The Rise of Italy’s Populist Right Is a Bleak Warning From the Recent Past

In early 1990s Italy, the retreat of the Left and mounting popular cynicism toward politics allowed a new radical right to begin building its hegemony. For all its idiosyncrasies, the Italy of those years looks increasingly like a mirror of our own future — a country where fascist talking points became normalized and even mild reformism was decreed illegitimate.

Giorgia Meloni, Matteo Salvini, and Silvio Berlusconi in 2018. Wikimedia Commons

Italy is often portrayed as an outlier, a country whose long-stagnant economy and chaotic public life need to catch up with the higher standards of “normal” European countries. But Jacobin Europe editor David Broder’s new book First They Took Rome: How the Populist Right Conquered Italy takes the opposite view — arguing, rather more pessimistically, that Italy’s recent history of economic decline, political volatility, and rising far-right hegemony show other Western countries a mirror of their own future.

Whatever the liberal clichés about Italy’s timeless decadence and reactionary common sense, this is a country that even in the late 1980s boasted the West’s largest and most dynamic left, at a time when its GDP per capita outpaced that of Britain. Today, Italy instead represents the hollowing out of democratic choice, with the shattering of the mass parties of the so-called “First Republic” (1946–92) and a striking lack of political response to three decades of flatlining growth and collapsing wages.

Long before Brexit and Trump, today’s political turmoil across the West was foreshadowed already in the Italy of the early 1990s. Broder explains how the “Bribesville” anti-corruption trials of the early 1990s (also known as “Clean Hands”) fed an “anti-political” revolt against the old mass parties. The result was not to clean up politics, but rather to feed a wider privatization of public life, giving free reign to the most reactionary forces and hobbling democratic alternatives.

The following is an edited excerpt from First They Took Rome.

The downfall of the old edifice began in 1992 with the arrest of Mario Chiesa, a leading light in the Socialist Party (PSI) in Milan. As administrator of the city’s Pio Albergo Trivulzio nursing home, Chiesa received tens of millions of lire in kickbacks from the cleaning company boss Luca Magni in exchange for contracts. When Magni, unable to withstand the mounting payments, finally reported the situation to the magistrate Antonio di Pietro, a sting operation was set in motion against the corrupt machine politician.

On the early evening of February 17, Magni entered Chiesa’s office with a secret microphone and camera; when the Socialist agreed to the transaction, as expected, the carabinieri burst into the room. Alarmed, Chiesa bolted into the toilet with 37 million lire (about €20,000) in cash from another bribe — which he then attempted, in vain, to hide in the cistern. As the news spread across the TV networks, PSI boss Bettino Craxi tried to dismiss Chiesa as a “lone crook”: the Milan PSI, in the nation’s “moral capital” was, after all run by “honest people.”

Not all were convinced. Already in a May 1991 article for Milan magazine Società civile, the magistrate Di Pietro had written of a mounting climate of impunity — in his view, public tendering should be characterized “less in terms of corruption or abuse of office than an environment of illegal payments, an objective situation in which those who have to pay no longer even wait to be asked for it, knowing that in this climate bribes and pay-offs are customary.”

As far back as 1974, the scandali dei petroli had exposed the corrupt dealings between oil company bosses and leading politicians. But what more dramatically broke the political system apart in 1992 was its loss of internal solidarity, following the collapse of the Communist “threat.” Cast off by his party and thrown in jail, Chiesa soon began to talk, revealing the vast web of bribe money that the PSI had orchestrated. As the “Milan pool” judges picked up the men he named, a domino effect developed, and party underlings informed on others to save themselves. Of 4,520 people investigated in Milan, 1,281 were convicted, 965 through plea bargains.

Tearing through the webs of connivance within the old party machines, this so-called “Clean Hands” process was marked by a robust judicial activism. As judge Francesco Saverio Borrelli said of the politicians investigated, “we imprison them to make them talk. We let them go after they speak.” However, the spectacle surrounding the cases and the magistrates’ rise to public prominence fed their own direct integration into the political field itself.

The televised cross-examinations, and especially Di Pietro’s brusque tones in the courtroom, upended the First Republic’s characteristic etiquette, as stuffy institutional obfuscators were confronted by the crusading spirit of the prosecutor. This was also complemented by a kind of mob justice driven by media, not least as some of those on trial began to hurl muck at one another.

When the Milan pool judges began a trial of local officials from the former Communist Party, renamed Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left; PDS) in 1991, Lega leader Umberto Bossi proudly marched his supporters into the courtroom to shake Di Pietro’s hand before the cameras. The Lega leader himself soon admitted receiving massive illicit sums from the Montedison industrial group.

The image of the strident prosecutor-savior, exposing the failings of a moribund party system on behalf of cheated Italians, was particularly brought into relief by the government’s feeble response. In a clumsy bid to slow the tide of arrests, on March 5, 1993 the administration led by PSI premier Giuliano Amato issued the Decreto Conso, which sought to turn “illicit party financing” from a criminal to an administrative offense. His decree moreover contained a “silent clause,” which would effectively have allowed it to apply retroactively, thus cutting short thousands of Clean Hands investigations.

The Milan pool judges responded with a televised address warning the public of what this really meant, and amid the ensuing uproar the president refused to sign off the government’s text. Instead, the political crisis deepened, with news on March 27 that the Palermo public prosecutor was investigating one of the First Republic’s linchpins, former Christian-Democrat (DC) prime minister Giulio Andreotti, for Mafia ties. The party system was being brought to its knees.

The First Republic had been no golden age, and its ignominious downfall was no conspiracy. As journalist Marco Travaglio summarily put it, the trials which exposed Bribesville took place “because there had been a lot of bribes.” Yet, as Eric Hobsbawm said of the dissolution of the Communist Party (PCI), the effect of breaking up the mass parties was in many ways to “throw out the baby and keep the bathwater,” replacing corruption-ridden parties with personalized forces whose internal affairs were even more inscrutable.

Far from strengthening Italian democracy, the destruction of the First Republic instead opened the way for a wholesale attack on the institutional and cultural inheritance of postwar Italy, from employment rights to anti-fascism and even the role of the Constitution itself.

Indeed, the greater effect of the wave of anti-political sentiment was not to hand power back to ordinary citizens, but rather to prepare the way for reactionary, privatizing, and even criminal forces able to exploit the void at the heart of public life. The “liberal revolution” promised by the parties of the Second Republic would, in fact, prepare the perfect breeding ground for the Lega.

Enter Berlusconi

The April 1992 general election, held just weeks after Mario Chiesa’s rush to the toilet, came too early to be determined by Clean Hands. The big losers were, in fact, the heirs to the Communist Party, reeling from both the break-up of the PCI and a wider liberal triumphalism surrounding the demise of the Soviet Union.

The first real sign of the post–Clean Hands political dynamics instead came with the local elections held in June and November 1993, where, for the first time, Italians directly elected city mayors. The Christian-Democrats were everywhere defeated, securing only 12 percent of the votes cast in the capital; the dominant party here was instead the post-Communist PDS, which took Rome and Naples as well as backing the winning candidate in Turin.

Yet the most remarkable news came in Milan, where the Lega Nord romped to victory, and with the advances for the post-fascist MSI. This far-right party made the run-offs in both Rome (where it took 47 percent in the second round) and Naples, where Alessandra Mussolini garnered 44 percent of the vote. If the elections most of all saw the old government parties punished, the second-round ballottaggi had also shown conservatives’ willingness to rally behind even post-fascist candidates to block the PDS.

This also heralded a wider realignment on the right wing of Italian politics. Indeed, if the PDS scored major local successes, the collapse of Christian Democracy was also opening the way for other forces — not just those carrying forth the message of Clean Hands, but also those who sought to put a stop to it.

This was particularly evident in the intervention of one of Craxi’s long-standing allies, the billionaire TV entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi. Long an associate but not a member of the PSI, his allegiances instead lay with the Propaganda Due masonic lodge, a fraternity that united mainstream politicians with mob bosses and far-right terrorists.

Having come under investigation for his ties to organized crime — and faced with a likely PDS victory in the coming general election — the tycoon sought an immunity for himself rather like that which Craxi had briefly secured. On January 26, 1994, Berlusconi issued a televised address announcing that he himself would “enter the field” (scendere in campo) in the attempt to save Italy from “the Communists.” The general election called for March 27 and 28 would represent his first test at the ballot box.

The televised address that Berlusconi made from his office was a striking intervention in public debate — Antonio Gibelli estimates that by the end of that evening some 26 million Italians had watched the speech, in whole or in part. But the entrepreneur’s decision to take to the field — and particularly his way of presenting it — also augured a new era in Italian politics, characterized by the cult of the reticent popular hero.

In his address, the billionaire cast himself as a humble son of Italy who had only reluctantly entered public life, unwilling as he was to live “in an illiberal country governed by men [the former Communists] double-bound to an economically and politically bankrupt past.” Berlusconi made ample reference to both his business experience and his newness to public life, an “anti-political” message strengthened by his invocation of the needs of gente comune (“ordinary folks”) rather than the more cohesive popolo.

Berlusconi called for an end to party politics, a new era in which Italy would be governed by “wholly new men” — his would be a “free organization of voters” — rather than the “umpteenth party or faction.” As against the “cartel of the forces of the Left” (deemed “orphans of, and nostalgics for, communism”), he called for a “pole of freedoms” to unite private enterprise and “love of work” with the family values of Catholic Italy.

The folksier tones of this message fed on a popular loss of faith in institutional elites. Yet Berlusconi’s message also called for a stop to the turbulence created by Clean Hands, here coded as a return to “calm.” He portrayed the PDS in terms of militancy and disruption, indeed in the most classically anti-Communist terms, accusing the party of seeking “to turn the country into a fulminating street protest [piazza], which shouts, rants, condemns.”

While Berlusconi pointed to the failings of the “old political class,” he smoothed over the specifics of Bribesville, instead collapsing it into the triptych of “criminality, corruption, and drugs” and the high public debt run up in recent years. The problem, it seemed, was not the actual parties of government, but rather “politics” as such, from “the Left” to the “prophets and saviors” whom the trials had brought to the surface. What could, however, “make the state work” was a businessman of broad experience. Given this enthusiasm for putting business values into politics, it was no surprise that his candidates in 1994 were dominated by employees of his Fininvest and Publitalia companies.

This regeneration of the Right would have been impossible without Berlusconi’s pre-existing political ties. Indeed, his media power, rooted in privatizations that had begun in the late 1970s, also owed specifically to his association with the corrupt Socialist prime minister Craxi.

Under the First Republic, the public broadcaster RAI had held a monopoly on national television, but this was chipped away over the 1970s with the granting of licenses to supposedly “local” stations like Berlusconi’s Telemilano, which, in reality, broadcast nationally. Already by 1983, his channels sold more ad space than the RAI, and after a legal challenge in 1984–85, Craxi issued the so-called decreti Berlusconi to put a formal end to the monopoly.

Where RAI was governed by the demands of public-service broadcasting, the tycoon’s stations instead served up a diet of escapism, promoting the sovereignty of the consumer and a Gordon Gekko–style image of success. The tacky glamour promoted by prime-time chat and US soaps was allied to the carefree materialism of the game show. Some, like comedian Beppe Grillo (cast out by RAI after his trashing of Craxi), refused to appear on the billionaire’s channels. But Berlusconi had a platform to address tens of millions.

In this sense, it soon became clear that the judicial offensive against “the parties” had opened the way to powerful and well-structured forces even less democratic than their First Republic predecessors. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia vehicle — a creation of his media empire in which he personally picked the candidates — had neither local branches, members, party congresses, or internal elections.

In the 1994 general election, it was also allied to other radical forces, from Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord to Gianfranco Fini’s MSI (now rebadged Alleanza Nazionale; AN). These parties like Berlusconi each vaunted their credentials as “outsiders” who stood against the political legacy of the First Republic. Yet, in truth, they merely represented different souls of the Right.

While Berlusconi’s televised address had augured a Thatcher-style revolution in Italy (“liberal in politics, free-marketeer in economics”), this stood at odds with the more paternalist hues of the AN and small centrist forces; the Lega Nord, based in the heartlands of the wartime Resistance, in turn refused to enter any direct alliance with the post-fascists.

Berlusconi’s coalition soon took a lead in the polls — trashing any hopes that Clean Hands might have paved the center-left’s own path to high office. And the result of the March 1994 election was the destruction of the parties that had ruled Italy since World War II. The right-wing coalitions built around Forza Italia amassed some 16.6 million votes, as the candidates of Berlusconi, Bossi, and Fini drew almost 43 percent support.

This was a massive blow for the PDS, whose Alliance of Progressives scored just 13.3 million votes (34 percent); the surviving trunks of the old DC, a party that had been the largest party of government without interruption from 1944 to 1992, won the backing of only 6.1 million Italians, less than 16 percent of the total. Aside from the sheer speed of the new right’s breakthrough, the result was also remarkable for the distribution of seats.

Held under the new electoral law passed by referendum in April 1993 — with 75 percent of seats assigned on the basis of first-past-the-post – the March 1994 contest made the Lega the largest single party in the Chamber of Deputies, and gave Berlusconi and his allies a hundred-seat majority.

Rehabilitating the Far Right

Such a rapid electoral triumph was impressive for a man who claimed that he had “never wanted to enter politics.” Indeed, this claim pointed not only to Berlusconi’s “outsider” status, but also his opportunism in entering the public arena. From the start of his reign, it was obvious that he had sought high office in order to shield himself from fraud and racketeering charges, both exploiting the political chaos created by Clean Hands and trying to protect himself from it.

The Biondi bill of July 1994 — a bid to put an end to Clean Hands, ultimately felled by the Lega (after some equivocation) — was a first, failed, example of the ad personam legislation that Berlusconi used to shield himself and his underlings from prosecution.

Where the old parties’ local sections, internal elections, and congresses had been polluted by conflicts of interest, Forza Italia was overtly a web of business associates personally dependent on Berlusconi’s empire. At the same time, while the tycoon took his distance from the mass parties of the First Republic, he also took sharply different attitudes to the two forces that had been excluded from high office — the Communists and the neofascists.

When Berlusconi heralded the end of the Cold War as the triumph of liberal values, this looked a lot like a shift to the right, indeed a throwback to a previous age of anti-communism. Indeed, whereas he characterized his own right-wing coalition as “liberal and Christian,” anyone who opposed it was labelled a “communist.”

The neofascist MSI had long claimed that the state, the universities, and public television were overrun with Communists; this same myth was now used by Berlusconi to smear anyone who challenged his interests. For the billionaire, the PDS, the magistrates, and his critics at the Economist were part of one same “Red” establishment: he even labelled this weekly spigot of free-marketeer liberalism the Ecommunist.

Curiously, the dissolution of the actually existing Communist Party allowed Berlusconi to apply this label all the more indiscriminately. In 2003, he staged a photo op brandishing a fifty-year-old copy of PCI daily l’Unità with the headline “Stalin Is Dead,” cocking a snook at the supposedly “real” sympathies of his opponents.

Berlusconi’s crude reassertion of anti-communism was also the basis for the rehabilitation of the far right, the “post-fascists” who joined his so-called Pole of Good Government. As the 1960 attempt to create a Christian-Democratic government reliant on neofascist parliamentary support had shown, the cordon sanitaire against the MSI had never been a direct product of the ban on the Fascist Party, but rather owed to mobilized opposition.

Over the 1970s, the MSI had remained Italy’s fourth largest party, winning up to 9 percent in national elections; atrocities like the August 2, 1980 bombing of Bologna station, killing eighty-five people, also illustrated the violent threat from more militant neofascist circles around the edges of the MSI. In the 1990s, however, with the demise of the DC, the old camerati moved to adopt its positions as their own. At a party congress in 1987, MSI leader Gianfranco Fini had declared himself a “fascist for the 2000s”; by the time of the 1994 election, he had become the self-proclaimed “conservative” leader of the new AN.

The ignominious collapse of the DC, combined with the lack of any mass party of the right, presented the space in which longtime fascists could reinvent themselves as a traditional conservative ally of the more “free-marketeer” Forza Italia. Fini’s AN sought closer ties with the small ex-DC factions that had entered the right-wing coalition and also adopted more liberal positions regarding both the European project and immigration (which were now each accepted, but conditionally).

This was a break from the MSI’s tradition — after all, its roots in the wartime Salò Republic and Mussolini’s rearguard struggle against both the Resistance and the US Army had imbued the party with a foundational hostility to the First Republic, and some currents within its ranks such as that led by Pino Rauti had maintained an “anti-systemic” stance against NATO and European integration. In the 1990s, the AN however eschewed this “militant” past, creating a socially conservative and pro-European party akin to Spain’s post–Franco Partido Popular.

With Berlusconi ready to admit that “Mussolini did good things, too,” the MSI’s leaders could wind down their obsession with Il Duce without having to repudiate their own roots entirely. The example of former MSI youth chief Gianni Alemanno, a key architect of the new center-right, was telling.

In 1986, the young fascist had been arrested for attempting to disrupt a ceremony in Nettuno, at which Ronald Reagan honored the US troops who fell on Italian soil in World War II. Yet, by the time he was elected mayor of the capital in 2008, Alemanno was embarrassed to find his victory greeted by fascist-saluting skinheads outside city hall.

He responded with an apparent gesture of contrition, paying a visit to Rome’s synagogue in which he extolled the “universal” values of the fight against Nazism. Yet this was also a means to paint the anti-fascist element of the partisan war as a form of sectarianism: Alemanno decried the “crimes committed by both sides” in the “civil war” among Italians.

This relativist offensive against anti-fascist norms made progress in an era in which “politics” had become a dirty word and in which the Resistance generation were ever less central to public life. There had always been revisionist narratives of Italy’s wartime history, seeking to put partisans and fascists on a more equal footing: but only after the fall of the First Republic did they became part of the common sense.

This was particularly notable in the success of such works as the novelized “histories” written by journalist Giampaolo Pansa. His series of works, beginning at the turn of the millennium invoked the “memory of the defeated” — the silenced and calumnied defenders of Salò — as against the mythology with which the First Republic had garlanded itself.

More broadly, revisionist narratives focused on the killings of Italian citizens by Yugoslav partisans, in the so-called foibe massacres; interest in this neighboring country did not however extend to the far-greater numbers of Yugoslavs slaughtered by Italian troops. The purpose was a domestic, political one, in the bid to undermine anti-fascists’ claims to superior moral and democratic standing.

It seemed that the collapse of the old party order had brought a sudden rewriting of its origin story. Indeed, this offensive especially exploited the discredit into which the parties of the Resistance had now fallen. As il manifesto’s Lucio Magri put it, after the Bribesville scandal, the democratic republic born of 1945 was no longer bathed in heroism but damned “as the home of bribes and a party regime that had excluded citizens”; the largest Resistance party, the PCI, was remembered only as “Moscow’s fifth column” therein.

This narrative was even taken up by many who had long labored in its own ranks. Exemplary was Giorgio Napolitano, who joined the PCI in December 1945 and embraced Stalinist orthodoxy before becoming a key leader of the party’s most moderate migliorista (gradualist) wing. In the 1990s, he sharply repudiated the party’s record, which he recast as a regime of lies unable to face up to its own essential criminality. As president from 2006, Napolitano went so far as to commemorate the Communist partisans’ victims in the foibe of north-eastern Italy, including known fascists.

Some anti-fascists did remain mobilized, unwilling to swallow the more flagrant misrepresentations of the republic’s founding values. This was visible as early as April 25, 1994, in the commemorations which marked the traditional anniversary of Italy’s liberation from Nazi-Fascist rule.

When Lega leader Umberto Bossi attempted to join the Liberation Day march in Milan, just four weeks after he had helped elect the most right-wing government in decades, he was quickly driven away by protestors. The Lega Nord was not itself of Mussolinian origin: rooted in the Northern regions where the Resistance was strongest, it expressed a sometimes-virulent hostility to Fini’s ex-MSI, refusing to seal any direct electoral alliance with the post-fascists even when both parties were joined to Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

The Lega Nord leader later received a suspended jail sentence after an outburst when he suggested that his members might go “door to door” and deal with the fascists “like the partisans did.” Yet his initial promise that he would “never” join a government that included post-fascists would prove short-lived.