The Italian right-wing nationalism Fratelli d’Italia must be seen above all as a nostalgic interpretation of Italian culture. It fits into a wider European trend, says Judith Jansma. ‘Cultural nationalism manifests itself here as well.’
Italy goes to the polls on Sunday. The big favorite for overall victory is Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right party Fratelli d’Italia. Her political CV is certainly unusual. In her youth, she was active in the youth wing of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano, founded in 1946 by supporters of Mussolini.
In a video from 1996, which she has since distanced herself from, we see a young Meloni declaring on French television that Mussolini was a good politician who always acted in Italy’s interests. Such positive statements about Mussolini, associating him with better times, are not rare in Italy. Historian Francesco Filippo calls it an example of historical amnesia. According to him, it would be more accurate to describe Mussolini as ‘the greatest butcher in the history of Italy’.
Preservation of culture
Now, of course, the question arises why a party like Fratelli d’Italia, which openly flirts with Mussolini’s fascism, can get so far in a democratic system. According to opinion polls, the party currently accounts for around a quarter of the vote. In the previous election, in 2018, Fratelli d’Italia was still at a paltry 4.4 percent. While other parties under Prime Minister Mario Draghi formed a coalition of national unity, Meloni’s party has always been in opposition.
At a time when crises follow each other, her party seems to offer many Italians an attractive alternative. At the same time, Fratelli d’Italia’s popularity fits into a wider European trend. Consider, for example, the Sweden Democrats’ recent victory and Marine Le Pen’s historically high score in this year’s French presidential election.
Does it mean a big turnaround for Italy, which in recent years has been led by former EU banker Draghi? According to specialists, an anti-EU course is not obvious, not least because Italy receives large sums of money from European corona funds. Meloni’s nationalism therefore does not seem so much political or economic – although she is in favor of lower taxes for companies – but focuses primarily on preserving Italian culture.
In that respect, Meloni’s discourse is not very different from, for example, Le Pen’s. Meloni defends the traditional Italian family, identifies herself as a woman and as a mother, and opposes the expansion of LGBT rights and ‘gender ideology’. Christian values play a central role in her definition of Italian culture, she is also against the right to abortion and euthanasia.
It is a nostalgic nationalism that wants to prevent the loss of cultural values and traditions. According to Meloni and her party, the Italian identity is under pressure from the influx of non-Western immigrants, Muslims, the far-reaching influence of the European Union and the worldwide ideology of so-called ‘Wokism’.
This vision of national culture is comparable to that of other right-wing parties in Europe, such as our own Forum for Democracy. But what is possibly more worrying is that such ideas are also increasingly finding their way into mid-party election manifestos.
The idea that the Italian people are being oppressed is not so different from the discourse of the French centre-right party Les Républicains. In their latest election manifesto, they proposed, among other things, birth grants to encourage French families to have more children.
This is directly related to the philosopher Renaud Camus’ repopulation theory, which states that the French population will eventually be displaced by immigrants, who on average have more children than French people without a migration background.
In the Netherlands, VVD minister Dilan Yesilgöz recently spoke out against ‘wokism’, which she described as one of the biggest threats to the rule of law. In addition, tax dollars are currently being used to fund a broadcaster that repeatedly expresses itself openly racist on national television.
These examples show that far-right ideas have long been popular: Cultural nationalism also manifests itself in the Netherlands among mainstream parties, in the media and in public space.
It is clear that a discourse that only aims to arouse warm, nostalgic feelings for one’s own people and exclude others will not be able to cope with the current political and economic challenges. On the other hand, a political narrative that ignores the feelings and real concerns of the population will never win the trust of the majority.
It was painfully clear last Tuesday from figures published by the analysis agency I&O Research: Around 80 percent of the Dutch have no confidence in the Rutte IV cabinet. While right-wing populism creates a division between us and them on the basis of a cultural definition of the authentic people, in Dutch politics there is a growing distance between politicians and citizens.
The question then is whether there is an alternative to the above-mentioned political development. Part of the solution undoubtedly lies in realizing more direct contact between administrators and citizens. As a cultural and literary researcher, I would also like to argue for an alternative cultural narrative.
Not Meloni’s simplistic and reductionist interpretation that limits Italian culture to national borders, but culture as a result of centuries of human contact and coexistence, also (exactly!) outside the current national borders. A culture that isolates itself is doomed to failure.