Steve Bannon’s dream government
Whatever position it takes in relation to the EU, the new right-populist administration will be viciously anti-worker and anti-migrant, warns Toby Abse
The three-month-long Italian political crisis finally reached a conclusion without either a second general election or the imposition of a technocratic interim cabinet led by former International Monetary Fund official Carlo Cottarelli - the two outcomes that seemed the most probable.1
Eighty-eight days after the March 4 election, Giuseppe Conte, the little-known law professor who had become world-famous for his self-inflated CV, was appointed prime minister designate for the second time. Although more casual foreign observers of the Italian scene might have felt that this was Groundhog Day, since the very same event had already occurred eight days earlier, on the second occasion Conte was indeed sworn in, along with his cabinet, on the afternoon of June 1.
The new government, like the one that nearly came into being on the previous Sunday (May 27), is a right-populist coalition between the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement) and the Lega. The Lega’s attempt to broaden the coalition to include the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia(FdI) led by Giorgia Meloni was rejected by M5S leader Luigi Di Maio. Whether the rejection was based on ‘principle’ (ie, Di Maio knew that it would be unacceptable to many in M5S who did not share his own neo-fascist family background) or was the result of Meloni asking for more than the single cabinet post for the FdI that Salvini was offering her party, is a matter of dispute.
Di Maio and Legaleader Matteo Salvini have both been given the title of deputy prime minister, and many commentators regard them as having more real power in the government than Conte, who is viewed as a nominal prime minister. Salvini has the absolutely central post of minister of the interior, whilst Di Maio is both minister of labour and minister for economic development - posts which are normally held by two individuals, each in charge of a separate set of civil servants.
Paolo Savona, the 81-year-old economist and controversial opponent of the euro, whom president Sergio Mattarella had vetoed as economics minister in Conte’s first attempt to form a government on May 27, is still in the cabinet but is now minister for European affairs.2 While this is a somewhat lower-ranking post, it is still one that gives him a major say in the coalition’s policies in relation to the European Union, and implicitly about Italy’s continued participation in the euro.3
The new economics minister is Giovanni Tria, who is less hostile to the euro than Savona, but by no means enthusiastic. He believes it would harm rather than benefit Italy to exit on its own, but does not regard the single currency project as “irreversible” - implying there might be a collective decision by all, or perhaps several, participating states to abandon it.4 Tria, although selected by the Lega, is not amember and has in the past been an advisor on economic policy to Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
The new foreign minister is Enzo Moavero Milanesi, who had already been minister for European Affairs in the governments of the technocratic premier, Mario Monti, and Partito Democratico (PD) prime minister Enrico Letta. Moreover, Milanesi has been a judge on the bench of the European Court of Justice and is well-known within all the ruling circles of the EU - clearly his appointment is designed to reassure Italy’s European partners, and probably reflects pressure from Mattarella, since it is very hard to believe that the Europhobic Lega, with its close links to Marine Le Pen, would have spontaneously chosen so Europhile a figure, and he certainly does not fit in with M5S rhetoric about Conte’s administration being “a government of change”.5
The new defence minister is Elisabetta Trenta. This appointment - barely noticed in the international media - must have given Vladimir Putin more pleasure than the Ukrainian fake murder episode the same week. At first glance, Trenta seems suitable for the post - her husband is an army officer, and she herself is a captain in the army reserve, who has seen active service in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya. Moreover, she only joined M5S in 2013, after its electoral breakthrough, and therefore looks like a reliable opportunist, and not one of the pesky, potentially subversive elements involved in environmental activism and the like, who joined M5S at the start. However, she has some odd Russian connections, easily uncovered by an investigative journalist in La Repubblica (June 3), which suggests that Italy’s high command and secret services were either incompetent or corrupt in failing to tip off Mattarella, and getting her appointment vetoed on national security grounds.6
She taught at the private Link Campus University on an MA course linked to Moscow’s Lomonosov State University, alongside Ivan Timofeev, a key figure in the Russiagate scandal, whom the FBI claims was the first to bring Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails to the attention of the Trump campaign. Trenta’s biography for the online MA prospectus explains she “has worked for some months in Russia”, but her CV for the ministry of defence only mentions her good knowledge of the Russian language, which would suggest she has something to hide.
Apart from Trenta, the most prominent female ministers are M5S health minister Giulia Grillo - a Sicilian doctor, and no relation of M5S founder Beppe Grillo - and the Lega minister for public administration, Giulia Bongiorno. Giulia Grillo, whilst not as extreme as some M5S ‘no vax’ fanatics, has doubts about the necessity of compulsory vaccination, and therefore probably poses a great danger to the health of Italy’s young children. Bongiorno, a very recent convert to the Lega, started her political career with the ‘post-fascist’ Alleanza Nazionale, and made her reputation as a defence lawyer for former Christian Democrat premier Giulio Andreotti, in his trial for Mafia involvement, and for Raffaele Sollecito, whose unexpected acquittal of the murder of Meredith Kercher she secured on appeal.
Bongiorno makes a great show of her feminism as co-founder of Doppia Difesa, an association to protect battered women, but is notorious for her racist remarks, and readers familiar with the Kercher case will draw their own conclusions about the extent of her sympathy for women of colour. In the light of Bongiorno’s role in the Andreotti Mafia trial, the establishment is probably relieved that Alfonso Bonafede of M5S has been given the justice portfolio that Bongiorno originally sought - even if M5S’s traditional fervour about pursuing corrupt and criminal politicians through the courts has largely evaporated.7
Salvini has emphasised that his first priority as minister of the interior will be an anti-migrant crackdown, and control of this key ministry will certainly give the Lega every opportunity to implement its sinister plans for massive detention centres in every region, and large-scale deportations of up to 500,000 ‘illegal immigrants’. On June 2, Salvini told reporters: “I am going to Sicily to see where the latest landings took place. The good times for illegal migrants are over. They should get ready to pack their bags.” He told a crowd of supporters in the Sicilian city of Catania:
Enough of Sicily being the refugee camp of Europe. I will not stand by and do nothing while there are landings after landings. We need deportation centres. There is not enough housing and work for Italians, let alone half the continent of Africa.8
In short, Salvini in office is as eager to incite racial hatred as he was as an opposition politician during the general election campaign. However, it looks as if his long-cherished scheme to raze all gypsy camps to the ground - which led to his numerous symbolic media stunts driving tractors - is getting closer to implementation. The first target - probably in the next few weeks - will be the 9,600 Roma and Sinti living in unauthorised camps, with another 16,400, who are actually in authorised camps, being next in line. A quarter of these 26,000 live in Rome or its immediate hinterland, and this looks like being the place where the offensive will start, for the benefit of national television cameras.
Salvini has already said that he will ban ships belonging to NGOs engaged in rescuing drowning migrants from the Mediterranean from entering Italian ports. Some have argued that this is in breach of international law, but Salvini is unlikely to pay much attention , unless foreign governments or international bodies take some form of legal action.9
Di Maio will probably have far less success with his plans for a ‘citizens’ income’, which Tria is very doubtful about. The economics minister is not only enthusiastic about the regressive flat tax, which would diminish government revenue for health, education, pensions and public services, but also thinks that the best way to pay for such potential loss of revenue would be an equally regressive increase in VAT, which PD premiers Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni were careful to avoid. In short, Tria is seeking to inflict a double blow on the poorer sections of the population.
Given Tria’s role earlier in his career as the Italian government’s delegate on the board of the International Labour Organisation, there can be no question that he is merely stumbling into viciously anti-working class policies - he is clearly a conscious class warrior. If Tria actually has to implement any of the costly promises made by the populist demagogue in search of proletarian votes, it will be the partial abolition of the Fornero law on pensions, which is more relevant to the Lega’s northern electorate, who by and large have paid in more years of pension contributions over a working lifetime than the unemployed or precariously employed southerners, whose votes M5S won by promoting the ‘citizens’ income’.
Lorenzo Fontana, the new Legaminister for the family and disability10 - a long-standing opponent of abortion and gay marriage (or even civil partnerships) who is obsessed by Italy’s falling birth rate - has been mildly reprimanded by Salvini for expressing his habitual homophobic views in his new official capacity. This has led to the one attempt at product differentiation from the Lega by an M5S representative - M5S mayor of Livorno Filippo Nogarin - who attacked Fontana on Facebook. We note, however, that Nogarin - who only a year or two ago was only too happy to spout anti-racist rhetoric on ceremonial occasions - has not said a single word in defence of ‘illegal migrants’ or gypsies, both of whom are visibly present in his city. It is to be hoped that, when the next municipal elections come, Rifondazione Comunista and far-left anti-racist activists put their strong prejudices against the local PD to one side, and throw this posturing hypocrite out of the town hall for good.
It seems fitting to conclude with the words of the far-right ideologue Steve Bannon, who returned to Rome to welcome in the M5S/Lega government he has consistently advocated:
Rome is now the centre of world politics. What is happening here is extraordinary. There has never been a real populist government in modern times. Now there is one. Therefore I want to be here, I want to be part of it11
1. This was the longest gap between a general election and the installation of a new prime minister in the 72-year history of the Italian republic. Lazy clichés about ‘Italian political instability’ in the mainstream Anglophone media has failed to recognise that we have seen a political earthquake, analogous to that of 1992-94 which destroyed Italy’s cold war political system.
2. Regardless of whether he was really set on Italy’s rapid exit from the euro - something which he denied in interviews - a couple of years ago he had certainly drawn up a detailed plan for such an exit. He called for this to be announced after the close of trading on a Friday and carried out before the markets reopened the following Monday.
3. Presumably Mattarella’s main concern was to keep such a combative figure away from the regular meetings of the Ecofin (the EU’s Council of Economic and Finance Ministers) and meetings of G7 finance ministers, such as the recent one in Canada.
4. It should be noted that on May 30 the 13 M5S and 6 Lega MEPs present in the European parliament voted for an amendment to the EU draft budget for 2021-27, asking for “the institution of programmes destined for member-states who intend to negotiate their exit from the euro, because to remain in it has become unsustainable and intolerable”.
5. This is obviously part of some - rather feeble - attempt by Mattarella and the Italian establishment to restrain the rightwing populists. I feel compelled to make this point in response to the claim by Tobias Jones in The Observer (June 3) that “the key posts in the new administration have been given to well-educated technocrats. It seems astonishing to a British observer that the prime minister, the finance, foreign and European ministers are all unelected university professors. If this is a populist revolution, the revolutionaries look suspiciously establishment.” The superficial nature of Jones’s political analysis should be evident from his inclusion of the finance minister (ie, the Europhobe Savona) in his list, as well as his complete failure to understand that both the interior ministry and the defence ministry are “key posts” in terms of control over the police, Carabinieri and armed forces.
6. As is so often the case in Italy, corruption and its covering up by those complicit in it seems the more probable explanation.
7. This change began before M5S took national office, and seems to have some chronological correlation with the avalanche of allegations of wrongdoing that almost buried the M5S Roman mayor, Virginia Raggi, and her close associates.
8. The Guardian June 4.
9. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has recently attacked the Hungarian government’s anti-migrant legislation, saying it would “deprive people who are forced to flee their homes of critical aid and services, and further inflame tense public discourse and rising xenophobic attitudes” (The Guardian June 4). Perhaps it may take a similar view of the new Italian government’s stance, which, as Salvini has proclaimed, is modelled on that of Viktor Orbán. It would, however, be naive to assume that German concern about Italy’s monetary and economic policy would extend to anti-migrant policies: the appalling racist policies of Hungary and other Visegrád countries have been indulged for years because of Germany’s success in turning them into economic semi-colonies over the three decades since the capitalist restoration of 1989.
10. Unsurprisingly, the post of minister for equal opportunities seems to have been abolished.
11. Interview with La Repubblica (June 3).