In Italy, the snap election1 held on 25 September 2022 resulted in the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia (FdI)2 gaining a relative majority (26%). The next day, the CNN breaking news banner read: “Giorgia Meloni will be Italy’s most right-wing prime minister since Mussolini”3. In the same alarming tone, the New York Times commented that this election “turn[s] a page for Europe (its roots in the wreckage of fascism)”.4
To make matters worse, amongst the swift reactions, right-wing populist leaders such as Victor Orbán, Mateusz Morawiecki, Santiago Abascal, Éric Zemmour and Jair Bolsonaro sent their heartfelt congratulations to the would-be Italian Prime Minister. Their tantamount expectation is that the outcome of the Italian election would promote the emergence of a sovereigntist front in Europe and elsewhere.
As a matter of fact, such an electoral result in Italy was largely predictable, based on polls that had put Giorgia Meloni in the lead for more than a year. This climate, as we will see below, derived from a potent and multidimensional strategy of legitimation.
To counter this trend, the Democratic Party, the main force of the centre-left, strove to build an electoral coalition conjuring up anti-fascism as its cement. But it has failed to mobilise the people. In order to understand the unravelling of this “expected scenario”, and following the most recent anthropological research on the New Right and fascism,5 it is necessary to ditch the politically ineffective warnings against neo-fascism and rather question the category of “far right” in the Italian historical-political field.
The surge of FdI is very impressive: it garnered 6 million more votes than in 2018, rising from 4.3% to 26% in terms of ballot, thus becoming the first Italian party and the leader of the centre-right coalition: Meloni’s success is also linked to the demise of its partners (-4% for Lega % and -4% for Forza Italia), reaping the fruit of a consensus that Matteo Salvini, the League secretary and former coalition leader, has managed to polarise on the right-wing. A more specific social analysis shows that FdI’s support has grown fairly broadly, including among the wealthy, but especially among those on low and middle incomes. In addition to shopkeepers, who voted overwhelmingly for Meloni, her party gained most support among blue-collars (34.6%). This was followed by the Five Star Movement (M5S 16.4%) and the League (13.4%), while the Democratic Party came fourth. Workers have long stopped voting for the left, casting their ballots mainly for the League. In fact, the centre-left’s election campaign did not pay much attention to labour issues. Significantly, Maurizio Landini, the general secretary of the main Italian trade union (CGIL, historically on the left), did not announce his voting preference before the election.
Other significant results: the M5S remained the most popular party among the unemployed, even among the youth, who also largely chose the Green-Left alliance, while the PD prevailed among the wealthy and university graduates. The general relative weakness of the opposition was due to, and reinforced by, the lack of a common perspective which was the result of the political split between the PD and the M5S following the crisis of Mario Draghi’s government. In the end, abstention ranked first, with 36%: 16 million people decided to stay away from the ballot stations, with abstention being strongest in poorer areas, especially in the south.
The Italian Republic is a parliamentary democracy. The political system established at the end of the Second World War following the adoption of an explicitly anti-fascist constitution is based on a careful balance of powers between several institutional actors. The government is entrusted to the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, who embodies the executive power; they are elected by Parliament, which exerts the legislative power through its two branches (the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies), and, together with representatives of the autonomous regions, elects the President of the Republic.
The latter is a guarantor: s/he commands the armed forces, presides over the High Council of the Judiciary, safeguards the autonomy of the judiciary and appoints the Prime Minister and the Government, in accordance with the political representation in Parliament.
This complex architecture was mirrored in a peculiar articulation of alliances and conflicts: historically, the political barycentre revolved around the Christian Democrats (DC), the “white whale” linked to Atlantic loyalties and the vast world of Catholic associationism: it was the key actor in the reconstruction and economic boom, mediating6 and balancing traditionalism, “modernist” development and weak social policies, in alliance or competition with the socialists (PSI) and secular parties (PRI, PLI). On the other hand, there was the alternative society and the “long march” of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), closely linked with trade unions and cooperatives. Its main achievements were some important reforms and an advanced social democratic practice of territorial governance.
Outside this so-called “constitutional arc” (made up of the signatories of the Constitution), the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which claimed the legacy of fascism, came to constitute the external pillar of the DC power system, meant, ultimately, to counterbalance the “communist threat”.
On the eve of the third millennium, the Italian political system (labeled the “First Republic” (1948–1994) for the sake of emphasising its sclerosis) broke away from this extremely static twentieth-century configuration —though it had been shaken by the New Left movements in the seventies— and became extremely unstable. This led to an unprecedented metamorphosis in terms of electoral outcomes.
A key moment in this national political scenario was the Mani pulite crisis and the emergence, in the 1990s, of “anti-system” political forces: the Northern League – Lega Nord per la Padania, at first secessionist, then autonomist, but always a protagonist,7 for almost two decades, of the centre-right defined as Belusconism (1994–2013). Its main protagonist, Silvio Berlusconi, was the property and media tycoon who, in 1994, “disceso in campo” (stepping into the arena) with a “liberal revolution” platform, sounded the alarm against the communist threat and promoted a neo-conservative palingenesis: a “new Italian miracle”. More realistically, thanks to his party, Forza Italia (“Go Italy!”), Berlusconi became the new political centre of gravity, rallying “all moderates” to his project, instituting and even “obsessively incorporating” the centrality of his leadership. A position that he defended fiercely, ridiculing and eliminating all his would-be successors, returning to be a senator, aged 86, last September in Giorgia Melonis’s pay, despite he had appeared in several court cases.
Based on this historical retrospective, viewing Meloni as the first “far-right government in Italy” is not entirely adequate: from the very beginning Berlusconi, as early as his first government (1994) was the statesman who managed to reintegrate the fascist legacy as part of his alleged post-ideological/neoconservative agenda meant to reshape the national narrative discourse. The Cavaliere (prized for his Order of Merit for Labour) ambitioned to “normalize” fascism by means of his neoliberal and regressive political hotchpotch: he appointed members of Alleanza Nazionale (AN), arisen from the ashes of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), in all his governments up until 2008, when all the parties of the coalition merged under a new banner, the People of Freedom (PdL), that was to exist 5 years (2008–2013). It was the fourth Berlusconi government (2008) that gave Giorgia Meloni her political consecration, when the young Lazio deputy, aged 31, became one of the youngest ministers in charge of youth and sports.
In the wake of the demise of Berlusconism, due to a combination of economic failure and personal scandals (Berlusconi’s sex cases and tax fraud), the Northern League experienced a profound crisis, both around its historical leadership and its prospects. In 2017, in order to regenerate the party, the new secretary, Matteo Salvini, recalibrated the localist political platform into a national and sovereigntist agenda, pursuing the hegemony of the fascisti del terzo millennio8 right-wing groups (Casa Pound, Forza Nuova): the historical slogan of “Padroni a casa nostra” (“We shall be our own bosses at home”) has remained in force, only the welfareist south, the terroni (“lazy redneck”) colonising the north and “Rome the Thief” pieces of rhetoric have been substituted by the Islamic threat and that of Brussels technocrats and lobbies.
Another turning point in the national political scenario was, in 2018, the extraordinary success of a new political force, i.e. the M5S, with a ubiquitous and ambivalent positioning between the left and the right, gathering a large consensus for its slogan of complete regeneration of politics. As a result, the government that emerged was based on an alliance between the main anti-political forces, namely the M5S and the League, symbolically highlighting the novelty and the rhetoric of shattering arrangements of old: “We will open Parliament like a can of tuna, exposing all the politicking compromises [literally ‘inciuci’]”. On the contrary, the experience of government, led by Giuseppe Conte, a lawyer and academic, proved particularly difficult because of the weakness of the M5S and the prominence of the League’s leader. Matteo Salvini was both Vice-President and Minister of the Interior, manipulating the issues of security and the anxiety around immigration control in the wake of the refugees crisis starting in 2016, making roguish use of his image on social media as if he were continuously on the campaign trail. This constant tension exacerbated internal divisions within the coalition.
The popularity of Salvini, socially rebranded as “il Capitano” (the Captain),9 grew exponentially, reaching 34.3% in the 2019 European election, which prompted him to abruptly interrupt the government experience. Yet quite unexpectedly a second Giuseppe Conte government was formed, which brought the PD back into the game, in a new political configuration called the “Broad Camp” [literally ‘Campo largo’]. The new executive then found itself under pressure to manage the first dramatic phase of the Covid pandemic, then the next stage of negotiating the massive post-pandemic investment plan (PNRR) with the EU. In the face of this new and challenging situation, political tensions resurfaced: the government lost a vote of confidence and fell after 17 months. Then, the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, in view of the situation (the Covid crisis), promoted a government of national unity and public health, led by Mario Draghi, former President of the European Central Bank, mainly for the implementation of the PNRR (Piano Nazionale di Resistenza e Resilienza). This presidential move brought Salvini’s League back to power along with M5S, PD and Forza Italia. Meloni refused to join this “broader” government and pledged to be a patriotic and responsible opposition. This dynamic bolstered the image, the positive consideration and the popular narrative of Giorgia Meloni’s “consistency and novelty”: skilfully constructed, it illustrated her embodiment of being the unique opposition to Draghi. This orientation allowed her to attract the broad and grab-bag of those expressing discontent and fury at the “system” – No vax, Family Day Movements, Fascisti del Terzo Millennio, mostly euro-sceptics chanting the slogan “The EU party is coming to an end”.
A strategic step in this multidimensional process of Meloni’s legitimation was the construction of her popular figure given her relentless participation in talk shows and infotainment programmes. This epitomises a massive campaign run by a dedicated team of spin doctors on social networks with the aim of turning the FdI leader into a pop culture phenomenon. In 2021, she published an autobiography entitled I am Giorgia. My roots, my ideas. The title echoes the passage “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am a Christian” uttered on occasion of a centre-right rally on 19 October 2019, which swiftly became viral.10 The book is showcased (on Amazon, a global company Giorgia Meloni pillories in her rallies) as “an impassioned and passionate account in which, with her characteristic directness and clarity, she tackles complex issues such as motherhood, identity, faith”, it’s a “moral novel”: The self-made girl, from the working-class Garbatella district of Rome, growing up in a single-mother household who, after the Mafia massacres of the 90s, matured her political commitment and saw it as a mission, decided to join a seventy-year-old far-right party (! ?) meant to enable her to fulfil the destiny and hopes of the people. This narrative goes beyond the classical political imaginary of the far right, neutralising its reactionary and authoritarian content, and in actuality shapes the legitimation of a popular and emphatic style, in direct opposition to Mario Draghi, the symbol of the élite. The objective has been to build up an emotional intimacy by combining victimhood and identitarian essentialism.
Published in May 2021, Georgia Meloni’s book was at the top of the sales charts as soon as it was out. Some booksellers initially refused to sell it or displayed it upside down, as the “Ducetta” (feminised Duce nickname), recalling the iconic and grim image of Mussolini’s body haung upside down in Milan at the end of the war. This reaction intensified the polemic and the book became a bestseller, with 13 editions and 170.000 copies sold over the electoral summer of 2022.
The so-called Trieste Theses, framed as an “appeal to patriots” at the Second National Congress held in the Dalmatian city on 2 and 3 December 2017, are the material elaborating on FdI’s agenda.11 Trieste is a patriotic lieu de mémoire: “the most Italian of cities” for its “harrowing experience” of the First World War and its “coexistence with the brutal Iron Curtain, which for almost half a century marked the division between free and Soviet Europe”. The appeal aimed to “urge the rallying of those Italians who believe in the value of national unity, who wish to preserve and renew the traditions of our people, to strengthen its cultural identity and historical memory, and to protect its space of sovereignty and freedom”. It was composed of twenty-two paragraphs to “rebuild Italy and, through it, Europe” tapping into nationalist rhetoric and perspectives.
In order to “rediscover the value of the fatherland in contemporary politics” one must oppose the European construction, which denies its Judeo-Christian roots and is inspired by a “radical universalism”, imposing itself as a technocracy that disempowers national identities similarly to the actions of a “Soviet-style politburo”. These orientations converge with the “multiculturalist principle” to further fragment the European identity, to promote immigration, echoing the notions of invasion (Jean Raspail) and ethnic replacement (Alain de Benoist).12 The theoretical reference is that of a “philosophy of identity”13: “a theory of ontological re-appropriation and dynamic preservation of European identity, whereby a radical critique of multiculturalism and political correctness, of the fashionable self-blame and the rhetoric of otherness is made explicit”. The crisis of the West is tautologically due to the critical thinking of the 1960s: “weakened by relativism, it is becoming a victim of the aggression of radical and militant Islam”. A free interpretation of the discourses on the nation, ranging from Johann Gottfried Herder to Ernest Renan and Giovanni Gentile, is intended to reaffirm its spiritual character: national identities are praised for representing “a deep layer of civilisation and culture”. These essentialist references remove the last decades from the nation-building debate. But the anachronism goes further, and the entire legacy of the Enlightenment is called into question “for its crusade in the name of reason against the authority of tradition” or its negative ideological interpretation of “prejudice”. An articulation of references to which Douglas R. Holmes’s definition of “essentialist integralism” applies14.
In the Italian historical narrative, this line of thought has taken on greater relevance in the radical right-wing rhetoric of a specific deficit of national consciousness stemming from the outcome of the Second World War: the collapse of the fascist state and the resulting armistice of 8 September 1943, interpreted as the “death of the fatherland”,15 were the founding moments of a policy of repudiation of the national interest and its symbols. Embodying a “missing nation”, it allegedly represents the weak link in the European construction, in the face of more solid nations (France, Germany).
Meloni’s government is sworn in on 22 October 2022. In her inaugural speech Giorgia Meloni moves away from biographical traits and rather adopts a more lyrical tone, to thank those exemplary women who have allowed her, the “underdog”, to “pierce the glass ceiling”. She adopts a pseudo-feminist stance that contrasts with her traditionalism in domestic roles. At the same time, and more consistently, she confirms her ideological framework, obsessively replacing “state” and “country” with “nation”, reviving the nineteenth-century ideological toolkit of “patria” (fatherland), “people”, “tradition” and “natural family”, thus calling into question the republican ban imposed on fascism after its demise.
As Barbie Latza Nadeau presciently observed:
“Much like Marine Le Pen, the French far-right politician who is a close ally of the League’s Salvini, Meloni has strategically used her gender for political gain. Along with Frauke Petry and Tatjana Festerling in Germany and Beata Szydło in Poland, Le Pen and Meloni belong to an elite club of far-right female politicians in Europe who adhere to traditional values. Putting a female face on the far right is increasingly common among European populist parties, and often ends up pitting gender against race and ethnicity”.17
These considerations deserve further analysis: in the Italian public debate, the idea of a woman in power as a good thing “regardless” (a prescindere) has also appealed to differentialist feminism. As Veronica Raimo,18 amongst others, cogently argues: when the idea of “regardless” becomes a political principle, we need to question the fourth wave of feminism, the one moving towards a prêt-à-porter feminism, enmeshed with the imaginary of a successful woman and consumption, converging with femonationalism19 and white-gender mainstreaming, erasing social inequalities and the inclusion of migrants. 20
Meloni uses her image in this pseudo-feminist sense, to fight against the so-called “gender ideology” and the LGBTQ+ movement. She accuses them of destroying the “natural” family and the “true” values of the sacred national identity. In this sense, the figure of Minister Eugenia Roccella, a former differentialist feminist, is powerfully telling. Speaking of the abortion law, she perverted the position of historical feminism by declaring that abortion was “unfortunately one of women’s freedoms”. Minister Roccella, who, in the meantime, published her autobiography21, created uproar in the media on 12 May 2023 when she proclaimed: “Surrogate motherhood should be a universal crime!”22 This proposal for a universal criminalisation corresponds to a simplistic and violent definition of surrogacy23, in connection to a law that echoes an “international crusade” aimed at cracking down on Italian couples and citizens wherever they resort to it, and could also turn minors into “evidence of crime”.
Meanwhile, Meloni continues searching a “direct dialogue” with the people in her weekly column entitled “Giorgia’s Notes” where she urges readers to call her simply by her name. Finally, the rise of the far right reveals one of the greatest contradictions in the Italian political scenario: the left’s failure, from anti-Berlusconism until today, to elaborate a counter-hegemony such as one grounded in a critical general vision from below. On the contrary, his experience of government has deepened the internal divisions between moderates and radicals, neoliberals and anti-globalists. Besides, the far right pursues its counter-hegemony, using tech innovation in communication and pop culture for anachronistic content presented as novel and radical.
Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of the story.