Si Salvini chi può. When Italy’s two most bellicose parties finally agreed to form a government on June 1, following 88 days of post-election grandstanding, the left daily Il Manifesto led with a title playing on si salvi chi può, or, as we say in English, “every man for himself.” And indeed, Matteo Salvini, 45, federal secretary of the fearmongering, xenophobic Lega party and the man whose surname lent itself to the pun, had been quick to grab more than his share of the seats on the lifeboat of government.
The Lega took 17 percent of the vote in March 4 elections—only about half of the 33 percent won by their new government comrades in arms, the Five Star Movement (M5S). But Salvini and Co. will field almost as many ministers (six, including the key post of undersecretary to the prime minister) as the M5S (eight). And the brash, demagogic Lega chieftain will not only hold down the interior ministry (controlling the police, intelligence services, and the handling of migrants, whom he has repeatedly demonized); he will be deputy prime minister to titular premier Giuseppe Conte, a law professor with no political experience. To M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, 31, falls the ministry of labor and economic development. Although he’s never actually held a job, Di Maio will be responsible for the job market, characterized by high unemployment and widespread conditions of precarity. He, too, will be a deputy prime minister, in a two-pronged strategy to supervise Conte, who looks set to be little more than a fig leaf for the fractious duo Salvini–Di Maio. It didn’t take the new prime minister long to acquire a nickname: Conte Non Conta un C**** (“Conte doesn’t Count Jack”).
But “every man for himself” was exactly what Salvini had in mind when on Sunday he ordered Italian ports to refuse to dock the Aquarius, an SOS Méditerranée rescue boat with 629 migrants aboard, among them 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children, and seven pregnant women, that was approaching Italy. Those on board had been rescued in several operations off the coast of Libya, some of them pulled out of the water by the Italian navy. The mayors of Naples, Palermo, Messina, and Reggio Calabria all quickly announced that their ports were open to the Aquarius. But on Monday, Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, offered to allow the migrants to come ashore at Valencia, and Italy will provide smaller boats to help make the crossing.
When an Italy-bound boat sank off Tunisia the week before, killing dozens, Salvini had warned that “the good times are over for the clandestini,” the migrants without papers. “They’ll have to pack their bags now.” The Tunisian migrants were “jailbirds,” he said. That and his cruel quip about “good times” was as clear an announcement as any that migrants will continue to be the bêtes noires and rallying cry of the right. They’ll pay a high price for their scapegoat role.
The first to pay that price on Italian soil was Soumaila Sacko, 29, from Mali, a farm worker with a residence permit living in the province of Reggio Calabria and a labor-union rep with Unione Sindacale di Base. The notoriously exploited crop pickers, many of them Africans, have been the target of violence before and have staged courageous protests asserting their rights. Sacko, accompanying some fellow workers in search of corrugated steel to shore up their makeshift dwellings in the tent camp of San Ferdinando, was shot and killed by a local man in what was perceived as a racial hate crime but may also involve illegally dumped toxic wastes. Nigerian Becky Moses had died when fire swept across the same migrant dormitory camp in January. Neither Salvini nor Di Maio offered condolences on Sacko’s death.
No, Salvini had better things to do. He posted numerous tweets, pretty rabble-rousing ones for an interior minister. He flew down to Pozzallo, Sicily, where an overloaded dinghy with 158 people aboard had docked the day before, and summoned reporters to tell them, once again, that he meant to stop assisting these boatloads of migrants arriving from North Africa. He promised again to expel the 500,000 migrants without papers who he says are on Italian soil, and to sharply reduce what he claimed was 5 billion euros in funds spent to house asylum seekers (much of this paid by the EU, however). He repeated the charge that NGOs operating in the Mediterranean to help rescue people when their flimsy boats fail were openly in league with the criminal organizations smuggling migrants across borders. He spoke to the ferociously nationalist and anti-migrant Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, “who sends us his best wishes and with whom we’ll work to change the rules of the European Union.” Salvini failed to attend an EU meeting to consider changes in the Dublin II Regulation, which assigns responsibility for migrants to their country of entry. Despite its legitimate claim to be more vulnerable to uncontrolled arrivals from across the Mediterranean because of its long sea border, Italy has in fact processed fewer migrants than other European countries, and could risk seeing its responsibilities increase. Last year Germany gave permits to 325,000 migrants, while Italy accepted just 35,000.
It’s probably only a matter of time until Salvini reiterates his promise “to take a bulldozer and flatten all the Roma camps” (the bleak, overcrowded settlements housing Romani and Sinti populations across Italy). In one campaign stunt, he was photographed behind the wheel of a large earth mover.
The Lega, or League, is oddly enough one of the longest-surviving parties in Italy’s political landscape today—a landscape profoundly different from that of the nearly 50-year postwar period dominated by three now extinct forces, the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists. The League grew out of regional associations that mounted a tax protest, among them the Lega Lombarda, founded in 1984. (A memory: When I moved to Italy in 1985 I watched mysterious posters appear around Milan showing a gagged black slave-like figure and the slogan Lumbard tas. “Shut up, Lombard.” The Lega Lombarda, led by Umberto Bossi, gave vent to the anger felt by northerners who believed their taxes went to fund government services and privileges almost exclusively for “shiftless” southern Italians.) When in 1989 the regional leagues came together as the Lega Nord, the shrewd, noisy, uncouth Bossi became its secretary. He liked to give interviews in his undershirt and brag about how virile the Lega was. But the party only got out of the barn in 1994, when Silvio Berlusconi formed a coalition with the Lega and Alleanza Nazionale, as the lightly reformed neo-Fascists then called themselves, and won that year’s election. The move to allow those two reactionary forces into government for the first time changed the Italian political equation forever.
Under Berlusconi’s umbrella, Parliament passed a new law in 2002 regulating immigration, called the Bossi-Fini law after the leaders of those two reactionary parties. It imposed criminal sanctions on “illegals” and made it much more difficult to gain extended residency. Migrants employed in Italy now became precarious workers with few rights, liable to quick expulsion if they lost their job. This of course was just what was desired by the Lega’s electoral base: the owners of small and medium-sized northern businesses who could profit from this low-wage labor. Bossi-Fini is still the law today.
In the intervening years, the Lega contested local elections across northern Italy and eventually won many local seats and extensive regional power. At times they gained a reputation for good government at the municipal level. (But when the other day Salvini outlined the new, secure Repatriation Centers to detain migrants being deported, the regions governed by his own party said “not in my back yard.” They do not want deportation centers housing thousands of desperate people on their territory.)
Then, in 2012, a corruption scandal emerged involving the Lega’s embezzlement of government funding for electoral campaigns. Umberto Bossi was forced to resign and Salvini, the most ferocious of his young cubs, was elected federal secretary in 2013. Under Salvini, the Lega Nord changed its name to just Lega and began to seek votes nationally. Southerners were no longer the enemy, and in fact the Lega had already begun to vilify the migrants. Hostility to the EU and the euro were among Salvini’s other rallying cries, and in 2014 he aligned with Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the EU Parliament. When elections came in 2018, he advocated a regressive flat tax and argued for eliminating sanctions against Russia. Almost all his favored measures reflect the interests of those small and medium businesses that represent much of his base. The flat tax, in the first instance, will reduce the taxes companies pay. After the election, it gradually became apparent that Salvini wasn’t going to press to exit the euro; Italian businesses depend upon it. Indeed, in an interview with Corriere della Sera, the new minister of the economy, Giovanni Tria, was eager to reassure the world that Italy is in the EU to stay.
The M5S is a much younger party, founded in 2009. Its primary target is la casta, career politicians from other parties. Although the M5S didn’t ally with Le Pen, in Strasbourg they sit together with Britain’s UKIP and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, two far-right nationalist, Euroskeptic groups. While some of the M5S deputies say they oppose xenophobia and racism, founder Beppe Grillo has been willing to speak up in favor of Donald Trump. The M5S have a severe dearth of political experience, so it is not easy to predict where their current positions will take them. As the government took shape during the first week in June, the consensus was that Salvini had craftily outmaneuvered his larger ally and that he would be running the show. The M5S deputies were reported to be quarreling heavily among themselves. In scattered local elections around Italy on Sunday, Salvini’s dramatic posturing won a substantial number of votes for the Lega, while the M5S share was markedly down everywhere. It wasn’t many weeks ago that Di Maio swore his party would never, never form a government with the Lega. The fact that he’d campaigned under an Out of the Euro poster was also conveniently forgotten.
Early commentators on the Lega–Five Star governing alliance focused on the “populist” nature of the two parties and connected it to the fierce anti-European rhetoric both had been spouting. But was that what populist meant? While the economic goals of neither party reflect the present austerity line of the EU, the new Italian government doesn’t apparently want to bring down the EU so much as change the rules. More than populists, they are demagogues, serial exaggerators.
To the German fiscal conservatives who set those rules, “populist” meant reckless, spendthrift, corrupt Southern Europeans. Steve Bannon, Trump’s ex-Rasputin now consulting for Europe’s “alt right,” has a different definition. In an interview with La Repubblica in Rome, Bannon said, “There’s never before been a real populist government in modern times, and now there is. So I want to be here, and take part.” He modestly acknowledged he’d helped persuade Salvini and Di Maio to overcome their rivalry and form a government, because, he told them, this was a big opportunity. “You’ve struck a fatal blow to the European beast, to foreign capital and the media working for the opposition abroad.”
So to Bannon, populist means nationalist, protectionist, and probably also neoliberal—no need to put too fine a point on it. (But note that the Lega-M5S is far from being the first populist government. That honor goes to Berlusconi, who let several wildcats out of the bag in 1994 when he formed a crony capitalist, right-wing, demagogic government with the Lega and Alleanza Nazionale.) Whether or not the Lega-M5S coalition turns out to be long-lived, the anthropologist and political analyst Vito Laterza wrote in a recent Al Jazeera opinion piece, the two “have already won in Italy the kind of ‘culture war’ promoted globally by Steve Bannon.” They represent a kind of “white Italian majority” afraid of losing their privileges:
They have established an ideological consensus across the political spectrum over the idea of an Italian nation that draws on our fascist and colonial past. Whether it will be this coalition, or a different one, that translates this fantasy into policy is unimportant. What is important is the alarming terms of the dystopian social contract that has gained popular acceptance.
And in this, the fear-mongering and vilifying of migrants is an essential element, and it is not likely to stop. Scapegoating the foreigner is a cheap way to pretend to Italians hurt by the Great Recession and EU austerity that they are worth something. It’s no stretch to imagine that the next step may be to allow sinking boatloads of desperate men, women, and children drown in the sea, without making any attempt to rescue them. To “teach them a lesson” by simply allowing them to disappear under the waves.
And even if that doesn’t happen, the damage is still being done. As one Italian wrote of the government in a Facebook post: “What frightens me is that they’ve opened the gates to the worst of the worst, to something hidden, not very deeply, within the Italian soul. They’ve given legitimacy to the worst boorish, racist, violent sentiments. And in the end, that’s more worrying than the proclamations made by these fools, who, after all, are constrained by the strictures of laws and treaties.”