David Broder’s account of how Italy was captured by the racist right shows the general danger of social-democratic parties collapsing into neoliberalism, argues Chris Bambery

David Broder, First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy (Verso 2020), 192pp.

Once, at the beginning of this millennium, Italy seemed exceptional in that it was ruled by a much mocked, sleazy media billionaire, Silvio Berlusconi, who had created a virtual party, Forza Italia (Come on Italy) which relied on his TV stations for its support. The Economist and the Financial Times lambasted him because rather than implementing the neoliberal ‘reforms’ that he verbally espoused, he was more interested in protecting himself from a series of court cases being brought against him.

Fast forward to today’s world of Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro and Italy back then doesn’t seem exceptional, rather it was setting a trend for others to follow. There have been a rack of fine English language historians of Italy but there are also many who fall back on stereotypes of charming but untrustworthy Italians too feckless to resist organised crime and corrupt and inefficient politicians.

In fact, Italy has been a pioneer in other aspects of our neoliberal world. The Mafia, the Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta long ago saw opportunities in privatised services like health care and in the casino world of finance. They are present in London and Berlin as much as they are in Naples or Sicily.

David Broder has produced an excellent account of what has made modern Italy different but also similar to other Western European states. It begins back in the early 1990s when Italy was once more a pioneer, in that it was the first Western democracy where an established and stable two party system collapsed suddenly, opening the way for a series of new political forces, labelled populist, to emerge spectacularly and suddenly.

Collapse of the post-war system

From the fall of fascism and the end of World War Two, Italy until 1994 was ruled by the centre-right Christian Democrats (DC), tied to Washington and the Vatican. The main party of opposition was the Italian Communist Party (PCdI) which had some million and a half members and got a quarter of the popular vote. It had been the pillar of the war time resistance and was part of the new government at the close of the war until Washington demanded its removal in 1947. Ever after it was to be excluded from government.

Two events led to the dissolution of both the PCdI, in 1991, and then the DC, in 1994. The first was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the PCdI’s decision to dissolve itself and create a new Democratic Socialist Party (PDS). Broder does a good job in explaining how the ex-Communists shifted to be the keenest of neoliberals and champions of the European Union. They would drop the Socialist bit from their title and identify themselves with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Consequently, in the thirty years that followed, their base and vote would be eroded. Something similar happened to social-democratic parties across Western Europe but what Broder points out is that they had ideological baggage they could not completely junk. The Italian ex-Communists junked it all and evolved into a party which today in Rome’s local elections gets its biggest vote in the richest parts of the city.

This created a vacuum on the left, again something not unusual. By the closing days of their rule the DC were in coalition with the small Socialist Party. The DC were no strangers to corruption but the Socialist leader, Bettino Craxi, and the party’s leaders in his base of Milan reached new heights of venality. It all came crashing down in 1992 when a high profile Socialist leader was arrested in Milan for taking kick backs from a cleaning firm. Italian magistrates began unravelling a tangle of corruption which would see Craxi flee to Tunisia, a number of politicians charged with corruption committing suicide, and many more others to give evidence against their colleagues. The crisis quickly spread into the DC.

The mani pulite (clean hands) scandal led to a collapse in the DC’s support and in 1994 it dissolved. This created a vacuum on the right and into it stepped two contenders. The biggest, as it turned out, was Berlusconi and Forza Italia. However, the other was the Lega Nord (Northern League) which had already existed for a decade campaigning for a separate Northern Italian state, Padania, and attacking corruption in Rome and the South in the most racist way.

In Italy north of the Po River it had built a serious party base running street stalls, neighbourhood canvasses and party events. It could also pose as having clean hands. In the event, a new right emerged with Berlusconi forming governments in coalition with the Lega and the former fascists of the Alleanza Nazionale.

The left’s turn to neoliberalism

On the left it appeared at the close of the 1990s that the radical left Rifondazione Comunista (Refounded Communists) could fill the vacuum. It brought together PCdI members who opposed dissolution and the remnants of the revolutionary left and was open to working with social movements. Its finest moment was during the mass protests at the 2001 Genoa G8 summit when mass protests came up against the might of the Italian state. Further protests and strikes followed, but they did not oust Berlusconi. Rifondazione now moved into an electoral coalition with PD and former DC elements which narrowly won the 2006 general election. That government was full blooded neoliberal, but Rifondazione stayed within it and destroyed itself in the process.

The experience left a bitter taste and contributed to a growing alienation from politics among young people. For Italy’s middle and upper class the European Union increasingly seemed the solution to the corruption and the dominance of old men which dominated government and much else. It was a vain hope.

The move to European monetary alignment and the Euro was a disaster for Italy, bringing more than two decades of economic stagnation plus a vicious recession following the 2008 financial crash and the subsequent Euro crisis. In short, Italy was no longer in control of its interest rates, or its currency, and was subject to budgetary controls from Brussels. Traditionally faced with economic difficulty, it had devalued the lira to make Italian exports cheaper. Unable to do that now, it increasingly squeezed its labour force, and the worst culprits were the PD when in office.

Labour ‘reforms’ saw workers’ rights ripped up and a huge rise in the numbers of precarious workers, especially among the young. Even today, high levels of youth unemployment remain, particularly in the south. The young either had to take crap jobs or have no jobs. The result was a huge rise in emigration, all too evident in London, Berlin and Amsterdam.

Neoliberalism breeds racist politics

Until now, the emergence of new parties had been on the right, with Forza Italia and the Lega competing for traditional DC supporters. Now, a new force appeared: Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement, M5S), formed by the comedian Beppe Grillo. Whereas Forza Italia relied on Berlusconi’s TV stations Grillo now built a virtual party via social media attacking all political parties as corrupt, while claiming to be neither left nor right. M5S caught a popular mood, particularly among the young.

Meanwhile the Lega was also changing under a new leader, Matteo Salvini, who was a dab hand on Twitter. Salvini dropped support for Padania and attacks on Southerners and instead targeted migrants and the EU (many saw the EU leaving Italy to deal alone with migrants crossing the Mediterranean and allowing France and Austria to shut their borders). The party subsequently established itself across the peninsula.

This brings us to the 2018 general election, when seemingly from nowhere M5S took 32% of the vote, the PD vote collapsed to 18%, and the Lega got 17.4%, ahead of Berlusconi, becoming the dominant party on the right. Among friends and family in Rome all voted M5S having deserted the PD and, for those old enough, a tradition of support for the Communists.

Eventually an unlikely M5S/Lega government was formed but quickly the contradictions of M5S saw the party fracture. In government it seemed out of depth. As Minister of Interior, Salvini stood out with a vicious anti-migrant agenda plus his attacks on Brussels (which remained rhetoric). The Lega began to garner greater support for the first time, as Broder makes clear, among those who traditionally backed the left.

Emboldened, Salvini called a vote of no confidence in the government in which he served, hoping to trigger a general election. The PD abstained so he lost and then it joined M5S and others in government. M5S had built itself attacking the established parties, the PD especially. Salvini is left waiting for an election in which he can gobble up more of its support.

David Broder has done us a great service with this succinct account of Italian neoliberal democracy, and he tells it well. If we see what has occurred in Italy as exceptional then we not only don’t understand what has taken place, but we don’t get the warning that what happens there can happen here. We have been warned.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.