Beware of Italy! Italian 2018 Elections in Historical Perspective

Essay by Renato Moro* – Università degli Studi Roma Tre
Do not underestimate Italy and Italians in politics, ever.
Light and atrocity, spontaneity and passion, art and religion, beauty and crime have always been foreigners’ fundamental keys to understanding Italian life. Miss Lucy Honeychurch, the protagonist of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View who is looking for “true Italy,” has her first encounter with the country in the name of both beauty and violence. After visiting the frescoes in the Florentine Church of Santa Croce and while touring Piazza della Signoria, she witnesses the murder of an Italian man:
Then something did happen.

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. “Cinque lire,” they had cried, “cinque lire!” They sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly upon the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.
That was all. A crowd rose out of the dusk. It hid this extraordinary man from her, and bore him away to the fountain.[4]
This image is ubiquitous not only in literature. Italian studies have often suggested more or less the same picture: in 2000 a leading British historian, Paul Ginsborg, when editing a great exhibition in Rome on “The 20th Century. Art and History in Italy,” selected municipality, family, patronage, and religion as the fundamental elements of modern Italian life.[5] Thus Italian politics too has often been perceived as traditional and unstable, unfathomable and deeply peculiar, different from any other case in the world.
The commonplace idea that Italians have a passionate psychology, that they probably gave the world its most important artistic civilization from Antiquity to Baroque, that Catholicism (with its churches and Madonnas) permeates Italian cultural and geographic landscape, that Italy is a backward society distinguished by an “amoral familism” (as Edward C. Banfield maintained in his 1958 classic),[6] that criminal organizations have had a relevant role in the country since at least 1945, or that Italian politics is a very complicated matter, is undisputable. But when submitted to critical inquiry, this image, as with every commonplace assumption, is revealed to be essentially false, and probably only the fruit of the power of suggestion which Italy still exerts on strangers, who are fascinated by the ‘different,’ picturesque, traditional and primitive aspects of its life.
Just consider this fact. Already in 1914 Italy had the fifth largest GDP in the world, after the U.S., Germany, the UK and France. In 1918 it was one of the four ‘great powers’ at the Paris Peace Conference. After fascism, war, and defeat, and after reconstruction and the 1960s economic ‘miracle,’ Italy overcame Great Britain and became the sixth largest world economic power following the United States, the Soviet Union, Japan, Germany, and France. Notwithstanding all of its recent economic difficulties, Italy is still today the seventh. It neither was nor is such an underdeveloped society. From 1861 to the fascist period, the separation between Church and State was an undisputed dogma. And even during the five long post-war decades of dominance of a Catholic party, Italy never became a confessional state. Now it is one of the more secularized societies in the world. As for politics, Liberal Italy was one of the more developed democracies of its time, and it gave birth to a tumultuous mass society. Universal male suffrage was introduced in Italy seven years before it was in Great Britain.
So do not underestimate Italy and Italians in politics.
Their contribution to the political history in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has not been a minor one. On the contrary, if one gives only a general overview of Italy’s modern history, it is easy to realize that Italy has been a ground-breaking laboratory for modern politics, and has donated many novelties (even if they certainly are not all positive) to the world.
Anticipating Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, in 1919 Benito Mussolini gave birth to a new political phenomenon: he formed the first ‘militia party’ that used violence as the main means for political struggle. In a few years the Duce built the first regime in the world that proudly proclaimed itself to be totalitarian.
Between 1944 and 1946 Palmiro Togliatti, the PCI Secretary and leader, suggested that the Italian Communist Party (PCI) would follow the perspective of a “progressive democracy”: this would permit to overcome the contrast between reformism and revolution, to enunciate a new “socialist personalism” and to propose an “Italian way” to socialism, deeply different from the Russian experiment.[7] How much ‘duplicity’ was inherent in Togliatti’s position is not relevant for us: the fact is that, whether myth or reality, the idea of a ‘different’ communism became one of the relevant factors of European, and perhaps global political history, up to PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer in the 1970s and 1980s.[8]
In January 1994 the Italian media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi promoted the birth of “Forza Italia” (“Forward Italy”). Berlusconism, too, was a new political phenomenon: a party without organization, without any inner democracy, and without activists, but using the power of television, addressing people with an anti-establishment, anti-official, anti-intellectual approach that mixed common sense, conservatism, and a direct, populist appeal to people. In the following decades Berlusconism, as with Fascism and Eurocommunism before, gained numerous followers throughout the world.
In 2009, and here we come directly to the recent Italian elections, the Five Star Movement, a new political movement was founded by a popular comedian and blogger, Beppe Grillo, and by a web strategist and businessman, Gianroberto Casaleggio. Again, the movement was a novelty in political history. It added to the many features it had in common with other European and not European populist movements (anti-establishment rhetoric, anti-globalism, an anti-immigration inclination, Euro-scepticism) a totally original utopic dream. The new possibilities opened by the web allowed it to overcome the traditional limits and defects of representative democracy. Finally the dream of a real direct e-democracy would come true. According to the movement, people no longer had to delegate their power to parties, which it deemed old and corrupted intermediates between citizens and the state, ready to serve only lobby and financial interests. On the contrary, citizens could now create a collective intelligence made possible by the Internet, which would offer the possibility of daily voting on laws, projects, candidates, etc. Thus the Internet might substitute, at least partially, for parliamentary representation and finally achieve the ‘general will’ of assembled citizens, the same will that Jean Jacques Rousseau had envisaged three centuries ago. And in fact the movement decided to call “Rousseau” the web application they use as an instrument of direct democracy.
This historical context of the peculiar and “fertile” Italian inventiveness of new forms of democracy (sometimes completely, sometimes partially, not democratic) is the scenario in which the March 2018 Italian elections need to be located.
Of course, the affirmation of populism is not an exclusive Italian feature. Populist movements and leaders are already governing various European and other countries (even some of the more powerful countries in the world). So populism is a very widespread symptom of a global political crisis. In a 1979 interview in which he discussed the Italian Christian-Democrat political leader Aldo Moro and the problems of Italian democracy, one of the greatest American historians, George L. Mosse, pointed out:
I think […] that not only have the strengths of liberalism and Parliamentary government in Western Europe yet to be tested, but that the 1970’s opened the first postwar decade of scarcity now that expansion has reached its limits. What effect will this have? Will this not in fact make the old political parties obsolete? Will we not need a new political system to deal with a quite unprecedented fact, the fact of scarcity, of the limits of resources? […] Historians are bad prophets, but I believe that the new age of scarcity, even if it does not take the same form as the Great Depression, or the crises after the First World War, will lead to strains and stresses which may produce forms of government which I cannot prophesy. […] I do not think because of this crisis we will once again enter a fascist epoch. Perhaps bits and pieces of authoritarianism will be used, but they will be put together in a different way. […] I must therefore say that the crisis of parliamentary government is with us, it will probably get worse as our present-day crisis of scarcity gets worse.[9]
If, as Mosse predicted, the whole world is facing now a new phase in history, the Italian case seems nonetheless to be one of particularly radical dimension. In the March 2018 elections, the two populist movements (Northern League and the Five Star Movement) reached 50.1% of popular votes. Nothing similar has happened in the developed democracies (in the American presidential elections, or in France, and even in Greece, Austria, or Spain): only in Latin America. This Italian uniqueness arises exactly from the historical heritage of the Italian difficult democracy I have tried to depict. And this uniqueness may be explained as follows.
Italian democracy has experienced two completely different and opposite but equally difficult phases during the Cold War age and after its end.
The Italian political system was deeply conditioned by the Cold War and it was crushed by the War’s end in 1989-1991. During the Cold War the Italian political system was one of the more uncertain but also one of the more stable political systems in the world. Foreign observers considered it particularly precarious, with feeble and short governments. Yes, cabinets often changed their composition, but the political system was absolutely steady, and in a certain sense even rigid. From December 1945 to May 1994 (that is for 49 years) the same party, Christian Democracy, remained at the centre of power as the main anti-Communist force; and from May 1947 to May 1994, that is for 47 years, governments were based on the same parties’ alliance, based on Christian Democracy (only widening it to the socialists in the early 1960s). There were also two anti-system opposition parties: the communists on the left (25-30% of votes), of course, but also the fascists on the right, because—and this element cannot be forgotten—Italy was the only developed country with a pro-fascist movement that reached between 6 and 9% of votes. The only similar case in the world, in a democratic country, was probably Japan.[10] Thus, when the Cold War ended, the Italian political system collapsed.
None of the parties that in 1948 created the new Constitution is still alive today. Today the oldest party inside the Italian parliament is the Northern League, founded in 1989. This is again something absolutely unique in the case of political systems that have not undergone a regime change. While the Cold War political system was rigid and stable, the post-Cold War political system became one of the more precarious in the world. Many attempts to bring Italy nearer to the great western democracies and give it a bipolar (centre-right vs. centre-left) settlement followed; but bipolarity was revealed to be an illusion: parties became more numerous than ever, coalitions were weakened by internal competition, the major parties remained feeble, and electoral and constitutional reforms (both from the right and from the left) failed. So a sort of everlasting transition started and never ended. Surveys tell us that Italian voters are now some of the more volatile in the world. And probably even during the hardest years of Cold War, political adversaries were never as delegitimized as they have been in Italy in the last twenty years.
Perhaps, in a historical perspective, it would be possible to go even further, and to state that, paradoxically, Italy was favoured by Cold War: it was obliged to be governed by such a party as a Christian Democracy that received a conservative, and even reactionary, vote, but used it for progressive and democratic policies; in parallel, the opposition, the Communist Party, often received the votes of a still anarchist, revolutionary, and violent country and transformed them into a consistently more enlightened politics. Remember that post-war Italian terrorism was a wider and more deeply rooted phenomenon than in any other European country: 12.712 attacks between 1969 and 1982, and 657 different terrorist organizations. Therefore, in historical perspective, it is possible to think that 1989 did not liberate Italy from a cage, but merely allowed for the return of the ‘real country’: a more conservative and more populist country than the political forces that, for so many years, had guided or oriented it.
Is it therefore so surprising that the new Italian government is probably the most right-wing one since 1945?
Beware of Italy!
[1] Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning (New York: Harper Collins, 2018).
[2] Zeev Sternhell, “Fascist Ideology” in Walter Laqueur, ed., Fascism: A Reader’s Guide, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), 315-378.
[3] David Holden, “The Fall of Rome goes on and on,” New York Times, 9 March 1975, 4;
[4] E.M. Foster, A Room with a View, (London: Arnold, 1908), available at:, accessed 12 July 2018.
[5] Paul Ginsborg, “Storia e arte nell’Italia del ventesimo secolo,” in Novecento. Arte e storia in Italia (Ginevra-Milano: Skira, 2000), 41-61.
[6] Edward C. Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (New York: Free Press, 1958).
[7] See Elena Aga Rossi, and Victor Zaslavsky, Togliatti e Stalin. Il PCI e la politica estera staliniana negli archivi di Mosca (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1997) and Aldo Agosti, Palmiro Togliatti (Torino: UTET, 1996); for the quoted material, see PalimiroTogliatti, “Ceto medio ed Emilia rossa,” in Michele Ciliberto and Giuseppe Vacca, eds., La politica nel pensiero e nell’azione. Scritti e discorsi 1917-1964 (Milano: Bompiani, 2015), 704-705.
[8] See Francesco Barbagallo, Enrico Berlinguer (Roma: Carocci, 2006), and Silvio Pons, Berlinguer e la fine del comunismo (Torino: Einaudi, 2006).
[9] George L. Mosse, Intervista su Aldo Moro (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2005), 81-82, 91-92.
[10] On the Japanese political system see Bradley M. Richardson, and Scott C. Flanagan, Politics in Japan (Boston: Little Brown, 1984).
* Professor of Contemporary History since 1990, after having taught at the University of Camerino, he moved to the University of Roma Tre in 1995, where he works in the Department of Political Sciences. Scholar of the relationship between religion, political ideologies and mass society.