Right-populist threat increases

As stock exchanges are rattled and EU politicians worry over the survival of the euro, Toby Abse warns the left against treating our enemy’s enemy as our friend

Last week, 80 days after the March 4 general election, it finally looked as though Italy would have a new government, when Giuseppe Conte was nominated as prime minister designate at the head of a right-populist coalition government made up of Luigi Di Maio’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement) and Matteo Salvini’s Lega. This would have been the most rightwing government since Benito Mussolini and, in terms of its intentions, more racist than Mussolini was before 1938.

But on May 27 Conte handed in his resignation after president Sergio Mattarella vetoed his proposed appointment of Paolo Savona as economics minister and the next day Mattarella appointed Carlo Cottarelli as the new prime minister designate - even though he is unlikely to obtain a parliamentary vote of confidence, thus precipitating an early general election in September or October of this year.1

Mattarella objected to Savona, the 81-year-old economist who had in the past been an official of the Bank of Italy, a director general of Confindustria (the Italian CBI) and minister of industry in 1993-94, because he is notorious for his openly expressed hostility to the euro, and is thus very unpopular both with the markets and his principal European counterparts - particularly in Germany, given his provocative comparison of recent German finance ministers with Walther Funk, who performed that role under Hitler.2 A recent article by Larry Elliott in The Guardian (May 21) claimed that all Italy’s problems are caused by “the curse” of the euro - a sentiment that elements of the UK’s Lexit brigade might go along with.3 But let me point out that Savona seems to be a hard-line neoliberal in terms of domestic economic policy, and not some sort of left Keynesian or ‘erratic Marxist’ vaguely reminiscent of Yannis Varoufakis - even if Savona arouses a similar degree of antagonism on the part of any German finance minister.

Conte too, while an M5S member, has claimed in the past to be “on the left”, but his ‘leftism’ seems in reality to amount to consorting with Matteo Renzi when the former premier was Mayor of Florence. While there is no question that Conte had all the basic qualifications required of an Italian academic lawyer, the apparent embellishment of his CV became the subject of worldwide ridicule. The rapid exposure by The New York Times of his false claims in relation to New York University triggered off a chain of revelations, showing that his claims to have studied or taught at the Sorbonne, Vienna, Girton College, Cambridge, Yale and the University of Malta were equally specious. Conte was reduced to arguing that he had made use of the law books and online journals available at the relevant university libraries - hardly matters a serious academic would list on a CV!

Perhaps even more interesting, in view of the endlessly repeated M5S chants of “Transparency!” and “Honesty!” hurled at representatives of Italy’s often corrupt political establishment, Conte had failed to pay a whole series of direct and indirect taxes, legal pension fund contributions and parking fines over the 2001-08 period, amounting to a grand total of €26,257, which he only settled in 2011 after the tax collecting agency claimed a huge bill relating to unpaid taxes. However, all this is likely to have less impact on his reputation in Italy than it would have in some other countries - very recently, it was discovered that the Partito Democratico (PD) minister of education had pretended to have a degree she did not possess, without any question arising of a resignation.

No coalition

Conte had been the only possible premier that M5S and the Lega could agree on. Di Maio, whose party had got 32% to Salvini’s 17%, was never going to tolerate a Salvini premiership, despite the Lega leader’s claim to be the overall nominal leader of the now at least partially defunct ‘centre-right’ coalition (Forza Italia, Lega and the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italla), whose combined vote share exceeded that of M5S. Equally, the Lega refused to let Di Maio take the top job, as Mattarella seemed to be suggesting they should, when Salvini made it crystal-clear that it was now a stark choice between Conte and an early general election, which Mattarella would find even less congenial.

Conte had not been the only academic considered for the post of prime minister. Some days previously, the Lega had pushed the candidacy of Giulio Sapelli - an internationally known economics professor, who had in the 1970s written some broadly Marxist works, including a valuable study of Turin under the fascist regime, but has since moved to the right - because of his views on the negative effects of the euro on southern European economies. But M5S took exception to him - perhaps because he was too strong a character to be bossed around by two younger men.

Di Maio and Salvini had first agreed in principle to form an M5S-Legacoalition on May 9, 12 days before they went to Mattarella with Conte’s name.4 Their repeated requests to the president for 24- or 48-hour extensions to finalise their agreement led many commentators to doubt whether these negotiations would bear any more fruit than earlier futile attempts to form coalitions between M5S and the whole ‘centre-right’ coalition, or M5S and the centre-left PD. Mattarella, who had previously become increasingly impatient with the failure of the parties to reach any agreement - belatedly slammed the brakes on the new right-populist government on May 21. He called for a “pause for reflection”, rather than following the customary procedure of immediately appointing Conte - subject, of course, to the usual parliamentary vote of confidence in both houses.5 On May 28 the president announced Carlo Cottarelli’s appointment.

Mattarella’s obstruction of the formation of an M5S-Legagovernment is not only undemocratic - since the two parties had gained 50% of the vote (M5S 32.7%, Lega 17.3%) and a majority of the seats in parliament6 - but also counterproductive, since the populists had a field day presenting it as a conspiracy of the old elites in the pay of a foreigner (or, to quote Salvini verbatim, “It is madness that Paolo Savona would not be accepted by Mattarella because he would be an enemy of Angela Merkel”7). They could well score an even higher percentage of the vote in the election now being forecast for October.

Extreme right

Nobody on the genuine left could have welcomed the formation of such a government either last week or in October. The programme for government agreed between the two parties and approved by their members/supporters over the weekend of May 19-20 is far-right.

The expressed intention is to deport half a million “illegal immigrants” to the countries of their birth - regardless of civil wars, famine, political or religious persecution or similar factors that have led desperate people to cross the Sahara and/or Mediterranean at the risk of their lives. The two parties also proposed building more, and far bigger, detention centres to confine all these unfortunates before they are involuntarily air-lifted out of Italy. Needless to say, they also suggested the abandonment of any rescue efforts by the Italian navy in the Mediterranean, the razing to the ground of all gypsy camps, the very strict licensing of all mosques8 and the establishment of free nursery schools for Italian children only (this echoes the racially exclusionary welfare state long advocated by the Lega’s sister party in France, the Front National9).

The joint programme of the two parties also proposes a flat tax - a thoroughly regressive move that shifts the tax burden from the rich to the poor, as well as depriving the state of a lot of the revenue needed to finance health, education and other public services. Whilst one could argue that the proposals to increase the time before the statute of limitations kicks in for many criminal offences (and some other similar measures advocated by some magistrates and heavily criticised by Forza Italia) might curb corruption and organised crime, the extension of the notion of ‘legitimate defence’ to give householders and shopkeepers the right to shoot thieves and burglars dead in any circumstances (removing any notion of a proportionate response to a threat) is clearly not a good idea - it both promotes summary vigilante ‘justice’ and is likely to encourage a greater use of firearms by ordinary petty criminals (as opposed to the already well-armed Mafia, Camorra and ’Ndràngheta).

The ‘citizens’ income’ so beloved of M5S and included in this agreed programme is not a genuine form of universal basic income, as its Italian and non-Italian apologists would claim; anybody who refuses three job offers, however ill-paid or unsuitable, would lose it instantly. Whilst the proposed partial repeal of the infamous Fornero Law of 2011, which reduced pensions and raised the pension age, would, of course, be welcome, the question must be asked as to where the money to pay for better pension provision would come from, since the flat tax would greatly reduce state revenues, and the construction and maintenance of the new detention centres and mass airlift of ‘illegal immigrants’ would be a massive drain on the government’s budget.

The main item in the programme in relation to health also had nothing to recommend it. The proposed end to the programme of compulsory vaccination for a number of common but serious and very infectious childhood diseases, introduced by the PD, was an absolutely disgraceful capitulation to the most primitive medieval superstitions - in large part promoted by M5S/Legawebsites over the last five years - and would undoubtedly have increased infant and child mortality beyond the already rising levels achieved by the lunatic efforts of strident non-governmental ‘No vax’ fanatics.


I would like to conclude with a final word of warning directed at those who see the main enemy as ‘the extreme centre’, which in this instance would mean people like Renzi and Mattarella. Just because The Economist and the Financial Times loathe the prospect of a government of the M5S-Lega “barbarians”, and it would, if it comes into being in the autumn, be set on a head-on clash with the neoliberal institutions of the EU over the size of its budget deficit and national debt, there is no reason for anybody on the left to defend it, however critically, as if it were some replay of the original Syriza-ANEL coalition prior to Alexis Tsipras’s capitulation to the troika.

Our enemy’s enemy is not always our friend. The government that Conte would have led, and which we may well yet see in the autumn, probably under another premier, would be appallingly racist - a government whose budget deficit would be a product of tax cuts for the rich reminiscent of both Reagan and Trump, as well as of massive expenditure on detention camps and forcible deportations.

We should judge it by its friends: Steve Bannon, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage all openly delighted in Conte’s short-lived premiership. Trump and Putin were, and remain, a little more cautious in their public pronouncements, but such a potential government is part of the right-populist wave they have been sponsoring, both financially and via social media. The working class and the poor would have nothing to gain from such a government - or the collapse of the Italian economy it might well trigger.


1. Cottarelli has been employed in various roles at the International Monetary Fund between 1988 and 2017.

2. The gap between the interest rates on German and Italian government bonds rocketed last week, when theLegaand M5S started to discuss their joint programme for government. Recent falls on the Milan stock exchange were a bit harder to interpret, given the impact of Trump’s recent antics, but also to some extent reflected business anxiety about Savona.

3. To be fair, Sarah Wrack’s editorial in The Socialist May 24-30 talks of “a right-populist anti-EU government” rather than seeking to give it a positive gloss. The Socialist Workers Party has undoubtedly found the racism of Di Maio and Salvini hard to stomach, but one suspects that apologetics might well have appeared in the Morning Star and on social media. A leading figure behind Historical Materialism has already ludicrously accused me of “selling out to the mainstream in the Weekly Worker” (sic) in relation to my article on the Italian situation a couple of months ago.

4. This was the day that Silvio Berlusconi finally appeared to give his reluctant consent to Salvini doing a deal with Di Maio in order to avoid an early election, in which Forza Italia would have been hammered, with about half its parliamentarians losing their seats. Berlusconi did a partial volte-face on 11 May, when a tribunal unexpectedly overturned his ban on standing for public office, more than a year before it was due to end.

5. It would have been interesting to see if M5S senators Paola Nugnes and Elio Lannutti, who have publicly expressed their disgust at the deal with the Lega, would have backed their fine words with deeds. However, even if such ‘left’ M5S parliamentarians ever follow their consciences, the brief period when Conte was prime minister designate saw the usual unseemly scramble to board the chariot of the apparent victors.

6. Whilst there is an article in the constitution giving the president the right to veto any minister proposed by the prime minister designate, this has previously usually been used for reasons of protocol - for example, president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro vetoed Berlusconi’s attempt to appoint his personal lawyer, Cesare Previti, as minister of justice in 1994.

7. Corriere della Sera 26 May 2018.

8. At present, there are very few proper mosques available for Italy’s increasing Muslim population, but it is unlikely that the motivation behind licensing is to assist such impoverished communities by providing safe and suitable accommodation. Likewise, whilst there have been a handful of instances of mosques and Islamic centres being used as a cover for Jihadi activity, the Lega would use licensing to harass the entire Muslim population, rather than to curb the occasional hate preacher.

9. Whilst there were no proposals to exclude non-Italians from the existing primary and secondary schools in the way Mussolini excluded the Jews in 1938, the creation of a “hostile environment for illegal immigrants” on a scale that Theresa May could only dream of is likely to make migrant families very wary of sending their children to any state institution.