Giacomo Loperfido: “Neither left nor right”: Crisis, wane of politics, and the struggles for sovereignty

When I arrived on the fieldwork in Rome, in early 2008, I was seeking to track and interview the ex-militants of fascism-inspired “Spontaneista groups.” These had been active in the late ’70s, had been very violent, and had claimed to be “neither left nor right.” Their name made reference to the supposed “spontaneity” of their constitution and action, and announced an ideological predilection of instincts and drives over reason and thought.

All of these movements had had a short life of four to six years between the late ’70s and the early ’80s. I was then very surprised when, at my arrival in Rome, I ran into a crowd of students, rallying against the reform of lower education, dressed in black and with shaved heads, crying in the streets the slogan, “Non rossi, né neri, ma liberi pensieri.”1

With somehow similar statements, the Italian Movimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement), started by public figure Beppe Grillo and Internet consultant Gianroberto Casaleggio, has collected an increasing amount of votes, up to the point that it has recently become Italy’s second-largest party. Grillo, who previously had a successful career as a political satirist, was known for his polemics against the entire political establishment, but, in a country where any criticism of power had almost always come from the left, his critiques were generally understood as coming from that side of the political spectrum. This perception changed on 8 September 2007 (Grillo’s Vaffanculo-Day2), when around one million Italians protested against corruption, moral decay, and tax evasions of Italian politicians from left and right. Grillo has recently been able to gain strong electoral momentum by pumping up the volume of his accusations and extending his hunger to the European Union’s politics and institutions, making statements against illegal immigrants and claiming that “popular sovereignty” had been stolen from the people by the politicians.

A few months ago, the so-called Rakes Movement raised claims even more angrily against—generally—any institutional target. Once again, the EU, the government, and “the politicians” from the left and the right were under attack. It started as a spontaneously gathered group of “desperate farmers, petty entrepreneurs, artisans: an impoverished middle class, held together by the only common denominator of not being able to ‘take it [the crisis] any more’” (Revelli 2013). One spokesperson of this group claimed that “the Agency of Revenue has to be closed, high finance forbidden, the euro erased.” Moreover, they asked “for the government to fall, and want all of the public institutions to be disbanded: the parliament, the president of the republic, and every other institution all along” (Gigante 2013).

All of these spontaneous claims of the recent years sound significantly similar to formulations I encountered on my field while studying the Spontaneista groups. And, if one is to push it a little bit further, a constitution of similar ideological forms seems to have appeared even before in the European public arena. At the dawn of the last century, the ensemble of antimaterialist intellectuals that Sternhell has described as the “generation of 1890”—Gustave Le Bon, Pareto, Mosca, Sorel—all participated in the constitution of an intellectual debate, a part of which eventually concretized politically within the fascist regime.

In all of these cases, one can notice a strong antirationalist element of the discourse, a primacy of action and instinct over reason and thought. In this frame, this reassertion of un-rational forces is used to postulate an “end of ideology”: the idea that one’s political commitment would have to be “beyond left and right” (Tarchi et al. 1982). Finally, the practitioners of this “post-ideological turn” often end up claiming to represent the voice of “the people” against a corrupted and globalized political establishment that is not aware anymore of what happens underneath its cosmopolitan stratosphere (Kalb 2011; Mouffe 2005; Friedman 2003).

What are, then, the social and political conditions in which these ideological formations tend to emerge, take direction, and shape? Is there a specific set of structural variations that we can possibly identify across time and relate to the emergence of these specific discourses?

Quite clearly, one common feature stands out if we look at the historical circumstances in which those groups and discourses emerged: they all happen in a time of significant crisis and transformation of the established left.

If the beginning of the last century was the period marked by the decline of the hopes Marxism had raised in the late 1800s, the late ’70s are characterized in a similar way by the hopes the Italian Communist Party (PCI) had raised. But in 1976, when the PCI eventually managed to accede the governmental area by supporting a Christian Democrat cabinet, expectations of a positive transformation were left without answer. Less than a year later was the beginning of the so-called “movement of 1977,” when spontaneously constituted groups and movements started a radical contestation of the whole political system and no distinction was made between left and right. Even if we look at the emergence of more recently constituted political formations like Movimento 5 Stelle, the Rakes Movement, or the Blocco Studentesco, we notice how they all established themselves as relevant political phenomena between 2007 and 2008, when the second left-wing government in the past forty years was proving to be completely disappointing, once again, in relation to the expectations it had raised. It would thus appear that some kind of structural relation binds the crisis of the left to the emergence of political reactions that claim to be “post-ideological.” But—we should ask—what are the underpinnings of this failure, and how does the latter come to transform the logics and mechanisms of ideological production within a given political arena?

What I will try to do with the rest of the paper is to focus on the historical experience of the Spontaneista groups I studied in Rome and attempt to see if there is any generalizable feature that could help us to understand their constitutive logic.

The main groups within the Spontaneista galaxy were Costruiamo l’Azione (Let’s Build the Action) founded in 1978, Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (Armed Revolutionary Squads) founded in 1979, and Terza Posizione (Third Position) also founded in 1979. All three were animated in their political passions by, on one side, a strong, unmediated refusal of the political system as a whole, and, on the other side, the desire for an alliance with the extreme left in order to fight together the political elite. In 1978, for example, Costruiamo l’Azione group declared on its fanzine:

We recognise our former mistakes and we are saying to leftists: wake up boys! Don’t let them fuck you again, haven’t you been the trained monkeys of the state for long enough? […] Our enemies are the same and they all gang up against us, let’s fight the filthy shit-hole together!3 (Anonymous 1978)

Third Position, on the other hand, indicated by its name that refers to the will of overcoming the distinctions between left and right, was in favor of a total identification with “the people” of which they claimed to be the only authentic representative. Similar statements were made by the Armed Revolutionary Squads.

All of these groups were, in fact, denouncing a general verticalization of the ways power was practiced and exercised in the society of their day. According to a plurality of accounts (Asor Rosa 1977; Crainz 2003; Lanaro 1992), the mechanisms of political representation were substantially eroded already in the late ’70s: the once different segments of political society had been assimilated into one another, categories like left and right were becoming increasingly irrelevant, and it had become very difficult, as two observers noted already in 1974, “to distinguish a Social Democrat from a Christian Democrat, a Communist from a Socialist, and even certain given Liberals from certain weakened Marxists” (Scalfari and Turani 1974: 9).

Chantal Mouffe has analyzed a similar kind of transition in relation to much more recent times. Mouffe indicates that a transition toward “a post-adversarial” mode of politics has been supported not only by the political convergence (and sometimes alliance) of the institutional left and right but also by academic bannermen of the “third way” like Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck. Then we see the “incapacity of traditional parties to provide distinctive forms of identification around possible alternatives” (2005: 55; but see also Zizek, 2000).

What comes up as an unforeseen consequence is that the convergence of the political antagonisms toward an un-differentiated center also implies the progressive exclusion (and successive alienation) of those “marginals” of the political system that were once included in a much more far-reaching mechanism of political representation.

This seems to be the context in which “neither left nor right” ideas and ideologies find meaningfulness and political momentum. They in fact—quite paradoxically—establish themselves in the political arena as responses to the uniformization of political and social differences between the established left and right and aim at collecting the support of those who’ve been left out by the shrinking mechanism of representation. In a way that is curiously similar to what is expressed by the political elite they contest, these groups proclaim to represent a “post-ideological” form of politics. Nevertheless, if the latter promotes a “post-adversarial” ideal, the former rearticulate conflict and overheated forms of political opposition as their basic operational modes.

This particular realignment of power is not new in itself, as Italy shows, and tends to appear in socially and historically situated circumstances. Looking at these, would thus allow us to make the connection with particular social and economic transformations that might be involved in the formation to these political epiphenomena. In this regard, what Mouffe seems to fail in grasping—while only focusing on the political level—are the social process of class transformation that underlie the political transition to the “post-ideological mode,” and, I believe, the early case of Italy helps us to make that more visible.

Again in one of the “Costruiamo l’Azione” mimeographs, we can read:

The masters Agnelli and Berlinguer, along with their servants, are plotting together to criminalize every substantial opposition. (Anonymous 1978)

Those who are identified with “the masters” here are Berlinguer, the general secretary of the PCI, and Agnelli, the owner of Fiat (the biggest industry in the country) and then-president of the Confederation of Industrialists. It is important to note that what is expressed in the quote is not simply a denunciation of the connivance between people who are meant to represent left and the right. In that case, Andreotti (then the Christian Democrat prime minister backed by the Communist Party), and not Agnelli, would be standing together with Berlinguer. The representation of an alliance between the major industrialist of the country and the secretary of the major “working-class party” is a statement that in fact goes much further. It does acknowledge a relevant transformation in the way class interests are articulated through political positionalities that were once (but are clearly no longer) considered to be the expression of solidarities internal to, and consistent with, class structure. To denounce the betrayal of these internal solidarities is also to renounce to them. The latter mechanism seems thus to implicate the disintegration and disarticulation of the internal sodalities of class, at least at the representational level. It is a process that opens up symbolic room and opportunities for the formation of interclass and intraclass alliances at the political level, ending up with the quite likely new formation of class, subclass, and intraclass clusterings.

In relation to the Italian case, Scalfari and Turani have noted how, in those years, a commonality of interests between the ruling elite and the liberal bourgeoisie had created a “new class” that they termed “state bourgeoisie.” Massimo Paci only became more sociologically detailed in the description of these new social formations:

The industrial bourgeoisie has attended the emergence of a new “financial bourgeoisie,” with which it has only partially integrated. On the other hand, the latter has engaged in a rather tight partnership—in terms of speculative business—with the governmental political class, this one itself appearing to have recently become a social class in its own terms. (Paci: 1996: 701)

The obvious outcome of these processes of change is what Strathern has described as a disintegration of the class paradigm, the latter being intended as the framework of social meaning upon which our socially situated “point of view” rests (Strathern 1992: 142). Wolf has shown—in a powerful exploration of the relationships between power and meaning—how a new social axiom (or “framework of meaning,” in Strathern terms) enters into conflict with an old one; it also challenges “the fundamental categories that empower its dynamics” (Wolf 1989: 593). In this sense, a “logico-aesthetic [dis]integration” of the categorical order is likely to mirror the disintegration of class sodalities and change the nature and subject of more general discourses that animate social life.

In Italy, for example, the reference to the “working class,” usually during the ’70s, seems to have progressively disappeared, not only from the discourse of its traditional adversaries, but also—Guido Crainz notes (2003: 563)—from the narratives of the political left itself. French journalist Eric Conan calls attention to how much the category of “the people” was largely present in public discourses of the ’70s but nowadays is nowhere to be found. Not only in politics but also when it comes to art, literature, and cinema, the “working class,” once almost overrepresented as a subject, has today basically disappeared (Conan: 2004). At the ethnographic level, one of my Spontaneista informants shows how this process of fragmentation in meaning, among people of his generation, influenced a reorientation in life projects and reorganization of life structure:

[T]he divide started between those who still believed in “the future of labor,” and those who had started to refuse this view. Among people of my age there was kind of an opposition: … some believed that our society would have been functioning well in any case, and thus they aimed at finding a girl, getting married as soon as they could, and creating a family. Some others believed they could look at things in a different way … On the one side, people felt free to do whatever they felt like, or at least, they knew they had just to follow their interests; whereas, on the other side, people were still expecting things to always follow the same scheme, because “it is like that, it’s always been, and so it will be forever.” (C. interview: 23)

The overgrowth of a postindustrial middle class and the progressive disintegration and fragmentation of the remnants of the industrial working class seem to have encouraged a process of dichotomization of social political identifications. Here the principal distinction is not any longer related to one’s position within the worlds of labor but whether one has a stable occupation or not, and thus whether, “before being above or below in the social hierarchy, one is included or excluded” (Sue 1995: 219).

The political rearticulation of these processes of social transformation is one that claims to be not only a-political but antipolitical. Spontaneista movements claimed to represent the end of ideologies and to have buried politics. As our informant once mentioned to me, “the goal [of political conflict] is not any longer to get an higher salary or to be integrated into a higher system of privileges but is an affirmation of identity […] while at the same time representing a rupture with the social structure in its totality” (C. interview: 15).

In a similar way, Revelli tells us how in the Rakes Movement “politics are banned from the order of the discourse. Too deep is the abyss that has separated representatives and represented, between the language spoken ‘above’ and the vernacular spoken ‘below.’ Too vulgar has been the exodus of the left, of whole of the left, from the spaces of life” (2013).

In a political universe where lower segments of society don’t feel to be represented anywhere by those who are in power, class no longer fits as the social-organizational paradigm through which sovereignty can be practiced and articulated into politics. At the same time, it is rather easy to note how the slow disappearance of the use of class as a relevant political category has weirdly corresponded to the progressive expansion of a discourse on “civility.” Since the ’80s, the growing categorical hegemony of notions like “the civil society” and “civil” or “human” rights seems to include implicit references to what is considered “not” to be civil. Once again, similar processes were happening during the Italian ’70s as well, where the established society started to define itself more and more in opposition to an expanding domain of alienated outsiders. One of the leaders of the PCI, for example, ended up stating that “out of the party system, within the actual social reality of our country, there’s nothing but authoritarianism and dictatorship” (Cossutta 1974: 107).

Asor Rosa foresaw how those processes generally lead to essentialization of political categories, thereby establishing the representation of politically situated alternatives as the expression of voices of “two different societies.” In this view, the “two societies” look at each other as alien entities, each threatening to disintegrate the other in order to satisfy its own needs. On the one hand, the established society of warranted people recategorizes its own dropouts and outsiders as dangerous criminals, uncivil or undemocratic. On the other hand, the outsiders tend to federate, while reappropriating the category of “the people” as a unifying symbol capable of overcoming the old distinctions between left and right. As in the opposite case, this also happens via a moral essentialization of the “other” against which the unwarranted society defines itself: the established society (Asor Rosa 1977: 63–68).

In this frame, the progressive renunciation to the possibility of playing an adversarial conception of politics organized around class lines seems to force changing structures of sociality into a polarized mode of behavior following which social conflict and negotiation among peers are repressed by means of moral classification of the adversary. This leads to a paralysis of the confrontational organization of politics through which sovereignty is usually negotiated and expressed in democratic systems. What we saw in Italy in the ’70s (and I believe we increasingly see in the present day) is a process of disintegration of life structures in which impaired subjects search for security while trying to integrate themselves into collectivities that, not relying on class anymore, can only define themselves in cultural terms. It then becomes easier to understand how structural economic crises tend to trigger the kinds of political transformations we have tried to describe above.

On one side, a self-referential political elite renounces to represent the difference of political positions of left and right in order to defend a unique project of conservation of already established positions of privilege. On the other side, increasingly alienated individuals and groups who “can’t take it any more” search for “security in identity” while also federating around a post-ideological vision of politics that promises—if deceptively—to give them back some form of control over their own conditions of existence.

Giacomo Loperfido is a social anthropologist and a member of the ERC Grassroots Economics project (GRECO). His research has dealt with the formation of radical ideologies in the wider context of global systemic crisis and the decomposition of larger political and institutional orders.

1. “Neither left nor right: we’re only free minds.”

2. “Fuck-off Day.”

3. My italics.

Anonymous. 1978. Costruiamo l’Azione, April n. I, p. 1.

Asor Rosa, Alberto. 1977. Le due società. Ipotesi sulla crisi Italiana. Torino: Einaudi.

Conan, Eric. 2004. La gauche sans le peuple. Paris : Fayard.

Cossutta, Armando. 1974. Il finanziamento pubblico dei partiti. Rome: Editori Riuniti.

Crainz, Guido. 2003. Il paese mancato : Dal miracolo economico agli anni ottanta. Rome: Donzelli.

Donolo, Carlo. 1977. Mutamento o transizione? Politica e società nella crisi italiana. Bologne: Il Mulino.

Friedman, Jonathan. 2003. Globalization, dis-integration, re-organization. In Jonathan Friedman, ed., Globalization, the state, and violence. Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira.

Gigante, Clarissa. 2013. Il Giornale, December 10.

Kalb, Don. 2011. Introduction : Headlines of nation, subtexts of class : Working-class populism and the return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe. In Don Kalb and Gabor Halmai, eds., Headlines of nation, subtexts of class : Working-class populism and the Return of the repressed in neoliberal Europe. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Lanaro, Silvio. 1992. Storia dell’Italia Repubblicana. Venise: Marsilio.

Mouffe Chantal. 2005. The end of politics and the challenge of right-wing populism. In Francisco Panizza, Populism and the mirrors of democracy pp. 50–71. London: Verso.

Revelli, Marco. 2013. Il Manifesto, December 12.

Scalfari, Eugenio and Giuseppe Turani. 1974. Razza Padrona, storia della borghesia di Stato. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Sue, Roger. 1994. Temps et ordre social: Sociologie des temps sociaux. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Tarchi, Marco, ed. 1982. Al di là della Destra e della Sinistra. Rome: LEDE.

Wolf, Eric. 1990. Facing power : Old insights, new questions. American Anthropologist 92(3): 586–596.


Cite as: Loperfido, Giacomo. 2014. “‘Neither left nor right’: Crisis, wane of politics, and the struggles for sovereignty,” FocaalBlog, November 7,