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The Italian Far Right Is About to Meet Italian Bureaucracy

Italy’s politics is a constant cycle of failed populist waves.

By , a journalist covering finance and Italian politics.
Giorgia Meloni
Giorgia Meloni
Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party, reacts during a press conference at the party electoral headquarters in Rome on Sept. 26. Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

It was 2019, and Lorenzo Fioramonti, the new Italian minister of education, had big plans and bold ideas. The Five Star Movement, an Italian political faction making waves with an almost impossibly broad brand of populism, had entered government the previous year with a far-reaching supposedly radical mandate. Fioramonti, a left-leaning political scientist, believed this was as good a chance as any to nurture the ailing Italian political system back to good health through courageous reform and the application of clear and honest principles.

Fioramonti rapidly discovered what happens to idealism in the Italian political establishment. Over the first weeks of government, he gradually became aware of a vast and entrenched technocratic civil servantry, mediated through an elaborate web of veteran chiefs of staff assigned to inexperienced new ministers. He watched helplessly as, slowly but surely, the bureaucrats overtook him, assuming direct responsibility for his own ambitious mandate. Each of his attempts to enact flagship policies was quietly amended, stalled, or killed.

“They knew how to get things done—and we didn’t,” Fioramonti recalled. “They would be the ones writing the laws, changing the laws—they were the real doers.” He began to perceive this malign influence as a manina, or “little hand,” that would act under the auspices of his ministry without his own say. “There were bills and norms that were written that we were not even aware of,” he said. In the end, he was able to enact precisely none of the policies the party had campaigned on. He quit within four months.

It was 2019, and Lorenzo Fioramonti, the new Italian minister of education, had big plans and bold ideas. The Five Star Movement, an Italian political faction making waves with an almost impossibly broad brand of populism, had entered government the previous year with a far-reaching supposedly radical mandate. Fioramonti, a left-leaning political scientist, believed this was as good a chance as any to nurture the ailing Italian political system back to good health through courageous reform and the application of clear and honest principles.

Fioramonti rapidly discovered what happens to idealism in the Italian political establishment. Over the first weeks of government, he gradually became aware of a vast and entrenched technocratic civil servantry, mediated through an elaborate web of veteran chiefs of staff assigned to inexperienced new ministers. He watched helplessly as, slowly but surely, the bureaucrats overtook him, assuming direct responsibility for his own ambitious mandate. Each of his attempts to enact flagship policies was quietly amended, stalled, or killed.

“They knew how to get things done—and we didn’t,” Fioramonti recalled. “They would be the ones writing the laws, changing the laws—they were the real doers.” He began to perceive this malign influence as a manina, or “little hand,” that would act under the auspices of his ministry without his own say. “There were bills and norms that were written that we were not even aware of,” he said. In the end, he was able to enact precisely none of the policies the party had campaigned on. He quit within four months.

Fioramonti was somewhat rare among Five Star politicians in that he actually wanted to implement something. The country’s politics have generally become a superficial, hopeless affair, a competition among violinists to scratch out the loudest tune over the din of a sinking cruise ship.

This month’s Italian elections made for a timely case in point, pitting an alarming far-right alliance headed by Brothers of Italy, a party with deep fascist roots and a set of far-right policy proposals—which include defending Italy’s onerous blood citizenship laws and proposing an anti-immigrant “naval blockade” of the Mediterranean—against a bumbling and divided center-left.

In the Sept. 25 election, the Brothers of Italy-led alliance is projected to have secured 42.7 percent of the vote, and it will almost certainly form a government. But despite the prospect of the far right in power, the political mood felt pretty much the same as ever during the election period. Identitarian posturing trumped careful economic planning. Internal strife dominated headlines. Losers competed to see who could humiliate themselves the quickest via an alliance with the enemy. This year, it’s the right-wing League party allying itself with its rival Brothers of Italy; last election, it was the anti-establishment Five Star allying itself with the entire establishment.

Meanwhile, though Brothers of Italy has a clear path to government, it will, as others have before it, quickly come to discover that its ideas are essentially impossible to implement—thanks to an entrenched civil servantry, an implacable economic status quo, and, inevitably, the likely reality that it never had any ideas in the first place.

Italy has been effectively written off by its electorate as unchangeable—and it produces parties unwilling to even make the attempt. It’s not hard to see why. Since at least the 1970s, politicians have had to subordinate fiscal decisions to the will of international markets—first through the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, then through the European Central Bank, both of which demanded precise control over spending. Then, in the 1990s, widespread corruption scandals tainted the entire political class.

Then there’s the power of the manina that Fioramonti referred to. In a widely read book published in 2020 called Io Sono il Potere (“I Am the Power”), an anonymous public official traced the roots of Italy’s civil servantry back to the late 19th century. Ever since then, he said, occupants of the powerful sinecures of state—including courts, universities, and political departments—have stood as the sole link between the political class and the massive bureaucracies they preside over.

A large portion of Italian society is in thrall to ancient fonts of institutional power. Only in 2021, courts ordered homeowners in a Southern Italian town to shell out back pay to a baron who claimed ownership over what was still technically a “fief”; incredibly, the noble won the case using a legal precedent dating back to the Middle Ages.

This double whammy of deep disempowerment and stagnation has served to kill off faith in politicians—first in their competence, then in their virtue. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the early League, founded in 1991, capitalized on this mid-1990s political apathy, producing what we see today: a ceaseless proliferation of half-baked parties that build their success on attacking corrupt elites, before the public lumps them into that category themselves. Political debate has steadily conformed to the diminishing scope of possibility, focusing on partisan, identitarian issues over economics.

The new parties keep coming, however, sustained only by the Italian public’s hatred for the old. Fioramonti, the disillusioned former Five Star minister, said that from this perpetually defeated national psyche springs a kind of misplaced optimism. “Italians’ nature is to believe in magic—the leader who’s going to get things done,” he said. “That means they’re way more way more prone to believing in these populist parties, and even though they fail, Italians are keen to keep voting for them.”

The exemplar of this doomed roundelay of political failure is Five Star itself, which after four painful years in office is now frozen out of government, having collapsed from a high of around 30 percent of the vote share to 16 percent today. Though many of its politicians have been ambitious and well-meaning, its general platform was always “populist” in the most superficial way possible—and it couldn’t be anything but.

As chronicled in investigative reporter Jacopo Iacoboni’s L’Esperimento, the movement debuted in the wake of the financial crisis as an expression of popular anger against an amorphous class of politicians and journalists: the center-left stalwart Democratic Party, the major TV networks.

But Five Star made few gestures toward the real architects of that crisis, failing to recognize that many of the ills endemic to Italian society—spiraling debt, cycles of underinvestment, dangerously unsupervised and over-integrated financial markets—were the result of policies implemented by politicians long gone. It was little surprise, then, that its iconoclasm quickly deteriorated as it entered government.

From 2018, it presided over a series of abortive coalitions with its historical rivals: first the League, then the Democratic Party, then the establishment figure par excellence Mario Draghi, all of whom had a hand in worsening the country’s malaise. Its politics were spotty and contradictory, appealing at once to progressives in Piedmont, industrialists in Milan, and right-wing cardinals in Rome. It focused above all on its unique style of governance, a heady tech-infused online voting platform, over political substance.

This combination of weakly held principles and a destructive instinct born of an impotent rage at an irremediable socioeconomic reality all came back to bite the movement. In July, it collapsed the Draghi coalition and annihilated the last vestiges of its credibility among allies on the center-left, leaving ample room for a reactionary government.

Ahead of this grim scenario, Five Star inaugurated its electoral campaign with a pedantic internal debate over some ancient party principle about candidates running for third terms: the final triumph of the idealized “form” of good policymaking over its mere content. It then alienated its only viable political ally, the Democratic Party, arguably costing the center-left the election.

And yet Five Star went on to run a surprisingly successful summer campaign, grounded in the defense of its broadly popular “citizens’ income,” a program that was instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic and lifted countless people out of poverty. That gambit won the party votes in the depressed south, and Five Star emerged from the election much better than expected. But it was too little, too late: Years of dithering had ensured the party would not be able to profit from its lone policy accomplishment.

Think this is a one-off? Take a look at the other unfortunates who participated in the September elections, a gloomy roster of rudderless knockabouts if there ever was one. There were the center-left stalwart Democrats, whose platform was a continuation of the legacy of recently ousted premier Draghi—but, crucially, without Draghi. Support in the Democrats’ traditional heartlands dissolved, in no small part due to an electoral law that the party itself had enthusiastically drawn up while in office.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, meanwhile, won a pittance of votes on a bid for lower taxes and nostalgia for its namesake’s halcyon days, while Matteo Salvini’s League was overwhelmed by the fallout from its participation in the Draghi coalition and saw most of its base practically run off in horror. Both nevertheless reluctantly signed on as junior coalition partners to the far more popular Brothers of Italy, whose rise was largely down to its decision to not participate in the Draghi coalition—an expression of principle that it is already undermining.

Brothers of Italy has its roots in the Italian Social Movement, a party founded by wartime Mussolini loyalists. Its leader, Giorgia Meloni, offers culture war palliatives: She has demanded fewer foreign faces in classrooms and proposed a wide-ranging crackdown on crimes supposedly perpetuated by migrants.

On the more tangible causes of Italy’s ills, however, Meloni is disappointing. Once a bellicose champion of Italian Euroskepticism, Meloni is now at pains to present herself as a sensible guardian of European interests, and her proposed economic and education reforms are generally in service of the demands of industry: lower taxes, for instance, and schools that focus exclusively on so-called vocational subjects. She’s more in line, as Italian newsweekly L’Espresso put it, with the interests of employers’ federations than disaffected voters. Even her fascist roots are passe and unremarkable; way back in the early aughts, Berlusconi’s own winning coalition included Brothers of Italy’s post-fascist forerunner.

Notably, the Brothers also seek a rollback of Five Star’s citizens’ income program. The newest candidate of change is going after the policies of the last one.

The overwhelming mediocrity of Meloni’s platform was made painfully evident on Sept. 22, three days before her victory, at a garrulous rally held in Rome’s antique Piazza del Popolo. Before swelling crowds and diaphanous Brothers banners blowing in the wind, the trio of Berlusconi, Salvini, and Meloni took to the pulpit to cover the usual ground: anti-wokeness, tax cuts, a big “No!” to drugs. The rest was a roll call of weak compromises and lowbrow right-wing grievances: Meloni blasted the left and the mainstream newspapers, while Berlusconi offered enthusiastic reassurances that the winning coalition would be on good terms with the United States. The activists gathered were not exactly inspired.

And though the right-wing alliance now has its majority, it was a marginal victory. Voter turnout was a low 64 percent, down from over 70 percent at the last election. And with Meloni and her counterparts’ eagerness to pay lip service, as Five Star did, to two incontrovertibly opposed groups—the disillusioned electorate and the powers that disillusioned it—this populist coalition du jour is likely to meet the same fate as its predecessors. The manina will continue to steer its relentless course.

Ben Munster is a journalist covering finance and Italian politics. He has written for the New Yorker, the Financial Times, and Private Eye, and is the semi-regular author of the “Zero Knowledge” column at Decrypt, a cryptocurrency news site. He lives in Rome.

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