Italy and the decay of European liberalism

Those who desire to save the liberal project in Europe and in America must release themselves from the bonds of the past; today more than ever, their people have nothing to lose but their chains.

March 12, 2018 22:05
3 minute read.
An activist wears a cutout of Silvio Berlusconi a day after Italy's elections, March 2018

An activist wears a cutout of Silvio Berlusconi a day after Italy's elections, March 2018. (photo credit: MAX ROSSI / REUTERS)


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If the leaders of Western liberal and centrist parties aren’t able to figure out what is to be done to save their peoples from the claws of contemporary nationalism, democratic liberalism might be doomed.

G. W. F Hegel, the renowned German philosopher, once claimed that the verdict of history is history itself. Karl Marx added that people can ignore history, but history won’t ignore them. I recalled Hegel and Marx once the news on the elections in Italy reached Israel. It seems that Italy – like Britain, Germany, France and the US – is unwilling anymore to adhere to the values of democratic liberalism.

The astonishing achievement of the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) delivered another blow to all those dreaming that Italy wouldn’t lurch to the Right. Like the Brexit movement in Britain, the white nationalist pro-Trump tendency in the US and the rising radical Right in Germany, Italy has shown its unique path to an anti-liberal agenda.

Like their counterparts, the Italians are afraid of immigrants, feel great social insecurity, resent the EU and want their country to leave it, favoring an a la Trump “Italy First” agenda. The Italians, like other Western countries, are flatly rejecting the values of historic democratic liberalism.

The Italians don’t trust liberal principles, and they have good reasons for their mistrust. 11.1% percent of Italians are unemployed and 31.5% of the youth in Italy are jobless. The workers in the country are afraid of losing their jobs to cheap labor, as in 2017 119,310 migrants arrived in Italy by sea. The people in the country feel that their homeland is being “stolen” from them under liberal guise.
These two problems, unemployment and immigration, brought about the radicalization of many ordinary men in Europe, who believe that the values upon which the European Union was built are not in line with their interests. The same is true in the US, where the Trump administration insists upon building a wall along the border with Mexico. The liberal idea that in the 21st century people would eventually abandon their repulsive nationalist past, has been refuted, and instead we see how anti-liberal parties, some of them truly fascist, are rising to power in the West.

The fate of democratic liberalism might be doomed. It’s not just about changing some slogans or replacing leaderships; the core problem of today’s liberalism lies in its policies. Thus, liberals and social democrats alike, despite their historic differences (which are now totally blurred), should think of ways to address problems like mass unemployment and mass immigration. The old policies are dead in terms of their ability to win over the ordinary man.

They should rejuvenate their agendas in every aspect and find out what went out wrong once they abandoned concepts like the welfare state. Moreover, following the new problems facing people who can’t find jobs and feel miserable, earning low wages (e.g., the automation of work and the demand for cheap labor), ideas like Universal Basic Income must be seriously considered.

There is no magic formula for the remnants of the political Left to recover from their deep crisis; what the Left needs is a revolutionary message, one capable of adapting its principles to the harsh reality in which it must exist. It is true for Italy as much as for the US, Germany, Britain and France. If the liberal and social democratic circles wish to save Western democracies from their historic decay, it’s time to stop ignoring the worker in Rome, Washington or London who sees how her world is crushed by the very reality in which she lives. Those who desire to save the liberal project in Europe and in America must release themselves from the bonds of the past; today more than ever, their people have nothing to lose but their chains.

The author is a blogger at and a graduate student in the Department of History at Tel Aviv University.

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