ROME – One of Pope Francis’s signature innovations is the World Meeting of Popular Movements, a kind of Davos from the bottom up intended to give voice to grassroots organizations, including workers who are at risk or lack job security, all striving to correct what the pontiff has called an “economy of exclusion and inequality.”
From the beginning, Francis has been the world’s leading moral critic of a sort of savage free-market global capitalism, an “economy that kills,” and has relentlessly argued for embracing the ordinary working poor left behind by such a system.
When such workers take to the streets to protest government measures that leave them unable to do their jobs, and thus impoverished and alone, under ordinary circumstances one would expect Pope Francis to be the cheerleader-in-chief. The fact that precisely such protests broke out up and down Italy in recent days without any gesture of papal support – and, in fact, with every reason to believe Francis likely disapproves – speaks volumes about the limits of a populist pope’s populism.
Last week, protests were organized in several Italian cities by restaurant and bar owners objecting to the ongoing shutdown of in-person dining as part of the country’s attempt to stem the latest wave of Covid infections. Under current restrictions, bars and restaurants remain closed at night and are open only for takeout during the day. According to one recent estimate, the restaurant and bar sector of the Italian economy lost a staggering $38.5 billion in 2020-2021 due to the Covid crisis.
Though the rallies were sponsored by the owners, many of those who showed up were cooks, waiters, kitchen staff, bar workers, and other front-line employees, who’ve either lost all income or been getting by on significantly less for more than a year. Many complained it’s impossible to support their families, demanding the government either find a way to make it safe for them to go back to work or provide much greater financial relief than has been delivered so far.
“The problem is we just don’t know what to do. They tell us that we can only do take-aways, but in my neighborhood with a population of 3,000, what kind of take-aways can I do?” said Silvio Bessone, a chef from the northern Piedmont region.
Hundreds of demonstrators, many of them poor street vendors, also blocked Italy’s north-south A1 motorway between Naples and Caserta for several hours.
A few days later, workers at Italy’s national airline company, Alitalia, including flight attendants, mechanics and baggage handlers, staged a similar protest in Rome in response to rumors of massive job cuts at the carrier due to a long-running financial crisis that’s been badly aggravated by pandemic-related shortfalls.
The Alitalia workers charged that unscrupulous managers and shareholders have been squeezing them for years to make up for their mistakes, and are now doing the same thing to pass on the hit from Covid to the people who can least afford it.
“We’re not your ATM!” read one angry sign.
To put all this in context, we’re talking about a few hundred protestors, not hundreds of thousands, and polls continue to show that a slight majority of Italians support the idea that easing of restrictions should be decided on the basis of infection rates and not political considerations. Still, those workers in the streets represent another kind of pandemic victim – not people who got sick, but people whose incomes, job security and personal dignity have been threatened.
There are two reasons why these newly vulnerable and marginalized folks have not drawn the overt, vocal support that Pope Francis would typically bestow in other circumstances. In fact, in most corners of Italian discussion, it’s taken for granted that the Vatican and the pope aren’t on board.
First, from the beginning Francis has been a champion of the medical and scientific consensus on Covid, lending his support to the restrictive measures at critical moments. His stance on Covid is of a piece with his approach to other issues, most clearly global warming and climate change, where he’s insisted that religious believers and people of conscience need to heed the warnings of the experts.
That’s mostly a genuine conviction about the proper relationship between faith and science, though there’s also a measure of politics involved. The plain fact is that Francis and his closest advisers are deeply suspicious of the voices most likely to object to the scientific consensus, since they also tend to be the same far-right, anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist forces that oppose so much of the pope’s social and political agenda.
That brings us to the second reason why the pope has kept his distance, because the Rome protests also drew militants from Italy’s neo-fascist “CasaPound” movement. (The group is named for the American poet Ezra Pound, who was a great admirer of Mussolini during a long period in Italy and who campaigned for the Axis powers during World War II.)
CasaPound became infamous in 2011 when a member named Gianluca Casseri murdered two Senegalese immigrants in Florence and then killed himself to avoid capture by the police.
As the Irish saying goes, “You’ll know the man who boozes by the company he chooses.” In this case, Francis probably doesn’t like the company these protests attracted, whether or not anyone actually invited them.
In a recent video, Francis proposed what he called “popularism” as an alternative to the populist rage represented by the CasaPounds of the world.
“The true response to the rise of populism is precisely not more individualism but quite the opposite: A politics of fraternity, rooted in the life of the people,” Francis said. “I like to use the term ‘popularism’ … it’s about finding the means to guarantee a life for all people that is worthy of being called human, a life capable of cultivating virtue and forging new bonds.”
What remains to be seen is whether the pontiff can find a way to disentangle his “popularist” sympathy for working stiffs struggling amid the Coronavirus pandemic from the “populist” overlay in which their distress often comes wrapped.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.