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This essay, on the outcome of the Italian elections and the formation of the new government, was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Chris Froome and the thrill of sport.) It was published in the Observer, 27 May 2018, under the headline ‘With no progressive force to give it shape, Italians’ anger has hit a wall’.

‘A political prime minister of a political government.’ So said Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), of Giuseppe Conte, the virtually unknown law professor chosen to head the new coalition government between M5S and the rightwing Lega. But chosen by whom? And political in what sense?

In March, the Italian elections swept out of power the parties that had governed Italy, in one form or other, for the past quarter of a century. The Democratic Party (PD), nominally the party of the left, which had been in power since 2013, lost 180 of its 292 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. As in much of Europe, the left has self-destructed by abandoning its traditional working-class constituency. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which had governed from 2001 to 2006 and 2008 to 2011 (in the latter years under the label ‘The People of Freedom’) was reduced to 14 per cent of the vote.

The main beneficiaries were the two ‘anti-establishment’ parties that now form the coalition government. The Five Star Movement became the biggest single party with 32.7 per cent of the vote, while the Lega, a repackaging of the reactionary Northern League, quadrupled its vote to 17.4 per cent.

The election marked a rejection of the austerity policies of the past decade, anger over the migration crisis and hostility towards the EU. It was a rejection, too, of unelected leaders and technocratic governments that have plagued Italy over the past decade and which both the Lega and M5S claimed to oppose. M5S promised to reject coalition governments and to govern only with a full majority.

The new government has yet to be installed, but those promises seem already as well founded as Italy’s faltering economy. Conte now occupies the Palazzo Chigi partly because of major differences between the two coalition partners and partly because of the unease felt by both the Italian political establishment and the EU at the prospect of the new government. Conte, in the grand Italian tradition, is a compromise, a figure that all sides hope to manipulate. That’s the very tradition against which the electorate rebelled in March. To call him a ‘political prime minister’ is to give an unelected technocrat a new name.

There has been compromise, too, over policies. Many of the more regressive policies, especially of the Lega, have survived, while the more radical or destabilising proposals have been marginalised. The ‘government contract’ between the two parties includes the League’s proposal for a flat-rate tax – essentially a tax cut for the rich. Much of the League’s anti-migrant stance has also been retained, though its threat to deport an estimated 400,000 undocumented migrants seems to have been ditched. The M5S’s idea of a ‘universal basic income’, on the other hand, has been reduced to a promise of a handout to poor families and the unemployed, who will be disqualified if they turn down three job offers.

The more Eurosceptic parts of both parties’ manifestos have been pruned. The original draft ‘government contract’ included an opt-out from the eurozone, a promise to break eurozone stability rules, which limit public debt to 60% of GDP, and a demand for the European Central Bank to cancel €250bn of Italian debt. After a severe pushback from both Brussels and the Italian elite, the promise to leave the eurozone has given way to a desire to rework EU treaties, while there is no longer an insistence on the cancellation of Italian debt. An election result that might have been as explosive as the Brexit vote may well have been contained.

For all the talk of an ‘anti-establishment’ coalition, at the heart of the new government squat some of the more unpleasant sections of the establishment. The Lega has long had a close relationship with Berlusconi, had ministers in both Berlusconi governments of a decade ago and, in the election, was part of the coalition of the right, which included Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the neo-fascist FdI.

After the election, Berlusconi was involved in the early coalition talks and only stepped away after the M5S refused to work with him. That the M5S is unwilling to talk to Berlusconi but willing to form a government with the even less palatable Lega shows that, in the absence of a progressive force to give it shape, mere anger with the mainstream can allow reaction to take centre stage and the establishment to repackage itself.

Popular anger is real and significant and potentially a transformative force. But Italy may end up with much the same as before, only with a far nastier tinge.


  1. ”Popular anger is real and significant and potentially a transformative force. …in the absence of a progressive [movement] to give it shape, mere anger with the mainstream can allow reaction to take centre stage and the establishment to repackage itself.”

    I couldn’t agree more with these (slightly altered) words. What I would strongly disagree with is the hint of a demoralized equivocation contained within them, as if you still believe – despite all the signs – that humanity can pull back from the brink of a catastrophe that all of us, in one way or another, detect in the offing. But to pull back from the brink, the transformative force you rightly describe as real and significant would either have to be defused or diverted.

    Defusion might occur if democratic capitalism in its present form had the power to restore our faith in the political and economic systems that determine the quality of our lives. If a new social contract meant that an ordinary man and woman could work an eight hour day, five days a week, and in that time earn enough to purchase a modest home over the course of twenty-five years, and cover all of their ancillary costs, and still have a little left over to save, the vast majority would sign up to it and disaster could be avoided. To achieve that outcome, however, our political elites would have to reach an agreement at the G20 level to conduct their economic affairs in a radically different way. That seems unlikely to me. The 1%, which monopolizes most of the new wealth created today, uses its influence to induce our political elites to protect that wealth from higher taxation. I think it’s safe to say it would also use that influence to prevent any new consensus from ever emerging from the G20. If it can’t bribe officials with cash and gifts, as it does in places like China and Russia, it threatens them with penury by proposing to withhold inward investment, or to withdraw the investments it has already made, to other, more accommodating, jurisdictions. And so in this tried and tested way, the corruptible are corrupted, and the prudent are persuaded. Meanwhile, the inequalities already created by such a system worsen over time, and the fragilities generated by it multiply by the day. Under these circumstances, the cycle of boom and bust accelerates and populism continues to grow, eroding the establishment’s grip on power even further, nudging our world closer still to the ‘transformative’ event that most of us fear, many expect, and a growing number welcome.

    Since a diffusion of popular discontent by a restoration of public faith in the status quo is probably out of the question, diversion becomes the only viable option. The justifiable anger of the downwardly mobile middle class, and the rage of the increasingly marginalized (and demonized) working class, find an outlet in reaction. For the downwardly mobile middle class, reaction takes the form of a defection to the illiberal left, where the cult of the Other acts as an emotional substitute for the loss (or abandonment) of its own reactionary sources, and where the ‘white working class’ can be hated with impunity as the source of all that is ignorant and historically objectionable about ‘the dominant culture’. Here, the cultural fantasies that provide the middle class with its distinctive identity, are supplemented with economic fantasies that involve a recovery of lost economic security via socialistic means. For the working class, who have for thirty years endured what the middle class have only recently begun to experience, reaction takes the form of a rejection of the ideas of globalization and openess. In their place emerge a vague notion about taking back control through instruments like Brexit, and the hope of a renewed access to upward mobility through better jobs and more long term employment. A hatred of the political establishment is also prevalent, not only because of the mismanagement of the economy, but because of the decades-long slandering of the working class by the middle class as the dregs of a dying Imperial order in which the purity of the Other was defiled, but not defeated, by colonialism.

    For both middle and working classes, therefore, reaction is the diversion of choice, and combined with the unavailability of diffusion, this has led to the dangerous instability in which we find ourselves today. If there is no progressive force available to lend a constructive shape to popular anger, that is because the progressivism of the two-party state is largely blamed for the great recession. And while progressives are happy to rally to the cause of the downwardly mobile middle class, questioning none of their claims about declining personal wealth and job security, all kinds of minutely referenced objections are raised to those very same claims when they’re made by members of the working class.

    The point is, there is nothing ”potentially” transformative about today’s populism. Its transformative effects are already well entrenched and probably irreversible, because democratic capitalism as it presently operates cannot (and will not) restore fairness to Western society, and because all of the diversions chosen by the enraged ABET that transformation – they do not protect us from it. The question for all of us, therefore, is a relatively simple and depressingly familiar one – ‘What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?’

    Reason won’t appease that beast, and diplomacy won’t stop it.

    • harlan leyside

      ‘Winter is coming’, to wit: war in (Western) Europe has been impressively prevented for over most of a century, but now it beckons. The Eu’s collapse will be swift and brutal, once civil wars break out. Marx was right about capitalist socio-economic systems failing, but seemingly wrong about the solution – socialist revolution – and its successor – communist socio-economics. what arises from the ruins of WW3 remains a mystery

    • harlan leyside

      That post seems premature. The Italian president has given the two coalition leaders more time to form a government. If De Maio and Salvini can agree on a group of ministers to fill necessary positions, then crisis and new elections could be averted. Markets have recovered somewhat after the bond auction seems to have succeeded.

      Conte’s fate remains up in the air, while the two leaders try to broker a compromise both their parties can live with.

  2. Tuxtucis

    “Much of the League’s anti-migrant stance has also been retained”…M5s never had positions too distant from Lega’s ones in that field…Remember the political leader of M5S, Di Maio, called the ONG working for immigrants a “taxi service in Mediterrranean Sea”…In some fields like prisons M5s is even more regressive than Lega…

  3. harlan leyside

    ‘A year ago, at a workshop in Berlin, an MP for Italy’s then ruling centre-left Democratic party pleaded her social democratic colleagues to help with the country’s ongoing influx of asylum seekers. But, just like the pleas of her colleagues, they were ignored in Brussels. Scared that an acknowledgement of a “crisis” in Italy would bring the refugee issue back on the agenda in their own countries, and show that the “problem” had not been solved at all, Italy was sacrificed for the alleged good of the union.

    ‘The Italian elections were predominantly about immigration, and anti-immigration sentiments coupled with anti-EU sentiments. Like Greece before it, Italy changed from a very pro-EU country to a strongly Eurosceptic country within a few years.’ [The Guardian]

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