Genoa Bridge Disaster Plays Into Hands of Italy’s Far-Right

The death toll from a bridge collapse in the Italian city of Genoa has reached at least thirty-nine. The tragedy has ignited national frustration with crumbling infrastructure and economic austerity — and it’s Italy’s far-right that has taken most advantage. We speak to Steve Hellman, professor emeritus at York University.

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

The death toll from a bridge collapse in the Italian city of Genoa has reached at least 39. Dozens of vehicles plunged some 148 feet into the streets below when the Morandi bridge crumbled just before noon on Tuesday. Rescuers are still searching through the rubble. The bridge is one of the main arteries into Genoa, and its collapse follows years of warnings that it was in need of repair. The tragedy has ignited national frustration in Italy with crumbling infrastructure and economic austerity. And it’s Italy’s far right that is taking most advantage of this. The right-wing anti-immigration League Party took power in June as part of an unprecedented populist coalition with the more centrist Five Star Movement. League Party leader Matteo Salvini is now Italy’s interior minister. On Tuesday, Salvini said austerity imposed by the EU could be partly to blame for the bridge tragedy.

MATTEO SALVINI: Another consideration I will make as minister and Italian citizen is that since so many schools, hospitals, railways, rivers, motorways need maintenance, but often we are told that we cannot spend money because of European constraints, limits, deficits, the GDP debt, the spread. The next economic measures will have to put at its core the security of Italians. Their right to life, right to work, right to health. Restrictions will come later.

AARON MATE: Joining me to discuss the Genoa bridge tragedy and Italy’s overall far-right drift is Steve Hellman, professor emeritus and senior scholar at New York University. Welcome, Professor Hellman. For anyone who is unfamiliar with what is happening in Italy in recent months, can you talk about this unprecedented so-called populist coalition government, of which the far-right League Party is a key member, and put the bridge tragedy in the context in terms of what the conversation has been nationally in terms of frustration with EU-imposed austerity?

STEVE HELLMAN: OK. Good to be with you, as always, on Real News. I very much enjoy it.

The main thing is that in March there was an election that really saw the final sweeping away of the remnants of the parties that have been in power for the last generation or so, since, since about 1994. Now, even the more populist anti-, anti-system type organizations, such as the one that Silvio Berlusconi originally put together, they’ve been shunted even farther apart and farther out of power by the rise of these two new parties. The really, really dramatic rise from nothing was the Five Star Movement, which is the largest party in this coalition. But its so-called junior partners, actually the one that Salvini belongs to and he has restructured over the last eight or nine years, and that-. Well, well actually he’s been in charge of that party for the last four or five years. But their drift in this new much more radical right direction. And in the drift in the direction of making the League, which used to be the Northern League, into a national party has happened very, very recently under Salvini’s guidance.

So the result is that you’ve got a couple of parties in power. And public opinion polls show that they now have somewhere near 60 percent of the popular support. These parties now dominate the government, and yet they are quintessential anti-government parties. Came to power denouncing the swamp, denouncing the, the waste and inefficiency and corruption and old boys’ club nature of the old political system.

So when you get something like a collapse of a big piece of infrastructure and this incredible tragedy in Genoa, anyone who’s ever ridden on the Mediterranean coast of Italy has gone over that very, very bridge, because it’s the main connector between the Italian Riviera and Genoa itself. It’s really something. It’s, it’s hard for me to get my mind around understanding where that bridge is. Well, this kind of tragedy plays very much into the hands of the far right, or even the moderate right, because they weren’t the ones who built it. They weren’t the ones in power. They come into power and they say, look, now you see what happens when instead of paying attention to our own interests and to building up our own country we are constantly dictated to by those people out there. And it’s very, very much an anti-EU kind of sentiment that in particular has fed the evolution and growing strength of both the Five Star Movement and the League.

AARON MATE: Where has Italy’s left-wing party, the Democrats, played into this? Because I mean, for example, you could see in a country like Greece a party like Syriza saying a similar thing in terms of, you know, EU-imposed austerity is crippling the country. But of course, they’re not exploiting that to push far-right anti-immigrant sentiment as the League party is right now.

STEVE HELLMAN: That’s right. And it’s an interesting situation. The, well, first of all, the Democratic Party is in complete freefall. It got clobbered in the last election. It was the leader of the previous government. And indeed just a few years ago, maybe four and a half years ago, they got 40 percent of the vote in the European elections, and they were still the largest party even after the last election with about a quarter of the vote. And that was an election in, I guess it would have been in 2015; 2014, 2015. So they held around that level. They really, they sank under 20 percent in the last election. And they’ve been floundering around.

What’s quite striking is that no left-wing populist alternative exactly along the lines of what you suggest with Syriza in Greece or Podemos, for example, in Spain, there hasn’t, apparently, been a space on the left for that kind of general anti-European populism. And I think that in large measure is due to the fact that the Five Star Movement in particular stole the thunder of the anti-European sentiment on, on the left, but also in the center and center-left.

And that’s one of the things that makes the Italian situation so unique, that you actually have two populist parties, one of which has quite a few progressive dimensions to what it’s been trying to do. It’s just that Salvini constantly outflanks his larger coalition partner when it comes to actually getting things done, or at the very least, when it comes to occupying the center stage of attention; of getting the headlines. In a very Trumpian fashion, Salvini is a genius at making sure he says things that put his sayings and his face and his activity and his party in the headlines just about every single day. So that’s, that, I suppose, is at least a partial answer to your question. The space just isn’t there.

AARON MATE: Right. So explain to us how Salvini did it. And I think the parallel to Trump there is very interesting, because just like Republicans were never known for being the party talking about bringing back working class jobs or running against big corporations, as Trump did on the campaign trail, Salvini’s League Party also was not known for that. But he really seems to have presided over a transformation of this party just in recent years.

STEVE HELLMAN: Yeah, he very much changed the tone of the party. And it’s interesting, because on one level it’s far more overtly racist and anti-immigrant than it had been, which is not to say it wasn’t anti-immigrant and racist before. But it’s way more so now. And it’s far more willing, the party itself under his leadership, is far more willing to flirt with the, with the extreme right all around Europe. And some of that simply is because of the perceived threat of immigration, and the way he’s been able to play on it, while other parties either tiptoed around it; for example, the left, the Democrats. You know, they just couldn’t take a coherent position on it without sounding as if they were trying to compete on that terrain for right-wing votes. But they also have left-wing constituents who simply wouldn’t tolerate that. And appropriately so.

So in part, it has been actually objective conditions have not been favorable to anyone trying to have a progressive stance on the issue of immigration. The League has really compounded this even further by now developing anticrime, gun control, anti-gun control. It’s really hard to find parallels other than in the United States. Something like a stand your ground law, making it OK to kill somebody or shoot at them. First of all, to have a gun in your house, which is not the most common thing in Italy. And secondly, to use that gun to shoot anybody who invades your territory without calling the police, without doing anything else.

Crime is down and immigration rates are down. But the League has managed to really stir the pot of anxiety and fear of crime. And as people- indeed, here the parallels with Trump are enormous. You know, if you keep repeating the same thing over and over and over, and taking some of the grim, unfortunate things that do happen on the crime scene, in a country of 60 million, after all, and exaggerate, exaggerating them, carrying beyond any normal discussion, simply saying, you see, we told you so, we told you so, this has really helped bolster support for the league at the expense of everybody in the neighborhood, politically speaking.

AARON MATE: It seems to be this growing right-wing playbook from the U.S. to Italy; far-right xenophobia, racism, combined with, at least, expressions of populism, and condemnations of neoliberal institutions like the EU.

STEVE HELLMAN: And everything else in Europe, as well, it should be said. You see this all over Europe these days.

AARON MATE: Well, we’ll leave it there. Professor Steve Hellmann, professor emeritus and senior scholar at New York University. Thank you very much.

STEVE HELLMAN: It’s always my pleasure. Thanks again.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.