In recent years, the Italian political scene has undergone an abrupt change that represents a momentous political evolution. As with the Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”) scandals of 1992 — when the so-called Mani pulite (“clean hands”) investigations revealed systemic political and private-sector corruption (leading to the 1994 victory of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia) — the general election of 4 March 2018 has established the beginning of an entirely new power structure in Italy.
Today the Italian government is led by the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement or M5S) and the Lega (formerly the Lega Nord), working together in coalition. Whilst the former might be considered a solely ‘populist’ party (despite its unique position on the European political scene), the latter party is more of what I would call a ‘sovereign’ or ‘sovereigntist’ party. This is the rendering of an Italian expression which really has no effective counterpart in English. But when I say ‘sovereignism’ (or ‘sovereigntism’), what I have in mind are the various political forces — in Italy and elsewhere today — whose shared mission is to defend national and popular sovereignty.
In order to better understand the Lega’s triumph at the polls last year, we must contextualize the Italian situation against the broad European landscape — and the policies of the European Union.
The various economic and financial crises of 2008 caused a prolonged period of stagnation and impoverishment among European people, particularly in Southern Europe (specifically, the countries of Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain). As others have already noted, the crises and their effects were primarily the consequence of terrible policy decisions taken over the years by the national and supranational ‘ruling classes’ in Europe.
The result was that European citizens felt increasingly abandoned by the traditional and mainstream political parties in their countries. And last year, they decided to vote for entirely new political forces — particularly those which based their campaigns on ‘the need for a change’. Many observers and analysts also pointed to this as the emergence of a protest vote.
This is the context that gave birth to the rather unique alliance between the M5S, which received the greatest number of votes in the 2018 elections, and the Lega, which once formed part of the centre-right coalition with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. A third member of that coalition was the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy or FdI).
Is it possible to define the Lega as a genuinely conservative party? Although some have called it a ‘far right’ political force, it is actually a post-ideological party — capturing not only voters who formerly supported the traditional centre-right parties but also those who supported the left-wing parties.
One can see this electoral shift in the outskirts of Italy’s biggest cities, where citizens live social unrest first-hand (often caused by immigrants). Amid the urban decay and a weakening social fabric, it is the citizens in such places that have felt the most betrayed by the traditional left-wing and other mainstream parties, who voters have started to see as being closer to the ‘Italian establishment’ than the people. Voters began turning their back on the traditional parties, which is why so many of them chose to vote for the Lega.
While it can’t be defined a full-fledged ‘right-wing’ party, it’s obvious that the Lega has adopted attitudes and positions which have historically belonged to the right — particularly on questions over national security and identity. In fact, it is no accident that the name of the European parliamentary group, which includes the Lega (as well as Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National), is “Identity and Democracy”.
In answer to the question, “Is the Lega a conservative party?”, we must reply that it is not — particularly if we have in mind traditional forms or modes of conservative thinking, especially if we consider their approach to economics. The conservative tradition about which I have written elsewhere is much more likely to incorporate a free market attitude. The Lega, in contrast, partly due to the government alliance with the M5S, seems to prefer a more statist approach to economic policy.
In many respects, it would be far more accurate to define the Lega as a ‘revolutionary conservative’ party. This must appear evident when one considers that it came to power with the explicit aim of changing and ‘revolutionizing’ the system. At the same time, the Lega’s leaders seek to implement clearly conservative policies (as seen from their draft proposals for the Ministry of Family Affairs, or those touching on security and immigration).
In English, the Lega is usually described as a ‘national populist’ party. But even though we can see some populist influence on the party’s policies, it is not fully accurate to define the Lega as a populist force. This is because of its long-standing government involvement in areas such as Lombardy and Veneto, some of the most economically important regions in northern Italy.
In contrast, a more conservative-inspired party is Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI). Although during the European elections last year, the description “conservatives and sovereigntists” was added to the FdI’s traditional logo (an emblematic flame, which is also a traditional right-wing symbol), the FdI is a full-fledged right-wing party. Its ideological roots are found in the tradition of Alleanza Nazionale, a conservative party formed in the mid-1990s and later disbanded in 2009.
Party numbers have been steadily increasing as well. In this year’s European elections in May, the FdI did very well, crossing the 6% mark at the national level. At the European level, the FdI joined the ECR (European Conservatives and Reformist) parliamentary group, which was founded by the UK’s Conservative Party and includes the Polish government party, Law and Justice, among others.
Although some representatives of Italy’s conservative intellectual landscape can still be found within Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, today most Italian conservatives don’t identify themselves with any single party. They today tend to vote for any one of the three political forces constituting the Italian centre-right, as represented by the coalition government formed last year.
The truth is that the conservative world in Italy has splintered into various different groups. Conservatives here are still struggling to forge a unified and conservative-inspired political vision. In recent years, a real cultural struggle has emerged. One of its main benefits, however, is that this struggle has allowed former preconceptions about the word ‘conservative’ to be overcome.
In the past, the word ‘conservative’ was often confused with ‘reactionary’; and thus it was used (by the left) derogatorily. But today, things are different. Different organizations, publishers, journals, and magazines have been inspired by the new cultural and political orientation. This has allowed the development and dissemination of real conservative thinking through the publication of books, the organisation of events, and an increased presence by conservative spokesmen in debates on Italian media.
Italy though, unlike the U.S., has still not yet benefited from the key role that think-tanks and foundations can play. In our country, such institutions often carry out mere cultural and networking activities. Such institutions in Italy have little or no effect on the political realm; but, at the same time, they still seem wholly unable to maintain any independence from the country’s mainstream parties.
This is exactly what is needed for the creation of a serious conservative movement. As other nations have already done, Italians need to realise that it’s impossible to build long-lasting projects without cultural renewal, without a process that thinks about culture seriously — that is, an intellectual project that foregoes politics. After all, the cultural is always deeper than the political, as others before us have taught.