SPW: There has been a lot of talk abroad about Giorgia Meloni, the far-right politician who made a meteoric rise in the polls, becoming Italy’s first female prime minister. We want to hear you about her trajectory. But, first of all, could you explain the context of permanent political instability in Italy, and the failure of the previous coalition government?
Massimo Prearo: We must consider that Italy is a country with multiple political rifts: the relationship with the state, the relationship between the church and religion, the economic inequalities, the differences between North and South, the divide between the center and the periphery, between cities and rural areas, the relationship between generations, gender relations, and migration or racialization dynamics. All these factors intersect and shape voting patterns at the election, reflecting affection or disaffection for political parties. They also imply a very divisive public arena. There were times when these divisions created political cultures, that were relatively entrenched in some regions and thus gave a certain stability to the vote (this is the reason for the longevity of the Christian Democrats until the early 1990s, for example). But, in recent years, there were significant fluctuations in voting patterns, on the one hand towards an ever-increasing abstention (36% in the last elections), but also towards what is perceived as a novelty, and attracts a vote marked by a distrust of the established political system that people would like to overturn. This is what explained in the past the vote for Berlusconi, for the 5-Star Movement, for Salvini’s Lega, and now for Giorgia Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia party. We should also add to these structural conditions the instability of the electoral law that at almost every election produces distortions in the counting of votes, sometimes in the direction of a proportional system, sometimes in the direction of a majority system. The result is a political configuration defined by permanent turmoil, where politicians have more interest in producing disruptions than in seeking governmental stability. The history of the last government crises, in 2019, 2021, and 2022, shows very well that the political crisis is, in Italy, a much sought-after and long-awaited moment for existing parties, which perceive it more as an opportunity than as a problem.
SPW: Although there is great instability, the participants in these last elections had time to establish themselves in the political landscape. Giorgia Meloni, for example, is young and can give herself an image of novelty, but she has already held a ministerial position in a previous Berlusconi government. What elements of continuity do you perceive in the evolution of the institutional political landscape?
MP: Suffice to consider that, at the age of 86, Silvio Berlusconi is once again entering the Senate, after having been ousted because of his legal affairs and convictions, to realize how much continuity there is in the Italian political landscape. But this should not fool us. True, Giorgia Meloni has been in politics for a long time, but in the 2018 election, her party just got 4.3% of votes, as compared to 26% in the last one. This means that a space was opened up that Fratelli d’Italia was able to properly fill. This space corresponds to the realm of the ideological populism of the radical right, which has nibbled away under the opportunistic radical right populism of Salvini, on the one hand, and the soft right-wing populism of Berlusconi, on the other. It would be wrong to see this simply as continuity.
SPW: You have analyzed the emergence of a neo-Catholic movement in the Italian political arena. Could you explain this characterization, and how this trend is articulated with the emergence of the figure of Meloni, who presents herself as a woman, a mother, an Italian, and a Christian?
MP: I have defined as neo-Catholicism a political project led by ultra-Catholic associations that were structured as a movement around anti-gender campaigns since 2013. This is when the Italian section of La Manif Pour Tous (Protest For Everyone) was founded in Rome, after having established an agreement for the use of the logo and the name with the French La Manif Pour Tous and, in particular, with Ludivine de La Rochère, its leader. This is a political project that proposes a new version of Catholicism in politics, stripped, so to speak, of its religious dimension and translated into a secularized vocabulary, that is to say, one that mobilizes philosophical, anthropological, biological, or “scientific” arguments. Of course, Catholics are those who lead this anti-gender, anti-LGBT, anti-trans, and anti-feminist platform, but their political grammar does not come from Catholicism. It does not deny the Catholic identity but constitutes a new way of doing politics and mobilizing as Catholics. Their trajectory, since 2013, has been very successful. In 2018 one of their members was elected to at the Senate as a Lega candidate and, in 2022, a female founder of La Manif Pour Tous Italy was a key candidate of Fratelli d’Italia. By the end, she was not elected (because of a peculiarity in the counting of votes, although she received a significant number), but her candidacy illustrates how the Fratelli are very close to the anti-gender movement. It can be said to be its most successful expression, as it shows that they are ideologically consistent.
Giorgia Meloni has always supported the anti-gender movement. She has lent her voice to the claims of the anti-gender movement, and she has adopted the vocabulary against “gender ideology” and against the “LGBT lobby”. Above all, she understood that attacking “identity politics” is what the right-wing electorate has been waiting for in order to resume its historical battle against the left and against the rights of minorities. In her view, the rights of minorities are “destroying” the three pillars that she is perennially reawakening: God, the family, and the fatherland – when she reclaims a political genealogy that retraces back to Italian fascism.
SPW: Another striking element of the recent elections is the relative weakness of the left, which ran as a coalition led by the Democratic Party. This coalition won 26% of the votes, as much as the Meloni´s party. What is your analysis of the state of the left and of their political proposals?
MP: The failure of the left to mobilize a vote around a solid and clear program results from a deterioration of the progressive sphere that did not start with these elections. It would take much longer to fully assess this trajectory. What interests me, in particular, is how most parties on the right have been able to establish close links of mutual benefit and support with the new conservative, neo-Catholic, and anti-gender movements, Meanwhile, the main parties of the left seem to take for granted the vote of feminist and LGBT+ activists. The abstention in the September 2022 election also indicates that activist forces, historically located on the left, are not bound by electoral loyalties to the parties that should be their political reference. On the left, in my opinion, the relationship between parties and feminist and LGBT+ movements has not resulted, in recent years, from a process of ideological co-production. We saw that clearly during the debates on the proposed law against LGBT hate crimes in 2020 and 2021. The MPs from the left – who had presented the bill – were not prepared to fight for it and did not have the necessary vocabulary to defend their project, nor the proper data on discrimination and violence that justified its approval. They did not even show a precise knowledge of similar laws enacted in other countries of the European Union, which is current even amongst LGBT+ associations and movements. This data and argumentation were brought too late in the process of debating the law provision. On the right side, MPs fought against the bill with the same weapons that the anti-gender movements have developed since at least 2013 and the left could not respond properly to them. It is true that feminist and LGBT+ issues are not the only items to be raised by the left in order to bring people together. Even so, these issues are now at the center of the harsh conflict and distinction between the right and the left, at least in Italy. In the last few years, the radical right has rewritten its ideological manifesto. They extracted from the neo-Catholic and anti-gender movements the political and conceptual tools to offer a strong, divisive, and, often, revanchist politics. The mainstream left has not done its own ideological reconstruction, and it is not, therefore, able to capture the votes.
SPW: Meloni clearly places herself in reaction to the feminist and LGBT+ movements, but these movements do not really figure in the proposals of the center-left coalition. Are we witnessing the revival of a combative feminist and LGBT+ tradition in Italy alongside the consolidation of more institutional, or even slightly reactionary sectors of these movements? How do you asses the state of the feminist and LGBT+ movements in Italy today?
MP: I don’t know if the feminist and LGBT+ movements figure or not in the political agenda of the center-left coalition; partly yes, partly it is complicated. But I do not think that this is the issue at stake. Rather, a cross-sectional or, let’s say, an intersectional electoral alliance has not been constructed that could work by bringing together all the forces now facing a reactionary anti-gender, anti-feminist, anti-LGBT+ front. This is where the reactionary wave is in Italy: it is led by the far-right. This does not mean that there aren’t LGBT+ groups or a certain feminism stream that, by opportunism or conviction, aspire to leave the “natural” perimeter of the left to occupy a place elsewhere. But this remains marginal, especially in the LGBT+ movement. Less marginal perhaps are certain branches of feminism — which define themselves as radical and gender critical. This line of feminist discourse opposing some contemporary LGBT claims, gender, and especially, transgender and non-binary people´s claims has dramatically entered the public debate, in the last few years. Part of it is based on unorganized groups that act mostly on social networks. Their anti-trans discourse, in particular, resonates more widely because it fully aligns with the whole campaign against “gender theory”. It also relies on the same vocabulary, attacking claims and policies that support the self-determination of gender identity, especially when it comes to gender identity in childhood and adolescence. In the midst of this wave of transphobia, groups have emerged that bring together parents of trans children who promote gender identity conversion therapies and challenge the very concept of gender identity, such as Genitori De Gender (No Gender Parents). These groups are linked to French networks such as the Observatoire de la Petite Sirène (Observatory of the Little Mermaid) or the Ypomoni Collective, which also intersect with the networks of the anti-gender feminist activists sometimes called TERF.
To return to the feminist and LGBT+ movements more broadly, I will limit myself to saying that what I observe in Italy is a diffuse and highly territorialized presence of very active associations, groups, and collectives that – by constantly adapting to their contexts – are part of the genealogy of LGBT+ struggles. They range from the most revolutionary to the most institutional ones, sometimes producing mixtures with a very strong political impact, as is the case in some cities, or even more significantly in the new, highly politicized version of LGBTTI+ Pride in Bologna. These diverse streams and political visions are also divergent and sometimes in conflict, but these currents do not unfold in isolation. From a feminist, transfeminist, and LGBT+ activist point of view, in my opinion, the question is not whether it is in motion, but how to stay in motion, doing a politics of movements and mobilizing.