AN ITALIAN OPTION: How to Face Populism in Europe

Foreigners consider Italian politics to be messy and incomprehensible. So do Italians. Nonetheless, political phenomena are not as immutable as the laws of physics and sometimes a consistent and creative scenario pops out of the usual mess. Such is the case of the Italian Five Star Movement (FSM). Different from most other populist European movements, FSM is not connected to any nineteenth and twentieth century ideology, either neo-fascists or nationalists such as the French Front National (FN) or UKIP. Nor do vetero-communist/archeo-Marxist successful movements now popular in Greece and Spain inspire it. FSM is successful at winning votes (25%+), much more than for example the Pirates (German Piratenpartei) with whom it shares some similarities including a penchant for technology applied to democracy. Moreover, it is liberal, non-violent and pays a lot of attention to environmental issues. Though critical of conventional political rhetoric and academic vested powers, FSM does not despise culture the same way FN and UKIP do. Perhaps its leaders and activists occasionally indulge in some New Age or cultural/creatives stereotypes, but they do not refuse a tentatively consistent and elaborated discourse. Most of the leaders are in their thirties and have university degrees. This is particularly interesting in Italy where FSM’s main competitor as a major opposition force is an odd neo-fascist combination (Lega Nord, Fratelli d’Italia, Forza Italia) that praises every emotion, no matter how vulgar and shallow, and spurns any educated argument.

In my recent Environmental Politics: New Geographical and Political Constituencies (Springer. New York-London 2015) I call for a new possible political dialectic that substitutes the almost two centuries-old socialism-versus-libertarianism paradigm. This political dualism has been meaningless since at least a couple of decades ago, and now the recurrent formation of Grand Coalitions all over Europe between the old competitors prove that the former juxtaposition has transformed into almost fully overlapping platforms.

Socio-political analysis suggests that in Italy, and possibly soon in most Western European countries, two political parties with authentically rival proposals are about to emerge. On one hand there are the conservatives who are now the heirs of the nineteenth and twentieth century competing ideologies and parties. They have been forming official or de facto coalitions for at least fifteen years. Their conservative goal is securing the power they hold and – as much as they can – the status quo.

On the other side there are two options. In Europe – and with different characteristics, also in North America – there are several populist movements whose main feature is pure protest and cultural nihilism. Their agenda includes violence, Islamophobia, and war. The threat posed by these populist movements drives traditional parties to form Grand Coalitions that until now have always been successful in defeating or defusing them. This kind of response is a defensive one, which tries to deny the populists any access to power and refuses any dialogue with them. Eventually, most citizens might verbally be very harsh against their governments, but when they are called upon to vote they withdraw from ruthless demagogy. At least this is what has happened hitherto! In case of an unfortunate victory of the FN or UKIP or Italian Lega Nord, a civil war scenario – or at least the emergence of a highly divisive society – is not unlikely.

In Italy, FSM is an available alternative to both the conservative Grand Coalitions and to populist movements. The FSM political platform would be acceptable to most of the citizens, especially the young and the educated. Moreover, a possible victory of the FSM would not bring with it political turmoil. Nor would an FSM-led government be so effective in engendering a quick radical change because their projects are still quite confused, utopic and sometimes even inconsistent.

A victory of the neo-fascist, Islamophobic, nationalist populist movements is unlikely but dangerous. On the contrary, in the mid-term, a victory for FSM is more likely but reasonably safe. The problem is which of the two possible opponents the Grand Coalitions in power prefer to have as a competitor and thus indirectly support. If they choose to defeat the progressive FSM because it is more likely that it might take over, the political system will lose the opportunity to restructure the typical bi-polar/bi-party democratic system. The option between conservative and progressive will no longer be a socialist versus libertarian dialectic, but a dualism between Grand Coalitions representing the status quo and the FSM, which promotes new societal values that have already produced some emergent vested interest.

If Grand Coalitions governments accept and legitimize the FSM as a counterpart, they will need to rejuvenate the political institutions and reform/remove old vested interests in order to defuse FSM’s radical claims.

The novelty of the Italian situation is that the coalition government has seemingly chosen the FSM as the main opponent. This was possible because the FSM’s proposals are positive. Although FSM’s claims are often radical and conflicting with big powers – such as EU bureaucracy, guilds of any type, heavy industry – the conservative parties in power could partly and slowly adopt some reform in order to preserve their consensus among citizens, which is still the main source of their power. Admittedly, FSM is not yet ready to lead the country. The radical and aggressive language some FSM’s leaders adopt now and then is just a political rhetorical device. They are perfectly conscious that their time to govern will come in no less than five years or so. In the meanwhile they prepare themselves and speed up some changes the country requires and the Coalition government is forced to endorse. At present, FSM does not intend to cooperate with any other political party. In the future – as has always happened to every once-radical revolutionary party – a split will take place between the radical and the moderate. But this is for the future. At present it is important to detect a potential virtuous situation that is taking place in Italy. FSM could be imitated in other Western European countries in order to get rid of the dangerous fascist, violent, Islamophobic movements and create a new creative conflict between real conservatives and real progressives.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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