Italian politics has taken a sharp turn to the right. This populism portends similar moves around the globe. Italian politics are global politics.
Italian politics has taken a sharp turn to the right. The post-electoral populist alliance of the far-right League, led by Matteo Salvini, and the post-ideological 5 Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio rode a wave of populism. But this populism has echoes on the left, portending similar moves around the globe. Italian politics are global politics.
The government is headed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a professor of private law with no political experience. He is effectively under the tutelage of Salvini and Di Maio, his deputy prime ministers. Salvini is the new home affairs minister (overseeing all immigration matters), and Di Maio is in charge of the ministry of economic development, and the ministry of labor and welfare. The coalition partners are committed to stopping new arrivals of immigrants and refugees, deporting undocumented migrants in large numbers, and prioritizing Italian citizens in social and economic policy.
On 9 June, the Aquarius ship, carrying 629 refugees rescued in the Mediterranean, was refused the right to dock in Italy. This is part of a wholesale attack launched by Salvini on humanitarian rescue ships operated by NGOs. Since then, other NGO ships have been refused entry. In a shocking move – and in clear violation of international and national laws – the Italian coast guard is now unwilling to intervene when called for help to rescue immigrants and refugees at risk of drowning in Libyan waters.
At the end of June, when one such call was refused, around 1,000 people were rescued by the Libyan coast guard and brought back to Libya, a country with documented evidence of widespread human rights abuses against migrants and refugees, including torture, rape, slavery and other forms of forced labor.
Evoking specters of Nazi-style policies, Salvini announced a census of Roma people, with the aim of deporting those who are not Italian citizens. He also added that “unfortunately, we will have to keep Italian Roma, because they can’t be deported.” He backtracked afterwards, but continued to fuel anti-Roma hate on his social media. These moves are part of ongoing negotiations with other EU states to further tighten European borders and stop migration flows to Italy, and deepen Italy’s already tougher stand on immigration that previous home affairs minister, the center-left Democrat Marco Minniti, developed.
News reports suggest a dramatic increase in racist and xenophobic violence in 2018 alone – especially against African immigrants and black Italians – with at least two hate murders with a clear racial motive, an attempted mass murder of African migrants, and several reports of violent attacks on migrants and refugees.
Idy Diene, a 54-year-old Senegalese street vendor, was murdered in Florence on the morning after election day in March, when the results confirmed the overwhelming victory of the populist forces. In another case, Soumaila Sacko, a Malian trade unionist with regular residence permit, was executed in San Calogero, a small southern Italian town, a few hours after Matteo Salvini emphatically stated at a political rally that “for undocumented migrants, the party is over”. Recently, three Italian youth in the southern city of Caserta attacked and injured two Malian asylum seekers, using an air gun to shoot at them, while shouting “Salvini Salvini”.
These attacks build on longer term trends. If you were born and brought up in Italy, but have parents who are not Italian, especially if you are darker skinned, then you are not Italian. As Ghali, popular Milan rapper of Tunisian origins, sings in Cara Italia (“Dear Italy”): “When they tell me ‘go home’, I reply ‘I am already here.’”
Discriminatory laws do not recognize birthright citizenship: if you were born in Italy and lived there for several years, you have no automatic rights to citizenship – you are an Italian without papers. The word immigrati (“immigrants”) is used to refer to all Italians of color, as well as migrants and refugees. In a recent interview, Nigerian-born Toni Iwobi, the first Italian black senator, makes a similar point – ironically, he was elected in the League ranks and is a strong supporter of Salvini’s anti-immigrant policies. Iwobi said that his parliamentary colleagues listen to him across the political spectrum because he can speak from the standpoint of a immigrant. When challenged by the interviewer that he was no longer a migrant, he replied: “I am and will always be a immigrant, but Italian.”
This hostile atmosphere is not confined to black Italians and migrants and refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It affects Roma people, especially after Salvini’s propaganda. Italians are the most prejudiced European population when it comes to attitudes towards Roma communities. Muslims have long been targeted by rampant Islamophobia – thinly disguised in new measures announced by the government to counter “terrorism”. Migrants from Eastern Europe are also discriminated and treated with hostility.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise, fueled by the quick spread on social media of conspiracies about Jewish financier George Soros, accused of all sorts of “plots” to bring down Italy and Europe. In early June, in the central square of San Maurizio Canavese, a small town outside Turin, attackers burned a car and vandalized a hairdresser shop front with red paint. They left a message that read “this is a Jewish shop.”
If we add to this that Salvini and other far right politicians have often evoked Italy’s “Christian” values and the importance of protecting “traditional families” from the threat posed by LGBTQ and feminist movements, there is a real danger of a descent into a reactionary spiral opposed to all forms of diversity.
Italy’s League and 5 Star get together
The formation of the coalition has met widespread opposition from many powerful quarters. EU technocrats are worried about the parties’ well-known Euroscepticism. Financial markets are concerned that announced measures will further increase public spending in a country with one of the highest debt burdens in Europe. Old political players such as the rightwing Silvio Berlusconi (whose mix of celebrity, perceived business acumen and “straight-talking” was aimed at the voters now attracted by the League and 5 Star) and the center-left Democrats fear the end of their political relevance, and that they might end up as the main domestic political targets of the new alliance’s anti-establishment populism.
Despite this, the two parties were able to find agreement on several grounds, and signed a voluminous 57-page program – the “contract for a government of change”, as they call it.
The announced policies are a mix of neoliberalism – 20% flat tax for high income individuals and companies, 15% for everybody else – and social protectionism – a citizen’s income of €780 per month for the unemployed, and reduction of retirement age. All this framed within a narrative that cast Italians as the priority of all government actions – evoking Salvini’s Trumpian slogan “Italians first.” The agreement marks the revival of an imaginary Italian nation under attack from migrants and refugees, corrupt politicians, and international financial elites. The frequent appeal to the social category of “Italians” is tacitly narrowed down to include only those with a white skin.
Together 5 Star and League have convinced the electorate that they are the true protectors of a revived Italian nation reminiscent of our fascist and colonial past. In the general election in March, 5 Star became the first-ranked Italian party, with 33% of the votes. League’s phenomenal growth saw their consensus jump from 4% in 2013 to 17% in this round.
Nearly 70% of voters supported parties with openly anti-immigrant platforms. Not only League and 5 Star, but also Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia (14%), and the nationalist formation Brothers of Italy (4%): all of them call for drastic measures to stop the arrival of immigrants and refugees, and their leaders frequently mention the need for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. They are quick to add that they are against clandestini (a negative term for undocumented immigrants, stressing their “illegal” status), but regolari (those with legal status) already in Italy are fine. What they neglect to say is that, with a hostile state that has made immigrants dispensable cheap labor in informal markets controlled by organized crime and exploitative Italian entrepreneurs, it is easy to find yourself on the wrong side of the law – and become the target of virtual and physical mobs hunting for clandestini.
The League’s brand of racism and xenophobia is crude. Salvini’s social media posts single out immigrants and refugees as criminals and undesirables, often linking to trashy tabloid reporting from local news. Last year he said that Italy needed a “mass cleansing” of immigrants and welcomed Trump-styled policies. In 2015 he announced he would “raze to the ground” all Roma settlements in Italy. In 2013, another prominent League politician and then Senate vice-president, Roberto Calderoli, compared Italian black politician Cecile Kyenge, then integration minister, to an orangutan.
That is why, in the aftermath of the March election, the international press identified Matteo Salvini and his party as dangers to be avoided at all costs – many liberal and progressive circles in Italy and abroad were hoping at that stage for an unlikely alliance between 5 Star and their arch-enemies on the left, the Democratic Party.
Like other far right populists in US and Europe, Salvini has tried hard to normalize his speech in official channels and the established media. The party finds it difficult to shed its long history of racism and xenophobia, which dates back to the 1980s, when the party started as a Northern Italian secessionist party that blamed southerners for all Italian problems. Salvini has overt connections with far-right parties across the world: from a formal cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia, to close ties with Marine Le Pen in France, and a recent endorsement by Donald Trump’s former aide Steve Bannon.
5 Star is a more complex case. The movement was founded in 2009 by comedian politician and influential blogger Beppe Grillo, and late tech entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio, a web strategist interested in influencing people’s opinions through digital methods. Since the beginning, the movement stressed digital direct democracy – where all key decisions, usually crafted by a handful of leaders, are voted online by members – and the green economy, and denounced widespread corruption in politics, with a sustained campaign against excessive salaries and perks for politicians in office. 5 Star was seen as a breath of fresh air, in a country stifled by patron-client relations, unaccountable structures of power, and general conservatism on social and economic matters. One key refrain of 5 Star propaganda is that they are “neither left nor right.”
Grillo and Casaleggio crafted the political messages and used the power of the internet to build an informal media ecosystem that quickly overthrew traditional media. 5 Star representatives rarely appear on TV, and when they do, they usually give unilateral messages and do not engage in debate with critics. By ignoring TV talk shows and dismissing traditional media as out of touch with society, they have created a new mainstream, made entirely of social media and blogs.
Critics claim that Casaleggio Associati, a digital strategy consultancy company, run 5 Star propaganda as a tightly controlled top-down machine, profiting from online traffic, and leaving little space for internal debate. A former 5 Star high ranking media officer recently stated that coordination of social media messages across the powerful online galaxy included smearing selected political rivals. Casaleggio Associati was founded and run by Gianroberto Casaleggio until his death in 2016, when his son Davide took over. Davide is also president of the not-for-profit Associazione Rousseau, which is in charge of Rousseau, the 5 Star digital democracy platform.
The informal media network supporting 5 Star propaganda thrives on fake news. A 2016 BuzzFeed investigation has shown how influential alternative media websites owned and run by Casaleggio Associati, and linked to 5 Star official accounts, spread conspiracy theories about Soros and the US State Department plotting to smuggle immigrants from Libya to Italy, and the health dangers of compulsory vaccines. Since then, anti-Semitic conspiracies about Soros, with no basis in fact, have spread like wildfire in 5 Star social media – in parallel with League and other far right outlets. This is a clear sign of convergence with right-wing groups all over the world, from Hungary’s government waging an anti-Soros crusade, to white supremacist AfriForum in South Africa, or the alt-right in the US.
The League has its own ecosystem, and its media networks are separate from the 5 Star, but interconnected. A recent investigation unveiled pro-Putin social media accounts aimed at the Italian public, that supported both 5 Star and League in the last election campaign.
5 Star are particularly good at circulating inflammatory materials through their fake news networks, while speaking a different language in official messages. For instance, the popular Facebook group Club Luigi Di Maio, an outlet for fans of the 5 Star political head, regularly allowed racist and anti-Semitic content, and toxic violent language against political adversaries, but Di Maio does not use such tones. The leader distanced himself from the group, claiming there is no connection to him or the movement, but another investigation shows that one of his close collaborators regularly posted Di Maio’s messages in the group, and influential 5 Star activists are group admins.
Beppe Grillo has often dog whistled to anti-Semitic and xenophobic themes and expressed sympathies for racist politicians. His obsession with George Soros is thinly disguised as a concern about the wrongdoings of financial elites and bankers. He praised Trump for his “anti-establishment” victory, which he likened to the rise of 5 Star in Italy. He defended Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his harsh anti-immigration measures, lauding his economic policies and blaming Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel for “throwing Hungary into chaos.”
Other members of the 5 Star frequently stress that Grillo is not the voice of the movement, and there are people who disagree with him. This position has lost legitimacy, as the recent weeks have shown a strong convergence between League and 5 Star supporters of the anti-immigrant messages spearheaded by Salvini. The home affairs minister’s attacks on NGO ships have been actively supported by 5 Star transport minister Danilo Toninelli, who has direct oversight over Italian ports. Other 5 Star leaders closed ranks over Salvini’s line. Many analysts have pointed out that there are essential cultural and socio-political differences between 5 Star and League electoral bases, but these views are clashing against mounting evidence to the contrary. Recent opinion polls show that 5 Star voters overwhelmingly support the government anti-immigrant stance, in numbers only marginally lower to League voters.
Until recently, 5 Star leaders refused to clarify whether their popular citizen’s income proposal would cover all unemployed people regardless of nationality or be restricted to Italian citizens. The government program settles the question: the income is for Italians only. What could be the most important welfare policy for the unemployed in a country without universal employment benefits, has now been weaponized to fuel xenophobia. The agreement announces the intention to exclude immigrants from other welfare measures as well. For instance, free crèches are announced, but reserved for Italian families. The most draconian anti-immigrant measure announced in the contract is mass deportations of up to 500,000 undocumented immigrants – the more neutral word “repatriation” is used, but the meaning is the same.
5 Star ‘post-ideological’ respectable xenophobia
It would be incorrect to pin the xenophobic rhetoric and content of the government agreement entirely on League’s influence. In recent years, 5 Star have developed a substantial anti-immigrant platform, which has been successfully packaged as non-racist, just, reasonable and desirable. Though it claims a “post-ideological” position, 5 Star’s function in the current historical conjuncture is to normalize the wave of xenophobic and racist hate and violence, culminating in the rise to prominence of League strongman Matteo Salvini.
The distance between 5 Star politicians’ speeches and their written proposals (predating the current agreement with League) is significant, as is the relationship between political messages in official channels and fake news spread through their informal networks.
Even though leaders like Beppe Grillo and the left-leaning charismatic politician Alessandro Di Battista have called for mass deportations before, the official 5 Star electoral program did not, although it called for increased deportations through bilateral agreements with immigrants’ countries of origin.
The 5 Star document emphasizes the need for legal and secure ways for refugees to access the EU, appropriating the progressive rhetoric of humanitarian corridors. In order to deal with asylum requests more efficiently, they should be processed in the countries of origin or transit outside the EU. Humanitarian corridors and processing requests outside Europe would satisfy three different demands: treating refugees humanely and guaranteeing their rights, by sparing them a dangerous journey in the Mediterranean; defeating human traffickers; and, most important of all, reducing arrivals in Italy. Only those whose refugee rights are established would eventually be allowed to travel to Italy – possibly very few, given the emphasis on limiting arrivals.
According to 5 Star, even with such a tightening up of borders, the burden of refugee arrivals should be shared by other European states. Italy is often depicted in 5 Star speeches as a welcoming nation that has been burdened with an unsustainable number of arrivals. It is only fair, so goes the narrative, that refugees are relocated to other European countries according to specified parameters. The truth is that the refugee population in Italy is lower than in other rich European countries such as Germany, Sweden or France, and general immigration levels are in line with other big countries in Europe.
The official position also remarks, in apparently innocuous ways, how Italian migration reception structures are marred by criminal activities and speculation by organized crime and illegal interests – adding to the criminal dimension of human traffickers transporting migrants to Italy. Immigration is thus stigmatized in more roundabout, “acceptable” ways: 5 Star can claim not to be xenophobic, because they criminalize those who transport immigrants and manage their arrivals, rather than immigrants themselves. This is in marked contrast with the vehemently xenophobic speech that is common among 5 Star followers on social media.
In a related case that exploded last year, 5 Star leaders were pivotal in spreading a moral panic about NGO ships rescuing migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean, and their alleged collusion with human traffickers. These events provide an essential backdrop to understand why the majority of Italians support Salvini’s line today.
At the end of April 2017, Grillo’s blog posed questions about NGO ships rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, casting doubts about the legitimacy of their operations and their funding. He suggested that there might be a plot to bring migrants to Italy, feeding into news reporting thousands of arrivals around the Easter period. The conspiratorial tones of the post rehashed, in diluted form, fake news about geopolitical ploys to smuggle immigrants into Italy.
5 Star leader Luigi Di Maio reposted Grillo’s blog on his Facebook wall, calling NGO ships “taxis of the Mediterranean,” and released more statements attacking NGOs for allegedly causing more deaths in the Mediterranean – wild accusations unsupported by evidence. Soon after, Di Maio gave several TV interviews restating and elaborating his position. Di Maio’s main source was Carmelo Zuccaro, an Italian prosecutor who claimed that some NGOs were in contact with traffickers. Earlier that year, Zuccaro had launched an investigation into NGO ships and their funding. The prosecutor later admitted he had no evidence to back such claims, and that this was just a working hypothesis. That didn’t stop him from pushing the argument when testifying in several parliamentary committees.
Di Maio incorrectly claimed that a 2017 Frontex report also defined NGO ships as “taxis” – again, a statement with no factual basis. The story had its origins in a Financial Times report of December 2016 stating that, in confidential documents, the European border agency Frontex expressed concerns about some NGOs colluding with traffickers. Frontex denied such claims.
In previous months, social media messages and populist online magazines of various political inclinations had prepared the ground for Di Maio’s mainstreaming. Video blogger Luca Donadel released a fake news video allegedly proving that NGO ships were colluded with traffickers. In early March, Donadel was interviewed in a prime time slot on a popular satire TV programme, Striscia La Notizia. But it was Di Maio’s intervention that catalyzed this informal campaign, and consolidated popular consensus around it. The operation was so successful that the then center-left home affairs minister, Marco Minniti, introduced a controversial code of conduct for NGO rescue ships, which required them to have police officers on board.
In another post by an external contributor, originally published in Beppe Grillo’s blog in May last year (and now moved to the official 5 Star blog), the conspiratorial dog whistles about Soros are mentioned more explicitly. The post cites conspiracy theory websites such as ZeroHedge and Gefira as reliable sources. According to the article, Soros’ support for NGOs helping immigrants and refugees is part of a broader plan by global financial elites to bring immigrants to Europe:
Taking into account the aging population in the West, especially in Europe, and the low birth rate, opening the doors to migrants is essential for the global financial system and its elites – Soros is a key player. It is a way to reduce pressures in regions (Middle East, Eurasia) and continents (Africa) where military interventions and wars are taking place. The latter are an organic component of Western and American geopolitical strategy.
The post continues with disturbing insinuations that activists and organizations helping refugees are doing so as part of a grand plan, where people such as Soros profit from the “business of immigration.” In posts of this kind – this is only one of many – the distinction between the informal world of fake news and the presentable façade of 5 Star official messages is blurred, yet another sign that there is little left to chance in the 5 Star propaganda machine.
The regular repetition of cycles of apparently contradictory messages – often from the same politician – ranging from wild conspiracies to moderate appeals to reason, suggests the deployment of coordinated and highly effective tactics, rather than unintended confusion and incoherence.
The moral panic fueled by these interventions was so effective that according to a poll in May 2017, a relative majority of Italians (36%) believed that some NGO rescue ships colluded with smugglers, while only a minority (15%) thought that NGOs were performing their humanitarian duties.
Another apparently “progressive” element of 5 Star propaganda has been to link an anti-war stance to an anti-immigrant one. As the argument goes, it is wars that produce refugees. We should stop wars to avoid devastation in sending countries and reduce refugee flows to Italy.
But the program agreed with League provides a more ambivalent outcome that, in Trumpian fashion, mixes isolationist statements about reviewing Italy’s role in international military missions, with increased support for the defense sector, and counterterrorism. Part of the counterterrorist measures include an open attack on Muslims in the form of shut downs of mosques that are deemed “illegal,” and the immediate closure of largely undefined “radical Islamic” organizations. When it comes to the flourishing arms industry, the government program says that arms sales to countries with conflict will be stopped, while promising more funds for the defense industry, but allegedly for products that are not strictly for war purposes. Instead the program mentions ships, aircrafts and high-tech systems.
The leftist appeal of the great convergence
There is no doubt that many on the left have fallen for 5 Star anti-establishment propaganda. Over the years, the party attracted many left-wing disaffected voters – they also attracted previously centrist and right-wing voters. Major left-wing figures such as the late Nobel Prize actor and playwright Dario Fo enthusiastically endorsed 5 Star from the beginning. Fo was praised by the Swedish Academy for “upholding the dignity of the downtrodden.” How could he ignore the plight of Italians of color, immigrants and refugees, in favor of narratives that center white Italians?
Fo was close to founders Grillo and Casaleggio from early on and knew of their open anti-migrant positions in the years when the convergence with League was not yet clearly formed. When 5 Star joined far right party UKIP in the same European parliamentary group, Dario Fo cautiously defended the deal and said he didn’t think UKIP leader Nigel Farage was a racist.
Many politicians from classic left formation Free And Equal, and some from the Democratic Party, had hinted before the election that a government alliance of the left with 5 Star was indeed a desirable outcome. These voices became prominent after March, when a large number of leftist intellectuals and journalists pushed for a 5 Star/Dems deal, arguing that it would be a much better outcome than a 5 Star/League government. The argument however was flawed. It ignored that 5 Star and League supporters shared similar views on immigration and a general hostility towards centrist parties. There were no indications that the 5 Star leadership was seriously considering the possibility of a coalition with the Dems.
Since the new populist coalition materialized, left intellectuals outside mainstream parties, such as Diego Fusaro and Giulietto Chiesa, have greeted the 5 Star/League alliance and Salvini’s anti-immigration stance as the necessary evolution of a crisis of neoliberalism that demands a radical rupture with the status quo, with left and right forces uniting against the existential dangers posed by the “liberal world order.”
These positions are aligned with US far right strategist Steve Bannon, and Russian neo-fascist ideologue Alexander Dugin. Bannon and Dugin welcomed the formation of Italy’s new government as a historic event that will lead to populist victories throughout the West. Dugin has been proposing for some time a global alliance of right and left populists against the common enemy of liberalism. In a recent event in Rome, Bannon talked about the success of the coalition of the “left populism” of 5 Star with the “right populism” of League, saying it will be a blueprint for the “global revolt against the elites”. He compared the Italian situation to what he envisaged for the US: “we would have liked to unite Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, but we didn’t manage.”
Towards a reactionary “Europe of nations”
Bannon’s and Dugin’s worrying endorsements hint at the turbulent political realignments that are taking place in North America, Europe and Russia. The battle for the future of Europe is a key site of a broader global struggle for power and hegemony.
One strength of the 5 Star/League alliance has been a careful approach to the thorny issues of EU relations and Western geopolitics. Salvini and Di Maio are not inexperienced Brexit supporters. They are not calling for radical breaks with the EU. Their agreement pays lip service to European treaties and avoids threats of a potential eurozone exit. It also makes it clear that the EU rules will be changed to conform to the principles of their contract, not the other way around. The two parties assert the primacy of the NATO alliance, but call for the withdrawal of sanctions against Russia (on Russia, Trump makes the same kind of demand in international fora).
This approach is more akin to a far-right version of the platform of early Greek party Syriza before the 2015 bailout referendum, than the uncompromising tones of the Brexit campaign. The technocratic language is yet another sign of the intention to change the rules from within. Syriza failed to challenge EU hegemony. They faced formidable opposition from Brussels, Germany and the IMF, but they were also weakened by the internal contradictions of subscribing to progressive principles, while compromising with national populist sentiments. League and 5 Star will not have such a burden. Their anti-immigrant nationalism is in the open and finds consensus across Europe. Italian populists could be in the driving seat of a coherent reactionary pan-European alliance for a “Europe of nations” that thrives on racism, xenophobia and violence.