It’s not every day you get uplifting political news– especially these days. Yet, yesterday something happened which, to me at least, signals that things aren’t all that bad. A few weeks ago, thanks to the braggadocio of Italy’s Foreign Minister Matteo Salvini, the Italian parliament looked as though it would be the first one in Europe to become explicitly far-right in orientation. Salvini, after engineering a stunt which saw the dissolution of his coalition with the technocratic 5 Star Movement (M5S), was poised to join with the Brothers of Italy (an explicitly neo-fascist party) and claim control of the government. Were that to happen– it would be particularly bad not just for Italy, but for all of Europe.
One of my Summer reading projects these past weeks was John Foot’s brilliant new history of post-1945 Italy called The Archipelago. In it, he manages to demonstrate that Italy has long been the political incubator and testing ground of Europe. The first mass socialist movements took hold in Italy, the first Anarchist violence happened there, the first experiments with Fascism were, of course, Italian, and the trend continued after the war as well. Italy was one of the first to have a Communist Party which distanced itself from Stalin’s USSR, and one of the first to integrate the far-left into political life. More timely for us, Italy experimented with an authoritarian strongman who came from ‘outside politics’ and sold himself as someone who could cut ‘good deals’ via his media empire long before America suffered the same fate.
Now, in the post-Berlusconi era, Italy has reminded us that those authoritarian tendencies don’t last forever. In the years since, Italy has experimented with regional autonomy (Lega Nord predates the Catalonia crisis for instance) as well as internet-based technodemocracy (the 5 Star Movement makes all party decisions using an internet voting forum called Rousseau). Whatever will happen to the rest of Europe in ten years time is happening to Italy now.
That’s the good news– because what’s happened after Salvini’s dramatic exit is that the two other major parties (PD and M5S), who are historic rivals, both agreed to team up in an unprecedented move of unity to push back Salvini’s far-right agenda. In a crisis that threatened to bring elements of Italian law back to Mussolini era statues, reasonable heads prevailed– and most people (including voters polled) lost respect for Salvini and the League on the basis of what they saw as a self-interested power gambit.
The new government, confirmed yesterday, has many uphill battles to face– but it is of some reassurance that rather than embrace a new and extreme right-wing ideology, most people decided the sensible thing was to put their party or personal interests second and unite first. As we face considerable division in British society and as we watch in horror as Israeli society is being torn apart by social rifts (so much so that a show about a Charedi-Secular civil war is a new hit in Israel), Italy’s past few weeks may be some comfort– especially as history has shown that Italy is an incubator and beta-tester of European political life.
As Israel goes to the polls this week, as we enter a season of personal and societal reflection, and as we hope that Britain can itself overcome its rifts– maybe there’s some good news after all. A chi vuole, non mancano modi.