Italy’s New Populist Government, in Context
Contrary to many pundits, many of them hysterics with crypto-fascist hallucinations, I do not believe the victory of Giorgia Meloni has a meaningful significance at the European level. There were many voices anticipating an advance of populist political movements in the context of economic difficulties and the energy crisis. The same voices are certainly right in a way – voters tend to lean towards anti-system, radical or just populist parties when they are not satisfied with the existing situation and pessimistic about the future. However, the mania of the European mainstream for populist prediction is an artifact of the media cycle, since any event must be exploited to the maximum for sensationalism and to introduce an anxious sense of vertigo in the public, to maximize clicks and views.
Someone who turned 18 this year has not experienced any time, except perhaps the first two years of life, in which Europe was not in one crisis or another (economic, migration, etc.), in which pundits also predicted a populistic wave against which all good and right-thinking people must be mobilized. We are already witnessing a populist trend in the long term, in which new parties with charismatic/scandalous figures come to the fore (often with little chance of governing effectively), or the old parties adopt some of their platform because it is obviously politically profitable.
There is a tension between the idea of competitive democracy, where politicians seek to discover what the voters want, and the long-run democracy that provides continuity in politics and stability. The first one causes chaos, the second ossifies and stagnates. Both models coexist as visions, but the second one is dominant in practice, and the incapacity of the West to adapt in a timely manner to current or long-term challenges, often for ideological reasons, guarantees that the “populist temptation” is omnipresent. We see this in the area of migration, in that of macroeconomic governance (Eurozone policies, austerity, disputes between Europe’s North and South on the topic of the EU’s economic role), in the problem of stagnation and even economic regression in the Mediterranean countries.
Can Giorgia Meloni be the break in the political dam that leads to populist dominoes in Europe? This was also said about Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, who lost heavily in 2019. Trump lost in 2020, Nigel Farage became a video blogger. Every time we are promised the revolution, it is late in appearing. There are several reasons – the inertia of Western societies; the ideological synchronization of civil society organizations, of academia, of the media and activist sectors; the manifestation of trends over longer periods of time that mobilize the population in favor of a change of paradigm, making change difficult to hurry; the ability in the predominantly parliamentary systems of the West to form coalitions especially to be a sanitary cordon and exclude a populist party from any form of governing coalition etc. It is not surprising that Trump and Macron (who both ran as “outsiders” to benefit from “populist magic”, even as they were consummate insiders) have taken power in countries with strong executives. Also, the populists often do not have the ability to govern effectively (being anti-system parties or led by eccentric leaders who come into conflict with the national “deep states” such as permanent officials).
Of the two conservative governments and two halves of a conservative government so far from the West (Poland and Hungary, respectively USA and Great Britain), only Hungary can be said to have had a successful populist government that also maintains its support among the population and that can implement systemic measures to synchronize society in the opposite direction to the globalist or progressive one in order to make future conservative-leaning governments more likely (regardless of nominal patron of the ruling party). The “one weird trick” is that Viktor Orban applied the same Gramscian-style “long march into institutions” measures pioneered by socialists in the West.
Then why the wailing and the gnashing of the teeth?
If Meloni and her peers are to be ineffective, then why have they triggered the hysteria we are witnessing? The key is that the public theatrics are accompanied by the conflation between populist or nationalist right, or even generic left-of-center but anti-immigration, with Nazism and Fascism. The confusion is intentional. Fascism was emptied of content and became a generic term of opprobrium, as the bourgeoisie was to the communists. The demand for fascists as political props for the intimidation of self-defined moderate and respectable populations goes far beyond the supply in this day and age and therefore fascism must be counterfeited or manufactured.
In the high societies of the world, political ideology is a consumer good for social status, just like choosing a smartphone. You are respectable also because you have respectable political opinions, even if, in theory, you have the freedom of political opinion and you should be treated with a modicum of respect (Aristotle’s “homonoia” or goodwill among citizens). Fear of social ostracism is real and is all the greater the higher your social status. It is a deliberate tactic but also a temptation, because declaring an ideological opponent as anathema saves you the need to debate with him, to compromise (how to compromise with fascists?) and to reevaluate your own policies.
In his book Private truths, public lies, the political scientist American Timur Quran said that such a regime of public debate which, at its most oppressive in the West, leads to legal problems and victimization of the “cancel culture” type, produces a false consensus on public policy that ends up exploding into populist rage, to the shock the elites. As the philosopher Roger Scruton said, bad faith rhetoric includes describing a thing in the most exaggerated terms possible. Thus, nationalism or social conservatism are always associated with Nazism and the Second World War and their speeches or policies are described in the biased media with terms loaded with negative meaning.
The use of the rhetoric of the struggle between good and evil on the part of mainstream political forces (a rhetoric which populists also use) serves to distract attention from (especially) economic, demographic, and intractable social problems. In the long run, as problems persist and worsen, the population is no longer sensitive to this rhetoric, and the “radicalization” process begins with the segments of the population furthest from respectability (hence the specific slanders at address to populist party voters – low socio-economic status, ignorance, lack of education, general deplorability). Often, those segments are also the most affected by policies mainstream of globalization, deindustrialization, precariousness, migration, but we saw in America and in France how more and more prosperous segments support the populist options.
The Western Paradox is that the abusive rhetoric of the type against right-wing extremism (rarely left-wing and then only in France) becomes increasingly strident the more a target party succeeds in eliminating the real extremists from its midst, to professionalize and become electorally competitive through moderation, provided that it survived the first years and the first electoral gains. The case of the former National Front from France is the most illustrative – by ousting her own father, Marine Le Pen transformed the formerly anti-Semitic party into a viable party for the Jews of France. One of the main positions which distinguish Giorgia Meloni from Mateo Salvini is the pro-Ukraine position. Sweden Democrats are pro-LGBT and pro-Ukraine. Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party attacks migration from Muslim countries by calling for the rights and safety of women and sexual minorities, and Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy which eclipsed it has the same profile.
Populism and the politics of mass humiliation
Recently, Romanian journalist Ion Cristoiu opined that the election of Giorgia Meloni was due in part to the attempted humiliation from the President of the European Commission, who tried to browbeat them into not electing Meloni. This seems like a valid theory to me. Politics is, among other things, a zero-sum game in which the status of a group increases or decreases relative to another. In highly divided countries, political parties are not just sums of platforms and policies, but representatives of social classes, regions, ideological orientations which, in the context of challenges of a spiritual, identity or demographic nature, acquire very important significance for the individual’s identity. In this sense, the speech of Ursula von der Leyen taps into a larger trend of perceived disregard and humiliation against Italians dating at least since the sovereign debt crisis after 2010. The refrain then was “today Greece, tomorrow Italy and Spain” (perhaps you remember the PIGS formula), and the technocratic austerity proposed by the Germans of Greece was based on the Chinese principle of “choking the chicken to scare the monkey”, being an implicit threat to Italy. Italian political instability led to their ritual humiliation in the European mass media, and the voters could not be blind to their decline in social status and could not help but develop resentment towards Germany and its control over the key institutions of the Eurozone (a reason for the economic subordination of Mediterranean Europe versus the Germanic North).
Let us remember the jubilant contempt with which, during the campaign for Brexit, UKIP’s Nigel Farage welcomed the arrogant and condescending speech of former President Obama, through which the British were slapped in the face for wanting to leave the European Union because the special partner will send them to the back of the alliance queue. Perhaps those tone-deaf speeches from Western leaders were a decisive factor in the campaign. In a deeper sense, we are witnessing a rebellion against the interference of the European Commission in the internal political affairs of the various countries. For the European Union to thrive in ideological diversity, it must promote itself as the natural stage for the unfolding of real political struggles (in their absence, we diagnose the democratic deficit), which means it must accommodate real political diversity. But it must also refrain from favoritism in the internal politics of countries in order to be a credible neutral arbiter. The way in which the Commission sometimes pronounces anathema on some party or another in government instead of promoting unity on indicates a lack of vision and, why not, the ideological capture of the European elites of which they are constantly accused. An example in this meaning is Poland, whose problems began when the losing Civic Platform mobilized allies from Brussels to play political games against the winners of PiS (the Law and Justice nationalist/conservative party), which did not have comparable allies. No national system can reach an equilibrium (or compromise) if energy keeps being poured in from the outside to enhance political struggle. Those supported feel validated and redouble their efforts, those who are not supported develop a persecution syndrome and become defensive and intransigent. This is happening everywhere in Europe, but especially in the East, and especially in Poland and Hungary, and this came before accusations of democratic backsliding.
Meloni’s subsidiaries abroad
It is interesting to note that Romania is the first country where the Fratelli d’Italia party opened a “branch”, entitled “Circle Romania 1”. Romania has its own conservative populist party, AUR (the Alliance for the Unification of Romania) that exploded onto the scene from nowhere and some have opined that there is a link forming there which should prove relevant in time.
Personally, I do not think there will be any impact. Yes, it is a reality that, by necessity, populists and conservatives Europeans and Americans began to interact, to exchange ideas and to try to coordinate. By their nature, these groups are anchored in local specificities, in a particular history, a vision of past victories and defeats, a certain irredentism often incompatible with cross-border cooperation. The globalist and progressive forces are homogenizers and therefore coordinate better. I have noticed a recent surge of “national conservatism” (National Conservatism) over which presides the Israeli political scientist Yoram Hazony, who became very influential, with events at the famous CPAC in the US, or in Brussels, Rome and recently including Bratislava on September 24, 2022 (which specifically had Visegrad countries and a Visegrad orientation). The cream of populist forces from France, Great Britain, Italy and of course Hungary, Poland and other Eastern European countries, participates in these events. There is the idea of networking between populist and conservative forces, but Romania is a bit late in following the trend. I did not notice Romanian participation in those events, except for one social media influencer from Romania who I do not think has any affiliation with AUR.
The Romanian movement AUR does not have such an intellectual dimension, rather it takes on the language and concepts refined by others, but does not devote itself to real philosophical development as Viktor Orban’s movement attempted. Without being an expert in Romania’s internal politics, my impression is that AUR, as well as USR responded to a demand from a segment of the population for which the existing parties did not have real ideological content, but they did not emerge with fully fleshed out worldviews and critical faculties. AUR has strongly intellectual supporters, both with public stature and a significant silent mass, but those in the party rarely go beyond its echo chambers and, above all, national borders. Perhaps it will evolve in the future, once political success will determine the professionalization of the party and more value will be placed on networking with other movements of this kind. Its start-up strategy does not seem to have this foreign outreach component, which is the opposite of some Western movements that come and go, but whose media impact, including beyond national borders, is much greater than the real support they have.
Returning to Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s party is likely to aim to gradually establish a network of influence among the Italian communities in Europe, which would bring him an extra support, although recently the share of the diaspora in the Italian parliament decreased. Also, very importantly, the leader of this Circle is in Timișoara. I would say, rather, that the role of the Circle is to keep in touch with the much more ideologically active scene in Budapest. From Timișoara, you can very easily meet with associates of the conservative movement in Hungary, one can attend conferences and events, you can discreetly drink a coffee next to the subway station Kossuth Lajos at the Scruton Cafe, named after the most influential conservative philosopher of recent decades, Roger Scruton (d. 2020)... Germany is unique in the way it finances the ideological activities of his parties, which open their foundations’ representations in many countries (such as Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Romania). The parties in Italy do not this luxury and must find collaborators at the local level, and I do not think the Italian diaspora is numerous in Hungary. In western Romania, on the other hand, it is. In the long term, they can also establish local links.
Much ado about nothing much
I believe that, in the end, Meloni’s government will fail because internal and external factors (demographic disaster, the lack of fiscal space, the fragility of the banking system, the dependence on external actors, but also the generalized economic and energy crisis) do not allow it to decisively address the problems of Italian society. These problems require, in fact, a generational country-level project. At most, she could manage to stem illegal migration to Italy, speed up the processing of asylum applications (and, implicitly, of deportations) and mobilize the economy to take advantage of the strong dollar for exports and tourism. Italian pride could grow, a psychological benefit which should not be neglected, seeing the effect of her attacks on European leaders such as President Macron. With a minority coalition and a strongly divided country with a history of political instability, no one can reasonably expect more. Its successes may, however, increase the chances of success for a future government to implement a truly radical conservative agenda at a more opportune time.
Photo source: PxHere