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Far-Right neoliberal agendas a threat to democracy

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Far-Right Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni has been described as a demagogue (Screenshot via YouTube)

Italy's new Prime Minister Georgia Meloni's inaugural address confirmed a neoliberal agenda that will serve the rich and powerful and exploit low-wage workers, writes Adriano Tedde.

ON 22 OCTOBER, Giorgia Meloni was sworn in as Italy’s 31st Prime Minister. The first woman to hold the position, Meloni has been under scrutiny by media around the world as a potential threat to the democratic stability of the country.

Media in Italy rang the same alarm bell in the weeks prior to September's general election, only to correct its view in the past few days, finally describing Meloni favourably, mostly as a talented and accomplished young politician and a leader Italy will be proud of.

The sudden change in narrative depends, on the one hand, on the interest of powerful publishers to be in the new Prime Minister’s grace and, on the other hand, Meloni’s actual transformation from the campaign’s aggressive populist attitude to restrained managerial conduct.  

Self-described as the underdog of Italy’s politics – someone with humble working-class origins who did not complete tertiary education – Meloni at the age of 45 is already a veteran of national politics, having sat in parliament for over 16 years.

She is head of the party Brothers of Italy, which includes those nostalgic for the fascist regime. After serving in Silvio Berlusconi’s Government as Minister for Youth, Meloni has been in Opposition since 2011.

Her choice not to join a national emergency coalition of Left and Right parties to support the formation of Mario Draghi’s technocratic Government in 2021 took her party from 5% to 26% of consent among voters.

Meloni understood that Italians are tired of technocratic administrators, perceived as the executors of external wills, from the financial markets to the European Union or even the U.S.

Her campaign promised a return to full "sovereignty" (sovranismo is the latest in Italy’s "isms") in the interest of everyday Italians and their families. The voters heard her and responded, granting her their confidence in the hope that the country could begin on a new (nationalistic) path after years of austerity, precarity and stagnant wages.

Now, only four weeks after the elections, Ms Meloni’s ideological bluff is finally emerging. Her ministers (18 men and six women, with an average age of 62) are old acquaintances of Italian politics, many of them having already served in previous governments.

Her inaugural address to the Parliament disclosed the total continuity with all the governments that preceded hers in the past 30 years.

The concept of "state" that emerged from the Prime Minister’s words is the one that western nations have – unfortunately – grown accustomed to for the past four decades. That is, an entity with the limited role of guardian (or watchdog) for large private actors’ interests.

Meloni’s speech was centred on the imperative of economic growth, described as the nation's supreme goal — the measure of "good life". She spoke of on and off-shore resource explorations, promising to cut red tape.

She mentioned the country’s millenary cultural heritage only in terms of economic returns. And she hinted at the need for tax cuts for large producers as a generator of new wealth — the same old recipe of the trickle-down economy myth. In short, hers is a purely neoliberal agenda that serves the rich and powerful and scorns and exploits low-wage workers.

The only element of rupture with the recent past that this Government presents is in its declared disapproval of LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights, which the major Opposition party – the Democratic Party – promises to battle for in Parliament (without mentioning any possible battle against the neoliberal economic plans).

For now, the debate has focused on gender identity after Meloni announced that she wants to be addressed with the masculine pronoun when people call her President of the Council of Ministers ("il Presidente" instead of la Presidente).

Important as they may be, these issues – while they occupy the columns of all major Italian newspapers – are not likely the priority in the mind of voters (and many non-voters, potentially as many as 36%) who are struggling with raging inflation and growing uncertainty due to a war that has severed vital economic ties with Russia.

Their well-being, more than the economic outlook of the country in the next five years, will determine their future vote and, more importantly, the country’s social stability. Yet, the intentions exposed in Meloni’s speech do not seem to leave much room for any significant social policy in favour of poor and working-class Italians.

One thing is clear. If minorities in Italy might have something to fear with the advent of the far-Right, financial markets and alliances can rest assured that the status quo will most likely not change.

Giorgia Meloni is nothing but a modern-day demagogue, à la Donald Trump or Brexit leader Nigel Farage, capable of harvesting consent among the anger, frustration, desperation and fear engendered by decades of globalisation.

Behind the promise of a new dawn for the forgotten ones is a hunger for power that is satisfied only by supporting the rich lobbies that indeed champion globalisation.

Meloni’s reputed fascism has very little to do with the old fascist conception of totalitarian state. It embraces 21st-Century laissez-faire, which is built upon a vision of a minimal state and the primacy of the economy over all aspects of life, including politics.

More than Mussolini’s Italy, therefore, Meloni’s model is a mixture of Ronald Reagan’s and Trump’s U.S. This is also confirmed by her choice to rename the Ministry of Public Education to "Ministry for Education and Merit". 

Meloni is importing into Italy the cult of meritocracy which in the U.S. is at the root of the worrisome social differences eroding that nation, as American political philosopher Michael J Sandel explains in his book The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?  

Giorgia Meloni's ideological bluff, therefore, consists of the exploitation of nationalistic sentiments to cement values – merit instead of inclusion, competition instead of solidarity, individual freedoms against common good – ​​that do not fit alongside Italy’s cultural background, but mirror "individualistic" America, on which global neoliberalism is based.

The sad reality is that, despite the mandate of the voters eager to free themselves from the impositions of the global system, Italy continues on its path that started with the privatisation of public assets 30 years ago — a process of Americanisation that has gone far beyond entertainment and consumer’s taste, concerning, now, politics, economics and social well-being.

Italy's new Government proves that neoliberalism and illiberal tendencies go hand in hand. The threat to democracy in Italy, as feared by the media, is not coming from a fascist past but it is very much the product of Italy's neoliberal present.

A threat that makes Italy no different from all other western democracies. The erosion of social cohesion and the ever-growing inequality justified in the name of an exasperated race to profit and economic growth are the negation of democratic living.

As long as economies with material calculations and money-making concerns continue to preside over our thinking and our daily life, such countries face a threat to their democracy, whether governed by screaming illiberal demagogues or smiling liberal moderates.

It is time to see neoliberalism as our own current-day regime, embraced by both Left and Right, without needing to evoke ghosts from the past.

Adriano Tedde is a researcher in American studies with a background in political science and cultural studies. He is currently working on a project on neoliberalism and culture.

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