Last week’s European election results were bad news for the Left. The European Union has been hit hard by its economic and political crises of recent years, and the main pro-system parties took another knock in last week’s elections. Yet the winners were not the left-wing opponents of neoliberalism. Lacking a clear plan to change the EU, they instead floundered while the far right again made gains.
But the Left’s weaknesses don’t just owe to tactical choices. The election results, with the decline of both social democracy and more radical forces, express a long-term weakening of party organization. If during the European debt crisis we have seen sporadic outbursts of anti-austerity mobilizations, as well as new electoral alternatives expressing something of the same spirit, these have not made up for the longer-term pattern of decline.
For Italian political scientist Marco Revelli, the “revolt of the poor” is making less impact on the political map than the revolt of those who had something more to lose: those whose income, status, or national pride are coming under threat. In his analysis, once-conformist voters who underpinned the pro-system parties are radicalizing in favor of right-wing populist alternatives.
Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to Marco about the weakening of the traditional parties, the decline of democratic antibodies to the far right, and the possibility of reviving different forms of mass organization.
David Broder: Let’s start by talking about the European elections. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party secured very strong results, but pro-EU liberal and Green parties also made gains. The results for the self-described “populist” left were poor, as was the score for Italy’s more genuinely “transversal” Five Star Movement (M5S). So, if there is a challenge to the center parties, why is only the populist right winning? Has the window of opportunity for the populist left closed — or did it never exist?
Marco Revelli: I agree with this general framing. The anti-populist, anti-sovereigntist forces who support the current European political order did well: we saw this both in the Netherlands and with the Liberal Democrats’ result in Britain. But the main systemic parties fell back, in the EU’s French-German core in particular. In Germany, the SPD fell from 27 to 16 percent and Angela Merkel’s CDU lost more than 6 percent. In France, the Socialists and the Gaullist right also saw heavy setbacks — indeed the Socialists have disappeared almost entirely. All this opens up further cracks in the European structure.
If the old main parties of center-left and center-right are declining, the forces that supposedly stand outside this divide are in fact hardening as clearly on the Right. This is especially true where such parties are tested in government. Take the Italian case: in the March 2018 general election M5S took 32 percent and the Lega 17 percent, but today their scores are almost the exact opposite. Salvini has won votes not by being a moderate but by ostentatiously showing off his hard-right credentials. He attacked migrants and closed the ports — risking criminal proceedings against himself — and in his Milan rally before the election practically called on the crowd to boo the Pope.
Faced with these results, pro-Europeans have little reason to cheer. If in Austria the government was felled just a few days before by a corruption scandal, the far-right minister at the center of this, Heinz-Christian Strache, lost only a couple of points in the election. In France, Le Pen’s Rassemblement National has practically wiped out the moderate right, occupying the whole political space left open by Macron.
This has not benefited the populist left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, a kind of left-sovereigntist party, suffered heavy setbacks, and even if Portugal and Spain are a countertendency to the general European picture, Podemos’s plan to conquer the Left has failed. It was instead the center-left PSOE which made up ground. And in Barcelona the Catalan nationalists ousted left-wing mayor Ada Colau.
In recent years an opening did indeed emerge for a left-wing challenge to the European policy balance. But that would have been based on a Mediterranean axis, united by a common opposition to the Northern countries’ austerity policies. It would have stretched from Syriza in Greece to Podemos in Spain, the left-wing coalition in Portugal, and perhaps also some sort of socially inflected populism in Italy and the sizable protest movements in France.
But this axis was broken before it could ever be realized. In Greece, the middle classes used Tsipras to save themselves in the moment of crisis, but as we now see they have “gone home” to the corruption-polluted, right-wing New Democracy. Meanwhile, Italy has not joined an anti-austerity axis across the Mediterranean, but rather been absorbed into the Visegrád group of central-eastern European countries led by hard-right governments.
The question of which forces are picking up votes also touches on what kind of revolt is really taking place. In The New Populism, you describe twenty-first-century populism as a revolt not of the poor or those who have always been excluded, but rather of once-“included” layers who find that their position is becoming precarious. Through an analysis of the data behind Trump’s election and Brexit, you show that this is less a matter of the working class voting for the populist right, as a small part of it being pulled along behind a much larger, radicalized conservative force based on the middle classes. But what is driving this radicalization: have the base of these right-populist forces really “lost out”?
I think the electoral events of more recent years have confirmed this analysis of what happened with Trump and Brexit. Of course, the label “populism” covers all manner of heterogeneous and contradictory phenomena. But in general, we see the mobilization of a wide sector of the electorate, breaking out of the bounds of the traditional, moderate right. What had in past decades been the stabilizing basis of the party-political system is becoming an extreme and destabilizing force. We see this also with such examples as Le Pen, the M5S and Lega in Italy, and to a lesser extent with the Alternative für Deutschland.
Once-conformist conservative voters are radicalizing. They are not the poorest but are in some sense “deprived” of something. Not necessarily in terms of income — though this has often been true in the crisis period. But moreover, in the sense of having lost something of their social position, or even feeling that their country has declined from being a leading power. We see this in the United States, dramatically so in the United Kingdom, and even in Italy. It also involves factors like men losing their horrible gendered power over women and revolting against feminism, and the white backlash against multiculturalism.
These, too, see themselves as “losers” of globalization, and feel an overweening nostalgia for the world that went before. The feeling of a sense of national grandeur — even in a country like Italy, losing the prestige it had as a “last rampart” of the West in the days of the Iron Curtain — is a little reminiscent of Germany in the 1920s. There are major differences: we have not just gone through a devastating war, with all the dehumanizing effects that has, and nor are we expecting a new one. But the change in the productive model and in the economic order, as well as the subprime crisis, have created social changes, even anthropological changes, not unlike the effects on society that a war has. This drives a nostalgia for what went before, which takes inevitably right-wing forms.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
Looking at the breakdown of the party system, in your book Finale di Partito you discuss the end of the twentieth-century mass party. You call this latter a “mirror of industrial society,” noting its tendency “to gigantism, to the stable incorporation of broad masses of people, organizing them into solid and permanent structures.” Doubtless, today parties don’t have the same roots in everyday life and class identity that they once did. Yet there are also countertendencies. Looking at Britain’s mass-membership Labour Party, it seems that the decline of trade unions and other kinds of organization has made it even more necessary for the atomized and precarious to rally together at the political level, especially when it comes to questions like housing and public services whose importance extends beyond particular workplaces or communities. If the traditional mode of party organization has declined, isn’t there reason to expect it can also renew itself, in new forms?
This populist insurgency, of various forms, has a lot to do with the crisis of the political form typical of the twentieth century. That kind of mass party was very much structured around a society dominated by the Fordist social-productive paradigm. By Fordism, I don’t just mean assembly lines and factories, but the fact of large concentrations of workers in big workplaces, national-level collective bargaining over pay and conditions, and welfare states providing standardized services to all.
In the 1980s this paradigm went into crisis with Toyotism and outsourcing. The mass party, but especially social democracy and the kind of bureaucracy described by Robert Michels at the start of the twentieth century, went away. Before, social democracy had meant a mass party rooted in the everyday life of a class: the proletariat, but also the productive middle class. Yet now the SPD and the French Socialists have almost disappeared, and the West’s strongest Communist Party — Italy’s PCI — suffered a near-death experience after several changes of name and identity, even if rebounding (or at least halting its decline) in the European elections.
The Labour Party is different insofar as it did not take the same bureaucratic form as other European social-democratic parties and was better able to interpret and mediate the movements in society at large, even if on Brexit it is clearly struggling to do this. Labour was better able to remain a reference point and “political container” with which voters identified, and within that context it has been able to galvanize a renewed activism which we cannot see elsewhere.
The crisis of these political containers has in most European countries created a “political market” in which voters are no longer bound by party identity, and in which there is massive electoral volatility. This also owes to the loss of the party’s role as a kind of “father figure” enjoying the collective authority to filter information and set the political vocabulary.
Today, we are all orphans, and everyone chooses individually what they want to say or believe, including fake news and the most improbable narratives. The breakdown of these structures of information corresponds to a terrifying atomization of society and behavior generally.
In such a context, the party cannot recover on the ground of the Weberian model of bureaucracy. Individuals now behave more like swarms of bees. So, the question is how to recompose a political subject and sense of collective identification.
Clearly, the populist right has its answer to this: the unscrupulous use of scapegoating and demagogic rhetoric, deploying bombast and loose nationalist talk as a substitute for really meeting their base’s needs. But the Left has to work out how to give concrete and material responses. It is not enough to ally with pro-market liberals in defense of democracy: rather, the Left has to rebuild its own base.
The question of the control of information is interesting especially in light of the Italian case. After the collapse of the old parties, Silvio Berlusconi’s breakthrough run in 1994 was widely attributed to his ownership of TV stations and ability to set the news agenda, polarizing politics around himself. Yet Matteo Salvini is able to do this even just by making provocative tweets. If Berlusconi’s sheer media power allowed him to establish himself as a leader figure, isn’t it surprising the internet, with its democratizing effect, has done nothing to change this?
Berlusconi’s “telepopulism” was a highly interesting phenomenon. It centralized information from above, as he created a new “lightly structured” party where he called the shots. The public was now to be informed by the leader, directly in their own living rooms.
The move from this “telepopulism” to “cyberpopulism” with the advent of the internet thus looked comparable to the shift from the linotype press to the cyclostyle which in a sense made the social movements of 1968 possible, in democratizing the distribution of information (by making it cheaper and more accessible). Of course, even before Salvini used Twitter to such powerful effect, it was Beppe Grillo’s M5S that developed the utopia of online information and decision-making.
But this utopia collapsed when populism took on its clearly right-wing dimension. In fact, the internet doesn’t serve to socialize decision-making: M5S’s online Rousseau platform (the basis for its supposed “direct democracy,” where supporters vote on its internal decisions) involves only a few thousand people, an aristocracy of the involved rather than a representation of the population.
Rather than have such a collective or socializing effect, Twitter has an undemocratic power. It fuels the spread of messages that we could compare to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that stirred pogroms in Eastern Europe at the start of the twentieth century. We see this in the claims about George Soros wanting to change Europe’s ethnic makeup, or the lurid Pizzagate scandal. There is no transparency or democratization, here: we have no trace of where the message started from, but can only see its effect. The same could be said of Google, which in algorithmically reproducing content that it knows you agree with, helps undermine the bases of truly collective discussion.
You have described Italy as a political laboratory. Not only the rise of the populist right but the explosion of the institutional order that characterized postwar Italy, up until the end of the “First Republic” in the early 1990s, make this country a test bed for political convulsions. But if here the old parties collapsed entirely, and there have been thirty years of economic stagnation, does this really foreshadow other countries’ future? To take an example like Germany, while the SPD and CDU are greatly weakened, it would seem that the institutional and democratic antibodies against the far right are much stronger, and the overall situation more stable.
Italy has long been a laboratory and a political school for other countries. Looking at the Left in particular, in the 1970s it had a real vivacity and mass politicization. Operaismo and Italian Marxism in general had a broad influence. The Eurocommunist model was upheld not only by Enrico Berlinguer’s PCI but also by Santiago Carrillo’s party in Spain, and in lesser measure drew attention in France and Germany.
Italy is no longer such a laboratory. It is neither a school to draw useful lessons from, or a country that can serve like a crystal ball in which other countries can see their own future. Rather, it can be seen as an extreme case in which all the failed experiments of the last two decades have built up, one on top of the other.
Italy was, doubtless, a “first” in at least two rather unenviable senses. It was here that the new populism first emerged, with Berlusconism in the 1990s. Silvio Berlusconi was the first billionaire to stand to become head of government, and the first to found a party that was also a business — an “instant” party that came from nowhere to become the party of government. He was the first to use his ownership of TV stations to mold his own audience and voter base.
Italy is also notable for its variety of different populisms: Berlusconi’s TV populism, the blut and boden regionalist populism of Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord, Beppe Grillo’s instant “not-a-party” M5S and its cyberpopulism, and even the “populism from above” of Matteo Renzi, with the populist style of the self-described “demolition man” in government. It has seen the most institutional ruptures, from the “Bribesville” scandal of the early 1990s which destroyed the so-called “First Republic,” to the collapse of the so-called “Second Republic” in mid-2011 during the sovereign debt crisis.
In the period that followed the fall of the last Berlusconi government, orchestrated by President Giorgio Napolitano, the parties of center-left and center-right hid behind the shield of the technocrats’ rule, refusing to take responsibility for the austerity measures dictated by the European Troika. Yet they then found that the M5S had emerged like a monster from a lake, as a force aspiring to govern. And today, under the joint Lega-M5S government, we see a further fracture.
What explains why all this upheaval took place in Italy in particular? Well, for Italy the turn from one century to another has marked an especially devastating collapse. GDP has been stagnant for at least two decades, wages have flatlined, investment in research and development is among the lowest in the OECD, while the key centers of manufacturing industry from FIAT to the Olivetti of the golden era and the state-backed industries under IRI have declined or disappeared.
In a book I wrote called I Don’t Recognise You I explained how Italy’s social and physical landscape has changed, with its vast industrial wastelands, the decline of the peripheral areas surrounding production sites, and the cannibalization of small traders by the big distributors. This helps explain how come the populist insurgency came to Italy first. In this sense, perhaps this country really is a case study. For it shows how far this populist syndrome can go, when we are faced with such far-reaching socioeconomic decline.[book-strip index="2" style="display"]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marco Revelli teaches political science at the Università del Piemonte Orientale. His studies focus on the radical right, contemporary populism, the labor movement, and the relationship between the forms of politics and the organization of production.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
David Broder is a historian of French and Italian communism. He is currently writing a book on the crisis of Italian democracy in the post-Cold War period.