Lazy Southerners, Malicious Foreigners and Clientelist Parties: The Italian Northern League and the Welfare State

Welfare State
Emmanuel Dalle Mulle
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
Emmanuel Dalle Mulle
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

This paper analyses the welfare state programme and reasoning of the Italian populist and radical right party Northern League (Lega Nord) throughout most of its history—more precisely between 1992 and 2013. It relies on a qualitative content analysis of party manifestos and party papers—the latter published during electoral campaigns—and uses an analytical framework that aims at linking the supply-side literature on the populist and radical right with the theoretical and demand-side one on the welfare state. It looks at the welfare state as a ‘trust game’ based on principles of reciprocity, equity and fairness that play out in two fictive social contracts: one between citizens, whereby welfare contributors provide support to welfare recipients on conditions that these do not cheat the system; one between citizens and the state, whereby the former entrust the latter with the efficient and effective coordination of social support, granting their loyalty to state institutions in return. With regard to the former, building on Van Oorschot’s (2000; 2006) five criteria of welfare deservingness (control, reciprocity, identity, need, attitude), the paper examines how the Northern League has combined these five criteria to justify its conditional understanding of solidarity in the realms of healthcare, pensions, unemployment, housing and social assistance. Concerning the latter, it integrates elements of framing theory (Benford and Snow, 2000: 615-618) and blame avoidance (Weaver, 1986) to inquire into the diagnostic, prognostic and blame attribution frames formulated by the League. The paper shows how the League has developed a conditional conception of solidarity that makes abundant use of the criteria of identity, control and reciprocity, and that singles out three sets of actors for the suboptimal functioning of the Italian welfare system: Southern Italians, who cheat the system to their advantage, especially in the realm of disability pensions, but also in the wider, although not directly relating to welfare, realm of public employment; foreign immigrants, who compete with locals for housing and old-age pensions to which they have not contributed—but also for jobs; traditional parties and the Left, which use the resources of northern Italian welfare contributors to keep southerners and immigrants dependent on state aid for electoral purposes. The deservingness criteria, however, have not been used in the same proportions when relating to southern Italians and immigrants, since the criterion of identity has played a much more important role in justifying the rejection of solidarity with the latter.
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"History is past politics, and politics is past history" - E.A. Freeman

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