In this blog I regularly share excerpts from my research into far-right cities. What happens when parties with non-mainstream, often extreme, policy platforms are given control of urban administrations? Verona elected a mayor from the Lega Nord (Northern League) in 2007. Since then, mayor Flavio Tosi has pursued a distinctive path to change the northern Italian city, one aspect of which is focused upon here.
There is no larger cliché about Italy than its food: its quality, its historicity, its dominant place in national culture and daily life. Flavio Tosi, far-right mayor of Verona, has used his position to try and promote Italian food with heavy-handed bans against ‘inauthentic’ (i.e. foreign) food. The city administration seeks to improve the urban environment by limiting rubbish on the streets, it says. Yet the restrictions have left many who work in kebab shops feeling victimised -a response justified by one recent law singling out Middle Eastern takeaways – and being part of what you might call ‘ethnocentric protectionism’, or, more simply, racism. Is this something similar to the tactics of the far-right mayor of the Austrian city of Wels to promote national culture in its schools (detailed on this blog here)? What exactly is the far-right trying to protect in Verona: traditional food, regional culture, or something else?
Protecting Italian food culture does have a long and respected history, far away from far-right politicians. Middle class tourists from across the globe continously flock to the country to experience the Slow Food movement in its birthplace, for instance. It should be remembered that this movement is itself an example of such food protectionism. The environmentally progressive campaign to protect traditional cuisine against the onslaught of globalising fast food originated in a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s in central Rome in 1986: three years before the Lega Nord was first founded.
We should put mayor Tosi’s food protectionism within the broader context of his changes to Verona. Their focus is in fact not on protecting food culture but on protecting a particular vision of the urban environment. Rather than seeking to promote authentic Italian food culture (which is after all, like all others, a mongrel mix of various influences), the far-right city administration seeks to create clean and orderly public space. As part of this drive, other measures have included restrictions on:
- Prostitution (particularly targeting those suspected of being illegal immigrants)
- Drinking alcohol outside
- ‘Public indecency’ (including standing bare-chested in a ‘non-decent way’)
Verona is not unique in seeking to clean up the city in such a way. The pursuit of global investment and tourism flows encourages urban administrations to conceal their social inequalities and undesirable practices. A related global phenomenon is so-called ‘hostile architecture‘: the reshaping of the urban environment to restrict loitering, skateboarding and – most notoriously of all – homeless people sleeping, with the aid of spikes.
To qualify the changes the far-right administration have made to urban public space in Verona as merely an uncaring pursuit of public order would be reductive and misleading though. As Anna Cento Bull has pointed out in ‘Lega Nord: A Case of Simulative Politics‘, the party derives its (ever increasing) strength from the sustenance of many powerful, positive myths about northern Italian meaning and identity, and the future of the region. The myths are incompatible with the current and future configuration of Italian society and the economy, as the progression of the booming northern Italian economy depends upon its continued integration into the global economy. A further critical incompatibility, as Cento Bull points out, derives from the constraining role of the EU.
Yet the fact that far-right rhetoric could not actually be realised by governments, (particularly by heavily constrained city mayors like Tosi) seems to be of no electoral consequence. The Lega Nord’s vision of tight communities, unchanged by migration, untainted by crime, with streets clean and orderly, is a fiction. But amidst the disorientation and trauma of drastic socio-economic changes, the promise of clear-cut solutions – common sense proposals with visible outputs – have a significant power. Flavio Tosi is certainly ‘cleaning up’ in the phrase’s metaphorical sense: he has been repeatedly re-elected since 2007 and holds impressively high approval ratings (between 65-75%).
Ultimately, Verona’s mayor can no more outlaw public indecency as could President Trump build his infamous Great Wall of Mexico: but their clear narratives of how to deal with a tempestuous world bring increasing support from voters sheltering from the storm.