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Can the Italian Left Learn to Meme?

Mike Watson

November 8, 2022

On 21st October, Giorgia Meloni formed a government in Italy after her party, the right wing populist Fratelli d'Italia, won a crushing victory over the left. To prosper now the Italian left will need all the creative resources it has both on the streets and online, in ways that are both direct and esoteric. Above all, they need to embrace the diversity and uncertainty that prevail in nature, rather than trying to fight it.

It is well documented, though not proven, that alt-right meme kids may have helped Donald Trump to win the presidency in 2016. What we do know is that the liberty afforded by the internet as a publishing platform allowed a pernicious form of right wing imagery to spread globally acting as a rallying call to right wing extremists -- as seen in Charlottesville and at the Capitol on January 6th 2021. Trump may have been at least partially the outcome of comedically unhinged loners making memes in their bedrooms, but the results were deadly. The same could have been said of Conte’s coalition with right wing populists Salvini and Di Maio.

Salvini’s Lega and Di Maio’s Five Star movement both emerged as major players in national politics due to their use of social media to disseminate populist messaging, much of which seemed innocuous. However, Salvini’s constant posting of anti-immigrant rhetoric alongside posts exclaiming his adoration for foreign food (‘Chinse takeawway to make you lick you lips’ or ‘And now I’ll have myself a beautiful kebab.....’) revealed the dark underbelly of Italy, where superficial xenophilia and deep rooted xenophobia coexist with often tragic consequences for the migrants who seek safety there.

It would appear from recent election campaigns, both in Italy and elsewhere, that the left has tried to match the right’s success with memes. In recent years, both the Corbyn movement and Partito Democratico have attempted to build momentum via social media campaigns. During the UK election of 2019, Momentum, a campaign group that promotes Labour, developed a centralized online forum that encouraged Labour supporters to upload homemade video memes to twitter around coordinated themes and hashtags. More recently, during the Italian election of 2022, the Partito Democratico launched the ‘red and black’ electoral advertising, which featured two clear binary choices to choose between, the ‘correct’ left-aligned choice superimposed onto a red background beside the face of Enrico Letta, and the poor right wing choice imposed onto a black background: with Putin or with Europe; underpaid work or minimum wage, and so on. It would appear likely that the original campaign was designed to go viral, becoming modified in the process in unpredictable ways. The failure of both campaigns was perhaps inevitable. Memes cannot be orchestrated, but must develop organically. If orchestration is suspected then the orchestrated message is often derailed (as seen with the ‘red and black’ meme which became farcical, rather than delivering an incisive political message).

Giorgia Meloni on the other hand, is exemplary of the way in which the right wing benefits from the waywardness of meme culture. In 2019 Meloni’s anti LGBTQ ‘I am Giorgia’ speech was set to dance music. As Barile explains:

"It involved people remixing a speech made at a rally in Rome by right-wing populist politician Giorgia Meloni as she declared, “I am a woman, I am a mother I am a Christian,” in what one might see as a confused simultaneous support for both women (as a gender) and traditional family values."

The effect might have been to make Giorgia Meloni’s speech sound comical, but it hardly mattered because the right wing tendency to exert control means its politicians can simply ride the memetic wave then double down on their bigoted rhetoric with the assurance that the world is watching them. However, they will never assume complete control over the chaotic realm of existence and it is inevitable that their desire to achieve the impossible in this respect will only lead to their continued hysterical attempts to do so. After all, Giorgia’s statement “I am Giorgia…” was an example par excellence of identity thinking. Giorgia is so insecure that she needs to reaffirm her name, her gender and her religion, loudly and publicly, as if God were watching and needed reminding. Similarly, the TikTok video released on the eve of the September 25th elections, featuring Meloni simply holding two Melons in from of her breasts and saying “25 settembre, ho detto tutto” (25th September, I have said all I need), is a gross display of the need for self affirmation as a woman and as “Meloni”.

There would appear to be an inversion of roles, as the right wing embraces the surrealism of the internet, while the left is left flailing and looking for a return to order. Though this is an illusion. The right merely acts according to type, in trying to routinely assert dominance over the chaotic memetic form (as we saw when Trump claimed the image of Pepe the Frog, a comic character that had by then been claimed by the far right). What the left needs to do is succumb to the unpredictability embodied by meme culture and embrace it as an end in itself, as an exemplary promotion of non-identity thinking in a desire to put an end to damaging categorisations vis-a-vis race, gender, sexuality and social class.

Meloni’s desire for control can be seen in the name of the right wing youth movement she herself founded in 1998, Atreju, which was taken from the central character of the film Never Ending Story, who fights to stop the Nothing from engulfing the world of Fantasia (a clear metaphor for the human battle over nature and mortality). Never Ending Story is also a key reference at the end of Stranger Things season 3 where the use of theme song to Never Ending Storymarks a turning point in the battle between the kids of Hawkins and the Mind Flayer, a monster created from US military experiments gone wrong:

"[...] in the thick of battle with the mindslayer, Dustin sings a rendition of the theme to ‘80s fantasy movie Never Ending Story to his long distance girlfriend over his makeshift radio tower, we are reminded that for Adorno, as for Marx, the revolution has no end, and only the creatively stubborn will prosper, by sticking together."

Heard on the radio throughout Hawkins by the beleaguered main characters as they are in the thick of battle, the song gives courage and strength leading to victory over the mindflayer. What the Italian left needs is a similar sense of makeshift creative ingenuity online and on the streets. In Italy and elsewhere they mustn’t let the right claim the unpredictable creative space of online interaction and temper its radicalism in order to ward off ‘nihilism’. We must use our creative ingenuity online and in real life to come to terms with the void (the Nothing the Neverending Story) without embracing weak identificatory categories that give solace (such as that of the patriot and mother). Increasingly, this is needed across the west, where the populist right and center left (or pseudo-left) profit from people’s fears over the incendiary times we live in, drawing on uncertainty to swing further to the right. Now is clearly the time of monsters, it’s time to stop embracing fairytales, and deliver real life monster slayers from the wilds of collective consciousness. This has never happened without creative solidarity.


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