Technocrats in Suits, Not Blackshirts, Rule Europe
The fascist-inspired government in Italy, like the far-right government in Hungary, is part of European neoliberalism, not an alternative to it.
On September 15, the European Parliament voted to term one of the European Union’s member states, Hungary, an “electoral autocracy” — no longer a real democracy. Nearly 80 percent of legislators adopted a report that denounced far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán’s government for its “deliberate and systematic efforts” to remove all limits to its authority. The document cited cronyism, attacks on the independence of the media and judiciary, and persistent attacks on both migrant and LGBT rights.
The judgements included in the report were based on different standards of democracy: the Hungarian state had not only failed to ensure fair electoral processes but had also undermined liberal and egalitarian ideas of citizenship. Pro-Orbán conservatives were quick to insist that the latter issue was what really mattered. For Rod Dreher, writing in the American Conservative, there was a message for the United States: “Whenever elections produce results that the elites don’t like, it will be declared undemocratic — and those who advocate for the winning side will be deemed by Washington and the tech and financial elites as ‘threats to democracy.’”
The idea of taking on tech and financial elites is today a mainstay of right-wing politics, even in the mouths of billionaires like Donald Trump. One of few parties to reject the report on Hungary was Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, a party of neofascist origins that has long had close relations with Budapest. At the time of the EU Parliament vote, her right-wing coalition was on its way to a majority of seats in the September 25 Italian general election, and many comentators responded with surprise to her party’s vote in defense of Orbán. Why take an ideological stand alongside the unpopular leader of a small player in EU politics rather than in the “national interest” or based in electoral opportunism?
The reaction especially owed to the idea that the vote had hurt Meloni’s attempts to place herself in the political mainstream. She had spent much of the campaign insisting that she would continue the basic economic and foreign policy pursued by the outgoing government, led by former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi. The latest Italian cabinet headed by a career technocrat, Draghi’s government united all major parties from center left to hard right, except for Fratelli d’Italia.
Yet here lay the paradox. As the main opposition force, Meloni ran on the promise to break what she called an eternal “left-wing hegemony,” here referring to the Democratic Party, which had underpinned a series of technocratic and grand-coalition governments. Fratelli d’Italia was founded in 2012 in opposition to an earlier “national unity” administration that Draghi had helped lever into office, and over the last eighteen months, this stance seemingly helped her win over disaffected voters from other right-wing parties that did join Draghi’s administration. Yet her promise to let Italians decide was allied with an emphasis on unshakable continuities — the policy areas off-limits from democratic choice.
Italy is far larger than Hungary in both population and GDP, and it was a founding member of the EU and eurozone. Yet thanks to decades of austerian budgets and low public investment, it is the most indebted member state.
Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, has much more destabilizing potential than Hungary. Yet the political model being devised in Italy, following the election victory for Meloni and her right-wing allies, has little to do with Italexit or indeed shaking the power of the mighty. For Gilles Gressani, writing in Le Monde, we should instead see this as “techno-sovereign-ism”: “the product of a synthesis between the integration of a technocratic approach, the acceptance of both NATO’s geopolitical framework and its European dimension, and an insistence on extremely conservative values and neonationalist frames.”
This leads us to the identitarian dog whistle inherent in the attack on “tech and financial elites.” Fratelli d’Italia not only upholds the fundamental axes of neoliberal economics but even promises to respect dogmas like the spending and deficit limits set by the European Fiscal Compact, imposed at the height of the sovereign debt crisis in 2012. Gressani’s argument points to precisely this contradiction in Meloni’s “mainstreaming”: the far right she leads accepts these hard limits on its actions even as it accuses various domestic opponents (“LGBT lobbies,” migrant rescue NGOs, supposed communists) of undermining the fabric of national identity.
When Meloni addressed CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) in Orlando, Florida, this February, she insisted on precisely this dimension: she refused to be “part of their mainstream,” the “Right on a leash,” insisting that “the only way to be a rebel is to be a conservative.”
This combination of positions is not entirely new: already in the 1990s, as part of Silvio Berlusconi’s government, the postfascist Alleanza Nazionale party largely dropped its welfarist pretensions. Scholar of the radical right Herbert Kitschelt spoke at the time of a “winning formula” of free-market economics and nativism. While the neoliberalism of the last four decades has always required state interventions to reorder labor markets and public investment, the financial crisis and pandemic have brought this element to the forefront, hardening a “national” ideological frame against triumphalism over the effects of globalization.
Speaking at a Fratelli d’Italia conference in April, Berlusconi’s former finance minister Giulio Tremonti declared the death of “globalist” delusions of the “International Republic of Money” while advocating a national reindustrialization policy based on tax breaks for firms that invest in restructuring.
We might dispute whether “sovereignism” remains an appropriate description of such politics, at least insofar as this term refers to popular sovereignty. As political scientist Daniele Albertazzi notes, Meloni has accepted that it is impossible to rule Italy against the financial markets or against the will of the unelected European Commission. Such a politics does explicitly assert, as a long-term horizon, a more national capitalism, decoupling European economies from Russian energy and Chinese manufacturing. There are surely doubts about whether this is realistic. But more than that, the main thrust of the policy is internal: it explicitly aims to distribute income away from the unemployed and migrants, and toward “producers.” It recognizes that exporters suffer from decades of falling public investment and the cost pressures of the European single currency — and promises to help them out by offering them tax cuts.
The EU is not incompatible with nationalism, but rather strengthens it by organizing competition among national capitals. This is most notable in the case of Hungary itself. It has become a privileged destination for German auto manufacturing, in turn allowing Orbán to promise workers that he will protect them from competition from foreign rivals. If capital broadly has an interest in the stable rule of law and the endurance of EU institutions, Orbán’s moves so far have yet to spark sufficient alarm to prompt it to leave. Now it is Italy’s turn to have a government led by the far right, promising to stand up for the “national interest” against the “globalists and communists” who “seek to destroy our civilization.” Fratelli d’Italia’s plans face major obstacles, not least from the looming energy crisis and likely recession. Yet if it realizes its agenda, it will be as a part of European neoliberalism, not an alternative to it.