- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
All the polls indicate that Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party, will become Italy’s prime minister after a general election on September 25. Meloni follows in the footsteps of another successful far-right politician, Matteo Salvini. Their electoral breakthroughs come after a long period of political domination by Silvio Berlusconi, who pioneered the political techniques later deployed by figures such as Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Boris Johnson.
How could this be happening in a country once renowned for its powerful Communist Party, its vigorous social movements, and its vibrant anti-fascist consensus, expressed in songs like “Bella Ciao”? In works like The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945, British historian John Foot has tracked the mutation of Italian politics in recent decades. Foot argues that Italy has long served as a laboratory for political trends later exported to other countries, so we should all be keeping a close eye on the latest developments in Rome.
Many people on the Italian and international left came to look back at Italy’s moment of liberation from 1943 onward as a lost opportunity for revolution. Do you think that was a realistic evaluation, or was it a case of wishful thinking?
The period from 1943 to 1945 with the Resistance was very attractive and fascinating to the Left in general. Many British people took part in it directly. Some were involved in the official British army that was liberating Italy, such as Denis Healey, who became a prominent Labour politician.
But there were also a number of British radicals who took part in the Resistance itself, such as Stuart Hood, a novelist who later became controller of the BBC. He was a partisan in Italy during the war. Many people were connected to that experience of anti-fascist armed resistance and the liberation of Italy from both the Nazis and Italian Fascism at the same time.
As for the idea of revolution coming out of that — I think there’s a somewhat mythical element to that. There were lots of people involved in resistance who were revolutionaries — in fact, you could probably say the communists were the major driving force. But it was actually a very complicated and varied movement, with Christian Democrats, liberals, monarchists, and all kinds of people taking part.
It was quite a divided movement as well. Many of those people simply wanted to restore democracy. Some of them wanted a radical form of democracy, some of them wanted a social revolution, and some of them wanted those things at the same time. There’s been a lot of work on that. I’m thinking particularly of Claudio Pavone’s magisterial book A Civil War, which came out in English translation with Verso a few years ago.
Whether that was a revolutionary moment is very debatable. There’s no doubt it inspired many people, obviously on the Italian left, but also internationally, as had the Spanish Civil War. There were very strong connections between the two experiences; indeed, some of the same people were involved in both. Many people looked to Italy after 1945 as a place of radical change, in part because of its huge Communist Party, and also because of the writings of Antonio Gramsci and the influence they had on large parts of the Left in Italy and elsewhere after 1945.
Why were the Christian Democrats able to remain in power without interruption from their crucial election victory in 1948 all the way through to the early 1990s?
The Christian Democrats were an enormous mass party with millions of members, trade unions, federations, and social clubs. It was like a little state, really. Why were they not out of power between 1948 and the 1990s? There are several answers to that.
One answer might simply be that they kept winning elections. They won very big in 1948, which was the major set-piece Cold War election, where it was seen as Communism vs. the West. There was a clear choice between a left that was very much still wedded to the Soviet model, and a Christian Democrat party that was wedded, not to a consumerist US model, but certainly to a Western, noncommunist and anti-communist model.
The Christian Democrats won a big victory that time, and they never really lost an election after that, although they needed more coalition allies to stay in power. So that was one reason for their success: the majority of Italian people didn’t want to be governed nationally by the Left, and they kept voting for a moderate and in many ways socially active Christian Democratic party, right up to the 1990s.
Then there’s a more conspiracy-theory answer, which is about the Cold War itself. This is where you enter into counterfactuals. If the Communist Party and the Italian left had won the election, would they have been allowed to take power?
There’s a whole series of analyses that say this was a situation that would not have been allowed to change. You would have had the tanks rolling in, or US pressure and so on. Italy was a very important part of the Cold War bloc, on the border with Yugoslavia, and there was a domino theory about what would happen if Italy collapsed.
Ultimately, there were several different reasons for the success of Christian Democracy. The Christian Democrats had very strong systems of patronage, clientelism, and resources. They used the state to stay in power. The Left was divided and didn’t really get its act together. Then you had the Cold War structures, which meant that this was a kind of fixed system, as it was in other countries like Japan for the whole postwar period.
Was the entry of the Socialist Party into the Italian government during the 1960s a lost opportunity for reform?
The Socialist Party (PSI) had gone in with the Communist Party (PCI) in a Popular Front in 1948. It had been smashed by that association, then later pulled itself away from the Communists and decolonized itself. It moved over to a Western social-democratic model. In the 1960s, partly because the Christian Democrats were progressively losing votes at every election, they formed what was called the Center Left, an alliance with the Socialists, first in local and then in national government.
This was a brainchild of Aldo Moro, a very important figure in the moderate Christian Democrat world. Moro was a middle-of-the-road Christian Democrat who was always looking to the Left for allies. They formed this alliance at first in places like Milan and then at the national level. The Socialist Party came in with some big reformist ideas.
Some of those ideas were very important and were actually carried out, such as school reform and badly needed modernization of some of Italy’s institutions, like asylums and universities. However, a lot of the big plans for reform were blocked. They got caught up in corruption and vested interests.
It’s very hard in the Italian system to carry through big reforms, in part because the system set up after the experience of Fascism made it very difficult for those in power to direct things in a clear way. It was a very anti-fascist structure, opposed to the centralization of power, and quite devolutionary as well, so it was very hard to push through reforms.
Some of the reforms were good, some of them were bad, so I wouldn’t say it was an entirely lost opportunity for reform. But it wasn’t the transformational situation that had been promised by the PSI. In fact, the Socialists themselves got very much sucked into the system in corrupt ways after the 1960s.
When the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti died in 1964, what kind of party did he leave behind, and how was it equipped for the era of protest that began in the late 1960s?
Palmiro Togliatti was the undisputed leader of the PCI for the postwar period, but also under Fascism, when he was an exile in Moscow. He was an extraordinary figure in many ways, with some very dark aspects to his life and career. He was in Moscow throughout the 1930s and managed to escape the purges against others in that period. He came back to Italy in 1944 and became part of the government, before being chucked out in the Cold War settlement of 1947–48.
Togliatti was a very strong leader, with a huge cult of personality around him — he was called il migliore (“the best”). He was the leader of an incredible mass party, with more than two million members. It was the biggest mass communist party ever to exist in a Western democracy. It covered all kinds of different areas, from trade unions to sporting activities, factory cells, publishers, and so on. Togliatti died in Yalta in the Soviet Union in 1964, and his funeral was one of the most amazing moments in postwar Italian history, when more than a million people came out.
He left behind a mass party with incredible power at the local level in places like Bologna, which was very radical in terms of its approach to governance and participatory democracy. But it was also in some ways an ossified, Stalinist party, where debate and dissent were not really tolerated. Lots of people left in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and lots of others would leave in 1968.
It wasn’t ready for ’68, which it found very difficult to cope with, because a lot of the left-wing activists said that they were against the Communists as well as the Christian Democrats. They saw the Communists as being part of the problem — part of the state, part of the machine, part of the establishment. The PCI was also quite a conservative, moralistic party in terms of attitudes about the family, and it certainly wasn’t ready for the emergence of radical feminism in that period.
It really struggled to come to terms with what was happening. The “hot autumn” strikes of 1969 in Turin, Milan, and elsewhere undercut the trade unions, where all the Communists were active, and the PCI was very surprised by that. It was an extraordinary mass party, but not one that was ready for the movements of students and workers in the late ’60s.
The growth of collective action from 1968 onward and the electoral rise of the PCI stoked up expectations that Italy was on the brink of a major political turn in the mid 1970s. It was a time of great hope for some and great anxiety for others. Why was the ultimate outcome of that decade a reversion to the status quo ante — at least in terms of government formation?
Again, that’s an enormous question. The PCI and the unions made peace with ’68 in a way, by entering into dialogue with the students and workers who had abandoned them. They managed to benefit from the whole wave of the Left after ’68. The Communist vote continued to rise. The PCI also had an extraordinary leader at that time called Enrico Berlinguer, who had immense charisma and was very popular with the base. He was very outspoken about corruption in the political system.
Although the PCI benefited from the new wave of left-wing thought, it didn’t really transform itself or come up with a lot of new ideas. In fact, much of what it did politically was very defensive, particularly after the 1973 coup in Chile against Salvador Allende. Berlinguer came to the conclusion that democracy had to be defended, and that meant going into an alliance with the Christian Democrats — the so-called historic compromise. This was a huge shock to the base of the PCI, because for many of them, the Christian Democrats had been the enemy — almost the Antichrist — and they didn’t really buy into it. They only bought into it for reasons of discipline.
There’s an old saying which is a bit of a cliché in Italy: “Everything must change so that everything can remain the same.” The system reinvented itself. It incorporated the Communist Party, which already was partially incorporated, into the structures of power. That rise in the PCI’s vote led to huge hopes that finally someone else was going to be in charge, but it never really happened, although there were a number of incredible reforms carried out. We must not forget that the 1970s was a period of radical reform in Italy.
For example, Italy was the first country in the world to close its psychiatric hospitals through the Basaglia Law of 1978, because of issues to do with the treatment of mental illness, and for moral and political reasons, not for reasons of cost. There was radical reform of the schools and universities, creating institutions that were very open and democratic in many cases. I don’t think that should be undervalued, but political change at the top was not happening at all at that time.
Was the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the PCI in the early ’90s a necessary condition for the tangentopoli scandals and the demise of the Christian Democrats?
I went to live in Milan in 1987, which was the epicenter for all of this. I lived through it and wrote a lot about the tangentopoli scandals. When I first arrived, the system seemed pretty stable. You had a governing alliance in Rome of Christian Democrats, Socialists, and a number of minor parties, called the Pentapartito (“five parties”). It looked as if they had been in power forever and would continue to be in power forever.
The Socialist leader Bettino Craxi was a Tony Blair figure before his time. I’ve argued in my book The Archipelago that Italy is often a forerunner of the political changes that we later see happening in other countries. First it invented fascism after World War I, then it invented radical forms of democracy with its constitution after 1945.
Craxi was Blair ten years before Blair himself. He took over the Socialist Party and got rid of the hammer and sickle, replacing it with a flower. He embraced business and the stock market boom of the 1980s. He also embraced consumerism and television campaigning.
In 1987–88, it appeared to be a very stable system. The parties had huge amounts of members (although many of them were fake, by the way). But if you looked beneath the surface, you quickly realized that this was a system built on forms of corruption that were very scientific and deeply rooted. Those parties could get the vote out every time there was an election, but their support base was very superficial.
With the end of the Cold War, the PCI entered into crisis. It decided to change its name to the Democratic Party of the Left and split for the first time. That created a ferment that was part of what was going on. In addition, the whole Cold War settlement was no longer valid. Why keep the Christian Democrats in power, with this very corrupt system, if there was no longer a communist threat?
The system started to lose its legitimacy. In that context, magistrates in Milan began investigating business entrepreneurs and politicians in 1992 and arrested thousands of them. It was an amazing moment. Tangentopoli, which means “bribesville,” started in Milan but then went national. It was also based around the incredible waste and corruption of the 1990 World Cup, which had been held in Italy.
The whole system, in a few months, completely collapsed. People began hating the so-called corrupt politicians, who were also from the Left, and new parties started to emerge out of the ashes of the old system, particularly the Lega Nord. I would say this was one of the first populist organizations to emerge in Europe. It was an anti-political, regionalist organization, which swept to power in northern Italy — a very rich part of Europe — in the period between 1992 and 1994. A lot was happening: everything was up for grabs, many politicians were being put on trial, and it felt as if nothing was ever going to be the same again.
When Silvio Berlusconi first became Italy’s prime minister in the 1990s, he was often seen in the Anglophone world as a kind of Italian oddity or perhaps grotesquerie. Almost thirty years later, in the wider context of Western Europe and North America, he seems much less exceptional as a political figure. What were the broader social and political trends that enabled him to move center stage at that time?
Berlusconi is a fascinating figure in so many ways. He’s another person that I came across when I went to Italy in the late ’80s and have written about extensively. I saw his rise and fall and rise again. Some people talk about the ventennio (“twenty years”) of Berlusconi — the Berlusconi era — which is also a comparison with the twenty years of [Benito] Mussolini.
Let’s go back a bit and say something about who Berlusconi was in the ’80s. He was a very successful businessman. He first made his money with the construction of housing in Milan on the back of the economic miracle of the 1950s and ’60s. He branched out very quickly into broadcasting and effectively invented private television in Italy, which was a mixture of game shows, sex, quizzes, and American soap operas, where advertising was central — all the stuff that Italians had largely been denied by the quite boring state TV channels that had controlled the system for so long.
Berlusconi came in on the wave. To some extent, he invented an alternative consumerist culture, but he also built on something that was already there. After the postwar years, people finally had some money to spend. There was quite a lot of money swirling around in Milan and elsewhere in the 1980s. He quickly built up strong political connections — which everybody needs in Italy — particularly with Bettino Craxi. They had a very strong relationship: on a couple of occasions, Craxi saved his TV stations from being declared illegal under anti-trust legislation.
When tangentopoli happened and the system collapsed, Berlusconi was still largely a businessperson, but he saw both an opportunity and a threat in what was going on. He thought the Left was going to take power in a coalition called the Alliance of Progressives. At that moment, he did one of the most extraordinary things that has ever been done in postwar politics. We’ve seen it happen time and time again since then, but it was incredibly important, innovative, and shocking when Berlusconi did it for the first time.
He formed an organization from nothing, based around his business empire, called Forza Italia. It didn’t really have any members. Nobody had ever heard of it before. It was run by the executives in Berlusconi’s own company. In a matter of months, he won an election, and took a lot of working-class votes. His party came first in an area of Turin called Mirafiori Sud, which was probably the most working-class part of Italy, where all the FIAT workers lived.
He had a message of anti-communism on the one hand — “Don’t let the Left win, they’re going to take all your money away” — but on the other hand putting the emphasis on himself: “I’m a successful person.” It was the personalization of politics, with the use of his TV stations to relentlessly push this message.
He also pioneered the kind of populist tactics that we are now well aware of, saying one thing one day, another the next, grabbing attention, making the election all about himself. He did this through television since there was no social media at this point. Figures like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Viktor Orbán have all taken parts of what Berlusconi did in the 1990s on board.
The British media often looked upon him as a joke figure: they talked about his sexual scandals and the silly things that he said. I think he was in fact a very serious political actor, who would win elections again and again. His first attempt at being in government in 1994 was a disaster, because he had no experience and hadn’t built solid alliances. But he did build those alliances over time, managed to win huge majorities, and governed for longer than any other politician in postwar Italy, spending over a thousand days in power.
Once he was in power, Berlusconi wasn’t a [Margaret] Thatcher figure. He wasn’t interested in transforming society, but rather in protecting his businesses and his own person. For example, he passed laws that made himself immune from prosecution twice. There were a lot of fairly grotesque moments like that. Many people compared him to an emperor or the king of a court.
Berlusconi is someone to be studied. He lies at the origin of many things that have come later — he’s the blueprint. Once again, it’s an example of Italy setting trends. Italy is often seen as following trends, which I think is completely the wrong way of looking at it.
On the last part of the question: he rode a wave of social change. The working class was declining, factories were closing, different economic models were forming. There were many people who ran their own businesses. In Milan, fashion had replaced metalwork or the construction of trains. Berlusconi rode that wave.
He understood society. He understood individualism and the desire for success. He built on that, and on the desire not to be bothered by politics or by the tax collector. The “do what you want” message that he sent out was very powerful to a certain kind of Italian at that time who didn’t want to be governed by what they saw as communists or ex-communists, and didn’t want to be overtaxed by them in that period.
I haven’t even talked about football, which is a central part of why Berlusconi was so successful. He had a very successful football team, AC Milan, which fed into everything else. His sporting success and political success were very closely linked in the way that he talked. That’s absolutely central to understanding his rise to power.
When the post-communist Italian left finally did take office in the 1990s and after, what was its record of achievement? What became of the attempt by Rifondazione Comunista (“Communist Refoundation”) to preserve something of the Italian communist tradition?
As I said previously, the PCI changed its name at a very dramatic congress. This led to a huge debate in the party. There’s a fantastic film about it by Nanni Moretti called La Cosa (“The Thing”). The question they were asking themselves was, what are we going to do with this Communist Party? They decided they weren’t going to call themselves communists anymore because the communist world has collapsed.
At that moment, the party split. It had originally been formed as a split from the Socialist Party in the 1920s. Now there was another split and the formation of a group called Rifondazione Comunista. It took a fair chunk of people away from the old PCI — not the majority by any means, but a fair chunk, up to 10 or 15 percent in some places. That survival of communism lasted for ten or fifteen years as an important player in the Italian political system.
It’s important to remember that communism didn’t collapse entirely at this point. You still had the idea of the PCI being a great radical postwar party and the connections to the Resistance and anti-fascism, many of which had been revived by what Berlusconi was doing. Berlusconi had brought the ex-fascists or post-fascists into power. That led to immense soul-searching and debates within Italy about the legitimation of anti-fascism. Anti-fascism enjoyed something of a revival around this time as well.
The part of the PCI that didn’t go over to Rifondazione was the majority. They formed a moderate block that also involved many Christian Democrats, because the Christian Democratic party collapsed into different factions during this period, too. They organized themselves most successfully into an electoral alliance called the Olive Tree, led by an ex-Christian Democrat called Romano Prodi.
Prodi was the polar opposite of Berlusconi: quite boring, quite technocratic, but also quite solid and popular in an anti-Berlusconian kind of way. That alliance won the election in 1996 and led to a quite radical government in Italian terms. Of course, it was radical simply in the sense that this was the first time the Left had been in power during the postwar era, now that the Cold War settlement had been overturned.
It was a very interesting government, which included Green members: its environment minister was a Green, for example. It also had the possibility of carrying out reforms in terms of European integration under Prodi. However, that government was brought down by Rifondazione, which left the coalition over the moderate nature of its policies.
I don’t think there was a great record of achievement. That government was a very promising one, and the way it was brought down was extremely damaging. But in the Italian system, if you’re not in a solid alliance, you’re going to lose the election. Berlusconi understood that and built very solid alliances with the Lega and the ex-fascists while he was out of office. That meant he was going to win the next election, while the Left was divided.
During the First Republic, Italy was renowned for the combativity of its working class and its wider culture of social mobilization. How does the Second Republic compare in that respect?
Most people say the Second Republic starts with tangentopoli and the collapse of the parties. Of course, it wasn’t an official “Second Republic.” The constitution remained the same and that is what patterns the way that Italian politics works, although there has been some tinkering with the electoral system, which first went to a British-style system, then back to proportional representation.
During the Second Republic, if we can call it that, after the 1990s, there was a moment of working-class militancy, particularly in the face of the austerity programs which were imposed so that Italy could adhere to the very stringent requirements of the single currency. There were also moments of violence. During that time, you saw very large numbers of strikes and protests against the austerity measure.
But this was really the dying moment of the great organized working-class struggles which had begun in the late 1960s, or perhaps even earlier. Those struggles achieved several great reforms: for example, you couldn’t really be sacked from working for big companies without a just cause. The workers’ movement won some very important rights in the ’60s and ’70s.
However, by the 1990s, many of the big factories have been closed or outsourced. Different kinds of technology was coming in. FIAT was using robots, and the unions had been greatly weakened. Italy still had a lot of strikes, but many of those strikes were much more about corporate rights and were seen as being quite conservative in many ways. The unions came to be seen by many as part of the system, defending privileges for certain groups of workers while young people ended up in jobs without rights.
During the Second Republic, there have been some extraordinary social movements, but they haven’t really been about the working class so much. They’ve been much more about women’s rights, democratic rights, immigrant rights, and so on. There have been anti-Berlusconi movements, the global justice protests at Genoa in 2001, and the demonstrations against the Iraq War, which were massive in Italy. But the working class doesn’t exist in anything like the same form as before, and therefore many of the ways that it used to protest no longer make sense.
What impact has membership of the EU — and the eurozone in particular — had on Italy’s economy and on its political life?
The European Union was always very popular in Italy, if you look at any of the opinion surveys. Italy had always been at the heart of the project: from the Treaty of Rome onward, it had been one of the key nations inside it, and the Italian governing elites considered it very important that Italy should be part of the eurozone. Prodi was the architect of that, ensuring that Italy fulfilled the requirements of membership.
That led to privatizations and offloading of the huge state sector. It also led to austerity and very heavy taxes. One of the most extraordinary taxes that I’ve seen in operation was the special Euro tax that Prodi brought in. He actually took the money straight out of people’s bank accounts, which seemed very old-style communist, in some ways!
The Euro has not been popular since it was implemented, even though the idea that Italy should be part of that project had previously been very popular. There have been some very shaky moments with the Euro, particularly in 2008.
Berlusconi was in power at the time, and not taken seriously by Angela Merkel, for example, as someone who could bring in the austerity that she and others seemed to think was required. Italy might well have been another Greece and there were some aspects where Italy was another Greece. There was very strong interference by the EU in Italian domestic politics, whatever you think of Berlusconi.
Being in the Euro and even being in the EU has lost a lot of popularity in the last few years. Some of the major parties have called directly for an exit from the currency union, as the Euro has been blamed for a lot of Italy’s problems. There have even been calls for an exit from the EU itself. However, Brexit was very important in that regard because it provided a kind of cautionary tale, in the sense that it looked so terrible from the outside, so many Italians pulled back from the brink.
Even the Lega, which was probably the strongest party in terms of calling for an exit, is not calling for that anymore. It’s calling for a renegotiation of the Euro, which is a much weaker possibility. Brexit provided an example that Italy didn’t want to repeat. Now, there’s a consensus around staying in both the EU and the eurozone, but that’s not particularly popular.
Things are often blamed on Germany in terms of economics, which can sometimes be an expedient point of view, but there’s a truth to it as well. Italy is at the same time engaged and not engaged with the institutions of the EU. Italian MEPs are very unengaged with the European Parliament, but European elections are seen as incredibly important in the Italian political system.
The coalition between the Five Star Movement and the Lega that was formed in 2018 was arguably the most unorthodox government in any of the major West European states since 1945. How did Italian politics reach the point where that was possible, and why was the government so short-lived?
Once again, we need to go back a little. I think it was Eric Hobsbawm who first made the point about Italy being a laboratory. Hobsbawm was very interested in Italy and used Gramsci as the basis for many of the things that he wrote. There’s an excellent documentary by the London Review of Books about Hobsbawm which has a lot of material about Italy in it.
The Five Star Movement was another example of Italy functioning as a political laboratory. Berlusconi had developed a kind of populist, “anti-political” political movement based mainly on television, but also using sports and his businesses. It was very successful in terms of messaging and the use of advertising. Then you had the emergence of social media, which created a new opportunity for populism.
Into the emptiness of the Berlusconi years stepped a man called Beppe Grillo. Grillo was a successful, quite angry comedian, who had been banned from TV in the 1980s because he called the Socialist Party “thieves.” He had a rebellious image attached to him — big hair, crazy guy, funny. What happened then was a bit like that film Network. In his comedy events, which were massive, with tons of people attending, he started to go political and attack big business.
At some of the early events, Grillo smashed up computers on stage with a baseball bat, but then he embraced the internet and said it was where democracy was — the only place where we could have free speech. This was before Donald Trump entered politics. His blog became very successful, using extremely violent language. He was anti-political, anti–big business, anti-corruption, and opposed to any kind of party. He organized “fuck off days” where everybody would get into a square and say “fuck off to politicians” — that was literally what they did.
Grillo’s approach was very successful in mobilizing a lot of angry people who felt they had been left out, in particular after the 2008 financial crash, which had a very deep impact in Italy. Eventually he decided to form some kind of movement. He never called it a party. It was a very purist movement — almost a cult, with a cult of the internet around it. They always said the Web would decide whether they did this or that and organized online votes.
One of their main political points was about the cost of politics and the personal corruption of politicians. They said that when their candidates, who weren’t politicians, got elected, they were only going to take a small part of the wage they were entitled to as MPs. They were not going to take any expenses or spend anything on politics at all. It was very purist — almost like monks being elected to parliament.
They first won in local elections in a place called Parma, which is a very rich, formerly left-wing town. It came out of nowhere — nobody was expecting it; I thought it was a joke when I first heard it. Then they swept to power in places like Rome, with a candidate nobody had ever heard of, Virginia Raggi. She turned out to be a disaster as mayor, by the way, because she had no political experience. You had all these very inexperienced people who came from civil society go into politics, while saying that they were not going into politics.
The Five Star Movement was a fascinating phenomenon. They used blogs and voted for their candidates on social media. They chucked people out if they took ten quid for a train fare. They were a bit like a foreign tribe when they were elected to Rome.
That’s a much too brief way of saying that this movement crashed through Italian politics in a quasi-revolutionary way. Nobody knew what it was, nobody could understand it, nobody really took it seriously. But they won the general election in 2018, taking the largest share of the vote, although the electoral system didn’t really allow anyone to win outright by then.
The other big winner in 2018 was the Lega, which had transformed itself in the meantime from being a northern, regionalist force to become a national party. They were taken over by a very right-wing politician called Matteo Salvini. His main propaganda points were racism and hostility to immigration, which was extremely popular in Italy during that period, with the propaganda against boats landing in the south of Italy. He railed against mass foreign immigration, blaming it for crime and so on.
These two organizations formed a kind of crazy alliance after the election in 2018 — an alliance of opposites, to some extent, and one of the most populist governments to be elected in postwar Italy. Looking back, it was never really going to last. At the time, it felt very dangerous — more dangerous than the Berlusconi governments, because these people really had an agenda. Salvini began literally blocking the boats of refugees from coming in as part of his political message. This led to people dying and to court cases. He criminalized the people who were saving refugees in the Mediterranean.
The Five Star Movement managed to pass a referendum cutting the number of parliamentarians by two hundred, so their whole point about cutting the cost of politics was delivered. They were also in favor of very generous welfare payments, which was one of the reasons they got elected. This coalition, which was elected in 2018, collapsed when Salvini got much too big for his boots.
It’s one of those moments where you’re on the verge of using national stereotypes: he actually gave a series of press conferences on the beach, in his swimming costume, saying that he was pulling out of the alliance because he wanted an election, and he wanted what he called “full power” to carry on. He wanted to be in charge of everything — to be prime minister. He thought that by pulling the plug on the coalition, that was what he could make happen.
However, what actually happened, which Salvini wasn’t expecting at all, was that the Five Star Movement formed an alliance with the Left — the Democratic Party, as it was known by then — and organized a new government from which Salvini was excluded. In many ways, this was hilarious, because Salvini’s whole master plan had proved to be a disaster. It’s often referred to by the name of the disco on the beach where he was interviewed near his holiday home.
That populist alliance, perhaps not surprisingly, was very short-lived. In the meantime, the Five Star Movement itself had reached a peak. It’s one of those cautionary tales: the populist wave cannot last if it’s built on nothing. At the end of the day, you do still need some kind of organization, some kind of institutional commitment, and an understanding of the system. The Five Star Movement didn’t have any of that.
It’s a fascinating case study. They’re still around today, but they’ve lost a lot of the big cities they had previously won, such as Rome and Turin. I think we’ll look back and think it was amazing that this organization could win an election. There have also been a lot of personal and political scandals. Many of the people they elected were totally unfit for the job: people looked through their social media histories and realized that several of them were anti-vax, for example.
At the end of 2011, Italy had a technocratic government that was headed by a banker whose name was Mario. At the end of 2021, on the surface, nothing appeared to have changed except for Mario’s surname. Is it viable for Italian politics to continue reverting to that kind of technocratic model of government when problems arise in the political system? Or is this another example of that phrase that we heard so often during the eurozone crisis — “kicking the can down the road”?
It’s useful to think about “postdemocracy” when you’re talking about Italy. Colin Crouch’s 2004 book with that title is very relevant here. You could even go back to the 1990s, during tangentopoli, when there was an element of reaching out for the technocrat. At that point, it was a banker called Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who later became president of Italy.
There was an attitude of “we need the banker to sort us out, politicians can’t do it, we need the banker to give us our medicine.” That became very popular on the Left because the traditional left liked a sense of order, as did many left voters, with the sense that rules are being followed and regulations are being set down. Ciampi was quite popular at that time and later became a very popular president when he took over in that role.
In 2011, Mario Monti came into power, pushed by the EU elites. Berlusconi couldn’t cope with the economic crisis, because he had no tools for doing so, and he was totally detached from any kind of EU policy on that question. He was basically kicked out by the president, Giorgio Napolitano. I was delighted because I didn’t want Berlusconi to be in power, but it was still a slightly dodgy democratic moment, given that he had actually won the election. He was sacked and replaced by Monti, a technocrat and EU insider, who hadn’t won any kind of election.
For a brief period, Monti was extremely popular. He said he wasn’t having any politicians in his government — only technocrats, only experts. There was a moment when everyone thought this was absolutely great. Then there was swinging austerity, with pensions being slashed — the highest levels of austerity you can imagine. Of course, this wasn’t popular anymore, because everyone was getting hit by it.
Monti’s government quickly became delegitimized and very much fueled the populism of the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini. That approach of reaching for the technocrat — an elite solution, which is a sticking plaster for Italy’s structural problems and for the economic crisis — failed with Monti, although many of the reforms remained on the statue books. It produced the second populist wave of Salvini and the Five Stars.
One thing we should say about Italy is that after Berlusconi, everyone has tried to be like Berlusconi in the way that they do politics. The Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi, who we haven’t talked about so far, rose very quickly as a center-left Blairite — Blair was his idol. He used an iPad to appear modern. Renzi also saw politics essentially as a kind of personal mission. Nobody can escape from the Berlusconi model anymore in terms of their approach to politics.
Once the Salvini–Five Star wave had collapsed and you had the COVID-19 pandemic, again there was a phenomenon of reaching for the technocrat. In fact, the Five Star Movement had already done that themselves, bringing in a man called Giuseppe Conte, who nobody had ever heard of — an academic lawyer from completely outside the world of politics, who became quite popular. He was going to be the technocrat, and he had to preside over the first periods of COVID, which were particularly terrible in Italy. Italy had the first wave, with very high death rates, when they didn’t know what to do.
Mario Draghi then entered the scene as the latest Mario. There is still the idea that the technocrat is going to sort us out: we want our horrible medicine and nobody else will do. I have been following Italy from the outside because of COVID, which isn’t always the best way to follow things — you really need to be inside to understand it. But the people I know on the Left want Draghi to stay there. They say “that’s the only solution” — but it isn’t. It isn’t a long-term political solution.
At the moment, you have a chaotic system where no one seems to be winning elections. Italy has been governed by nonpolitical actors for quite a long time since the 1990s. Certainly there’s a crisis of democracy there, which doesn’t look like it’s being resolved. There’s a lot of maneuvering by the various parties, none of which look like making a breakthrough. You saw that with the reelection in January 2022 of the president, Sergio Mattarella, who is the last Christian Democrat alive, and who people seem to like because they have a nostalgia for that.
However, none of this appears to be resolving the deep political and economic crisis of the entire Italian system. I can’t see any short-term resolution to that, either within or outside of the system. You’ve got a lot of populist parties competing and a quite powerful far-right movement, especially under Giorgia Meloni. Then you’ve got a technocrat who is quite old, can’t go on forever, and will probably not stand at the next election, so it’s all up for grabs. But I think the most likely thing is that again, nobody will win outright, and they will cobble together some sort of alliance, while none of the structural problems will be resolved.