With Italy's Right In Power, A Hard Shift In The Political Lexicon
Redemption, homeland, people, and above all nation: Giorgia Meloni uses these terms to express the idea of a power projected into the future, part of a precise political strategy.
ROME — Sometimes the most striking words are the ones that are missing.
In a speech given by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the start of her mandate, for example, the word "femicide" is missing. The word "violence" appears, but only a few times, to denounce political violence. Others words are hoisted as flags by the radical right, now in power in Italy — like “nation,” a beloved word.
“If we are called to govern this nation, we will do it for everyone,” Meloni said after winning the election and becoming the country's first-ever female prime minister. "Nation,” in this sense, recurs about 15 times in her first speech. “Motherland,” on the other hand, comes up just once, in a strongly rhetorical passage addressed to law enforcement officials. The word “state” is mostly used to refer to the organization of the bureaucracy and its relationship with citizens, or in relation to the issue of security.
In Italian, the word “nation” means a collection of people who share common historical traditions, language, culture and origin, and who feel they belong to a community. The word does not necessarily imply that this community is organized into a political structure.
Instead, implicit in the idea of “homeland” (patria) is the bond between a people and the place where they live, as well as a sentimental bond with those who came before them.
Lately, in the vocabulary of the political right, “nation” (nazione) seems to have overtaken “homeland.” Perhaps this is because “nation” denotes a uniform cultural system that finds its boundary more in the identity of a community than in the land on which that community dwells, and lends itself better as a garrison of identity. Or maybe “homeland” has partly exhausted its symbolic function of connecting past and present.
Now in power, the Italian right finds in “nation” a term that expresses a will to power projected into the future, mitigated in part by its choice to use the word “patriots” instead of the more disturbing “nationalists.” Giorgia Meloni’s use of “patriot” is actually not recent, but this “now turns out to be one of the emblematic words of Brothers of Italy, and of its leader,” explains Michele Cortelazzo in the magazine Treccani. “The recovery of this word is but a piece of a more general trend of the recovery of notions rejected (or simply not made their own) by other parties, in order to try to constitute a lexical heritage capable of uniquely characterizing the party,” he writes. In short, word choice is part of a political strategy.
Words are necessary to build a cultural hegemony, which in turn serves to affirm an ideology and thus to realize a political project. Even the decision to change the name of some ministries — for example, establishing that the one for education will also be the one for merit — is a way of using words to intervene in our reality, to send a message and begin to change it.
Insisting on identity issues can help to maintain the consensus of the electorate, which is instead likely to be unhappy with choices on major economic issues, which may not be too different than those taken by the previous government. Thus, even the name of a ministry can turn into a political manifesto.
The vocabulary of the right often manifests itself in harsh, even angry, tones.
There are, moreover, many words used by the right in this way. Among them is also “deviances.” Meloni used it during the election campaign, wanting to affirm the role of sports against “youth deviance,” echoing the words of Benito Mussolini. However, in a Twitter post, Meloni's Brothers of Italy party described deviances as drugs, alcoholism, smoking, gambling, self-harm, obesity, anorexia, bullying, juvenile crime and social withdrawal. A lively controversy ensued because of the incongruity of that list, and the inclusion of issues like obesity and anorexia. Meloni made some unconvincing efforts to explain her position before returning to framing the issue as only about drugs, alcoholism and crime.
The choice of words and the use of them are political acts. And the leader of Brothers of Italy often uses very direct language even when writing. This is the case with many statements in her political manifesto, Io sono Giorgia (I am Giorgia, Rizzoli 2021), such as this one: “When the Left smooths your hair and compliments you on your ‘presentable’ positions, it means you are doing something wrong. That’s the reason why I make a point of not pleasing those people. Their hostility is like a North Star for me, confirming that the course is the right one.”
It is a way of expressing oneself that, when used by power, takes on a disturbing connotation. On the other hand, the vocabulary of the right often manifests itself in harsh and recriminatory — even angry — tones that serve to dress up a politically conservative or even reactionary horizon, as it tends toward the restoration of a kind of order believed to be outdated. This is again suggested by language and certain terms dredged up from the past, like “deviances.”
That vocabulary also suggests that individual frailties, poverty, migration, minorities and every social issue are measured by the right with the yardstick of law and order, and that the solution can only be a question of security. Thus, the idea of justice seems to be present only in the certainty of punishment, or the construction of new prisons. So it was not surprising when Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said in Nov. 2022, referring to migrants rescued in the Mediterranean by an NGO search-and-rescue ship, as “residual cargo.” Nor is it surprising that the first act of this government consisted of a decree-law to ban so-called rave parties, which can also be applied to political demonstrations and could be restricted at the discretion of the authorities.
The meaning that all these words — and some like “patriot,” perhaps more than others — have for the right is made even more precise when one considers how they are all connected through another word: “redemption.”
Meloni used it, for example, in her speech on the evening of Sept. 25, after the announcement of her election victory: “For so many people, this is definitely a night of redemption.” She also used it in her last television appearance before the election campaign closed, an interview on Tg2 by then-editor Gennaro Sangiuliano, who became her Minister of Culture a few days later.
Her victory, she said in that interview, would be “a redemption for a lot of people in this nation who have had to put their heads down for decades.” Confirming that the identity of this word is the contextual remembrance of what, in her speech to the chamber, Meloni called “innocent boys” who “in the name of militant anti-fascism” were being “killed with wrenches.”
Migrants seen covering themselves with blankets on their arrival at the port in Roccella Jonica, Italy.
Reckoning with the past
The vocabulary of Brothers of Italy suggests that a self-perception still persists in that party that is indebted to the 1970s and 1980s, which were years of strong political conflict in Italy, when the radical right was kept on the sidelines. It is, however, a sentiment that evidently survives out of time, given that the right is now in power. If the Brothers of Italy’s vocabulary is still so heavily indebted to the 1970s, the feeling is that the seizure of power came without a full reckoning with the past in that party.
Fascism is a word missing from Meloni's vocabulary.
Brothers of Italy’s opponents in the election campaign tried to exploit this weakness, but completely missed the mark, accusing Meloni of cultivating a connection with historical fascism. Meloni, on the other hand, does not claim fascism at all, as she finds an ideal reference primarily in the postwar radical right. And, indeed, “fascism” is in a sense a word missing from her vocabulary, although there are still many ambiguities on the subject. Indeed, her condemnation of the regime and fascist culture in general is never explicit, even in her use of words.
Speaking in the chamber on Oct. 25, she said that she had “never felt sympathy or closeness towards undemocratic regimes; for any regime, including fascism.” She states in her autobiography that she “has no cult of fascism,” — a rather convoluted way to distance herself from it, considering that she has no problem attacking anti-fascism.
In her speech for parliamentary confidence, for example, any reference to the anti-fascist Resistance, from which, moreover, the Italian republic was born, was missing, although she made several references to the Risorgimento, the 19th-century movement that resulted in the political unification of Itay.
Sovereignty belongs only to the people.
In the imagination of the right, this movement seems destined to be seen as a founding moment of the feeling of national unity, together with the trenches of World War I. “There, where the blood of the Italians mixed to become one indissoluble,” Meloni wrote in her book. Moreover, in those same pages she links these two historical moments to the battle of El Alamein, glorifying Italian soldiers who fought against the British in Africa under the command of their Nazi ally, confirming her ambiguities about fascism.
This casual relationship with history plays a precise function in the political design of Brothers of Italy. To understand it, it may be useful to start with another word that is always very present in the vocabulary of the right: “people,” or populace (popolo). In her Oct. 25 speech to the Chamber, Meloni thanked the voters who had gone to the polls “allowing the full realization of the democratic path, which wants in the people, and only in the people, the holder of sovereignty.”
But this is not the case. Indeed, Article 1 of the constitution adds that the people exercise sovereignty “within the forms and limits” of the Constitution itself, which are those of a parliamentary democracy, in which parliament has a technical function, that of making laws, but also plays a political role. The latter finds its most significant moment in the granting of trust to the government. Omitting this step, and claiming that sovereignty belongs only to the people, allows the basis for the construction of a direct relationship between leader and a populace to be laid, and for parliament to be excluded.
In this idea lies one of the most characteristic cultural traits of the modern Italian populism, established with the 5-Star Movement and Matteo Salvini's League. But it is with the appearance of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on the political scene in the 1990s that this process began. For Berlusconi, in fact, the establishment of a direct relationship with the people served primarily to claim for himself the votes of the entire center-right coalition, and thus reaffirm his leadership. For Meloni, on the other hand, it is the theoretical premise for transforming Italy into a presidential republic, like France.
Protesters at a rave party they organized in Palermo, Sicily, Italy, on April 22nd 2023.
A different vocabulary
This is a strongly identity-based issue. It is no coincidence that “presidentialism” is another central word in the vocabulary of the right. And it is precisely here that this side’s attempt to defuse the values that underlie the Italian Republic, such as anti-fascism, could play a decisive role. In fact, rather than the defense of historical fascism, Meloni’s intention seems to be to dismantle and remove anti-fascism. “Neutralized in its culture of reference,” Ezio Mauro writes in Italian daily LaRepubblica, “the Constitution will be changed through the Trojan horse of presidentialism, a perfect tool for populist preaching.” The goal of the right, Mauro added, “is a change of the system.” The model could be illiberal or neo-authoritarian democracies, such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.
All these words — redemption, homeland, people, presidentialism and nation — form, in short, an ideology that has as its horizon the transformation of parliamentary democracy.
The reappearance of a system of ideas put at the service of a political objective constitutes no small novelty, after a thirty-year period in which all parties have dispensed with ideas, replacing them with communication. But, as mentioned, this vocabulary also serves to assert a cultural hegemony. And of the emerging cultural hegemony of this radical right, even intellectuals close to the center-left seem to be victims. Just think of writer Emanuele Trevi who, intervening in the debate opened by La Repubblica with a series of articles on ideas to reform the left, said he dreams of “a left-wing Giorgia Meloni.” Or to psychoanalyst Massimo Recalcati who, in that same forum, started from the triad “God, Motherland and Family,” — a cornerstone of reactionary culture dredged up from the past by Meloni herself and also claimed in the election campaign.
Yet, in Meloni’s words, as philosopher Giorgia Serughetti noted in the newspaper Domani, patriots are “not only those who care about the fate of the nation and defend its borders, but also the champions of religious, community and family values.”
As the right understands it, the triad “God, Motherland and Family” nurtures the culture of the nation, and is a wall that excludes others.
If the left continues to lack words, it would be better to look elsewhere, instead of looking to borrow from the vocabulary of the right. A good starting point remains the Italian Constitution. Article 3 provides that “all citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions.”
All in all, nothing more is needed.
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