There Is a Name for Meloni’s Blend of Socialism and Nationalism
She is a harbinger of a new global synthesis of the illiberal left and the illiberal right
Shutterstock. Marc Stock.
American conservatives went wild over the first post-election speech by Georgia Meloni, who is expected to become Italy’s next prime minister. In what could serve as a manifesto of social conservatism, Meloni declared that the enemies of the family are:
[T]hose who would like us to no longer have an identity and to simply be perfect consumer slaves ...
And so they attack national identity, they attack religious identity, they attack gender identity, they attack family identity. I can’t define myself as Italian, Christian, woman, mother. No. I must be Citizen X, Gender X, Parent 1, Parent 2. I must be a number. Because when I am only a number, when I no longer have an identity or roots, then I will be the perfect slave at the mercy of financial speculators.
None of this makes any sense. Meloni thinks she is crusading against what we call “wokism” by upholding the importance of “identity.” But the rap against the woke is precisely their obsession with identity, seeking special protections for people who identify as members of various groups (“people of color,” “queer,” “trans” and so on). What Meloni seems to mean by upholding the importance of identity is that she wants to defend some identities—“Italian, Christian, woman, mother”—rather than others. It’s not for nothing that contemporary national(ist) conservatism has been defined as identity politics for white people, a mirror image of that which it claims to oppose.
But what is more striking about this central passage in Meloni’s speech is the weird combination of the conservative culture war and an anti-capitalist conspiracy theory about “financial speculators.”
Combining Right-Wing Identity Politics with Anti-Capitalist Envy Politics
The phrase “consumer slaves” sums up the contradiction. A slave is, by definition, not a consumer; a slave is allowed no claim on what he produces. It is even more nonsensical when you consider what “consumer” means in this context. The word “consumer” is so broad and vague as to be almost meaningless; there is no one in the modern world who is not a consumer of something. But the use of the term “consumer” has become shorthand for the mass prosperity of developed societies, where the immediate demands for the basics of food, clothing and shelter have been met. So people’s desires expand for bigger and better cars and more gadgets.
In this sense, though, the first great “consumer” society was probably America in the 1950s—long before “wokeness” awakened. And the whole edifice of modern commerce and capitalism was built long before anyone cared what pronouns you use. It was Adam Smith who observed, almost 250 years ago, the natural human “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange”—a basic element of human nature that was not summoned into existence in the era of transgender activists.
“Wokeness” itself, to the extent it means anything, refers to the popular influence of a school of “critical theory” developed by college professors who regard the modern form of capitalism as a tool of oppression.
The New Illiberal Synthesis
In short, there is no sane reason to believe that contemporary “wokeness” underpins big business or consumer culture or an international conspiracy of bankers. This Underpants Gnomes-style theory in which wokeness equals profits doesn’t add up. But don’t bother to examine this particular folly, ask only what it accomplishes. It allows for a kind of illiberal synthesis that combines the rhetoric and priorities of the illiberal right—nationalistic, religiously intolerant, and socially conservative—with the appeal to envy of the illiberal left.
Such a combination may seem strange to Americans because modern conservatism in this country emerged in the middle of the 20th century in part as a response to the global threat of communism. Hence, it has been infused since its inception with free market ideas and rhetoric that regarded Big Government—not Big Business— as the enemy. During the Cold War, these pro-free market ideas naturally found a wider audience in Western Europe as well. But Europe has a history of a more traditionalist style of conservatism, which rejects capitalism as a symptom of modernization. And this is beginning to make its way back to the United States.
Meloni may not be the most potent symptom of this resurgence. After all, her party won a leadership role with only 26% of the vote, so she will be heading a fragile and fractious multiparty coalition typical of Italian politics. But she has a relationship with Steve Bannon, with whom she once gave a joint interview to the Guardian in which he also hammered away at “Wall Street bankers, European technocrats, Silicon Valley billionaires, as well as a vague group of cosmopolitan, liberal, and allegedly out-of-touch elites he brands ‘the party of Davos’ or simply ‘globalists.’” Despite her razor-thin victory margin, she is one of the rare successes of the pan-European movement of nationalist conservatism that he has been trying to foster. It is hardly unreasonable to view her rise—and her reception by the American right—as a harbinger of a new global synthesis of the illiberal left and the illiberal right.
Putin and Meloni: The Ideological Parallels
This synthesis is on even fuller view in a recent speech by Vladimir Putin celebrating the bogus referendums in Ukraine where four provinces “voted”—at the point of a gun—to join Russia. It’s a speech that is worth digesting in detail if you want to understand the ideological blend spreading among conservatives in Europe and the U.S. (You can watch the speech, read the official transcript or check out a translator’s brief summary in a Twitter thread.)
The most striking part of the speech is how it starts out with a rehearsal of old-fashioned leftist propaganda recycled from Putin’s KGB days. In his portrayal, the West is an American empire run on a “neocolonial model” whose “real masters” are engaged in a “system of plundering and racketeering.” Here is Putin in his own words:
The West is ready to cross every line to preserve the neo-colonial system, which allows it to live off the world, to plunder it thanks to the domination of the dollar and technology, to collect an actual tribute from humanity, to extract its primary source of unearned prosperity, the rent paid to the hegemon. The preservation of this annuity is their main, real, and absolutely self-serving motivation. ...
They do not want us to be free; they want us to be a colony. They do not want equal cooperation; they want to loot. They do not want to see us as a free society, but a mass of soulless slaves. ...
It is worth reminding the West that it began its colonial policy back in the Middle Ages, followed by the worldwide slave trade, the genocide of Indian tribes in America, the plunder of India and Africa, the wars of England and France against China. ... While we—we are proud that in the 20th Century our country led the anti-colonial movement, which opened up opportunities for many peoples around the world to make progress, reduce poverty and inequality, and defeat hunger and disease.
One can debate the sins of the West, but as a jaded academic acquaintance of mine joked, this kind of blistering rhetoric could get Vladimir Putin tenure at an American university. Yet after laying down a base of left-wing rhetoric about colonialism, exploitation and racism, the speech takes a lurch toward right-wing nationalist rhetoric:
This is why total de-sovereignization is in their interest. This explains their aggression towards independent states, traditional values, and authentic cultures. ...
[D]o we want to have here, in our country, in Russia, “parent number one, parent number two, and parent number three” (they have completely lost it!) instead of mother and father? Do we want our schools to impose on our children, from their earliest days in school, perversions that lead to degradation and extinction? Do we want to drum into their heads the ideas that certain other genders exist along with women and men and to offer them gender reassignment surgery? Is that what we want for our country and our children? This is all unacceptable to us.
So the same old Soviet anti-capitalism is combined with an appeal to traditional religious values, “authentic” national culture and a dose of gay-bashing. It is interesting to see how seamlessly the rhetorical leftovers of communism can be repurposed to defend fascism.
And it really is fascism. Putin ends the speech by quoting a paean to the “spiritual strength” of Russia by a figure whom he calls “a true patriot”: Ivan Ilyin, an early 20th-century Russian theorist of the “white” pro-Czarist faction. Ilyin was a literal, self-declared fascist who “looked on Mussolini and Hitler as exemplary leaders who were saving Europe by dissolving democracy.”
Echoes of Fascism
This synthesis shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, because that was how fascism was created in the first place. Benito Mussolini started out as an ardent communist and editor of the Socialist Party newspaper. During World War I, he transformed socialist ideology by combining it with nationalism, creating fascism. That’s all that fascism has ever been: the collectivist theory and authoritarian politics of communism, purged of unpopular ideas like abolishing the family and thus made compatible with social conservatism. This allowed the fascists to pose as defenders of tradition while also appealing to all of the envy inherent in anti-capitalist ideologies. Long before Putin took up this line, Mussolini blamed the “pluto-democratic” capitalist countries for denying Italy its “vital space” of nationalistic conquest.
This brings us back to Georgia Meloni, who got her start with the Italian Social Movement, a party formed after World War II by former supporters of Mussolini. It is hardly a surprise that Meloni once praised Mussolini, asserting, “Everything he did, he did for Italy.”
The Italian right has moderated somewhat since the heyday of the Mussolini fanboys, and Meloni seems to have moderated with them. Her policies, to the extent she will be able to shape them as leader of a coalition, appear to be merely socially conservative and not fascist. As for her innermost personal convictions, who can say what any politician really believes?
Yet it is significant that Putin’s speech paralleled Meloni’s almost verbatim on so many particular points spanning their mutual obsession with “Parent 1 and Parent 2” to conspiracy theories about international financiers. And it is significant that her speech galvanized the American right.
Putin ended his speech by sketching out his ambitions for Russia to once again lead a global movement with sympathizers in the West, promising his audience, “We have many like-minded people in Europe and the United States.” And he might be right about that.
Outright collusion between Russia and the European and American right is not necessary. We can already see a common worldview and a shared ideological synthesis of the illiberal left and the illiberal right taking shape.
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.