Elections in 2022 produced surprising results as right-wing parties emerged as some of the biggest winners. These results showed that a growing number of people are looking to extreme parties for answers to their social and economic grievances. In this interview, Remo Siza explains growing support for right-wing parties within the middle and working classes in Italy, and the volatile politics this radicalisation produces.

Chris Sakellaridis: Let’s start with the proposed changes put forward by the Meloni government on welfare provision – what is your view on these?

Remo Siza: The Meloni government has a very clear strategy on welfare that rejects a neo-liberal approach or generic spending cuts. By increasing its control over and conditionality in health and income support programmes, it is designing a welfare system that is more selective. It also plans to abolish minimum income protection (Reddito di cittadinanza).

The Meloni government strategy has three objectives. The first is to restrict access to benefits for immigrants, ethnic minorities, and “undeserving” groups (people whose values and behaviour are considered the primary cause of their poverty, long-term unemployment, or drug addiction). The victory of the right-wing parties, especially the Brothers of Italy, has meant the stigmatisation of benefit claimants and an attack on what they refer to as the “LGBT lobby”, the weakening of legally-protected access to abortion, as well as revoking the rights of minorities. The second objective is to reestablish the welfare system based on traditional values around family, national identity, and marriage which would undermine progressive gains on multiculturalism, open borders, gender and racial equality and so on. The third is to reinforce protections for the “native population” and reduce competition with ethnic minorities for access to health, housing programmes, and social assistance.

With various measures, the government has significantly increased public spending, decreased the retirement age for some groups, made tax evasion for small business owners and self-employed workers easier, and reduced their tax burden. Moreover, the government has made some minor concessions to movements (such as the no/anti-vax movement) closest to some of the coalition parties and more radicalised against the “establishment” and parties that were part of previous governments.

In your book, The Welfare of the Middle Class, you identify a radicalisation of the middle class. Could you briefly explain what that is?

Like in other European countries, the radical right in Italy enjoy growing support from a disgruntled middle and working classes that reject the foundations of political and social life such as democratic values, scientific research, rules of civil coexistence, social bonds, and traditions.

They do not want a different type of society. They feel that the economic and political establishments can neither protect them nor offer upward social and economic mobility opportunities. In many cases, they shift between nostalgia for a lost golden age of the family, work system, community, and welfare; and an enthusiastic adoption of every new value and lifestyle.

I call this group the “new middle mass” in the book because it comprises the same segments of the middle and working classes that Wilensky dubbed the “middle mass” in the 1970s but with some variation. Wilensky’s middle mass was a silent majority manipulated by the mass media and consumption imperatives. The new middle mass however is heterogeneous and depends on networks of online and offline relationships for a fleeting sense of belonging and social identity based on shared values and grievances about the elite.

The new middle mass is the Meloni government’s support base. In Europe today, this mass is creating social instability and volatile behaviour in public and private affairs.

How is this radicalisation manifested? What role did it have in the result of the elections on 25 September?

The recent Italian elections demonstrated that social grievance, resentment, and intolerance of rules and institutions is prevalent among the middle and working classes. Right-wing parties were successful in the election for these reasons and the fact that many in this group feel threatened by the spread of progressive cultural changes, multiculturalism, cosmopolitan identity, and non-traditional sexual orientations.

This unstable alliance between more radical segments of the middle and working classes weakens traditional left-right divisions rooted in economic class, and bolsters parties with a hybrid and shifting identity instead.

The result is electoral volatility, unstable forms of political support, and temporary phases of “dealignment” in which these groups abandon their previous party affiliations and enter into new phases of “realignment” with other parties. In my opinion, the current government should be concerned about this volatility.

What do you think makes this “middle mass” tick?

In my book, I argue that economic deprivation and cultural changes have had a significant impact on the middle mass. Many in this group believe they have lost the economic and social conditions and welfare benefits they need to realise their life projects. On the level of living standards, contracting disposable income of middle-class households and low social mobility have created a feeling of “stabilised hardship”.

Today, radical individualism and discontent with every aspect of life prevail among its members.

The recent Italian elections demonstrated that social grievance, resentment, and intolerance of rules and institutions is prevalent among the middle and working classes.

The middle class has been lauded and derided. It is also seen by some politicians as the “ideal social position”, with many of them echoing Tony Blair’s message to voters: “I want to make you all middle class”. Yet do we know what the middle class actually is?

Since the 1950s, expanding the middle class was a cultural, economic, and social inclusion project for many governments in Western countries. It was an institutional project for upward social mobility with the aim of giving most people decent housing, cars, appliances and the opportunity to send their children to above-average schools and universities.

Supported by a booming economy and stable and well-paid jobs, the middle class experienced decades of stable income as well as family and informal relations. For most people, it was a dream to live in a society where it was enough to educate oneself and work hard to achieve one’s life projects, climb the social ladder, and improve their living conditions. Its culture was founded on the basic principles of classic modernity: a nuclear family, regular work, moderation – a prudent lifestyle, a gendered division of labour, a protective system of welfare, and a faith in science.

Over the past three decades, the living condition of the middle class has gradually declined. At the same time, the very foundations of contemporary societies and the guarantees that defined this class have radically shifted.

Are the upper and working classes seeing these shifts too?

The middle-class dream is over. The same is true for the working-class dream. The working-class project was founded on a widely accepted balance between a stable and well-paid job, stable family and informal relationships, shared values, and trust in institutions and working-class ties. The working class believed that anyone can achieve anything through hard work, strong work ethics, humility, and respecting the dignity of all workers. That has changed. The working class has lost various guarantees related to work and income stability, and is exposed to an equal number of uncertainties in other spheres of life, such as family and welfare.

Several research highlight the economic and social insecurity that these groups are experiencing. Globalisation and technological change are driving labour market polarisation in Europe and across the world. There is a trend toward a relative growth of high-skill jobs (such as management and technical positions) and low-skill job opportunities (such as sales worker, food-service jobs and janitorial work) and a decline of middle-skill jobs (such as clerks, plant and machine operators). Moreover, a weakened role of the family and associations has changed working-class informal relations radically.

At the same time, profound changes involve the upper classes. A large part of the privileged class no longer support institutions or act as mediators in social conflicts. In many Western countries, those at the top are indifferent towards public services because they do not need access to state schools, public healthcare, or social services for example. They are also outside the duties and rules of the social life of the majority. As sociologist Sassen argued, the upper classes refuse to take social responsibility, represent collective interests, act as role models, and create limits and criteria that help distinguish between morally acceptable and morally reprehensible behaviour.

Populists are against the upper classes which they see as an untrustworthy and homogeneous “corrupt elite”. In many cases, the simplifications are evident, and the real enemies are often not identified and specified. However, the establishment often fails to respond to the needs of the majority of people and take too many economic, political, and social decisions that ignore the unfair balances and privileges of the upper classes.

Is this radicalisation at all related to climate change and the environment?

Radical right-wing middle class and climate scepticism are clearly related. Firstly, many right-wing movements deeply mistrust institutions that must regulate and implement an environmental policy and see mass media that denounce climate emergency as a part of the establishment. Secondly, scientific knowledge supporting claims that human activity drives global warming is seen as a technocratic order not autonomous from the established political and economic order and liable to betray the people. Anger and resentment against the established order are shaping many inaccurate and misleading claims about climate change’s impacts and causes.

Are we going to see changes between the middle class and welfare provision?

Growing polarisation in many European countries will be most visible in Italy in the coming years. In the last decade, many in the middle and working classes have pushed for a new welfare system that limits social benefits to native populations and cuts benefits for “undeserving” claimants and the immigrant population. Many segments of these right-wing movements interact with hate groups online and take real-world actions against members of other races, different sexual orientations, and religions.

Others in the middle and working classes take on a different kind of radicalism. The middle and the working class are at the heart of many contemporary environmental movements, as well as social movements advocating for the rights of minorities. These groups are aware that individual autonomy grows within democratic rules and collective interests.

In Italy, these two groups within the new middle mass are equivalent in electoral votes. However what sets them apart is that the right-wing group is more united than the leftist which is divided along party lines (Democratic Party, Green-Left, and Five Star).

Can people still be persuaded to trust institutions? And if so, how?

People can be persuaded if progressive parties address the quality of work, precarity, the effects of cultural changes and economic deprivation in their political actions. Progressives must abandon solutions that benefit the few and prioritise improving living conditions for most people even if it means temporarily jeopardising the economic interests of some actors. Progressive parties can confront radicalisation by developing a clear strategy for a more equitable and sustainable future in collaboration with civil society.

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