Opinions Italy Populism

How to get out of the perfect storm

The role of European progressives in the fight against populism


Mario De Carli


Anna Ascani, Member of the Italian Parliament, highlights the rise of populism in Europe, which is embodied in Italy by the Five Star Movement (M5S). To fight against “retromania” and reconcile citizens with politics, she suggests a strengthening of political proposals by European progressives.


In recent months Western democracies have been on the brink of a perfect storm: indeed, in England with the Brexit and in the U.S. with Donald Trump, it actually happened.

Italy has been vulnerable on at least three fronts: unemployment, migration and delegitimization of traditional media.

My country, Italy, has been vulnerable on at least three fronts, two of which are typical to Italy and one of which is global. Unemployment (especially amongst young people) is one of them, despite the fact that 800.000 jobs have been recovered compared to the pre sovereign debt crisis period. The tragedy of migration is one of them too: it has forced my country to take on the solemn humanitarian duty for which the whole continent is responsible, a continent that (with rare exceptions) prefers to look the other way. Disintermediation is, last but not least, also one of them: the delegitimization of traditional media has led to the blurring of public opinion and to the extraordinary power of social media, with all the pros and cons that we know.

These issues, divergent they may be, share a common feature: they produce a feeling of insecurity. An insecurity about one’s own faith, about the future and the identity of one’s community, and also a cognitive insecurity, in a time that has catapulted us into the middle of a conflict between true and false, between facts and fake news. We recently discussed these topics at the Progressive Governance Symposium in Berlin, organized, amongst others, by Policy Network, Das Progressive Zentrum, European Socialist and Volta: I contributed to the discussion about the dialectic between progressives and populists and the strengthening of political proposals from progressives.

The public speech has been ripped to shreds by the emergence of and subsequent hegemonic power gained by the populists. Or rather, by those we identify with this name as they share the undemocratic claim of being the only legitimate representatives of the people. Their words are reduced to tactical manoeuvres and never form a comprehensive strategy: they amplify the background noise, the brunt of insecurity, without having a project to turn it into something different.

The M5S promises us a revolution, promises to rid us of the present and of the recent past, but actually it constructs an all-inclusive pantheon in the political milestones of 40 years ago.

A recent speech made by Di Maio (Vice President of the Parliament, member of the M5S) concerning Berlinguer (former General Secretary for the Italian Communist Party), Almirante (former representative of the Italian social movement, an extreme right-wing political party) and the Christian Democrats, DC (centre party dissolved in 1994) was thought provoking, because I think the speech expressed much more than what was explicitly said (the “classic” being neither right-wing nor left-wing). It is like a “retromania” manifesto, to use music critic Simon Reynolds words: an obsession of dwelling on the past. The M5S promises us a revolution, promises to rid us of the present and of the recent past, but actually it constructs an all-inclusive pantheon in the political milestones of 40 years ago. Citing another “successful” example of retromania, Trump promises to make America great again: he actually promises his fellow citizens a return to the past.

Is mashing up the past a problem? Yes, when this operation becomes hegemonic in public speech, because it indicates the absence of founding values. Choosing values means choosing a family, a story, roots, and conceiving of our own sense of motion and direction with regards to these values: choosing politics, instead of noise, is exactly this.

Reconstructing the relationship between policies, society and public opinion is an impossible task we cannot abdicate.

Finally, returning to the starting point: how do we escape the threats of the perfect storm? Surely, through policies, as the Italian governments led by the Democratic Party have done and the results are self-evident. But we need more: we need to reconstruct public speech. This might be seem from certain points of view as a Sisyphus condemnation: an absurd and impossible task in an era when millions of people have been enchanted by the populist sirens singing (or rather, noise), when the crisis of mutual trust in society has produced the conditions for the virality of fake news, when the speed and the personalization of the social media have projected us into psychopolitics (as the philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls it). Reconstructing the relationship between policies, society and public opinion is an impossible task we cannot abdicate. On these grounds, therefore, my little suggestion is to strengthen the political proposal of European Progressives by avoiding drawing back from our idea of future: rather, we should claim it loud and clear. An idea of ​​the future that is the one of progressives and European socialists: an open society, rights, education, development and employment – Europe.


This article was previously published here in Italian on the website of l’Unità TV.

Anna Ascani is a Member of the Italian Parliament (Camera dei Deputati) and of the Committee on Culture, Science and Education. She has been elected as a Member of Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.