Rome—As soon as it took form in late October, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s government declared its intent by giving key ministries more ideologically suitable names. An anti-abortionist was appointed to the role previously known as “Minister for Equal Opportunities and Families”—but now the words “and Birthrates” were appended to her title, in the name of boosting the number of Italian newborns. Similarly, the economic development brief was renamed “Minister of Businesses and Made in Italy,” referring to an effort to keep production home-grown.

Yet in recent weeks the more important conflict has revolved around the renaming of the schools department to the “Ministry of Education and Merit.” Education Minister Giuseppe Valditara has claimed in a series of controversial interventions that Italy’s schools have been promoting “wokeness” rather than preparing students to compete in the job market. Valditara has argued for a “tough love” approach that will pick out talent, encourage children to understand the value of hard work, and “build character” through exemplary discipline.

This new front in Italy’s culture war isn’t just about schoolkids: It’s also about making workers more pliant to employer demands. Indeed, one of the government’s key moves so far has been to slash benefits currently enjoyed by out-of-work Italians. The so-called “Citizens’ Income” introduced by the Five Star Movement in 2019 offers up to €780 a month—about $835—currently claimed by just over 1 million households. In opposition, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party consistently opposed such “handouts,” and now plans to get rid of them. With the budget package passed on Thursday, Citizens’ Income will immediately become more conditional, and phased out entirely by 2024.

Central to this political battle is Italy’s low employment rate—or rather, the supposed cultural reasons for it. The official unemployment number (7.8 percent) isn’t far above the European average, but figures are considerably poorer among the young. A more significant indicator—taking into account women with care roles, workers signed off sick, and those who have never entered the formal labor market—is that only around 60 percent of working-age Italians have jobs—the lowest level in any EU member state. Meloni claims that in government “the left” allowed the poor to vegetate on benefits. While “handouts leave you on the sofa, work,” she proclaims, “can take you anywhere.”

Despite government calls for gumption and can-do spirit, Meloni hasn’t offered many active job-creation plans. Instead, she repeats—as just last Thursday—that “the state cannot abolish poverty by decree” and that “it is businesses that create jobs.” But the onus is also on potential workers to accept what they’re offered: They “should not wait for the job of their dreams” at taxpayers’ expense, the prime minister insists. The initial reforms to Citizens’ Income in 2023 will force recipients to accept the first offer of a “congruous” job: suitability will be judged on whether the job is within traveling distance—not whether it fits the worker in question. “Graduates should accept being waiters, too, and not be choosy,” claims Undersecretary for Labor Claudio Durigon.

All this raises questions over what the supposed “populism” of Italy’s far-right government actually amounts to. Meloni and her allies are often called “welfare chauvinists”—a brand of right-wing politics that offers social protection for citizens, especially nuclear families, but excludes immigrants and minority rights. Some policy announcements have pointed toward such a reframing of welfare—for instance, a proposal to grant earlier retirement to women with more children. Yet, beyond this kind of discrimination, Fratelli d’Italia and its allies also follow a more old-fashioned right-wing agenda: one that blames people on low incomes for the fact that they are poor.

Jobless

Meloni is surely correct about one thing: Italians’ search for work is increasingly “taking them anywhere,” as they leave the domestic labor market and seek jobs abroad. This is most infamously true of graduates: Italy ranks second from the bottom among EU countries for the number of young people who hold degrees, ahead only of Romania, but is also in last place for graduate employment rates. One solution proposed by Valditara is to encourage more students to focus on STEM subjects. But stereotypes about “choosy” humanities grads unable to monetize their degrees hide the reality of a dismal and worsening labor market, producing few attractive jobs.

Today around four in 10 Italian workers earn under €10 ($11) an hour; last year an OECD report found that average wages have fallen 2.9 percent since 1990—even as French and German workers have enjoyed raises of around 30 percent. Italy is also one of the few rich countries not to even have a minimum wage—and the government parties are opposed to introducing one. Postwar Italian employment conditions were centered on industry-wide collective bargaining, linked to an “escalator” that kept incomes ahead of inflation. Yet abandonment of this measure in the 1980s, combined with a decline in union membership, have turned even long-recalcitrant unions toward the idea of a legal minimum, combined with collective bargaining.

Such poor conditions have clear roots in public policy—not least three decades of falling public investment. While Italy remains Europe’s second-largest manufacturing power, it is dominated by small workplaces with poor productivity, which face particular cost pressure from Eurozone powerhouse Germany. The country instead increasingly turns to sectors characterized by low wages and precarious employment: In December, Tourism Minister Daniela Santanchè, who is also the owner of a beach club, declared that her policy would seek to “make tourism truly Italy’s number-one business.” Job creation measures as touted by the Meloni government are heavily centered on tax cuts for employers who take on more staff, rather than investment in education or infrastructure.

The right’s culture war thus leans on a kind of “bootstrap ideology”—of sometimes explicitly Reaganite inspiration—which seeks to strengthen Italians’ proclivity to work by extolling the merits of, well, merit. Echoed also by neoliberal centrists such as former premier Matteo Renzi and his economy minister Carlo Calenda, the term “meritocracy” is evoked with no regard whatsoever for the pejorative connotation sociologist Michael Young gave it. The notion also sits oddly beside the many roles in government now being offered to personnel without relevant expertise; though handing jobs to ideological allies is hardly new, eyebrows were raised in November when right-wing journalist Alessandro Giuli, a former member of neofascist group Meridiano Zero, was appointed head of the modern art museum MAXXI.

Culture War

It has become common to speak of Meloni’s party as “social right”—a phrase evoking the old neofascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), but also suggesting that the party is “closer to the poor” than other conservative forces. Yet, whereas some historic MSI leaders did seek to compete with the left in offering so-called “antibourgeois” economic ideas, today the party’s trans-class appeal makes no reference to such doctrines.

Not only is its low-tax, low-investment model steeped in competitive notions of personal advancement, but so, too, are its explicit claims about how to instill discipline in the young. We also see this in ideas like offering young people educational credits for doing 40 days of military training. The government’s language around “merit” and creating an “attitude toward work” are also part of its culture war, linked as well to its battles around immigration and minority rights. On one side are “normal, hardworking Italians,” and on the other, various special interests said to leech off the overburdened taxpayer.

Meloni complains that her agenda is being thwarted by factious, “ideological” opponents, who stand in the way of Italians who want to “get on.” This message was amplified in December when a 27-year-old man tweeted death threats against Meloni and her 6-year-old daughter, citing the Citizens’ Income row as the reason. The man’s Twitter account had only five followers, but Fratelli d’Italia’s pages reposted screenshots of the hateful messages—and his arrest made front-page headlines. Right-wing journalist Alessandro Sallusti claimed that Giuseppe Conte, leader of the Five Star Movement—which has been campaigning to keep the benefit—had his “fingerprints” on the threats.

Conte’s first government introduced Citizens’ Income in 2019; neoliberal critics accused him of offering “money for votes,” especially in the south—long an underdeveloped region—and have obsessed about a smattering of cases of fraudulent claims. Yet a more sober reading shows that comparable unemployment-relief programs are common across Europe; for those able to work, the aid was already conditional on seeking employment or training, with the largest group of recipients required to accept one of two job offers. Almost one in five current beneficiaries actually do have jobs—but at wages so low a supplement is required. Such conditions are also why the program’s take-up doubled during the Covid-19 lockdowns, and numbers rapidly fell once economic activity had resumed. What Italy never had—and needs today more than ever—are policies to create well-paid, socially useful employment, rather than merely pressuring Italians to try harder in the competition for precarious jobs that exist already.

The culture war around “merit,” the “workshy,” and benefit recipients’ “gaming the system” surely relies on gut emotions rather than any rational plan to revive Italy’s economic fortunes. But even insofar as this has “demagogic” tones, these have been tailored to appeal to select groups—from the small businesses rebranded as “job providers” to the retired voters who have already worked hard enough. The far right surely enjoys mocking the liberal left’s distance from working-class Italy, again on display in last fall’s election. Yet its own recipes do nothing to recapture the spirit of social solidarity. Instead, Meloni’s culture war is waged squarely on the terrain of entitlement, blaming poorer Italians for their fate.