Why do we need Gramsci in order to critically engage with the new right and populist government? Because whoever wants to understand the characters of our (eternal) crisis cannot leave apart his ideas. Like any classic, he maintains his currency over time.
In a “Notebook 6” passage, he wrote precisely about “populism”: it is a way to neutralize the masses’ call for participation. Indeed, when the masses ask for rights and power, the ruling classes “react with a tendency ‘towards the people.’” The “bourgeois thought,” Gramsci adds, “does not want to lose its hegemony over the popular classes and, to better exercise this hegemony, welcomes a part of the proletarian ideology.”
The key word is “hegemony.” In brief, populism is the right-wing politics that disguises itself as left in order to preserve economic, political and cultural power. It accepts “part” of the demands of the left: work, taxes, security questions, corporate identities, which can deteriorate towards the “popular nationalism.” In a 1930 note, Gramsci had investigated the phenomenon from the other direction: not from the power to the people, but considering the people’s repulsion to the power. People who feel “aversion to bureaucracy” or “hate the official”—today we might call it “antipolitics”—but who cannot propose an autonomous strategy of alternative. It is, Gramsci notes acutely, “a generic hate of the ‘semi-feudal’ type, not modern, and cannot be carried as a class consciousness manifestation.”
There are two principles. Populism is an immature, regressive politics; and “leftist populism” is not possible (a not obvious statement, since some scholars tried to propose a progressive version of populism, like Laclau or Mélenchon). Instead, what we need is a modern criticism of the existing order: only politics can truly allow this criticism. Against populism and antipolitics it is necessary not to run in the spirit of the times, not to place oneself on the defensive with respect to the hegemonic plan of the adversary.
Indeed, the Italian left, already in Gramsci’s eyes, was suffering from a political defect, of “poor party efficiency.” The eternal transformation of national politics. This structural weakness of the right-wing government and the alternative left is the profound and exhaustive reason of the historical fragility of Italian democracy. Moreover, with regard to the public sphere, in Italy there has never existed a “dominion of the law,” but only a policy of arbitrators and cliques.
In this way we can conceive the birth of the Giuseppe Conte’s government. Gaetano Azzariti spoke of a “completely private management of the crisis,” with “the government program transformed into a contract between two gentlemen signed in front of a notary, whose obligations are fulfilled by their trustee.” Populism and “privatism” can well go hand in hand.
The alternative to all this must be clear: return to politics, to the “dominion of the law,” of the general interest. The antidote to the “antipolitics” can only be politics again. Fighting populism is possible only by claiming the nobility of politics. Also risking the unpopularity of anti-populism (all the more so since the extraordinary result of the referendum of December 2016 proves that in topical moments the Italian people show discernment and political intelligence).
Gramsci also recalls that the phenomenon of “antipolitics” is explained by the fact that the parties in Italy “were all born on the electoral ground,” the result of “a set of electoral maneuvers,” without vision, without strategy, without the sense of politics.
Therefore, these are the priorities of the possible and necessary alternative to populism: the organization of the masses and the people, a cultural and political autonomy, and the creation of a left party able to realize the diktat of the Article 49 of the Constitution: “To compete with the democratic method in determining national politics.”