Can the Italian 'sardines' movement put an end to right-wing hegemony?

December 2, 2019
Poster for a meeting of Matteo Salvini's League covered in sardines.

About 15,000 people gathered in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, on November 14, for a flash mob to countermobilise against right-wing politician Matteo Salvini’s assembly nearby.

The mobilisation was indisputably a big success, so much so, that in the next few days, similar initiatives were organised in other Italian cities and towns, giving life to a fully-fledged movement.

The protesters call themselves “sardines”, both as a statement that they are able to pack the squares "like sardines”, and to metaphorically oppose the violent and aggressive language of the right.

Italy desperately needs a left-wing alternative to oppose and overwhelm the dominant racist, xenophobic and nationalistic agenda. The sardines’ movement seems unable yet to act as a catalyst and to relaunch the Italian left’s ambitions for government.

It is undoubtedly good and necessary to stand against racism and right-wing populism. However, to build an effective alternative to right-wing ideology, a stronger and more radical agenda is needed.

The sardines have the merit of having been able to reawaken consciences against xenophobia, homophobia and hate speech and to amplify the anti-racist sentiment of the Italian people.

They have undoubtedly proven that there is a significant section of the Italian people who believe in solidarity and reject the right’s intolerant and nationalistic policies.

However, on closer examination, it is evident that the sardines’ movement is not a viable political alternative, and their opposition to Salvini runs the risk of becoming sterile and unsuccessful.

In this sense, the movement has been correctly accused by the radical left of being an empty vessel without a concrete political proposal.

In response to these accusations, the sardines have released a manifesto and a 10-point “Charter of values”, which actually confirm the validity of the criticisms and shows the movement’s weakness and lack of content.

The sardines have targeted populism as their main political enemy and appointed themselves as promoters of love and empathy against racism and intolerance.

These are just and noble causes, but they are completely ineffective if they don’t go hand in hand with a radical criticism of the current system.

For instance, in their “Charter of Values” the sardines never mention the European Union’s austerity policies, which are undoubtedly the main cause of people’s discontent and, consequently, of the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism. Similarly, there is no mention of social and civil rights, nor the rise in poverty and unemployment.

Moreover, the sardines claim to be apolitical and have banned party flags from their flash mobs in the name of “inclusivity”. However, this is a strategic mistake, since it is not possible to oppose a political tendency, such as right-wing populism, without analysing the causes that gave rise to this phenomenon and without taking a strong, definite and politically clear stand against it.

As things stand now, the sardines’ movement cannot be characterised as grassroots and radical, but rather as a mild and politically neutral opposition, made up of empty rhetoric and ephemeral good intentions.

To win people’s votes back to the left and to defeat the right’s hegemony, it is not enough to propose a sheer vindication of anti-racist and anti-populist sentiments, without a parallel long-term political project.

What is lacking in the sardines’ movement is exactly this: a critical understanding of the causes of the rise of populism, nationalism and people’s discontent.

Racism and intolerance have been legitimised by Salvini and his party, but this is precisely why this has to be tackled as a systemic issue, and not as exclusively related to individual consciences.

It is not a matter of abstractly counterposing love to hatred, tolerance and inclusion to intolerance and racism, without simultaneously acting on a political and institutional level.

The concrete solution here is to uproot the systemic causes of racism, hatred and intolerance. In other words, the fight against racism and right-wing populism cannot be neutral and apolitical; rather, it must be anti-capitalist and socialist — otherwise it will inevitably end up being ineffective and reinforcing its enemy.

The only way in which the current hegemonic ideology can be defeated is through critique and dismissal of the system that allowed that ideology to rise and become dominant; being “apolitical” and banning party flags within an unfair political system does not cause any harm to it, and may even legitimise that system.

Racism, hatred and intolerance will only be defeated through the parallel elimination of the injustices and inequalities of the current capitalist system.

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