At present we are rightly concerned with the growth of hard right political movements and parties. They thrive on the situation of those who are the least well off, often of lower educational levels, whose socioeconomic wellbeing repeatedly appears to be threatened by outsiders, often foreigners, what they are told are the moral foundations of their society also under threat by those who believe differently, mostly using religion but also packing ideology in the same box.
Unpack that box and what do we find? There are often wealthy backers behind these supposedly grassroots organisations who know precisely how to direct them to achieving their desired ends, not infrequently in a manner than enriches them all the more without improving the lives of those they rely on to achieve their ends. Some essentially ‘better off’ people who support the right are highly educated but have a particularly tainted view of the world, preferring the safe surroundings of the familiar reconstructed out of nostalgia for better times that, as often as not, were not better at all, except that all of the bad is filtered out. As for the moral codes they encourage, far too often history has revealed the greed and absolute corrupt and self-indulgent nature of the lives of these people behind the apparent leaders. Religion is repackaged to remind people what they used to believe and need to return to, irrespective of whether or not that is pertinent to the present, but hatred of the other and generalisation of all others is based on the words and actions of a few used to reinforce their preferred morality. It is used as nationalism, showing that purity is essential for a people to own their piece of the world and that even their version of religion makes their god best, the right one, the omnipotent arbiter of the ideology driving them toward their ‘natural’ superiority.
Most of that, however, is by no means exclusive to the right. The so-called hard left may not have as much money behind it, although history does tend to show they have not grown entirely out of an impoverished grassroots without help. Again it is usually an educated elite driving disillusioned, lower socioeconomic order people to force change, using similar propaganda to their right wing rivals to deceive less well educated masses into following them, but also carrying a well educated group who serve the intermediary purpose well. Instead of religion, which they often denounce as corrupting and false, they use ideology that promises much but has historically also mainly failed to deliver.
I write this with a long left wing history, at least by the side I am assigned to by those who insist on that delineation. In my early youth I was part of the Young Communist League that was still pro Soviet Union but had begun the process of distancing itself from Stalinist doctrine. My father was a socialist. but one of the kind that rejected the line held by the UK Labour Party or communists generally, although he voted for the former as a convenience. He being a little educated worker and I, increasingly educated, had little common ground except avowal to peace. He was a war veteran and former post-war soldier who believed that all wars were a waste of life and resources, that all people should stand up against their leaders ever leading them into the ignominy of sacrificing lives and all else for political ends that seldom meant much to the people expected to fight in their name. Like him, I also saw that wars create fortunes for capitalists who take the right side and sometimes even the wrong side. I agreed then and still do. The difference beyond all else was that my father was a narrow minded racist who could spout the dogmatic version of what their version of internationalism excluded, which was all people of the ‘wrong’ skin colour. He was eventually cured of that, but that is not for here. I mixed in circles where Marxist ideas were a catalyst for seeking solutions but never providing practicalities. Theory made me look deeper. Thus I imagine I am now placed somewhere within the range of anarchism and utopian socialism. Those views take in believing in the elimination of all government and the organisation of society in its present form but with emphasis on a voluntary, cooperative basis for ending the grasp of corporatism over human beings without recourse to force or compulsion, ideas expounded by such people as William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin and Pyotr Kropotkin. Yet at the same time there are many lessons to be adopted from modern socialism achieved by the moral persuasion of capitalists to consent to share the means of production and the earnings thereof peacefully with the people. That was advocated by Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet, Johann Fichte and Robert Owen among many others.
Karl Marx took ideas from them, indeed often argued with those who lived in his time, developed them then in turn his ideas were taken and adapted from some of them. There is little comparison between the Communist Manifesto he wrote with Friedrich Engels and published in 1848 and later use of that work, and das Kapital of course, later by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his alias Lenin, then interpretated into his written works that were acknowledged and highly acclaimed but never actually shaped the Soviet Union. In Germany Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg similarly interpreted Marx, but Germany’s communists also deviated from the original ideas. These people were of the 20 century, using the analysis of a man of the 19 century who concentrated on German and English working classes in a very rapidly changing world. Thus rather than find application in relatively recently unified nations like Italy and Germany, they fed ideas into an opposition who injected parts into their nationalist agendas.
Early in the 20 century Charles Maurras expounded a theory of integral nationalism, which called for the ‘organic’ unity of nations in which a powerful monarch was the ideal leader. He mistrusted the democratic perplexity of the popular will that created an impersonal collectivism, claiming only a powerful monarch could exercise the authority necessary to unite a nation’s people. His view of an integral nationalism was idealised by fascists but modified to replace monarchy with a powerful revolutionary leadership, often headed by a single strong personality. In time, dictators who conformed to Maurras’ ideas were to emerge on both the left and right. One of the far right’s traits is xenophobia which derives from the notion of a master race that broadly speaking originated in 19 century racial theory initially developed by Count Joseph de Gobineau. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was one of the earliest proponents of a theory presenting a hierarchical racial model of history, also in the 19 century.
Georges Sorel advocated radical syndicalism to achieve revolution that would overthrow capitalism and the bourgeoisie through actions such as strikes. He denounced democracy as reactionary, moved from the left to right and supported Maurras, who in turn used Sorel’s ideas to say that “…socialism liberated from the democratic and cosmopolitan element fits nationalism well as a well made glove fits a beautiful hand…”. Maurrassian and Sorelian ideas influenced the radical Italian nationalist Enrico Corradini whose views were part of a set of perceptions that attracted the right wing Associazione Nazionalista Italiana which claimed that their country’s economic backwardness was caused by a corrupt political class, liberals and divisions caused by what he called “ignoble socialism”. In 1914, the Italian political left split over its position on the outbreak of war. The Partito Socialista Italiano (PSI) opposed the war, but some Italian revolutionary syndicalists supported fighting against Germany and Austria-Hungary in order to defeat them to ensure the success of socialism. Benito Mussolini was ousted as chief editor of the PSI’s newspaper Avanti! for having an anti-German position, then joined the interventionist cause by forming a fascio (league), the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento. What had started as a left wing force that preferred peace came to regard WW1 causing revolutionary change in the nature of war, the state, society and technology by creating a new form of powerful state capable of mobilising millions of people to serve on front lines and supply economic means of supporting the front lines and also organising citizens to support the war. Fascists viewed the development of armaments and power to mobilise populations as a sign of the beginning of a new era that merge state power and mass politics, viewing the new order as triumph over what they considered to be the myth of progress and the end of the era of liberalism. They moved toward an inward looking, nationalist view of the world that was the model on which Adolf Hitler and his Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei based what was to become the major force in Germany a few years later. We probably all know the rest of that story well enough for me not to need to recant it here. The die was cast, the left came to be characterised by its emphasis on such propositions as liberty, equality and fraternity (as in the French motto of the 1789 revolutionaries), rights, progress and internationalism, whereas the right wing adopted such notions as authority, duty, hierarchy, order, tradition and nationalism. Thus, there on the right we see the ‘Vaterland’ principle that is once again treating the ‘other’ identified by nationality, race, religion, colour and culture as invaders who must be expelled or otherwise dealt with at all costs.
The re-emergence of nationalism
This is re-emerging now; Alternative für Deutschland is a quite recently formed right wing populist to far right political party that has gained popularity fast, indeed is now a main opposition party. In Italy a number of right wing parties from right of centre to hard right are even reviving fascism as an alternative to the left and centre of recent times. They have copied many of the idioms of the left but little of the political practice. The hard right rejects such ideas, they perform an act that appears to imitate some of the concepts but then pray at the altar of the capitalism that feeds them and profits in return. The left rejects the ideas anarchism and utopian socialism offer because it is leaves a vein of liberalism and choice they are highly suspicious of. Thus both right and left frequently play the same game by different rules, adopting totalitarianism as the only alternative to democracy, which in fact both fear.
Now the focus is on the right. Their nationalism is contradictory. They reject internationalism as a force contrary to their nationalism, but still aim to influence others beyond their ideological and geographic boundaries. They also reject internationalism because it is a political principle which transcends nationalism to advocate greater political or economic cooperation among nations and people; indeed it provides a rationale for the EU and any future closer relationship between nations such as a federal structure. It is not exclusively a socialist ideal at all; a caring and responsible capitalist society across nations who see a future together rather than in competition can as easily be internationalism. Yet the hard right are often driven by the forces of globalisation which is normally viewed as the process by which the world is becoming increasingly interconnected by corporations who appear to own or, at least, dominate countries who become economically dependent on them. The concept of social globalisation as a process by which the world is becoming increasingly interconnected by cultural contact and exchange of human resources rather than capital and commodities is abhorrent to them. The left and right both denounce globalisation constantly without taking in all of what the word means. But then both condemn capitalism for its vicissitudes from opposing positions, although one thrives on its funding and the other would cease to be required if it disappeared.
So now we have the Italian election. Right wing extremists are attempting to discredit the mainstream right and centre by obscuring the truth rather than outright lying by telling potential voters that the austerity that keeps them poor is not necessary and that in their hands that will end. In fact it is not a necessity but a political choice for which the poorest and most vulnerable people are paying for irresponsible, unfettered financial practices that allow the rich to grow wealthier, avoiding taxes and other social responsibilities but claiming the moral high ground as super rich oligarchs who have hijacked growing anti-establishment sentiments felt by the masses in such a way that they can blame the EU, the left or the liberal elite. The reality is that it has been the policies of individual governments that have tolerated corruption, if not indulged in it themselves, cronyism and other malpractices that have led to what the lower socio-economic strata must endure. It is not the EU, left or liberals who have generally created the suffering of the masses but a façade behind which the right are used to protect large corporations and banks by funding them via foundations with apparently charitable intents but in truth the careful maintenance of capitalism.
All parties in Italy appear to be to one degree or another tainted, with the least bad of all being Liberi e Uguali which is a left leaning alliance formed from Movimento Democratico e Progressista, Sinistra Italiana and Possibile, all recently founded parties who formed the block in 2017, and the liberal leaning centre Radicali Italiani led by Emma Bonino whose record of political integrity would suggest her suitability for high office. Unfortunately, both LeU and RI are too small and have no real influence at present although they may offer an alternative when the present political phase comes to its end. Italy is a party of a vast number of small and local parties, often contained within alliances, so that electoral predictability is easily as possible to base on what is known about nepotism, corruption and other deviant political behaviour as it is on political persuasions. The new electoral and parliamentary system is untested, thus with the combination of ‘first past the post’ and proportional representation it has been impossible to accurately predict what might yet happen.
Italy thus went to the polls after a divisive election campaign that confirmed the rise of populist right wing parties and initially re-established Silvio Berlusconi as a dominant force in Italian politics although the younger Matteo Salvini, leader of La Lega, has shunted the 81 year old aside and might yet be selected as interim leader and PM.
What can we expect?
The new parliament will hold its first session on 23 March when there will be an election of the presidents of the two chambers of parliament. Then consultations aimed at forming a new government formally begin. The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, will then appoint a prime minister designate, who will then present a proposed list of cabinet appointments. Both chambers of parliament will vote on the cabinet with a majority required to confirm appointments. What remains to be seen is how far Mattarella will intervene and whether he might look for ways and means of thwarting some of the populist campaign promises; for instance, abolishing a recently passed employment act. One probable situation is that Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), having taken 32% of the vote, could join forces with the Partito Democratico, whose vote sank to only 18%. That combination would give PD, still nominally headed by the former PM Matteo Renzi, a significant position at the negotiating table that would tone down the manner of an M5S government. Intense debate about how PD might approach that possibility emerged after Renzi’s announcement the day after the election in which he said he would resign and promised not to align with ‘extremist’ parties. Just to make matters more complicated, he then announced he would not formally stand down from the position as head of PD until a new government was formed. The next day it was reported that he had said he would not attend a meeting of all party leaders with the president. As ever, Italy is on ice politically. It may be weeks before there is any certainty, although there are just enough margins for coalitions, those may be too fractious to hold together. The possible outcome is new elections. There has also been some discussion of the new electoral laws that have been revealed to be quite seriously flawed needing to be replaced or at least revised again. The die has been cast, but what a new election with new rules might reveal is how far the populist hard right have won on the back of a protest vote as we have seen in the past in France. Would people think again and go for moderation or would political forces such as La Lega gain by another run at victory?
It takes us back to where I began by looking at what makes left and right ‘populism’ work and where it has the potential to go. Its weakness in either direction is that it dare not fail after past failures, to compromise or tone down manifestos can lose trust. Left and right are far more vulnerable than they see themselves. Italy is now the test, after others have failed or those that have been successful to a point now face strong opposition. If Italy does go hard right and has a government that can fulfil manifesto pledges forged out of coalition programmes then the message will be for other countries to keep the faith and go for it again. Then the right will surge to power in several countries. Failure or even compromise will encourage the centre and revitalise the left to come back out fighting. Perhaps that is the most desirable outcome, democracy supported by the thinnest of strands of hope, the left and right jockeying for future power, but in so doing actually supporting the status quo, therewith encouraging moderates to govern for the electorate, thus prevent the kind of debacle we are seeing now paralysing Italian governance. I find it ironic that those of us who call ourselves socialists who normally despair of what the political centre has to offer, clearly rejecting what the reactionary right would bring and with great distaste for the ersatz radicalism of the hard left, so often find that the centre offers the only solution to political stability. Most of us are not seeking utopia, but then nobody is offering it, so staying on safe ground is what we must do. Right now, Italy is a barometer of what might be, the Italian left is all but defunct, now we wait for President Mattarella to deliver us the next step. He has the difficult choice that can very easily be attacked by both possible coalition groups on the basis of his own left leaning political background, however to not be politically biased can as easily be attributed to weakness rather than strength. He is now forced to do the impossible which has possible knock on effects for us all. For those of us wherever we are on the political spectrum the form of literal internationalism that we see as the coming together of nations as a federal structure it is a crucial time. It may be a small hurdle, a barrier, the wall that stands between us and our intended goal or simply a temporary distraction that we can work round. Now all we can do is wait until there is a clear answer to that question.