A rough guide to the Italian election

Right-winger Silvio Berlusconi's election victory on April 13-14, the disastrous results for the Rainbow Left (Sinistra Arcobaleno) -- `` new party born old’’ -- and the increased number of no-voters in this election present new yet anticipated challenges for the radical left in Italy. Below, Paolo Gerbaudo discusses the election result and the challenge for the Italian left. Red Pepper’s Hilary Wainwright talks to Italian left activists about what lessons they draw from the experience of the left's participation in the Romano Prodi government, about the weakness of the movements after the inspiring highs of Genoa and the Florence European Social Forum and, above all, about new strategies necessary to reach out to the mass of democratically minded but disillusioned Italians -- strategies now more relevant than ever. The complete roundtable of interviews and articles is available at the Transnational Institute's website (http://www.tni.org/detail_page.phtml?&act_id=18158&menu=11f).


A defeated left tries to recompose

April 23, 2008 -- In Italy, the whole left spectrum from communists to greens has lost political representation in the space of one election. What are the lessons that can be learnt from this defeat and how can the left rise again, asks Paolo Gerbaudo.

No communists, no socialists, no pacifists, no greens, no 'no global' activists. An entire array of old and new political identities, which marked different stages in the development of the Italian left, have lost political representation, in the space of one election. The last time something comparable happened was at the beginning of fascism, in 1924, when socialist and communist MPs withdrew in protests against elections marked by vote-rigging and violence.
Today, there is little doubt about the validity of the elections. Berlusconi is back thanks to a land-slide victory which stretches from the Mafia-stricken regions of the South to the hyper-industrialised North. The gap between his coalition and Veltroni’s Democratic Party is 9 per cent It is one of the clearest popular majorities
Italy has ever witnessed during its republican history. This means Berlusconi will enjoy a greater legitimacy than he had on previous occasions. Thus he will have few obstacles in adopting a strategy of rupture with that shrinking half of the Italian public which continues to resist his seduction.

The only opposition parliamentary spokespersons to Berlusconi will be from Veltroni’s Democratic Party, an unsavoury alliance of post-communists and social Catholics, whose political blueprint is based on the centrism of New Labour. Sinistra – L’arcobaleno, the coalition comprising the Partito della Rifondazione Communista (PRC), the Italian Communists and the Greens, has not convinced the electorate. Set up in a hurry, a few months before the elections, it has been seen as a ``new party born old’’, as asserted by Ginsborg in an interview recently with Red Pepper. The 3 per cent it obtained in the polls is less than a third of the votes gained by all the parties in this coalition in previous elections.

Berlusconi´s reactionary political menu

On the menu that awaits the Italian people, with the return of Mr. Silvio, are a revival of the illegal actions which marked his previous mandate, an assortment of attacks on the autonomy of the judicial branch, new laws to defend the interests of his enterprises and acolytes, and an easy going attitude with tax evaders and illegal construction. These policies will be accompanied by an even stronger attack on trade unions and the cooperative sector, which in Italy are still strong.

Next in line will be the repression of various territorial struggles which have emerged in recent years against engineering projects: from the No-Tav protesting against an high-speed train line in Piedmont, to the Vicenza’s no-base protests against the construction of a US military airport, and the Sicilian and Calabrese activists’ blocking of the construction of the Messina bridge, which Berlusconi hopes to erect as a perennial monument to his era.

Divided left

One could easily predict that strong social conflict will ensue. However , the risk this time is that Berlusconi’s attack on constitution, social rights and the environment will only be opposed by a confused and fragmented opposition. Yes, leftist politicians having been kicked out of parliament will have no way to go but the streets. But this time they won’t find the immediate welcome of social movements.

The state of the Italian left in the aftermath of the election is best described as a landscape marked by ruptures and distrust. Something which was hard to predict only a few years ago when a sense of common purpose united a broad and diverse coalition of forces. The series of struggles on global issues did indeed prove fertile terrain for the construction of networks and for the development of a strong dialogue between movements, civil society organisations and parties. This was clearly seen in the case of Rifondazione Comunista, which played a key role in translating struggles into a political strategy, heralding itself as the “party of movements”.

What remains of that period is perfectly exemplified by one moment in the electoral campaign: when an ice-cream was thrown at Caruso -- a former member of the anti-globalisers Disobbedienti – while he was campaigning for Sinistra Arcobaleno in Venice, by activists associated with Luca Casarini, the leader of North-Eastern Social Centres.

In 2001, on the streets of Genoa, the two charismatic leaders had been together in the padded-block of Disobbedienti, born out of an alliance between the Tute Bianche (White Overalls ``Direct Action’’ group) and the Giovani Comunisti (youth section of Rifondazione). The split happened in 2006, when Caruso decided to run for elections with Rifondazione. His decision was met by waves of criticism among anti-globalisation activists, accusing him of abandoning the terrain of conflict to head for a comfortable seat in the lower chamber.

Fraught relationship between parties and movements

The fraught relation between institutional politics and movements, and the often predatory attitude of the former towards the latter underlies the division. From 2001 until 2005, the social centres in the North-East worked closely with allies in the institutions, with social centre activists taking over sections of the Green Party in the Triveneto region. Elsewhere local alliances of social centres linked up with Rifondazione, for example in Rome’s Action–diritti network led by Nunzio D’Erme.

It was thanks to these movement-party alliances that local elections in 2005 delivered a major victory to the centre-left coalition and in particular to the radical left. In this context, Nichi Vendola, gay, catholic and communist and deeply involved in social struggles became elected against all odds in Apulia, traditionally a conservative region. This marked the peak of support for the institutional left amongst grassroots activists.

Critiques of Prodi´s government

The wind changed with the narrow victory of the Prodi-led centre-left coalition L’Unione in the national elections in April 2006. The most left-leaning government Italy ever had -- in terms of numbers of ministers from parties of the radical left -- was seen as far too moderate, and soon became the target of deep criticisms from social movements.

These condemnations first focused on the government’s foreign policy, where the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq was not accompanied by an abandonment of the “war on terror” or a withdrawal of Italian soldiers from Afghanistan. The government almost fell on this issue in a parliamentary vote, after a huge demonstration against the base in Vicenza. Radical MPs were forced to appeal to the fear of letting Berlusconi get back in. Nevertheless, as a result, they got ostracised from demonstrations.
Secondly, there has been widespread indignation for the lack of action on civil rights. The government has been reluctant in shielding off the attacks of the Church on abortion and has failed to approve a law for a ``a solidarity civil pact’’ for unmarried couples.

Thirdly, there has been grave disappointment at the lack of action on wages, the problem of living costs, or the lack of welfare programmes for vulnerable workers. There were divisions between the industrialist position held by the old-left, who continue to consider flexible work as an anomaly to be eliminated, and activists who ask for new forms of welfare to support workers in precarious labour conditions. As a result, the government took no action, thus leaving many young people without any social rights, which has no comparison in other Western European countries.

The Italian left’s future

So what’s next? In the weeks following the elections, some activists feel like they have sleepwalked into this new era of Berlusconi. Attempts at rebuilding grassroots movements are already starting. Social centres groups will soon hold a meeting in Marghera near Venice to discuss the bases for a new alliance. Social and various politicised civil society networks who see the new rise of Berlusconi as a disgrace will also provide an important element for reconstructing the left. Finally, the experiences of progressive local government, such as the Vendola in Apulia or Massimo in the Marche region, and the cities that form part of the ``Nuovo Municipio’’ network, all inspired by principles of participatory democracy, will provide bases from which to begin re-building a new identity for the Italian left.

Nevertheless, the key issue and potential problem facing the left will be how the question of democracy is dealt with both in movements and parties. The personalisation, machoism and media-oriented strategy which characterises the leadership of many grassroots movements has proved detrimental for the credibility of progressive alternatives. The time for self-styled spokespersons of the whole movement is over. Will the movement be able to break away from leader-obsessed politics?

A similar reflection needs to take place in both the Greens and Rifondazione. Many argue that the Green Party has been transformed into an accountable centre of power which has little to do with the original idea of a federation and has lost its values of transparency. The charges of corruption which have hit its leader, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, are just the most visible evidence of this situation. Also it will be important to see how the question of democracy will be dealt with inside Rifondazione which at the moment is torn by a fight over the future of the party and its relation to Arcobaleno between the once majority current led by Bertinotti and a new challenging current endorsed by Ferrero, minister of welfare. The party still has a network of branches across the country that no other left group enjoys. But will it be used for facilitating a recomposition of the left or for tightening control of the grassroots?

The question of democracy which is central for imagining a different future for the Italian left will also crucially entail a new discussion of the relationship between parties, social movements and civil society. The experience of collaboration with parties has proved highly disappointing for most activists. Nonetheless those experiences were the symptom of a felt need to translate self-managed alternatives into more stable collective goods for society. What might be learned from the defeat of this experience is thus the need for a greater autonomy and transparency in the relationship between movements and parties, rather than an outright end to all contact. In this context, the local arenas of struggle which have proved the most dynamic in recent years might provide a crucial space for developing clearer strategies and identities beyond the vague inclusiveness of the anti-globalisation era.

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The crisis of Italy’s political institutions: a view from inside government

April 12, 2008Paolo Ferrero was minister of social solidarity in the Prodi government. He describes to Hilary Wainwright the difficulties of achieving radical reform in the face of a weak coalition, social conservatism and the crisis besetting Italy’s weak political institutions.

What difficulties and obstacles were underestimated or came as a surprise to you on entering the Prodi coalition government?

The feeble majority was really unexpected. We were conscious that the centre right had significant social and cultural strength, since it also obtains significant working-class votes, so is often capable of dictating the political agenda. However, no one imagined that after five years of Berlusconi’s government there would be a substantial draw between the votes of the centre-right and those of the centre-left. The particularly complicated voting system played its part in making one of the two chambers, the Senate, ungovernable.
The structural weakness of the government favoured the political bribery of centre-oriented factions close to the influential organisations (in particular Confindustria, an association of the Italian industrial managers) and of the Catholic Church. This rendered even more difficult than we had imagined our initiative for the redistribution of wealth to the advantage of workers. Even those objectives that seemed, at first glance, relatively easier, such as the acknowledgement of the civil rights same-sex partners, were difficult to achieve.

The weakness of the centre-left coalitions is a faithful mirror of the strength of the social values of the right faction. This strength must be taken into consideration not only in drawing conclusions about Prodi’s government but also when redirecting our future policies. This does not mean that we have to automatically ``moderate’’ our intentions. However, it is important to keep in mind that the electorate is culturally more and more distant from the values of the left-wing parties.

We certainly overestimated the ability to mobilise political movements against even the most moderate policies of the Prodi government. Some positive connection was established, for example, with the mobilisation against the privatisation of the water. For the rest, there was a strong difficulty in connecting with both the most ``radical’’ movements (such as the one against the TAV in Susa Valley, or the one against the NATO base in Vincenza), which were ignored and criticised by the government, and with those of the ``moderate’’ actors (including the trade unions), which chose to negotiate and lobby largely without promoting demonstrations. The result was a scenario completely different from what the Partito della Rifondazione Communista (PRC) had foreseen, rendering its role in the government more difficult, and at times, isolated.

What did you learn from the inside about the crisis of the political institutions, which has always been so central to Rifondazione’s analysis?

The crisis in the Italian institutions is confirmed by the incapacity of the government to respond to the basic necessities of marginalised groups. This incapacity derives principally from the political choice to prioritise economic growth and the management of public debt over wealth distribution. However, the crisis has worsened because of the country’s institutional structure, especially as regards welfare.

We came across this during our experience in the government. Except for the pension system and national health services – which constantly faced attempts to cut their budgets, reduce services or privatise them, but which have relatively “robust” institutional mechanisms – the institutions managing unemployment, poverty, disability, state housing and other social problems are subject to little central control. Their organisation is very fragmented, with a strong role for the regional offices, religious associations and the non-profit sector. In particular, the non-profit sector is often synonymous with contract-less, informal, underpaid work, which implies low quality standards in the social services.

All of this is typical of the contemporary form of capitalism, which generates rising social uncertainty, so should be addressed by an efficient welfare system that is equally available for all.

On the other hand, the institutions have demonstrated a strong capacity to involve in their governance structures all of those associations that look after the interests of citizens, in particular those in disadvantaged circumstances. In fact, from this point of view, the Italian political institutions are not so weak.
An updated analysis of the ``crisis of the political institutions’’ is needed, therefore, which takes into account the fact that this crisis is mitigated by a counter force operating against it.

What lessons do you draw about how to open up a dynamic of transforming these institutions – and about the role of the party and the movements in this process? Is such a transformation possible? If so, under what conditions?

What I have mentioned above demonstrates that there is closure in the institutions when dealing with general economic policies. On the other hand, they are also very open in their day-to-day administration. What is needed now is for the institutions to open up to more complex solutions regarding the [economic] necessities of their citizens, beyond simply their openness to collaboration with citizens’ associations.
For this to happen, there would need to be a shift in the balance of forces – brought on by (a) the worsening of the Italian crisis (even in relation to the foreseen global economic crisis); (b) the associated failure of the moderate leftwing project (as embodied by the new Democratic Party) and (c) the ability of workers and citizens to organise themselves in committees that are not simply about civil defence. It isn’t easy to foresee a situation when these factors coincide.

Meanwhile, the PRC could unite the different left-wing factions to construct a “critical mass” that is necessary for political effectiveness, reconstructing its militant base, gaining political trust and re-orienting itself in relation to its electorate. Secondly, it could take advantage of the decentralization of Italy to act at regional and even local level, to bypass the closure of opportunities on the national sphere. Thirdly, the PRC could contribute to the construction of a popular self-organised network to act as a counterpart to both the regional and national governance.

All this, and above all the last point mentioned, presupposes a re-evaluation of the role of movements and of the party. On the one hand, the limits of the political movements must be considered – including their failure, sometimes, to reach out to the broader public. As a result of their language and practices that are often as far from the needs of the people as the political parties themselves are. However, these limits can not be overcome by pedagogic intervention from the party. The political movements and the associations that form part of their governing structures have to identify the problems and solutions based on their own practices and background. On the other hand, a political party is need more than ever, that can have a wider vision than that of the PRC, and that can be more competent and more grounded in society.

How did the PRC prepare for its role in government? With the benefit of hindsight are there further ways it should have prepared?

I believe the PRC was not prepared enough for its participation in the government and did not have a proper political culture for this challenging task. Partly, this was inevitable: inexperience does count.
However, there was at least one avoidable error: that of interpretation. A group within the PRC thought this to be a government of change, based on a dynamic compromise between the workers movement and some of the more economically advanced parts of the “bourgeoisie”. But the conditions for this to occur were not there. At present, there is no interest from the economically well-off to find a ``dynamic compromise’’. Namely a compromise based on the acknowledgement of the autonomy of the workers’ movement, on the adequate ``payment’’ for production (rather than simply increasing profit and growth), on acknowledging the collective knowledge and creative ability of the workforce as a determinant in social innovation and thus in production itself. Only the unfolding of the economic crisis in conjunction with a resumption of social conflict could, possibly, construct the conditions for such a compromise.

The Prodi government was more of a compromise between political factions where the moderate left could occasionally be forced (for electoral reasons) to make some concessions to the radical left. This ``exchange’’ could have led to some positive results. In fact, Prodi’s government had recuperated some part of the tax evasions that were instigated by Berlusconi’s government, and part of this wealth – as a result of initiatives by the PRC and other radical left parties – should now have been redistributed to workers. Maybe it is not a coincidence that the government has failed exactly when something tangible could have been achieved. But, in any case, even if such a result would have given some hope to workers, it would not have been a real change. Deluding the electorate and militants by speaking of the possibilities of real change was a big mistake, because after the illusions came the disillusions.

In brief, there was a wrong analysis of the balance of forces, of the strong influence of dominant social and economic groups, and of the nature of the centre-left.

How should lessons from this period of government shape a new phase for the left in

The first lesson is that a real ``progressive’’ government is only possible if the mechanisms of force are different between the social classes. Should that not be the case, and for some reason we are obliged to participate in the government, the limits of our ability to negotiate and reach our objectives must be explained with far greater clarity and sincerity.

The second lesson is that, to participate in a government and to act as an effective opposition, a left leader must be able to count consistently on 10 per cent of the electorate. Most importantly, this leader must address the working class and construct a social based from those who been stably organised, starting with the trade unions. Finally, such leadership requires a person who can meet with intellectual workers (environmental activists, lawyers, economists, architects, etc.), whose inputs are essential for defining the policies or for opposing in a constructive manner the policies defined by others. There is a need for a “social” and “competent” party, in other words.

The Sinistra Arcobaleno has been born in the hope that it might solve this problem. The party must overcome the quantitative limits of Rifondazione, not dissolving the different parts that make it up, but constructing a federal structure that includes not only the different political currents but those associations that want to sign up. It must construct “case della sinistra” [left houses] all over Italy, capable of offering firstly a place of social aggregation and secondly, a place for discussions and political initiatives. An alliance between the social classes must be built between the workers and the intellectuals (who are no more than workers of a particular type and who, like other workers, suffer similarly uncertain and precarious labour and social conditions).

The political phase that has just opened is more diverse than the previous one. The political parties of the Ulivo and the La Margherita have come together under the banner of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD). This party is in the Blairite, New Labour mould. It will run for election by itself, breaking its previous relations with the radical left, and move in a more centrist direction. Even if Berlusconi’s new party, born of the merger (for now only for electoral reasons) of his Forza Italia party and Fini’s post-fascist party, is definitely ahead in the polls, although the PD is gaining some support. It is not improbable, after the elections, that we will see a political accord between Veltroni and Berlusconi. In any case, the radical left seems likely to a face long period of opposition.

A strong Sinistra Arcobaleno opposition, capable of capitalising on the difficulties that the next government will face, as well as the decentralisation of policy making; and capable of reconstructing its social ties, has the capacity to make decisive progress. It could organise the resistance and prepare the conditions for a broader change in future. This is our challenge.

[Paolo Ferrero is an MP for the Partito della Rifondazione Communista and was minister of social solidarity in the Prodi government.]


Movements and left parties should keep a respectful distance

Alessandra Mecozzi, international secretary of FIOM, the Italian metalworkers union, describes to Hilary Wainwright the weakened state of the movements, including the trade union movement, and draws some harsh lessons.

Are the movements weaker or stronger after the experience of the left in government? Could you comment especially on the trade union movement?

We wouldn’t be telling the truth if we blamed simply the Prodi government for the current weakness of social movements. These movements are facing a crisis all over the world, with the exception, perhaps, of
Latin America. Moreover, the weakness of Prodi’s government was in part an outcome of a more general social and cultural regression. It is evident, for example, in the emergence of racism, in indifference in the face of war, in widespread everyday violence, especially towards women, in the defeat of the referendum on abortion and in the weakening of social rights including workers rights. The decline in workers rights has meant a high rate of accidents in the workplace which culminated recently in the deaths of seven employees in a fire at Thyssen Krupp.

Prior to the Prodi government, leftist social and trade union movements were growing, with positive programs for change. But we needed some tangible results from the government for these to have a real social impact. This did not materialise. The internal political dynamics of this fractious and heterogeneous government rendered it incapable of making the most of the potential of the movements to achieve change. In particular, the divisions which constantly freeze up the left (a characteristic of the left even prior to the Prodi government) meant that no political support was offered to social struggles, including those around improving employment conditions or opposing the war.

Even the most influential confederation of trade unions, the CGIL - which had fought and won a significant battle to preserve L’articolo 18 (which protects workers against unfair dismissal) and which participated massively to the anti-war movements – was quick to back down on its commitment to social movements. Recently, it has even stopped mentioning movements in its internal debates. At its Congress earlier this year, to which Prodi was invited, the CGIL clearly gave up on maintaining its autonomy. Other movement actors followed the CGIL’s attitude: both those supporting (and at least not opposing) the government and those openly against them. The autonomy of the movements has been undermined by a mistaken instinct to judge everything according to the actions of the government. This reactive approach – whether pro- or anti-government -- and the failure to develop an autonomous perspective on the actual issues facing society has been a very damaging, stopping everyone from analysing the real situation.

Were the movements prepared for the experience of the radical left in government? Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, how should you/the movements have prepared better?

The first lesson to be learnt is that the autonomy of the movements is an essential principle necessary for their continued existence (the same is true for trade unions who wish to keep their connections with the movements). In no circumstances should this be compromised. A lesson here is that the movements should have put more thought into distinguishing themselves from the political left (even if radical) during the Berlusconi government. This would have put them in a stronger position vis a vis the Prodi government. The latter government would even have benefited from more powerful movements. Had the movements been stronger, the parties which dominated this coalition in parliament would not prevail.

For example, the main priority of the Prodi government was to eradicate Italy’s financial deficit, which was surely an important goal, but it became an excuse to forget other important social objectives that needed to be addressed. Stronger, more autonomous, movements would have been a counter pressure to this. The left had not prepared itself – through a careful and shared analysis – for the consequences of its participation in government. Perhaps some form of preparation drawing on those principles that made the European Social Forum in Florence - autonomy, unity and radicalism – might have been led to some successes.

What now? What lessons from the last two years need to be borne in mind in from a movement point of view, for the future of the Sinistra Archebolena? At present it is dominated by political parties. What needs to be done/what conditions need to exist for it be more rooted in movements and social conflicts?

Some of the movements (which had already been weakened by years of conflict and bickering without reaching any tangible solutions) invested all of their hopes and expectations in the Prodi government. This in turn disappointed them. The government’s initial survival was more a consequence of “social peace” than (as it should have been) the result of social conflict combined with the government’s potential capacity to deliver solutions. In fact, the Government only delivered its promise to withdraw Italian troops from
Iraq. It failed to deliver its other manifesto were not delivered, including withdrawal of our military presence in Afghanistan and also legislation to protect the rights of civil union.

What is more, the military budget was increased and Prodi persisted in the expansion of the American military base in Vicenza. Other laws from the previous legislation, including the “legge 30” on precarious employment, the Bossi-Fini law on immigration and the building of TAV all remained unchallenged, in spite of many protests and alternative proposals. (See Vittorio Longhi at http://www.tni.org/detail_page.phtml?&act_id=18159&menu=11f on the record of the Prodi government).

The CGIL, the other two trade union federations, CISL and UILl, supported government policies on welfare without any prior consultation, that penalized the most active and socially rooted section of workers and unions. My union FIOM, the metalworkers union, voted against these policies. Meanwhile the attack on the national contract on employment continues. This contract has been a fundamental means of defending workers’ interests. The employers want to bring all negotiations back to the company level, exchanging a rise in salaries with more flexibility, hence worsening employment conditions by increasing productivity at the expense of the workers’ freedom and health. The trade union federations do not seem to be resisting this call of the employers.

For these reasons, the centre-left government that has just fallen has not been a good experience for the movements. Today, we find ourselves weakened and without a strategy. We should, however, be capable of facing up to our responsibilities. We should be able to work – and already we are starting to – reconstruct alliances and develop shared perspectives. The work of the unions – and increasing the social movements – has become, more than ever, a labour of Sisyphus - as Rosa Luxembourg once pointed out . But perhaps we can learn from this and recognise that we must restart by treasuring past experiences and take action to construct and re-construct.

The Italian paradox is that vibrant movements do exist but they are incapable of developing their own solutions, or where they do, they have unable to gain the political support to build on such solutions. It need not always be like this. It only the movements and the left parties could learn to recognise each other’s significance yet keep a mutual distance and act upon their respective ideas, we would already be taking a step forward in the right direction. However in the dynamics of politics and parties, a mimicry seems to prevail, whereby ``differences’’ never truly emerge and parties seem reluctant to distinguish themselves from one another (evidence of the political caste!).

Unless movements learn culturally to let go of government and institutional reference points, they will fail. They risk loosing their connections with society. Without these social roots they will be unable to act as necessary connecting points between society and institutions. Those trade unions who wish to maintain a relationship with the movements, because of a shared outlook, need to safeguard a strong and democratic relationship with the workers that they represent – ensuring that it is the workers who have the final say in the decision-making process. At the same time, we as trade unions must try to build widespread relationships and initiatives with all those who are trying to oppose war, racism and liberalism, in order to come up with alternatives and taking the best from each movement.

Even at the best of times this is very demanding cultural and practical endeavour. This is why it would have been very useful to have created a solid forum at the national level both before and after the Prodi government. It would have meant a real positive change in the Italian political, social, and cultural landscape. Novelties in this scene are emerging from La Sinistra Arcobaleno/ Cosa Rossa, from whom everyone expects, at least, clear objectives. An alternative determined against war, militarism, Vatican fundamentalism, environmental degradation, and instability in the workplace. The party is also expected to protect civil rights, support the interests of the working class, the unemployed, and propose more environmentally conscious policies. We shall see.

[These articles first appeared at the Transnational Institute website (http://www.tni.org/detail_page.phtml?&act_id=18210&menu=11f). Posted with permission.]


IV Online magazine : IV400 - May 2008

Right victorious

Italian elections - a first response

Lidia Cirillo

The principal electoral results are: in the Senate, 47.2% of votes for the right (People of Freedom, Northern League, Movement for Autonomy; 38.1% for the Democratic Party and the Italy of the Values led by di Pietro - IdV); in the Chamber, 46.6% for the right and 37.7% for the DP and IdV. The right has a majority enabling it to “rule” for five years

Gianni Alemanno - new neo-fascist mayor of Rome

A L’encontre: It is not necessary to be a specialist on Italy to note the marked victory of the right at these elections, even if the exit polls initially created illusions…

Lidia Cirillo: Indeed, the victory of the coalition led by Berlusconi - Party of Freedom, Northern League and Movement for Autonomy - is clear. It has an advantage of more than 9% of votes over the Democratic Party (DP) of Walter Veltroni (ex-mayor of Rome) and of Italy dei Valori (led by the former judge Di Pietro). The result is indubitable: 46.5% against 37.7%, according to the results available and quasi-final as of Tuesday morning.

This victory is all the more significant and alarming in that within this right wing coalition, the Northern League, this racist party, not only obtained very good results in “its” traditional areas (Veneto-Friuli), exceeding 25% sometimes, but was also strong in Piedmont, Lombardy, areas where the so-called traditional left had a strong base.

In the industrial areas of North, the Northern League captured working class votes and roundly defeated the Left Rainbow (Sinistra Arcobaleno), therefore especially the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) of Fausto Bertinotti, who was the president of the Chamber during the last government of Romano Prodi.

Sinistra Arcobaleno (Rainbow Left) obtained 3.2% of the votes to the Senate and 3.1% in the Chamber. At the time of the last European elections in 2004, without having in its ranks the Democratic Left - a faction which split from the DP - the forces present in this new formation had together gained some 11% of the vote.

The present result shows the retreat of these forces - especially the PRC and the more reduced Communist Party of Italy (PCDI) - in working class areas, in areas which were at the end of the 1960s, during the 1970s and until the 1980s, the centres of working class activity and mobilizations. These areas have certainly experienced social transformations, but the wage-earning class has not decreased there at the sociological level and its living conditions have been degraded.

The Northern League, in these areas, has made a breakthrough which made it possible for Umberto Bossi to say that it was the “new working class party”. That symbolizes the vertical fall of Sinistra Arcobaleno and the forces which made it up, more specifically, I repeat it, PRC. With these results, these forces have been expelled from the Chamber and the Senate.

It is then not only a victory of the right in general, but also of this chauvinistic right faction, “northernist” and racist. It is an important new fact. Also the fascist formation Storace (La Destra-Fiamma Tricolour) in various cities - inter alia in Rome - obtained results going from 2.1% in the Senate to 2.4% in the Chamber.

A first conclusion: the overall political framework is serious, not to say threatening and dangerous.

How should we consider the result of the Christian-Democratic operation led by Casini, who split from Berlusconi?

Lidia Cirillo: In the results for the centre right and centre left - to employ the fashionable terminology - it is necessary to take into account the results of the UDC (Union of Christian Democrats and Centre Democrats) of Fernando Casini. It is a force which also will count. Probably it will not be aligned simply with Berlusconi, but it will support various measures relating, inter alia, to reactionary Catholic “values”.

That is also an element to bear in mind in the new landscape drawn by the elections. In the two chambers, there are only right wing forces, whether the right of the PDL, with the strength acquired by the Northern League, or whether it is the DP, with its reference to Obama, a kind of Democratic Party, certainly in an Italian context.

These elections mark a historical change: the “left”, such as the PRC is out of Parliament. How should we understand it?

Lidia Cirillo: As for Sinistra Arcobaleno, it seems clear that its days are numbered. The PCDI (Communist Party Italy) of Diliberto has already packed its bags; the Greens will follow. The PRC is in the most total confusion. Thus, one of its spokespersons, Franco Giordano, insisted on Monday evening on the TV that it is necessary “to build a house of left”, with a “program corresponding to the needs of the situation”. It is a wooden discourse which you must have heard on behalf of the Socialist Party, or some of its sectors, in France.

There are at least two elements which explain the defeat of Sinistra Arcobaleno. The first, the PD gained the votes of the left, those which Sinistra Arcobaleno sought. The PD did not gain among the right wing electorate, as it had sought to do through adopting the least conflictual profile possible in this campaign. Therefore, PD took votes from the Left rainbow.

But the responsibility for this redistribution of the votes also falls on Sinistra Arcobaleno. Indeed, when you seek to convince the “people of left” - to employ this formula - that the only way to fight the right and the employers is going into government, it is logical that the citizens vote for those who seem able to go there, with the most probabilities and more “capacities to govern”.

Secondly there was the abstention rate of 3%; that is to say 1.5 million voters abstained. However, certainly, among them, proportionally, those who had in the past voted for components of Sinistra Arcobaleno represent a great number.

We (Sinistra Critica), were not able to reach them, which is linked not only to our novelty (we have existed only since December 2007, in the strict sense of the term), but also with the very strong scepticism which exists among wage-earners. Many have lost confidence, after the political line followed over a whole period, by a political force calling itself “communist”. They do not find it easy to again give their confidence to an emergent organization. Nothing abnormal in that, in the present context marked by a whole history of disillusionment.

Among an active and radicalized layer of employees or of young people there exists - and that is more than understandable - the idea: “They say this or that but, once in Parliament, they all do the same thing”.

This attitude also continues within the framework of a certain milieus linked to capital which targets “the political caste”, in order to create a revised institutional framework more favourable to counter-reforms. It is necessary to know this, even if the two elements mentioned should not be confused in any manner.

Berlusconi won, but don’t obstacles remain to the construction of politico-official institutions more suitable, to employ the language of employers, “to take Italy out of the ditch”?

Lidia Cirillo: Admittedly Berlusconi appears more Confindustria-compatible than in the past. But he must deal with difficulties within the dominant bloc. The vote for the Lega, even if the latter has a capillary presence in North, is more a protest vote than a vote which would reflect - let us say, to be brief – a working class organization.

The degree of disorganization of the “workers’ movement”, of the working class at the trade-union and political levels is very large. Consequently, Berlusconi, in five years – because he has a clear majority in the two chambers (Senate and Parliament) - can inflict new blows leading to a disaster. The CGIL has members who vote Lega, in some numbers in the North. It is thus not a workers’ resistance to support from the Lega for counter-reforms which poses the principal problem to Berlusconi.

On the other hand, contradictions within the dominant bloc remain. The declarations of the new leader of Confindustria, Emma Marcegaglia, as of Monday evening, express the urgent feeling among dominant fractions of Capital on the need to implement ”deep reforms”. At the same time, there exists the feeling among certain leaders of the right that social mobilizations can re-appear. They also look at France. Therefore, the strategy will be concocted with more precision, in the weeks to come.

Moreover, we note: the severe economic crisis; possible popular reactions; the taking into account of clientelist interests, as much for the Lega as Berlusconi; all that makes me think that the situation for a political line conforming to the interests of the dominant fractions of Capital, in terms of timing, is still to be tested.

You are a member of Sinistra Critica, how do you judge the results for this organization in formation, for “any young person”, since you were in the PRC still in 2007 and broke clearly with the “party of Bertinotti”?

Lidia Cirillo: As Sinistra Critica, we obtained the following results: 0.416% in the Senate, with 136, 396 votes; and 0.459% in the Chamber with 167, 673 votes. Flavia D’ Angeli got a good reception: by her youth, her direct speech; above all among young sectors, employees and students; that does not mean that these people voted for Sinistra Critica, because some wanted to vote “usefully” or to abstain. Franco Turigliatto [ex-senator, who voted against the proposals of Prodi] developed an very political and educational argument and was recognized by a layer of workers with whom he had worked for a long time. The results indicate it. What shows through in the first results: we get more votes where we are present and carry out work. It is a vote which reflects a political and trade-union activity, carried out by militants for a long time, sometimes.

The Communist Party of Workers (PCL) led by Marco Ferrando [Trotskyist current] obtained 0.55% of the votes in the Senate, that is to say 180,454 votes; and 0.571% in the Chamber, or 208, 394 votes. Its results are more “homogeneous” on the ground, because the PCL and Marco Ferrando were more known, at least in certain areas. For the remainder, it is still too early to carry out an assessment.

What is obvious can be expressed in a formula: long term work in the various social mobilizations is a precondition to reaffirming an anti-capitalist and Communist perspective, while working out a programmatic and theoretical reflexion which takes into account the features of the present historical period and, also, the political dynamics of the last decade, in an open way. It is to this that I devote myself – as a member of the leading circle of Sinistra Critica - in various contributions on the topics of feminism, of “Leninism today”, or the crisis of politics.

* Interview by Charles-Andre Udry for the site of “A l’encontre”.

-Lidia Cirillo has been a member of the Italian section of the Fourth International since 1966. Feminist activist and leading figures in the World March of Women in Italy, she also founded the Quaderni Viola (Purple notebooks, a feminist review). She is the author of several feminist works : Meglio Orfane (Better to be Orphans), Lettera alle Romane (Letter to Roman Women), and recently La Lune Severa Maestra (The Moon, a Strict Mistress) on the relationship between feminism and social movements.


ISR Issue 59, May–June 2008



The return of Berlusconi

Italy’s Left crashes in parliamentary election


THE BILLIONAIRE tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and his allies have triumphed in a general election in Italy. The election has spectacularly changed the political landscape of Italy; for the first time in since the end of the Second World War, socialist and communist representatives are now out of parliament. Only two years after the rise of the center-Left Prodi government, the center-Right has had its revenge.

There have been several developments in the past two years that prepared the earthquake of April 13–14, 2008.

The Prodi government was supported not only by Left Democrats (ex-communists) and the Daisy (ex-left Christian Democratic party), but also by the Left—the old Communist Party, the Greens, and Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), a party of former communist dissidents founded in 1991. Only a few years ago, Rifondazione played a very significant role in the anti-globalization movement and was claimed by many on the left internationally to be the model of a new kind of left-wing party suited for the twenty-first century. Rifondazione led the 2001 anti-G8 mobilization in Genoa and helped build the network of social forums all over the Europe.

During his two years of government, Prodi was very unpopular. The center-Left developed a politics of tax cuts for the bosses, and promoted—with the support of the unions—“welfare reform,” i.e., a cut in the pensions. Prodi’s policies produced worsening living standard not only for the working class but also for the white-collar middle class. The Italian Institute of Statistics forecast for 2008 is that Italian GDP will increase only by 0.3 percent and 2009 will be a year of recession. According to polls, 40 percent of the population now describes itself as impoverished.

Rifondazione not only supported the social politics of Prodi’s government, but also backed Prodi’s aggressive foreign policy—his support for military intervention in Lebanon and Afghanistan, and the increase in Italy’s military budget.

When a senator of Rifondazione, Franco Turigliatto, decided to vote against the foreign policy of the ruling coalition, he was expelled from Rifondazione. It is therefore not surprising that in the past two years many branches of the party have shut down and many members have quit the party, whose membership has fallen from 100,000 to 60,000. Two left-wing tendencies inside Rifondazione have split away and formed two different organizations: Critical Left (the Italian section of United Secretariat of Fourth International) and the Workers Communist Party (the Italian section of Argentine Trotskyist Partido Obrero tendency).

Profound political changes are not only affecting the Left. A year ago there was a fusion of the Left Democrats and the Daisy that produced an American-style Democratic Party (the slogan of the electoral campaign 2008 was “yes, we can”), with Walter Veltroni—the ex-communist mayor of Rome—as its leader. On the right we have witnessed the birth of the House of Freedoms party with the fusion of Berlusconi’s Forward Italy and the far-right, ex-fascist National Alliance.

Fausto Bertinotti (a former leader of Rifondazione), sought to “fill the vacuum on the left” with the creation of a new political coalition with the Greens, the Italian Communists, and a little tendency of Left Democrats that has not adhered to the Democratic Party, in a new “political plural subject” called the Rainbow Left.

After the fall of Prodi’s government in January 2007, the ensuing electoral campaign was a typical two-party American campaign, where the programmatic differences were slight, as many commentators noted. Both the Democrats and the Berlusconians promised a tax cut for families and corporations, to combat crime and illegal immigration, and to promote a new role for Italy overseas.

The collapse of the Left vote makes the election unprecedented. The right-wing coalition won 46.81 percent of the vote in comparison with 37.54 percent for the Democratic Party. The racist and populist Northern League won 8.3 percent (double its 2006 vote). Among the minor parties, the Union of Christian and Center Democrats won 5.62 percent, and the Rainbow Left’s vote plummeted to 3.08 percent (against 10.2 percent in 2006). Most significantly, for the first time since the Second World War, the Communist Left is out of parliament.

The crash of the Rainbow Coalition has been quite spectacular: in two years it lost more than 2.8 million votes. In the industrial districts of the north of the country there was a clear shift by working-class voters from the Left to the Northern League. The influential newspaper Il Corriere della Sera went so far as to describe the Northern League as the new “workers’ party”:

The Northern League outstripped the Rainbow Left at Valdagno by 30 percent to 2.1 percent—a town where forty years ago rioters pulled down the statue of industrialist Count Gaetano Marzotto. The League also eclipsed the Left in Schio, with its Lanerossi factories, by 25 percent to 2.6 percent, and destroyed it at Arzignano, where the mayor is Center-Left, by 37 percent to 1.5 percent. The Left was annihilated in the two blue-collar towns of Chiampo (41 percent to 0.9 percent) and San Pietro Mussolino, where the local electorate, largely made up of factory workers and their families, gave Umberto Bossi [the leader of the Northern League] an amazing 49.8 percent of the vote and the grouping that somewhat presumptuously calls itself the “only Left” a miserable 0.6 percent.
The far Left—the Workers’ Communist Party and Critical Left—were only able to attract a minority of the ex-Rifondazione voters—who in the main either abstained or voted for the Northern League. Their combined vote totaled some 350,000, or 1 percent of the vote.

This election amounts to an electoral earthquake for the Left that will produce further fragmentation and despair—but also the possibility of building a new anticapitalist Left that understands the dead-end of reformist solutions to the crisis facing Italy.

Yurii Colombo is a socialist living in Milan, Italy.

I suppose, it is incorrect to name Bolognians as communist, who once declared that they were not communist anymore. In your article on Italian communist: "Sinistra – L’arcobaleno, the coalition comprising the Partito della Rifondazione Communista (PRC), the Italian Communists and the Greens”, you thus need to make the correction accordingly.

May be you should include the prefix "ex-" for the democrats who are included in the rainbow left, but this would not be any good, if you think the inherent ambiguity in Italian radical left.



IV Online magazine : IV401 - June 2008


Eleven points to face the crisis of the Italian Left

Sinistra Critica (Critical Left)

The entire left is speaking about the defeat, often in disarray, opportunistically or with “newist” or liquidationist hypotheses. For our part, we want to attempt to provide a reflection on the matter at hand, indicating the ideas we see as more fundamental than containers or formulas, to undertake rebuilding a new left, starting from scratch and on truly original bases.

1. The loss of parliamentary representation is the culmination of the failure of the Italian left, after the end of the old Italian Communist Party (PCI). Swept away was the illusion of being able to live on electoral annuities, without actual roots, without a project, with an old party model no longer able to maintain its position in the social body. We can’t rule out the left regaining a part of their lost votes, in other electoral contests. But this would not cancel the defeat, the product of a heritage of votes without roots and without support in subaltern labour and in the society. A new left will rebuild itself first of all by sweeping away the old leadership groups, responsible for the defeat, but above all by starting to understand why, despite how obvious the problem to solve is, not only is nothing done to solve it, but it becomes more and more serious with every turn in Italian political life.

2. Rather than reconstruction, we think that nowadays one must speak of building an anticapitalist, class left on new bases. It has been impossible to put down roots because – in the context of globalisation and the disintegration of the 20th century workers’ movement – the emphasis on the institutional prospects alone and the bureaucratic legacy have made all these efforts vain. Taking root in a society involves long-term, tedious and invisible work that does not necessarily pay off in the short term in electoral terms. For political layers, driven by personal demands for perks and power, the easiest route has remained holding on to positions of power in institutions and the processes needed to attain these, completely different from those needed to take root. This is also why we are not interested in re-jigging worn-out leadership groups, deaf to reality. Nor in identity-based forms or opportunistic manoeuvres to gain a few seats in Parliament. We are interested in a “new beginning”, starting out from another history, freed of the lingering effects of 20th Century bureaucracy to have an impact on the present and regain the imagination and motivations needed to build another left.

3. A new class left will be anticapitalist or cannot be. Women, men and the planet can no longer bear up under the weight of the absolute rule of private interests, the drive towards re-armament and wars, the regressive hallucinations that this state of affairs is producing. In simple terms, this means opposing capitalism. In less simple terms, it means governing with capitalism’s representatives or guardians is preventing the rebirth of a left that actually wants to transform the world. It is not merely a revolutionary perspective to suggest an adequate distance from governments. Even an authentic commitment to reforms must recognise that governing within the current relation of forces is no longer possible.

4. We propose to start anew from a eulogy to the opposition. Not because we have a minoritary vocation, but simply because the only way to react to this social system is evoking and organising political and social opposition through movements, struggles and diffuse self-organisation. The 20th century workers’ movement won important victories in opposition. Nowadays it is possible to organise a diffuse resistance in the opposition and succeed in pulling off victories and winning rights to provide substance to an alternative hypothesis. For this reason it is not possible to govern with the PD on a national or local level, in the sense that it is not possible to govern with those who in the best case defend the existing state of affairs, have an administrative and authoritarian political outlook and thereby open the road for rightwing forces. The case of Rome speaks clearly of this.

5. The victory of Berlusconi and the Northern League completed the progressive rightwards shift in Italy and the twenty-year long deterioration in already-deteriorated social forces. Berlusconi’s “People of Freedom” party (PDL) will attempt to build a “serious and responsible” government right but also try to gain social roots, with its reference social block that has not abandoned its populist and reactionary nature, as Fini’s behaviour has shown. At the same time it attempts to be useful for the Confindustria (Italian industrialists’ confederation) that wants to launch a full-fledged attack on labour’s achievements. It aims to start with the national contract. It will seek PD support against the contract, as the latter takes a similar stand. For this reason the attempt to stabilise the “bipartisanation” of Italian politics will go forward.

The response to this situation does not involve political alchemy, instead identifying a reference social block, elements to involve in a unitary framework of struggles and common alternative hypothesis. In this sense the refoundation of class-struggle unions – starting from a clear, strong opposition within the CGIL and a progressive unity in action of rank-and-file trade unionism – represents a decisive wedge. It is the main horizon for any new anticapitalist left project: unity among struggles and movements is indispensable today to resist the rightwing forces and make progress towards building a class-struggle left.

6. The new left cannot have a single identity. There are legacies of the past that are no longer sufficient to give meaning to political representation and that must encounter each other dialectically. We would posit an anticapitalist, ecologist, communist and feminist left, not to assemble a range of subjectivities haphazardly, but to find together a unitary frame of reference and a common work project. However, this multiple identity cannot simply be proclaimed. It must be practised: a feminist left is one that accepts women as protagonists and thus also their struggles.

An ecologist left means not accepting any compromises in terms of safeguarding the environment. A communist left means continuing to fight to break from the existing social system and building a real movement to abolish the existing state of affairs. It also means an internationalist left capable of building an international project based on theoretical and practical work in common. For this reason we look attentively at the European anticapitalist left experience.

7. Absolute democracy will be the decisive means of building a new beginning. We can no longer accept, or build, any left based on charismatic leaders, infallible leaderships, immobile bureaucracies, scandalous careerism, or institutional drifts. We want a left based on participation and democratic rules. Regular congresses and transparent statutes are not sufficient. It will require precise measures: rigorous rotation of responsibilities on all levels, pay levels patterned on average Italian salaries, gender parity, respect for sexual orientations and self-financed political activity. Instead of leaders and immobile leaderships, activist collectives will be needed on all levels: regional, topical and national.

8. The left will build itself in the living world of contradictions and social conflict, not in the halls of power or worse, in salons. It is a “hand to hand” work that must be built upon, made of mutual aid, social usefulness, and responsiveness to needs, organisation of struggles and victories. This means putting social roots that are not generic or abstract. These roots must grow from new realities and in particular the new proletariat, the new makeup of the contemporary working class, starting from migrants. It means discussions about forms of social self-organisation and the type of political insediamento subaltern classes can develop. It can’t be achieved through bureaucratic, crystallised apparatus, but depends on the contribution of activists who refuse to give up. This is the task awaiting us. Radicality, above all class radicality, is the keyword to make left politics credible and participatory today.

9. Rebuilding the left also requires in-depth discussions. These must be rigorous and not ritualistic, about the society we want and major horizons. We posit a democratic, socialist society, self-governed, centred on needs and not private interests. It would be founded on social property of the major means of production, ecological, sexualised and liberating. This is not an abstract model from above but a movement that transforms reality that gains legitimacy and strength in the living heart of struggles and change. It means rethinking and building a political organisation that can work and struggle for this objective without seeing itself as the single holder of a presumed truth, without aping past experiences, without replicating power roles or relations. It means an organisation able to read reality and take part in transforming it. But we don’t want to proclaim ourselves this subject, we want to actually build it. This is why we are a political movement. This does not mean giving up on organising ourselves or developing a collective project – building the Critical Left also means that.

10. A new left will be built in the here and now, in the urgency of a situation dominated by Berlusconi’s regime and the Democratic Party’s pragmatic adaptation. The priority is organising a social opposition, not merely in words but modelled on real needs. The issues for this opposition remain, in our view: the struggle against precarity, continuing to demand the abrogation of Law 30, the Treu package and the welfare package, the struggle for a 1300 € minimum salary and a 1000 € social salary, defence of the national contract. They include struggle against war and military missions, whether in Afghanistan or Lebanon, against military bases, starting with Vicenza, and military spending. They also include struggles for environmental defence in the regions against useless or harmful large-scale projects and privatisation; the defence of women’s self-determination, of Law 194 for a moratorium on conscientious objections (to abortion and contraception); full freedom of sexual orientation through recognition of civil unions, the struggle against racism, security hysteria and the new anti-Roma xenophobia. This struggle must also aim for the abrogation of the Bossi-Fini and Turco-Napolitano laws, class unity between migrant and Italian workers, new citizenship rights, permanent resident status, closing the CPT s, and freedom of movement. This will also be the main testing ground for opposition to the rightwing forces, the terrain on which all political forces must measure themselves, and on which movements must quickly provide themselves adequate instruments for reflection and mobilisation.

11. Building the anticapitalist left requires a new political generation’s commitment. This new generation bears no responsibility for the ruins. A new political generation does not necessarily mean the youth cult that figured in the last elections but must represent the most genuine expression of new social movements and struggles continuing to develop across Italy, from the “rebel citizens” in Vicenza and Val di Susa to workers resisting in bitter class struggles, neofeminists who want to live in freedom and not be bossed around, LGBTQ activists who refuse the second-class life the Vatican imposes on them, migrants fighting for new rights. A new political generation, which has grown up without models to copy but which does not resign itself to thinking that this is the best of all possible worlds and is prepared to fight so another world, another society can still be possible.

Critical Left National Coordination, 10 May 2008

Published at Sinistra Critica - Associazione per la sinistra di alternativa

-The Sinistra Critica (Critical Left) was set up in January 2007 by the minority of the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) which refused the participation of the party in the Prodi government. It includes the comrades of Bandiera Rossa, Italian section of the Fourth International.


IV Online magazine : IV402 - July 2008

Italy after the April elections

Victory of the right, suicide of the left

Salvatore Cannavò

According to many commentators, Italy experienced a veritable earthquake at the elections of April 13 and 14, 2008. But in fact it amounts to a conservative stabilisation rather than an earthquake. This stabilisation closes a political cycle which began in 1991, a period of huge political upheavals marked by the disappearance of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the end of the governmental hegemony of the Christian Democracy (DC) and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) following a wave of investigations concerning corruption which took place under the name of “Mani Pullite” (“Clean Hands”), by the repositioning of Italian capitalism on the world scene under the hegemony of US neo-imperialism after the end of the USSR, and finally by the birth of the Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC, also known as Rifondazione).

This cycle has ended with a significant strengthening of the conservative and racist right, the weakening of the political project which emerged from the end of the PCI and the policies followed by the majority of its successors (the Left Democrats (DS) and subsequently the Democratic Party), as well as the division of the class-based anti-capitalist left, its exit from parliament and its deep confusion.

Conservative stabilisation

Berlusconi returned to power after a low profile electoral campaign, centred on the faithlessness and bankruptcy of the Prodi government and its alliance. His victory is mainly due to the political poverty of the Union, its leading “democratic” group and to the errors of Bertinotti and the Rifondazione leadership, as well as the limits of the mass movement.

But Berlusconi also won through his own merits, the right wing consciousness that he represents and that allows him to predict a long phase of right wing governments, a political stabilisation that has not been experienced since the time of the old Christian Democracy. The new attitude of the prime minister, moderate and open to the opposition — immediately after the vote of confidence in Parliament, Berlusconi took the initiative to meet Veltroni, the leader of the Democratic Party — shows the power he possesses on the basis of his electoral strengthening: overall the right obtained a million more votes than in 2006. A strength which allows him to reduce to silence a weakened parliamentary opposition which is moreover quite disposed to collaborate with him. Thus the head of government can try to present himself not only as the political representative of his own camp, but as a statesman, capable of leaving his mark on the history of the country.

The strength and merit of Berlusconi is based on the political formula, new and dense, of the centre right — the Popolo della Libertà (People of Liberty, PdL), a new party situated between Forza Italia and the ex-fascist National Alliance, allied in the north with the League led by Bossi (which scored 8.3% in these elections) and in the south with the Movement for Autonomy, a formation which already governs Sicily — which he has built and which he wishes to cement with a social reference block. It is an alliance of different interests, in part popular and present among working class layers, which he amalgamates with a reactionary and in part xenophobic tone.

Against globalisation

The Italian right has thus defined a precise profile which we have characterised — with a wordplay which is in itself worrying — as “national-social”. It amounts firstly to an economic programme, drawn up by the new Finance minister, Giulio Tremonti — his book “La paura e la speranza” (“Fear and Hope”) has enjoyed great success — whose central axis is the critique of “ mercantilism”, namely the uncontrolled and intolerant role of the market as absolute value in the name of a public intervention to defend the national economy and preserve the standard of living of the weakest. The formula put forward by Tremonti is “long live the market, but if the market doesn’t do it then the state intervenes”. He spells out a new role for national states in the era of dominant globalisation. It amounts to a politics which rests on the fear engendered by international competition among workers in small enterprises, frightened by the wave of cheap Chinese imports and starting to think that the unified Europe is a swindle.

It is not by chance that the public presentation of this economic orientation was concentrated, during the electoral campaign, on the crisis around the sale of the airline Alitalia. Whereas the Prodi government, wishing to respect all the directives of the European Union, was ready to sell it to Air France, Berlusconi stressed the reaffirmation of “Italian” ownership of the company. In sum, this is a moderated neo-nationalism, taking account of the role of the EU — nobody inside the centre right wants to break up the Union — but firm on the preservation of the national role and thus perceived by many workers as more “protective”. The first measures of the Berlusconi government are the abolition of taxation on first housing, the suppression of taxes on overtime — which will worsen conditions for workers, but which is perceived right now as allowing increased purchasing power — and at the same time the announcement of an increase in taxation of the very high wages of the big managers, banks and oil companies. A populism “ben trovato” which chimes in perfectly with the other, more significant. warhorse the right has chosen to straddle: the struggle against illegal immigration and the centrality of law and order.

In recent days we have seen images that we thought we would not witness again: Italian citizens assaulting Roma camps, setting fire to huts and chasing women and children. This happened in Naples, largely at the initiative of the Camorra but with the support of the citizens and above all without a word of real condemnation from the government, or even from the “democratic” opposition (or from the Church of Pope Ratzinger). An obvious sign of the general climate, rooted in fear of the economic crisis, the turn to identity-based politics and the internal weakness of the workers’ movement.

The right is thus gathering around itself a vast front from elements of the working class to small entrepreneurs, from the retired to employees scared of immigration or criminality (which is nonetheless constantly falling in Italy, with a safety rate in the cities, above all Rome, which is very high in comparison with European cities), and among significant sectors of youth, who have had enough of the left and its various articulations.

Defeat of the left

This is the second factor explaining the electoral result, a factor as important as the Berlusconi’s ability to understand the Italian social dynamic. The Italian left (for convenience we include here the part of the ex-PCI which today forms the Democratic Party, although it no longer has anything in common with the left) has essentially committed suicide. Fifteen years after the liquidation of the PCI and after having twice been in government, it has not succeeded in validating its strategy, becoming politically isolated but above all cut off from significant sectors of the workers’ movement, constantly attacked and betrayed in the course of the decades of choices made to support Italian business and the dominant capitalism.

The strategy of occupying the “centre” of the political scene, the neoliberal turn — which the Democratic Left accomplished by leapfrogging social democracy and directly joining the “third way” of Blair and Clinton — have finally led its party, the Democratic Party, heir of the majority of the PCI and Christian Democracy, to “only” 33% of the vote. All studies show that the centre electorate moved more to the right, directly to the PdL of Berlusconi or the Udc of Casini (which originates from a right wing minority of the old DC), formerly allied to Berlusconi and today the second force in the parliamentary opposition with 5.5% of the vote. Only 2 to 3% of the voters of the left followed the Democratic Party. The decision to defend and represent directly an Italian capitalism in crisis — Italian industry is based primarily on small companies which generally vote for the right — has favoured the right which at the end of the day is more to the taste of the Italian bourgeoisie. The PD has thus found itself without credible allies to return to government. The heirs of the PCI are forced into a new “crossing of the desert”, despite their open shift towards the positions of the Italian bourgeoisie.

The neoliberal strategy of the PD has thus above all favoured the right, allowing it the terrain of representation of the most regressive popular interests and moods, whereas for its part it governed with its eyes fixed on banking policy (there is not a single leader of a big Italian bank who is not linked in some way to the PD), favouring Fiat or the Confindustria (the Italian employers organisation) and dismantling local public services. With such a policy and a left linked to the power of the big Italian enterprises, it is logical that a significant part of the popular vote shifted to the right, as witnessed by the success of the Northern League. Moreover, in government the centre-left has made every tactical error possible. No measure, no decree symbolically innovative or breaking with a gangrenous social situation; the support given by Veltroni to Berlusconi, when the latter was in political difficulties; an internal battle where all blows were allowed; no taking into account of what appears today as the privileged theme of public opinion: the privileges of parliamentarians, the high salaries, the waste of public administration.

The centre left could rest only on a sort of “neo-frontism”, a sacred union against the right, without social content and which ended up actually favouring the right.

In this context the choice of the class conscious left, and in particular the PRC, proved disastrous. The results of these elections oblige us to note the end of Communist Refoundation. An end that we predicted as Sinistra critica last year, in declaring our exit from the PRC and the birth of our political movement. An end marked by various factors: the inability to carry out the historic mission of the PRC, namely the refoundation of a class based and alternative Communist Party opposed to the PD; an internal political caste encrusted in an institutional perspective, with the proliferation of careerism and the struggle for positions; the arrogance and narcissism of a leading group, Bertinotti at the head, believing power justified everything. But in the end what weighed most in this case was a strategic error: the idea that it was possible to build a class based Communist force in alliance with Italian capital. Bertinotti called this possibility “the dynamic compromise”, a picturesque variant of the “historic compromise” which ended like its predecessor in defeat for the party which defended it.

In government the PRC was wrong on everything: it voted for the war; it organised a big demonstration against insecure work only to then vote for the measures of the government against which it had just demonstrated; it expelled Turigliatto [1] demonstrating thus that it was more royalist than the king; it took the presidency of the Chamber of Deputies and thus took responsibility for the politics of the majority, which a left electorate sincerely attached to class values and interests could not forgive. But it has above all committed the error of thinking that supporting the government was a possible strategy, that the Italian centre left was “permeable” to the social movements and that its nature rendered plausible a project of “Grand reform” of the country. All these errors were signalled in their time by those who, like us, had a correct reading of the relationship of forces between the classes, understanding the stagnation of the struggles in the big factories and workplaces — it is enough to follow the renewals of the main collective contracts — and explained it exhaustively.

Rifondazione closed its cycle with the illusion of associating the two opposed parties, the government and the social opposition, through an unrealistic compromise, and believing that the electoral reward would be sufficient to replace a non-existent social base, that nobody inside the leading group had attempted to build during the past fifteen years, since they were too concerned with ensuring an electoral place of honour.

We are thus faced today with a situation of great regression, above all at the activist level because of a widespread demoralisation. The immediate responses from the main people responsible for the catastrophe confirm this analysis. The PRC is preparing its congress amidst internal tensions, with some — faithful to Bertinotti — proposing its transcendence to found a “rainbow” left which would take up on its own account the organic alliance with the Democratic Party, while others — the former Democrazia Proletaria [2] and the former followers of Cossutta [3] — clinging to the organisational defence of the PRC without however advancing another strategic project. It is then a settlement of accounts among the apparatus, in which the stakes are the logo and cash of the party.

At the same time the PdCI — the party founded by Cossutta when Bertinotti had broken with the first Prodi government, led today by Diliberto — propose an identity based project, “unity of all Communists”, without strategy or political project other than the deployment of red flags and the shaking of hammers and sickles. And all wish to stick with the same leaders who have been there for the last fifteen years and who are responsible for the current collapse. Even the new internal opposition in the PRC is led by the sole Rifondazione minister inside the last Prodi government, who now emerges as an opponent of Bertinotti.

This situation of retreat is fed by a stagnation of social struggles (with the exception of areas of revolt on the environmental front and the battle against ecological devastation) and a rapid realignment of the big union federations — the CGIL, CISL and UIL — on the collaborationist line of the Democratic Party. The confederated unions have integrated the “social agreement” that they have immediately re-proposed to the new right wing government. So a new Government-Union-Confindustria agreement is trailed. It should limit the prerogatives of national collective bargaining — that is negotiation centralised at the level of the branches — to the profit of enterprise level agreements. It should also link all pay increases to productivity increases. The Berlusconi government needs this agreement to definitively seal its legitimacy, because until now the unions have practiced “social agreements” only with centre-left governments and the previous Berlusconi government had been confronted with big workers’ struggles.

However the most significant sector of the workforce, that of the metalworkers, continues to oppose this schema. The FIOM-CGIL could thus go into opposition, which for the first time in the history of rank and file trades unionism has put a unitary platform and a common plan of action on the agenda.

Alternative lefts

So there are signals of a counter tendency which constitutes a point of support for a genuinely class based left proposing a clearly anti-capitalist strategy.

Although it has only existed for three months autonomously, Sinistra critica contested these elections. The exit from the PRC had concentrated its energy for nearly a year, which was necessary to allow everyone to take part in a deep and rich discussion. The decision to contest the elections was only taken on February 17, 50 days before the vote. The symbol of the campaign was presented on February 19: so it was a very rapid operation which only the great unity of the leading group and the determination of all the activists of this new organisation rendered possible. The declared and explicit objective was not to immediately represent an alternative to the crisis of Rifondazione — which for us was already apparent before the elections — nor to the Left “rainbow” but only to affirm the existence and vitality of an alternative project, of a basic pole of ideas, of a broad leading group and an activist collective present in different towns and in the main areas of conflict. To generate awareness, in other words, of the youngest of the Italian far left organisations. This objective was attained. It is for this reason that we can declare ourselves satisfied with having obtained 0.5%, or around 170,000 votes, which is obviously not enough to represent an alternative to the crisis of the PRC, but which allows Sinistra critica to exist, strengthen and contribute to the construction of a new class based and anti-capitalist left. During the electoral campaign Sinistra critica practically doubled the number of towns where it has a presence. Analyses of the electoral results indicate that everywhere Sinistra critica had a presence and an organised activity our results exceeded 1%, with sometimes 2 and even 3% of the vote.

The overall result of the class based and anti-capitalist left is strengthened by that obtained by the Communist Workers’ Party (PCL), led by Marco Ferrando. This party, also emerging from the internal opposition in the PRC, was set up a year before Sinistra critica and his since then tried to fine tune its political propaganda, above all televised, which has had an impact on its electoral result (0.6%, or around 200,000 votes). The PCL had stressed a political language and attitude very marked by the “Communist” tradition. That represented both its strength and its limits, given its very “closed”, self-proclamatory, position, de facto separated from the sites of social conflict. It is not by chance that the PCL rejected the offer of an electoral agreement with Sinistra critica, because it preferred to use these elections for its own independent construction in seeking an electorate “similar, working class and adult”, disappointed by the historic parties of the left and desiring to demonstrate, even if only through a symbolic gesture, a form of protest. The type of vote that the PCL received in the former working class bastions of the PCI, where the PRC and PdCI obtained good results in the past, witness to the success of this attempt.

An analysis published by the daily newspaper “Repubblica” illustrates the “qualitative” differences in the votes received by Sinistra critica and the PCL. The votes for the latter came to a great degree from the PdCI and only a smaller percentage from the PRC or the Verdi (Greens). The votes for Sinistra critica however came above all from the PRC, but also significantly from the PdCI and Verdi, and these are above all female and young voters. They are also to a great extent “activist” votes, coming from a part of the vanguard involved in the unions and social movements, the votes of those who wished to signal a left commitment, a will to protest against the course of the two Communist parties in the Prodi government.

The forum of the social opposition

How can we relaunch a class based left? Immediately there are no organisational formulae or regroupments which allow us to metabolise the defeat. A new class left cannot be built from above, simply by throwing off the old ruling groups who failed, although that is necessary. What is necessary is above all a collective practice and a real social opposition, which cannot be only a front or solely propagandist, but which should have the capacity to work in depth. The protest demonstrations in response to the obscurantist and xenophobic tide spreading in Italy are certainly an element of that. But we have above all need of a project of building a social base and a political programme which can meet the challenge of the global crisis of western capitalist society.

That cannot be resolved by a formula or political schema, or by improvised alliances. As Sinistra critica we intend to work around two axes, on two coordinates.

First, we will continue the construction of our political project and thus of our organisation, without however self-proclaiming ourselves as a party. We wish then to build a national headquarters, set up a central office made up of staff who are not full timers but will work on the principle of rotation and on a part time basis, and begin to organise in early July our first national event in Rome. At the same time we want to organise for our first real national congress in early 2009, which will also serve for the formal launch of the European election campaign. In this sense the commitment of Sinistra critica inside the European anti-capitalist left project is decisive and we seek its organisational strengthening.

But the second coordinate is as important as the first, if not more important. This involves building a “unitary front” capable of resisting the multitude of attacks from the right, around a programme of social opposition and a project of building a social base, above all in the workplaces, to rebuild the “bastions” of social résistance. For that the importance of a new class conscious trade union will be determinant.

We think that this necessitates a resumption of cooperation between the forces which have not abandoned opposition even when the government was centre left — the alliance of June 9, 2007 which allowed the big mobilisation against Bush’s visit — and which has kept a rigorous anchoring in the aspirations of the modern proletariat. The themes are those imposed by the capitalist offensive in Europe: workers’ resistance, the defence of public services, the struggle against xenophobia, and the defence of the environment. On all these terrains a European dimension would be needed and while the Italian situation seems so obscure and dangerous it is to be hoped that many Eurosceptics will understand how much a workers’ movement capable of transcending national frontiers is vital.

In this goal we propose the constitution of a Forum of Social Opposition inside of which we can rebuild a strategic debate on the identity of an anti-capitalist left starting from its main characteristic: unwillingness to govern capitalism and willingness to overthrow it.

In sum we face a long task, which should be constant and determined. Sinistra critica was born out of a historic defeat and it should be capable of preserving the energies of some thousands of activists. These energies will be precious in the new phase. We did not expect to find ourselves in such a context. We are however there and we will play with conviction the role that has just fallen upon us.

-* Salvatore Cannavò is a former PRC deputy and is now a leader of Sinistra critica (Critical Left).


[1] 1. 3. PRC Senator and Fourth International supporter Franco Turigliatto was expelled from the party for not voting for the financing of the Italian army of occupation in Afghanistan

[2] 2. 5. A current which traces its roots to a far left grouping of the 1970s

[3] 3. Armando Cossutta, a historic leader of the PCI who left the PRC to form the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI), before resigning from the latter in 2007

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