To judge from what is going on in Italy, the only major European country where populists are in power, right-wing populism works, but left-wing populism does not.
Populism, they tell us, is a meaningless word.
What else, after all, can populism mean but what is popular? And so, so what?
Nevertheless, populism does exist.
Here is what I think it is, and why it can work only in its right-wing version.
For most of the last century, the political narrative in Europe was dominated by a war of words between left and right, whose combatants ended up exhausted and virtually indistinguishable. But the further each side moved toward the center, the closer they got to the elites, and the further they moved away from the people. The people, meanwhile, became worse and worse off economically, culturally, and spiritually.
And they called this democracy.
But the center could not hold. The silent majority would remain silent in sullen acceptance no more.
The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming” (1919), one year after the end of the First World War and at the start of the Irish war of independence from Britain,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Opponents of populism, blessed one must assume with “lack of conviction” and thus convinced that they are “the best,” often cite this poem to support their case that populism is hysterical and dangerous, etc., because driven by “passionate intensity.”
Yet however compelling his way with words, Yeats is surely talking nonsense.
For how can it be true that “the centre” is worth holding in all circumstances, or that “the best lack all conviction”?
Today’s little guy is also “full of passionate intensity.” He achieved this intensity after decades of feeling “lack of conviction” because “the centre” silently sold him and everyone else he ever knew down the river. And no one listened.
Populism is his revolt against “the centre,” which he is convinced has sought his demise. It is neither right nor left. It is both.
On some things this ordinary little guy is Stalin, on others Hitler, on others still, Genghis Khan—or Mother Teresa.
So when I draw a distinction between right-wing populism and left-wing populism, what on earth do I mean?
This is where it gets interesting!
The same sort of stuff was going on 100 years ago in Europe. And for similar reasons: Then it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the nation-state, while today it is the European Union against the nation-state. And the banks and big business of course. And the BBC.
One hundred years ago, we had the First World War. That gave us fascism and communism. Both challenged the centre. Then, ten years ago, we had the global banking crash. And that gave us populism.
It is not just about the money. What has caused populism is the little guy slowly but surely being humiliated and impoverished in all aspects of his life as the globalization of production and culture wreck his country, standard of living, and identity.
This is why the Italians voted for populist parties at their last general election, in March 2018. These parties, though sworn enemies, formed a coalition government.
Yet one year later, the senior coalition partner—the Alt-Left Five Star Movement—is hemorrhaging support, while the popularity of the junior partner (the radical-right League) soars ever higher.
In regional elections in Sardinia in February, Five Star got just 11 percent of the vote, compared with the 42 percent it got on the island during the general election. The League’s candidate, by contrast, at the head of a right-wing coalition, won with 47 percent. This catastrophic result for Five Star came two weeks after a similar rout in regional elections in Abruzzo. The situation is pretty much as bleak for Five Star at the national level.
At the general election, in which no party or coalition won enough votes to get a working majority, Five Star got more than any other party—32.7 percent, compared with the League’s 17.4 percent. This gave Five Star 222 MPs, and the League 125. The two enemy parties—populists of the left and of the right—cobbled together a contract to govern in coalition and implement a limited number of their respective manifesto pledges. Ever since, support for Five Star in the polls slumped, and now it has slumped to 22 percent, compared to the League’s 33 percent. Although Five Star has more MPs and ministers, it has completely lost the initiative to the League in the running of Italy’s government.
This complete turnaround in fortunes demonstrates above all that Five Star’s brand of left-wing populism may work in opposition but not in government or in practice. And it shows that the League’s right-wing populism does work. This is partly because Five Star has no experience of government, whereas the League—as junior partner in several past governments of the media mogul Silvio Berlusconi—does. But it is above all because of the absurdity of Five Star’s utopian goals.
To date, the only concrete success of Italy’s populist government—and it is an incredible success—has been to stop illegal migrants being ferried across the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy. Since 2014, 650,000 migrants have arrived on Italy’s shores, but Italy’s populists have all but stopped this human trafficking (there were 350 or so sea arrivals in the first three months of this year, down 94 percent from the same period last year). They did so mainly by refusing to allow charity “rescue” ships to dump migrants in Italian ports and by equipping and training the Libyan coast guard to pick up migrants soon after entering the sea and take them back to Libya.
But the driving force behind this tough new approach on illegal migrants posing as refugees is the leader of the League, Matteo Salvini—coalition deputy prime minister and interior minister—not Five Star, which has nonetheless gone along with it. Though it has infuriated the global liberal elite, Salvini’s migrant crackdown has proved wildly popular with Italians—not because they are racist but because they are fed up with Italy being treated like a camp for migrants who, once in, never get deported.
Italy, meanwhile, has slid back into technical recession for the third time in the decade since the global banking crash. Imprisoned within the straightjacket of the single currency, she is virtually powerless to do anything about it. The League—which is pro-business and pro-traditional Catholic values, but hostile to global multinationals and boiling with Euroskepticism—has so far failed to deliver on its promise to lower taxes, let alone introduce the signature proposal in its election manifesto of a 15-percent flat tax.
But at least it has delivered on migrants.
Five Star, on the other hand, has failed to deliver on anything much—except a truncated version of its key welfare proposal of a citizen’s wage (a.k.a. an unemployment benefit, which does not exist in Italy). This secured it a majority of votes at the general election in the south, where few people (unless employed by the government) have a real job, but is a hugely costly proposal that Italy—whose youth unemployment is 31.9 percent (double that in the south) and whose public debt is 132 percent of GDP—can ill afford.
The longer Five Star continues in coalition with the League, the more it betrays its roots and founding principles as a left-wing revolutionary alternative—and the more angry, divided, and disillusioned its members become. There are now potentially fatal rows between Five Star and the League on a number of key issues, especially the planned high-speed rail link under the Alps between Turin and Lyons. Five Star, mainly for environmentalist reasons, virulently opposes this Franco-Italian project, which was already agreed upon before the party came to power. The League supports it.
At the end of February, ratings agency Fitch predicted that the coalition government cannot last its full five-year term. But the slump in support for Five Star means that it has far more to lose than the League if the coalition collapses—which it surely must—and there are new elections. The League may not be able to get enough votes to govern alone. It can, however, always return at the national level to its former right-wing allies, such as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, with whom it stood in the general election and with whom at the regional and local level it is still allied. On current polling, such an alliance would win enough votes to form a government.
The only option for Five Star would be to try to strike a deal with Italy’s former “jobs for the boys” communist party, the Partito Democratico, of penultimate prime minister Matteo Renzi, which it also hates and which is also doing very badly in the polls.
Five Star is in no way a conventional left-wing movement. It is an antiestablishment movement that hates both the old “Catholic” right and the old “communist” left. In its wildest dreams it would like to substitute representative democracy via parliament with direct democracy via the Internet.
It draws its support primarily, but not exclusively, from those on the left who are antiestablishment, pro-green, antiparliament, anti-Church, anti-global capitalism, Euroskeptic, and climate-change obsessed. It began as a protest movement in 2009 founded by the comedian-turned-demagogue Beppe Grillo, whose slogan was Vaffa! (f–k off, roughly) to everything, more or less, especially to obligatory vaccinations for children, political dishonesty, and obsession with GDP growth—everything, that is, except wind farms.
Five Star vowed to sack and jail corrupt and criminal politicians and tax evaders and promote what it calls la decrescita felice (happy de-growth) to save the planet. It vowed never to become a political party but to remain a movement. One of its cardinal rules is that any elected politician under investigation for a crime, let alone convicted of a crime, must resign.
Yet in January, it abandoned even that sacred principle. Italy’s notoriously (non-alt-) left-wing prosecuting judges had ruled that Salvini should be tried for the kidnapping of 177 migrants picked up close to the island of Lampedusa last summer. He refused to let the migrants disembark in Sicily, instead waiting until other E.U. governments promised to take them. As a senator, he has immunity from prosecution unless the senate votes to lift this immunity. In February, Five Star’s senators duly voted against doing so.
Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, the other deputy prime minister and employment minister, even signed a statement saying that the decision to “kidnap” the migrants was not Salvini’s but the government’s. Prosecuting judges will no doubt come after him as well.
The League, which will stand as it does in Italy’s regional and local elections against Five Star, is doing even better in the polls for May’s European Parliament elections, which are being widely seen as the most important ever as Euroskeptic populist parties are likely to make huge gains and upset the cozy, ever closer union consensus of the mainstream parties for the first time.
According to an Ipsos poll for the Corriere della Sera published in early March, the League will get 35.9 percent of the vote, and Five Star just 21.2 percent. This would give the League about 30 seats (up from 6) and transform it into the largest single national party in the European Parliament, ahead of Angela Merkel’s German Christian Democratic Union, which currently has 34 seats but, according to polls, will get only 28 this time.
The May Euro elections will see Europe’s imperialists, who want ever closer union and who are championed by French president Emmanuel Macron, locked in existential battle with Europe’s sovereignists, who want a return to Europe des Patries, championed by Salvini and the League. If the mood in Italy is anything to go on, Macron and the imperialisti are in very deep trouble—and compared to this, Brexit is a mere bagatelle.
The reason right-wing populism is so popular in Italy and left-wing populism is not is very simple: The Italians, like people everywhere, love their country, culture, and way of life. And their only hope of defending it is the League.