are those who are going to bear the brunt. Apart from the risk of skyrocketing unemployment, this winter many Europeans may have serious problems in heating their homes. Many voters quite rightly thought that Mario Draghi was not going to give them any relief. However, they will be very likely disappointed if they think that Giorgia Meloni is going to act very differently.

What can we expect from Giorgia Meloni’s government? Given her avowed racist and homophobic convictions, the LGBTQ+ community and especially migrants are going to be the main targets of her rhetorical and political action. Again this is no surprise; migrants living in Italy are used to being treated as a scapegoat good for all matter of things. In the past few decades they have been victims of increasingly discriminatory and repressive laws, which have been approved by all sides of the Italian parliament, and which do not even spare foreigners married to Italian citizens. 

Meloni’s election demonstrates not only the continued long turn of Italian politics to the right, but also the gradually increasing disillusionment of Italians with institutional politics altogether. The turnout at these elections was exceptionally low, just over 60 percent, making it the lowest election turnout in Italian history. This is both understandable and unsurprising. After decades of “post-ideological” intoxication, many Italians (and this includes many working-class people) really do not know whom they should vote. They only see that, from one parliamentary party or another, they get more or less the same soup: worsening standard of living, cutbacks on public spending, a healthcare that is not free anymore, precarity, unemployment, and an increasing age of retirement. It’s also notable that these extraordinary elections were hastily announced only in late July. This meant that parties only had about two months to collect the necessary signatures and to organize and conduct an electoral campaign. Much of this work had to be performed in August, which is a dead month in Italy, as most people are on holiday, and even some of the offices in charge of the elections were closed. Clearly, this situation did not allow many small leftist parties to run for the elections. And, more generally, the haste of the election meant that many voters didn’t have enough time to properly develop an opinion. Many chose to stay at home. If elections are often a farce, these were a particularly scandalous one. Paradoxically, the governmental crisis that led to this election was brought about by the Northern League, Forza Italia and the Five Star Movement, all parties who were penalized sharply in an election they themselves foolishly unleashed.

In this doubtlessly difficult situation, it would easy for Italian Leftists to fall into despair or even defeatism. This would be the worst mistake. In 1937 (that is, in an epoch when Hitler and Stalin were in power and the world was on the verge of total war), Leon Trotsky wrote:

Reactionary epochs like ours not only disintegrate and weaken the working class and isolate its vanguard but also lower the general ideological level of the movement and throw political thinking back to stages long since passed through. In these conditions the task of the vanguard is, above all, not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow: it must swim against the current. If an unfavorable relation of forces prevents it from holding political positions it has won, it must at least retain its ideological positions, because in them is expressed the dearly paid experience of the past. Fools will consider this policy “sectarian.”

One positive example we have seen in the past few decades was the development of the sindacati di base, small radical trade unions which unite workers in sectors like logistics and agriculture. The large majority of their members are migrants. Really, this was an extraordinary example of internationalist and inter-ethnic solidarity: radical Italians with political and trade-union experience managed to mobilize many migrant workers. Gathering experience, some of them are themselves becoming trade-union leaders and can act autonomously. This result is all the more extraordinary, because it was scored by migrants, who are often considered fearful victims incapable of any autonomous political action. This alliance of Italians and migrants shows that with political mobilization, workers can unite to defend their common interests, even though following the ideological “flow” of the time, they are supposed to fight each other in a deleterious war among the poor.

Today, the Italian parliament has become a largely symbolical political dustbin, where many  contentious political parties obscenely shout at each other to approve, in the end, approximately the same laws. The Italian situation is in reality perfectly consistent with the global trend of Western democracies, which have largely become competitive one-party systems, to use the expression of a late Italian historian of ideas. Italian subalterns, henceforth, must have no illusions. No relief will come from any parliamentary party. Those willing to engage in political action, therefore, will have to organize outside the parliament. Italy has a long history of extra-parliamentary political activity, and it is precisely this history that concerned Italians should look at for inspiration. Today, genuine oppositional leftist forces in Italy are weak and divided. To unite and to fight together for survival will be no easy nor quick task. On the contrary, it will be long, difficult, dangerous, and ungrateful. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s (1891-1937) call for “pessimism of reason, optimism of the will” has never been more relevant.

Dr Marco Gabbas is an Italian contemporary historian. He deals with political history of the 20th century, and has long lived and worked in Hungary and Russia.