LM Archives
  7:49 PM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

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 The lighter edge to the cynicism and the willingness to accept a corrupt regime has been replaced by bitterness and scorn towards the political elite and all its institutions.

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.

Frustrated rage

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 southerners.

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 social movement.

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.

Chauvinist edge

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

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk