How Giorgia Meloni Made the Far Right Mainstream

Recently genealogists discovered that Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is a distant relative of Antonio Gramsci. Though they share little else, Meloni has engaged in a campaign for control over cultural institutions that Gramsci would understand well.

Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni at the Atreju 2023 celebration in Rome, Italy, December 17, 2023. (Massimo Di Vita / Archivio Massimo Di Vita / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Giorgia Meloni, the former fascist and current prime minster of Italy, is a distant relative of the communist theorist Antonio Gramsci. On its face, this revelation, which Italian genealogists disclosed earlier this month, might seem like an interesting piece of trivia — funny but ultimately meaningless. However, Meloni, despite sharing none of her ancestor’s politics, emerged out of a process of social transformation that the author of the Prison Notebooks would not struggle to understand.

Meloni’s rise was fueled by a broader right-wing cultural shift that normalized her outlook by tying it to Italy’s self-image in a bid for what Gramsci would have called hegemony. Accordingly, the Brothers of Italy, Meloni’s party, takes its name from “Fratelli d’Italia,” the words in the opening line of the country’s national anthem.

Just like war, culture is the continuation of politics with other means. Since her settling in Palazzo Chigi, Meloni’s praetorians have been briskly dispatched to every key post in the country’s cultural administrative infrastructure. A furious power grab on museums, theaters, orchestras, literary fairs and prizes, the Venice Biennale, and universities has taken place.

On the national broadcaster, Rai, all the main news program’s hosts have changed seemingly overnight in order to reflect the present division of power. Rai has three main channels: Rai 1, Rai 2, and Rai 3. Since the last elections the TG1, Rai 1’s newspaper program, has been transformed into the press office of Fratelli d’Italia, the TG2 into the megaphone of Forza Italia, and the TG3 into the mouthpiece of the soft-left Democratic Party, formerly the Italian Communist Party.

The wall between the political class and the fourth estate has become especially porous under Meloni’s rule. As a reward for his trusted service to her government, she anointed Gennaro Sangiuliano, the former editor of TG2, minister of culture. This is a man who, while presiding at the award ceremony of the Premio Strega, Italy’s equivalent of the Pulitzer, candidly confessed that he hadn’t read any of the books that had made the shortlist.

Italy’s postfascists are not guilty of doing anything new, however. Heavily monitored by the United States, which did everything possible to undermine the Left and prevent the rise of communism throughout the postwar era, Italy has always struggled to develop independent cultural institutions. Indeed, political parties in Italy have for a long time unashamedly put their people in positions of influence, according to their electoral share. This game of cronyism has become so popular that it even has its own name, “lottizzazione,” or “spoils system,” practiced shamelessly by the center left for decades.

Like Donald Trump, who appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner to an adviser role, Meloni has also practiced a form of nepotistic rule. Her brother-in-law Francesco Lollobrigida has taken up the position of minister of agriculture and used his platform to trumpet Great Replacement conspiracy theories during official speeches.

In practice, this bid for cultural hegemony has largely been aimed at low and popular culture. A much-talked-about J. R. R. Tolkien exhibition currently up in Rome has sought to show that the cultural pantheon of this far right has changed. Out: the foamingly racist Julius Evola, the philosopher of fascism Giovanni Gentile, and the far-right futurist poet Filippo Marinetti; in: the anti-modern trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner have moved out of the premises, and the heirs of fascism are now mainstream — and popular. At the Atreju festival, Fratelli d’Italia’s cultural conference, billionaire mogul Elon Musk and Britain’s prime minister Rishi Sunak were welcome guests.

Italy’s postfascists have clearly made it into the mainstream. What has smoothed this transition has been the adoption of the Anglophone cultural war by much of the Italian right. They have successfully managed to transplant the Anglo-American battle against “cultural Marxism” to Italy, where, unlike in the United States, the Left has long had a strong influence over the country’s media institutions, albeit largely those in high culture.

In Italy, “high culture” has generally been the domain of the Left. The main reasons for this are the strong current of anti-communism that dominated postwar Italian politics and prevented the Left from taking political power, relegating it to the cultural arena. The Christian Democrats governed the country under close American tutelage in the post-1945 era until corruption scandals crushed them in the early 1990s, paving the way for Silvio Berlusconi’s domination of Italian politics. During the 1943–45 liberation from the Nazis and their fascist allies, the Palmiro Togliatti–led Italian Communist Party (PCI), fearful of hostile American influence, opted for a parliamentary rather than a revolutionary path to socialism.

Locked out of power, Togliatti constructed through the PCI a vast capillary network of institutions like the Case del Popolo, working-men’s clubs where ordinary people could learn their daily Marx and Stalin. The fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) remained throughout this period a minority cohort made up of Mussolini-nostalgic lunatics. This created a strange balance of power in a blocked democracy where the radical left was never allowed to win electoral power, leading to the formation of an unwritten pact between the Christian Democrats and the PCI.

The Christian Democrats took charge of the economy, law and order, foreign affairs, and media, while circumstances relegated the PCI to control of culture and the arts. As a result, all the major publishing houses and the majority of intellectuals, artists, academia, and public cultural institutions have always been post-Marxist in outlook.

Today, with the Left all but nonexistent, the Right has been free to take control of the cultural sphere. But absent a clear enemy, it has treated culture as the means through which it can mark its difference from the political mainstream. Italian liberals have done this by branding themselves defenders of civil rights while pushing privatization and spending cuts. Meanwhile, the postfascists — obliged to walk the fiscal line imposed by Brussels — have had to overemphasize their cultural differences in order to mask the neoliberal consensus shared between them and their liberal opponents.

As long as the postfascists and liberals continue to agree on the size of Italy’s deficit, the harshness of migration policy, and the danger of large-scale public spending to the economy, museums and TV shows will remain the only places in which political differences can come into view.