Since Spring 2018, Italy has been governed by a strange social-nativist coalition of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Lega, (the former Northern League). The Five Star Movement (M5S) is an anti-system and anti-establishment party, which is unclassifiable in the usual left-right typologies but one of its leitmotifs is a guaranteed basic income. The Lega is a regionalist and anti-tax movement, now converted into a nationalist party specialised in hunting foreigners. It would be an error to attribute this astonishing partnership to an Italian taste for exoticism. In reality, all the European governments have a share in the responsibility for the emergence of this type of coalition, as desperate as it is incoherent. If we are not careful the Italian social-nativist nightmare could
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Since Spring 2018, Italy has been governed by a strange social-nativist coalition of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Lega, (the former Northern League). The Five Star Movement (M5S) is an anti-system and anti-establishment party, which is unclassifiable in the usual left-right typologies but one of its leitmotifs is a guaranteed basic income. The Lega is a regionalist and anti-tax movement, now converted into a nationalist party specialised in hunting foreigners. It would be an error to attribute this astonishing partnership to an Italian taste for exoticism. In reality, all the European governments have a share in the responsibility for the emergence of this type of coalition, as desperate as it is incoherent. If we are not careful the Italian social-nativist nightmare could rapidly be of concern to us, to begin with because of its European consequences and subsequently because there is a risk that similar coalitions could one day become widespread in other countries, including in France.
To recap: the Five Star Movement obtains its highest scores in the working-class categories in the south of Italy and from the disappointed in all the parties, attracted by the promises of new social policies and the development of the backward regions. The Lega attracts the anti-immigrant vote, particularly in the north, where the party has also retained a base of anti-tax independents and managers.
At one point, the Five Star Movement did consider a coalition with the PD (the Democratic Party including the former left-wing parties, and now located somewhere between the centre-left and the centre-right, nobody knows exactly where) but the Democratic Party finally refused preferring to count on the failure of the populists.
The Five Star Movement and the Lega then agreed on a programme based on the implementation of a guaranteed basic income, advocated by the Five Star Movement (which could be comparable to the French-style basic income scheme, revenu de solidarité active) and the ‘flat tax’ defended by the Lega. This is a tax levied at the same rate on all incomes, which implies the total dismantling of the progressive tax system (with the highest rates on the biggest incomes) and a huge loss of fiscal revenue. The Five Star Movement – Lega alliance is also, and primarily, based on a violent anti-refugee policy typified by the Minister for Home Affairs, Salvini, the leader of the Lega, who spent his summer preventing rescue ships from landing, thus disregarding the rules, but which enabled his scores to soar in the opinion polls. Both parties have also come to an agreement on a number of unexpected issues; for example they oppose vaccinations which are associated with elitist know-alls and profit-seeking pharmaceutical laboratories.
How can an ideological cocktail of this sort survive? In the French context, we can see all the elements which would separate Melenchon’s La France insoumise (France unbowed) party from an alliance of this sort: central to their values are solidarity with the migrants and the defence of progressive taxation (even if Melenchon’s recent Poujadist remarks about the ‘torments’ of deduction of tax at source are a cause for alarm). The fact that the 5 Star Movement agreed on the ‘flat tax’ speaks volumes about the lack of backbone in their programme, the debilitating effects of the gradual decomposition of Italian politics (ongoing since 1992 and the collapse of the post-World War Two political parties), and also on the damage resulting from decades of anti-tax rhetoric and fiscal dumping (since the wealthiest elude taxation and nobody seems to do anything about it, then why not publicly lower taxation for everyone?).
But if the cocktail works, it is primarily because the Italian leaders excel in criticising the selfishness of the French government which preaches about the refugees but closes its own ports and borders, and, more generally the hypocrisy of Europe which imposes rigid budgetary rules on Italy, preventing the country from investing and from recovering from the crisis in 2008 and the ensuing purge. The main thing learnt from the Orban-Salvini meeting was the display of anti-migrant solidarity: “We have proved that immigration can be stopped on land which proves that it can be stopped at sea” declared Orban. We should also bear in mind Salvini words: “Today we are setting out on a path which we shall tread together and which will be followed by many other steps in the next few months to bring to the fore the right to employment, health and security. We will ensure everything which the European establishment has refused us.”
What makes Salvini so dangerous is precisely his capacity to link nativist discourse with the social, and migratory discourse with the debt. This is all rolled into the accusation of the establishment as being hypocritical everywhere. Since the ECB printed billions to save the banks, why could it not help Italy by postponing the debt to more favourable times? This common sense discourse will appeal until Europe replaces it with something better. In Poland and in Hungary, the far from liberal governments have also had an eye to public opinion by financing social welfare measures, family allowances and retirement benefits which the pro-European governments refused.
We can of course consider that Italian public opinion will always be opposed to the final clash and the return of the lira and inflation. One might also consider that it is time for Europe to demonstrate to the working classes that it is best suited to defend them by finally implementing a policy to relaunch the economy and for a just form of taxation. As long as the centrists on all sides practise a similar form of anti-social liberalism, social-nativism will have a promising future ahead.
PS: the figure above is extracted from the following research: Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right: Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of Political Conflict , WID.world WP 2018/07.