Testo delle lecture tenute alla Virginia University e allo Hamilton College il 7 e l’11 novembre 2022
1. Last October 13, in a highly symbolic ceremony worthy of an Oscar award for best screenplay, the irony of history decreed that it would be the senator for life Liliana Segre, as the oldest member of the assembly, who would preside over the first session of the Senate elected on September 25th, that would in turn designate Senator Ignazio La Russa as president. A victim of the racial laws of 1938 and survivor of Auschwitz, Liliana Segre is a ninety-year-old witness of the crimes of the fascist dictatorship. Ignazio La Russa – whose middle name is Benito like Mussolini whose busts La Russa collects – is a leading exponent of Fratelli d’Italia (The Brothers of Italy), the post-fascist party that won the recent elections. He was a long-time militant of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (Italian Social Movement), the neo-fascist party born from the ashes of Mussolini’s after the Liberation; and he was also a front-line protagonist of the clashes between “blacks” and “reds” that punctuated the social conflict in Italy throughout the Seventies.
Two lives, two stories, two memories, two speeches which express two opposing visions of the past and the present. Liliana Segre restated the anti-fascist foundation of our Constitution born from the partisan Resistance, reaffirmed the importance of civil festivities such as April 25th, the anniversary of the Liberation that the post-fascists refuse to celebrate, and warned against the constitutional reforms that the center- right has been threatening to impose for thirty years and can now more easily carry out. La Russa, on the other hand, reproposed in softened tones the post-fascist thesis of the so-called “national reconciliation”, which basically consists of the normalization of fascism within national political history, the dissolution of the Constitution’s anti-fascist discriminant, the joint and equal condemnation of the right-wing and left-wing “opposite extremisms” of the Seventies.
There is in the close comparison between these two figures a catalog of all the questions that have been stirring Italian public debate since Fratelli d’Italia and its young leader Giorgia Meloni won the elections establishing a double record of firsts: the first time a post-fascist party becomes the leading party, and the first time a woman becomes Prime Minister – both, another irony of history, exactly one hundred years after the March on Rome that launched the fascist regime in 1922. There is – first – the historical-political problem of the relationship between the current sovereignist far-right and historical fascism. There is – second – the biographical-political problem of the conflicting memories of three different generations: the generation of fascism and the Resistance; the generation of 1968 and the 70s, which renewed militant anti-fascism as a safeguard against the neo-fascist violence and massacres that were bloodying Italy; the generation that grew up in the 90s, during the so-called Second Republic, which seems more inclined to normalize post-fascism within a physiological alternation between right and left. There is – third – the problem of the so-called glass ceiling, which has been broken by a right- wing woman and not, as one could have taken for granted, by a leftist one. And there is, last but not least, the legal-political problem of the destiny of the Constitution of 1948 under the government of a right that, since its inception in 1994, has had the declared aim of overturning it.
What is at stake is complex, and incomprehensible without shuttling between the present and the past of Italian political history, a history in which the Seventies and the Nineties of the last century play a perhaps more decisive role than the Twenties. I will begin from the present, with a brief analysis of the results of the elections of September 25th.
2. The victory of Fratelli d’Italia, though broadly reported as clear and indisputable, was not overwhelming from a numerical point of view. Its 26.5% vote is certainly an astonishing leap from the 4% it obtained in 2018, but it drops to 17% when taking into account that only 64% of the electorate voted, the lowest voter partecipation rate in the history of the Republic. That 26.5%, moreover, was gained by Fratelli d’Italia at the expense of its allies, the League and Forza Italia, which, compared to 2018, saw their support halved from 17 to 8.7% and 14 to 8.1% respectively. Overall, compared to 2018, the center-right coalition maintained but did not increase its support (12 million votes), which, however, rose from 37 to 44% thanks to the increase in abstention and translated into 59% of parliamentary seats thanks to an electoral law that rewards coalitions over single parties. Paradoxically, the forces opposing the center-right received more votes both in absolute terms (14 million) and percentage-wise (49%), but they lost because they did not form a coalition and fought amongst themselves. The center-right founded by Berlusconi in 1994 therefore returns to government for the fourth time (after ’94, 2001, 2008) without expanding its thirty-year electoral base.
According to the numbers, therefore, there is no shift to the right in Italian society; there is rather a shift of the center-right towards the far- right. And this shift only partly expresses an ideological shift, being due also and above all to a protest vote that rewards Fratelli d’Italia’s opposition to Mario Draghi’s government, as well as to a bet placed by the electorate on the novelty-Meloni – the same bet that for too many years in Italy has been placed on the latest leader launched on the political-media market.
Undeniable, however, is the hegemonic potential of the right, which makes its numerically modest victory appear as a resounding victory, while the left’s loss of hegemonic ambition makes its numerically slight defeat appear as a historical debacle. In brief, this is the first time in the history of the Italian Republic that the far right has won; but it is also the first time that there is neither a recognizable left nor a structured center-left. Compared to the seventies, when Italy was the political laboratory of the strongest Western left, now the situation is reversed: Italy has become, or can become, the political laboratory of the most dangerous radical right in Europe.
3. We are therefore at the apex – or perhaps, I hope, at the beginning of the end – of a long process of destructuring the left and restructuring the right that began in the early Nineties. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in Italy the political system of the so-called First Republic, which hinged on three major parties, the DC, the PSI, the PCI, collapsed in turn. The DC and the PSI were destroyed by judicial investigations into political corruption, the PCI changed its name and nature, abandoning both the communist and the social-democratic tradition and embracing a more neoliberal rather than liberal-democratic perspective.
In the rubble of the first Republic Silvio Berlusconi entered the field and won the election in 1994, building a center-right political coalition that included his newborn personal party called Forza Italia, the Lega Nord (Northern League) and Alleanza Nazionale. (National Alliance). It was a strange mix, made up of different political cultures, held together only by Berlusconi’s charismatic personality. Forza Italia was a business-party, evoking the structure and language of Berlusconi’s television empire and inaugurating an unprecedented form of media and aesthetic populism marked by the neoliberal ethics of pleasure, consumption and self-entrepreneurship. The Lega Nord was a regional and, originally, secessionist party, born to defend the interests of the rich and productive north by appealing to the imaginary identity of “Padania”, as the north-east of Italy had been renamed. Alleanza Nazionale was a party of order, conservative and statist, which under a new name recycled the symbol and the political class of the Movimento sociale italiano, heir, as we have seen, to Mussolini’s fascist party. Its leader at the time, however, Gianfranco Fini, agreed to pay the price of its relegitimization by condemning historical fascism as “absolute evil”, a clearer rebuke than what Giorgia Meloni is willing to concede today.
We therefore owe to Berlusconi the legitimizing of the post-fascists, if we want to see it negatively, or their inclusion in a democratic dialectic between right and left, if we want to see it positively. But many things have changed profoundly since then. Berlusconi’s hegemony over the center-right held until 2011, when he fell under the blows of sex-gate and the economic crisis. Then the political climate changed: the Berlusconi Carnival was replaced by the Lent of austerity policies imposed by the European Union. In a country hard-pressed by an acute economic, social and political crisis the alternation of center-right and center-left was replaced by the conflict between the parties aligned with the directives of Brussels and the populist movements that provided a voice to social discontent. In perpetual fibrillation, the political system twice entrusted the solution of its problems to two technocratic national-unity governments, Mario Monti’s in 2011 and Mario Draghi’s in 2021, triggering the alternation between technocracy and populism that characterizes the decade. Throughout this period, Fratelli d’Italia remained in opposition. When Mario Draghi resigned last July, Meloni was ready to reap the rewards of her consistency, and to tie up in her own way the loose ends of the thirty-year history of the Italian right.
Reading Meloni’s autobiography, Io sono Giorgia, published with great media timing a year ago, helps us understand the intertwining of the personal and the political that characterizes her rise as well as her construction as “the first woman to break through the glass ceiling”.
4. Meloni was born in 1977, the year in which the social conflict of the Italian “long Sixty-eigth” reached its peak, just before, in 1978, the terrorism of the Red Brigades took center scene with the kidnapping and assassination of the DC president Aldo Moro. Of the Seventies, therefore, Meloni has only an indirect memory, transmitted to her by her mother, a sympathizer of neo-fascist movements who raised her, while her father, who was a leftist, abandoned the family when she was still a child. Yet the ghost of the Seventies haunts her: in her speeches she frequently returns to her duty to redeem “the brothers who died on the pavement” in clashes with the “reds”. So, too, will forever haunt her the ghost of her lost father, which will play a decisive role in her choices as an adult.
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall collapsed, Giorgia was only 12 years old, but that was enough for her to remember, as an adult, the liberation of “the brothers of the East crushed by communist oppression”: another story to be redeemed. The third story comes three years later. On 19 July 1992, while the corruption investigations were demolishing the political system, the anti-mafia prosecutor Paolo Borsellino wasassassinated in Palermo, a few weeks after Giovanni Falcone. In the wake of that trauma, at the age of 15, Meloni crossed the threshold of the Fronte della Gioventù, the youth organization of the Movimento sociale italiano, and there found other brothers who needed to be rescued, this time from the position of the marginalized of the First Republic: some of them still today sit alongside her in the government.
Two years later, as we already know, Berlusconi welcomed the Movimento sociale italiano, transformed in Alleanza nazionale, into the centre-right. Meloni continued her rapid career in the Fronte della gioventù, a very different world from the Berlusconi’s glitzy and glamorous one: “it was difficult – she writes – to amalgamate our boys with those rampant young people in blue jackets and high heels”. Yet with those high heels Giorgia has long lived in the years at the turn of the century, which are not at all secondary in the bildungsroman of the “first woman who breaks the glass ceiling”.
Those are the years when, to use a Gramsci’s category, a sort of “passive revolution” aimed at domesticating women after the feminist subversion was deployed in Italy. It consisted in translating – and betraying – the political and collective freedom gained in feminism into individual and competitive (self-)promotion, through a perverse form of “valorization” of women’s qualities in the labor, consumption and sex market, as well as in the political market. A non-marginal aspect of the neoliberal (counter)revolution throughout the West, this operation found in the Italian laboratory the support of Berlusconi’s powerful media apparatus, and showed in the very person of Berlusconi both the triumph of market ethics and its symbolic implication, that is, the decline of paternal law and authority. The tragicomic mask of “Papi”, a diminutive of “father” which Berlusconi used to be called by the young escorts who gladdened his nights for a fee, condenses this two- sided change that impinges the socio-symbolic order of gender relations.
It is noteworthy that while this change was clearly visible on the center-right stage, in the center-left the hands of the clock went backwards. In the nineties, Democratic party women broke bridges with feminism and its radical project of changing the subjects and forms of politics and dusted off the old “feminine question” made onlyof discrimination, self-victimization and claiming pink quotas. Meloni capitalized on this situation in her own way. She noted that “on the left they talk a lot about equality, but it is the right that has brought out more women at the top”. But she closed both eyes to the obscene side of this neoliberal promotion of women at the top, dismissing Berlusconi’s system of exchange between sex and power as “a somewhat unscrupulous private conduct”. She internalized the neoliberal competitive ethic, which allowed her to challenge her male rivals, and took advantage of the eclipse of paternal authority to break with her political fathers.
It is 2011, “when – she writes – everything was about to end”. Meloni had been a deputy for five years, thanks to Gianfranco Fini, in 2006 she had become vice-president of the Chamber and then minister of youth in the fourth Berlusconi government. When the economic crisis and the long wave of sex-gate forced Berlusconi to resign, Giorgia saw in that government crisis the end of a world. The glittering promise of the triumphant phase of neoliberalism was replaced by a destiny of precarization, all the more bitter for the younger generations: in Italy and not only in Italy, the “entrepreneur of him/herself” who bet on the future and on futures was transformed into the owner of goods and rights in search of protection, security, values and beliefs substituted for those that the “society without fathers” no longer offered. Neoliberalism everywhere lost its joyful face and everywhere – in Europe, in the USA, in Brazil – sought and found a home in neoconservative and sovereignist ideologies.
Giorgia smelt the change of season and decided that the time had come to embark her brothers towards the promised land of the right’s redemption, with the wind in the sails of the far-right movements growing throughout Europe. She had already broken with Fini, reproaching him for “condemning the right to extinction”. Then she broke with Berlusconi as he was entering the technocratic Monti government. She saw before her “the right-wing people, lost after years of scandals and economic crisis”, ended with a farewell to her political fathers the circle of her life begun with the abandon of her biological father, and founded Fratelli d’Italia.
Italian political thinker and activist Franco Berardi Bifo commented this way on Meloni’s parable: “The psycho-cultural background of the rampant psycho-political crisis is the disintegration of the father figure and the sense of disorientation this causes in sons and daughters. But it is the daughters who know how to react to this condition, thanks to the strength that the history of feminism has given them… Instead of whining about the pink quotas, Giorgia took command of the sinking ship. She forgot her fathers and re-found patriarchy starting from the “brotherization” of women.” This is a pertinent reading, which develops my own reading, in the wake of some lacanian analysis, of Berlusconism as a theater of the crisis of the paternal order. But it needs a correction. What emerges from Meloni’s biographical-political story is not a refoundation of patriarchy, which would presuppose a solid father’s law and the exclusion of women from the transmission of male power. Rather, it is a sort of “fratriarcal” order, based on the competitive inclusion of women for reactionary purposes, within a framework of traditionalist values substituted for law. To better understand how this socio-symbolic structure works we are helped by some Meloni’s recent and public utterances.
5. You can easily find on You tube the viral video of Meloni’s rally at a gathering of the Spanish neo-Francoist party Vox in Andalusia last June, when she summed up her program in a series of YES and NO: “yes to the natural family, no to the LGBTQ lobby; yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology; yes to the culture of life, no to the culture of death; yes to Christian values, no to Islamist violence; yes to secure borders, no to mass immigration; yes to work for our children, no to international finance; yes to the Europe of the people, no to the bureaucrats of Brussels”. To seal this eloquent manifesto of European far right’s identity, Meloni also performed a shouted show-down of her own identity, immediately arranged as a rap in social networks: “I am Giorgia. I am a woman. I’m Italian. I am a mother. I am a Christian.” Here Meloni’s cultural and political turn is clear: another passive revolution, after Berlusconi’s, which translates the feminist legacy into its opposite. If Berlusconism translated the feminist collective and political freedom into individual and competitive self-affirmation,
Meloni translates the feminist positive claim of being a woman into an identity politics that makes woman, or better mother, the pivot of a new nationalistic and reactionary order. In this order there are no possible deviations from sexual binarism and the heterosexual family, and woman, as mother and only as mother, is the means of counteracting the declining birth rate with reproduction among compatriots, which in turn is a barrier against the “ethnic replacement” and the Islamization of Europe coming from immigration.
There is no need to emphasize here the fascist ancestry of this approach. More useful, and more amusing, is to highlight two patent contradictions on which Meloni stumbles. The first is linguistics – and language, as we know, never lies. Immediately after Meloni took office as prime minister, her secretariat circulated an official note specifying that she must be addressed as “il presidente”, masculine, and not “la presidente”, feminine. The use in Italian language of grammatical feminine instead of masculine-neutral is an achievement of feminism, and Meloni’s predilection for masculine clearly shows that, despite her shouting “I am a woman”, she believes that masculine lends authority to her institutional role while feminine decreases it. Unless you want to interpret that note, as has been ironically done, as a slip of the tongue revealing a gender-fluid orientation in blatant contradiction with Meloni’s crusade against “the GLBTQ lobby”.
The second contradiction is political. Consistent with its name, Fratelli d’Italia is a mainly male party, with a leadership structure where there are only 5 women out of 24 members, and a parliamentary group where the number of women – in line with the trend of the other parties – declines compared to the previous legislature and does not cross the 30 percent threshold. As for the government led by a woman for the first time, there are only 6 women ministers out of 24, while elderly and seasoned men, resurrected from the center-right governments of the 1990s, abound.
These figures aside, women never appear in Meloni’s speeches as companions or privileged reference points for her political enterprise, nor does any reference to feminism ever appear: the “first woman” is alone in her competition with men. It is true that Meloni has been good at founding and leading a party by putting her “brothers” in line; and it
is true that she has been even better at resisting the pressures, trips and traps of her allies, Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, who are far from willing to cede the scepter of the coalition leadership to her. However, it is equally true that “the self-made underdog”, as Meloni likes to represent herself, actually had some male guardian angels, co- founders with her of Fratelli d’Italia, who cleverly guessed that a young woman would be more attractive than them to an electorate tired of the convulsions of male politics.
All of this should shed a critical light on the “first woman to break the glass ceiling on the right instead of the left” that is running in the Italian media with the purpose of proving that feminism finds more audience on the right than on the left, that the right is more in tune with the times than the left, and that the left is out of touch with the world and history. This narrative can seduce neoliberal feminism, which identifies its main goal as the female conquest of top positions. It can serve as a leverage to the women inside the institutional left for fighting against the misogyny of their parties. But it may not convince radical feminism, whose issue is not the conquest of power but the change of politics, and whose practice is not the individual competition with men but the construction of significant relations among women. We should rather overturn this narrative asking whether what is taking place, in Italy and throughout Europe, is not a feministization but a feminization of the new rights, which are relying on women to foster regressive issues that would be rejected if proposed by alpha-men condemned by history to sunset.
6. I am going to close by returning from here to more general questions. Giorgia Meloni, who is also the leader of the European Conservatives Party in the European Parliament, has built her political rise on two polemical axes: the polemic against the European integration, in the name of a “Europe of the nations” based on the restoration of national sovereignty; and the polemic against big global finance and its European technocratic arm, in the name of an economic policy more responsive to the national interests and less dependent on external constraint. In the last months, however, in the run-up to winning the government she has modified these positions. She has concealed the extremist profile of the Vox rally as well as her support for Orbàn’s Hungarian regime, seeking to legitimize herself in the western establishment that she previously contested and aligning herself to the positions of Draghi’s government which she previously opposed.
On the economic side Meloni, now that she leads the government, knows well that she has no freedom to maneuver with respect to Brussels, given Italy’s public debt and given the energy crisis to which Europe must necessarily find unified solutions. On the foreign policy side, instead, things are more complex. The emphatic professions of Atlanticist faith made by Meloni after the Russian invasion of Ukraine are not necessarily at odds with her intention to undo the EU; indeed, her Atlanticism may strengthen ties with Washington and with strongly pro-USA and anti-Russia countries such as Poland, at the expense of ties with EU founding countries such as France and especially Germany – an eventuality not necessarily disliked by Washington.
In both economic and foreign policy, however, Meloni will have to contend with her allies: Salvini does not desist from pressing for economic measures that involve further increases in public debt, and both Salvini and Berlusconi favor opening negotiations with Putin, in a country where most of public opinion is unwilling to further approve the sending of arms and the unconditional support to Ukraine – as a big demonstration showed last Saturday in Rome.
All indications are that Meloni will aim to strengthen her international legitimacy in order to have a free hand on the illiberal policies she intends to pursue in Italy on civil rights, public order, immigration, and the control of dissent, as well as on her constitutional reform project. On the first side, the first signals from the new government are unequivocal. The first bill presented by Fdi in parliament would establish the legal personality of fetus, an old workhorse of the pro-life front. And the government’s first decree-law, issued in no time to block a rave party, is written in such a way to restrict the constitutional right to assemble and demonstrate in public places. As for the constitutional reform, it foresees an unequal regionalism that would be balanced by the direct election of the President of the Republic: in fact, the undoing of the structure of the republican state and its balance of powers.
What is being announced, therefore, is a cultural syncretism made up of hyper-Atlanticism in foreign policy, neoliberalism in economic policy, illiberal turn in domestic policy. This mixture is not and could not be a replica of historical fascism: as Foucault has taught us, after five decades of neoliberalism authoritarianism cannot reappear with the same face, the same state, the same methods as a century ago. But it is an equally if not more dangerous mixture, in which the unresolved link with the fascist past should not be underestimated, as it can bring to the right the symbolic advantage of a grounding in a nineteenth-century tradition that the left for its part has systematically demolished since 1989.
It may be that the convulsions within the right-wing coalition, the mounting economic and social crisis and Italy’s international obligations will make the Meloni experiment very short-lived. Or, on the contrary, it may be that Meloni will be able to silence her allies, quell social unease with a few populist moves, accredit her own proposal by riding the crisis of European democracies and slipping into the cracks opened by the war in Ukraine in the apparent compactness of the EU. And perhaps by waiting for Trump’s wind to blow back in her favor in the US. A century later, Italy could again become the political laboratory of a reactionary experiment with devastating effects for the old continent and perhaps for the West as a whole.