Some notes on Italy’s upheaval

by · February 27, 2013

What kind of anti-austerity is this?

In the end the results of Italy’s general election were even more unsettling than the most pessimistic pro-Euro commentators had anticipated. As this post was being completed, the lower house counts were as follows:

  • Pier Luigi Bersani’s centre-left coalition 29.5%
  • Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition 29.1%
  • Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement 25.5%
  • Mario Monti’s Civic Choice 10.5%

The shake up of the party system is big enough until one looks at some of the details and realises it’s even more profound. The “centrist” technocrat Monti, who was charged with implementing the Troika’s policies when the last Berlusconi regime disintegrated in 2011, has been humiliated. Worse for “the markets” Bersani’s pro-austerity team also failed to get a clear mandate. And the centre-left was pro-austerity despite its leading Democratic Party component being the effective inheritor of Italy’s once-powerful Communist tradition (it is especially depressing to see the leading intellectual light of Italian operaismo [workerism], Mario Tronti, winning a seat for the Democrats in Lombardy). As UK blogger Ben Folley put it:

The political trajectory of the mainstream Italian left has been to reject social democracy and shift rightward to replicate something more akin to the US Democrats …  Ahead of the election, [Bersani] reportedly told the Wall Street Journal he “would stick to the fiscal commitments Italy has made to its European partners, wouldn’t roll back the pension and labor overhauls introduced by Mr. Monti and wouldn’t be held hostage on labour issues.”

With the technocrats and the official Left promising more austerity, the field was open to Berlusconi (still down by 18 percent on 2008) and the maverick anti-politician Grillo to campaign against it. And in doing so they won well over half the vote. While the reanimated Berlusconi remains a figure of the Right, Grillo plays on being Neither Left Nor Right, with an economic and social program cobbled together with ideas from both sides.

The majority of Italian voters were clearly against austerity policies. The fact that this was not expressed through an upsurge of votes for the usual suspects on the Left was due to the dominant Left politics conceding the anti-austerity space to the populist rhetoric of Berlusconi and the anti-establishment movement of Grillo.

Decomposing the old order

One of the clear sources of this political decomposition is the Eurozone crisis, which shows no signs of abating. London-based Marxist economist Michael Roberts has outlined the economic problems afflicting Italy and how these have been worsened by the prescriptions of EU central bankers. Italy, like Spain, has fallen into a second dip of recession and there is no evidence that austerity will resolve the government debt crisis that has been the alleged target of policymakers.

But despite Italy’s economic troubles, they are still considerably less devastating in their impact than those in Greece or Spain. And yet the electoral storm has been almost as destructive to the old political order, but also less predictably pivots on familiar Left-Right lines. To understand why this is so it’s important to grasp that its origins are to be found in a longer-run crisis of official politics, of a somewhat more chaotic form than elsewhere in Europe.

Probably the most important expression of this is how Italy’s post-WWII political system never fully recovered from the blow of sprawling organised crime scandals, Tangentopoli, laid bare in the early 1990s. Not only were the Christian Democrats and Socialist Party wiped off the electoral map because of their involvement, but the Berlusconi / post-Communist axis that superseded them had to engage in coalition building whose main achievement in the name of “stability” was securing less frequent changes of government than the post-war norm. But they also produced repeated scandals, growing public cynicism, declining voter turnout (see graph, above, from Roberts’ blog), and high levels of political volatility in the absence of major social resistance or economic crisis. Both sides had to rely on more radical formations to make up the numbers: Berlusconi on post-fascists and Lega Nord separatists, the Left on Rifondazione Comunista.

Still, the Right and Left electoral coalitions scored at least 80 percent of the vote between them in the five elections 1994-2008, while this week they couldn’t even scrape together 60 percent. The accumulation of political problems before the economic crisis has now lurched into a new and more dangerous phase.

[That not just economic but political crisis can spread so rapidly through the Eurozone, and for elites to find they cannot “quarantine” it, is also relevant. If the state relates to capital-in-general most in its form as money capital, through the operations of central banks in particular, then the very structure of the Eurozone lends itself to political disruption propagating across borders more easily because monetary crisis now strikes a single, supranational European Central Bank. In that sense, while each Euro member state’s political establishment may wish to have national wriggle room, they have all signed up to the monetary structures that make this near-impossible.]

But the specific form of the political crisis in Italy is also not a simple re-run of that in Greece (or elsewhere). The anti-political element, taking several different forms, is much more prominent. This includes not just Grillo’s clear anti-establishment strategy (including a policy of stopping public funding of political parties — how would Australia’s political class cope with that?!?), but Zombie Berlusconi’s increasing deployment of his outsider status among the Euro elites, and Monti’s attempt to translate technocratic rule on behalf of Brussels into a type of political project.

Political choices matter

Genoa 2001

There are two clearly missing elements here compared with the Greek inferno. The first is the massive working class and social movement resistance to austerity in Greece, with over 20 general strikes and the emergence of militant forms of action such as workplace occupations and experiments in workers’ control of production. But this first missing element is intimately bound up with a second, because if one had looked at Italy and Greece ten years ago the prospects of social struggle would have seemed rosier in the former. Italy, after all, had the most radical and widespread of all the western anti-capitalist movements, the high points being the Genoa mobilisations of 2001 and the massive European Social Forum in Florence in 2002. The involvement of radical unions and local autonomous struggles in both the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements had greater weight than in any other European country, and these protests coincided with an upsurge of official union action against Berlusconi.

The second missing element, then, is of a significant “Left of the Left” (as it is known in Italy) within the sphere of politics. Yet in the early 2000s there was one, as Rifondazione was often cited as a shining example of how the radical Left could regroup politically to have a national (and international) impact. Yet, as I have summarised in a previous post, Rifondazione’s decision — to move from being an independent force outside centre-left coalitions (with a focus on the social movements) to a strategy of entering coalition government in 2006 — had a major impact well beyond its ranks. The result was not just Rifondazione’s desertion of former policies like opposition to troops in Afghanistan but redirection of activism towards official politics as the solution. All this was on the promise that the centre-left would be held to a more left-wing course than previously. The latter didn’t happen and the Left was bundled out of office just two years later, Rifondazione electorally hammered and internally divided.

The political choices then have shaped the outcome we see now: a radical Left much weaker and with less ability to mobilise struggle, and an opening created for confused anti-politics. Surveying the European scene, Thanasis Kampagiannis noted yesterday:

The political systems in the South of Europe … are now broken. How they break (in what direction, etc.) is a matter of national particularities, the [historical] course of the parties, the level of class struggle and so on. So in Catalunya, this meant the rise of the Left in its nationalist form (but also with a new anti-capitalist formation, as a result of the square movement and the strikes). In Greece, it meant the rise of SYRIZA and also the coming into parliament of Golden Dawn. In Italy, it means the Beppe Grillo phenomenon, plus the comeback of Berlusconi on an anti-Euro, anti-austerity rhetoric. These developments will undoubtedly move to the North of Europe. The crucial factor is how long the crisis will drag on. If it does, major political accidents can occur, in all kinds of forms.

What kind of political project the Left of the Left tries to build from its weakened position in this complex conjuncture depends on understanding the terrain on which it is operating. While the current realignment of politics in Italy could create a sense of despair, in fact it reflects a political system spinning out of normal bounds of elite control. What is required is not a politics that simply accepts the governmental coordinates imposed from above, as Rifondazione did, but one that seeks the construction of self-government from below in the course of the political struggles ahead.

(Thanks to Thanasis, Kevin Ovenden & Liz Humphrys for discussion & comments)

Discussion3 Comments

  1. […] Tad Tietze: The majority of Italian voters were clearly against austerity policies. The fact that this was not expressed through an upsurge of votes for the usual suspects on the Left was due to the dominant Left politics conceding the anti-austerity space to the populist rhetoric of Berlusconi and the anti-establishment movement of Grillo. […]

  2. […] far more knowledgeable on the political situation in Italy are useful contextual reading (Dr Tad here and Giovanni Tiso here). Rather, what I want to delve into is 5SM’s support base, how it is […]

  3. Godfrey says:

    The rise of the 5SM does appear to be founded upon the weakness of the Italian left – particularly when you break down some stats on Grillo’s support base.