Italy: the rise of the techno-populists

Aug 2018

Populism

Italy: the rise of the techno-populists

The spiked review talks to Carlo Invernizzi Accetti about why the Five Star Movement is a new kind of populism.

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti

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In March this year, the Five Star Movement (M5S) won 32 per cent of the vote in the Italian General Election, making it the single largest political party in Italy. This was an incredible feat given it was launched less than 10 years ago by Beppe Grillo, a comedian and blogger. And yet it is a feat that raises as many questions as it does answers.

To explore the reasons for the rise of the M5S, and to assess its future prospects, the spiked review interviewed Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, an assistant professor of political theory at the City University of New York, and an associate researcher at the Centre for European Studies of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). Here are his responses to our questions:

On the depth of anti-EU sentiment in Italy

‘Italy is historically one of the most pro-EU countries in the EU. Even now, in the most abstract sense, Italians are Europeanists. They understand that Italy alone in a global world doesn’t have many chances of competing effectively. Admittedly, there has always been a hard kernel of nationalists, or sovereignists, in Italy who are anti-EU. They account for about 15 per cent of the electorate and vote for Lega Nord, or Lega as it’s now known.

‘But there is little doubt that anti-EU sentiment has been rising, which is reflected by some of the anti-EU stances taken by the M5S. And it is not surprising, because in many ways the EU has been showing Italy its worst side.

‘First, the EU has interfered in Italian politics. We never, for example, had the opportunity to vote Berlusconi out, to defeat him politically. Rather the EU forced him out, a behind-the-scenes move captured in that famous smile Angela Merkel gave Nicolas Sarkozy at a meeting in 2011. More recently, the EU hamfistedly intervened in the formation of the new Italian government this summer, vetoing, via the Italian president, the appointment of certain anti-EU ministers. And this is where the EU appears at its most technocratic and anti-democratic, when it intervenes within domestic political government formation.

‘Related to this, the EU has also subjected Italy to the harsh fiscal rules of Eurozone membership. And this intervention into Italian economic policy has hit the economy – and Italian people – very hard.

‘Then there is the EU’s approach to Italy over that other burning political question of the day: immigration. If the EU has been over-interventionist in the Italian political sphere, it has left Italy alone to deal with huge numbers of migrants. When the Italian government says we need a Europe-wide policy on immigration, the EU always invokes the Dublin Regulation, and says, no, the first port of entry is Italy, so Italy has to take care of it. And this leads to a paradoxical situation where a sovereignist like Lega’s Matteo Salvini, now Italy’s deputy prime minister, ends up making a Europeanist argument. He is arguing for the redistribution of migrants across Europe.’

On the global context of Italian populism

‘The global causes of the populist rise are well known: the decreased sense of agency in individual states thanks to globalisation; the response to the economic crisis, privatising the gains and socialising the risks; and a general sense of insecurity. In addition we have also seen the collapse of intermediary bodies and the crisis of political parties. All these are global phenomena and you cannot understand the rise of populism in Italy without them.

‘At the same time, I think it’s very important to understand that Italy has long been known as ‘the country of many populisms’, from Berlusconi to La Lega. But the M5S is distinct from other populisms in other countries, because it is not a nationalist, right-wing populist movement, and it is not xenophobic. It is populist because it is anti-establishment, and anti-intermediary bodies, and it mobilises against the political system in the name of the people. But M5S is not nationalist. This is one reason why the M5S is having such a hard time in their alliance with the Lega. Their roots are very different.

‘I actually think Italy is a laboratory in which many global political tendencies are first elaborated. We have the dubious honour of having invented fascism, of having invented Trump in the form of Berlusconi, and now we have the M5S, which is a new phenomenon again. I think the M5S is the vanguard of the development of a new kind of populism.’

On what is different about techno-populism

‘Populism has been described as a thin-centred ideology, in the sense that just mobilising the people against the elite is not enough to create a political project. Rather, populism needs to ally itself with other concepts in order to assume a comprehensive political force. So usually populism allies with nationalism, which is the standard form taken by right-wing populism.

‘I think the M5S and other phenomena, like the Ciudadanos (the citizens party) in Spain and, to an extent, Emmanuel Macron in France, are distinctive because instead of allying populism with nationalism, they ally with technocracy. This means that politics is no longer a question of right or left, but a question of expertise and the search for competent solutions to political problems. This is why the first thing that M5S did when it came to power was appoint a bunch of professors to key ministries.

‘What is interesting is that usually populism and technocracy are considered opposites. People thought that populism was a reaction against EU technocracy, and technocracy was a bulwark against populism. But what the M5S shows is they can be perfectly complementary, because they can both be critiques of the same thing: representative democracy or party democracy. So both populism and technocracy, in the form it is taking in M5S, are anti-party. What techno-populism rejects at core is a conception of politics as the struggle between conflicting interests. Indeed, it rejects pluralism. It rejects parties.

‘Think about the word ‘party’. It indicates that a political grouping represents a part of society. A socialist party, for instance, stands for the workers and so on. But if you’re a techno-populist, you claim to stand for the interests of the people as a whole. The people is not a part – it is not a party. And just like the truth is the truth for everyone, so the expertise of technocrats is supposed to apply to the whole of society.

‘This is significant because if you have a party that claims to represent the whole —which is a paradox because a part cannot claim to be a whole —it doesn’t recognise the legitimacy of opposition. Because if you’re already the whole, the other can only be an exterior thing, like the foreigner or a corrupt politician which stands for what techno-populists call ‘special interests’.

‘The particular feature, the danger even, of populists, and especially techno-populists, is that they don’t recognise the legitimacy of opposition because they claim to stand for everyone. Hence Beppe Grillo, M5S’s former leader, once famously said, ‘I don’t want 50 per cent, I want 100 per cent of the vote’. That’s because he doesn’t recognise that there are other parts or parties. He thinks that he represents the whole of the people.’

On the problems facing the Five Star Movement

‘A populist party stands mostly in opposition to something. What gives it its unity and coherence is its opposition, say, to the foreigner, the politician, the journalist – always the figure who is not part of the ‘real’ people. So a techno-populist movement like the M5S has a very effective ideology when it is in opposition. It has very strong ideas about what is wrong with the system. But once it comes into power, the fact that it claims to represent everybody and therefore stands for no particular interests is a problem, because it is then torn between myriad different demands coming from different elements of its social bases. At this moment, the absence of any internal coherence to the M5S’s political platform becomes apparent. M5S will say that it is a democratic movement, and that it always has to ask its base. So it does polls online and receives contradictory, conflicting answers. I think this has proved the vacuity of M5S’s attempt to represent everybody through an appeal to expertise.

‘It has also meant that because it does not stand for anything in particular, M5S’s politicians have been completely outmanoeuvred by La Lega, which does stand for something —namely, national sovereignty. La Lega may be the far smaller party electorally speaking, but, because it provides the only coherent, concrete element of the governing alliance’s platform, it drives policymaking.

‘The M5S has shown itself so far to be little more than a sounding board for different frustrations. La Lega is different: it is a nationalist, populist party, and nationalism is at least a coherent project. It at least means something beyond the M5S’s insistence on technocratically competent policies. After all, who really knows what these policies are? And that’s part of the problem.’

On the past and future of the M5S

‘I think it is important to understand that the M5S emerges from a landscape shaped by Berlusconi-ism and its aftermath. Berlusconi did two key things. First, he presented an image of professional politicians as purely, almost audaciously self-serving. I’ll show you how smart I am, he seemed to be saying, and I’ll manage to outsmart everybody else and do it my way, like his favourite Frank Sinatra song.

‘And second, Berlusconi-ism also changed the left into the anti-Berlusconi camp, into moralists intent on defending the rules, and imposing proper procedures. (You can see something similar happening with the Democrats in the US, who, faced by a president so brazenly self-serving, have become increasingly moralistic, legalistic and obsessed by proper procedure.) And it is from the moral purification of the Italian left that the M5S emerges, distilling the anti-Berlusconi sentiment into a moralistic, legalistic platform. The M5S, against Berlusconi-ism, says that we are not real politicians (because we are not self-serving) and we will restore real morality and real legality.

‘So, this element of moralisation is, for me, the kernel of the M5S. But this moralising mission turns against itself once power has been gained, because M5S becomes sullied by it.

‘The M5S is at a crossroads. There are two options: one, it can continue down this purer-than-thou legalist, moralist route, and continue in its alliance with La Lega. And if it does so, this will be its own undoing, because it cannot govern and remain pure. The other option it has is to forge a programmatic alliance with the left, with the Democratic Party, which it considered for a long time during the negotiations for the creation of the current government. If it does that, I think it could go in a completely different direction, and shed its anti-establishment, populist rhetoric, and drive the renewal of the Italian left, especially the Democratic Party, which had become too absorbed in its own logic of seeking and holding power.

‘After all, Grillo, the M5S’s founder, comes from the left. He was dissatisfied with the fact that the left was not sufficiently pure in its opposition to Berlusconi. But if the M5S goes back to those left-wing roots, if it becomes not a populist party but a new kind of political left, setting aside the anti-establishment, anti-political elements and maintaining the democratic, environmentalist, social aspects, then it just might become the electric shock that can revitalise the dying Italian left.’

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti is assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York and associate researcher at the Centre for European Studies at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). He is the author of Relativism and Religion: Why Democratic Societies Do Not Need Moral Absolutes (2015).

He was speaking to Tim Black.

Picture by: Pasere, published under a creative commons license.

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