This month marks a year since the last general election in Italy. Three months afterwards Matteo Salvini’s League and Luigi di Maio’s Five Star Movement (M5S) took power. It’s time to take stock – even though, to tell the truth, we can’t stop stock-taking – such is the desperate situation the country finds itself in. First and foremost, we are in a democratic emergency. Some feel there’s no need for alarm; after all nobody seized power by force, and the government enjoys a high level of popular support (an approval rating of approximately 60%, according to polls). But clearly, just because a government enjoys support we should not stop being clear-eyed about what it is doing. A liberal democracy does not become authoritarian within a few months, but there are signs, however slight and seemingly unconnected, that seem to chart this depressing journey.
A few weeks ago the Italian media greeted with alarm a report the secret services had submitted to parliament. The picture it painted was hugely serious, especially in two areas: the growth of racist incidents as we approach the European elections in May, and the inability – given the propaganda and focus on closing ports to migrants from Libya – to curb secret landings using small, fast boats, which could be bringing passengers linked to terrorist groups.
The list of reported racist incidents in Italy from the beginning of this year is shocking. In Lecce province, a young boy from Sierra Leone was battered on the back with a chair as his assailants racially abused him and told him to “go home”. In Rome, a 12-year-old Egyptian was verbally abused and beaten up so badly by a group of older boys that he ended up in hospital. A black brother and sister were pilloried by a schoolmaster in Foligno, in central Italy. Women of colour are more and more treated as if they were sex workers – and not only in the street but even in public offices. Many incidents go unreported, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that what is happening in Italy is a sign of a descent into barbarism.
Immigrant ghettos have sprung up, where some people who have official residence permits live on hunger wages and in conditions of slavery. Take, for example, the shanty town of San Ferdinando, in Reggio Calabria province in Italy’s deep south, where Salvini, the minister of the interior, was elected senator. At harvest time, San Ferdinando hosts up to 2,000 migrants who earn 50 cents per crate of picked oranges, or 1 euro per crate of mandarins. Not only do people endure inhumane existences in these shanties and work in the fields like slaves; they actually die there as well, from the cold and fires. To shelter from the cold, they use braziers and gas stoves in cramped quarters made of highly inflammable materials. Last year three immigrants died in San Ferdinando, burned to death in blazing fires.
The politics that incites hatred towards migrants does nothing to alleviate these conditions, because of course these workers are useful, especially in the agri-food sector: a low-cost workforce with no rights which can be both exploited and blamed for the purposes of garnering populist votes.
This is what we’ve come to in Italy: a climate of racist aggression is spreading, a racism that is directed not only against migrants but against anyone who does not have white skin, even against children adopted by Italian families. When people speak in general terms of populism in relation to this government they risk obscuring truly alarming facts on the ground with abstract political labels.There is no doubt that the blind eye this administration turns to racist attitudes has had serious consequences. Cynically the government gives a nod and a wink to extremist groups whose votes they do not want to lose.
The strategy to feed the climate of hatred is twofold. First of all, extremist groups inundate the web with lies and fake news. The biggest is the presumed invasion of Italy by foreigners.
We are led to believe migrants are invading Italy and are the root cause of our economic problems. But according to Istat (the national institute of statistics), migrants, including those from the EU, account for 8.7% of the overall population. Illegal immigrants, who provide the basis for the anti-immigration propaganda, represent approximately 533,000 in a country of more than 60 million. In no way therefore can one speak of an invasion, and yet that is the tune we hear sung on a daily basis.
Second, those who argue for a different vision and a different country are dismissed as the elite. Having attacked journalists across the board, the first official act of this government’s under-secretary of state for publishing, Vito Crimi (a third-rate politician capable of gratuitous spitefulness), was to cut public funding to the press, striking a blow against those who do not receive advertising revenue but nevertheless provide high-quality information and provide a public service. As a result, we shall be witnessing the demise of Radio Radicale, Il Manifesto and L’Avvenire – three progressive mainstays of the Italian media scene which have never lined up with any government and which no previous government ever dreamed of threatening. To attack these publications is to attack the values of liberal democracy and pluralism.
The attack on Radio Radicale, which for 40 years now has been broadcasting the proceedings of parliament and the major institutions of the country, is a vivid illustration of the transformation of the M5S founded by Beppe Grillo. M5S used to stream even closed-door talks on the formation of the government; now, it prefers lights off during parliamentary proceedings and we still don’t know who or what should eventually replace Radio Radicale and the essential job it does. This is the biggest emergency in Italy. It is becoming a country where it is increasingly difficult to publish information and where, if you criticise the government, you become a target. You only have to think of the controversy surrounding the removal of police protection from journalists (like me) who receive death threats because that protection is supposedly too heavy a burden on the state’s coffers.It is never pointed out that, of 600 people who receive protection in Italy, only 20 are journalists. How can there be freedom of expression in a country whose government attacks people who write and report on a daily basis?
Last March Italians went to cast our votes having been immersed in anti-migrant propaganda and sick to the back teeth of traditional political parties. Today, in the run-up to May’s European elections, things are even worse. It’s the government – robust, muscular and nasty by vocation – that delivers the propaganda. Every case of a migrant boat turned away from our shores gives rise not to indignation but the kind of cheerleading you see at football stadiums. Anti-migrant posturing is used to camouflage problems both parties have with their respective supporters. M5S has been eclipsed by the League in government. Meanwhile the major entrepreneurs in the north – the traditional power base of the League – are disappointed by its economic policies. But Salvini’s ratings keep shooting up, because every day he serves up a scapegoat for people to get their teeth into, to insult and use violence against.
This government’s opponents feel more alone than ever. How can one get people to see they are the victims of an evil spell? Because the economy will certainly not recover if we become more isolated from Europe, or thanks to our Russian ally or our new Hungarian friends. Nor will it revive by removing rights from migrants who live, work and pay their taxes in our country.
What we progressives need is not just optimism but a different vision of the future. But the battered parties on the left aren’t listening; they’re focused on solving their own internal problems and seem indifferent to the alarming threats to our democracy. Nowadays whoever attempts to describe a country that must pick itself up, a country that must stand firm and rediscover its virtues, is alone. Utterly alone.