Article by Gianluca Solera, writer, journalist and member of the EA advisory board
In the last weeks, analysts have been producing dozens of assessments and forecasts on the evolution of the political preferences in Italy, but ideas about what to do for defending a progressive offer in the Italian political market are confused, as it can only be after such a a rightward turn of the electorate.
“Complaining is fine, but some people must have voted for her if she’s won the elections!”. Last Tuesday, two days after Italy’s election day, a woman cashier working in one of Florence’s Coop supermarkets blurted out a simple truth while serving a client. It seemed the cashier was tired of keeping collecting comments of concern from clients while they were paying, as if nobody had voted for Ms. Giorgia Meloni, at least among the Coop’s shoppers. Tuscany, one of the traditionally “red regions” of my country, registered 10 out of 13 first-past-the-post electoral constituencies (Chamber of Deputies and Senate together) allocated to the right-wing coalition: an historical collapse. Maybe, Coop’s clients who voted for Ms. Meloni & co. have kept their mouths shut, knowing that they are shopping in an historical cooperative venture following principles of social economy; or maybe all right-wing voters go shopping in private supermarkets. What is appealing is that people do not talk so much about the results on the street, as if it were all expected or inescapable. And those who have always identified with the progressive camp, like myself, feel anger and frustration, and realize that Italy is a conservative society, where ideologies have been buried by new generations, and fears have an easy grip on older generations, who represent the largest majority of Italian citizens (1).
In the last weeks, analysts have been producing dozens of assessments and forecasts on the evolution of the political preferences in Italy, but ideas about what to do for defending a progressive offer in the Italian political market are confused, as it can only be after such a a rightward turn of the electorate. And yet, if we want to revive the enthusiasm of antifascist and democratic forces, we can no longer be satisfied with the carousel around the candidates for the next secretary general of Partito Democratico (PD). Other fundamental aspects should be addressed.
If we want to revive the enthusiasm of antifascist and democratic forces, we can no longer be satisfied with the carousel around the candidates for the next secretary general of Partito Democratico (PD)
The first thing which comes to my mind borders on “To Be or not To Be” Hamlet’s question: why should we need a progressive camp, what for? Do we really need it or can we do without it? We Italians have gotten used to doing without it, because no radical reforms in that direction have taken place in the country over the past two decades (with the exception of the public response to the Covid-19 pandemic). A progressive camp should be there for restoring social justice, preserving equal access to fundamental services, protecting civil liberties and democratic rights, and preserving the Earth for the next generations, but I do not recall any similar leading reform or advanced law that the world envies us. And that, despite the fact that center-left political parties, who do not identify with the current Meloni-Salvini-Berlusconi triad, have been running national governments for years. Formed in 2007 from the merger of the Left Democrats and Centrists, the PD was until 2018 the largest party in Italy and, with some interruptions (fourth Berlusconi’s government; first Conte’s government between the Five Stars Movement and the Northern League), it has ruled the country for the rest of the time. People have simply identified the leading political force of the progressive camp and its satellites with the establishment… Examples of advanced reforms that were never implemented and that the world would envy us are not lacking: Shifting citizenship rules from the ius sanguinis (blood related) to the ius soli (birthplace related) principle; taxation on large profits to finance economy’s ecological transition; legalising migration through partnerships with the Southern neighbour countries; substantial investment increase in public health care; drastically reduce the wage gap between managers and employees; a ban on land urbanisation; or a 100% renewable energy option – just to mention a few.
Over the past years, the center-left bloc in Italy acted de facto to accompany neoliberal deregulations along the lines of the Anglosaxon world. As the magazine Left points out: “In tune with Clinton, who during the 1990s abolished Roosevelt’s banking legislation, they deregulated capital, made the labor market flexible, initiated extensive privatization processes of public enterprises and common goods, and isolated and marginalized labor unions. A task accomplished without resistance, because the political agents presented themselves to the working classes with the friendly face and insignia of leftist organizations (2)”. Their role has basically been to manage electoral consensus for policies of mediation and compensatory mitigation of the harsher effects of derogatory development. The results? According to the OECD, Italy is the only European country that has experienced a 2.9 percent regression in average annual salary over the past 30 years (3).
Better to reopen neighbourhoods’ community centers, where debates are opened, advice is given, and people-to-people services provided. The most successful political parties are those which can still gather people in-presence, around a cause or a need.
The second thing is that the largest party after these elections is not Ms. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), but the party of abstentionists, which reached the 36,1% of those entitled to vote. There are areas such as Southern Italy’s Calabria where only 30-35% of those entitled to vote went to polling stations – which represents for sure the worst abstentionism record ever registered in the history of the Italian Republic. Abstentionism first and foremost penalizes the losers, and if there is a target public progressive forces should address is the one of abstentionists, who do not feel any longer represented, do not trust either right-wing parties, or have lost faith in the State. A systematic effort of re-politicisation and civic mobilisation of the Italian nation should be an utmost task of the Left, because when 4 out of 10 Italians feel that elections are useless, the whole democratic construct is in peril. That is possible if people can find spaces where they can socialize. Enough with social media campaigns! Better to reopen neighbourhoods’ community centers, where debates are opened, advice is given, and people-to-people services provided. The most successful political parties are those which can still gather people in-presence, around a cause or a need. Let me move to Egypt, to tell you a story. After 2011’s fall of Hosni Moubarak, Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice party obtained an extraordinary electoral consensus. Many Western observers wondered why voters were relying on culturally retrograde forces instead of relying on liberal parties that are supposed to promote individual rights. Well, the answer is that even Mubarak’s party, the National Democratic party, was ranked among the democratic liberal forces, and it was sitting in the Socialist International like other Western social-democratic parties. But Mubarak’s party was only an empty plastic container that supported itself on corruption and social control, while the Muslim Brothers were rooted in working-class neighborhoods and were supporting people in distress. And so, if at the time of Mubarak voter turnout was only 25-30%, when the Muslim Brothers won in the 2011-12 legislative elections, the turnout went up to 62%, thanks to their organised mobilisation and neighbourhood support work!
The third aspect is both tactical and strategic. During this last electoral campaign, the most powerful message delivered by the center-left coalition was about how scary it would be to have Brothers of Italy being the winners: scary for abortion rights, scary for democratic rights, etc. While Ms. Meloni was talking about how to reduce the cost of living and how to win back sovereignty to address social and economic issues, the others were alerting us about Putin-close populism, the need to ‘remain in Europe’, and the dangers our beautiful Constitutional Chart was facing. I am not saying that they were wrong; the problem is that they were not explaining out loud enough what they would do to create jobs, preserve the people’s purchasing-power, or simplify the State’s bureaucracy. Waving the specter of fascism, they abdicated their role in defending the world of labor and opportunities. And the right-wing gradually replaced them in the workers’ classes. One cannot raise to the forefront the banner of rights for same-sex couples or of the right to physician-assisted voluntary death (euthanasia), or to citizenship for foreign children born in Italy, while social inequalities dramatically widen. Especially in a conservative and fragile society like Italy’s. I am not saying that the fight for sexual, cultural or minorities’ rights must be abandoned, for sure not! I am saying that one needs to act tactically, so that your party is not perceived as an elitist political entity taking care of certain social groups, and forgetting about the largest majority of people undergoing impoverishment. This image, although it was given unintentionally, has damaged progressive causes. Better if the Left, during the election campaign, had focused for instance on openly defending the so-called ‘Citizenship Income’ rather than highlighting the weaknesses of that instrument (4).
Better if the Left, during the election campaign, had focused for instance on openly defending the so-called ‘Citizenship Income’ rather than highlighting the weaknesses of that instrument.
This is how in fact, by focusing its campaign on this policy measure, the Five Stars Movement has obtained an amazing score in those Italian regions, where labourers are paid miserable salaries or forced to overtime work without retribution. The director of La Stampa newspaper appropriately coined the expression ‘fascism as an asset-shelter’ to describe the fact that when nobody takes care of my degrading socio-economic conditions, I start looking at a traditionalist or regimented rule as a safe space (5).
The fourth thing which comes to my mind is related to the capacity to regenerate the political personnel. Italy is known to be the place where making politics is considered a lifelong job, and it is also considered normal that once you are in the Parliament you keep running for election until you die. This same culture dominates both left and right. It has only been the Five Stars Movement, with its rule of limiting representation in the same elected institution to two mandates, that the question of disconnecting politics from the professionalisation of the mandates has been reproposed. Contemporary Left has never seriously considered the importance of the “rules of the game” when one engages in party politics. Even when the Italian Greens were born in the ’90 (6), under the auspices of the rule of rotation of representative mandates, they did not abide by the rule from the early years. Even the PD has failed to abide by its own three-term rule in this election round, allowing many barons to stand for election again. The other side of the coin is that without a clear party policy of renovation of the political class, civil society will never be easily involved in party life, and electoral lists will be arranged between four walls, which will result in a further distancing between institutional representation and people.
If we won’t be able to gather together social and cultural forces who oppose autocracy and illiberalism beyond the left-wing circles, discriminatory ideas will relentlessly advance in society.
My fifth and final remark regards the notion of antifascism. It is not enough to brandish the song “Bella Ciao” or to march in the streets to counter the advance of illiberal ideas and discriminatory policies. I have started reading an amazing essay by Miquel Ramos on how the fight against the rise of the Spanish Far-right was organised since the ‘90s. One of the questions raised by Mr Ramos is the antinomy between political endogamy and the transversality of antifascist engagement. If we won’t be able to gather together social and cultural forces who oppose autocracy and illiberalism beyond the left-wing circles, discriminatory ideas will relentlessly advance in society. As the book attests, community happenings where residents of the same neighbourhood meet with diverse social groups suffering discriminations have been generating waves of sympathy that curbed the Vox Party’s propaganda. On the other hand, there have been severely wrong policy measures that have damaged the centre-left camp’s credibility. Such as Minister Marco Minniti’s initiative in 2017 to arm the Libyan Guard to hunt down desperate people venturing into the Mediterranean, with the aim of locking them up in their elegant prisons, which has perhaps represented one of the most vicious acts of government in the history of the Italian Republic. Let us look at Scandinavia for a moment. Some analysts consider that even Sweden’s supposed liberalism was never that deep, and that the affirmation of ultranationalists in the election held mid of September reflects Swedish society’s rooted conformism and rejection of the other. So, when the Social Democratic minister of integration touted last August the idea of helping neighbourhoods with high crime rates by introducing ethnic quotas, to keep the number of “non-Nordic” inhabitants under a certain threshold, he fueled Swedish unease with diversity and inadvertently campaigned for the far-right Sweden Democrats’ offer.
Political majorities are not forever, they can be challenged. It is time for the progressive and liberal forces in my country to go on the road, and search for a new identity. Together with people, not without them.
(1) According to Istat (2022), by 2070 Italy will have lost 12.1 million inhabitants and the average age will be 50.7, since the birthrate is just 1.24 children per woman (2021).
(2) See Piero Bevilacqua, « Breve storia del Pd: le sue responsabilità (di ieri e di oggi) per la crisi sociale del Paese », in Left, August 10, 2022.
(3) See Domenico Affinito and Milena Gabanelli, « Stipendi dei top manager: 649 volte quello di un operaio », in CorriereTV, July 11, 2022.
(4) The Citizenship Income (Reddito di Cittadinanza) is an active labor policy measure to combat poverty, inequality and social exclusion. It is an economic support to supplement family incomes. It was introduced in 2019 upon request of the Five Stars Movement, and it is strongly criticised by centre-right parties.
(5) «Il Podcast», by Massimo Giannini, in La Stampa, September 28, 2022.
(6) Miquel Ramos, Antifascistas. Así se combatió a la extrema derecha española desde los años 90, Capitán Swing publ., Madrid, 2022.