At the end of 2021, Italy was crowned “country of the year” by the Economist magazine. The new “national unity” government of former Goldman Sachs investor and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi was lauded. For once, Italy had “acquired a competent, internationally respected prime minister”, and political parties from the centre-left to the far right “buried their differences to back a programme of thoroughgoing reform”.
To add to the glow, Italy won the Eurovision song contest, over-performed at the Olympics and took home the European Football Championship trophy.
Now, just eight months later, Draghi’s government has splintered and collapsed. New elections, called for 25 September, are expected to bring a coalition of far-right parties to power. This is a dangerous situation, produced by the crisis of Italian capitalism and the failure of the political establishment.
Italy is often regarded as an exceptional European country for its propensity for rolling political crises and its perpetual economic backwardness. But looking beyond superficial differences, Italian politics is an extreme example of a series of trends in contemporary global capitalism: social decay and alienation, cost-of-living crises, the collapse in legitimacy of the political class and an insurgent far right. It contains warnings about the future trajectory of global politics if a combative left is not built that can provide an alternative to the discredited mainstream and the fake radicalism of the reactionary right.
The right has thrived in the atmosphere of social decay and crisis in Italian society. The country is in a constant state of emergency economic management, teetering on the brink of collapse. In early 2021, Draghi was appointed to lead an unelected “technocratic government” with the backing of the Italian capitalist class. Draghi’s objective was to push through harsh austerity and the economic restructuring required to unlock a promised €200 billion in EU pandemic-recovery funds. He oversaw the lifting of all major public health restrictions to prioritise industrial production and tourism profits, despite COVID deaths in Italy being the second highest in Europe. Welfare access was tightened and the pension age was raised. Taxes were slashed for businesses, and future spending cuts are planned to make up the budget shortfall.
Draghi is a trusted pair of hands for the capitalists. As head of the European Central Bank during the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, he said that he would do “whatever it takes” to defend the single European currency and the neoliberal economic restrictions that underpin it. In practice, this meant sacrificing European workers on the altar of financial markets, imposing austerity and trashing democracy. When Greek workers elected an ostensibly anti-austerity coalition in 2015, Draghi threatened it with economic strangulation until it signed into law a new tranche of cuts to social spending.
Draghi’s cabinet, run by central bankers and economists rather than elected politicians, was the fourth such government in Italy since the early 1990s. Obedience to “fiscal discipline” and rigorous adherence to EU economic restrictions is like religious dogma for mainstream Italian politicians. The centrist Democratic Party has played a leading role in creating this catastrophe. The party was formed in the 1990s, primarily by ex-Communists who, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, embraced with an evangelical zeal Clintonite third-way liberalism.
Since then, more than €110 billion in public assets have been sold, and interest on loans and bailout packages has pushed public debt to €2.6 trillion. More is spent servicing the interest on this debt than is spent on public education. For three decades, workers and young people have been promised that if they swallow tough economic reforms, renewed prosperity will result. But real wages and per capita economic growth have been declining since 1999, and Italy’s industrial capacity has collapsed 25 percent. A generation of young people has languished; many have simply left the country in search of work.
The result is increasing misery for Italian workers. The country’s official unemployment rate is 8.4 percent; youth unemployment is nearly triple that. The number living in poverty has risen to 5.6 million, the inflation rate of 8.4 percent swelling the ranks of the working poor.
The catalyst for the Draghi coalition’s collapse was the decision of one of its constituent parties, the Five Star Movement, to draw a line under some of the government’s most controversial reforms. Five Star is a populist party, founded by an Italian comedian as a protest movement against the political class in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Refusing to place itself clearly on the left-right spectrum, the party has struggled to reconcile its anti-establishment rhetoric with participation in a series of right-wing government coalitions since rising to prominence. Five Star’s collaboration with the same establishment it denounces has led to waves of defections and a declining vote, from a high of 32 percent in the 2018 elections to 10 percent today.
Worried about elections scheduled for mid-2023, Five Star revolted against Draghi’s most recent spending package, citing environmentally destructive policies and a lack of economic support for workers and the poor. This initiated a rolling crisis that led to media magnate Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the far-right Lega, both erstwhile supporters of the government, to withdraw support. The next day, Draghi resigned, triggering new elections.
The main beneficiary of the government’s implosion has been the only major party to stand aside from it: the fascist Brothers of Italy. The party, led by Giorgia Meloni, has experienced a meteoric rise: from polling just over 4 percent of the vote four years ago, Brothers is now polling 24 percent. It is now almost certain that, a century after Mussolini’s march on Rome, a party descended from his National Fascist Party will lead the next government.
Meloni’s proposals include a naval blockade to prevent the entry of migrant and refugee boats, massive tax cuts and an attack on social welfare. At a rally in Spain earlier this year for the far-right party Vox, Meloni vowed: “Yes to the natural family! No to the LGBT lobbies!”
The Brothers lead a far-right coalition joined by Matteo Salvini’s Lega, which was just a few years ago the leading light of the far right, but now stands as a junior partner to Meloni’s outfit. Berlusconi, the 84-year-old Trump prototype, who built Forza Italia as his personal political vehicle in the early 1990s, is staging a comeback as the third major partner. Together, they are polling at 46 percent.
Business circles have expressed concern about how the new right-wing coalition might govern—but not because of its historic ties to fascism. Capitalists are worried by Meloni’s and Salvini’s history of anti-EU rhetoric, and the latter’s support for Vladimir Putin. But Meloni has been quick to reassure them that a government under her leadership will be pro-NATO and pro-EU. Those who really stand to lose from the victory of the right are not central bankers in Brussels or American military strategists, but workers, migrants and oppressed people.
At the time of writing, the Democratic Party is attempting to rebuild credibility by presenting itself as the bulwark against the far-right threat, assembling a centrist electoral coalition to stop the Meloni-Salvini-Berlusconi triumvirate. This cynical manoeuvre will fail. The Democrat-led coalition, which is joined by the Greens and other small parties, is trailing the far right by 16 percentage points in the polls. Even if they pull off an electoral miracle by temporarily blocking the right’s path to power on 25 September, a Democrat-dominated government will worsen the social crises that underpin the rise of the right in the first place. It would be committed to continuing Draghi’s austerity, compounding the social misery of Italian capitalism.
A few decades ago, Italy was home to the largest and most vibrant radical left in Europe. The collapse of the left into centrist liberalism has resulted in the far right appearing to be the only alternative to the unpalatable status quo.
A principled objection to the far right won’t come from representatives of the business world or politicians of the centre. The far right draws strength from state-sponsored racism and tolerance of Italy’s fascist history in the political mainstream, which helps normalise its positions.
In late July, the murder in broad daylight of a Nigerian migrant and street trader by a white Italian in the town of Civitanove Marche, while onlookers watched and failed to intervene, shone a light on the brutality of anti-migrant racism in Italy. This case was not an aberration but part of a spate of violent attacks. Black migrants make up a highly oppressed and exploited substrata of the working class in Italy. Migrant workers, mostly from Africa, make up half of the country’s agricultural labour force, working in slave-like conditions and living in makeshift camps and sheds in rural slums. They are a regular target of racist scapegoating from both the right and the Democratic Party, which has used the right-wing slogan “let’s help them in their own country” during immigration debates.
Four years ago, former Lega candidate Luca Traini opened fire on Black migrants in the centre of Macerata, shooting six. He then drove to the Archway of the Fallen, a Mussolini-era monument, and performed a fascist salute while awaiting arrest. The brutality of the attack brought denunciations from the entire political establishment, including, with gross hypocrisy, Lega leader Salvini. While in government, Salvini blocked the entry of rescued refugee boats and pledged to deport half a million “illegal immigrants”. Traini was using vile fascist methods to put into practice Salvini’s disgraceful legislative agenda.
Traini’s decision to stage his final stand at a fascist monument is unsurprising. The rehabilitation of Italian fascism by the political class and intellectuals has been occurring since the 1990s. Revisionist histories of World War Two abound in Italy, apologising for Mussolini’s Salo Republic, and denigrating the anti-fascist resistance. By 2013, Berlusconi was confident enough to declare that, despite his racial laws and alliance with Hitler, “Mussolini did good in many ways”.
The fascist menace is going to be defeated only by a combative left. The absence of any significant organised left-wing force for the past fifteen years has left the field open to Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi. With the political establishment out of answers in the context of a deep and irresolvable crisis, radical traditions that reject austerity, defend working-class living standards and connect class politics to an uncompromising struggle against social oppression have to be rediscovered.