Everything must change for everything to stay the same

Everyone knew the coalition government between Matteo Salvini’s Lega and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement (M5S) was not going to see the end of its five year term, but nobody imagined that its end would be quite so spectacular. Yet on August 20, politics and spectacle joined hands in a dramatic duet on Italy’s most prominent political stage. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a hand eerily placed on Salvini’s shoulder, is scolding him in front of the Senate, now a cacophony of jeers and applause. “Matteo” lacks institutional responsibility and constitutional culture, his campaign demand for full powers is worrying, his use of sacred symbols shows “religious foolishness”. Salvini, in response, sips coffee, shakes his head and kisses his rosary. Minutes later, Conte resigns.

In an age in which heads of state publicly compare the size of their nuclear buttons, this exchange may appear unremarkable. Yet a “spectacle”, in its Latin connotation, indicates something that attracts the eye and commands its attention, which is precisely why it is enacted: with the actors on stage, nobody asks what is going on behind the curtains. The real reasons the government fell, concealed by this performative act, lie in the contradictions that define its two parties and their failure to genuinely challenge the neoliberal ethos and its enforcers. Only by interrogating (“violently”, Antonio Gramsci would say) this historical conjuncture can the left understand the nature of the struggle it faces. 

The history of the M5S is best understood in light of the Left’s failure to represent the demands of its traditional social classes. As Stefano Palombarini writes on Jacobin Italia, recognizing that the convergence of the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD) and the centre-right Forza Italia (FI) towards a bourgeois bloc had left vast sections of the popular classes without representation, the M5S moved in to give them a voice. To hide its obscure, centralized concentration of power, the M5S combined a “post-ideological” stance with a movementist façade that ultimately absorbed the potential for a genuine anti-austerity movement in Italy. Blaming “the establishment” for the country’s troubles, the M5S inflamed the deep-seated resentment of an eclectic array of social groups: precarious workers and unemployed from Italy’s South (21.6% in Calabria, 21.5% in Sicily, 20.4% in Campania), badly paid state employees and factory workers, a disillusioned youth attracted by their tech-utopianism and attention to environmental issues. Celebrating the death of the old categories of Left and Right, the M5S won 32% of the votes in 2018.

When the M5S burst onto the political stage in 2013, the Lega was a secessionist party of the North-East with 4% of the vote; in 2018, after Salvini transformed it into a national political force, it won 17.8% of the electorate. The base of this success lies in the resentment of a mostly northern middle class, hit hard by the economic recession yet adamant that the old recipes of the right – private access to public spending, less taxes, more favourable labour relations – can revitalize the economy. Partly to justify capitalism’s failure to deliver its promises, partly to extend his reach across social classes that have been ruined by the very solutions he hopes to implement, Salvini employed a well-known blend of racist, nationalist and populist rhetoric against migrants, the European Union (EU) and “the establishment”. Scared of losing the little they have or glad to at least have someone to blame, sections of the working class and unemployed have embraced Salvini’s rhetoric.

Initially, the ambiguity of their strategy – crucial for masking their differences – made this coalition the quintessential “catch-all party” and allowed it to enjoy a vast consensus. With time, not only did the profound contradictions between the demands of their core constituencies come to the fore, but competition over similar social blocs increased. The ensuing rivalry made it ever more difficult to balance the opposing interests of employees and employers, of the unemployed of the South and the small and medium business owners of the North, of those in desperate need of state assistance and those who see the latter as benefit-scroungers. To strike such a balance would have required a long-term program that was prepared to set aside short-term electoral gains and challenge the existing system, yet that was never this government’s aim.

Instead, for nearly 14 months Italians have been spectators of a well-coordinated, multimedia campaign of mass distraction. Through his social media channels, his onscreen omnipresence (on Berlusconi’s television channels Salvini speaks for one minute of every three) and his interminable campaign trail across Italy, Salvini unleashed a dark soul that has deep roots in Italy’s patriarcal, colonial and fascist past, three casualties of historical misrepresentations and collective amnesia. As much as the media attempts to portray it as “exceptional”, the racism, nationalism, misogyny and homophobia that have characterized this last year of Italian politics belong to the Berlusconi era as much as they lingered, less prominently but still present, in the centre-left governments of the PD.  

Legitimized by the shifting barrier of the acceptable, these trends have today found an abundance of vocal supporters in the State and the media alike, monopolising public discourse. The M5S, conscious of the appeal of Salvini’s narrative and seeking cover for the glaring shortcomings of their signature policy, a draconian minimum income, adopted a similar position on immigration, voting for laws that punish those who save lives at sea but unable or unwilling to match his boisterous propaganda. This behaviour, coupled with the contradictions that governing laid bare, led to a reversal in the balance of power between the two ruling parties, the Lega winning 34.3% and the M5S 17.1% of the vote in the 2019 European elections. Coherence and firmness are prized qualities in an age of confusion. 

It was there and then that the time bomb started ticking: the polls convinced Salvini that elections would give the Lega the chance to govern with a right-wing coalition, allowing it to implement its core policies without the hindrance of the M5S. With a complicated budget law to be discussed from the end of September, Salvini probably concluded that a snap-election would win him a majority before the effects of the crisis could lose the Lega any votes. After all, if there is one element that all parties share, it is the dogmatic reverence for those EU directives for which nobody voted and by which everyone must abide: 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 awareness of an unfriendly European Commission, Salvini accelerated the government crisis, confident that an alliance between the M5S and the PD was off the table. The gamble did not pay off.

On the morning of the 29th of August, 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 positions, a new government was sworn in. How long this alliance will last is a mystery. In the past few years, the M5S has shifted heavily towards the right, and both Di Maio and Conte have publicly celebrated the achievements of their alliance with Salvini. This in itself will not be a problem for the PD, who happily ruled with Berlusconi’s centre-right in 2013, yet it is difficult to imagine how 10 years of full-blown war with the M5S will be forgotten from one day to the next. In due time the differences that divide them will resurface, and the spectacle will recommence. 

What will happen to Salvini is unclear. His blunder has cost him a 15% drop in appreciation and as the centre of attention moves elsewhere he will lose crucial platforms from which to spread his rhetoric. Yet the forces he unleashed will not disappear with him. Whether he will be replaced or not, the Lega remains Italy’s first party. With a demanding budget law ahead and economic recession looming, being on the opposition could even favour it electorally. Considering the inadequacy of this coalition to tackle the structural issues at hand, a rising right-populist tide remains a concerning possibility.  

In the light of these evolutions, there is one lesson to be learned. As Stuart Hall once wrote, “it is always the case that the Right is what it is partly because of what the Left is”. Abandoning 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 fosters. After the 2009 financial crisis, this process was dutifully overseen by governments of the centre-left, enforcing austerity and reducing the cost of labour with one hand while cracking down on migrants and the rights of protesters with the other. This practice has seen no variation in the transition to the M5S-Lega government and will see no variation in the legislature to come. “Everything must change so that everything remains the same”.

To break this continuum, the left needs to take note of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s invitation, in his Lettere Luterane, “to find the strength to criticize totally, to refuse, to denounce desperately and uselessly”. Without challenging the ideological “post-ideology” of neoliberalism and the EU treaties that uphold it, radical social change cannot take place. To achieve it, the left needs to launch its battle in and against the state. On one hand, offering a solution to the devastating consequences of inequality on the masses of precarious, unemployed and working people. On the other, encouraged by the recent transfemminist and anti-racist movements, taking part in the growing number of struggles against the authoritarian nature of this latest phase of capitalism. All the while remembering that old Marxist quip: “Crisis is permanent, the government only provisional’. 

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