A televised path to a democratic dead-end: Italy's crumbling social order has fuelled the cause of the authoritarian right, explains Eugenio Scalfari

Click to follow
THE RAPID growth of a right-wing movement in the Austrian elections and the victory of right-wing parties in the Belgian local elections calls for some reflection on the European-wide situation.

These events follow what happened in Italy after the general election in March when the coalition made up of Silvio Berlusconi's brand new Forza Italia party, together with the Northern League and the neo-fascist party, came to power.

The most recent development in the past few weeks is a shift of consensus away from support for Berlusconi and the League towards the neo-fascist party, which is trying to purge a part of its ideology and present itself as a political movement closer to Jacques Chirac's Gaullism than old-style fascism.

Fortunately, in the more soundly democratic European countries, such a political development appears to be out of the question. In France there are no potential presidential candidates from the far-right who stand any chance of success. In Germany the important political divide is between traditional Christian Democrat and Social Democrat parties, much as in Great Britain and Spain. Is, then, the revival of the extreme right a merely Italian phenomenon, with echoes in Austria and Belgium? Because if it is, Europe presumably has no cause to fear for its democratic foundations.

I hope that is the case. However, the problem is rather more widespread and goes deeper than may at first appear. It is not so much the emergence of right-wing movements which should worry democrats, but the rapid breakdown of the social groups - both of the majority and the opposition - that have modelled European political life in the last 50 years.

There used to be, throughout Western Europe, a group representing largely 'bourgeois' interests, in conflict with another representing the interests and values of the working class and, more generally, of salaried employees and wage-earners. The political forces which gave voice to one or other of these groups alternated in the government of these countries, allowing the democratic system to function well.

The mechanism continues to work in most countries in the European Union. An optimist might add that even in Italy the neo-fascist movement is assuming characteristics which will soon reposition it on the moderate right, and that Berlusconi's government, apart from its rather obvious inexperience, is not much different from the type of government headed by John Major.

But the two social groups that faced each other in Italy during the past half century no longer exist. There is no longer a homogeneous working class held together by common interests. Technological progress, uncertainty in the job market, increasing mobility between one job and another, the devastating problem of mass unemployment and the growth of self-employment have completely broken up that social group. The parties to which its members looked found themselves in difficulty because of the moral failings of their leaders, but the real reason for their decline was social and economic change.

Similar changes took place in the social group which, for convenience, can be called 'bourgeois'. That group, composed of industrialists, professional people and self-employed craftsmen, is no longer the one that the cliche has taught us to recognise. It has undergone changes no less profound than those of wage-earners. There has been an enormous increase in the numbers of people who make a living from services, trade and finance, and a steady decrease in the 'entrepreneurial bourgeoisie', whose place has been taken over by banks and investment companies.

We are therefore witnessing a real social revolution: instead of two well-defined and opposing classes, we have the formation of a 'middle class' which has lost its identity. It has economic interests that are much more mobile, its social role-models are much more homogeneous, and it is completely lacking in ideology. The crisis of the parties arises from the disappearance of ideological, cultural and economic differences. In the 'middle class' everyone looks the same, everything is horribly anonymous, everyone aspires to be successful; lifestyles, fashions, holidays, leisure activities, all tend to be uniform; pragmatism is the rule of behaviour unanimously cried out for and pursued.

The unifying factor for the 'middle class' is television, which explains the growing political importance of this means of communication. The Italian situation is, of course, extreme: the boss of the private television channels has been able to add his media power to his political power as head of government. Yet it is still a fact that the electorate is increasingly seduced by demagogic personalities, while at the same time expressing its clear contempt for parliamentary proceedings.

The danger is not so much a move towards the right by a considerable part of the European electorate, but the anomalous nature of this growing right wing, which is very little like the traditional one. It is trying to replace parliamentary democracy by bowing to popular appeal and obtaining mass consent by means of promises, dreams and demagogy through the media - television in particular.

This is the challenge European countries will have to face in the next few years - and it will become more dangerous in proportion to the loss of interest, especially by young people, in politics. Indifference leads to delegation; delegation can rapidly turn into authoritarianism and government by plebiscite.

The author is editor of 'La Repubblica'. This is the first of a series of articles by leading figures from 'El Pais', 'La Repubblica', 'Le Monde' and the 'Independent'.

(Photograph omitted)