ITALY IN THE WORLD TODAY. Massimo Cacciari is a celebrated Italian philosopher, academic, and politician. He was mayor of Venice from 1993 to 2000, and again from 2005 to 2010. An expert in forms of contemporary political power and the configurations of the crises of our time, Cacciari has given lectures, courses and conferences at numerous universities and European institutions.

Where does the left wing stand in Italy today?

It’s in a delicate moment, because if they are not going to be able to give life to a whole different party with ideas that are neither a rehash of Neoliberalism in the Renzi style nor a rehash of old social democratic ideologies, if they cannot pull a new rabbit out of the hat, it is clear that they can’t resist against new populisms, sovranisms and nationalisms which are the by product on one side of the great crisis we are going through, and on the other side of the global disorder we are in and the rise of new movements. Today we have the Five Star Movement, the Gilets Jaunes, the Podemos etc., but it’s clear that such protest movements will continue to sprout out. They may have ideas that are more or less acceptable, but they don’t have a structure. They will continue to be on the agenda, even if they don’t have a form. And it will be impossible to have an organised left wing movement with a political strategy, with its own organisation, with its territorial rootedness, as it will find itself squashed between hammer and anvil.

What should the left wing do?

It will now depend on Nicola Zingaretti’s ability. Let’s see if he’ll have the strength and the ability to make a new start for the Democratic Party, which of course cannot have anything to do with the previous regime. But we still have to see if he can make it, if he’s able to do it.

Is everything that happens in Italy part of a post-Berlusconi era?

Well, certainly, partly it is. Post and also following the Berlusconi era, as there are no doubts that there are elements of continuity between the present Berlusconism, veteranism (reducismo) and populism. It is clear, isn’t it? From many angles, and most of all from the point of view of the political language, there is a strong continuity between Berlusconism, veteranism and Salvinism. It’s clearly a cultural heritage they have in common. Then of course there are enormous differences: Berlusconi is also the result of a ‘neo-liberist’ period that is out of date in all countries now. Salvini is a representative of the sheer right wing: nationalist, sovranist, with a very strong xenophobic trait, therefore with the characteristics of a traditional right wing. There are huge differences, but we must see the big signs of continuity. So unfortunately we are still within that phase. We could say, as a joke: Berlusconi is not at all dead.

“Fascism was a great tragedy. Here we are more or less at the level of farce.”

Massimo Cacciari founded the Department of Philosophy at the University of Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milan. He has founded several philosophical reviews and published essays centered on authors like Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Do you think we are heading towards fascism?

Good heavens, no. Fascism was a great tragedy. Here we are more or less at the level of farce. No, no, it’s not fascism…..Fascism has been, in all its tragedy, majestic. 

Majestic in relation to now?

Yes. These people are not able to make major disasters or tragedies. In order to make disasters you need to have great power, and a minimum of some cultural and historical roots, which may be more or less artificial and affected, but you need to have them. To make big disasters you also need to have great myths. These are poor little fellows, and they will lead us to a catastrophe of their own, their blatant incapacity to lead the country and to face any discussion, to have poor Italy as a protagonist on the international scene. It’s all based on the defence: let us be masters in our own house, let us protect the domestic hearth.

Isn’t that rather like Petain’s France during the Second World War?

Yes, exactly, it is similar. But also exactly like that, Petain’s France would not have made any disasters. They needed Hitler to do that.  Petain’s France is not relevant, and fascism is an important word and an important category that you cannot use at random. It’s the same thing with the definition of racism. You cannot use them at random. We are paying these people a favour if we use these words to define them.

There is no racism?

Indeed, there is no racism. There is the eternal fear of the petit bourgeois. There is the eternal fear of egoistic individualism facing every novelty. There is the eternal fear of the weak organism, weak in changing the situations it cannot face, and whose politics, instead of teaching and educating how to tackle environmental challenges, insists on reassuring by locking yourself in. It is the eternal petit bourgeois.

But do we not have racism again? You were talking for example about the Gilets Jaunes, and they desecrate graves.

I’m sure that it is more effective to criticise them for what they are, without emphasising some of their traits and taking them to extremes, because by doing so you “dignify” them, in inverted commas. Do you understand? You make it simple for them to say: “No, we are not such and such.” Theirs is a form of fear of others. It’s about xenophobia in the literal meaning, “fear of the foreign one”. Not necessarily racism; fear of the foreigner. In fact nationalism is characterised by fear of the foreigner of your same race.

In Alsace they desecrate Jews’ graves.

Yes, but these phenomena don’t define the political movement as it is.

What about Europe?

There is no danger of fascism in Europe. The danger is that Europe disintegrates itself and we go back to the small sovranities of small countries that are going to be totally impotent on the international scene.

Do you think there is a real danger that Europe will disintegrate itself?

Yes, or that it will remain only as a space for business, maybe even with a common currency, but without any politics of development, without any politics of solidarity, with countries fiercely fighting each other economically, using any kind of weapon, any means to survive.  Then, at this point, we have no right, no centre, no left; only survival.

“European political union is necessary or we’ll go back to being little countries governed by people like Salvini.”

What about Brexit?

The English are realising that if they were to go back and vote again they would vote to stay in Europe, because they have understood that the social rights they have acquired also go down the drain outside of this context.
We have not had a war in Europe in 70 years. Is that not a real achievement?

Yes, but beyond the fact that we don’t make war, it’s also evident that Europe is the only context, the only space within which you can really pursue policies of development, policies for employment, for education, social policies etc. It’s mathematic; this is not just an idea.

Who are the people who voted for Brexit, for Salvini or Luigi Di Maio?

They were upset with the Europe as it has worked up to now. From this point of view they are right. In fact it would be dangerous to send generical vague pro-Europeans to stand in the elections against Salvini or his like. True pro-Europeans must participate in this debate, explaining what and how they want to modify the institutional framework. They have to go with a programme of reformation for Europe.

What kind of country is Italy in the European and worldwide context?

Italy is a country that has always been unsure, very unsure, about its identity. Italy is an idea, not a nation. Italy was formed by putting together, badly, very different realities, cultures that differ greatly from each other. From the start its best organisation would have been a federal one, not the centralised one of the House of Savoy. That has actually been one of the causes of the crisis that followed. Having said that, Italy has been in a good period, let’s say from after World War II until the murder of Aldo Moro in 1978. The fateful, decisive date is the end of that brave experiment on a European and international scale, but in that good period Italy carried out an active and sensible function of international politics.  Objectively it tried, during all the crises of that period, to carry out what is really its function, or even its mission: of being a bridge, of being a mediator between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic worlds, and between Continental Europe and great mother Russia.

Are you describing the Christian Democratic Europe of Andreotti?

Yes, but also the Social Democratic Europe of Brandt. Didn’t Brandt do the same? They were both the big social democracies and the Christian Democratic centre, in different terms in relation to different subjects. They carried out this function during the good thirty years after World War II.

And now we have Trump’s era in America?

Europe is more and more in crisis since Trump has been in politics. What does that tell us? That Europe cannot be Atlantic anymore. There was a period of growth of the EU, because there was a favoured position on the part of the USA, the great ally. Now we have to do it on our own, and we want the union. We understand that European political union is necessary, and we have to make it. If we don’t understand this then we’ll go back to being little countries governed by people like Salvini.

“Now I do see the possibility that traditional political forces and cultures will start to find a different path.”

Is Putin the real winner here?

Well, yes. If the forces that are liberal by tradition don’t find a way to make a good compromise between themselves and don’t come up with real programs as alternative to the sovranist ones, it will end up that people like Salvini will win. It’s logical, there is no doubt about that. And now we also have the technological revolution, a technological leap that also affects social structure. It’s an extraordinary leap that generates, by its own nature, growing inequalities. That’s not its fault; it’s in its nature, being a technical process that is purely economic, technological and scientific. But if it is not managed politically it is certain that it will create social disasters. Not only social disasters: it can create the conditions for a new worldwide conflict.

Do you see the possibility of a world war?

Yes, of course. Someone who applies his mind to politics must always take into account the possibility of a war.

But what war? ……Between whom?……Against whom?

We will have to see how Chinese power evolves, how it relates with the American policies. And Russia is an empire that, like all empires, tends to expand itself. It is evident that Russia tends towards regaining the imperial position that it had after World War II. These are all causes of great tension. Then add the medi-oriental world and the eternal issue of Jerusalem and see if it cannot all blow up from one minute to the next.

You now teach at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. What do young people think? What do your students want?

Young people are sick and tired of the politics they have come to know so far. They don’t trust the present political leadership. They have a hard time getting practically engaged in politics, as they can’t find where to position themselves. There is a large sector of young people who are interested in understanding, and who feel the need for a wide political and economic space so that they can have a role in the contemporary world. I hope that at the European elections these youths can somehow express themselves. It is difficult for them. When you talk to them they say: “What shall we do? Where can we go? We lack the organised political backup.” On the other hand it’s clear that it would be like that, after 40 years in which everyone, including the press, has been throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

How do you see the future?

We are in a political crisis, a crisis regarding traditional political parties, traditional political forces, and that’s a European crisis. Nevertheless I think that there is the chance, after the Brexit experience, after the failure of the Five Star Movement experiment, after their evident inability to govern, for the European elections not to have catastrophic results. I see the possibility that traditional political forces, traditional political cultures, will start to find a different path, other than the past one. One year ago I would have told you, “I cannot see this possibility.” Now I see it.

You do feel that something is moving?

Yes, especially amongst young people.