The political left is in disarray across Italy, Europe, and most of the world. Into the vacuum created by the death of communism have poured centrist ‘Third way’ parties and social justice movements. However noble their cause, the disenfranchised working classes increasingly abandon them for new right-wing nationalist parties, who offer them nothing but scapegoats. Here, I propose that the continued popularity of Italian singer-songwriter Fabrizio De André hints at a path forward for a future political thought: one that combines social and economic justice, and most crucially, one that searches with all its heart for an overarching philosophy to provide a secure home for its many ethical calls – environmental, egalitarian and democratic.
Across the world today, we are increasingly seeing a disaffection with traditionally left-of-centre parties, and support for nationalist policies proposed by politicians such as Trump, Salvini and Modi. In Italy, a country on which much of this essay will focus, the Democratic Party (PD) received only around 23% of the national vote in the 2018 election, a massive decrease from its previously commanding share of the votes. Instead, the populist parties took the spoils: the Lega Nord, dominant in the richer north, and the Five Star Movement in the poorer south. Whatever reasons one proposes for this political shift – and much ink has now been used to try and explain it – there can be no doubt that a certain form of politics best epitomised by politicians like Blair, Renzi and the Clintons is falling dramatically from favour across the world.
Of course, to call these politicians and their parties ‘left-of-centre’ is itself too superficial: they have all been described as reflecting a political vision known as the ‘Third Way’, a position that slowly replaced the Marxist ideal of the abolition of capitalism with a marriage between left-wing social welfare policies and the neoliberal economic machine. This article will not focus on the full set of reasons behind the rise and fall of ‘Third Way’ politics: the topic is still far too fresh, and to properly address it would require a lengthy tome for which this author is not qualified. This form of politics retains a significant minority of advocates, and a resurgence cannot be entirely ruled out.
The article will instead focus, perhaps surprisingly, on a specific Italian popular singer whose immense popularity has, if anything, increased in recent years, despite an intrinsic commitment in his lyrics to social justice, anarchist liberty and economic equality totally at odds with the increasing xenophobia and right-wing opinions rampant among the Italian population. Considering the reasons for the strange popularity of this prophetic, poetic voice may help tease out hypocrisies within today’s ‘Third Way’ parties and shine a light into how they need to adapt to survive.
This article is neither a paean nor a personal reflection, but it seems appropriate that in describing Fabrizio De André’s continued popularity since his death in 1999, after a musical career spanning almost 40 years, I begin with admiration to give the context for his continued influence. I recently submitted a short piece for “La mia prima volta con Fabrizio de André: 515 storie” (1), describing among many other entries my first meeting and continued fascination with this singer’s musical and lyrical depth.
This book is only one of many about the singer that can be seen decorating libraries, bookstores and homes across Italy. There are even popular Facebook pages such as “De André racconta la Serie A“, where the Italian obsession with football is combined with handpicked lyrics from De André’s songs, showcasing their truly remarkable application to a rich variety of human situations and emotions. The famous Italian writer and journalist Fernanda Pivano went as far as to describe Bob Dylan as the “American Fabrizio De André”. I agree with her.
Obviously then, there is also his music itself: melodic, beautiful, sometimes crepuscular and brooding. I feel, as a fellow Ligurian, a sense of my childhood memories of that austere, dramatic landscape between mountain and sea coming into light more than with any other art form, alongside perhaps the poet Eugenio Montale.
So much for my own inner life: what is to be addressed here though is the content of his lyrics. That I mention the books about De André before his music is no coincidence: his continued popularity is not simply a question of people loving his music while ignoring his ideas. De André’s lyrics, and by extension his ethical life, appear to be as relevant and fresh as ever.
Continually, quite obstinately, his songs are about marginalised, often poor and rebellious people at odds with society. Off the top of my head, I can think of the Romani people (Sally, Khorakhane), transsexuals (Princesa), homosexuals (Andrea), Native Americans (Fiume Sand Creek, Coda di Lupo), drug addicts (Cantico dei drogati), the victims of the Lebanese Civil War (Sidun) and a veritable slew of songs concerning either overt or implied prostitution and themes of female liberty and oppression (Bocca di Rosa, Via del Campo, Rimini, A Dumenega). He additionally wrote several songs in the native language of his hometown of Genoa, as well as some in Sardinian, Gallurese and Neapolitan, highlighting the minority status of these so-called dialects.
This listing only scratches the surface; I cannot hope to describe the tenderness, warmth and authenticity of these songs, and can only invite you to listen to them all and learn what you need of Italian and the other languages first if necessary. He did not only write songs about the oppressed, but he lived out his philosophy: after being kidnapped by Sardinian bandits for ransom and held hostage for four months, he declared his solidarity with the eventually arrested bandits, claiming: “they were the real prisoners, not I” (while showing absolutely no compassion for the more powerful organisers of the kidnapping, who avoided both directly dealing with the hostages and arrest).
It is very, very difficult to imagine Trump or Salvini supporters siding with this sort of rhetoric, which essentially excuses criminal actions committed due to the chains of poverty. And yet Salvini himself, like a surprising number of right-wing voters in Italy, is a great fan of his music.
With this background now in place, we must ask ourselves: what is it exactly about the content of de André’s ethical attitude to the poor and downtrodden in life that still appeals to people, even those who feel represented by political parties that actively repress minorities and immigrant populations, and how does it contrast with attitudes to social justice and economic policy today?
Let us start with facts. Parties that represent the ‘Third Way’ political ideology now receive what remains of their meagre votes from the rich middle classes instead of the poor and working class, who now mostly vote across Europe for nascent right-wing movements. De André, an avowed anti-capitalist and left-wing anarchist, would without doubt have been horrified by this marriage between democracy and capitalism carried out by what were once egalitarian parties representing the poorer classes. Indeed, he even correctly predicted it in one of his songs, the mesmeric “La Domenica delle Salme”, written shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of communism in Europe. Today, populist parties, while yet to offer concrete political solutions to the disenfranchised, are easily soaking up the votes of many people disaffected with capitalism.
It could be argued instead that in terms of social justice, De André’s impassioned defence of the freedoms of Native Americans and other minorities is perfectly in line with ‘Third Way’ political ideology and with modern-day political activism in support of minority rights such as the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter. De André’s similar vision of human history as a tapestry of various minorities oppressed by various majorities is evident in the lyrics of the song “Smisurata Preghiera“, contrasting scorn for those “high above the shipwrecks from the lookouts of the towers… calmly cultivating the terrible varieties of pride”, with pity for those “with their special mark of special desperation, taking their last steps through the vomit of the rejected”.
The resolution of global societal issues of discrimination, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, has increasingly become a key political issue for the ‘Third Way’ parties, the focus becoming social inequality over economic inequality. The idea of ‘Political Correctness’ (or PC) has been coined as essentially a derogatory slur against these activist movements, the term itself implying that these movements are “not based on a strong principle of rational definition of human nature, but on total relativism”. The author I cite here, Eugenio Capozzi, gives as examples multiculturalism and choice-based sexual identity to demonstrate this relativism (2).
Many of these ‘PC backlash’ discussions are themselves fraught with blinkered thinking and flagrant prejudice. In this case, Capozzi conflates two very different entities indeed, rationality and human nature, and rests his entire argument upon it. Clearly, his ultimate intention is to portray his own thought as wise and rational, and that of social justice movements as irrational, even hysterical, lost somewhere between the unbridled hedonism of the 60s and their modern-day moralising, and he adopts whatever casuistry is necessary to get there. However, perhaps accidentally, he stumbles upon an issue of great relevance to De André, because there can be no doubting that the ethical language social justice movements use to criticise the injustices of society is indeed very forceful. As such, it calls out for a philosophical context that De André spent a lifetime thinking about.
Throughout human history, all lasting social justice movements have had an ethical basis that is either theological or philosophical. Jesus and the prophet Mohammad taught that there was divine law rooted into the structure of existence, ideas still relevant to billions today. Social contract theory, utilitarianism, Kantianism and virtue ethics are all alternative ways to understand what the ‘common good’ is in a world of otherwise egoistic individuals. Marx considers ethics as something impossible to separate from a communist reorganisation of society, but implicit to this thinking is again the idea that individual flourishing (free from the shackles of capitalism) is the ultimate “good”.
Morality, whether God-given or human, is often thought of as a top-down imposition on people by a lawgiver, something that anarchists like De André detest. Inspired poetically by the French Symbolists, and with more than a little in common with anti-establishment writers from Kerouac to Pasolini, de André shared his generation’s fascination with the disruption of traditional values and rebellious, even criminal acts. One of his early intellectual heroes, the individualist anarchist Max Stirner, claimed in his main work “The Ego and His Own” that law, right, morality, religion (and indeed humanism, utilitarianism and liberalism) are all artificial concepts hindering one’s freedom (3). However, despite his clear aversion to political authority, De André remained fascinated by religion throughout his life. In 1969, right in the middle of the student protest movement, he released an album called “La Buona Novella“, an account of Jesus Christ’s teachings as seen through the New Testament apocrypha. He himself described the album as a
“comparison between the better and more sensible instances of the revolt of ‘68, and some instances, certainly higher from a spiritual point of view, but similar from an ethical-social point of view, raised by a gentleman, 1969 years before, against the abuses of power, against the abuses of authority, in the name of egalitarianism and universal brotherhood. That man was called Jesus of Nazareth. And I think he was, and remains, the greatest revolutionary of all time” (4).
In contrast, his attitude to Catholic church hierarchy is shown in many of his songs, where he directly criticises its moralising attitude to the struggles of suicide, drug abuse, prostitution and various other ills. Most famously, he dismantles the Ten Commandments one by one in the song “Il Testamento di Tito” at the end of “La Buona Novella“: a direct confrontation to the idea of specific universal rules from a divine lawgiver. Even as he described these values of an earlier time fading into irrelevance, he was “searching for the values that were missing in a universe of total negation” (4). True revolution, like the kind inspired by Jesus, for De André necessarily brought with it new, and – presumably – better values. However, in presenting his song “La Città Vecchia” at one of his last concerts, a typical early piece describing the struggles and criminal activities of the Genoese subproletariat with characteristic irony and compassion, he said the following words:
“In this song I express that which I have always thought: that there is very little merit in virtue, and very little fault in human error. I say this also as I have never been able to properly understand what virtue and error are exactly, despite my fifty-eight years of age: all we have to do is change latitude [or move through time] and we see how values become non-values and vice versa” (4).
This expressed doubt is strikingly like claims made by analytic moral philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe in her 1958 essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” (5). Anscombe, unlike De André, was a moral philosopher of intense Catholic faith and conservative social views. Nevertheless, she centres her arguments in this famous essay around a very similar idea that the ‘ethically intense’ concepts of moral obligation and duty has, since losing their historical religious platform (in Europe at least), lost their relevance to society completely; and she goes as far to say that the concepts should no longer be used, and that even developing less ‘ethically intense’ ones requires a genuine psychological account of human nature that we currently lack. Of course, we clearly still use a moral ‘ought’ and ‘should’ frequently in everyday speech, as the Catholic church does on abortion and as social justice movements do on varying forms of discrimination. For Anscombe, this use of language is groundless: all modern secular philosophical attempts to return ‘the moral ought’ to its former state have failed. It will be for another article to analyse the validity of Anscombe’s thought in contrast to others: interestingly, her essay led to a resurgence in Aristotelian virtue ethics, in which the ‘moral ought’ is conspicuously absent. For now, let us be struck by the strange similarity of Anscombe and De André’s paradoxical thought, both claiming a fundamental lack of understanding of our moral foundations while simultaneously holding passionate, if very different, ethical views. It is very clear from Anscombe’s uncompromising ethical attitude towards acts like the slaughter of the innocent (5), or from De André’s ‘measureless prayer’ for the dignity of societal outcasts, that both of them felt the ‘moral ought’ profoundly, an ‘ought’ that transcends the conditional and consequentialist thinking inherent to utilitarian thought. And yet, they both seemed painfully aware of a certain absence of philosophical ground for their moral attitude.
It is this absence of grounding that I claim needs to be addressed, or at least accounted for, if left-wing parties are to ever rise phoenix-like from the ashes. They must perform a strictly ethical politics. While politicians like Trump and Salvini portray themselves as brutish rebels who seem to enjoy committing reckless, dangerous acts such as trashing climate protection deals, letting desperate people drown at sea and inciting tribalism between cultural groups, this new form of politics must propose a clear-eyed, universalist philosophical grounding for the many moral imperatives, both social and economic, that it swears by: environmental action, social equality, and economic justice. There will naturally be many disagreements: but unless genuine overarching philosophical frameworks are proposed, I predict that left-wing movements will continue to wallow in a halfway house between social welfare and global neoliberalist policies, and between impassioned social justice and moral relativism.
When I first properly listened to de André, my own political ideas were beginning to form, and my Catholic faith was beginning to fade. It all seemed to crystallise around principles central to De André’s compositions: the root of ‘civility’ as our imagination, required to empathise with other disparate lives and to incessantly struggle against provincial, self-centred forms of thought. Now, like him, I am less certain. Perhaps we will never be certain intellectually what grand principles like ‘justice’ and ‘goodness’ really are: and yet, clearly, we can be deeply moved by them when we see them in practice.
It is almost as if with moral questions, unlike empirical ones, one must begin in the heart, fickle as it is, and only then allow the brain to do the crucial work of dissecting and analysing what is in there: to do otherwise seems to be like discussing musical notes while being congenitally deaf. And the answers, as De André and Anscombe attest, may not come. However, even this humility can create a tremendous amount of love and compassion for those who struggle in life, and for some of those who are condemned by other people’s metrics, whether economical or moral. And the power of this sort of compassion when authentically, poetically expressed remains undeniable, even for those otherwise disillusioned by today’s ‘left-wing’ policies and who vote for toxic, xenophobic parties. Can we harness it?
- Bonanni D., and Anfosso, G., “La mia prima volta con Fabrizio De André: 515 storie” Ibis, 2019.
- Capozzi, E., “Politicamente corretto: storia di un ideologia”, Marsilio Editori, 2018.
- Stirner, M., “The Ego and His Own: The Case of the Individual Against Authority”, Verso: Radical Thinkers series, 2014. Originally published: 1844 in German.
- De André, F., “Sotto le ciglia chissà: i diari”, Mondadori, 2016.
- Anscombe, G.E.M., “Modern Moral Philosophy”, Philosophy, 1958.