Light wind from the north
Alan Harding sees the rise of Italy's Northern League as a symptom rather
than a cause of the national crisis
In the mid-1970s Italians would say that, in Britain, 'the crisis is serious
but not grave; in Italy, it is grave but not serious'. There was no point
in worrying about Italy. It was a casino, it was corrupt. But nearly everyone
got something out of it, so shrug your shoulders and get on with life.
Postwar Italian society has been a baroque tapestry of 'you scratch my back'
contingencies and arrangements. Through an elaborate network of contacts
and favours the ruling elite on the Capitiline Hill in Rome has negotiated
its authority through intermediaries reaching down to the smallest village,
be they a communist mayor in Tuscany or a mafia don in Sicily.
Times have changed. The crisis is now serious and grave. The lighter edge
to the cynicism and the willingness to accept a corrupt regime has been
replaced by bitterness and scorn towards the political elite and all its
All of the traditional parties are in terminal decline. In particular, the
end of Cold War politics has pulled the rug from under both of the major
players: the Communist Party and its counterwieght, the Christian Democrats.
The main beneficiary so far has been the Northern League led by Umberto Bossi.
It stands for the dismemberment of the Italian state.
The politics of the Northern League represent the little man's cry of frustrated
rage against authority, and his attempt to lash out at a scapegoat. This
is well put by Bossi in his autobiography, The Wind from the North, when
he recalls the seminal influence of his father's motto: in Veronese dialect,
'Va a lega i padrun, va a lega i terun!' - fuck off bosses, fuck off
The Northern League has won 80 seats in the national legislature, a vote
of 34 per cent in recent elections in the rich northern city of Mantua,
and a predicted 27 per cent vote in any city north of Florence. These impressive
numbers might make it look as if an autonomous Lombardy is as good as set
up. Yet the wind from the north may die as quickly as it blew up.
The League represents nothing in the way of an alternative to the political
establishment. It is simply in the right place at the right time to exploit
the sense of betrayal which Italians feel today. It is the passive beneficiary
of an anti-authority mood in society, rather than the driving force of a
After a recent League fundraising festival one of the organisers, a northern
businessman, decided to introduce the tokens which they had used to buy
food and drink into ordinary daily transactions. Many people appeared to
prefer the new currency to official lira, and the monopoly money was used
to buy shopping in supermarkets and tickets for train journeys.
This startling example of the farcical state of the Italian polity demonstrates,
not the credibility of the Northern League and its toy currency, but the
popular contempt for any national institution today, be it the lira or the
legal system. The same relationship can be observed in Bossi's 'economic
policy'. It is very simple: don't pay taxes to the thieves in Rome and take
your money out of national bonds. That is hardly a sophisticated prescription
for ending the recession, but it has struck a chord with many middle class
Italians. They have been great savers, and national bonds are a vital measure
to fund the state debt, which now exceeds annual GDP. Today many Italians
feel that the most secure place for their assets is under the mattress.
Bossi offers no positive political vision. But people back him because they
hate what already exists. Although many workers now give Bossi their vote,
the dominant sentiment in the League's constituency is the resentment felt
by the small businessman who sees his world collapsing and wants to protect
his petty interests.
1176 and all that
The League's lack of political substance is reflected in the laughable attempt
to invent a Lombard or Northern national identity. The symbol of Bossi's
original Lombard League is an armoured warrior with a raised sword. It is
Alberto da Guissano who, in 1176, led a league of northern cities to victory
in the Battle of Legnano. Not as it happens over southerners, but against
the German Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. Northerners might back
Bossi because they want to preserve their standard of living alongside the
likes of Frankfurt and Lyons rather than sink to the level of Calabria and
Palermo. But they have no 'ethnic' allegiance to an invented link with a
twelfth-century feudal warlord.
Such is the authentic national spirit and passion which the Lombard League
embodies that, within months of taking seats on the Milan city council,
its group split into four. Individuals who had been purged and humiliated
by Bossi tried to feather their own nests in the comfortable environment
of pork barrel politics.
At the recent Mantua elections a new League splinter appeared. This new
separatist movement was led by Bossi's sister Angela and her husband. It
polled seven per cent of the vote. Yet its political differences are not
yet clear to the interested observer. Angela thinks that Umberto is not
serious about autonomy. Umberto thinks his relatives are 'bags of shit'.
Although the Northern League represents little of substance, their sudden
rise is a sign of how frustration at the old order can develop a dangerously
chauvinist edge. Racism and chauvinism play an increasingly central part
in mainstream Italian culture. The government has dumped its relatively
liberal immigration policies and launched a crackdown on refugees. Intellectuals
like Norberto Bobbio blame the southern temperament for the backwardness
and violence of Sicilian life. Umberto Eco worries about the contamination
of the Italian gene pool. For the moment, the Northern League has successfully
tapped into this chauvinist climate. But the cause of the problem goes much
deeper than Bossi's rantings.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993