Italy’s Poll Leader Says It’s “Conservative” — but Its Ideology Has Clear Fascist Elements
- David Broder
Leading polls for September’s general election, Giorgia Meloni has again distanced her party from the Mussolini era. Yet its politics remain based on ethnonationalism, anti-communism, and the rejection of Enlightenment values.
Giorgia Meloni has put her name forward for Italy’s next prime minister, if her coalition wins a majority in next month’s election — and judging by current polls, she is all but guaranteed to achieve this. The “center-right” coalition formed by her Fratelli d’Italia party, Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is expected to take 45-47 percent support in the September 25 vote — with Meloni’s party garnering around half of this total. Given Italy’s electoral system, such a vote would hand the right-wing parties a clear majority of seats.
The opposing side of Italian politics has seen the resounding failure of the attempt, mounted by Enrico Letta’s Partito Democratico, to build a broad center-left coalition. It is instead fragmented into several rival formations. In the center is an alliance between two ultraneoliberal parties (Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva and Carlo Calenda’s Azione). They stress their continuity with the policies of technocrat Mario Draghi’s outgoing government. On the left-liberal and pro-NATO side, Letta’s Democrats have managed to gather the support of only a few minor forces, with conflicting orientations. The eclectic Five Star Movement, breaking its previous pact with the Democrats, has refused an understanding with other forces. The radical left, which dropped out of parliament in 2018, has instead reorganized into the Unione Popolare, led by former Naples mayor Luigi de Magistris.
With such a strong chance of leading the next government, Fratelli d’Italia is moving in two tactical directions. First, it has prioritized the issue of Meloni’s candidacy to lead a possible right-wing government. The aim is to boast of her own popular legitimacy and avoid post-election maneuvers by allies seeking to impose another figure unrelated to the individual parties. Second, it is trying to present a reassuring profile as a fundamentally pro-system party.
Meloni’s formation was created in 2012, asserting its continuity with the neofascist current embodied for four decades by the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) before its 1990s transformation into the Alleanza Nazionale. Having its roots in an MSI that was both sentimentally and ideologically connected with twenty years of Fascist rule, the question of the nature of Fratelli d’Italia has continually arisen in recent years. This focus has especially grown since it transformed from a fringe force into what polls credit as Italy’s leading party.
Last week, Meloni produced a video in several languages to dismiss the fascist or neofascist label. However, this relationship of either continuity or rupture is not as straightforward as it is generally portrayed, either by those who simplistically present a continuation of the past or by those who deny it outright.
Fratelli d’Italia today presents itself as a “conservative” party, to this end vaunting Meloni’s presidency of the continent-wide European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) party. This formation, which groups together various forces both inside and outside the European Union and is aligned with the corresponding group in the European Parliament, came about as an initiative of the British Conservatives and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. With Britain’s exit from the EU, the Tories have stepped back but still maintain a collaborative relationship. The parties formally linked to the ECR outside Europe include the GOP and Israel’s Likud.
From an ideological point of view, the goal pursued by Meloni is not to disavow continuity with the postwar neofascist right, but rather to insert it into a broader current which enjoys greater legitimacy to govern a Western European country. Historical Fascism is “consigned to the past” and some aspects of it, which would be difficult to repeat in the present, are condemned. Yet other basic ideological references are retained.
In its Trieste Theses — approved at the party’s second congress in December 2017 and still considered its manifesto of reference — the party’s activity is placed in the context of a long-term ideological battle dating back at least to the French Revolution. “Our civilization,” Fratelli d’Italia writes, “is now attacked in its constituent structures by a concentric attack, carried out in the name of the fight against prejudice, with the same ideological schema that the Enlightenment first inaugurated in its crusade in the name of reason against the authority of tradition.” And what the Enlightenment is most blamed for is precisely this elevation of reason above tradition.
Proponents of the “open society,” we read, want to impose “social and cultural policies that, in the name of progress, seek to uproot the foundations of the model of civilization that European peoples have created over millennia.” The clash thus sets the Enlightenment, reason, and progress against an identity that derives from tradition and must be embodied in authority. Benito Mussolini himself (though ideologically eclectic when it suited him) boasted that Fascism opposed the French “principles of 1789.”
This is the framework in which Fratelli d’Italia’s set of values operates. From this derives, first and foremost, an ethnically motivated nationalism. The patriotic rhetoric, strongly present in the propaganda of what has defined itself as the “patriots’ movement,” is based on the nation as a “living organism.”
For the far right, World War I is a paramount moment in the historical formation of Italian identity. This is seen as a continuation of the Risorgimento, from which the unitary Italian state was born. The set of events leading from the military defeat at Caporetto in fall 1917 to the victory over the Central Powers at Vittorio Veneto in October 1918 are extolled as the true crucible of national identity. The sacralization of war and the worship of the dead (on the Italian side alone, of course) are considered essential to the construction of a national identity that must be defended against corrosive elements.
This is a representation that thrives more on mythologies than on authentic historical reconstructions. But the exaltation of World War I is also deemed implicitly necessary to cover up as much as possible World War II, which saw liberal and Communist forces align against the Nazi-Fascist bloc. This is also an attempt to erase the Resistance and the partisan movement as the ideal reference point of democratic Italy.
Communism continues to be regarded as an absolute enemy because it is considered the most extreme conclusion of certain Enlightenment ideas, including internationalism. The very idea of social conflict, inherent in the perspective of class struggle, is seen as destructive of national identity.
While ethnically based nationalism, in which national identities are fixed in time and incapable of evolving and changing, is openly flaunted, a hierarchical conception of social relations remains as an undercurrent. The idea that equality is an aspiration to be worked toward (indeed, one counted among the constitutional values of the Italian Republic created in 1946) is also taken for part of the heritage of revolutionary ideas that contrasts with “tradition.” This hierarchical vision is combined in Fratelli d’Italia with references to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, whose neoliberalism inspires the party’s economic vision.
For decades the neofascist MSI had been divided between different economic visions. There were proponents of corporatism and “socializers,” inspired by the demagogic proclamations of the Salò Republic of 1943–45 (nominally led by Mussolini but subordinate in all respects to the Nazi occupier). Yet such economic issues were largely set aside already during its transformation into Alleanza Nazionale, under the leadership of Gianfranco Fini.
The neoliberal vision established since the early 1980s in the major capitalist countries, with its component of social Darwinism, has proved acceptable and compatible with the ideology of the heirs of the MSI, because it accepts as inevitable the differences in power, wealth, and authority among individuals. Yet these differences are no longer rigidly determined by a fixed and immutable social structure but rather arise from competition between individuals, which takes place mainly on the economic terrain.
The condemnation of certain aspects of fascism, reaffirmed by Meloni at the start of the election campaign, is not entirely new, because similar formulations had already been introduced by Fini, and even by its historic leader Giorgio Almirante, albeit alternating with explicit claims of adherence to fascism. This condemnation does not exclude continuity with the ideological framework (ethnonationalism, social Darwinism, anti-communism) within which historical fascism is inserted.
Fratelli d’Italia continues, in some measure, to apply the same principle that guided one of the first leaders of the old MSI, Augusto De Marsanich, according to which it promised “not to restore” (the fascist dictatorship), but also “not to disown” the regime as part of the historical heritage of the Italian right. Condemnation of some disreputable elements of fascism does not, however, develop into commitment to anti-fascism. In media close to Fratelli d’Italia, the partisan Resistance against Nazi-Fascism in World War II continues to be represented only as responsible for criminal and anti-national actions.
Meloni’s balancing act is thus to claim continuity with the neofascist right even while gaining acceptance as a pro-system political force. The basic elements of the dominant paradigm are two: 1) commitment to the Western bloc hinged on NATO; 2) defense of the primacy of business over labor.
On the first point, Fratelli d’Italia has provided the broadest guarantees. The MSI, after an initial phase of uncertainty, sided with the Atlantic bloc, favoring adherence to the anti-communist ideological crusade over other far-right elements’ talk of a “third” force separate from both the United States and USSR. Meloni’s party has from the beginning supported military support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. It has openly advocated sending offensive and not just defensive weapons, supporting the Draghi government’s alignment with the Biden administration’s policy.
Over the years there has been no shortage of statements in praise of Vladimir Putin’s policies (mainly in terms of his “cultural battle” and opposition to a supposed “LGBTQ dictatorship”) or sympathy for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. But the main alliance Fratelli d’Italia has built is with the Polish right. The various formations of the European radical right have never been able to find common organizational ground, although they converge on many ideological and programmatic issues, precisely because of their different attitudes toward Russia.
For historical and geopolitical reasons, a part of the Right has always taken strongly hostile positions toward Russia while expressing an ideological vision in many respects similar to Putin’s. Fratelli d’Italia’s moves have made the whole of the Italian right-wing coalition clearly stand for NATO enlargement, military support for Kiev, and sanctions on Russia.
Economically, Fratelli d’Italia’s adherence to the neoliberal paradigm goes hand in hand with support for a balanced budget as a constraint on government action. Abolition of “citizens’ income” (a package of jobseeker benefits introduced in 2019); tax cuts by softening the principle of progressive taxation; support for infrastructure through “big projects”; and interventions on environmental issues which are strictly subordinated to economic interest. From this point of view, the economic policy of Fratelli d’Italia can be considered less populist not only than the one advocated by the Five Star Movement, but also those of Salvini’s Lega and Forza Italia.
For Meloni and her party, the unresolved issue of the relationship with the European Union remains. The first concern is to ensure her fellow citizens that the funds under the National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP), allocated to Italy by the European Commission in Brussels, will continue arriving as scheduled. At the time of its negotiation by the government led by Giuseppe Conte (Five Star), Meloni tried to oppose the bid for European funding by instead pointing to the possible use of Special Drawing Rights provided by the International Monetary Fund. This proposal was considered bizarre by many economists.
While the party has ruled out prospects of Italexit or abandoning the euro, it remains strongly hostile to a federalist development of the EU. In some speeches, Meloni has compared the EU to the USSR, understood as a cage that oppresses its member states. She proposes a Europe organized as a confederation of sovereign states but at the same time advocates its development as a “free market,” following a perspective that characterized the British presence in the EU in both Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s versions.
The electoral program agreed upon by the Right in the run-up to the September 25 elections avoids making particularly confrontational proposals and uses rather vague formulas. It declares that Italy confirms its “full adherence to the process of European integration” but focusing on a “more political and less bureaucratic” Union. However, it also wants this Europe to reaffirm its “Judeo-Christian” identity.
In her book Io Sono Giorgia (“I Am Giorgia”), the leader of Fratelli d’Italia asserts an idea of Europe that is not related to overcoming the nationalisms that produced two world wars, but rather to war as a marker of identity. These range from the Battle of Poitiers in 732, which halted the “Islamic tide,” to Constantine XI’s defense of Constantinople, and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, which managed to “stop the Turkish advance.” As with Italy’s battle at Caporetto in 1917, it is always the war, the conflict that ends with the even physical suppression of the enemy, that fuels the warlike fantasies of “soldier Meloni” (a self-definition with which she ends this autobiographical work).
It is worth emphasizing that the Italian far right finds itself caught up in no few political-ideological balancing acts. Having always taken the side of opposition to all successive governments since its inception in late 2012, Fratelli d’Italia has benefited from the permanent instability of the Italian political system. In particular, it has been able to gather support thanks to the crisis of its two allies. First Forza Italia slumped with the decline of Berlusconi’s leadership, and then with the rapid rise, followed by an equally rapid decline, of Salvini’s appeal.
The Italian right, thanks to its articulation between parties carrying distinct identities and strong leaderships, has been able to maintain its large pool of support that has almost always ranged between 45 and 50 percent of the electorate. Only the rise of the Five Star Movement through the 2010s was able to strip away a significant share of right-wing voters, but they soon returned, notably thanks to Lega leader Salvini’s populist communications.
As for the center-left, both the strategies pursued by the Democratic Party since its formation since 2007 have failed. It had bet on becoming a force that could intercept the support of all those who do not vote for the Right, eliminating all competitors (the “majoritarian vocation of Walter Veltroni, its first leader). It also aspired toward the aggregation of a heterogeneous coalition of forces, of which the Democrats would maintain unchallenged leadership (the “wide field” of Letta, its current leader). Yet faced with the Right’s success, the only alternative it can offer is another technocratic coalition, based not on voter support but rather an alchemy favored by Italy’s byzantine electoral system.