Italy’s Government Completely Broke Down and Nothing Changed
“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi.” (“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”)
—Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il gattopardo (1958)
Everyone saw it coming. The coalition government between (now former) Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s nativist Lega Nord party and Luigi Di Maio’s anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) was never going to see the end of its five-year term—but nobody imagined that its end would be quite so spectacular. Yet on August 20, politics and spectacle joined hands in a dramatic duet on Italy’s most prominent political stage. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a hand eerily placed on Salvini’s shoulder, scolds him in front of the Senate, now a cacophony of jeers and applause. “Matteo,” he says, lacks institutional responsibility and constitutional culture, his campaign demand for full powers is worrying, and his use of sacred symbols shows “religious foolishness.” Salvini, in response, sips coffee, shakes his head, and kisses his rosary. Minutes later, Conte resigns.
Fast forward just shy of a month later, and Conte has returned to his seat, this time leading a coalition between M5S and the center-left Partito Democratico (PD). Mainstream media reports have made much of the fact that the new government has authorized 82 migrants to disembark in Sicily from an NGO rescue ship. But di Maio himself has stated that this authorization represented no change with the former government, and he only accepted it because the European Union (EU) promised to accept redistribution. PD and M5S have thrived for years off a widely publicized hatred for each other; their alliance is a testimony to the opportunism of a political class and the fragility of the government that has come out of it. The future remains uncertain, yet to imagine where we are likely to go we must first understand how we got here.
The history of M5S is best understood in light of the Italian left’s failure to represent the demands of its traditional social classes. As Stefano Palombarini describes in Jacobin Italia, M5S, recognizing that the convergence of the PD and the centre-right Forza Italia (FI) toward a bourgeois bloc had left vast swaths of the country without representation, moved in to give them a voice. To hide its obscure, centralized concentration of power, M5S combined a “post-ideological” stance with a movementist façade that ultimately absorbed the potential for a genuine anti-austerity movement in Italy. Blaming “the establishment” for the country’s troubles, the party inflamed the deep-seated resentment of an eclectic array of social groups: precarious workers and unemployed from Italy’s South, badly paid state employees and factory workers, a disillusioned youth attracted by their tech-utopianism and attention to environmental issues. Celebrating the ostensible death of the old categories of left and right, the party won 32 percent of the vote in 2018.
When M5S burst onto the political stage in 2013, the Lega was a secessionist party of the North-East with 4 percent of the vote; in 2018, after Salvini transformed it into a national political force, it won 17.8 percent of the electorate. This success is largely owed to resentment of a mostly northern middle class, hit hard by the economic recession yet adamant that the old recipes of the right—private access to public spending, less taxes, more favorable labor relations—could revitalize the economy. Partly to justify capitalism’s failure to deliver its promises, and partly to extend his reach across social classes devastated by the very policies he hoped to implement, Salvini employed a classic blend of racist, nationalist, and populist rhetoric against migrants, the EU and, of course, “the establishment.” Scared of losing the little they have or glad to at least have someone to blame, sections of the working class and unemployed have embraced Salvini’s rhetoric.
Initially, the ambiguity of their strategy—crucial for masking their differences—made the Lega/MS5 coalition the quintessential “catch-all” party and allowed it to enjoy a vast consensus. With time, not only did the profound contradictions between the demands of their core constituencies come to the fore, but competition over similar social blocs increased. The ensuing rivalry made it ever more difficult to balance the opposing interests of employees and employers, of the unemployed of the South and the small and medium business owners of the North, of those in desperate need of state assistance and those who see the latter as benefit-scroungers. To strike such a balance would have required a long-term program that was prepared to set aside short-term electoral gains and challenge the existing system, yet that was never this government’s aim.
Instead, for nearly 14 months Italians have been spectators of a well-coordinated, multimedia campaign of mass distraction. Salvini’s platforms are considerable: On television channels owned by former Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, he speaks for one minute of every three—to say nothing of his social media following or his interminable campaign trail across Italy. Through these channels, Salvini legitimized the longstanding currents of nationalism, misogyny, and homophobia that have always plagued Italian politics, ushering in an abundance of vocal supporters in the State and the media alike, monopolizing public discourse.
M5S, conscious of the appeal of his narrative and seeking cover for the glaring shortcomings of their signature policy (a draconian minimum income) adopted a similar position on immigration, voting for laws that punish those who save lives at sea but unable or unwilling to match his boisterous propaganda. This behavior, coupled with the contradictions that governing laid bare, led to a reversal in the balance of power between the two ruling parties, the Lega winning 34.3 percent and M5S 17.1 percent of the vote in the 2019 European elections. Coherence and firmness are prized qualities in an age of confusion.
It was there and then that the time bomb started ticking: The polls convinced Salvini that elections would give the Lega the chance to govern with a right-wing coalition, allowing it to implement its core policies without the hindrance of M5S. With a complicated budget law to be discussed from the end of September, Salvini probably concluded that a snap election would win him a majority before the effects of the crisis could lose the Lega any votes. After all, if there is one element that all these parties share, it is the dogmatic reverence for those EU directives for which nobody voted and by which everyone must abide: austerity, predatory debt, and free trade in the name of financialized capitalism. With the dark clouds of the German recession forming in the distance and the awareness of an unfriendly European Commission, Salvini accelerated the government crisis, confident that an alliance between M5S and the PD was off the table. The gamble did not pay off.
On the morning of August 29, President Sergio Mattarella gave Conte the task of forming another majority coalition, this time between the PD and M5S—sworn enemies just 24 hours earlier. After a week of haggling over the distribution of ministerial positions, a new government was sworn in. How long this alliance will last is a mystery. In the past few years, M5S has shifted heavily toward the right, and both Di Maio and Conte have publicly celebrated the achievements of their alliance with Salvini. This in itself will not be a problem for the PD, which happily ruled with Berlusconi’s center-right in 2013, yet it is difficult to imagine how 10 years of full-blown war with M5S will be forgotten from one day to the next. In due time the differences that divide them will resurface, and the spectacle will recommence.
What will happen to Salvini is unclear. His blunder has cost him a 15 percent drop in approval, and as public attention drifts elsewhere, he will lose crucial platforms from which to spread his rhetoric. Yet the forces he unleashed will not disappear with him. Whether he will be replaced or not, the Lega remains Italy’s first party. With a demanding budget law ahead and economic recession looming, being on the opposition could even favor it electorally. Considering the inadequacy of this coalition to tackle the structural issues at hand, the rise of another right-populist tide remains a distinct possibility.
There is one lesson to be learned from this upheaval. As Stuart Hall once wrote, “it is always the case that the Right is what it is partly because of what the Left is.” Abandoning the social and economic spheres to market forces, the state is forced to extend its authoritarian arm to discipline, control and divide the victims of the inequality it fosters. After the 2009 financial crisis, this process was dutifully overseen by governments of the center-left, enforcing austerity and reducing the cost of labor with one hand while cracking down on migrants and the rights of protesters with the other. This practice has seen no variation in the transition to M5S-Lega government and will see no variation in the legislature to come.
To break this continuum, the left needs to take note of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s invitation, in his Lettere Luterane, “to find the strength to criticize totally, to refuse, to denounce desperately and uselessly.” Without challenging the “post-ideology” of neoliberalism and the EU treaties that uphold it, radical social change cannot take place. To achieve it, the left needs to launch its battle in and against the state. On one hand, offering a solution to the devastating consequences of inequality on the masses of precarious, unemployed, and working people. On the other, encouraged by the recent transfeminist and anti-racist movements, taking part in the growing number of struggles against the authoritarian nature of this latest phase of capitalism. All the while remembering that old Marxist quip: “Crisis is permanent, the government only provisional.”