Blog: Can the left really stop Salvini?

by Marzia Maccaferri and Andrea Mammone 

Marzia is completing her second PhD at SPIR-QMUL. She works on Italian and British intellectual discourse and her project focuses on the reception of Antonio Gramsci, Italian communism and especially the ‘Emilia model’ in the British cultural Marxism of the 1980s. Andrea Mammone is a visiting fellow in the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute and a historian of modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is an expert on the far right, nationalism and European politics.

Last month the Italian far right failed to seize the left-wing bastion of Emilia-Romagna. But the election results raise wider challenges for the resistance to rising populism.

In the regional elections in Italy, the powerful far-right leader and former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, failed in his campaign to gain one of the main Italian regions, the traditionally left-wing Emilia-Romagna, and so bring down the current governmental coalition. The prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, as well as the incumbent regional governor, Stefano Bonaccini of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD)—which won 51.4 per cent of the vote on January 26th, a clear 8 per cent ahead of Lucia Borgonzoni of Salvini’s Lega—can now breathe a sigh of relief.

What was once the famous ‘red belt’ of Italy, a cornerstone (with Tuscany) of Italian communism, rejected Salvini’s aggressively anti-establishment propaganda and ferociously xenophobic campaign, an attempt to wipe the left from the political map. The future of the country seems less murky now, with Italy’s stock market reacting positively as the results emerged. Yet if even the (once fully) left-leaning Emilia-Romagna, and its main city, Bologna, in particular have only arrested Salvini’s advance, can anyone else stop him?

Huge difference

The turnout in Emilia-Romagna was up more than 20 percentage points from five years ago. This made a huge difference. The strong personal victory of Bonaccini—whose electoral list with his name on it added almost 6 per cent to the progressive tally—could at first sight be explained by the local tradition of good governance. This is represented by the modello Emiliano,characterised by a tempered capitalism embedded in a social-democratic governance with a strong left-wing subculture.

Bonaccini fought passionately, up until the last days, even when his own party in Bologna was expecting a huge loss of votes. But in these historic times, traditional parties do not seem able alone to overcome the far right and its demagogic propaganda. And the main challenge to Salvini came from an unexpected popular mobilisation and activism.

The ‘Sardines’ movement—so labelled because its mass of supporters first appeared packed tightly in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna—added energy to the campaign. Their antifascism, although naïve and meteoric in its rise, reinterpreted to a certain extent the myth of the reformist approach of Emilia-Romagna’s communism.

This grassroots, mostly youth-driven, movement against the populist tide will likely hegemonise discourses within left-wing circles and the media in Italy for the coming months. Certainly it revitalised the otherwise almost ineffectual political opposition to right-wing extremism and xenophobia.

Grassroots groups

Their full name, ‘Sardines against Salvini,’ tells a lot about their nature and genesis as well as their will to counter a far-right victory in a left-wing bastion. In some ways, they recall the mobilisation of grassroots progressive groups in the United States since the election of Donald Trump as president. This complex and variegated activism, a ‘middle America’ rebooting democracy—made up of Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter, local canvassing, and a spontaneous citizens’ engagement in cities and suburbs of many states—has largely been missing on European soil.
Born in Bologna with a flash mob which attracted 15,000, the Sardines represent the main innovation in Italian politics for some time. Their numbers have been rising: roughly 100,000 attended demonstrations in Rome calling on the government to cancel all anti-immigration policies and counter hate speech. Demonstrations spread across other Italian cities, but also to some European capitals and New York. Will this be enough?

Spontaneous movements, especially youth movements, encourage participation and boost optimism but, as the Sardines themselves already suggest, without a clear political proposal and vision they end up in internal divisions and, ultimately, vaporise. The first scission transpired just a few weeks after the election, around a photo where the young founders posed with the Italian industrialist Luciano Benetton. Not for the first time in Italian politics, the line of division fell between the Sardines from the north and those from the south.

Mixed outcomes

In fact, the electoral results showed mixed outcomes. If good governance and social mobilisation played a relevant role in Emilia-Romagna, we have to look at the election in the other region, the southern Calabria, to understand the big picture. Salvini lost in (rich) Emilia-Romagna but his ‘centre-right’ coalition with Silvio Berlusconi and the far-right Brothers of Italy party won in (poor) Calabria.

Calabria is not only geographically peripherical but characterised by emigration and unemployment. It has not experienced any left-wing good governance in previous decades, not even in recent years, while social activism is still (relatively) limited. These elections thus confirmed, in some ways, that the left (and not only in Italy) is becoming more ‘urbanised’—for the most severe critics more ‘middle-class’, certainly more professional and educated.

The PD and the centre-left did win both in main cities and in the rest of Emilia-Romagna, confirming to an extent the resilience of the progressive ‘historical bloc’, as the Partito Comunista Italiano founder Antonio Gramsci would have put it. What was traditionally the solid alliance among the workers, peasants and small-medium industries supporting the PCI is now a pact between the workers of the third sector and public professionals—but the gap with the right is narrowing.

It’s not very different, in other words, from what happened to the Labour Party in the general election in the UK, where parts of the ‘red wall’ in the north of England moved rightwards for the first time. Although the ‘Brexit’ question played a pivotal role there, the party’s identity crisis is a parallel one.

Anthropological transformation

The implications are obvious, in the UK as well as in Italy and elsewhere. Parts of the ‘red belt’ are no longer immune to the populist appeal of the nationalist far right—to anti-establishment propaganda, anti-immigration politicians and Eurosceptics. This represents a sort of anthropological transformation, especially in a region such as Emilia-Romagna, where the crisis of the local socio-political model meets the sclerotisation of anti-fascist cultures. And it is not looking promising.

It is then wrong to believe that far-right parties cannot gain power nationally. The Lega is now, quite incredibly, the second largest group in Emilia and, as these elections confirmed, gaining some consensus in southern regions. Such advances are especially striking, given its origins as a party of northern-Italian regionalism, even separatism.

If we accept that Emilia’s communism was actually one of the most advanced forms of social democracy in Europe, then we must explore the crisis of the model: the progressive forces abdicated their hegemonic role to become a mere electoral cartel collecting ‘interests’. The winning leftist regional coalition demonstrated that, to win, one does not need only good governance and economic performance but also political vision and myth.

As the resistance of the last bastions against the European populist trend becomes increasingly fragile, it is time for progressive forces to find new forms of mobilisation—without mirroring demagogic nationalism and its policies—and to learn a few lessons transnationally and from Italy. The left needs to regain its capacity to create a shared political culture, to focus on integrative responses and to challenge rising populism with its traditional political weapons: rights, solidarity, equality, democracy.

This item was originally posted at

Current research: Nomads, “Gypsies,” and Criminals in England and India

On February 27, 2020 part of the World History seminars at Cambridge University, Cristina-Ioana Dragomir will hold a lecture, titled: Nomads, “Gypsies,” and Criminals in England and India from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century. The talk is based on Dr. Dragomir’s article, published earlier this year in Critical Romani Studies ( Employing a critical approach, and engaging in a bold comparison between India and England, this work unveils how the intersection of nomadism, the “Gypsy” label, and criminality was not a “natural” occurrence, but one that came about through legal and literary discourses that have been used systematically since the seventeenth century. Different from previous work that analyzed how nomadism and criminality came to be linked  in specific countries, this work focuses its investigation on comparing several of the dominant discourses in England and India from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, revealing how criminalization of those who move in India preceded British colonial rule and highlighting how similar forms of community criminalization took place across the world.

Research Project: Mobile People

Co-directed by Professors Engin Isin and Kimberley Hutchings, Queen Mary University of London Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholarships (QMUL-LTDS) will involve 21 PhD research projects (2018-2023) concerned with how the world is being dynamically constituted by mobile people in active and novel ways and how this affects fundamental social and political institutions.

Its aim is to generate theories, concepts, methods, and data that are necessary to understand mobility as a way of life – not as an exception but as an emerging norm. Current research demonstrates that developments in human mobility are interrelated with the ways in which they are studied, interpreted, documented, and managed. Thus, thinking about mobility as a way of life entails reflexivity about the processes of producing knowledge about mobile lives in an increasingly mobile world: how we study, manage, govern, and imagine it. The projects will address the transformative effects of mobile people on the social and political institutions they inhabit and construct. How mobile people are creating new worlds, not solely as host versus guest, mobile versus immobile relations, but in ways which fundamentally challenge social and political institutions of citizenship, democracy, nationality and security is the innovative focus of this programme.

The programme is organised according to thematic priorities which reflect established expertise at QMUL. These themes (boundariesgenerationsenvironmenthealthidentitieslanguage) will be studied in relation to the impacts of mobility as a way of life on social and political institutions (citizenshipdemocracynationality, and security). The organisation of the programme is guided by the principle that institutions such as citizenship (membership, rights, obligations), democracy (representation, participation, government), nationality (sovereignty, state, territory), and security (authority, legality, threat/protection) are undergoing profound transformations. These transformations are shaped by and reshape the articulation of spatial relations (boundaries), temporal relations (generations), meanings of place from world to home (environment), definitions and experiences of well/ill-being (health), dispositions and behaviours (identities), and communication and speech (language).

For further information click here

Women and the History of International Thought

Women and the History of International Thought

Lead Researchers: Professor Kimberly Hutchings, Professor Patricia Owens and Dr Katharina Rietzler

Funding Agency: Leverhulme Trust

This is a  four-year research project that aims to systematically recover and evaluate the international thought of women both inside and outside academe during the early to mid-twentieth-century. It will locate academic women researching international relations in Anglo-American centres of IR; analyse the intellectual contributions of women thinker-practitioners in non-academic locations to challenge existing standards of inclusion; and examine the writings of already canonical women that have so far been marginalised in histories of international thought. Given the influence of European traditions on the largely Anglo-American discipline of International Relations and the simultaneous neglect of black intellectuals it includes European and diaspora women such as Simone de Beauvoir, Anna Julia Cooper, Rosa Luxemburg, Bertha von Suttner, Eslanda Robeson, and Simone Weil.

Doing International Political Sociology

Queen Mary Convenor: Jef Huysmans


DoingIPS brings together researchers working in the broad area of International Political Sociology (IPS). They explore different theoretical and methodological lines of thought that are deployed in IPS and key themes of debate that are currently shaping IPS. More than a finite research group, DoingIPS is a hub that aims to promote International Political Sociology by adopting a flexible and inclusive approach.

Since its inception international political sociology has been defined by its distinct effort to articulate a critique of dogmatic conceptualisations of the international as a site of political life. To that aim, it explores the conceptions of the social and political that historically have been inscribed in ‘the international’, how the international is produced in multiple sites of political and social life and what the limits of the international are. One of the driving interests of IPS is to understand transversal social and political life that escapes institutionalisation in contained polities and societies. It creates a site for developing concepts, methods and theories that go beyond the inherited models of territorialised sovereignty, state/society relations and the international system while engaging some of the most pertinent challenges in world politics today.

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China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Southeast Asian Responses

Lead Researchers: Lee Jones (QMUL) and Cheng-Chwee Kuik (National University of Malaysia)

This project examines China’s rise and Southeast Asian states’ response to it, focusing on China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). China’s rise is increasingly contradictory: it combines growing pseudo-military assertiveness in arenas like the South China Sea with diplomatic and economic charm offensives like the launch of the BRI and the associated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Our project seeks to explain both this contradictory approach and how Southeast Asian governments respond to it. We hypothesise that both are driven by regimes’ concerns for internal stability and legitimacy. The project is significant for two reasons. In terms of theory, it challenges the structural realist proposition that overemphasizes power-balancing as the drivers of state behaviour. In terms of policy, explaining how regional states are responding to China is crucial for understanding the direction of regional order in the “Asian century”.

For more information on that, check the research project website

Moral agency and meaningful human control: Exploring military ethical values for alignment in the use of autonomous weapons systems

Moral agency and meaningful human control: Exploring military ethical values for alignment in the use of autonomous weapons systems
Lead Researcher: Dr Elke Schwarz
Funding Agency: Leverhulme/British Academy
Advances in autonomous technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will shape civic and military futures in significant ways. Despite this, a focus on promoting innovation in these areas means that ethical aspects often take a backseat. There is broad consensus in current debates that ethical issues must be addressed in the development of robotic AI systems, but it is less clear what kinds of ethical values (as distinct from legal requirements) should factor into this enterprise. This is particularly crucial for the use of robotic AI systems in military operations, where human-machine teams will shape significant aspects of decision-making and operational conduct in future defence operations. This project examines how technologically advanced militaries view moral agency and ethical values vis-a-vis new autonomous and intelligent technologies. It seeks to:
(1) provide a clarification of ethical values and moral agency in military operations, and
(2) open an interdisciplinary dialogue on the topic to help shape policy and industry guidelines.