They were so powerful they wrote the laws to benefit themselves. They got away with everything because they banked on us, all of us, to trust the system, that was our vulnerability and they took advantage of it. (…)
Everything we’ve been through led up to this one moment: the greatest redistribution of wealth in history. We just Robin Hooded those evil motherfuckers! *
In February 2015 appeared the first post for Political Observer on Populism. It was titled Sheep in New Zealand, Pinocchio and Robin Hood. It discussed topics such as Brexit, the role (and style) of Yanis Varoufakis in the unfolding economic crisis, the possibility of an “Italeave” promised by Five Star Movement and Lega, the political use of conspiracy theories, and so on. The benefit of using Twitter to spread the content of the blog seemed self-evident, although over time the air has become increasingly toxic, like in every other commercial social media. As long as it will be worth it, the Twitter account will remain active: probably, however, it won’t be for much longer. What matters is the content published here, the exchange of ideas it feeds, the connections it creates, the people saying “keep the good work up”. This blog already constitutes a powerful tool to better understand populism®, it gives voice to the most brilliant scholars on the topic, and if you want to contribute pass by –> here.
Half a decade later POP is still around and Brexit too, modern Godot which will surely come but not today, maybe tomorrow. Lega and Five Star Movement have formed a government together — which already ended in farce — and contrary to their promises they never mentioned leaving the Euro. The book Varoufakis wrote in 2015 (Adults in the Room) has now become a movie. Populism has been normalized and mainstreamed even in Germany and Scandinavia. Podemos governs Spain together with PSOE, crystallizing and institutionalizing the instances of the Indignados, bringing the previous cycle of struggles right into power, waiting for the new one to reject its compromises. In 2015 Obama was going towards the end of its second mandate, now Donald Trump (under impeachment) and Boris Johnson lead a plethora of populist and nativist politicians with a terrible haircut, which however does not qualify them as a working class phenomenon.
In the meantime, the unfolding of history in front of our eyeballs taught us that no country is immune to populism and nativism, Poland and Hungary can hardly be considered liberal democracies with Fidesz and PiS in power, and Green parties seem to finally be able to compete with right-wing populism for the votes of disillusioned voters who no longer feel represented by mainstream parties. After the Great Recession and the refugee ‘crisis’, climate change and global warming seem to be the third critical juncture of the 21st century. In the next decade they will probably fill the news in a cyclic repetition worthy of Sisyphus. The economy goes down, a wave of refugees, global warming cannot be ignored anymore, the economy goes down, a wave of refugees, etc etc…
2019 saw protests raging around the world: Chile, Hong Kong, Algeria, Catalonia, Brazil, Venezuela, Iran, to mention just a few cases. The Gilets Jaunes and the scandal about Cambridge Analytica ideally connected street protests against old-fashioned capitalism and a global movement against “surveillance capitalism”. Direct democracy proved to be easily manipulated, a new nationalist wave is crossing the continents, and authoritarian tendencies confirm more than ever that democracy is not the only game in town. Spain spent months discussing about Francisco Franco’s remains, Portugal discussed the possibility of a museum (or study center) about the dictatorship in Salazar’s home town, and in Italy the crypt with Mussolini’s tomb has been re-opened to the public. The past is coming back and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore it. It’s the fascist Zeitgeist, baby.
Two parties that are exceptionally good at exploiting the lack of historical perspective are the League and the Five Star Movement. In a country like Italy, that created fascism and then found more convenient to hide behind the Resistance, selective amnesia opened the doors of power to (post)fascists already in the 1990s. I was asked to write an article about their ideological roots, and in a few days this piece took form. It is not the first time I talk about these two parties, but I never did it at such length, and I believe that the type of populist discourse they articulate, post-ideological in one case and nativist in the other, offers an interesting insight into the kind of populism that will characterize the 2020s.
Enjoy the reading…
Populism in Italy. Exploring the Ideological Roots of Lega and the Five Star Movement
The League (Lega) and Five Star Movement (M5S) are quite different from an ideological point of view, but something ties them together: their populist vision of society. The League is now a classic far right party fighting immigration, the ‘cultural hegemony’ of the Left, and the economic ‘dictatorship’ of the European institutions, while claiming to defend the Christian roots of Europe. M5S is a very different type of party, since it lacks a clear ideology and scholars struggle to position it on a classic left-right divide. M5S leaders, indeed, love to fuel the confusion: they claim to be neither left nor right, and to vote in favour of any ‘good’ law that serves the interests of the people. The two parties, however different from an ideological perspective, have something in common: they often articulate a populist discourse that divides society between the ever-deceived Italian people and the corrupt elites.
They might disagree on what to do with power in terms of policies, but they agree on what power is: direct emanation of the people’s will, beyond checks and balances, above the media and the judiciary system. Salvini, the League’s leader, often claims that his party wants to give back the power to all Italians, while Beppe Grillo, showman who co-founded M5S, similarly claims that the party’s goal is to represent 100% of the Italian people. Uncomfortable questions from journalists are not welcome, other parties are systematically labeled as parasites or relics of the past, and the justice system is often accused of acting in a partisan way. Both M5S and the League propose a populist idea of democracy, at odds with liberal democracy.
However, despite their posture as modern Robin Hoods – or heroes of the common people – these two parties are hardly acting in the best interest of Italians. The League, for example, embezzled €49 million from fake electoral reimbursements. Other recent scandals involving the party have been numerous. For example, Russia is trying to destabilize the European Union by supporting right-wing populist movements, and parties like the League seem to accept that help. Apparently, people close to Matteo Salvini negotiated funds from Putin-aligned oligarchs before the 2019 European elections.
Tellingly, while in government with the League, M5S never questioned the delayed repayment of €49 million of embezzled public funds, first of all to avoid new elections, and secondly to keep attention away from its own shady business. One of the most surprising moves of M5S in recent months is the invention of the “mandate zero”. The party was always against professional politicians and decided that its members could only serve a maximum of two mandates. Suddenly, and with no explanation, the party’s leader Di Maio introduced the idea of a mandate zero, de facto allowing the party’s MPs to run for a third mandate. Another distinctive trait of M5S, the live streaming of their meetings, has already been abandoned. Moreover, in 2016, the party conquered Turin and Rome, but the two mayors have been involved in every type of scandal. For example, Turin’s Chiara Appendino faced an embezzlement inquiry, while Rome’s Virginia Raggi has been under investigation for her handling of public tenders, eventually forcing M5S to abandon its commitment to expel officials who came under police inquiry.
The Italian ‘Second Republic’, built on the ashes of a political system destroyed by corruption scandals in the mid-1990s, seems to be very similar to the first one. The Third Republic cherished by Di Maio promises to maintain a steady stream of scandals. The League and M5S pledged to bring a new morality against the corruption of the political system, but beyond their different ideologies, they seem to be united by a very opaque management of the res publica. However, their voters are convinced that these scandals are the machination of hostile political opponents, conspiracies from the media and powerful economic elites, or excessive naivety form populist politicians, who being “like us” just committed a beginner’s mistake.
The yellow-black government, which is a reference to the colors of M5S and the League, has been a populist experiment that lasted 14 months between June 2018 and September 2019. Initially, M5S was enjoying its shocking electoral result, since it was the strongest party with 32.68% of the votes, while the League had just half of it (17.35%). However, things changed fast. The presence of Salvini on every mass media, night and day, made him appear as the real kingmaker, surely more than Prime Minister Conte, but also stronger than the other vice Prime Minister Di Maio. Unsurprisingly, at the 2019 European elections the League obtained an astounding 34.26% while M5S went down to 17.06%.
Going beyond any ideological differences between the two parties, the contract they signed before forming an alliance seemed to constitute a solid ground for a collaboration. Soon enough the wind changed, the League started flying in the polls, and Salvini thought that it was time to dump his allies and take the power all for himself. However, he did not consider one crucial element: M5S had become the real glue of the Italian political system. Its post-ideological approach made it possible to make a 180 degree twirl and form a government with the League’s archenemy: the Democratic Party (PD). Indeed, for Di Maio it does not matter whether his allies are the far right or a moderate left-wing party. M5S goes with the wind, and can turn according to the need of the moment. To avoid new elections, which would have meant a significant loss of MPs, M5S formed another unlikely alliance, this time with the PD.
[Continue here to read the full text on the website of the Cicero Foundation.]
* Mr Robot, Season 4, Episode 10. See here.