An American Leftist Gets Elected in Italy
COMMENTARY: What Elly Schlein’s ascendancy says about our current political moment.
The mainstream American press does not generally pay much attention to Italian politics, except, perhaps, to ridicule former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s antics or to fret about the return of “fascism.” Therefore, a few weeks ago, I was curious to see how they would cover the election of Elly Schlein to the leadership of the Democratic Party, Italy’s main leftist political formation. After all, Schlein is the first American to lead a major Italian political party and be a possible future prime minister.
It turns out that even this was not enough to attract the interest of the U.S. media, but I thought it was significant.
When I describe Schlein as “American,” I am not referring only to the fact that she is a U.S. citizen and that her father is from New York (he is a political scientist who married an Italian and raised his family in Switzerland). I also mean that her politics are American: She learned the ropes of politics as an activist in the Obama presidential campaigns, and her ideas match closely the standards of today’s American social left.
The “sacred” causes, those that cannot be questioned and mark the ultimate divide between friends and enemies, are those concerning individual “rights.” (You know the list.) Next are global warming and other environmental issues and the plight of immigrants. Finally, she wants to institute a minimum wage and regulate the Italian “gig economy.”
However, even the economic planks of her platform do not seem designed to protect the “old” working class, the traditional constituency of the left. Rather, they are tailored to the needs of what I would call the “wannabe professional class,” meaning younger, typically urban, well-educated people like her who cannot find enough full-time jobs in the service sector.
Schlein’s persona will also be familiar to American readers. She is a relatively young woman (37), a stereotypical “millennial.” She belongs to the well-off professional middle class (both her parents are university professors), attended good schools, lived in multiple countries (she holds three passports), and is nonreligious and bisexual (currently living with another woman). Schlein describes herself as an “intersectional” progressive-feminist-environmentalist. She seems to live in a world of absolute moral clarity, in which she is on the side of the angels, fighting for “social and environmental justice.”
In short, she belongs to a “type” that can be found all over the Western world but which has reached its “Platonic perfection” in the U.S. Thus, we might say that her rise concludes the “Americanization” of the Italian left, a process which arguably started back in the 1970s, when the Italian Communist Party gave up on the Marxist revolution and accepted becoming part of the “West” — meaning the new secular, neo-capitalist polity that had developed in North America and Europe during the Cold War.
Schlein’s election has prompted many Italian columnists to quote the late Catholic thinker Augusto Del Noce, who famously predicted that the post-communist left would become a “mass radical party,” meaning an American-style liberal party invested in individual rights and cultural politics. Del Noce, of course, could not predict that one day the very leader of the “new” Italian left would be of American descent, but he certainly would have found it symbolic.
If I had to choose one word to describe Schlein and the culture she represents (which is, essentially the dominant “liberal” culture of the West), I would pick bourgeois. Decades ago, when today’s world was taking shape, thinkers like Jacques Ellul and Del Noce himself used this word to indicate a vision of humanity centered around an individualistic and worldly idea of happiness. The bourgeois is the man (or woman) who systematically acquires and uses material goods, but also experiences and relationships, to achieve “well-being.” For him/her, the “other” must be ultimately an instrument because his or her identity is self-contained, so to speak. He or she may “have loved many men and women” (as Elly Schlein said of herself in an interview), but ultimately there is a distance between people that cannot be bridged because everyone is an atomic “seeker of happiness.”
This worldview should be contrasted with the Christian vision, in which human beings carry an image of the Trinity, and, therefore, happiness is intrinsically relational: We are literally constituted by our relationships with other people (e.g., our parents), and we reach our ultimate fulfillment in relationship with God. This is the idea of beatitude, which is in a sense the opposite of the bourgeois idea of happiness. As Del Noce says in his book The Age of Secularization, “If man does not participate at all in some form of reason or absolute value, if he does not find himself united to other men by an ideal bond, then he cannot see in nature or in other men anything but obstacles to or instruments for his own realization. Just recall the ancient idea that human love is infinite and cannot be satiated by any finite good.”
Del Noce adds:
“Now, the idea of well-being [...] is nothing but the transposition of Augustine’s beatitude from the vertical dimension to the horizontal plane. The ascent to God is replaced by the idea of conquering the world, of the individual subject’s right to [possess] the world. This right has no bounds because, having been called into the world without his will, the subject feels that he has the right to infinite satisfaction in the world itself, almost as a compensation for this call. But, of course, a single man cannot achieve this conquest entirely. He can make others his instruments, but by making himself their instrument in turn; and this mutual instrumentalization, this collaboration without any ideal goals, is what today is called ‘sociality.’ [...] The man of well-being experiences a surrogate of freedom, no longer in liberation from the lower and perceptible needs and interests, but in the reciprocity of the erotic process.”
The difference between the two visions can be easily detected in the political realm.
Schlein, for example, is in favor of a public monopoly of education, because clearly the state should “protect” children (as budding bourgeois individuals who are not yet fully able to choose their religion, gender and so on) from encroachment by their own family. The most symbolic example, of course, is abortion, on which Schlein holds extreme, “American” positions. The bourgeois mind literally cannot process a situation in which two human lives are so radically intertwined that one depends entirely on the other. Thus, it suffers a sort of “short-circuit” and in order to affirm the right to happiness of one individual is forced to deny the very right to exist of the other.
Schlein is, to my mind, a perfect example of a crucial phenomenon in contemporary politics: In recent decades, the bourgeois spirit has found its political home on the left more than on the right. It has even co-opted the traditional Marxist language of revolutionary liberation, except that it uses it prevalently to fight “culture wars” and defend the interests on non-economic groups (defined by race, sexuality, gender identity, etc). Even though in Italy people like Ms. Schlein often have communist grandparents, and have inherited from them many Marxist ideas, they are not Marxists in the classical sense. Their utopia is strictly individualistic and bourgeois.
To conclude, whether Schlein will be able to resurrect the electoral fortunes of the left and form a government some years down the road remains to be seen. Similar to what happens in the U.S., Italian Catholics have responded to her election by dividing along ideological lines, either expressing opposition or trying to find common ground, picking and choosing the “issues” that support their preference.
Regardless of who is right (I personally think she would be a pretty bad prime minister), I wish they all were more aware of the worldview she represents, because such awareness is the precondition for both intelligent opposition and any type of dialogue.