Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Trump Takes Italy by Storm: the Rise of Matteo Salvini and of the Italian Right

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian League and Minister of the Interior since June 2018. During the past few weeks, he has gained political prominence in Italy by adopting Trump's style and policies. Here, you see him together with the slogan "Italians First."

During the past few weeks, we have seen a true political revolution in Italy. Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian League, has successfully exploited his new position of Minister of the Interior to gain personal prominence. The M5s movement had won the elections, this year, but it has been emarginated to a secondary role, while Salvini acts and looks like if he were the real Prime Minister. If new elections were held now in Italy, Salvini and the League would win hands down

All politics is, after all, about blame shifting. So, political success means simply finding someone to blame. Matteo Salvini was successful by adopting the same style and content that made the political fortune of Donald Trump. Both Trump and Salvini found a good target to blame with immigrants and foreigners in general. Both used harsh language, insults, callousness, and plain racism. Both found that the more shrill and violent their utterances were, the more they were approved by the public. It took a remarkably small effort to convince a large majority of Italians that all their troubles are caused by immigrants and, in particular, by the Roma people (less than the 0.2% of the Italian population). Salvini also capitalized on demonizing the Euro and the European Union, although he can't afford (so far) to exaggerate with insults and threats in that field. In any case, right now, it seems that 72% of Italians approve Salvini's actions
For everything that happens there is a reason and there has to be a reason for the outburst of hate and of racism in Italy. It has to do, probably, with the return of nation-states as protagonists in the world power game and with the ongoing disgregation of the American Empire. 

After the end of WW2, the European Union took the role of an agent of the American Empire to keep the European states under control. But the EU itself had to be kept under control, least it could become another empire that could have challenged the American supremacy. So, the EU wasn't allowed to develop an army, nor all the paraphernalia that would have turned it into a recognizable state, from an official language to a decent flag. It was an exercise in political acrobatics and it is remarkable that it worked reasonably well for more than half a century. 

But, today, the EU is weakened by the economic crisis and probably fatally wounded by the loss of Britain. All Empires tend to collapse in times of economic hardships, an even more likely outcome for a entity, the EU, which was a failed empire from the beginning. So, the old states are rising again - a trend that we see also outside Europe. Even in the US, Donald Trump is busy at turning the American Empire back into a nation-state. That changes many things, not necessarily for good.

Normally, empires are not racist and they don't engage in ethnical cleansing. They cannot afford that, since they are composed of heterogeneous entities which may need to be kept together by force. That makes Empires expensive: one of their characteristic is the large and costly military apparatus they are forced to maintain. Excessive military expenses is the most common cause of the collapse of empires. It happened to the Ancient Romans, just as it happened to the Soviet Union. And it is happening right now to the American Empire. It just can't survive for long without the influx of cheap energy and resources that created it.

Nation-states, instead, are relatively homogeneous entities in linguistic and ethnical terms, less likely to fragment in smaller pieces. What they need in terms of military force may be just a militia able to put down or exterminate ethnical or ideological minorities. That makes them less expensive and more resilient than empires. They can survive the economic hardships that shattered the most powerful empires in the world's history.

Nation-states often generate great enthusiasm among their citizens, but they are far from being benign entities. Their ethnical and linguistical homogeneity may be more a dream than reality and their survival may need to be propped up a poisonous mix of aggressive nationalism, hate, and racism directed against foreigners. It was one of the methods used in Italy by Mussolini's government in the 1920s and 30s, so it is not surprising that Mr. Salvini's government (formally known as Conte's government) is using the same methods today. As we know, hate and racism may not remain confined to insults.

And here we stand. The message that the current economic hardship is the result of resource depletion and of the negative effects of ecosystem disruption didn't pass, and maybe it never will. At this point, accusing Salvini or Trump of "populism" or of "racism" is not going to stop the trend. It is clear that their methods work wonderfully well. The skunk is out of the bag and we don't have to wait for long before other leaders will follow their example. A new round of ethnical cleansing in Western Europe, if not the start of a new European war, may be a plausible scenario for a non-remote future

But nothing is unavoidable. With enormous changes going on worldwide, with the ecosystem collapsing, with natural resources dwindling, with the human population still expanding, we may be rather facing a Seneca Collapse that will make short work of the European nation-states, just as the current crisis is destroying the American Empire. The future is never like the past and the only thing we are sure about it is that we cannot be sure of anything.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)