Italian flag in ink spatter. Photo: public domain Italian flag in ink spatter. Photo: public domain

Chris Bambery analyses the Italian political breakdown, the role of the EU and the dangers of an ascendant far right

Normally, August in Italy is when you would head for the beach or the mountains for a holiday. This year it sees a general election campaign culminating in voting on 25 September. This follows the resignation of the unelected Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, which thrust Italy into a political crisis which could very well result in the ‘post-fascist’ Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) led by long time far-right activist, Giorgia Meloni, emerging as the country’s biggest party, with her heading a coalition government of the right.

Draghi, a former managing director at Goldman Sachs International, became Italian prime minister in February 2021 to lead a technocratic government of national unity involving Five Star (MS5), a party which once railed against corruption at the heart of the Italian elite, the Democrats, descended by a very long way from the once powerful Communist Party (PCI), Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia, and the far-right League (formerly known as Lega Nord – Northern League) led by Matteo Salvini.

This was a government welcomed by the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and big business, all of whom hoped Draghi would have the answer for an economy which has been stagnant for two decades and for a state deficit of frightening size. The Economist went so far as to select Italy as its country of the year for 2021, because, it said, of the way that ‘a broad majority of its politicians buried their differences to back a programme of thoroughgoing reform’.

The way the international financial media has reacted to Draghi’s fall is that he was the man who was, single-handedly, reforming Italy’s creaking economy. His ‘structural’ reforms had a familiar ring, increasing privatisation and further ‘flexibilization’ of labour. In truth what he achieved will make little difference: things such as replacing the fixed contracts giving beaches to small businesses with free-market tendering, or giving Uber the green light to move in, prompting angry protests by taxi drivers.

The economic crisis

The possibility of the Brothers leading a government in Italy is a frightening one, but the fact they have got to that position also begs big questions about the EU and its record in Italy. At 150% of GDP, Italy’s public-debt burden is among the world’s largest, and the second-largest among the G20 countries, after Japan (262% of GDP) and ahead of the United States (125% of GDP). Since 1990, real annual GDP growth has averaged less than 1%. In recent days, borrowing costs for Italy and other eurozone countries such as Spain and Portugal have risen compared with Germany.

Italian ten-year bonds now yield 3.4%, about 2.2% higher than their German equivalent. That is still manageable, but the fear is that the European Central Bank will increase interest rates so that the gap will grow until paying off the debt becomes excessive. Italy is the Eurozone’s third biggest economy and if matters reached the point where Italy could not meet its borrowing costs, Brussels would be under pressure to bail it out. The cost would be excessive, too much for the German government and Central Bank, perhaps.

As many as 5.6 million Italians — almost 10% of the population, including 1.4 million children — currently live in absolute poverty, the highest level on record. Real wages are falling at the fastest rate in the EU. There are deep imbalances between the traditional industrial north and the far poorer south and the islands. In September 2021, the youth unemployment rate in Italy was 29.8%. In three southern regions – Sicily, Calabria, and Campania – the rate of youth unemployment reaches almost 50%.

The pandemic has worsened the already miserable conditions of precarious workers, in many cases their jobs simply ceased. Those who continued to work came under greater pressure to accept what they were offered. The 2020 government report on the economy found 21.7% of the population are employed but considered ‘vulnerable’, due precarious work. The majority of those unemployed or ‘vulnerable’ at work are under thirty. That means there is a very large pool of younger people with no connection with the left and the trade unions. Many voted MS5 in 2018 because it promised a basic income. Consequently, it won the biggest percent of the vote, 32.7%, and entered government in coalition with the League.

The political crisis

Until then, MS5 had claimed to be neither left or right, but now its support went into decline. The League began to pick up support, expanding into the South (in its earlier guise as La Lega Nord it had supported independence for the North and had been racist towards Southerners). Now with the League entering Draghi’s government, some of that support has passed over to the Brothers. The Brothers benefitted from the fact they were the only party to stand aside from this national unity coalition and its neoliberal agenda.

The EU is now dangling the carrot of some €200 billion worth of grants and loans aimed at giving a boost to the country’s ailing economy, but the price is acceptance of EU Recovery Fund targets. The price is increased control by Brussels of Italy’s budget, and the strengthening of the EU’s regime of technocratic and authoritarian control.

In the end Draghi had to resign after one of his coalition partners, MS5, abstained on a crucial vote on a government package supposedly responding to the cost of living crisis. MS5 were eventually joined in abstaining by Forza Italia and the League. Draghi tried to resign, but the President told him to go back to parliament and rebuild a governing coalition. This he could not do. In a speech to parliament he accused those who had previously abstained of sabotaging ‘reforms’ backed by the EU. In response MS5, Forza Italia and the League walked out, ending Draghi’s government. He resigned prompting a snap general election.

Tragically, the trade unions and what remains of the left joined with industrialists in the EU in trying to preserve Draghi in office. Polls indicate that the election on 25 September will see Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy become the biggest party and enter a government in coalition with the League and Forza Italia. They have agreed that if they win the biggest share of the vote, Meloni will become prime minister.

The Brothers and Italian fascism

This is a frightening prospect. The Brothers emerged as a right wing split from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in 2012. It had incorporated its former coalition partner, the ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale (AN), the rebranding of the post-war fascist party, Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) set up by leading supporters of the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. AN members formed the core of the Brothers, who incorporated the flame emblem of both the MSI and another neo-fascist group, Forza Nuova (FN), into their badge, and whose Rome headquarters was inherited from both parties. Meloni joined the MSI aged fifteen and went on to become president of the FN’s youth wing before becoming an MP and briefly a member of Berlusconi’s government.

Two years ago, Meloni praised the MSI’s founder, Giorgio Almirante, as a ‘patriot’ and for his ‘unconditional love for Italy, his honesty, his coherence, [and] his courage.’ Almirante had been a minister in Mussolini’s 1943-1945 Italian Social Republic, and faced charges, post-war, of ordering the execution of captured partisans, before a general amnesty stopped any trial.

The Brothers’ solution to Italy’s ills are to kick out migrants and to return to Catholic, family values. It also supports tax cuts and is openly pro-business, but that gets obscured by Meloni’s folky rhetoric and the stress she puts on her ordinariness, being brought up in Rome’s Garbatella district (once solidly Communist) by parents who’d migrated to the capital from Sicily and Sardinia.

Meloni always tells her rallies: “I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am a Christian and you will not take that away from me.” The party champions the family and Italian national identity. It wants to reverse the country’s low birth rate, proposing the creation of free nurseries and the introduction of a €400-per-month family allowance. She describes the legalisation of abortion, which was achieved in 1978, as a “defeat”. Meloni has also opposed gay civil partnerships and wants to close Italy’s ports to migrants arriving from Africa. She is close to Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, as well as to the French far-right National Rally and Spain’s Vox.  In June she went to a Vox rally in Marbella ending her speech with the cry, “Yes to the natural family! No to LGBT lobbies!”

Failure of the left

In response to polls suggesting victory for the right, the Democrats have now formed an alliance with two smaller liberal (economically, that is) parties, Azione and +Europe. The whole strategy seems to be to attack Forza d’Italia and the League for betraying Draghi and to stress loyalty to the EU and its diktats. It also involves treating the Brothers as if they were just another centre-right party. This was the case previously with the FN and the League. In other words, no leading figure actually calls out fascism when it is staring them in the face. That helps Meloni position herself and the Brothers as the one force the Italian elite hates, and that plays very well with ordinary people who resent the EU’s interference and hate that elite.

Once, a long time ago, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Italy was dominated by two parties. The centre-right Christian Democrats formed the government and the Communist Party (PCI) was the opposition, the biggest such party outside Russia and China. At the beginning of the 1990s both imploded. The Christian Democrats were swept away by a massive corruption scandal, while the PCI committed suicide, by shifting towards a version of the US Democrats in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. A left-wing breakaway, Rifondazione Comunista, kept the flame alive, allying with the far left (in the 1970s the biggest in Europe). It too committed suicide by joining a coalition government with the centre left and the liberals, led by an earlier version of Draghi, Romano Prodi.

The consequence of that was, in sequence, Berlusconi’s Forza d’Italia, the League and now the Brothers have each carved out a growing degree of support among fearful, disillusioned and angry ordinary Italians, including in former Communist strongholds. Fascists, never called that in polite society, have gained respectability, and the ideological divides of the past have been allowed to fade, meaning the Brothers can win in what was the old Red Belt.

This has implications. Both in Italy and Spain, the Brothers and Vox can draw on a reservoir of support for the old fascist dictators, Mussolini and Franco, in large part because there was no reckoning with their legacy, and pick up new support among people whose grandparents and parents would never have voted far right because such a label seems to them to mean little in today’s world. In Italy post-1945, the attempts to purge the fascist state were much more limited even than in West Germany. Italy, in the shape of the king, made peace with the Allies in 1943 and much of the fascist state would remain in place in the post-war Republic: the judiciary, police and security forces for instance. The MSI was able to build a base in the civil service where there was nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ under Mussolini.

The MSI were excluded from any coalition government after 1960 when the Christian Democrats, needing parliamentary votes, cut a deal with the fascists whereby they would enter government. This led to an uprising in Genoa, where the MSI were due to hold a congress, when anti-fascists took control of the city. The offer was then withdrawn. Up until the early 1990s, the Italian working class was marked by an immense pride in the Italian wartime resistance and its defeat of fascism in April 1945. The PCI, with all its faults, had been central to that. So, any possibility of fascists taking office was off the agenda.

Today the PCI and Rifondazione are dead. The main trade-union federation, the CGIL, once affiliated with the PCI, was pleading with Draghi to remain office, in league with the bosses. The once militant FIOM, organising engineering and car workers, is today a shadow of itself. Italy has an amazing history of working class struggle but today it is largely history. If ever a radical left was needed, it is now.

The threats of fascism

Finally, let us remind ourselves we are not just talking about words. Fascist and racist rhetoric translates into violence. Footage taken on a mobile phone of a 39-year-old Nigerian street vendor being clubbed to death in the central Italian city of Civitanova Marche has caused shock globally, particularly because no-one intervened to save Alika Ogorchukwu. Filippo Ferlazzo grabbed Alika’s crutch and beat him to death. His lawyer said it was in response to Alika touching his partner’s arm, explaining, ‘he wanted to make him understand that we do not behave like this, to teach him a lesson’.

The mayor of Civitanova Marche, Fabrizio Ciarapica, condemned both the attack and the lack of response by those watching. But he was elected as part of the right-wing coalition uniting Forza Italia, the League and the fascist Brothers of Italy that governs the Marche region. Racist violence is not new to Civitanova Marche. In 2018 fascists opened fire from a car wounding six African migrants.

Rather than championing Draghi and the EU, it is better to champion the tradition of the wartime Italian resistance, which in April 1945 liberated Turin, Milan, Genoa and Venice long before Allied troops arrived. That is the ‘other Italy’ to be treasured.

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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.