Italy turns right: populists and reactionaries to lead new gov't

June 7, 2018

Italy’s new government is the most conservative and reactionary since World War II, writes Daniele Fulvi.

After three months of laborious negotiations, Italy finally has a new government. However, there is very little to celebrate.

The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League) came to an agreement on the government’s agenda. They won the argument against Italian President Sergio Mattarella to give the prime ministership to Giuseppe Conte, a professor and jurist who sympathises with M5S.

After the outcome of last March’s elections, there was no clear majority in parliament. The only way to avoid a hung parliament was by different political forces forming an alliance or coalition.


At the start of negotiations, M5S tried to convince Lega leader Matteo Salvini to break Lega’s centre-right coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Forward Italy) and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. However, Salvini’s main aim was keeping the coalition united under his own leadership. As a result, nothing came out of the first round of negotiations.

After that, M5S leader Luigi Di Maio began talks with members of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), but PD secretary Matteo Renzi ended discussions before they even began by excluding any possibility of supporting an M5S-led government.

To break the impasse, M5S and centre-right parties considered calling early elections, hoping that a majority might emerge after a new round of voting. But then there was an incredible turn of events: Berlusconi gave the green light to a government alliance between Lega and M5S, in fact authorising Salvini to enter such a government without breaking the centre-right coalition.

Therefore, M5S and Lega concluded an agreement on a government agenda, called “Contract for the government of change”. However, Mattarella vetoed the proposed finance minister Paolo Savona because of his Euroscepticism. Both Lega and M5S called the deal off and accused Mattarella of abusing his powers.

As a final attempt to avoid early elections, Mattarella tried to put in place a technocratic government led by economist Carlo Cottarelli. Cottarelli did not find any support in parliament and stepped aside after a couple of days.

Thereafter, both Di Maio and Salvini proposed to Mattarella their “government contract”, but this time with a different finance minister. At that point, Mattarella could no longer oppose anymore, since M5S and Lega together have more than 50% of the seats in both houses of the Parliament. Moreover, an early election would have meant opening the ballots in the middle of the summer, which would have been inconvenient for all the parties.

Government of (fake) change

This “government contract” has a very strong xenophobic and reactionary character. The strongest international supporters of the newly formed government are people like Steve Bannon, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage, just to name the most famous ones.

Both M5S and Lega agree on some crucial points, such as anti-immigration policies, a general anti-establishment sentiment, anti-vaccine positions and the need for increasing the birth rate among Italian families. Moreover, they propose to introduce a so-called “flat tax”, which is a measure that exclusively favours businesspeople and the rich.

The government agenda does include some progressive points, such as a small unemployment benefits rise, the reintroduction of a minimum hourly wage, promotion of renewable energies and the abolition of the existing pension law (the “Fornero law”), which raised the age of retirement. However, it is impossible not to notice the strong conservative and right-wing tendencies that underpin this “government of the change”.

Reading the “government contract”, the conservative and right-wing points are clearly predominant over the progressive ones. For instance, a large part of the contract is devoted to the idea of sending immigrants and refugees back to their home countries and that Italian childcare centres and schools should give priority to Italian children — despite the fact that most children of immigrants were actually born on the Italian soil.

Also, civil rights and ethical issues (such as euthanasia) are not even mentioned in the contract, since, as both M5S and Lega argue, “Italy has other priorities in this moment”.

From these elements it clearly emerges how M5S and Lega understands society: in their view, minorities are not to be granted any specific rights, but rather are to be used to promote conflict. That is, the members of the new government always tend to pit poor people against each other, for instance saying that unemployment is caused by “uncontrolled immigration”, or that LGBTI families are a threat to “traditional families”.

Salvini has never made a secret of his intolerance towards immigrants and refugees, as well as the LGBTI community, feminists’ and workers’ collectives and unions. On top of that, Salvini is now the new interior minister.

On his first day as a minister, Salvini said that the “good days are over for immigrants”, but it’s not clear what he meant exactly. Maybe the “good days” were when they were jailed in Libyan detention camps? Or the ones where their friends and family died crossing the Mediterranean Sea? Or the ones where they were forced to work in Italian farms and factories for peanuts?

Even worse is the role of M5S. It built its success by presenting itself as a radical alternative to the “old political parties” (including Lega). Yet it is not only tolerating Salvini’s xenophobia, homophobia and misogyny, but is indulging them. These features are now being made an essential part of M5S’s own political agenda.

Furthermore, the “government contract” clearly argues that “self-defence” and vigilantism must be reinforced, granting Italian people more freedom to access and buy arms. This is no different  from Donald Trump’s view.

For all these reasons, the so-called “government of change” is on the side of the oppressors and against the oppressed: they’re against unions but for industrialists; against immigrants but for those who exploit their labour; against civil rights and for traditionalism.

Is this a real change? Both M5S and Lega insist they are different from the old political class, but their government agenda is full of old-fashioned ideas and prejudices. It bases itself on a very outdated conception of society. It’s the same old story: the interests of the ruling class are safeguarded and poor people, the unemployed and immigrants are pitted against each other.

That’s why the alleged change looks so fake. There is no doubt that the main sentiments that ground the government’s agenda are deeply reactionary, tending to promote the social marginalisation and scapegoating of religious, ethnic and sexual minorities.

Indeed, even the alleged direct democracy promoted by the M5S is fake. That is, the actual “government contract” has been written by the leaders of the governing parties in the backrooms of power, without previous discussion with their members or voters.

After the contract was written, M5S carried out a two-hour-long online survey, asking its supporters whether they approved it or not. However, this is neither democracy nor participation. Rather it looks more like telemarketing.

The Italian left

In this situation, one would expect the left to fight the reactionary forces on the barricades, but at the moment this is happening only in part. There have been both public declarations and rallies against the “government contract”, but the Italian left seems to be a victim of sectarianism, which in this historical moment can be really dangerous.

What has been lacking, until now, is a deep and authentic self-critique by all left-wing parties. There is a need to build a strong political alliance as an alternative both to European-wide neoliberalism and to reactionary populism.

What is certain is the fact that if half of Italian people voted for Lega and M5S, this means they don’t see the Italian left as a trustworthy alternative to the current state of things. That is, they believe that populists and reactionaries can safeguard their interests better than socialists and communists.

The Italian left, as well as the left across Europe, must finally make clear that populists and reactionaries are no better than neoliberals, since they only safeguard the interests of the ruling class at the expense of workers, immigrants and poor.

Even if populists and reactionaries all over the world claim they want to fight against the establishment, we must bear in mind that their goal is not people’s emancipation and well-being, but to replace the old establishment with a new one, led by themselves.

Both M5S and Lega are a clear example of this attitude: that is, they still conceive of society in a hierarchical and conservative sense, distinguishing people on the base of their nationality, religion and sexual orientation.

History shows that such an understanding of society is a reactionary one, and has always served the interests of the oppressors.

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