The price of neoliberalism
The continuing decline of the left will be confirmed by the results of the March 4 general election, predicts Toby Abse
The Italian parliament was dissolved on December 28, and the next general election will take place on Sunday March 4. Although both the dissolution and the date of the election were announced slightly earlier than expected, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the outgoing, 17th, legislature did not run for a full five-year term, even if the events of its final day (December 23), discussed later in this article, did it absolutely no credit.
At present, the ‘centre-right’1 coalition, led by Silvio Berlusconi - despite the ban on this convicted felon either standing for or being appointed to public office within the time-frame of the current election campaign - has a clear lead in the opinion polls,2 with the right-populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S - Five Star Movement) in second place on 27.5%. The ‘centre-left’ coalition, dominated by Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (PD) is in third place; the PD itself is down to 24.1% - below its February 2013 general election score - and its minor allies only add a couple of percentage points at best.3
The only other force certain to gain some parliamentary representation is Pietro Grasso’s left social democratic Liberi e Uguali (LeU - Free and Equal People), currently scoring 6.8%. Its adoption on January 7 of the slogan, ‘Per i molti, non per i pochi’ (‘For the many, not the few’), together with its call for the abolition of university tuition fees, illustrates its Corbynite politics, which are more than just a way of annoying the self-consciously Blairite Renzi. The new electoral law - the Rosatellum - requires the party to pass a 3% threshold to gain parliamentary representation in the proportional section (which accounts for 63% of the total seats). The ‘first past the post’ single-member constituencies (37% of the total - 232 in the Chamber and 116 in the Senate) will all see a three-way fight between the centre-right, centre-left and M5S. LeU, let alone weaker groupings, stands no chance of winning any such seats.
However, the Rosatellum compels any force outside the coalitions to stand in all the FPTP seats, since voters are not allowed to split their vote in the way they can in, say, the Greater London Assembly elections. There is no current likelihood that any of the groups to the left of LeU which are contemplating standing in the election will pass the threshold, even if they succeed in collecting the requisite number of signatures - only required of forces without representation in the outgoing parliament - needed to stand in the first place.
The grouping that is likely to succeed in standing candidates is Potere al Popolo (‘Power to the People’). This cartel includes the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC), the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI - formerly known as the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani - the party founded by Armando Cossutta when he split from the PRC in 1998) and Sinistra Anticapitalista (the main heirs of Sinistra Critica, the soft Trotskyist group linked to the Mandelite Fourth International), as well as some smaller and more obscure factions. The precise purpose of this initiative is unclear, since the blatantly populist, cross-class name chosen by the cartel does not put ‘communism’ on the ballot paper (or even make any symbolic reference to ‘socialism’, ‘workers’ or ‘revolution’ either). Whilst some of its demands may place it to the left of LeU, and many of its members do have a more consistent record in opposing neoliberalism than some of the LeU leadership, it seems perilously close to what some other writers for this paper would term ‘an unpopular popular front’.
It is worth noting that Luciana Castellina, a veteran of Italy’s far left - one of the Manifesto Group expelled from the PCI back in 1969 - who supported the Lista Tsipras (largely composed of the PRC and the now defunct Socialismo, Ecologia e Libertà) at the last European election (2014), has made it plain that she thinks LeU is a more fruitful project than Potere al Popolo.
Needless to say, some of the more sectarian left groupings have rejected both LeU and Potere al Popolo. The hard Trotskyists of Marco Ferrando’sPartito Comunista dei Lavoratorihave formed an alliance with another smaller outfit, and are proposing to stand as ‘Socialismo Revoluzionario’ or something similar. The hard Stalinists of Marco Rizzo’s Partito Comunista, who split from the softer Stalinist of the PdCi/PCI some years ago,4 are also discussing standing, but, given their failure to bypass rules about collecting signatures in Italy by proudly proclaiming their links with various eastern European Stalinist parties at the 2014 European elections, voters may well hear no more from these boastful enthusiasts for North Korea.
At the other end of the spectrum, some neo-fascists regard the FdI as far too soft, and are considering standing in the elections. Forza Nuova has made an alliance with Fiamma Tricolore, which has a more direct link with those in the MSI who rejected the name change to‘Alleanza Nazionale’ in 1994. However, this particular set of racist thugs may not even get the required signatures, let alone stand any chance of entering parliament. A somewhat more serious threat comes from Casa Pound, which has recently scored quite well in local elections in Lucca and Ostia, reaching 9% in the latter case. Casa Pound is more likely to get on the ballot paper, but its secretary, Simone Di Stefano’s boastful remarks - “They are afraid and they are right to be. Because we shall enter parliament and we shall be their worst nightmare”5 will probably remain unfulfilled.
Returning to the political mainstream, it is worth discussing the parliamentary events of December 23, the day when there was no forum in the Senate to even discuss the Ius Soli (‘Right of the Soil’) - the draft law that would have given Italian citizenship to about 800,000 children of migrant descent born and educated in Italy.
The PD’s decision to postpone the discussion to the very end of the parliamentary timetable, after the final votes on the budget, had already given rise to understandable cynicism - many had assumed that other debates would overrun and the Ius Soli would drop off the agenda. The PD had certainly calculated that they would only have had any chance of passing the controversial measure by resorting to a vote of confidence and did not want to risk the defeat of Paolo Gentiloni’s government at the very end of a parliamentary session, when the PD Senate majority was evaporating - many members of Angelino Alfano’s Alleanza Popolare, always an unreliable ally, were running back towards Berlusconi’s electoral coalition, from which they had defected earlier in the parliament, when it looked as if their old master was in his political death agony.
Nonetheless, the PD could have at least tried to put the matter to an ordinary vote, if not a vote of confidence, to make a symbolic gesture in favour of extending Italian citizenship and to expose the racism of their opponents, including M5S. It was always likely that there would be some absentees among the senators, given the approach of Christmas, but arguably a more combative and principled PD might have been able to take advantage of senatorial absentees on the right - particularly amongst Forza Italia - to pass the measure in a poorly attended session, provided there was still a quorum in the Chamber.
Whilst the M5S decision to leave the parliament building en bloc may indeed have been the decisive factor, the 29 absentees amongst the PD senators also played a role in providing the rabidly racist Lega with a moment of ecstatic triumph, once a quick-thinking Legasenator called for a head count. We shall never know exactly how many of the numerous senators, who left the building with their suitcases almost as soon as the budget was passed, were just more concerned to join their families for Christmas than with their parliamentary duties, and how many took a conscious political decision to sabotage the bill. However, M5S has made it very plain where it stands - with the racists and xenophobes and against the 800,000 children of legal migrants educated in Italy who would have benefited from the bill.
M5S was the only political group totally absent from the chamber, so it is quite clear that the majority took a collective and thoroughly political decision to walk out and sabotage the bill by depriving it of a quorum. M5S had originally planned to abstain in person, which counts towards the quorum as a negative vote in the Senate (unlike the Chamber of Deputies, where an abstention in person is treated in the conventional manner: ie, as an actual abstention), so running away from the vote was a very cowardly way of appealing to racist voters torn between M5S and theLega.6 The dishonest claims by 31-year-old M5S candidate premier and political leader Luigi Di Maio7 and other leading M5S figures - that they believed that the question of citizenship rights should be solved at the European, rather than the national, level - make no sense at all, given their Europhobic outlook (which was made particularly obvious by the way their MEPs joined Nigel Farage’s grouping very soon after their arrival in Brussels in 2014).
Whilst Di Maio showed no hesitation in opposing the reception of migrants crossing the Mediterranean and defaming various NGOs as tools of human traffickers in 2017, there is probably enough residual guilt amongst a minority of the more liberal M5S parliamentarians for it to be impossible for Di Maio to openly back Matteo Salvini and theLega in their outright refusal to extend citizenship rights to the children of migrants in any circumstances.8 It is to be hoped that ambiguous statements by leading figures in LeU - particularly Pietro Grasso and to a lesser extent Pierluigi Bersani - about a willingness to back a potential M5S minority government on an agreed common programme do not represent LeU’s collective view.9
Within M5S, according to Corriere della Sera (January 10), there is a division between Di Battista, who favours a deal with LeU, and Di Maio, who favours a deal with theLega, if M5S is the largest single party, but needs a post-electoral alliance to form a majority government. Although recent M5S calls for the restoration of article 18 (of the Workers’ Statute of 1970), protecting workers against dismissal ‘without just cause’, shows that the organisation is still capable of a degree of left demagogy in a bid to win disillusioned former PD voters during the current election campaign, this pro-workers’ stance in undermined by M5S’s hostility to trade unions, which is in marked contrast to LeU’s links with the CGIL, the most leftwing of the major trade union confederations.
The early days of the election campaign have been marked by reactionary and demagogic proposals from all three of the major players. The ‘centre-right’ - or at least the Lega and Forza Italia, its major components - are calling for a ‘flat tax’: a single lower rate for the Italian equivalent of income tax. Given the bitter rivalry between the Lega and Forza Italia - and Matteo Salvini’s unconcealed ambition to become centre-right premier10 - it is hardly surprising that they differ on the rate at which to set this ‘flat tax’, with Salvini calling for it to be even lower than Berlusconi’s target.11 Berlusconi, perhaps for personal reasons, is keener to abolish the inheritance tax and to remove the tax on a very small number of extremely large first homes that did not benefit from the more general abolition of taxation on first homes implemented by Renzi.
In any event, such proposals would destroy any remaining principle of progressive taxation - a principle which has already been eroded in recent years12. Moreover, such reductions in the state’s revenue would lead either to further cuts in public services or to substantial increases in Italy’s annual deficit and long-term national debt, with all the conflicts with the European Commission and the European Central Bank that these would entail.
Renzi too, aping the ideas of the right in typically zombie-Blairite fashion, is promising lower taxes. His latest proposal is to abolish the television licence fee and allow RAI (state television) to greatly increase the percentage of its airtime given over to advertising. In the short term, he proposes that RAI’s loss of revenue would be covered from general taxation; in reality, if no new taxes were imposed, this would imply further cuts in other public services. Carlo Calenda - one of the more centrist and technocratic of the ministers in Paolo Gentiloni’s cabinet - has pointed out that Renzi’s proposal makes no economic sense, but has called for RAI’s privatisation instead, an even worse idea. Gentiloni has introduced a note of rationality, suggesting an extension in the poorer categories exempt from the licence fee.
M5S is calling for a variant of Universal Basic Income that it calls ‘Citizens Income’, but is extremely vague as to how it would be paid for. Moreover, some on the left have argued that the M5S proposal, when analysed in detail, is closer to workfare than it might seem at first glance to the young unemployed, who are probably the main target audience for this electoral demagogy.
Whilst Italy’s growth rate and average Italian incomes rose slightly in 2017 - the first year since 2010 when growth has been more than 1% - Italy’s GNP is still below the level it was at before the 2007-08 world financial crisis. Small rises in average incomes will probably be eroded by the 5% rises in gas and electricity tariffs announced at the start of 2018. Youth unemployment (between the ages of 15 and 24) has fallen to 32.7%, but it is much higher than the 20% of 2007, even if it is lower than the 43.6% of March 2014.13
Such youth unemployment would be higher if it were not for a relatively large amount of labour migration by young people who see no future in Italy. Between September and November 2017, the number of workers in employment rose by 85,000, but those on short-term contracts increased by 101,000, whilst those in permanent employment fell by 16,000. In short, the Jobs Act, as the genuine left predicted, has worsened the long-term trend towards casualisation. It is not surprising that there is widespread discontent, which can be channelled by rightwing demagogues, as we have seen elsewhere in the last couple of years with Brexit, Trump, Le Pen and the Freedom Party of Austria.
And, of course, the PD’s neoliberal policies have lost it working class support, as a series of disastrous results in local elections in former PCI strongholds (eg, Livorno, Turin, Sesto San Giovanni and Genoa) has repeatedly shown. The willingness of the PD - particularly interior minister Marco Minniti - to capitulate to racism and xenophobia has not paid off: as Romani Prodi pointed out a few months ago, voters with these attitudes find the original (Lega, FdI, M5S) more attractive than the copy.
At this stage, it looks as if no clear winner with an overall majority will emerge on March 4, although Berlusconi and the ‘centre-right’ are far more likely to get a majority than the other contenders, particularly given the notorious willingness of Italian parliamentarians to defect (there were 546 changes of party during the 17th legislature14) in search of office, or in some cases large bribes in cash15. Some journalists suggest that the ‘centre-right’ coalition might disintegrate after the election, either through Berlusconi doing a deal with the PD to form a ‘grand coalition’ or the Lega doing a deal with M5S on a racist and Europhobic programme. The neo-fascist FdI leader, Giorgia Meloni, seems distrustful of both her allies, calling on them to make it clear that there will be no deal with either of what she calls “the two lefts” (the PD and M5S).
In short, the PD’s further degeneration under Renzi, intensifying the neoliberal turn that had allowed it to prop up Mario Monti’s viciously anti-working class technocratic government of 2011-13, has guaranteed a rightwing victory, whatever form this takes. The best we can hope for is a good vote for the social democratic LeU, which at least will provide some sort of genuine working class representation in parliament - the epoch during which the communists of the PRC could get 8.6% of the vote (1996) ended in 2008, and the surprising solidity of M5S over the last five years16 has so far proved an insuperable barrier to a revival of the radical left l
1. Two of its main components could be described as far right - the Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) is a neo-fascist grouping in the tradition of the old Movimento Sociale Italiana(MSI) and theLega (whose leader, Matteo Salvini, recently dropped the regionalist adjective ‘Nord’ from its title) is allied with Marine Le Pen’s Front National. Even some of Forza Italia’s leading figures, such as Marizio Gasparri, are former MSI members.
2. Its main components, Forza Italia and the Lega, are on 15.8% and 13.7% respectively, according to a poll reported in L’Espresso (January 7). Its third component, the FdI, is scoring around 5% and its centrist ally, Noi Con l’Italia (‘With Italy’), may add a percentage point or two to the global total.
3. The PD’s minor allies include Insieme (Together) - a last-minute amalgam of the Greens, the Partito Socialista Italiano and the Area Civica. Insieme is supposed to be the ‘left’ ally of the PD, whilst Civica Popolare is the ‘centrist’ one, including a mish-mash of Christian Democratic fragments and the rump of Italia dei Valori, which started life as a left-populist party and was the PD’s ‘left’ ally in the 2008 general election. Despite some melodramatic rows with Renzi and PD interior minister Marco Minniti, it seems likely that ‘+Europa’ - led by Emma Bonino, a former foreign minister and European commissioner - will be the fourth component of the coalition. None of these groupings are likely to exceed the 3% threshold required to gain seats in the proportional section, and are therefore reliant on the PD giving them a handful of ‘centre-left’ coalition candidatures in allegedly safe ‘first past the post’ constituencies.
4. If some comrades feel this is too harsh a description of the PdCI/PCI, I suggest they examine the work of its leading intellectual, Domenico Losurdo, recently discussed by David Broder in the New Left Review. It is not my intention to unhelpfully throw the word ‘Stalinist’ around to describe anybody who was ever a member of the original ‘official communist’ pre-1991 PCI in the way the Italy correspondent of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Solidarity does.
5. La Repubblica January 10.
6. There is clearly some overlap between the electorates of the two parties - M5S is weaker in the regions of northern Italy like Lombardy and the Veneto, where the Lega is strong.
7. Beppe Grillo is still the ‘Guarantor’, and can remove the ‘political leader’, but he appears to have taken a step back compared with his ‘tsunami tour’ during the 2013 general election campaign.
8. The stance taken on these issues by both Di Maio and leading M5S orator Alessandro Di Battista probably owes quite a bit to their family backgrounds - both men’s fathers, both still living, are unrepentant neo-fascists. Obviously this was not the only factor - Beppe Grillo’s authoritarian leadership meant that he could easily impose a racist line on a parliamentary group, most of whom originally had more tolerant and liberal attitudes on this question, whatever other idiosyncrasies they may have possessed.
9. Such a deal has been vigorously opposed by Laura Boldrini, whose United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees background makes her particularly sensitive to such questions. Boldrini has stated: “It is hard to find points of agreement with M5S, given what they think on NGOs, migrants, anti-fascism and trade unions, for example” (La Repubblica January 14). Boldrini has been the consistent target of personalised and slanderous abuse, often of a racist and misogynist nature, from Beppe Grillo and his huge army of internet trolls. Such a deal is also opposed by Massimo d’Alema, probably for pragmatic rather than principled reasons.
10. Until November 2017, theLega had been ahead of Forza Italia in the opinion polls for some months, and Salvini still hopes to overtake the old felon in votes or seats - or both - on March 4.
11. It is worth noting that Berlusconi, in a bid for international credibility - after all, he seems to have got the grudging endorsement of former Economist editor and old foe Bill Emmott as the lesser evil - ascribes such proposals to “the Nobel laureate, Milton Friedman”.
12. LeU, unlike the PD, is calling for a much more progressive taxation system.
13. See Corriere della Sera January 10.
14. Some deputies and senators have changed party more than once, but even so the number of individuals involved is extraordinary, and relatively few are principled defections from the PD to the parties that now make up LeU.
15. In the past, Berlusconi has been accused, although never convicted, of buying parliamentarians both to bring down centre-left governments and to curb rebellions inside his own coalitions. Since a number of recipients of bribes have been convicted of receiving them, it is hard to believe that Berlusconi did not give them.
16. Initially, it seemed reasonable to assume that it would be as short-lived as L’uomo qualunque in Italy in the late 1940s, or Pierre Poujade’s movement in France between 1956 and 1958.