At the end of 2021, Italy was crowned “country of the year” by the Economist magazine. The new “national unity” government of former Goldman Sachs investor and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi has been hailed. For once, Italy has ‘appointed a competent and internationally respected prime minister’, and political parties from the centre-left to the far right have ‘buried their differences to support a program of deep reform’ .
To add to the brilliance, Italy have won the Eurovision Song Contest, outperformed at the Olympics and lifted the European Football Championship trophy.
Now, just eight months later, Draghi’s government has fragmented and collapsed. New elections, called for September 25, should bring to power a coalition of far-right parties. It is a dangerous situation, produced by the crisis of Italian capitalism and the failure of the political establishment.
Italy is often considered an exceptional European country for its propensity for recurring political crises and its perpetual economic backwardness. But beyond superficial differences, Italian politics is an extreme example of a series of trends in contemporary global capitalism: social decay and alienation, crisis in the cost of living, collapse of the legitimacy of the political class and insurrection of far right. It contains warnings about the future trajectory of world politics if a combative left is not built that can provide an alternative to the discredited mainstream and false radicalism of the reactionary right.
The right flourished in the atmosphere of social decay and crisis in Italian society. The country is in a constant state of emergency economic management, on the verge of collapse. In early 2021, Draghi was appointed head of an unelected “technocratic government” with the support of the Italian capitalist class. Draghi’s aim was to push through harsh austerity and the economic restructuring needed to unlock the promised 200 billion euros in pandemic stimulus funds. He oversaw the lifting of all major public health restrictions to prioritize industrial production and tourism profits, despite Italy’s COVID deaths being the second highest in Europe. Access to social assistance has been strengthened and the retirement age has been raised. Taxes have been cut for businesses and future spending cuts are planned to close the budget gap.
Draghi is a trusted pair of hands for capitalists. As head of the European Central Bank during the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, he said he would do “whatever it takes” to defend Europe’s single currency and the neoliberal economic restrictions that plagued it. underlie. In practice, this meant sacrificing European workers on the altar of the financial markets, imposing austerity and destroying democracy. When Greek workers elected an ostensibly anti-austerity coalition in 2015, Draghi threatened it with economic strangulation until it enacted another round of social spending cuts.
Draghi’s cabinet, led by central bankers and economists rather than elected politicians, was the fourth such government in Italy since the early 1990s. Obedience to “fiscal discipline” and strict compliance with EU economic restrictions are like religious dogma for mainstream Italian politicians. The centrist Democratic Party played a leading role in creating this catastrophe. The party was formed in the 1990s, mostly by former communists who, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, embraced Clintonian third-way liberalism with evangelical zeal.
Since then, more than 110 billion euros of public assets have been sold, and interest on loans and bailouts have pushed public debt to 2.6 trillion euros. More is spent on servicing the interest on this debt than on public education. For three decades, workers and young people were promised that if they accepted tough economic reforms, renewed prosperity would result. But real wages and economic growth per capita have declined since 1999, and Italy’s industrial capacity has collapsed by 25%. A generation of young people languished; many simply left the country in search of work.
The result is growing misery for Italian workers. The country’s official unemployment rate is 8.4%; youth unemployment is almost tripled. The number of people living in poverty rose to 5.6 million, with the 8.4% inflation rate swelling the ranks of the working poor.
The catalyst for the collapse of the Draghi coalition was the decision of one of its constituent parties, the Five Star Movement, to draw a line under some of the government’s most controversial reforms. Five Star is a populist party, founded by an Italian comedian as a protest movement against the political class in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Refusing to position itself clearly on the left-right spectrum, the party has struggled to reconcile its anti-establishment rhetoric with its participation in a series of right-wing government coalitions since its rise to power. Five Star’s collaboration with the same establishment it denounces has led to waves of defections and a drop in votes, from a peak of 32% in the 2018 election to 10% today.
Worried about elections slated for mid-2023, Five Star has railed against Draghi’s latest spending package, citing environmentally destructive policies and a lack of economic support for workers and the poor. It sparked an ongoing crisis that saw media mogul Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the far-right Lega, both former government supporters, withdraw their support. The next day, Draghi resigned, triggering new elections.
The main beneficiary of the implosion of the government was the only major party to stay away: the Fascist Brotherhood of Italy. The party, led by Giorgia Meloni, has experienced a meteoric rise: while it obtained just over 4% of the vote four years ago, Brothers now collects 24%. It is now almost certain that a century after Mussolini’s march on Rome, a party stemming from his National Fascist Party will lead the next government.
Meloni’s proposals include a naval blockade to prevent the entry of migrant and refugee boats, massive tax cuts and an attack on social welfare. At a rally in Spain earlier this year for the far-right Vox party, Meloni vowed: “Yes to the natural family! No to LGBT lobbies!
The Brotherhood leads a far-right coalition joined by Matteo Salvini’s Lega, which was just a few years ago the far-right frontrunner but now presents itself as a junior partner in Meloni’s outfit . Berlusconi, the 84-year-old Trump prototype who built Forza Italia as his personal political vehicle in the early 1990s, is staging a comeback as the third major partner. Together, they vote 46%.
The business community has expressed concern about how the new right-wing coalition might govern, but not because of its historical ties to fascism. Capitalists are concerned about the history of anti-EU rhetoric from Meloni and Salvini, and the latter’s support for Vladimir Putin. But Meloni was quick to reassure them that a government under his leadership would be pro-NATO and pro-EU. Those who really stand to lose from the victory of the right are not the central bankers in Brussels or the American military strategists, but the workers, the migrants and the oppressed.
At the time of this writing, the Democratic Party is trying to recreate its credibility by presenting itself as the bulwark against the far-right threat, by assembling a centrist electoral coalition to stop the Meloni-Salvini-Berlusconi triumvirate. This cynical maneuver will fail. The Democratic-led coalition, which is joined by the Greens and other smaller parties, trails the far right by 16 percentage points in the polls. Even if they pull off an electoral miracle by temporarily blocking the right’s path to power on September 25, a Democrat-dominated government will deepen the social crises that underlie the rise of the right in the first place. He would pledge to continue Draghi’s austerity, deepening the social misery of Italian capitalism.
A few decades ago, Italy was home to the largest and most dynamic radical left in Europe. The collapse of the left into centrist liberalism has made the far right appear as the only alternative to the unpalatable status quo.
A principled objection to the far right will not come from business representatives or center politicians. The far right draws its strength from state-sponsored racism and the tolerance of Italy’s fascist history in the political mainstream, which helps normalize its positions.
In late July, the broad daylight killing of a Nigerian migrant and street vendor by a white Italian in the town of Civitanove Marche, as passers-by watched and did not intervene, shone a light on the brutality of anti-migrant racism in Italy. This case was not an aberration but was part of a series of violent attacks. Black migrants constitute a highly oppressed and exploited substrate of the working class in Italy. Migrant workers, mostly from Africa, make up half of the country’s agricultural workforce, working in slave-like conditions and living in makeshift camps and sheds in rural slums. They are regularly the target of racist scapegoating from the right and from the Democratic Party, which has used the right-wing slogan “let’s help them in their own country” during immigration debates.
Four years ago, former Lega candidate Luca Traini opened fire on black migrants in the center of Macerata, killing six people. He then proceeded to the Ark of the Dead, a Mussolini-era monument, and performed a fascist salute while awaiting arrest. The brutality of the attack drew denunciations from across the political establishment, including, with gross hypocrisy, Lega leader Salvini. While in government, Salvini blocked the entry of rescued refugee boats and pledged to deport half a million “illegal immigrants”. Traini used vile fascist methods to carry out Salvini’s shameful legislative program.
Traini’s decision to stage his last fight in front of a fascist monument is not surprising. The rehabilitation of Italian fascism by the political class and intellectuals has been happening since the 1990s. Revisionist histories of World War II abound in Italy, apologizing for Mussolini’s Republic of Salo and denigrating anti-fascist resistance. In 2013, Berlusconi was confident enough to declare that, despite his racial laws and his alliance with Hitler, “Mussolini did good in many ways”.
The fascist threat will only be defeated by a combative left. The absence of any significant organized left force for fifteen years has left the field open to Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi. With the political establishment without answers in the context of a deep and intractable crisis, the radical traditions that reject austerity, defend working class living standards and link class politics to an uncompromising struggle against the social oppression must be rediscovered.