Tiger Riders, Democracy Hijackers?

 In Blog

After the landslide victory of Giorgia Meloni, pundits and political scholars began warning about the return of Fascism to Italy. They clearly misread that historical event and misunderstood the issues at stake in Italy. As Marco Gabbas correctly notices, Meloni is not a fascist. She is a female conservative, reactionary, populist, and homophobic right-wing leader of the sort of Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán. It goes without saying that Fascism will barely manifest itself, whereas Giorgia Meloni’s political success lies in the deterioration of democracy.

Withdraw, wait …and hijack? 

Perhaps Julius Evola would not be quoted by Giorgia Meloni, but there is no shadow of a doubt that his name resonates within her political party, Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia). Evola was not a Fascist but an intellectual figure whose charisma influenced the political scene where Meloni grew up in. He sympathized with the regime established by Benito Mussolini in Italy, sometimes standing critically against it. After the Second World War, Evola was later recognised as an eclectic intellectual who combined Dadaism with the study of esoteric traditions and mixed up German idealism with Eastern doctrines and traditionalism.

The new generation of fascists used to visit Evola’s apartment in Rome. The cultural and political climate was not convenient for his followers and others affected by nostalgia of the past. In postwar Italy, the Italian Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Italiano) – a political party founded by the heirs of the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica di Salò) – accepted to participate in the freshly-established democratic arena. However, the Global Sixties opened up an even worse season for post-fascists and that generation of “Missini” (MSI militants) with neither direct experiences nor memories of Fascism whatsoever. The so-called Years of Lead (Anni di Piombo) further escalated the grassroots confrontations and casualties between radical leftists and much smaller groups of far-right militants. If the MSI’s motto “neither restore, nor recant” (in Italian: “Non restaurare, non rinnegare”) – with a clear allusion to the Fascist experience – guided its members and supporters, Evola provided another course of political action: “Ride the Tiger.” In War for Eternity. The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Righ(2021), the author, Benjamin Teitelbaum, recalls this East Asian parable as one of the best lessons that “traditionalists” and “patriots” still employ to navigate the age of modern liberalism and postmodern dilemmas. The parable goes: “in the wild, a man is confronting a tiger. Unable to outrun the tiger and lacking any means to attack it head-on, he instead leaps on the beast’s back to riding it. This ride may last a lifetime and require the rider to watch in silence as the tiger dismembers others in its path, but at least he will avoid its bites. And when age takes its toll, and the tiger begins to weary, the rider may move to strangle it and thereby find freedom”.

Modernity, like the tiger, could not be fought directly. On the contrary, tiger riders must carefully embrace a survival strategy: withdraw and wait. In retrospect, the rise of Giorgia Meloni’s leadership and her political experiences within the Italian institutions resemble that parable. She withdrew and waited, surviving the wild ages that culminated in her electoral success, waiting for democracy to weary. She could not visit Evola’s apartment, but indeed she heard his teaching from others throughout the years of her political activism. Although Brothers of Italy is the fourth political party stemming from the post/neo-fascist organizations, Meloni’s survival strategy has led her to ride the tiger and find freedom. She has managed to ride the tiger, survived the wild, avoided its beats, and found space in a democracy that, like the tiger itself, seems on its knees.

In insight, the “Brothers of Italy” have not simply got momentum during the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine. Many misunderstand the future role of Giorgia Meloni, the first female Prime Minister in the history of the Italian Republic. Others knowingly overlook her hegemonic role within the centre/centre-right side of the political spectrum. She gained consensus by eroding Matteo Salvini’s new national orientation of the former North League while opposing the patronizing figure of Silvio Berlusconi within the coalition. Simply put, she did not win Italians’ hearts by hijacking democracy; instead, she instrumentally fought similar competitive leaderships within the (centre-)right coalition and pre-empted the political space of actions of the progressive and leftist forces.

From Farce to Tragedy, or vice versa?

The new government chaired by Giorgia Meloni will not unleash a new rise of Fascism. If anything, the genealogy of her landslide victory has much deeper roots in the crisis of the Italian democracy. Since the mid-1990s, Italians have been looking for trustworthy leaders capable of restoring the welfare state and healing the (still-open) wounds of “Mani Pulite” and the Mafia terror season. In the case of the latter, it is telling that Meloni often refers to the assassination of the Sicilian judge, Paolo Borsellino, as the event that motivated her to begin her politics activism. In the case of the former, she is not an exception, nor a new actor to the institutional landscape. Meloni has often criticized the previous leaders of the centre-right coalition(s), but without fully rejecting them as political “allies.” Within her inner circle, too, other (formerly self-defined Fascist) leaders have held important positions within Italy’s democratic institutions, such as Gianfranco Fini as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gianni Alemanno as Major of Rome, Ignazio La Russa as Minister of Defence, among others.

After her landslide victory, however, Meloni has stepped into Berlusconi’s traces and experiences of 1994 and 2001; she now leads a coalition as previously done by Matteo Renzi and Matteo Salvini in the center-left and center-right side of the political spectrum, respectively. Also, the electoral turmoil triggered in 2012 by the 5 Stars Movement is instructive to understand better the love-hate relationships of Italians with democracy and its mechanisms of participation. Many deem democracy a space of “professori” (in English: professors) and figures with high competencies capable of u-turning electoral results and establishing new cabinets for the “sake of the nation.” Others constitute the main political party in Italy – namely, that of absenters, especially among the youth and those residing far from their birthplaces.

The sharp turn to the right side of the political spectrum also indicates the absolute inertia of the Italian Left. Politically speaking, the suicidal efforts of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico) unravel a lack of vision within the party itself. Over the last decades, the Italian Left has provided a blurred picture of how Italy should look like in the near future.

When Slavoj Žižek endorsed Donald Trump, that provocation sparked harsh criticism among leftist activists and intellectuals. Back then, the Italian Left remained foreign to that debate. The Slovenian philosopher – similar to what Julius Evola theorized for his followers – attempted to provide a way out to the global left, one which could disrupt the two-party system in the US and its projection worldwide. Žižek hoped that Trump’s victory could productively disorder American politics and finally awaken the American left from its absolute inertia. That provocation can be repeated in the Italian context. Without exerting a cultural and political grip on the working class and younger generations, the latest debacle reveals another symptom of a “death spiral” for the Italian Left. At present, there is nothing to lose but a new awakening. A new strategy is yet to be thought and kicked off. Drawing upon Mark Lilla’s critique, it is possible to identify one of the main causes of the latest leftist defeat. So far, he argues, the political investment in identity politics has not paid off. Supporting a wealth of grassroots actions and social movements has neither filled the gaps between leftist representatives and potential voters nor seen the birth of a new class of leading figures (in Italian: “classe dirigente”) capable of filling the vacuum of political representation within the at-risk segments of Italian society.

Paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci, in Italy, the old cannot die, and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, many describe a new age of monsters, while others seem to foresee a new horizon of opportunities to be grasped. Who will do it remains an open question.  


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