Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Revival of Liberal Italy

Last Friday, Emily Maitlis suggested on Newsnight that a coalition between Italy's M5S (5-Star) and La Lega (formerly the Lega Nord) would be the equivalent of Momentum and UKIP tying the knot. Assuming Maitlis imagines Momentum to be far-left (though it isn't), this makes no sense. In terms of ideology and policy, M5S would be closer to the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps she just meant they were both good at social media. Likewise, La Lega has more in common ideologically with Tory "modernisers" than it does with the remnants of UKIP. It's programme for tighter immigration controls, which seems to have prompted the parallel, is little more than Theresa May's commitment to a hostile environment and a vigorous programme of deportations. You could dismiss this as simply more evidence of the British (or more precisely English) media's ignorance of foreign politics (consider its current inability to address Ireland except through the prism of Brexit), or even of a post-70s tendency to project domestic anxieties onto a country seen as a close economic comparator, but I think it also points to a more particular failing among centrists (who are well-represented on Newsnight) to acknowledge that both M5S and La Lega are part of the tradition of Italian liberalism.

Consolidating nationally in the wake of unification, Italian liberalism in the late 19th century was anti-democratic and cynical. It was particularly notable for the practice of Trasformismo (transformism), under which liberal politicians like Agostino Depretis and Giovanni Giolitti (popularly characterised as a "chameleon") sought election on progressive manifestos and then adopted conservative polices in office in order to guarantee centrist stability. The result was a politics that valued deals over principle, leading to significant corruption and clientelism. Along with a restricted franchise and the legacy of Piedmontese court politics under Cavour, this worked against the establishment of formal political parties with power instead shifting between relatively fluid factions. While this made liberalism hegemonic in the short-term, it also meant that it was quickly marginalised once universal male suffrage arrived after World War One as voters gravitated left and right to the Socialist Party and the People's Party (the forerunner of the Christian Democrats), both of which had a more institutionalised social base. The liberals, in a last gasp for Trasformismo, allied with the newly-emergent Fascists in the elections of 1921 and 1924, only to be abolished for their pains by Mussolini in 1925.

The historiography of the liberal tradition, and in particular its role in the rise of Fascism, was long dominated by the competing views of Antonio Gramsci and Benedetto Croce. The former saw Risorgimento as an incomplete bourgeois revolution - a failure in that class's historic task - leading to the preservation of feudal forms, a lack of popular legitimacy for the state, and a consequent reliance on coercion and corruption. The latter saw the Italian state in much more positive terms, essentially in contrast to the backward smaller states of the era before unification. Subsequent revisionist histories have tended to either dismiss Gramsci's view as part of a more general turn against the very idea of bourgeois revolution (e.g. the revaluation of 1789 in France), or have supported Croce's view but placed Italy's development within the context of a general advance in the state's capabilities across Western Europe in the 1870-1914 period. In effect, both approaches have normalised Italian political history, dismissing the idea that Italy was either deviant or peculiar (the ideological role of this revisionism, during the high period of ever-closer European union, should be obvious).

Italian liberalism in the years leading up to the Great War combined both authoritarian and progressive elements, but it's unwillingness to define itself positively - preferring to emphasise its opposition to socialism on the left and clericalism on the right - meant that it was chiefly characterised by contemporaries as a self-interested elite. Though the liberals of the late 19th century were intensely patriotic, to the point of imperial folly in Libya, their instrumental approach to government meant that they did not seek to cultivate pride in the state itself but instead emphasised both the macro-ideal of the nation and the micro-ideal of local civic culture (the latter being an important reason for the continuing importance of regionalism). This would be exploited by the Fascists, who amplified the nationalism and additionally offered the novelty of an interventionist state that resolved social conflicts through corporatism and obedience. Scepticism towards the state after World War Two was not just a reaction to the excesses of Fascism, but a revival of that older tradition in which the state is seen to be divorced from society: the "legal" as opposed to the "real" Italy. In other words, the roots of modern Italian populism are to be found in the mainstream liberal tradition, not at the margins of left or right.

Though La Lega has most often entered into alliance with the centre-right at both national and local levels, it has also negotiated with the centre-left nationally and went into alliance with it in some local administrations. It has advanced a number of liberal reforms in the context of its opposition to the centralised state, such as deregulation, while adopting traditional social democratic positions in respects of workers' rights and pensions. While it's policies on immigration and citizenship have gravitated to the right in recent years under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, some of this positioning appears to be opportunistic. In its early years, it's xenophobia was focused on Italian migrants from the South to the North. It's greater focus on immigrants from abroad, like its name change, is clearly about establishing itself as a national party rather than just a regional one. In terms of demographics, La Lega has a much broader base than UKIP, including younger voters and plenty from the professional classes. This means it is actually fishing in much the same pool as M5S, with the distribution of votes in the 2018 general election between the two reflecting regional dominance: La Lega in the North and M5S in the Centre and South.

While La Lega's focus on immigration has squeezed the parties of the right, M5S's proposal for a basic income has squeezed the centre-left Democratic Party, boosting the insurgent party's vote in poorer areas in the South and among the unemployed nationally. These are the sort of policies that political analysts too-readily categorise as "populist", but which would be better understood as popular social protection in the face of an unsympathetic state. What matters in this formulation is the latter as much as the former. That might appear like splitting hairs, but it is important in the context of Italian political history. It is the idea of a state that is self-absorbed and uninterested in the everyday problems of "ordinary people" that has helped make both immigration and basic income salient. With the clientelism of the DC/PSI/PCI era long-consigned to history, with the technocratic condescension of the PD and traditional centrist parties now out of fashion, and with even Berlusconi reduced to adopting M5S and La Lega policies to gain traction with his shrinking base, the Italian political scene is now dominated by fundamental questions about the nature of the state, which is as much a consequence of the evolution of the EU as it is the persistent appetite for regional fiscal autonomy. But this is neither necessarily a threat to democracy nor to liberal values.

Ironically, there are already signs that both of the parties now negotiating a coalition are reverting to liberal type. Luigi Di Maio, the M5S leader, has described his party as "post-ideological" and insists that any governing coalition will be based on a shared approach to issues (i.e. pragmatic horse-trading), while Salvini, who insists that La Lega is "neither of the right nor the left", has already made a volte-face on EU membership and the euro. While centrists in the UK and elsewhere are reluctant to draw the obvious parallels with the UK coalition government of 2010-15, or the success of Emmanuel Macron in France, it looks like Italy is about to witness the emergence of a "radical centre" that has finally reconciled the illiberal tradition of Italian Liberalism with the demands of popular democracy, essentially by projecting the elitism of the state onto both the left and the right. Though M5S is the larger of the two parties, its weak record in local government and the questionable calibre of its MPs suggest that the more established La Lega may end up with the greater electoral benefit from a period in office, though that marginal gain is simply likely to confirm the current four-way split of party politics and thus the new liberal hegemony. Emily Maitlis really doesn't need to worry.


  1. Ben Philliskirk24 May 2018 at 10:23

    I think you're bit kind to both parties, but I think essentially they are both highly opportunistic and lacking any real ideological direction. However, you acknowledged their regional dominance, and I would argue that this is effectively clientelism on a wider scale, in the sense that this is where their core support is based and where they will seek to focus the fruits of state power.

    I suspect that we are going to see yet another unstable Italian coalition that will basically follow the pattern of its predecessors but with a less condescending attitude to the people. Both parties/movements are eminently corruptible, vulnerable to splits and likely to be 'taken prisoner' by the state they claim to disdain. In essence, the Italian political system still hasn't recovered from the collapse of the old mode, which depended on a combination of anti-communism at national level with giving the PCI the satisfaction of local power bases. It demonstrates just how unusual the UK was in actually reverting to a 1960s form of party system at the last general election!

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment24 May 2018 at 17:13

    I think the establishment have been pretty clever in claiming liberal and left ideas and using them to oppress and take us inexorably to a totalitarian state. By doing this they have co-opted the entire liberal mass to their project. I once regarded myself as thoroughly liberal but now want to distance myself from it as much as possible.

    Although sympathy for people in prisons, people on benefits and immigrants (well let’s be honest dark skinned ones, also Jews good Muslims bad) are tenets of liberalism that the new liberals have failed to embrace. So at least I can hang onto those! Though if we bad mouth enough Muslims on Facebook etc the establishment ,in order to get more control of the internet ,may start supporting Muslims (just an idea) and tell us horrific online bullying of Muslims just has to be dealt with and the government has just the security initiatives to deal with it.