Interview. The left must reassess its strategy. ‘While we were laying down our arms, the right was gaining ground with an ideological and brutally twentieth-century message, such as nationalism and even ethnocentrism.’

An interview with Massimo D’Alema: ‘Draghism’ is an anti-democratic force

Massimo D’Alema welcomes us in his office at the Italianieuropei Foundation, with two large windows overlooking the rooftops of Rome and heirlooms and memories of a lifetime lining the bookshelves. He mentions a future mission to the Arctic “to try to demilitarize the North Pole. It’s a subject I’m very passionate about.”

He goes to a shelf and pulls out a large volume bound in black leather: “This is the first issue of the magazine. It was 2001, we were discussing with Giuliano Amato and others how the left could change neoliberal globalization: the fundamental idea was that European integration could build a political-institutional subjectivity that would be able to dominate the processes of globalization. This didn’t happen: the European construction took on an ordoliberal twist.”

“Now,” he continues, starting to carefully take apart one of his famous origami, “we are living the end of the long neoliberal cycle.”

Has it really arrived at an end?

That process was shaken by the crisis of 2008, but not undermined. The pandemic is acting on a deeper level, it touches the anthropological dimension. It is no coincidence that a hierarchy of fundamental values is being proposed once again: the distinction between right and left throughout the world is between those who adopt the principle of caution and make the protection of health the cornerstone of public policy, and those who instead defend the logic of profit while putting life at risk. Like Bolsonaro and Trump, so also in Italy. And we are confronted with regressive risks: one could also exit neoliberal globalization via a return to nationalism and power politics, with the risks of a new Cold War.

Is there a real possibility of a leftward exit from the pandemic?

The international picture is uncertain, but open. The American Democrats and the German Social Democrats are in government. There is an attempt at a neo-Keynesian revival: the recovery is marked by the prominence of public policies to an extent we have not seen in over 30 years. Biden’s plan, which in part has run aground, had Rooseveltian dimensions, both in terms of public works and social policies. The EU has come out of the logic of austerity, even if some are pushing to go back to it. Next Generation EU is not only an expansive plan, but also a program aimed at ensuring ecological reconversion and the reduction of social inequalities. So there is potential there. Today we mourn David Sassoli, a friend who has made a very important contribution to the European turn and who leaves behind a void that will not be easy to fill.

Going back to the U.S., however, there is a crisis in the Biden administration.

The truth is that a New Deal cannot hold against a revival of the Cold War: this is the greatest contradiction in American politics. The Western ruling class finds itself in the position of managing a historical phase of downsizing, which is different from decline, but is an objective fact nonetheless. In a world in which fault lines and risks of war are coming back, it’s easier for the right wing to win again. The problem is how to hold together the inevitable competition and the necessary collaboration with China; and Europe is paying an even higher price in this positioning against Russia and China.

It’s a crisis of democracy that weighs particularly heavily in Italy.

We are the only democratic country where the post-1989 transition has led to the destruction of all the parties that had built and given life to the Republic. We have not succeeded in building new political parties and renewing the institutions in the name of the principles and values that infuse the first part of the Constitution. In this crisis, a role has been played by the bourgeoisie of our country, which, among its economic elites, has always had a profound distrust of the democratic system.

And now we have arrived at yet another technocratic government.

Draghi has been called upon to deal with an emergency. He is certainly doing so with authority and competence. But what I find really striking is “Draghism,” namely that a state of exception is being put forward as a new democratic model. In the big newspapers, I have read disturbing things that gave me pause, such as: “at last we have a premier about whom we don’t know who he’s voting for, so he cannot lose the local elections.” I would like you to show me a democratic country in the world where you don’t know who the head of government is voting for.

Another disturbing sentence: “We must ensure that Draghi remains in the Chigi Palace regardless of what the result of the next elections will be.” If this is the message, how can you ask people to go out and vote? And again: the idea that he could govern from the office of the presidency by naming someone he trusts as prime minister. It’s an outbreak of anti-politics, elitism and anti-democratic spirit. The climax was reached when they wrote that the problem isn’t what Parliament thinks, but what Goldman Sachs would like regarding the future position of President Draghi. This is humiliating for our country. But even more, these speculations are foolish, because they fuel messianic expectations that are inevitably destined to be disappointed, generating indifference and distrust.

Is the premier a victim or beneficiary of this mechanism?

I think this wave that has come up is hurting him.

However, he’s putting his own spin on it when he says that the government has finished its task and he is ready to take up the role of a “grandfather in the service of the institutions.”

Unfortunately, the resurgence of the pandemic is prolonging the emergency. And the launch of the NRP is still to be accomplished, although all the necessary steps have been taken so far.

What is your opinion of the Draghi government?

The Prime Minister is playing his international role effectively, using his strong credibility in Brussels and with the United States. On the domestic side, he’s doing what he can with a contradictory and inevitably divided majority, looking for possible compromises. He’s doing politics, wrestling with a reality where there are no superpowers capable of producing miraculous solutions.

What path do you see regarding the presidency?

An understanding between the political forces is needed more than ever before, otherwise we risk chaos. In the past, the center-left had the majority of electors, but it never abused it and put forward figures that didn’t divide the country, such as Ciampi, Napolitano and Mattarella. Today, no one has the strength to govern the process. It would be important for political forces to commit themselves to putting forward female candidates. After 70 years, and in a phase of deep crisis of the democratic system, it would be an important signal.

According to the Corriere della Sera, your own preference would be for Letizia Moratti.

I am not in a position to have preferences. If I did, it would be for a woman from the center-left.

Draghi’s candidacy remains the strongest out of the gate.

If the parties believe that the only personality for whom broad agreement can be found is Draghi, this nonetheless requires an agreement for the government. In this confusion-filled scenario, I see only one clear plan, that of Giorgia Meloni’s right wing: to elect the Prime Minister as president, regardless of Berlusconi’s mad attempt to take the election by storm. This would be the price to pay for legitimacy in the eyes of the international establishment, and then they’d immediately go for general elections under the current electoral law. This, at least, is a political agenda—one I consider harmful. Otherwise, the rest of the scenario seems full of confusion to me.

Let’s go back to the hypothetical government that would last until the end of the legislature.

What is needed is not just a name, but a majority and an idea on how to get to 2023. In my opinion, this project should have a twofold content: the first is social, given that the economic recovery is taking place under the banner of further job insecurity, which has been rightly denounced by Landini. The pandemic has made inequality more serious, and a new pact on labor protection is needed.

Has the government failed to act adequately this past year?

The social theme did not seem to be at the top of the agenda, and this is the understandable reason for the strike by CGIL and UIL. Even though the whole world has gone up in arms against them.

You weren’t surprised by the general strike?

There was no reason for surprise. Only those who are uninterested in the living conditions of workers can be surprised. The data supports the unions’ case.

Was the PD wrong to be surprised? Or was it so because it considered the budget law to be a balanced one?

The PD and the left should leverage union discontent to influence the government agenda. It seems to me that Minister Andrea Orlando has begun to raise important issues, and certainly this area seems to me to be of fundamental importance for the final period of the legislature.

What is the second part of this hypothetical government program until 2023?

The things that need to be done to start up the NRP, the selection of projects, the allocation of funds—otherwise we risk that some of that money will not be spent. We must add to this the reform of the electoral law.

In a proportional representation direction?

Yes, on the German model. Today, unlike in the ‘90s, the problem is not encouraging alternation in power, but rebuilding representation and political mediation, at least if we want to remain a parliamentary democracy. It would be wise to make such a reform, introducing the principle of constructive no-confidence as well.

Are the conditions in place for such an ambitious program?

The conditions are made by people. I’ll reiterate: the right wants Draghi for president and then a general election.

What about the center-left?

It’s not clear, I can’t figure it out.

The Five Stars are historically for the proportional system.

This seems like a wise idea to me.

What majority would be adequate for such an end-of-term government? Can it be done without the Lega and Forza Italia?

I don’t see the possibility of a narrow majority. And it seems difficult to maintain a large majority without Draghi. It’s not an easy task to get to 2023 if the premier is elected to the presidency.

Your announcement that you want to return to the PD made a big splash.

I did not announce “my return.” I said that I am in favor of a united reconstruction of a progressive force. I am sorry that I created embarrassment, that my words were taken as rude, but I sincerely believed that this was an exchange of good wishes among friends, not a public performance. On Italianieuropei I wrote that “its clear break with a recent past which was not exactly brilliant has given the PD a greater credibility on the political and ethical level once again.” Obviously, some didn’t read this, or nobody did, but many of us are thinking that. And it shouldn’t be taken as an insult by the current leaders of the PD.

Is returning an admission of defeat for you?

There is no doubt that in leaving the PD, we were not able to build a robust left-wing force: yes, it is a defeat. Not that there can’t be a force to the left of the PD: I see that there is an agreement between Sinistra Italiana and the Greens, I believe there is space for a radical and environmentalist left. And I think it’s useful. That’s why I wish them well. But that’s not my job.


We are a piece of the reformist and government left, and I believe all the conditions are present for Speranza and the other comrades to participate in the reconstruction of a left-wing force. As for me, I have already made it clear many times that I don’t aspire to new political roles.

Was the split-off a mistake?

There is a need for serious reflection on our part. But the PD must also realize what isn’t working on a deep level: it is the offspring of an optimistic vision of globalization, and its shape as a party is the result of that system: a “light” party that surfs on the wave of society, open, non-ideological, post-twentieth century. All these lighthearted expressions are now completely out of place: while we were laying down our arms, the right was gaining ground with an ideological and brutally twentieth-century message, such as nationalism and even ethnocentrism. In the face of the need for protection, we instead offered citizens levity.

A much deeper issue than the “Renzi disease” you’ve denounced.

Let’s leave Renzi out of it. The point is what foundation to give to the process of rebuilding a progressive force. The shape of the party also derives from this. I hope that the “Agoras” will also discuss this if we want to re-root the left among the people. Otherwise, we’ll remain the party of the privileged part of society, the acculturated urban classes, who do not need protection. The point is to create a bridge between this and the most fragile part of society: the only force that straddles the two is labor unions, but it’s the only one left. A major battle against job insecurity would be a crucial first bridge to build. Without a message of social redemption, without inspiring hope, the left is not going anywhere. There is also a physical relationship to rebuild: the party as an organized form.

Do you think that the PD is capable of doing all this, even purged of Renzism?

Politics is based on the presupposition that one is capable, otherwise one should do something else with their time. The politician has to say yes, let’s go ahead, despite everything. Of course, we need leadership teams that would ask themselves this question.

The PD didn’t take kindly to the announcement of your return.

And to think that I positioned myself in a friendly manner, and had a positive opinion on the direction of the PD. If I had said the things Zingaretti said when he resigned, who knows how they would have reacted. But when he said them, they acted like nothing had happened.

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