Vito Laterza: The Italian Referendum and the Crisis of the Left

Photo by Mattes
Photo by Mattes

It would be wrong to portray the resounding victory of the NO vote in the Italian constitutional referendum as a simplistic endorsement of the rising tide of “anti-establishment” xenophobic populism. Many Italians voted on principle to reject a badly drafted constitutional reform that would have taken powers away from citizens and the Italian regions, without delivering much in terms of making the legislative process more efficient.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the main promoter of the reform and leader of the centre-left Democrats, did not help either. He personalised the contest and transformed a referendum about important issues into a poll about his unelected government. People took the opportunity to express their discontent at his centrist austerity-lite approach that has kept Italy under Brussels’ thumb and left Italians to fend for themselves.

But while the left is celebrating Renzi’s debacle, the real beneficiaries of the referendum result are the nationalist populists of the 5 Star and the far right xenophobes of the Northern League.

Italian Left, the only significant leftist formation outside the Dems, languishes around 3 percentage points in most polls, and has not benefited from the referendum campaign. The left factions within the Dems have been marginalised, their electoral consensus low and constantly dwindling.

Many left voters have switched camp and joined the 5 Star Movement, founded by comedian politician Beppe Grillo in 2009. The 5 Star and the Dems are neck and neck in the polls and will be the main rivals in the next general election. As the political crisis intensifies after Renzi’s resignation, Italians might be called to a national vote as early as spring 2017.

5 Star supporters are keen to say that they have well developed internal democratic structures that are autonomous from their founder. The reality is that 5 Star digital democracy is rather questionable, and Grillo continues to exert considerable influence on appointments and decisions. Together with the late internet wiz Gianroberto Casaleggio, he created a media ecosystem that is structurally equivalent to Breitbart in the US and the British tabloids. The propaganda focuses on the restoration of an Italian nation in crisis, an imaginary polity that doesn’t include people of colour, and where migrants and refugees are not welcome. Grillo has praised Trump’s victory, endorsed Farage, and sympathised with Orban’s barbed wire. He and the 5 Star have been very good in mixing xenophobic messages with protectionist left policies and arguments, including a proposal for a guaranteed minimum income, and a critique of debt and austerity.

The self-proclaimed progressives within the party usually minimise Grillo’s support for the international far right as just one view in a much broader movement. More often than not, they endorse suspicious proposals on migration and refugees which put all the blame for the refugee crisis on Germany and northern Europe, and direct refugees and migrants anywhere, but not to Italy. To justify the 5 Star formal alliance with UKIP in the EU parliament, they say that they do not agree with many of UKIP’s stances, and they refuse to ally with Le Pen. In Italy, we are told that the real racists are the Northern League – they use racial slurs, while the 5 Star leaders’ dislike for migrants and refugees is couched in “respectable” language.

Prominent left intellectuals like the late actor Dario Fo and jurist Stefano Rodotà have endorsed Grillo’s party, and thus actively contributed to the normalisation of their nationalist vision. The 5 Star appeals to a broad cross-section of the population, from left voters to xenophobic right-wingers and younger Italians who have long been disaffected with Italian politics. Here there is a strong resemblance to the early days of Italian fascism, when Mussolini’s movement was supported by workers, farmers, feudal landowners and industrialists alike. Grillo and the 5 Star capture the “spirit of the times”. Their slogans are about radical change, and call for the dismantling of a corrupt system and the restoration of national dignity. They have a visceral appeal and are designed to channel the anger and frustration of Italians, who see the privileges and stability they gained in the post-WWII era quickly disappearing.

If the 5 Star win the general election, it will not be easy to manage expectations. Crowds of furious Italians might aim at corrupt politicians and those sectors of society where there are still relatively protected jobs. But Italians of colour, migrants and refugees will be the easiest targets, especially since they have long been dehumanised and perceived as an “unsustainable burden” and undesirable outsiders.

It is likely that a 5 Star government will align internationally with the growing Euro-American fascist front, led by Trump, Farage and Le Pen. We cannot afford this risk. Their victory would be another blow to the fight against the forces of destruction unleashed by Donald Trump and the Brexit vote.

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