Review. We are in an interregnum—a category used by Antonio Gramsci—where the old forms are dead and the new ones are still unable to manifest themselves.

In ‘Turbopopulismo,’ a historian and a journalist discuss the crisis of capitalism

A roving intellectual, always inhabiting the borderland between empirical research and political reflection, whose position on the margins is one that allows him to grasp the faults and crisis points of the social system and form of life called capitalism, has teamed up with a journalist who is well aware that the accumulation of his writings and TV broadcasts has made a contribution to defining the story of the present day, one that needs to measure itself up against the long-term phenomena which are the first writer’s object of reflection. 

Marco Revelli and Luca Telese are the protagonists of a dialogue titled Turbopopulismo (“Turbopopulism,” ed. Solferino, 218 pages, €11.90), dedicated to the understanding of the global political, social and cultural phenomenon of populism, interpreted as a manifestation of the crisis of representative democracy and as the reaction of those who have been impoverished and “declassed” by neoliberal globalization.

The book is divided into three parts. The first tells the story of Marco Revelli’s youth and his relationship with his father, Nuto, a career soldier who saw through the hypocrisy and opportunism of the fascists in power and returned to his native Piedmont as an anti-fascist, ready to take up arms against the regime. Nuto was also a researcher and oral historian, who, armed with his Grundig tape recorder, collected the tales of pain and humiliation, the abuses inherent to the project of the annihilation of an entire generation, sent off to die in the Second World War by the Mussolini regime. This first part concludes with Marco Revelli’s own discovery of politics: the year 1968 and his experience as part of the Lotta Continua.

The second part of the book is a descent into the underworld of real-life populism. It showcases the xenophobia, the hatred for democracy, the resentment toward the lowest in society on the part of those occupying the next-to-last rung, who are terrified of being pushed off their perch and hopelessly declassed themselves. 

From Brianza to the Italian South, from the Scottish Midlands to the deindustrialized cities of the American Rust Belt, from the French suburbs to the many exploited regions of the global south—none of the places that symbolize the advent of populism are missing from the analysis. What is most interesting in this part is the reflection on the need to change our conceptual analysis toolbox, which, according to Revelli, must mean the abandonment of the old analytical schemas in order to embrace other cognitive maps.

We must become cartographers, stresses Revelli, in order to give an account of the many earthquakes, including social apocalypses, that have struck capitalism. These are all fibrillations at the margins, a sign of the unprecedented centrality of the peripheries as opposed to what had been identified as the core, the center of economic development and political power. We are given an impressive array of data on the electoral landslides that have allowed “negative elite” leaders like Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, Boris Johnson and Marie Le Pen to take up the position of fulcrums for their respective political systems.

For his part, Luca Telese recounts his experience as a journalist documenting the uprisings in a number of areas on the outskirts of Rome after the announcement of the arrival of migrants, as a result of decisions made by politicians far removed in both time and space. We are given a picture of neighborhoods boiling with rage and resentment toward migrants and the poor. One might describe these protests as the refuge and the place of collection for the “trash” of society, marked by the plain contempt and ill-concealed joy at the death of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean.

However, in this second part, we find a certain excessive deference toward the mainstream narratives surrounding populism. There’s no doubt that the proverbial Andy Capp, the drunkard, male chauvinist and proud supporter of Labour, will have voted for Brexit, but it’s unconvincing to reduce the UK vote to a crystallized polarization between the old working class and the hip millennials seduced by smartphone algorithms. 

The “global city” of London is not a homogeneous reality. There are also the riders, the precarious workers, the metropolitan proletariat of the gig economy, who are being exploited just as much as the many “Andy Capps” all across Scotland who, disillusioned by Labour, nevertheless voted for the SNP, the pro-Scottish-independence party that wants to remain in Europe with a Labour-like electoral program. Unfortunately, the book dismisses this still-unfolding scenario by sacrificing it on the altar of media representation.

The third part of the book concerns the possible forms of resistance to “turbopopulism,” offering alternative responses to impoverishment, the fall in status of the middle class and secure employment and the renewed political centrality of the margins (the peripheries). We are, however, in an interregnum—a category used by Antonio Gramsci—where the old forms are dead and the new ones are still unable to manifest themselves. 

Revelli and Telese offer us a representation of the left as a political conglomerate made up of an affluent middle class, spared by the tsunami of globalization. However, this kind of reading cannot help but have the consolatory feel of a moralistic one. It is more realistic to approach this phenomenon starting from Revelli’s own digression—which he unfortunately cuts short—in which he argues that in order to understand the world of nowadays, it is essential to investigate the arguments of the Marxian movement on the private appropriation of the plus-value produced by labor. Developing this line of thought would have given more “depth” to the criticism of the left and the reasons why it has fueled economic and political neoliberalism.

So, what “resistance” is there nowadays? In the past weeks, the Italian media have been full of analyses on the movement of the “sardines.” Marco Revelli welcomed this eruption of people into the streets as a breath of fresh air, doing his best to change the surreal atmosphere that began surrounding the whole debate when it became obvious that the harshest critics of these demonstrations were coming from the left.

However, populism is a political form that defines rigid and narrow boundaries to the order of political discourse, while at the same time displaying a multifarious capacity for leadership and innovation in society. Therefore, if a movement that was born from a current of ideas, such as that of the “sardines,” truly wants to violate the boundaries of the order of the dominant discourse, it must go against the presupposed affinities dictated by the establishment’s consensus factory. If it succeeds in doing so, the field is wide open. Whether this movement will accomplish this goal remains to be seen: it all depends on those “sardines” who have decided to speak up and be heard.

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