“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi.(“If we want things to stay the way they are, things will have to change.”)
—Giuseppe Tomasi from Lampedusa, He gattopardo (1958)
Eeveryone saw it coming. The coalition government between the nativist Lega Nord party of (now former) Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and the anti-establishment Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) party of Luigi Di Maio was never to see the end of its five-year term , but no one imagined that his end would be so spectacular. However, on August 20, politics and spectacle united in a dramatic duo on Italy’s most important political scene. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a hand oddly resting on Salvini’s shoulder, scolds him in front of the Senate, maintaining a cacophony of mockery and applause. “Matteo,” he says, lacks institutional accountability and constitutional culture, his electoral demand for full powers is disturbing, 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 to just under a month later, and Conte is back in his seat, this time at the head of a coalition between the M5S and the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD). The mainstream media have made much of the fact that the new government authorized 82 migrants to disembark in Sicily from an NGO rescue vessel. But di Maio himself said that this authorization represented no change with the previous government, and he only accepted it because the European Union (EU) promised to accept the redistribution. PD and M5S thrived for years on a widely publicized hatred for each other; their alliance bears witness to the opportunism of a political class and the fragility of the government that emerged from it. The future remains uncertain, but to imagine where we are likely to go, we must first understand how we got here.
The history of the M5S is best understood in light of the Italian left’s failure to represent the demands of its traditional social classes. Like Stefano Palombarini described in Jacobin Italy, M5S, acknowledging that the convergence of the PD and center-right Forza Italia (FI) into a bourgeois bloc had left large swaths of the country without representation, stepped in to give them a voice. To hide its obscure and centralized concentration of power, the M5S combined a “post-ideological” stance with a movementist facade that eventually absorbed the potential for a genuine anti-austerity movement in Italy. Blaming the “establishment” for the country’s woes, the party stokes deep resentment from an eclectic array of social groups: precarious and unemployed workers in southern Italy, state employees and poorly paid factory workers, disillusioned young people attracted by their techno-utopianism and attention to environmental issues. Celebrating the apparent death of the old left and right categories, the party won 32% of votes in 2018.
When the M5S burst onto the political scene in 2013, the Lega was a breakaway party from the northeast with 4% of the vote; in 2018, after Salvini turned it into a national political force, it won 17.8% of the electorate. This success is largely due to the resentment of a mostly northern middle class, hard hit by the economic recession but convinced that the old recipes of the right – private access to public spending, lower taxes, more favorable labor relations – could revitalize the economy. Partly to justify capitalism’s failure to deliver on its promises, and partly to extend its reach across social classes devastated by the very policies he hoped to implement, Salvini used a classic mix of racist, nationalist rhetoric and populist against migrants, the EU and, of course, “the establishment”. Fearful of losing what little they have or happy to have at least someone to blame, sections of the working class and unemployed have embraced Salvini’s rhetoric.
Initially, the ambiguity of their strategy, crucial to hide their differences, made the Lega/MS5 coalition the “catch-all” party par excellence and enabled it to benefit from a broad consensus. Over time, not only have the deep contradictions between the demands of their main constituents emerged, but the competition between similar social blocs has intensified. The resulting rivalry has made it increasingly difficult to balance the competing interests of workers and employers, of the unemployed in the South and the owners of small and medium-sized businesses in the North, of those who desperately need the aid from the state and from those who regard it as profiteering. To achieve such a balance would have required a long-term program, ready to set aside short-term electoral gains and challenge the system in place, but that was never the objective of this government.
Instead, for almost 14 months, Italians have been the spectators of a well-coordinated multimedia campaign of mass entertainment. Salvini’s platforms are considerable: on TV channels owned by former prime minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, he speaks every third minute, not to mention his social media followings or his endless election campaign across Italy. Through these channels, Salvini legitimized the long-running undercurrents of nationalism, misogyny, and homophobia that have always plagued Italian politics, ushering in an abundance of vocal supporters in state and media, monopolizing public discourse.
M5S, aware of the appeal of its narrative and seeking to cover glaring loopholes in its signature policy (a draconian minimum income), took a similar stance on immigration, voting for laws that punish those who save lives. at sea but cannot or will not match its vociferous propaganda. This behavior, coupled with the contradictions that the government has laid bare, led to a reversal of the balance of power between the two ruling parties, with the Lega winning 34.3% and the M5S 17.1% of the vote in the European elections of 2019. Consistency and firmness are prized qualities in a time of confusion.
That’s when the ticking time bomb began to tick: the polls convinced Salvini that the elections would give the Lega the chance to govern with a right-wing coalition, allowing it to implement its core policies without the obstruction of the M5S. With a complicated finance law to discuss from the end of September, Salvini likely concluded that a snap election would allow him to win a majority before the effects of the crisis caused the Lega to lose votes. After all, if there is one element that all these parties share, it is dogmatic respect for the European directives that no one voted for and that everyone must comply with: 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 realization of a hostile European Commission, Salvini accelerated the government crisis, convinced that an alliance between the M5S and the PD was out of the question. The bet 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 the M5S, sworn enemies just 24 hours earlier. After a week of haggling over the distribution of ministerial posts, a new government was sworn in. The duration of this alliance is a mystery. In recent years, the M5S has moved strongly to the right, and Di Maio and Conte have publicly celebrated the achievements of their alliance with Salvini. That in itself won’t be a problem for the PD, which happily ruled under Berlusconi’s centre-right in 2013, but it’s hard to imagine how 10 years of all-out war with the M5S will be forgotten overnight. In due time, the differences that divide them will resurface and the show will begin again.
What will happen to Salvini is unclear. His blunder cost him a 15% drop in approval, and as public attention drifts elsewhere, it will lose crucial platforms from which to broadcast its rhetoric. Yet the forces he unleashed will not disappear with him. Whether replaced or not, the Lega remains Italy’s leading party. With a demanding finance law to come and an impending economic recession, being in the opposition could even favor it electorally. Given the inadequacy of this coalition to tackle ongoing structural problems, the rise of another right-wing populist wave remains a real possibility.
There is a lesson to be learned from this upheaval. As Stuart Hall once wrote, “It always happens that the right is what it is partly because of what the left is.” Leaving 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 maintains. After the 2009 financial crisis, this process was dutifully overseen by centre-left governments, imposing austerity and cutting labor costs with one hand, while cracking down on migrants and protesters’ rights with the other. . This practice has seen no variation in the transition to the M5S-Lega government and will not see any variation in the coming legislature.
To break this continuum, the left must take note of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s invitation, in his Lettere Luterane, “find the strength to criticize totally, to refuse, to denounce desperately and uselessly”. Without challenging the “post-ideology” of neoliberalism and the European treaties that support it, radical social change cannot take place. To achieve this, the left must launch its battle within and against the state. On the one hand, to propose a solution to the devastating consequences of inequalities on the masses of precarious, unemployed and workers. On the other hand, encouraged by the recent transfeminist and anti-racist movements, it participates in the multiplication of struggles against the authoritarian character of this last phase of capitalism. While remembering this old Marxist quip: “The crisis is permanent, the government is only temporary.