Italy’s Crisis Is Rooted in a Decades-Long Neoliberal Offensive

This fall’s Italian elections saw voters punish the incumbent parties of government yet again. But behind the upheaval in the party system is a narrowing of real political choice, as working-class interests struggle to find electoral expression.

Matteo Salvini of the Lega, Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia, Giorgia Meloni of Fratelli d'Italia, and Maurizio Lupi of Noi Moderati attend a political rally in Piazza del Popolo in Rome, Italy on September 22, 2022. (Valeria Ferraro / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Over the past three decades, Italians have been called to the polls nine times to elect a new Parliament; and nine times, the parties supporting the outgoing government have been defeated. The victory for Fratelli d’Italia, the only major force in opposition to Mario Draghi’s technocratic government, was thus hardly unpredictable. It was similarly no surprise that in the general election this September 25, voter turnout, which had already been in steady decline, hit a historic postwar low: little over three in five Italians now vote (almost nine in ten did so in 1992).

These simple figures tell us that the crisis that began with the dissolution of the leading parties of the “First Republic,” as Italians call the political order that reigned from 1946 to 1992, remains unresolved. But September’s result can be read as a perhaps decisive step forward in the restructuring of the Italian political landscape. Today’s picture is entirely consistent with the absolute dominance of neoliberal ideology, which took hold in the country between the 1980s and 1990s, and which largely produced the political crisis that has now been ongoing for three decades.

An essential distinction is to be made between the social alliances produced by political initiative, and the power relations in the ideological and cultural spheres. It is from the latter that we must start in order to grasp the specifics of the Italian situation, in which neoliberalism is now the almost exclusive reference point not only of political leaders but also of the vast majority of citizens.

After the Left

How can it be that a country in which the Left — Communist and otherwise — was capable of such great intellectual vigor, submitted so entirely to neoliberal hegemony in the short decade from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s? This is a subject that calls for in-depth research. The media landscape, entirely controlled by financial and industrial magnates, certainly played a key role. But the trajectory of the ex-Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the Democratic Party of the Left, which inherited its leadership cadres and electorate and took them toward the creation of a new Democratic Party, was surely decisive.

Through its history, the party of Antonio Gramsci had patiently built up important “fortresses” in schools, universities, publishing houses, and the media. In the 1990s, the post-Communists’ abandonment of all reference to Marxism and alignment with the principles of the Blairite “Third Way” — a direct expression of neoliberal ideology — dragged along with it a fundamental part of “leftist” cultural production. In the same years, the Right took note of the irreversible crisis of the old Christian Democratic mediation practices. Under the impetus of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Lega, this Right worked to spread the fundamental principles of economic liberalism among its electorate.

Today, at the end of thirty years of intense political and cultural work by the media and ruling classes, such principles guide many Italians’ view of economic and production relations. In this outlook, it is assumed that public debt is a burden that present generations will leave to future ones; that a country’s prosperity depends on the competitiveness of its businesses; that this competitiveness is linked to lowering production costs and labor “flexibility”; that corporate taxation must therefore be reduced; the only reasonable way to achieve an increase in workers’ purchasing power is to lower taxation; and so on.

Crucial in aggravating this turn have been institutional reforms in the areas of labor, pensions, health care, and universities, remolding social interests in a direction consistent with the neoliberal model of capitalism. If wages are the result of individual or only company-level agreements, class solidarities are weakened; if pensions are no longer linked to a redistribution but capitalization, a fundamental basis for solidarity between generations is lost; if education becomes an investment in human capital that then has to be monetized, any learning that does not have a direct market worth is devalued.

The power of an ideology is expressed in its ability to present as illusory any policy proposal that differs from its vision of reality. The result in September’s election for the Unione Popolare, which brought together three different parties of the radical left, shows that in the Italian hegemonic framework, those who depart from the neoliberal universe fall into the void. However, the latest election result — continuing the systematic series of defeats for each and every outgoing government — also tells of the difficulty of establishing, within the neoliberal world, a social bloc that supports policies that actually conform to its interests. This is the contradiction at the origin of Italy’s long and difficult crisis, and it is from here that we must start if we are to grasp the ongoing restructuring of this country’s political landscape. Within it, three different social alliances, all compatible with the dominant ideology but all marked by elements of fragility, are gradually emerging, as the result of different mediation strategies.

Bourgeois Bloc

The first of these alliances corresponds to what I and Bruno Amable have called “the bourgeois bloc.” It brings together the classes directly in favor of the transition to the neoliberal model of capitalism and to a process of European integration that has been pushing exactly in that direction for at least the past forty years. In the last elections, the Uber-liberal Azione and Italia Viva parties represented this political project most clearly. But in reality, the strategic initiative at the origin of the bourgeois bloc has come from the Democratic Party, in recent years the central protagonist of the Mario Monti, Enrico Letta, Matteo Renzi, Paolo Gentiloni, and Draghi governments, all of which engaged in the supposedly “necessary” (neoliberal) modernization of Italian capitalism. This perspective implies overcoming the left/right axis and replacing it with the opposition between pro-Europeans and nationalists, or between cosmopolitans and identitarians.

There is an internal left wing which does not embrace this perspective and would have preferred stronger connections with the Five Star Movement (M5S). But it is, indeed, a minority, as evidenced not only by the Democrats’ breaking of their “center-left” agreement with Giuseppe Conte’s M5S, but above all by the choice to adopt former central banker Draghi’s agenda as its exclusive electoral program. This agenda is nothing but a long list of neoliberal-inspired structural reforms to be implemented in order to progressively release funds from the post-pandemic National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP). The uncritical promotion of the Draghi agenda also corresponds to an assertion of absolute continuity with respect to the government action of the last decade, which had already produced the Democrats’ heavy defeat in the 2018 election.

From the standpoint of the demands expressed by its component classes — centered on the continuation of institutional reforms and support for European unification — the bourgeois bloc is indeed coherent. Its weakness lies in its exclusion of the popular classes, which have suffered the effects of neoliberal reforms, and the result that this bloc is in the minority in Italian society.

In September, the Democrats, Azione, and Italia Viva won the support of nearly 30 percent of entrepreneurs, professionals, and senior executives, but only 18 percent of small traders, artisans, and the self-employed, and 15 percent of blue-collar workers. Among the classes that enjoy a privileged economic position, these three parties achieved considerable results: 34 percent of those in the highest income group voted for them and 36 percent of those in the upper-middle tier. But among the lower-middle income classes, this combined result drops to 20 percent, and among the poorest, just 13 percent.

New Right?

In contrast, the right-wing social bloc easily had the plurality of votes (and majority of seats) in September’s elections. Its cross-class base allowed Fratelli d’Italia, the Lega, and Forza Italia to win the votes of 41 percent of entrepreneurs, professionals, and executives, 43 percent of small traders and the self-employed, and 56 percent of those blue-collar workers who voted (and a great many of them did not vote).

The fragility of the right-wing bloc owes to reasons diametrically opposed to the weaknesses of the bourgeois bloc. Its broad social base expresses diverse and contradictory expectations, ranging from support for neoliberal reforms to a strong demand for protection, particularly from the working classes, against the effects of these same reforms. Yet, within the framework of neoliberal hegemony, into which the Italian right is perfectly well-integrated, this demand cannot translate into a break with the economic policy line of the bourgeois-bloc governments.

Newly elected, essentially because of her opposition to the Draghi government, Giorgia Meloni declared in her first speech to the Senate that “the NRRP is an extraordinary opportunity to modernize Italy,” making clear that her government “will respect the rules currently in force” in the European Union. The new premier was keen to “reassure investors” by pointing out that “some fundamentals of our economy remain solid despite everything: we are among the few European nations in constant primary surplus,” meaning that the government spends less than it takes in tax revenue, before interest payments. She insisted, for whoever still had doubts, that “wealth is created by businesses with their workers, not by the state by edict or decree. So, our motto will be: don’t disturb those who want to do something.”

The Right thus proclaims itself in total continuity with the bourgeois bloc in the fields of labor, health, schooling, and public finances. How, then can it answer the demand for protection that comes from an important part of its social base, decisively fueling Fratelli d’Italia’s vote in particular? The answer is the same as that of the far right across Europe: it claims the living conditions of the working classes are not being undermined as a result of neoliberal policies and reforms, but because of threats to national identity, the wave of migration, the explosion of crime, the model of the traditional family being called into question, etc. It goes without saying that the promise of protection against artfully created and largely imaginary enemies is bound to severely disappoint the socially weaker fraction of the right-wing bloc; even so, it has allowed them to reach power.

Popular Bloc?

A third social alliance, competing with the bourgeois bloc and the Right’s more identitarian neoliberalism, seems to be emerging as a result of the turn in the Five Star Movement. It has gradually abandoned its initial “anti-systemic” connotations and now occupies the space that neoliberal hegemony leaves open for a position that could — at least loosely — be called “left-wing.” Unlike the Democratic Party and the Right, M5S campaigned on the problems related to the spread of precariousness and poverty that afflict a major chunk of the country, particularly in the South. It pointed to possible answers in the consolidation of “citizens’ income” (in effect, unemployment benefits, introduced by this party in 2019) that should be “improved” by strengthening employment centers; in the introduction of a minimum wage; and in supporting the purchasing power of wage earners through a cut in labor taxes.

Compared to 2018, the Five Star electorate has shrunk by more than half, but it is now much more compact in terms of both its social composition and the expectations it expresses. Five Star garnered significant support among the unemployed (24 percent) and students (25 percent), among those living in low (25 percent) or medium-low (18 percent) economic status, while they occupy a much weaker position among entrepreneurs, professionals, and executives (12 percent) and among those enjoying high (10 percent) or medium-high (11 percent) economic status.

For the time being, the weight of this social alliance is lower than that of the right-wing bloc as well as that of the bourgeois bloc. However, it could grow, both as a result of the disappointments that Meloni’s government is bound to produce and as a possible consequence of a hypothetical change of line by the Democratic Party. The fragility of this alliance lies in the fact that it is built on an attempt to alleviate the social suffering produced by neoliberal policies without calling into question the ideology that frames and legitimizes them. “Citizens’ income” is surely better than the zero-support proposed by the Right. However, it draws its explicit inspiration from the Hartz IV law promoted by Gerhard Schröder in Germany, which aimed to flexibilize labor relations, and ended up costing the German Social-Democrats dearly in terms of working-class support.

Also perfectly compatible with neoliberal institutions is the introduction of a minimum wage, a measure already present in most European countries and in the United States, as well, of course, as support for purchasing power through tax cuts. Conte, moreover, strongly claimed authorship of the structural reform plan included in a NRRP that — as we have mentioned — guided the Draghi government’s action, served as an electoral program for the Democratic Party, and is taken by Meloni as an extraordinary opportunity to modernize Italy. In this sense, Five Star has occupied the “left” of the neoliberal arena; but if it were to return to government, it would not be able to satisfactorily answer the questions coming from a bloc with strongly popular connotations without explicitly posing the question of breaking with the founding principles of neoliberalism.

Three different social blocs within a shared hegemonic space are bound to produce a merry-go-round, in which the parties alternate in power but pursue a substantive continuity in their public policies. This can only produce a crisis of Italian democracy. To avoid it, on the political level, we must hope for what is possible. This means the growth of the popular bloc that has begun to gather around the Five Star Movement — and an awareness, among its political representatives, of the limits that adherence to the dominant ideology poses to the development of a convincing and effective political proposal. But to get out of the impasse in which it finds itself, Italian democracy also needs to shift the conflict to the terrain of hegemony — certainly a complex operation given the current power relations.

In Italy, many on the Left rightly look to the French experience as an inspiration. But it is a mistake to think that the weight of the radical left in France is simply the result of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s political initiative. If Mélenchon, with his undeniable talent, managed to give substance to his strategy, it is because there was a viable space for the anti-neoliberal left in France, opened and structured by a long series of political and social struggles. These included the referendum on Maastricht in 1992 and the popular vote against the draft European Constitution in 2005; the strikes of the 1986–95 decade, culminating in the movement against Prime Minister Alain Juppé’s pension reform; the student, civil service, and precarious workers’ movements in the 2000s, then the one against Dominique de Villepin’s reforms of contracts for young people; the strikes against François Hollande’s reform of the labor code; and most recently the gilets jaunes movement.

Hegemony is not won by convincing a TV audience, but by building a shared understanding of class conflict. And it is from class conflict — in schools, universities, factories, and hospitals — that Italy should again start out, if it is to get out of the trap in which it has ended up.