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New Right, Italian Style
Francesco Giubilei talks with Gladden Pappin about the Roman Empire, Italian politics and how to misunderstand China
Beginning today, Postliberal Order launches a new subscriber-only feature: occasional interviews with leading political figures whose work figures prominently in our emergent postliberal order. The first is Francesco Giubilei, interviewed by Gladden Pappin last week on the grounds of CPAC Hungary. Giubilei is one of the leading conservative political entrepreneurs in Italy, and author of The History of European Conservative Thought. He is president of the Fondazione Tatarella as well as of Nazione Futura, an Italian cultural movement. Catch him on Twitter @giubileif. Read below and subscribe to Postliberal Order today!
Francesco Giubilei, you are an Italian conservative, and you’ve been at the head of developing conservatism in Italy. What does it mean to be a conservative in Italy today?
It means first to present a different vision of conservatism from the one portrayed in the mainstream media. If you’re an Italian, we have to talk about Latin conservatism, and in some way there is also an Italian conservatism. We have many points in common with American and English conservatism, but at the same time we have many different emphases.
The idea of Latin conservatism is one that is linked with the Catholic tradition. To be sure, also in the United States there are some Catholics who are conservative, but the main tradition of American conservatism is probably not linked with the Catholic religion.
To be a Latin conservative and an Italian conservative means to have more attention on the welfare state—a point in common with social conservatism [Editor’s note: “social conservatism” in the Latin world refers to conservative-oriented state support]. It means to have a vision of a strong state in the strategic sector. This is different from, for example, the libertarian view of society. It means that we want a strong state in defense, we want a strong state in the defending of our borders, we want a strong state in the energy sector.
Francesco Giubilei spoke to Postliberal Order’s Gladden Pappin on the fringes of CPAC Hungary.
But at the same time, we don’t want the state to tell us how to live, how to speak—we don’t want a strong state in our private lives—we don’t want a strong state in the economic private sector. We don’t want such strong taxation like unfortunately we have in Italy, or such a strong bureaucracy like we have. So, I think it’s important to explain that Italian conservatism has a different tradition from the English one that was theoretically born with Burke’s Reflections.
Our conservatism has two pillars. One is the Roman Empire: our conservatism was born with the idea of the mos maiorum of the Roman Empire. And in the second respect, our conservatism was born with the idea of the Catholic Church. We have these two pillars, and that means that the Middle Ages, which everyone derides, for us represents an important period. If you go to central Italy, Tuscany and Umbria, you can see how the medieval idea was important. If you talk about Dante, he was a totally medieval poet, totally Catholic poet. So we don’t have to just talk against the medieval period; it creates one of the important aspects of our identity.
As an Italian, we are part of Western civilization but especially we have our local identity. Local identity is deeply felt in Italy. If a person comes from one city—from Tuscany, from Siena—he has a totally different view of society from a person of Pisa, because they have historical differences. So we have a local identity, national identity and a European identity. That is, in some way, what it means to be an Italian conservative.
You have a number of different right-wing and conservative political parties in Italy. If you look at the numbers, often they add up to a sizable portion of the Italian electorate; Lega is part of the governing coalition. What’s the current state of play among the key Italian right-wing parties?
We have three center-right parties: Forza Italia (the classical liberal party), Fratelli d’Italia or Brothers of Italy (which defines itself as a conservative party) and Lega (more identitarian, sovereigntist); but the two bigger conservative or identitarian or right-wing parties are Lega and Brothers of Italy, whose leaders are Matteo Salvini (Lega) and Georgia Meloni (Fratelli). In some way it’s good having two big conservative parties, but the problem is that they sometimes argue and don’t prioritize making an alliance—especially for next year’s national election, it’s a priority that the center-right be all together. We have to fight the Left, not inside the center-right. So we have to try to find cooperation on the right—to talk to each other about the points in common between Lega and Fratelli d’Italia, and not to talk every day about the differences that exist.
There is a conflict happening in eastern Europe, in Ukraine, between Ukraine and Russia. What is the attitude toward that among the Italian people generally, and among the Italian right-wing parties in particular? Going back to what you said about the Roman Empire, what does Italy see as its sphere of concern?
It’s a great question. I think that there are many problems in Italian political debate about this topic. First of all, of course, what Russia did was something that we have to condemn. You cannot attack a sovereign state, and what Putin did was a mistake. I think we don’t have to have any ambiguity in that. It was a mistake. That is, of course, clear.
After that we have to ask, right now, what do we have to do? In my opinion, we have to find a diplomatic solution—we have to find peace. How can we find peace? We have to find peace also in talking with Russia. Many people, however, don’t want to talk with Russia.
I think the bigger mistake that some people, including conservatives, are making in Italy, is trying to say that the United States, Joe Biden and the Biden administration are all the same thing. Of course we are friends, allies, and we like the American people and the United States—as a vision of society. But that is different from the Biden administration. You can criticize a political administration if it does something that is not correct.
Yet sometimes I read even conservative Italian writers that are more pro-Biden and pro-Atlanticist than Americans. For myself I agree in some way with the vision of Tucker Carlson and many important American writers, that it was a mistake what Russia did, and we are with the West—but at the same time we have to stop creating more tension, because it can be more dangerous.
More tension will be dangerous especially for us Europeans. Two of our Italian banks, Unicredit and Intesa Sanpaolo, have twenty-five billion euros of exposure to Russian banks. At the same time, we import 43 percent of our gas from Russia. We are also the number five economy in terms of export to Russia: many small Italian industries work with Russia. So, our national interest in this moment is to try to find a peaceful solution. If we continue in this way of raising tensions, it will be a problem for Italian families that will pay more of the cost of energy. It will be a problem for our economy, because many small and medium companies cannot continue to have business with Russia.
Sometimes the Left says “If you criticize Biden, you are anti-American.” We say, “Come on—I’m not anti-American, I’ve worked with America for many years, probably when you really were anti-Americans!” This is politics. If a president of the United States does something that is not so correct, the Americans criticize it and I think that we have to criticize it as European people. But that doesn’t mean to be in favor of Russia.
What do you think American conservatives should know about the present and future of the European Union? It can be a kind of black box to Americans, and obviously they just think of the European Union as a liberal-left superstate. But what are the dynamics that you see—what should conservatives be watching?
I think, Gladden, that what you are doing here—and it’s not because I’m talking to you, but I really think it—what some American intellectuals and thinkers are doing, is important. You came to Europe and you tried to understand how the European people think, what the European Right and European conservatism is like. In the past some American intellectuals made the mistake to think that Europe is totally similar to the United States. It’s not true. It’s the same mistake that western Europeans make when they come to Hungary or central Europe. Many journalists think that the people of central Europe think in the same way as western European people. But it’s a mistake, because we have a different societies. It’s important for American thinkers to really want to understand how Europeans think, and also to try to have a strong alliance—and strong friendships.
As Italians, Germans, French and Americans, as western European people, we are making a great mistake with China—because we think that the Chinese think the same way as us. China is a really old civilization, and they’re dangerous because sometimes Western people imagine themselves “superior.” People thought of China as an undeveloped country—till ten years ago. But look what is happening now in China. They have a totally different way of thinking their society. Look what is happening with COVID, with the people in Shanghai that are imprisoned in their houses—this is a dictatorship, a Communist dictatorship. So we have to understand foreign politics in a different way—reading foreign politics with the eye of people of different countries. If we don’t do that, we can really lose in twenty or thirty years—in Africa, Asia, and the whole of eastern Europe.
You mean that we could lose out to Chinese influence in those areas?
I mean that the big threat to our values is China, in this moment. I think that China could be really dangerous, and so the only way to stop China is to start thinking how the Chinese think. We should defend our values, but not take our categories and assume that, since we are in favor of gender equality, also the Chinese are in favor of gender equality—that’s completely fake. We are for a free society, and we also think that the Chinese are for a free society. We of course want to defend the right of the workers, and we say, if we defend the right of the workers, also the Chinese want to do that—but it’s not true, unfortunately. So what we have to do is, if we are in a cultural war or in an economic war, we have to try to understand how the enemy thinks—not think that the enemy thinks like us.
Many Chinese people study in American universities—they arrive in the United States, they learn how Americans think, they come back to their country and do the same. If we talk about the law of the Chinese state, the law of the Chinese state is made by the Roman law. Many Chinese people that are linked to the government come to the Italian university in Rome, La Sapienza, they study the Roman law and after that they go back to China and they know everything about us. My point is: we do not know so much about them, and this is dangerous.
We’re talking today in Hungary. Do you think that what is going on in central Europe is unique and nonreplicable or is there a lesson here for conservatives?
I think that here the Orbán government has a vision. So, you can criticize it—you can say: I don’t like Orbán, I hate Orbán, I hate the Hungarian model. But you can’t deny that there is a vision—a vision not linked to one year, but to five years, ten years, twenty years. That’s important.
What we miss totally in western European countries is the vision. In our country, we change government every two years, we change our foreign politics, we change our view of society, and that can be dangerous. What is great about Hungary is that they invest not only a lot of money in think tanks and foundations, but they invest people in exploring different ideas of the future of Europe, linked to the Western vision of the future of Europe.
I always quote Gramsci, but I think that Gramsci is important to understand how society is built. It’s important that conservative governments, when they are in power, create an alliance between think tanks, foundation, the academy and politics. What is happening here is that the foundations and think tanks work because there is, behind them, politics—and the polity works because there are think tanks.
The problem of western European conservative governments is that sometimes, when they are in power, they are scared—they are scared that liberal media can attack them if they grant money to conservative foundations. Maybe there would be some leftist anchormen that say, Look, they are giving money to someone that’s fascist, that is racist, that is homophobic. Although we are not often in power, when we are in power we miss the occasion because conservatives don’t receive political support. Sometimes we have a Right more linked with Left ideas when it’s in power. When the Right is in opposition, they fight for conservative values; when they are in power, they’re scared. And this is an incredible mistake. I don’t know whether it’s the same in the United States—with Trump probably not.
Exactly. Well, that’s part of why Trump was such a change, and that he attracted people. Conservatives are tired of getting into power and then being afraid. People want to have a victory.
Let me give an example. We have in Italy some cities or regions where the Right wins, and the right-wing mayor or regional president has to nominate, say, the president of a public foundation, the president of the theater, the president of a festival . . . they nominate left-wing people! But when the Left is in power, they nominate left-wing people, too! The thought on the right is that if we nominate Left people, afterward these people will be my friends. But it’s false! Of course when you are in power you are my friend—because there’s money, there’s a position. When you lose, of course, you are not their friend any longer—because they’re left-wing people! And so it’s something that is incredible.
Thank you so much, Francesco, that was great.
Thank you, Gladden. Grazie.