On April 12, 1984, when notary Franca Bellorini authenticated the founding document of the Autonomist League of Lombardy, the core group of the future Lega Nord consisted only of a small family circle around founder Umberto Bossi. There was his wife, Manuela Marrone, his brother-in-law Pierangelo Brivio, his sister Angela, and even his driver, Pino Babbini. The first meetings took place at Marrone’s home, and for most of the 1980s (the first official congress was held in 1989), this remained a “party of bill stickers.”
At its head was its sole leader, Bossi, who surrounded himself with a small “magic circle” of acolytes. Bossi was “the mastermind and the entertainer; he was the public speaker on every occasion and event in Lombardy” (Italy’s most populous region, around Milan) “where he met supporters and handed out flyers and copies of the party’s newspaper to be circulated and put in mailboxes.”
Bossi had entered regionalist activism in the late 1970s, and in March 1982 published the first issue of Lombardia Autonomista. In these years, this was still one of Italy’s many small, almost family-run parties — hastily assembled in time for electoral campaigns and usually disappearing a few years afterward. Yet today, amid wider volatility, the Lega Nord is Italy’s longest-running party.
So, how did it manage to overcome internal divisions and judicial investigations and elect ministers, governors, deputy prime ministers, presidents of the Chamber and the Senate — and even become the leading party nationally? What does it express in the Italian political, economic, and cultural climate — and of what is Matteo Salvini’s leadership the symptom?
These questions guided historian Paolo Barcella in La Lega: Una Storia, a new book recently published by Carocci as part of a new series edited by Michele Colucci. It is among few existing investigations of this political phenomenon conducted from a distinctly historiographical point of view. Despite its undeniable significance, in fact, the Lega hasn’t really been the subject of many scientific or academic analyses and has so far been treated mostly as a topic of essays and newspaper articles.
Barcella’s work is broken into four sections, starting with what Lega activists define “the heroic period,” or the creation of regional leagues spanning northern Italy the beginning of the 1980s. The author then proceeds to illustrate the Lega Nord’s success as it gained national prominence in the 1990s, after the Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”) judicial investigation and the first Silvio Berlusconi cabinet. The third section focuses on the post-9/11 geopolitical climate, in which the party skillfully leveraged a widespread xenophobia to advance its hatred of Islam and migrants in general. The author finally ends the Lega’s history by illustrating its transformation into a far-right nationalist party.
The final abandonment of its original regional-autonomist demands, and its official entrance into the realm of right-wing conservative parties, has been the task of Matteo Salvini, with the invaluable help of social media manager Luca Morisi. Morisi’s activity on social media was crucial for the radical change in the party, breaking it loose from its territorial and local structures. Most important, Morisi’s work legitimized Salvini’s controversial social media statements as a fundamental plank of the party’s political strategy.
The reader immediately realizes that the Lega Nord pursued its aims in an unprecedented and original way. The history of Italian regionalist movements in fact predates the creation of Bossi’s party. In the years between the end of World War II and the 1960s, in Northern Italy several autonomist groups were created (and some of them still exist), such as the Union Valdôtaine, the Südtiroler Volkspartei, and the Movimento Friuli. Their claims were substantiated by an alleged ethnic, cultural, or linguistic distinctness, and in some cases, this resulted in their regions being granted a special constitutional status.
The Liga Veneta — often defined as “the mother of all Leagues,” playing a fundamental role in the advance of various regional leagues in northeastern Italy — was deeply informed by the need to protect the linguistic and cultural identity of the Veneto region. Yet the socioeconomic background of the Liga Veneta’s supporters gave this movement a specific character that profoundly differentiated it from Bossi’s future party.
In the early 1960s, Veneto had a per capita income 20 percent below the national average, and the historical underdevelopment of this region profoundly shaped the formation of the Liga Veneta at the beginning of the 1980s. Led by Padua-based art history professor Achille Tramarin, the party was an assemblage of local organizations (the Montello Archaeological Group, the Altinum Archaeological Association, the Veneto Philosophical Society) striving to protect Veneto’s idiom and identity. In 1980, one of the first Liga Veneta election posters denounced racism (“We will stand against the discrimination of the People of Veneto, and against every other people”) and the alleged (and sometimes real) economic marginalization suffered by the region during Italy’s postwar industrial development (which had mainly reshaped northwestern Italy). Economic claims notwithstanding, the Liga Veneta always pursued a more specific defense of regional culture and identity.
Bossi on the other hand created a cultural identity without such historical legitimacy. Contrary to Veneto, Friuli, Alto-Adige and, in some measure, even Piedmont, “Lombardy” as a political subject — uniting areas as different as the mountains of Sondrio and the flatlands of Mantua and Lodi (almost as far south as Emilia-Romagna), Bergamo and Brescia, which belonged for centuries to the Republic of Venice, and the Western areas of Milan and the Brianza — is a fictitious creation devoid of historical roots.
More notable, however, Bossi identified and catered to a new social subject: small business owners and self-employed workers at the onset of globalization. Until 1979 Bossi had never expressed any interest in regional-autonomist and federalist demands, let alone cultural and identitarian ones. This crucial fact was recounted by Daniele Vimercati, a Bergamo journalist, Bossi associate, and author of I Lombardi Alla Nuova Crociata, a book recounting the “history of a political miracle.” It was his exchanges with the Union Valdôtaine’s Bruno Salvadori that introduced Bossi to the regional-autonomist ideology. The Lega Nord, however, was never a traditional regionalist movement nor one aimed at preserving an ethnic and cultural identity; and since the beginning of the 1980s, Barcella tells us, the party based its political activity on “a consistent emphasis on economic issues.”
Surpassing the success of any other localist or autonomist movement, the Lega Nord’s astounding political advance mainly owed to Bossi’s ability to frame economic and social issues in a regional-autonomist language.
In the 1970s, as a reaction against worker protests and trade-union activity, Italian industries began a massive process of outsourcing. A further response to the agitation of the 1960s and ’70s resulted in the internationalization of the Italian market, enhancing the role of the most efficient and valuable industrial districts. This allowed several small and midsize businesses from Lombardy and Veneto — as well as a few in the northwest that had undergone outsourcing from large factories — to gain more prominence in international industrial markets.
This development wasn’t only accelerated by industrial innovation — for it was also a consequence of monetary leverage. In the 1970s, before it belonged to the European Monetary System (EMS), Italy followed the strategy of competitive currency devaluation to boost exports. In the 1980s, after a famous anti-union demonstration led by white-collar Fiat employees in 1981 that marked a symbolic defeat of the workers’ movement, interest rates increased, and the country entered the EMS and put a halt to competitive devaluation. Therefore, several production areas suffered a setback from which they would recover only at the beginning of the 1990s, or more precisely in 1992, thanks to the favorable conjuncture created by the end of wage indexation (a “sliding scale” that linked pay to inflation), the country temporarily leaving EMS, and the reintroduction of competitive devaluation.
Despite its undeniable dynamism, the capitalism of the northeastern industrial districts whose interests the Lega Nord claimed to serve was also characterized by systemic fragility and structural oscillations. This lack of stability is to be ascribed both to the reduced dimensions of the businesses and to their subordinate role in the international supply chain (the vast majority of the engineering industries of Bergamo and Brescia sell their products to German factories), making them fundamentally susceptible to the inevitable ups and downs of the economic cycle. In the 1990s and at the turn of the millennium, the Lega Nord succeeded in exploiting this peculiar economic scenario characterized by both enormous potential and extreme vulnerability.
The author provides an illustrative example of this strategy through the (almost delusional) words pronounced by Gianfranco Miglio in 1989. The politician depicted a glorious destiny for a “homogeneous European market” where there would be no obstacles and discriminations. A market that would become “the ideal situation for the people of Lombardy” who “despite being attached to their land, are politically ‘stateless,’” contrary to “the majority of Italians, used to regional and national economic protectionism.” Although deeply rooted in the Lega Nord’s philosophy, this point of view seems to be in direct contrast to more recent calls for protectionist measures against China, not to mention the sometimes-raised political goal of leaving the European Union.
As Barcella relates, the Lega cleverly grasped and leveraged another decisive factor in the deindustrialization of Northern Italy and its peculiar class composition: the structural lack of neat sociological boundaries between owners and workers. Within the economic realm of small and midsize enterprises, family-owned businesses are the rule, and the owner is often a former worker who still plays an active role in production. In this peculiar arrangement, work environments are often “characterized by familial relationships and ties of friendship, the owner of the small business is also a worker and socio-economic and class divisions become blurred in a narrative that exalts the protection of the ‘manufacturing community.’”
But the Lega’s regional-autonomist demands, with their federalist or secessionist hues, weren’t merely an ideological frame aimed at erasing class differences. In the Lombardy and Veneto regions of the 1980s–1990s, these class differences had become so fragmented as to become indistinct. This owed to a peculiar industrial and class composition, the result of the economic transformations occurring in the previous decades. The Lega skillfully took advantage of such socioeconomic composition, which resulted in consistent electoral successes among this peculiar and hybrid social subject, to which the party gave a political representation that unions had failed to provide.
In this sense, the Lega Nord was a symptom of the capitalist counterrevolution of the 1970s–1980s (continuing in the 1990s and the new millennium) in the literal sense according to which symptoms mark a return of repressed truths.
Its political successes have constantly challenged the Left’s ability to organize class struggles in a social environment characterized by new modes of production and an organization of labor that is increasingly scattered and fragmented, even while also being subject to an ever more centralized management. This process has worsened in the last two decades, as platform capitalism has increasingly taken over workers’ lives and jobs, leading individuals to see themselves as mere appendages in the hands of abstract and algorithmic bosses.
As the structural asymmetry at the basis of class struggle blurs into an indistinct “manufacturer community,” the only apparent solution is a return to a fake unity, or to several “fake unities,” subjected to the contingent political agenda of the moment. This is how Barcella explains the continuous changing of the social subject that the Lega has tapped into for political support. First, it was Lombardy, then the North, then the nation as a whole when, after 9/11, the Other against which the community had to unite became the migrant (who now surpassed the Southerner as the object of scapegoating).
One could even say that the development spurred and guided by Salvini, who managed to restore the party’s reputation after the corruption scandals that plagued Bossi’s magic circle and to make it a far-right nationalist party, simply unveiled what was already there. The Lega Nord was only opportunistically a regional-autonomist party: in reality, it was a political movement that built its success on the need for community within a postmodern political environment.
In this faked, ideal organic unity, conflicts and asymmetries internal to society are camouflaged and projected onto the outside world. It was probably only a matter of time before the movement paved the way for someone who built their political career exactly on this ideology. And after the election of September 25, we might see the dreadful results of this decades-long political history.