Identity Politics on the Right Too
Giorgia Meloni’s coalition won the recent parliamentary elections in Italy. Some think she is an “illiberal democrat” of the right like Victor Orbán and other current strongmen. Professor Alberto Mingardi, director general of the Bruno Leoni Institute, challenges this idea. In my opinion, the quote that John O. McGinnis provides from a Meloni speech is strongly suggestive of illiberal democracy (see “New Avatars for the Right,” October 13, 2022):
Why is the family an enemy? Why is the family so frightening? There is a single answer to all these questions. Because it defines us. Because it is our identity. Because everything that defines us is now an enemy for those who would like us to no longer have an identity and to simply be perfect consumer slaves. And so they attack national identity, they attack religious identity, they attack gender identity, attack family identity. … Because … when I no longer have an identity or roots, then I will be the perfect slave at the mercy of financial speculators. The perfect consumer … We will defend the value of the human being. … We will defend God, country and family.
Assuming that the translation is faithful, Meloni does look like a populist of the right and a would-be strongman. (See my review of Gideon Rachman’s The Age of the Strongman in the current issue of Regulation.)
It is not difficult to see that the identity she is glorifying is a unicorn. If the family defines us, “is our identity” as she says, it cannot be our nation or our religion or our “gender” that really defines us. Ms. Meloni would probably answer that an Italian is defined by all of these (“God, country and family”) in a sort of composite identity. But this does not work. Fragmented identities don’t make an identity. Not only are there Italians of different genders (or sex), but also some who are atheists or otherwise non-Catholics. Only with two characteristics, Catholic or not, male or female, we already have four sorts of Italians. Add nationalist vs. non-nationalist and we have eight sorts. These identities can easily become conflictual. What if “country” —“the fatherland” as the Financial Times renders the country part of Meloni’s triadic slogan—requires somebody to sacrifice his family to conscription at the service of the Italian state, embodiment of the fatherland?
This reminds me of what Rose Wilder Lane wrote after her travels in Italy (and other countries including Russia) in the 1920s (“Give Me Liberty,” Saturday Evening Post, March 7, 1936):
I was finally compelled to admit to my Italian friends that I had seen the spirit of Italy revive under Mussolini. And it seemed to me that this revival was based on a separation of individual liberty from the industrial revolution whose cause and source is individual liberty. I said that in Italy, as in Russia, an essentially medieval, planned and controlled economic order was taking over the fruits of the industrial revolution while destroying its root, the freedom of the individual.
“Why will you talk about the rights of individuals!” Italians exclaimed, at last impatient. “An individual is nothing. As individuals we have no importance whatever. I will die, you will die, millions will live and die, but Italy does not die. Italy is important. Nothing matters but Italy.”
The quote above from Meloni deserves to be repeated urbi et orbi, because it shows how the right’s identity politics is similar to the left’s identity politics, at least on the more extreme parts of the standard political spectrum. Only the identity characteristics and the favored groups are different. In both cases, state authoritarianism is required to try to impose the correct identity on everyone. It is not surprising, then, that both the right and the left are opposed to free markets, which allow each individual to make his own choices and define his own identity, even (in most cases) if the majority or “the people” does not agree.
Except in a small primitive tribe, an individual has several “identities” along many dimensions and one could not easily find two individuals with the same composite identity. Finding a common denominator—a common value or common preference—among Italians or in any large group of modern individuals would only point to a common interest in the existence of an abstract social order that allows each individual to be himself, that is, to be different. A common interest could in no way justify imposing on all the same identity. It is the essence of classical liberalism and libertarianism that each individual should be free to choose his own identity—without, of course, forcing other people to embrace it.
Reading Friedrich Hayek or James Buchanan (or Buchanan with Gordon Tullock) would help Ms. Meloni, like most of our rulers, realize that collective identity is a dangerous mirage. Reading Anthony de Jasay would be a therapeutic shock of another magnitude. But the reader of these authors must be lucky enough to have learned the prerequisites necessary to understand, or must be able to learn something radically new.