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Matteo Salvini, renaturalizing the racial and sexual boundaries of democracy

In Italy, Salvini has set out to expand the independentist and regionalist dimension that formerly characterized his party, turning it into a xenophobic force with a national calling.

lead Family and the Disabled Minister Lorenzo Fontana arrives for the oath before the President of the Republic, June 1, 2018. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.

This August in Italy, using his loudspeaker, a train conductor ordered “gypsies and molesters” to get off the train on the grounds that they had been “pissing off” the passengers. His voice – that of a public official – was an echo, the direct and clear-cut implementation, of Minister Salvini’s voice, who a few weeks before, had announced his intention of opening up a file on the Roma people, regretting having “to keep” the ones holding Italian citizenship. On this occasion, Matteo Salvini promptly returned the favour on his Facebook page, publicly naming the passenger who had reported the discriminatory actions of the train conducter and calling for support for the official. As a result, the passenger received more than 50,000 sarcastic, scathing and menacing messages.

Matteo Salvini has been flooding the Peninsula with an onrush of increasingly violent utterances since his establishment at the head of the Department of the Interior. The proliferation and violence that characterize these statements of the “captain” – as Salvini is fond of being called in the spirit of other “duces” – already played a crucial role in his electoral campaign. But today, they have become the calculated programmatic escalation of a statesman, a feature that transforms his speeches into a weapon to weaken democracy. This phenomenon we might understand better thanks to the exceptional work of the Algerian scholar and close friend of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Abdelmalek Sayad, who showed us that “to think about immigration is to think about the State”, by unveiling the unconscious categories lodged in state structures.

What is in the making in Italy we might call a form of shrunken democracy. The words that Salvini uses as a Minister of the Republic and Deputy Prime Minister of the Italian government are weapons that destroy the physical and moral integrity of those racialized subjects who are already, for the most part, burdened by cruel living and work conditions. Insofar as as they have a performative power, these words of the State are designed to strike and wound, leaving their mark on bodies and consciousness: they contribute to having us believe in a reality full of the “dangers of invasion”, “illegal immigrants on a cruise”, putting an “end to their fun”, “anti-Italian racism”, the “totalitarianism of the politically correct”, not to mention defending the “Catholic roots of Europe”. Day by day, hour after hour, those words dislocate the boundaries of the very speakable within a democracy. They demarcate what can be done under the name of democracy. Such phrases are permissions, forms of legitimization, and when they convey racist violence they become laissez-passers for more racist violence to happen with total impunity.

One example, as the journalist Leonardo Bianchi points out, is the “patrols” that have been carried out by the activists of Casa Pound on an Ostia (Rome) beach over the last two years. These have now acquired a totally new meaning, becoming part of a consistent state policy, the “safe beaches operation”, promoted and subsidized by the Ministry of the Interior against “molesting smugglers”. The surge of racist acts and speeches that has flooded Italy since the beginning of the summer is the effect of cumulative state slogans and practices as well as the consequence of three political shifts brought about by Salvini himself since his rise to leader of the League party in 2012. These shifts help to account for his success – the League jumped from 17.4% to 30% in voting intentions, beguiling the vast majority of the Catholic population, despite the protests of a segment of the clergy. They provide a framework for examining the wider political moment, for which Italy might be in the process of providing a control experiment.

The “patriotic” turn

Salvini successfully set out to expand the independentist and regionalist dimension that formerly characterized his party – and its ideological equivalent, “anti-southerner” hate – to turn it into a xenophobic force with a national calling. Hence the choice of his campaign slogan “Italians first”, recalling Trump's electoral banner, “America First”, which in turn was a Ku Klux Klan slogan. Salvini's government knew exactly how to combine and revive different forms of “hatred of the other” already structurally lodged in the national social fabric, and to capitalize on the tremendous social inequalities stemmed from those neoliberal reforms carried out by former governments to deal with the 2008 economic crisis.  

Of course, the boundaries that these “patriots” are ready to “protect” are geographical, through the closure policies of ports and their consequences in terms of deaths, slavery, rape and all the other atrocities committed against thousands of men, women and children. But what Salvini and his acolytes safeguard the most are the “boundaries” that white supremacists fantasise about, built on the symbolism of “blood purity” or the “right skin” – la pelle giusta, to recall the title of Paola Tabet's study on Italian racism – or such cultural nightmares as Renaud Camus' “big replacement of European people” or Alain de Benoist's “big transformation”. So, the first ideological discontinuity is racism. For Salvini and his supporters, a Roma person's Italian citizenship does not make him/her a “real Italian”, and the same holds true for people of African origin. These Italians remains “illegals”, incarnations of an utter “cultural otherness”, strange and dangerous bodies to be expelled from the body politic, “non-human” existences against which we can unleash all kinds of verbal or physical violence without feeling any pain or guilt.

In her book Racism, Sexism, Power and Ideology Colette Guillaumin shows how the articulation between the otherization and the dehumanization of social groups hit by racism is the grease that makes the machinery of racist violence spread and reactivate so easily. In 1946, contemplating the rise of Nazism, Ernst Cassirer wrote in his book The Myth of the State that the racist myth is “never really defeated or overcome, but it lives on, lurking in the shadow, waiting for its moment, a favourable occasion.” Where are we today? Who are our “non-humans”?

Italy's Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini on TV show Porta a Porta, Rai 1, Rome, June 20, 2018. Zucchi/Press Association. All rights reserved.The second political shift performed by Salvini is the ideological erasure of every form of antifascism, a move also claimed at the time by the founder of the League at its inception, Umberto Bossi. This attack on antifascism soon evolved into a proximity to the far-right, its spokespersons, ideologues and activists – Marine Le Pen in France, Alexander Dugin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Steve Bannon in the US, and, in Italy, the neofascists of Casa Pound and Forza Nuova as well as the neo-nazis of the Veneto Fronte Skinheads.

These groups acknowledge Salvini as an ally, or at least a person to dialogue with. Adopting the garb of two European identitarian and neo-nazi clothing brands, as Salvini recently did, is no coincidence and goes far beyond a simple wink to a potential constituency. As other “duces” did before him, Salvini uses his body as a political instrument. Through ubiquitous mise-en-scènes, he has become the incarnation, both accessible and charismatic, intimate and thaumaturgical, of his populist, suprematist, anti-intellectualist, but also heteronormative and masculinist ideology. In fact, Salvini speaks the language not only of racialization – that is of non-white people's essentialization and inferiorization – but that of sex and sexuality as well. On July 1, his opening ministerial speech announced two political priorities in one: fighting against immigration and protecting the family “made up of a mom and a dad”.

The spectre of “gender ideology”

Making the defence of the so-called ‘natural family’ a crucial element in his governmental agenda represents the third shift in Salvini's politics. Since 2013, “gender ideology” has become the enemy image announcing a new fight joined by a large and multifaceted coalition of actors, composed of anti-abortion and pro-family associations, identitarian Catholic and far-right groups. The Italian “anti-gender” movement joins a transnational hodgepodge of campaigns and mobilizations that involve an ever-increasing number of countries and continents, from Europe to Central and Latin America.

These actors aim at blocking all political, legal and cultural initiatives that advocate the denaturalization of the sexual order. From granting to same-sex couples the right to marry (as in France, for example) to the adoption of the Istanbul Convention (as in Bulgaria or Slovakia), from the implementation of gender studies (as in Brazil or Hungary), to the fight against homophobia and transphobia (as in Italy), these “anti-gender” groups oppose policies perceived as the consequences of an “ideology” promoted by “feminist and homosexualist lobbies” and taken up by the political supranational instances of a “globalist élite”, an “ideology” which is “colonizing” the entire world in order to destroy the “human basics”.

These groups adopt and adapt at their national level a rhetoric created by the Vatican in the mid-1990s. To fight against the feminist concept of gender, to deform and demonize it, making it a metonym for the political and theoretical revolution advanced by the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements has different goals, all of them giving a voice, concealed beneath a new rhetoric and new practices of protest, to an essentialist, sexist, anti-feminist, homophobic and transphobic vision of the world. The aim is to create a new battlefront of mobilization which can unite various and different actors under the same banner – “the war against gender ideology” – but also foster a populist wave of moral panic around the trope “save our children”.

To be sure, sexism and homophobia are not new ingredients in the party's ideology. The “celodurismo” (having a permanent hard-on) that the League claims for its leaders: the “filthy gesture” that Umberto Bossi addressed to the Minister Margherita Boniver in 1993 and the inflatable doll that Salvini waved during a meeting and compared to the former Speaker of the House, Laura Boldrini, are among its more revolting examples. But as for sexual politics, the rhetoric, the alliances and the ambitions have changed. In five years, thanks to a feverish activism supported by the communities of the Neocatechumenal Way, the most radical anti-abortion militant groups (Jurists for Life and Pro-Life Onlus, close to the neofascist party Forza Nuova) and the traditionalists of Alleanza Cattolica (Catholic Alliance), the “anti-gender” movement has become an inescapable feature in the Italian political landscape.

As its leaders triumphantly claim, this movement was able to “impregnate” the new government's agenda to the point of making its vocabulary and words (“gender ideology”, “human ecology”, “human anthropology”) contemporary reference points in a political grammar. In July, in an interview given to the identitarian Catholic newspaper La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana, Salvini waged a stubborn war against the children of same-sex families and all forms of legal recognition of same-sex parenting – a recognition not supported by Italian law which stems from judicial decisions or from the registrations signed by local mayors.

In this fight, Salvini has been supported, or let us say, anticipated, by Lorenzo Fontana, the Minister of Family and Disability (formerly known as Minister of “Family Affairs”). Fontana, who calls himself a “patriot” and a “crusader”, is a Catholic close to the fundamentalist and identitarian religious front. He is a fervent anti-abortion activist, homophobic and antifeminist and, as Yàdad de Guerre points out in his study of the connections between the far-right and “anti-gender” groups, he is at the height of his career in the League. Fontana is responsible for the party's alliances with the Russian government, the European far-right or neofascist groups, the European party “Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom”, and the World Congress of Families. This latter is a US think tank founded in 1997 by Catholics and Evangelicals with strong ramifications in Russia. Nowadays it gathers together the main actors of the “anti-gender” crusade and works to promote, harmonize and globally spread the militant strategies of these groups, which aim at “restoring” a supposed “natural order”, as the report by the secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development Neil Datta details.

A racist, sexist and homophobic counterrevolution

As for its racial and sexual dimension, Salvini's “common sense revolution” is a return to an imaginary order composed of “native people” that must not mingle, and “ontologically” different and complementary sexes. Such a “revolution” aims at renaturalizing a hierarchical order of assigned sexual and racial roles, and at restoring the integrity of a system of thought that envisions race and sex as “natural facts” – a system of thought that Monique Wittig called “the straight mind”. This “common sense revolution” is at the same time a restoration and a counterrevolution, because it targets the revolution brought about by minority movements. It aims at challenging their struggles, claims and theories, which have troubled intellectual and political practises by affirming that race, sex and sexuality are not a matter of “nature”, but of a naturalization of social hierarchization.

To reinforce and renaturalize the racial and sexual boundaries of the “nation” is to further shrink the spectrum of democracy. Is Italian democracy being progressively emptied of its substance without being formally abolished? In his article for The Irish Times, Fintan O'Toole speaks of “trial runs for fascism”, or “pre-fascism”: in which we progressively dislocate the moral and political limits of what is acceptable within a democratic system until we transform it into something else. Is Italy an archetypal example of what Wendy Brown calls a “de-democratization” of democracy? Avoiding the ambiguities of the notion of “populism”, Éric Fassin speaks of a “neofascist moment of neoliberalism” in order to mobilize a new antifascism to confront it.

Meawnhile, Aboubakar Soumahoro is an Italian-Ivorian trade unionist deeply engaged in the defence of migrant farm workers’ rights. After the murder of his friend, activist and colleague, Soumaila Sacko, gunned down in Calabria (Italy) in a racist attack last June, Souhmahoro argued that “we cannot talk about social justice without talking about anti-sexism, anti-racism and antifascism”.

Soumahoro's words can be read conjointly with Fassin’s analysis. Salvini's counterrevolution targets women, homosexuals, trans people, racialized subjects and minorities altogether, as well as our liberation movements. We must think and act starting from this convergence of oppressions. Today neofascism and its friends speak the language of the renaturalization of the sexual and racial order. We need a neo-antifascim that defends its denaturalization, an anti-sexist and anti-racist moment of antifascism.

A version of this article was first published in the French newspaper “AOC” on September 10, 2018.

Translation by Laura Scarmoncin.

About the author

Feminist and sociologist, Sara Garbagnoli is a PhD candidate at Université Paris Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her research interests lie at the intersections of feminist theory, discourse analysis and the sociology of social movements. She is the author with Massimo Prearo of La croisade « anti-gender ». Du Vatican aux Manif pour Tous (Textuel 2017). Recent publications include “Italy as a Lighthouse. Anti-gender protests between the ‘anthropological question’ and national identity” in D. Paternotte and R. Kuhar (edited by), Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe. Mobilizing Against Equality (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

 


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