Matteo Salvini, renaturalizing the racial and sexual boundaries of democracy

Matteo Salvini, renaturalizing the racial and sexual boundaries of democracy


Matteo Salvini has been flooding
the Peninsula with an onrush of increasingly violent utterances since his
establishment at the head of the Department of the Interior. The proliferation
and violence that characterize these statements of the “captain” – as Salvini
is fond of being called in the spirit of other “duces” – already played a crucial role in his electoral campaign.
But today, they have become the calculated programmatic escalation of a
statesman, a feature that transforms his speeches into a weapon to weaken
democracy. This phenomenon we might understand better thanks to the exceptional
work of the Algerian scholar and close friend of the French sociologist Pierre
Bourdieu, Abdelmalek Sayad, who showed us that “to think about immigration is to think about the
State”, by unveiling the unconscious categories lodged in state structures.

What is in
the making in Italy we might call a form of shrunken democracy. The words that Salvini uses as a Minister of the
Republic and Deputy Prime Minister of the Italian government are weapons that
destroy the physical and moral integrity of those racialized subjects who are
already, for the most part, burdened by cruel living and work conditions. Insofar
as as they have a performative power, these words of the State are designed to
strike and wound, leaving their mark on bodies and consciousness: they
contribute to having us believe in a reality full of the “dangers of invasion”,
“illegal immigrants on a cruise”, putting an “end to their fun”, “anti-Italian
racism”, the “totalitarianism of the politically correct”, not to mention
defending the “Catholic roots of Europe”. Day by day, hour after hour, those
words dislocate the boundaries of the very speakable within a democracy. They
demarcate what can be done under the name of democracy. Such phrases are
permissions, forms of legitimization, and when they convey racist violence they
become laissez-passers for more racist violence to happen with total impunity.

One example, as the journalist Leonardo Bianchi points out, is the “patrols” that have been carried
out by the activists of Casa Pound on an Ostia (Rome) beach over the last two
years. These have now acquired a totally new meaning, becoming part of a
consistent state policy, the “safe beaches operation”, promoted and subsidized
by the Ministry of the Interior against “molesting smugglers”. The surge of
racist acts and speeches that has flooded Italy since the beginning of the summer
is the effect of cumulative state slogans and practices as well as the
consequence of three political shifts brought about by Salvini himself since
his rise to leader of the League party in 2012. These shifts help to account
for his success – the League jumped from 17.4% to 30% in voting intentions,
beguiling the vast majority of the Catholic population, despite the protests of
a segment of the clergy. They provide a framework for examining the wider
political moment, for which Italy might be in the process of providing a
control experiment.

The “patriotic” turn

Salvini successfully set out to expand
the independentist and regionalist dimension that formerly characterized his
party – and its ideological equivalent, “anti-southerner” hate – to turn it
into a xenophobic force with a national calling. Hence the choice of his
campaign slogan “Italians first”,
recalling Trump’s electoral banner, “America
First”, which in turn was a Ku Klux Klan slogan. Salvini’s
government knew exactly how to combine and revive different forms of “hatred of
the other” already structurally lodged in the national social fabric, and to
capitalize on the tremendous social inequalities stemmed from those neoliberal
reforms carried out by former governments to deal with the 2008 economic

Of course, the boundaries that
these “patriots” are ready to “protect” are geographical, through the closure
policies of ports and their consequences in terms of deaths, slavery, rape and
all the other atrocities committed against thousands of men, women and
children. But what Salvini and his acolytes safeguard the most are the
“boundaries” that white supremacists fantasise about, built on the symbolism of
“blood purity” or the “right skin” – la pelle giusta, to recall the
title of Paola Tabet’s study on Italian racism – or such cultural nightmares as
Renaud Camus’ “big replacement of European people” or Alain de Benoist’s “big
transformation”. So, the first ideological discontinuity is racism. For Salvini
and his supporters, a Roma person’s Italian citizenship does not make him/her a
“real Italian”, and the same holds true for people of African origin. These
Italians remains “illegals”, incarnations of an utter “cultural otherness”, strange
and dangerous bodies to be expelled from the body politic, “non-human”
existences against which we can unleash all kinds of verbal or physical
violence without feeling any pain or guilt.

In her book Racism, Sexism, Power and
Guillaumin shows how the articulation between the otherization and the dehumanization of social groups
hit by racism is the grease that makes the machinery of racist violence spread
and reactivate so easily. In 1946, contemplating the rise of Nazism, Ernst Cassirer wrote
in his book The Myth of the State
that the racist myth is “never really defeated or overcome, but it lives on, lurking in the shadow,
waiting for its moment, a favourable occasion.” Where are we today? Who are our

Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini on TV show Porta a Porta, Rai 1, Rome, June 20, 2018. Zucchi/Press Association. All rights reserved.The second political shift
performed by Salvini is the ideological erasure of every form of antifascism, a
move also claimed at the time by the founder of the League at its inception,
Umberto Bossi. This attack on antifascism soon evolved into a proximity to the
far-right, its spokespersons, ideologues and activists – Marine Le Pen in
France, Alexander Dugin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Steve Bannon in the
US, and, in Italy, the neofascists of Casa Pound and Forza Nuova as well as the
neo-nazis of the Veneto Fronte Skinheads.

These groups acknowledge Salvini
as an ally, or at least a person to dialogue with. Adopting the garb of two
European identitarian and neo-nazi clothing brands, as Salvini recently did, is
no coincidence and goes far beyond a simple wink to a potential constituency.
As other “duces” did before him, Salvini uses his body as a political
instrument. Through ubiquitous mise-en-scènes, he has become the
incarnation, both accessible and charismatic, intimate and thaumaturgical, of
his populist, suprematist, anti-intellectualist, but also heteronormative and
masculinist ideology. In fact, Salvini speaks the language not only of
racialization – that is of non-white people’s essentialization and
inferiorization – but that of sex and sexuality as well. On July 1, his opening
ministerial speech announced two political priorities in one: fighting against
immigration and protecting the family “made up of a mom and a dad”.

The spectre of “gender ideology”

Making the defence of the
so-called ‘natural family’ a crucial element in his governmental agenda represents the third shift
in Salvini’s politics. Since 2013, “gender ideology” has become the enemy image
announcing a new fight joined by a large and multifaceted coalition of actors,
composed of anti-abortion and pro-family associations, identitarian Catholic
and far-right groups. The Italian “anti-gender”
joins a transnational hodgepodge of campaigns and mobilizations that
involve an ever-increasing number of countries and continents, from Europe to
Central and Latin America.

These actors
aim at blocking all political, legal and cultural initiatives that advocate the
of the sexual order
. From granting to same-sex couples the right to marry
(as in France, for example) to the adoption of the Istanbul Convention (as in
Bulgaria or Slovakia), from the implementation of gender studies (as in Brazil
or Hungary), to the fight against homophobia and transphobia (as in Italy), these
“anti-gender” groups oppose policies perceived as the consequences of an
“ideology” promoted by “feminist and homosexualist lobbies” and taken up by the
political supranational instances of a “globalist élite”, an “ideology” which
is “colonizing” the entire world in order to destroy the “human basics”.

These groups
adopt and adapt at their national level a rhetoric created by the Vatican in the mid-1990s. To
fight against the feminist concept of gender, to deform and demonize it, making
it a metonym for the political and theoretical revolution advanced by the
feminist and LGBTQ+ movements has different goals, all of them giving a voice, concealed beneath a new rhetoric
and new practices of protest, to an essentialist, sexist, anti-feminist, homophobic and transphobic vision of the
world. The aim is to create a new battlefront of mobilization which can unite
various and different actors under the same banner – “the war against gender
ideology” – but also foster a populist wave of moral panic around the trope “save our children”.

To be sure, sexism and homophobia
are not new ingredients in the party’s ideology. The “celodurismo” (having a
permanent hard-on) that the League claims for its leaders: the “filthy gesture”
that Umberto Bossi addressed to the Minister Margherita Boniver in 1993 and the
inflatable doll that Salvini waved during a meeting and compared to the former
Speaker of the House, Laura Boldrini, are among its more revolting examples.
But as for
sexual politics, the rhetoric, the alliances and the ambitions have changed. In
five years, thanks to a
feverish activism supported by the communities of the Neocatechumenal Way, the
most radical anti-abortion militant groups (Jurists for Life and Pro-Life
Onlus, close to the neofascist party Forza Nuova) and the traditionalists of
Alleanza Cattolica (Catholic Alliance), the “anti-gender”
movement has become an inescapable feature in the Italian
political landscape.

As its leaders triumphantly
claim, this movement was able to “impregnate” the new government’s agenda to
the point of making its vocabulary and words (“gender ideology”, “human ecology”, “human anthropology”)
contemporary reference points in a political grammar. In July, in an interview
given to the identitarian Catholic newspaper La
Nuova Bussola Quotidiana
, Salvini waged a stubborn war against the children
of same-sex families and all forms of legal recognition of same-sex parenting –
a recognition not supported by Italian law which stems from judicial decisions
or from the registrations signed by local mayors.

In this fight, Salvini has been supported,
or let us say, anticipated, by Lorenzo Fontana, the Minister of Family and
Disability (formerly known as Minister of “Family Affairs”). Fontana, who calls
himself a “patriot” and a “crusader”, is a Catholic close to the fundamentalist
and identitarian religious front. He is a fervent anti-abortion activist,
homophobic and antifeminist and, as Yàdad de Guerre points out in his study of the connections between
the far-right and “anti-gender” groups, he is at the height of his career in
the League. Fontana is responsible for the party’s alliances with the Russian
government, the European far-right or neofascist groups, the European party
“Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom”, and the World Congress of
Families. This latter is a US think tank
founded in 1997 by Catholics and Evangelicals with strong ramifications in
Russia. Nowadays it gathers together the main actors of the “anti-gender”
crusade and works to promote, harmonize and globally spread the militant
strategies of these groups, which aim at “restoring” a supposed “natural
order”, as the report by the secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on
Population and Development Neil Datta details.

A racist,
sexist and homophobic counterrevolution

As for its racial and sexual
dimension, Salvini’s “common sense revolution” is a return to an imaginary
order composed of “native people” that must not mingle, and “ontologically”
different and complementary sexes. Such a “revolution” aims at renaturalizing a
hierarchical order of assigned sexual and racial roles, and at restoring the
integrity of a system of thought that envisions race and sex as “natural facts”
– a system of thought that Monique Wittig called “the straight mind”. This
“common sense revolution” is at the same time a restoration and a
counterrevolution, because it targets the revolution brought about by minority movements. It aims at
challenging their struggles, claims and theories, which have troubled intellectual and political practises by affirming that
race, sex and sexuality are not a matter of “nature”, but of a naturalization of social

To reinforce and renaturalize the
racial and sexual boundaries of the “nation” is to further shrink the spectrum
of democracy. Is Italian democracy being progressively emptied of its
substance without being formally abolished? In his
article for The Irish Times
, Fintan O’Toole speaks of “trial runs for fascism”,
or “pre-fascism”: in which we progressively dislocate the moral and political
limits of what is acceptable within a democratic system until we transform it into something else.
Is Italy an archetypal example of what Wendy Brown calls a “de-democratization”
of democracy? Avoiding the ambiguities of the notion of “populism”, Éric Fassin
speaks of a “neofascist
moment of neoliberalism
” in order to mobilize a new antifascism to confront it.

Meawnhile, Aboubakar
Soumahoro is an Italian-Ivorian trade unionist deeply engaged in the defence of
migrant farm workers’ rights. After the murder of his friend, activist and
colleague, Soumaila
, gunned down in Calabria (Italy) in a racist attack last June,
Souhmahoro argued that “we cannot talk about social justice without talking
about anti-sexism, anti-racism and antifascism”.

Soumahoro’s words can be read conjointly with Fassin’s analysis. Salvini’s
counterrevolution targets women, homosexuals, trans people, racialized subjects
and minorities altogether, as well as our liberation movements. We
must think and act starting from this convergence of oppressions. Today neofascism and its friends speak the language of the renaturalization of the sexual and racial order. We
need a neo-antifascim that defends its denaturalization, an anti-sexist
and anti-racist moment of antifascism.

A version of this article was
first published
in the French newspaper “AOC” on September 10, 2018.

Translation by Laura Scarmoncin.


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