Italy’s Giorgia Meloni is no Mussolini – but she may be a Trump
Lorenzo Marsili* – The Guardian
There’s nothing nostalgic about the far-right political space that the country’s new leader is trying to carve out in Europe
Italy, wrote the situationist philosopher Guy Debord in 1968, “sums up the social contradictions of the entire world”. As such, it was a “laboratory for international counter-revolution”.
Political analysts the world over are now busy parsing Giorgia Meloni’s statements to determine if she is a fascist, a neofascist or a post-fascist. Why, they ask, are Italians seemingly willing to consider a return to the politics of their country’s darkest hour?
But is Italy really dealing with the resurrection of its fascist past? And, more important, is Italy a laboratory whose experiment the rest of the world could eventually follow? The answers, respectively, are: no and (therefore) yes.
Those who brand the Brothers of Italy as fascists miss the point. Meloni’s party is not so much the heir to Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement as the first European copycat of the US Republican party.
Meloni is an astute political leader and able to play the long game. In 2012, she left the relative security of Silvio Berlusconi’s fold to set up her own tiny Brothers of Italy party. She bided her time and painstakingly built its following over the years. In 2021 she turned down a quick route to power and refused to join Mario Draghi’s national unity government.
She has now won that power, the first woman to do so in a painfully patriarchal society. It is unlikely she has any wish to squander such an achievement on a trashy remake of fascist corruption a hundred years too late. Her goal is to grow the kernel of a new Italian and European politics.
This desire came out clearly in the runup to the elections. Meloni did everything in her power to assure the US administration of full continuity with an Atlanticist, anti-Russian and anti-Chinese stance. At the same time, she aimed to reassure the financial markets – and, yes, the EU – that her government would keep public debt in check. On both counts she frustrated her now junior allies, Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who were flirting with empathy for Russia and with careless spending.
If she could reassure Washington and Brussels on foreign and economic policy, she correctly reasoned, she would be left in relative peace to build her power and carry out her agenda at home. No one would risk ostracising the Italian government during a security, energy and cost of living crisis just to come to the defence of migrants, or to protect women’s reproductive rights.
This approach, however opportunistic, is allowing her to carve out a place for a new type of far-right regime in Europe. Hawkish on foreign policies, orthodox on economic policies, nostalgic, nationalist and inimical to civil liberties, this rightwing politics is illiberal at heart. But it would aim for respectability in what used to be called the establishment, including by not undermining the rule of law in the way the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has done.
It is precisely because Meloni is not a fascist outcast that her actions offer a blueprint for, if not the world, then Europe. Gone may be the days when the victory of far-right populists and extremists appeared unthinkable or untenable. We may instead be in a new degenerated, rightwing normality: where that honourable and necessary space in a democracy – the space occupied by Jacques Chirac, Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel – becomes perverted and consistently occupied by Trumps and Melonis. Meloni may succeed in mutating the far right from the status of outsider in European politics to tenacious insider.
Such degeneration has been spearheaded in the US by the Republican party, as remade by its collusion with Donald Trump, which the FT columnist Edward Luce rightly described recently as a “nihilistic, dangerous and contemptible” political force. One half of the traditional political spectrum in the US has broken away, taking with it the health of American democracy. That same process – rather than the sensational emergence of a fascist, but ultimately short-lived government in Italy – may be what is taking hold in Europe.
The theory will be put to the test in less than a year in Spain, where an alliance between the far-right Vox party and the fast-degenerating centre-right People’s party is on the cards.
It is regrettable that Italian progressives are the enablers of this transformation. The liberal-left camp scored more votes overall than the rightwing alliance. But the rightwing was, precisely, an alliance, whereas the progressive field was fractured and heavily punished in the partly first past the post electoral system. The centre-left Democrats, led by Enrico Letta, placed a veto on any alliance with the left-leaning Five-Star Movement, and the centrist Liberals in turn placed a veto on the Democrats. This uncooperative narcissism cleared the way for the far-right victory.
The EU may be a victim of such transformation. Meloni has the instinctive opposition to European integration shared by rightwing populists. This is regrettable and dangerous: the EU is about to discuss the abolition of the unanimity vote, a measure necessary to project a strong voice on foreign affairs, defence and energy policy. Meloni’s traditional allies, including Orbán, are opposed. The new Italian government can be expected to strengthen the Budapest-Warsaw, anti-European axis.
Italy’s national interest lies in a strong EU capable of defending its citizens at a time of geopolitical and economic crisis. If Meloni truly wanted to make history, she should become the first pro-European far-right leader, accompanying Italian with European nationalism. “A Europe that protects,” she could say – a powerful Europe that stops wasting time on rights and values, and focuses instead on the hard power that escapes European nation states: weapons, energy and foreign policy. A mix of Marine Le Pen at home and Emmanuel Macron abroad. This is unlikely to happen.
It is still possible that Meloni will retain the old, extreme-populist script in other areas, plunging the country into endless debates on migration, ostracising other European capitals and causing financial havoc with reckless economic policy. If she does, hers will be just another blip on the chart of modern Italian politics, which is characterised by an endless cycle of alternation between extremism and technocracy. If she sticks to her long-term aspirations instead, she may able to drag the European rightwing mainstream on her Trumpian disruption.
Debord considered the international consequences of Italy as a political laboratory. Other governments, he said, “look with admiration at the Italian state for the tranquil dignity with which it wallows in the mud”. He was perhaps being too optimistic. This is not mud but quicksand. And it drags in anyone admiring it for too long.
*Lorenzo Marsili is a philosopher, activist and founder of European Alternatives and Fondazione Studio Rizoma. He is the author of Planetary Politics: a Manifesto