What can the UK learn from Italy’s election of a far-right PM?
Decades of neoliberalism have paved the way for authoritarian reactionaries, but we can change direction
“Meloni, Draghi, Conte, Gentiloni, Renzi, Berlusconi,” smiled a balding man in northern Naples, listing Italian prime ministers from the last decade or so. “Sono tutti uguali!”
Those words – “they’re all the same” – should have shocked me. Giorgia Meloni, who was sworn in as Italy’s new prime minister while I was there in October, is on the far right. Her party, Brothers of Italy, is a direct descendent of Mussolini’s Fascists. She opposes LGBT rights, whips up anti-migrant sentiment and has worked to restrict abortion access.
By contrast, her immediate predecessor, Mario Draghi, is an arch-centrist technocrat who led a coalition of every party but Meloni’s. Giuseppe Conte, before him, led the anti-establishment Five Star movement and, though he governed alongside the far-right party Lega and opposed migration, was also an advocate of climate action, LGBT rights and generous welfare policies. Gentolini and Renzi, meanwhile, came from the centre-left.
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But my interviewee’s claim that there was little difference between them didn’t surprise me. After a month in Italy, I’d got used to people saying their politicians were “all the same”. I’m used to people saying it everywhere I go.
Across the Western world, the dominant ideology is distrust. Big majorities think our political systems are broken, our politicians are corrupt, and ‘politics’ is a swear word. The Italian warning, particularly for those of us in the UK, where trust is particularly faint, is about what can happen next; about the relationship between this feeling in a society, and surging support for the far right; about the tram tracks from neoliberal alienation to far-right contagion.
These processes aren’t simple. But if we’re going to try to understand the emerging world, we have to try to get our heads around them – because they’re shaping our societies.
Reaction in Italy
Much of what I found from chatting with people across Italy about their new prime minister in the month following the election was what I expected.
Small business owners, particularly in the wealthy north, were delighted to have a socially acceptable fascist. As an ageing male café owner with an infectious smile put it: “She has good ideas, and why not a woman?” Salaried employees in the north had often voted for the centre-left Democrats, and, in the south, for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
Consistently, young women I met were horrified by the new government. A student at one of Venice’s universities said: “I cried that night. She has no plan on climate change, she’s bad for the LGBT community [and opposes] abortion rights.” Serena, who worked at a greengrocer in Faenza, in the Emilia Romagna region, said: “I’m scared, particularly for minorities. Having a bully in power gives people licence to bully minorities, to be violent.”
But while some people were undoubtedly upset and angry about the election of Italy’s first neo-fascist government since 1945, what shocked me was the general lack of horror.
After the usual ‘not interested in politics’ response, the next most common answer, when I asked people how they felt about their new prime minister, was the word “speriamo” (“hopefully”) – essentially, fingers crossed. The general sense was that Italy was in a mess, and even those who hadn’t voted for her hoped she could tidy it up; that the state is an engine that’s broken down and, the mechanics having failed to fix it, they’d got someone in to hit it with a hammer.
When people disengage from politics, it’s not because they are apathetic, but because they are alienated
In reality, of course, the state isn’t some amoral machine that just needs to work better. It is a space for mediating between the interests of different groups. Migrants (who can’t vote), young women who are most likely to need abortion rights, and LGBT people all had pressing reasons to fear the new government, and they did.
But there was a sense from most Italians that changes in the people at the top were abstract questions of technical competence or even just symbolic leadership rather than hard realities that materially affected their daily experience.
It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking this disenchantment is just a natural part of human nature, that people are ‘apathetic’, that politics has always just been an obsession of geeks. But that’s not where the evidence points: until the 1990s, turnout in Italian elections was consistently around 90%.
And people obviously aren’t apathetic: they care about their rent, their pay, the price of the bread they eat, and the quality of the air their children breathe. They worry about their neighbours and wince at the suffering of others. Homo sapiens is a social species. We don’t have sharp claws or strong jaws. We have each other.
When people disengage from politics, it’s not because they are apathetic, but because they are alienated – they don’t think the political system gives them any levers to move the things they care about.
From 1995, Italy went through a wave of rapid neoliberal reforms, including vast privatisations, erosion of workers’ rights and cuts to public spending, including on the country’s national health service.
As OECD economist Andrea Goldstein wrote, gleefully, in 2003: “Italy has topped the OECD privatisation ranking each year in 1995 to ’99 (from number nine in 1992) before falling to the second place in 2000.” The aims of the reforms, according to Goldstein’s paper, were to improve efficiency, “internationalise” Italian industry and slash public debt.
In reality, the opposite happened. After 1995, productivity – a measure of the amount an average worker produces – collapsed. Despite the global technological revolution of the last three decades, Italy has only recently caught up to its position before the country’s great asset sell-off.
Average wages in Italy now are lower than they were in 2004. GDP per capita is lower than in 2007, while inequality has steadily risen since then. The unemployment rate hasn’t moved far from 10% for 30 years.
And perhaps just as disastrous was the rapid expansion of the financial sector so lauded by groups like the OECD (officially the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). While Italy managed to escape the worst of the sovereign debt crisis that capsized Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain in the early 2010s, it has faced similar issues repeatedly over the last decade.
Average house prices have fallen by 12% in that time, and the government has ended up bailing out numerous banks, effectively shifting tens of billions of private debt onto the state’s books.
However, it isn’t just privatisation and deregulation that are to blame.
The euro, which Italy joined when it launched in 1999, is also partly responsible. The currency is generally overpriced for poorer, southern European countries, making it harder for them to export goods, and underpriced for richer, northern countries, such Germany and the Netherlands, making their goods more affordable on the global market. The result is a sort of conveyor belt of wealth from Europe’s periphery to its core.
Italy’s previous prime minister, the centrist technocrat Mario Draghi, at least persuaded the EU to start addressing these problems. Taking full advantage of his prestige as former chair of the European Central Bank, he helped negotiate NextGenerationEU, a post-Covid investment plan of more than €2tn (£1.72tn), financed by the sale of bonds.
This is Europe’s biggest-ever stimulus package, about 18 times the size of the post-Second World War Marshall Plan, at current prices. About a fifth is going to Italy. According to Lorenzo Marsili, an Italian philosopher, campaigner and author of the book ‘Planetary Politics’, it has “saved the EU”. And it’s already been effective, he argues.
“Italy was never growing in the last 20 years. Every time there was a crisis before, Italy didn’t bounce back. Post-pandemic, Italy bounced back better than its European peers,” Marsili says.
But the full effects of the stimulus package have yet to be felt – meaning that the outgoing clutch of politicians got little credit from the electorate. Instead, Meloni has benefited from Italy’s long-running discontent, and will now likely be thanked for the spending, too.
The effect of non-voters
It was the non-voters who put Meloni in power. In 2018, around 12 million people voted for one or other of Italy’s right-wing parties, making them the biggest coalition in the parliament, but denying them a majority.
The biggest single party, on the other hand, was the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment and environmentalist party that aimed to address alienation with direct democracy. It won ten million votes in 2018 – but then promptly went into coalition with the far-right Lega, upsetting many of its supporters.
This year, right-wing parties still got around 12 million votes, though these largely switched from Lega to Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party. Centre-left votes stayed steady too, at 7.5 million.
But Five Star’s vote more than halved, to 4.3 million. Mostly, those people just stayed at home: overall turnout fell from 34 million to 29 million – from 73% to 64%.
As someone in Spinea, near Venice, put it to me: “I’m demoralised and I don’t trust anyone any more.” The perception that the Five Star Movement got power but failed to deliver clearly runs deep.
It’s an attitude I’m very familiar with, via conversations from Hungary and Slovakia to Spain and Tennessee; from England, Northern Ireland, Palestine and Sicily. Stand on any street corner almost anywhere in the Western world, stop the first people who pass by and ask them how they feel about politics or their country’s political leaders, and there is a good chance you’ll get the same frustrated gestures, the same eye-rolling and, in different languages, the same words.
The progressive version of this attitude was perhaps best articulated to me by Bob Peoples, who I first met in his hostel in the mountains of Tennessee in 2004, and who I tracked down to interview ahead of the 2020 US election. After initially saying he wasn’t interested in politics, he said: “We need change in the whole democratic system, so it’s not run by a few people, dark money, lobbyists… we need politicians who represent the people.”
The regressive version was best put by a woman I interviewed outside a block of communist-era housing on the edge of Prague in early 2020. She didn’t trust politics. So I asked what she did trust. “Family and church,” she said. As a result, she voted for patriarchal conservatives.
Distrusting the state
For all the talk of polarisation in politics, the feeling that ‘they’re all the same’, that political systems can’t be trusted, that politicians are in it for themselves, unites most Western electorates. It is the hegemonic political opinion across the wealthy world.
There are, as the philosopher and author Marsili explained to me, three different things Italians mean when they say they can’t distinguish between politicians. The first is that “no one is actually going to transform the economic reality of the country and my role in the economic and social hierarchy”.
In recent decades, says Marsili, “the way the country has been run hasn’t changed much,” with “no expansion of welfare support when the left has been in power,” and “no more neoliberalism when the right is in power”. While technocrats have imposed austerity, so has everyone else, too.
The second thing Italians mean, claims Marsili, is that they don’t care about people who aren’t like them – that is, people who might have the most to lose from the election of a far-right prime minister.
And the third thing they mean is that politicians are corrupt.
This trend, says Marsili, is particularly stark because of Italy’s history of being colonised. Much of the peninsula was ruled from Austria, Spain and France up until the wars of independence in the 19th century.
There is, he says, “a colonial sentiment of distrust towards the state”, which is a “classical development that you see in post-colonial countries, a stark differentiation between the state and the citizen – where the citizen has to protect themselves from the state, through, for example, family networks or the mafia.”
The distrust isn’t entirely misplaced. In the 1990s, the main Italian parties collapsed amid a series of corruption scandals. Silvio Berlusconi, the main figure to benefit from this collapse, has himself faced numerous allegations of corruption and connections to the mafia.
Election turnout, which stayed at around 90% between 1945 and the late 1980s, fell consistently throughout the 1990s. I met more than one voter who told me they had stopped voting in the 1990s, and hadn’t done so since. By 2001, turnout was 81% – this time, it was 17 percentage points lower than that.
This trend benefits the right, because the people most likely to lose faith in democracy are those who need it most: working-class and marginalised people, who might traditionally vote for the left.
But perhaps even more damaging is that loss of faith in politics blunts any serious left-wing message. Progressive parties win elections when they promise to use the state to improve people’s lives. As Jeremy Corbyn found in the UK in 2019, if people think all politicians are lying to get their votes, then they just conclude that those who offer more are bigger liars.
Neoliberalism, alienation and the far right
The thing about statements like ‘they’re all the same’, and the anger that accompanies them, is that they imply the speaker expects better of their politicians. While the words are cynical, the very act of saying them displays some kind of belief in the potential of politics to offer something different, a slither of hope that democracy could offer a better world.
The more common answer – ‘I’m not interested in politics’ – has had that hope wrung out of it. This is the purest expression of political cynicism. For people who say this, politics isn’t a negotiation about how we live together, it’s more like a bad soap opera, some ongoing drama that happens elsewhere. One they choose not to watch.
And perhaps it’s no surprise. Before the 1990s, Italian politicians oversaw state-owned companies that steered the country’s rapid post-war industrial development. They set laws that sculpted people’s working days.
If you were employed by, or a customer of, the main energy, oil and gas or telecoms companies, then you were either paying or being paid by enterprises overseen by people you elected. Politicians capped rent, and shaped the housing market. Choices they made affected everyone in obvious, tangible ways.
But with the privatisations and deregulations of the 1990s, politics became a different kind of thing, closer to another phenomenon. Reality TV as we know it was invented in the 1990s, and Italy’s game-show prime minister, the media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, came to define Italian politics for three decades.
In retrospect, he came to demonstrate what a lot of Western politics would become about – not a joint discussion about how to shape society, but a rolling soap opera where our role is to gawk.
Giorgia Meloni’s voters don’t talk about her policies and the ways she will change people’s lives, but about her strength of character
If neoliberalism is the process of taking such decisions away from democratic control and putting them into the hands of the market, then this shrinking view of politics – of democracy – has to be seen as a natural part of it.
This is why Meloni’s voters don’t talk about her policies and the ways she will change people’s lives, but about her strength of character. It’s why media stars such as Berlusconi, Johnson and Trump thrive in this political era.
It’s not just markets that benefit from the retreat of politics. Once people lose faith in democracy, many fall back on familiar, regressive social hierarchies as ways to organise society: patriarchal families, religious institutions, class systems, nationality, race.
Once neoliberalism dissolves people’s power to use the state to economically liberate themselves, it’s not surprising that they cling tighter to whatever power they do have – as men, or white people, or straight people. It’s not surprising that politicians turn to vilification of people of colour, or migrants, or LGBT people.
This alienation is by no means just Italian: across the OECD, average voter turnout fell from around 82% to about 67% between 1950 and 2016.
But it’s also not inevitable.
In Turkey, where I spent ten days earlier in the autumn, the government has spent 20 years demonstrating the power of the state – in both hideous and exciting ways.
The country has seen vast infrastructure investment as well brutal assaults on minorities. All but one of Istanbul’s nine Metro lines were built this century, and airports now dot Anatolia, linking once-remote rural towns to the biggest city in Europe. Left-wing and Kurdish politicians and activists have been imprisoned.
In Istanbul, nobody I interviewed said they weren’t interested in politics. People either raged against inflation or praised the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as a strong leader. A couple of students I approached in a café said: “We all talk about politics all the time, we just need a two-minute break!” Voter turnout is consistently above 80%.
The future of the EU
The trend of neoliberalism leading to alienation leading to far-right governments can be reversed: in recent weeks, we’ve seen Lula replace Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump’s hopes of a White House return droop with the Republicans’ flaccid results in the midterm elections.
But in a world of globalised capital, it is hard for governments that aren’t global powers in their own right to drive their own economic agendas.
Part of the reason people feel that politicians are ‘all the same’ is that they are all disciplined and punished by the same international markets. They all borrow money from the same lenders, and face many of the same pressures.
Services that were once run by the state and accountable through politicians are now privatised and run by the same faceless corporations. Even where functions stay within government departments, they are increasingly overseen by the same big-four accountancy firms, regardless of who is in charge or which country you’re in.
In other words, the basic economic realities of your life are governed less by people you vote for, and more by market forces you have little control over.
In some contexts, reversing this doesn’t have to be hard. There is a growing trend of deprivatisation, which the Five Star government dipped its toes into. But often, it is – neoliberalism was a global process, driven by international capital and geopolitics. It punishes its deviants in races to the bottom, runs on markets and currency crashes. Undoing it has to be global, too.
And this is where institutions such as the European Union should be making a difference. Marsili believes that if the bloc can act in a united, transnational way to stand up to the global market on behalf of individual nation states, then it can play an important role in addressing political alienation.
For instance, it could “take bold decisions regarding taxing multinationals” or managing the transition to green energy.
“Building a public power to address these global challenges – even with the traditional top-down tools of government – brings back the political debate about economic policy which you can’t have at a national level,” he says.
But if the EU is to take on such powers – and its recent budget could well be a step in that direction – then it will need to be more democratic. One way this could be done, Marsili says, is by encouraging participatory budget-making at municipal level, using funds provided by the EU.
Lessons for the UK?
Those are all possibilities for countries in the EU. But the UK has the same crisis of confidence as Italy. In both countries, fewer than 40% of people in both say they trust politics, far below the EU average.
While Italians I met were shocked at their election turnout falling below 70% for the first time, Britain’s hasn’t been above 70% since 1997 (and America’s hasn’t since 1900).
While Italy has western Europe’s second worst income inequality, the UK has the worst.
While Italy topped the OECD’s privatisation charts in the late 1990s, the UK dominated before that: between 1980 and 1996, it was responsible for 40% of the total value of all assets privatised across the group.
Some 60% of people in Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods say democracy serves them badly. Only 6% of British people think voters play the key role in shaping public policy – most think party donors, corporations, the media and lobbyists have the real power.
Similarly, the election of the far right in Italy should force the UK to reflect for a moment on whether our government – as it rounds up migrants into camps and prepares to deport them to Rwanda, rides a moral panic against trans people, and pushes through punitive laws cracking down on protest rights – is really any better.
Over the last two centuries, across the world, people fought for the democratisation of power, winning rights to vote for women, working class people and racialised minorities. But over the past 40 years, elites have responded by pushing decisions away from democratic spaces, into markets and unaccountable transnational institutions. Now, reactionaries are taking control, using conservative national myths to justify authoritarianism.
The movement for democracy won’t start winning again if we simply try to restore the 20th-century nation-states that people have come to distrust so much. We will win when democracy once more becomes a tool by which people can take power from elites and use it to reshape their lives.
It’s easy, with Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson out of office, and Le Pen losing in France, to think that the surge of the far right passed with the last decade, that we can return to some kind of imagined before-time dominated by a fictional ‘sensible centre’. But such notions are nonsense. Those before-times are what led to there. Italy is a clear reminder that if radicals don’t reinvent the world, fascists will.
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