One of the most infuriating things to happen to journalism in the era of internet media and the muddying of comment and reportage is the use of pejorative shorthands such as “far-right,” “populist,” and “xenophobic”—as though these were unambiguous and transparent labels to describe and define certain political parties and movements. In most instances, it is quite clear that such epithets are applied purely on the basis of a herd consensus and/or the whim of individual journalists. We have seen this syndrome surface again in recent days, following the elections in Italy, particularly in respect of that country’s fastest-growing political movement, Lega (The League)—formerly Lega Nord, or Northern League. Lega won some 17.4 percent of the vote and, together with its coalition partners, including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (which received 14 percent of the vote), is within a shout of leading the next government.
Clearly exhibiting a desire to smear the candidates and parties concerned, these pejorative labels represent a gross interference with the independence of voters to assess the character of the persons and entities coming before them. The labels are puerile, reductionist, unjournalistic, and an affront to democracy. When they are applied to jurisdictions I happen to be unfamiliar with, I can’t always say how wrong they are—but in the case of Lega I know that they are verging on outright lies.
Several times over the past couple of years, I have spoken in Italy at events sponsored by Lega Nord. Far from a party of foaming neo-Nazis, I found in Lega a schoolteacherly collection of pretty staid and commonsensical mainstream Italians who resist the increasing secularism of their country, the anti-family policies of several recent governments and the EU, and the generally undemocratic drift of Italian politics in recent years. These conferences featured discussion of the demographic crisis of Europe, the threat represented by the mass influx of illegal and largely undocumented outsiders into Italy in recent years, and the globalist policies being forced upon Italy without any form of electoral mandate from its people. I found the deliberations moderate, intelligent, and content-led. Not once at one of those gatherings did I hear anyone say anything remotely racist or xenophobic. I heard people expressing their fears for the future of their country and the fact that their democratic system no longer appeared capable of delivering to the Italian people the things they needed and expected.
Contrary to the notion put about by media that the party has emerged in response to the recent waves of migration into Italy, Lega Nord has been in existence for close on three decades. A core mission of the party is to oppose the reduction of human communities and families to mere nests of consumers and to protect Italian families, identities, and traditions. Uniquely among parties in Western Europe, Lega proposes the economic incentivization of larger families and the subsidization of parents in the home. These are exactly the kinds of things I would expect virtually any European political party to be discussing in times like these.
One conference in Milan this time last year had as its title “Family, Land and Tradition: What kind of world will we leave to future generations?” My own lecture was titled “The Right to Belong Where I Come From,” and dealt with the importance of home in the human imagination, the struggle against placelessness in modern culture, and the cultural forces that come to bear on the human consciousness to weaken attachments between person and home place. Asked to summarize the primary and most fundamental Lega position, I would identify an urgency to alert Italy to the crisis being created by Europe’s massive uptick in inward migration from culturally disjunctive places at a time when the continent is apparently intent upon dismantling its own civilization. And part of that dismantling process is the persistent bullying by supposed journalists of anyone who seeks to raise these questions at a political or cultural level.
It is interesting that the other major emerging force in Italian politics in recent years, the Five Star Movement (M5S), which took 32.6 percent of the vote in the recent elections, has so far been treated more kindly by both the Italian and the international media, being generally described as “antiestablishment,” “Euroskeptic,” or, at worst, “populist.” This is particularly interesting, as in recent times M5S has clearly been creeping ever closer to some of the supposedly sulphurous positions articulated by Lega.
Originally a somewhat left-leaning internet-centered phenomenon, drawing much of its support from younger voters, M5S has appeared to undergo a radical rite of passage in the past couple of years. From its founding in 2009, the movement seemed congenitally reluctant to enter power with anyone else. Its expressed objective from the beginning was to build a movement capable of entering government on its own. Now, within an ace of this possibility, it appears to be shifting its ground.
The founder of M5S, Beppe Grillo, may be a comedian but he’s no joke. The Italian Nobel prize-winning playwright Dario Fo, author of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, has traced Grillo’s emergence to a tradition going back in Italian culture to medieval times—of the giullari, or “jugglers,” strolling comics who went around trading in sarcasm, irony, ridicule, and stories at the expense of the great and powerful. Grillo, said Fo, “is from the tradition of the wise storyteller, one who knows how to use surreal fantasy, who can turn situations around, who has the right word for the right moment, who can transfix people when he speaks, even in the rain and the snow.” Grillo is, in other words, a kind of rock ’n’ roll figure, and therefore relatively untouchable by the media.
Behind Grillo’s v-signs and one-liners is a deep intelligence and sense of purpose. He correctly identified the recent problem in the European economy as a “false lack” of money arising from the rigidities of a banking system that generates money out of thin air—always and only as debt. The result, he explained, is that citizens must chase a diminishing pool of money to pay down debts that grow all the while. The answer, he proclaimed, was for Italy to grab back its monetary sovereignty and issue its own money. He has also advocated a unilateral default on public debt and a guaranteed “citizenship” income of close to €1,000 a month for every adult citizen.
And yet, despite winning the largest block of votes in the 2013 parliamentary elections, Grillo refused to articulate concrete proposals for how the energies of M5S might be unleashed for the betterment of Italy. Now, following a number of seismic lurches over the past two years, M5S appears to be moving into a post-Grillo phase, having six months ago replaced the comedian as de facto leader with 31 year-old Luigi Di Maio, in what seems to be a sign that the movement is about to grow up and join the political mudbath (albeit with Grillo remaining in the wings as “guarantor”). Under its new leader, M5S has of late been shifting toward positions and policies that would undoubtedly have attracted ideologically motivated animus had they been proffered by, say, Lega Nord.
Lega has consistently insisted that, in power, it will despatch back whence they came non-refugee immigrants who are illegally in Italy. Although many of its supporters are loath to become publicly associated with such a policy, some elements of M5S, including Grillo, are believed to agree broadly with this position. In June of last year, the M5S Mayor of Rome, Victoria Raggi, created waves when she appeared suddenly to shift her own and the movement’s position on migrants. Having previously emphasized the role of the movement in guaranteeing “dignity, shelter, and human warmth” to newcomers, and condemned “negative attitudes” towards immigration, now she declared that the capital could not afford to take in any more migrants. This development set off speculation about an M5S shift “to the right” and even talk of a possible coalition with Lega.
The horse-trading of the coming weeks (or months) may reveal whether this is more than fantasy. Neither M5S nor Lega has enough seats to enter government on its own, but both have options, including a coalition that would include them both. Fascinating as this will undoubtedly be, even more interesting will be the adjustments made by the Italian and international media if their former heroes of “antiestablishment” non-engagement seek to get into bed with (or steal the clothes of) the demons of the “far-right.”
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.