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Guy Rundle

Irma il duce? Will Mussolini’s political heir become Italy’s next prime minister?

Interesting things are happening in Italy because… well, interesting things are always happening in Italy. It’s the anti-Australia. This time, it’s the forthcoming election, which is to be held on 25 September, and which is threatening to put a hard-right party at the centre of politics and make its leader — who is arguably the heir of Mussolini — the country’s prime minister.

The leader is Giorgia Meloni, a flaxen-haired, forty-something former bartender, journalist and minister in Silvio Berlusconi’s governments, and the party is Brothers of Italy, formed a decade ago as a breakaway from Berlusconi’s multigroup Party of Freedom. Those who formed Brothers — the name is taken from the first line of the national anthem — were mostly from the National Alliance, which had merged into Berlusconi’s group. National Alliance was the successor to the Italian Social Movement party, which arose directly from the surviving Fascist parties of 1945 (of which there were many). The prospect of this (fragile) continuity back to Il Duce has got much of Europe in a panic.

Brothers is currently polling at 24%, by itself equal to the Democratic Party, which represents the whole of the left. The previous dominant right party, the Lega (League) is at 17%, and the crossover Five Star Movement (shortened as M5S) has crashed to 10%. It was M5S’s withdrawal from a national unity government headed by eurocrat Mario Draghi that has prompted these elections, which has taken Brothers from its 4% result in 2018 to its current poll position.

Having been excluded from previous coalitions because of its fascist associations, it is now the only party unsullied by years of compromise and ineffective action, and with a “bold” program — one that involves military action against cross-Meditteranean immigrants, reasserting traditional Catholic culture and a vaguely neo-Thatcherite economics — that is scaring the bejesus out of people.

For much of the past few years, Italy has been ruled by a core alliance of Lega and M5S, with other parties attached. Lega — it was originally the Northern League, a separatist group wanting to split Italy in two — displaced Berlusconi’s People of Freedom as the major right party, and in turn took right-wing politics in a culturally conservative and nationalist direction. But this was complicated by the rise of M5S, started by comedian Beppe Grillo as an anti-politics/real people/”common sense” group.

But in 2018 it gained 32% of the vote and really had no choice but to be part of government. Which of course was its immediate undoing. Trying to combine moderately left Keynesian economics with a Green agenda, community revivalism, and a moderately hardline on undocumented immigration, it rapidly lost its “antipolitical” status. Green and left groups had entered it from the start, along with all the ordinary folks, and it is riven with factions. It was to avoid a wrenching split that it left government over, of all things, the commission of a garbage recycling facility. It now sits at 10% on the polls.

That’s good news for the Democratic Party, which has got some of its supporters back — in 2018 it polled a miserable 19% of the vote. But it means that should the numbers hold, Brothers, the Lega and others would be in a position to form government. Part but not all of the M5S movement would join them. That would be a sobering moment

Giorgia Meloni, a commanding, charismatic speaker who has been barnstorming the country, vehemently denies that she is a fascist (despite joining M5S at 15), and claims to be a muscular conservative — influenced by, of all people, Roger Scruton. Her platform has been to argue for almost any action to stop immigration from Africa across the Mediterranean, including by throwing a naval blockade across the whole of it, re-affirming the natural family, rolling back same-sex and pro-trans laws and regulations, and making budget cuts and reducing the size of the state.

Brothers is having the usual success of the hard right in formerly hard-left areas, such as Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, with working-class voters who would once have been communist — but always social conservative — crossing over to right-wing communalist parties. But that is usually done by such right parties having a big-budget economically nationalist agenda.

If Brothers can build a base of prosperous bourgeois, petit-bourgeois and working-class voters without that, it means that culture may have broken through as the principal axis on which class and party re-affiliation swings. It has always been known that such right-wing parties can win if they neutralise the economic question. What if they can win without doing so? What if their really nasty underbelly of racist Squadristi are not sufficient deterrents to many voters? Meloni’s recent decision to tweet out a video of an actual rape by a non-white migrant (Twitter has since removed it) shows the ugly and opportunistic side of the campaign. 

Indeed, the truly dire situation of the Democratic Party is masked by the return of some M5S voters, after that “anti-party’s” failure to deliver “anti-politics”. It has not changed the dilemma that the Democratic Party, with its standard culturally progressive politics, cannot hold together a working class and knowledge class coalition that was once the strength of the Communist Party from which it sprang. Not of any size, anyway. It may just win this, and form government with the M5S, but the problem will return in actual governing. 

Yet that is the dilemma of many centre-left parties now. In the UK, the Tories look absolutely on the ropes. But once they have a new leader — especially, ugh, if it’s the white one — they will be able to project a patriotic, strong-borders, anti-progressive politics that allows them to hold on to the “red wall” seats that guarantee a (narrow) victory. In Australia, Labor has avoided the dilemma because the Greens exist as a separate progressive outfit — and Labor finally gave up on the idea that it could be culturally progressive in any significant way, and win the suburbs and regions.

In Italy, often in the vanguard of political developments, the contradictions have proved so great that people are going to actual fascist parties as an alternative. Which may turn out to be an outlier or anomaly, or may be a sign that the grand progressive coalition must be ruptured everywhere, and mainstream left parties reject progressivism, universalism and internationalism, for a politics rooted in communalism and place-and-tradition-based solidarity.

The tragedy of the left might be that the number of its leaders and intellectually trained is now so great that such a renunciation of one’s politics cannot be done in unified parties, leaving the right to swoop in. The absolute tragedy will be if the left does not recognise that such renunciations are necessary.

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