Italy: Crisis deepens

Space opens on the left

The regional elections of 28-29 March represent an important political test for Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi. They will also assist in understanding what the future balance of power will be in Italy in the coming years. The ’delicate’ situation has pushed verious forces into the field – the opposition and the so-called violet people, the trade union federation, the Cgil, and the governing majority itself – to ’show their muscles’ by organising two national demonstrations in Rome and a general strike. But they have really been ’show’ demonstrations rather than a real and actual ’trial of strength’.

The recent general strike itself, called by the Cgil for only 4 hours on Friday 12 March, seemed more to be the result of an attempt by its leadership to defend itself from the accusation of weakness and to provide a cover for the the centre-left parties, in view of the elections, with a demonstration of struggle aimed at getting a result. And it is paradoxical that, at the moment in which the government, as in 2002, approves a law against article 18 of the statutes (protecting jobs) and to liberalise redundancies., the Cgil maintains as the first point in its programme, the reduction of taxes for workers. Susanna Camusso, the number 2 of the Cgil, declares that this law will not be abolished but that it is necessary to get round the negotiating table. Meanwhile Pietro Ichino, of the Democratic Party (PD), declares that it is a just law, but that the government should have prepared the ground, debating more with the trade union.

Crisis in the system

The capitalist crisis in Italy is producing the most serious crisis of the system since the 1990s. According to the 2010 Eurispes report, the level of satisfaction with parliament in the period 2004 to 2010 has oscillated between 24% and 36%. At the coming regional elections a level of abstentions of French proportions is feared. And it is significant that a few days ago the Corriere della Sera – mouth-piece for the ’comfortable salons’ of the northern bourgeois – should publish an editorial from Italiafutura, founded by the head of Fiat and ex leader of the bosses’ organisation, Confindustria, Luca di Montezemolo, which asserts that, "abstention is a political choice equivalent to a vote for a party". It is a symptom of the coming apart of the productive and social structure of society from the political superstructure of the country, that is manifested in the general outpouring of popular anger against the "caste" – the so-called anti-politics trend – and in the anger of the ruling class in the breaking down of good relations between Berlusconi and big capital. There is no corresponding movement of the latter towards the centre-left.

Even if the Italian financial system has, until now, generally held up and the government has succeeded in plugging up the employment crisis through the payment of lay-off benefit, the crisis has continued to undermine the foundations of Italian capitalism. According to the trade union confederation Cgil, between October 2008 and December 2010 the state has distributed a billion hours’ worth of lay-off benefit – an increase of 311% with respect to 2008. A worker on lay-off pay for 25 weeks has lost €3,000-3,500. Those on zero hours of lay-off pay have lost 7,500 to 8,000. The fact that Italy has been put amongst the countries at risk of default (the so-called PIGS: Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) is one of the reasons why the government is discussing whether or not to extend the maximum period for lay-off pay to beyond 52 weeks. If it does, there is the risk that the European Union calls foul at Tremonti (finance minister). If not, the prospect opens up of social crisis, with the risk of a ’Greek’ drift.

The crisis of the centre-right

The exclusion of the Partito della Libertà (Freedom Party) from regional election lists in two major regions for contravening procedure reveals the level of crisis affecting the party of Berlusconi. The lists were handed in late not because of the ’distraction’ of party officials but because the finalisation of the candidates is uncertain right up to the last one because of the internal struggles between the various currents. The struggle for the succession to the leadership of the centre-right has already begun.

In an interview in ’Micromega’ – a journal close to the opposition movement called ’The purple people’ – Fabio Granata, a close collaborator of Gianfranco Fini, president of the Chamber (lower house of parliament) and number two in the PDL, says clearly that Fini’s faction could bring down the government if Berlusconi goes ahead like a fighting bull against the magistrates (lawyers holding him to account). On the other hand relations with Confindustria and the big banks are entering into a crisis for the same reasons that provoked the fall of Prodi (the previous Prime Minister) and the crisis of the centre-left. Berlusconi cannot enter into open conflict with big capital.

On the other hand, the conditions of vast sectors of the middle layers in society are collapsing. In Veneto (the region around Venice), cradle of small to medium enterprises, last year there were 13 suicides of businessmen ruined by the crisis.

The head of the government cannot fail to take account of the fact that the Lega Nord (Northern League led by Umberto Bossi), but partially the PDL itself, is part of the northern small and medium bosses’ network, with growing support even in the working class. Similarly, Fini (former leader of Alleanza Nazionale, a right wing party coming from the fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano) and his people in the south-central part of the country have an electoral reservoir to draw on in the public sector and even in sectors of the sub-proletariat held tied to them through the system of subsidies and customers. So Berlusconi’s populism enters into conflict with the demands of the industrialists and the bankers and – under the watchful eye of the BCE (Central European Bank) – giving answers to opposing interests is almost impossible.

The centre-left

If Athens weeps, Sparta does not laugh. Berlusconi seeks to intervene in the affair of the election list through an ’interpretative decree’ and once again appears as a person who uses the law to his own advantage. On the other hand, the centre-left want to win the match by making the opposing team play without a goal-keeper. What is more, the granting of a free passage to the decree by Napolitano – President of the Republic and supporter of the Democratic Party, represents an obvious contradiction with the crusade undertaken by the PD against this decree. Thus, like the PDL, the PD also appears to be an agglomeration of lobbies and electoral committees subject to the opposing influences of a populism ’of the left’ of the ’purples’ and of the ’call to institutional responsibility’, incarnated by Napolitano himself. It is a contradiction that manifests itself not only in terms of the relations with the establishment but also of relations with the world of labour. Within the PD in fact there cohabit union leaders who have espoused the formula of ’complicity’ between trade union and enterprise and a part of the trade union bureaucracy of the Cgil which the crisis is pushing towards a more combative attitude. That represents a further element of a dividing up of the party born from the fusion of ex-communists and ex ’Christian Democrats of the left’.

The Cgil congress

The discussion going on in the biggest Italian trade union (with almost six million members), shows that even the Cgil is now a giant with feet of clay. The effects of the crisis have accelerated and amplified the tensions and the disorientation inside the trade union bureaucracy, reproducing phenomena analogous to those that have been produced inside the parties referred to. The traditional congress discussion by programmatic ’areas’ linked to different political formations leaves space for a division by category of work. The section of union bureaucrats who represent workers most hit by the crisis (not the worst but those who have lost most) – metal mechanics, bank-workers and public employees – have produced an alternative document, which – even with thousands of contradictions and some opportunism – expresses a criticism from the left of the Cgil. The main axis of this alliance is the FIOM, the metalworkers’ section of the Cgil who, for many years has represented a social vanguard and also exercises a supplementary political role, becoming, in fact, the only real ’left party’. This split finishes by breaking the old trade union left that sided with the majority, but is losing pieces and even the parties themselves.

The PD currents gave up battle inside the Cgil. Rifondazione Comunista (Rc) does not take a position for fear of splitting and sees its own members fighting each other ferociously. Giampaolo Patta, leader of the old Cgil left has suspended himself from the Rc-Pdci (Italian Communists) federation accusing (unjustifiably) the Rc of not having defended the leadership of the Cgil and of having supported Fiom under the table.

The result is that the Cgil is on its way towards the final phase of the run-up to the congress with an assured majority, but contested by the minority. There have been numerous ’anomalies’ on the way – spectacular (exaggerated) figures for the voting in the regions of the south, approval by plebiscite of the majority position where representatives of the alternative document are not present, changing the rules of the congress when the congressional process is already under way etc. And for the first time the ’unitary leadership’ has been put in question with the participation of the minority in the executive organs. The official result gives the alternative document 17% of the votes but, calculating correctly the ’anomalies’, we can attribute a good 20-25% support to the minority. If then we consider the result amongst active workers the number is bound to go up further. It is necessary in fact to remember that the pensioners (more than 50% of the Cgil membership) – a practically unique situation in Europe – will be considered fully entitled members participating at the congress on a par with active workers, traditionally supporting the position of the national leadership. To give an example, in the Genoa Labour Chamber (the area body of the CGIL), one of the most important in the North, the alternative document officially gets 30% but its real support touches 40%. If we then consider the big concentrations of workers and employees, the percentage is bound to go up further. At national level, amongst the ’rebel’ category in particular in the Fiom, the alternative document is winning with (73%), while amongst the bank-workers and public service the leadership document prevails (but amongst the public sector employees it obtains little more than 50%). The alternative document wins in the Labour Chamber of Brescia , historic fortress of metalworkers, in Reggio Emilia, in Venice the result is being challenged, in Bologna Motion 1 wins only thanks to the to the pensioners. The advanced stage of the crisis of the bureaucracy emerges in the press conference called by the majority to present the official results; journalists were given a table from which it was shown that the valid votes were around 32 thousand more than the number of workers who had voted.

This crisis does not even spare the trade unionism of the base. In fact, the attempt to launch a process of reunification between Cobas, Cub-Rdb and SDL in reality brought trade unionism of the base to a further process of decomposition and recomposition in which, in the end, increases fragmentation.

The left

The left parties represent, in a detailed way, the incarnation of a historic defeat of the Italian workers’ movement, its faults and defects of construction, from opportunism to parliamentary cretinism up to ultra-left sectarianism. At 20 years since the the birth of the Rc we can say that an experience based on the inheritance of the |Communist Party of Italy (and to a lesser extent from the extra-parliamentary left), turn towards the end because , not having known how to invest this inheritance in an operation for the overcoming of to the left of Togliattism today in its ruling group nothing remains but to spend the last cents hoping for good luck. The presumed ’jump to the left’ after the defeat of the Rainbow Coalition in the national elections in 2008, has stopped at the first electoral fall, with the full responsibility of Ferrero and Diliberto, and these, more than the secretaries of the party, seem like administrators of the house, tied to the tenants by the pact: "In your house do as you like, just don’t bring me into the discussion". The documents speak for themselves:

"The fundamental point is that in the Venice congress we made a mistaken analysis of the existing relationship of forces. We believed that the moderate left would respond to social needs, while it showed itself open to the demands of the powers that be. We thought the trade union forces could develop a positive role of putting pressure on, when instead they played a role of stabilising the government in direct competition with the left. We overestimated our capacity to affect the political scene when the real position of power was all against us. In brief: we made up part of the parliamentary majority and were in the government, but as far as the country was concerned, other people governed it." (Congress document of Ferrero (present Rc Secretary) at the Chianciano Rc congress of 2008).

"In Liguria, we accepted an agreement to govern even with the UDC (Christian Democrats) – a unique situation in Italy, because the centrists – that is the UDC – obtained nothing on the programatical ground. But it is evident that they would begin pull things out after the elections, because they had the idea of reducing the involvement of the state in welfare and health, to open the door to privatisation; this is why the programme is necessary and the battle in defence of public health is head-on. If you make the centre-left win, the stronger is the left in the coalition and the more the direction is maintained.; to be in the government is a battle ground not a banquet. (Declaration of Ferrero on the electoral agreement in Liguria between the left, the PD (Democrats) and the UDC – the Christian Democratic party in the centre-right camp two years ago.)

The Federation of the Left is establishing a simple electoral list without any plan except assuring a life-boat for the ruling group of the left, making alliances of the centre-left in 10 regions out of 13 in which there is voting. It will not succeed and a further defeat could make them drown for ever. The organisations on the left of the Federation, in particular the Communist Party of Workers and the Critical Left (Italian section of the Unified Secretariat of the Fourth International), who would have had everything to gain from this situation, in reality risk being overwhelmed/swept away in it. Without anyone to criticise, in fact, they risk remaining deprived of their main occupation – being the shadow of the Rc.

The purple people

To describe this remarkable hotch-potch of personalities we can look at the ’Communist Manifesto’: "Those who come into this category are economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, ameliorators of the fate of the working class, charity organisers, animal rights campaigners, founders of temperance circles and all the multi-coloured kinds of mini reformers”. But one category should be added, which in Italy has had a decisive role in all the most delicate unravellings of recent history, as in the period between the first and second republics in the early ’90s – the magistrates. It is not by chance that the main political inspiration is the hero of Tangentopoli (when major crimes of state were investigated), Antonio di Pietro, today leader of the IDV (Italy of Values), together with the younger Luigi De Magistratis, moving into politics after having carried out many investigations into corruption and upsetting representatives of both the centre-right and the centre-left. Beside them are journalists like Marco Travaglio (pupil of a famous journalist of the right – Indro Montanelli) and Michele Santoro (ex-Maoist, then Italian Communist Party, then Euro-MP for the PD). Finally, Beppe Grillo, the comedian from Genoa, pushed out of state television in the ’80s for his attacks on Craxi and becoming a kind of censor of the establishment media.

The purple people are a heterogeneous and contradictory mixture of legalism and populism. The idea that democracy, environment and workers’ rights can be defended by respect for the regulations is making a breakthrough not only amongst young progressive people, intellectuals, bloggers and well-minded bourgeois, but also amongst workers. The use of anti-system demagogy mirrors that of the Northern League. Sections of the population, getting more and more angry, actually demand of politics that their feelings should be represented and so the shouting of a Di Pietro or a Grillo chime much better than the Brezhnevian appearance of the PD leaders and of the left itself.

However, the process of evolution of the purple movement is bringing about internal conflicts. On the one side sections of the political network looking to organise are jumping on the IDV wagon, making its composition even more heterogeneous. On the other, Di Pietro himself is trying to get rid of his embarrassing populist image and to win his credentials as a reliable negotiator for the ruling class. Therefore, he celebrates a congress under the eagis of realpolitik and at the regional elections campaigns in support of the PD candidate, Vincenzo De Luca, already condemned in the front rank of the refuse scandal, sent back for judgement for association and criminal involvement, extortion, forgery and fraud, while his wife is charged with forgery and misuse of funds/abuse and the son is charged with tax offences. Doing this, however, Di Pietro is entering on a collision course with a part of the purple people. Inside his party, De Magistris is credited with being the representative of the hard wing and his competitor, linking up with the left. Outside, Grillo is competing against (Di Pietro’s) IDV with his ’five star lists’ and Travaglio, from his newspaper, screams about betrayal.


Italy, therefore, presents a political, social and economic picture that is potentially fertile for Marxists (to gain support for their ideas and for building a genuine mass workers’ party). The very experience of (work-place) assemblies in the run-up to the Cgil congress has shown the mass dissatisfaction towards the (leadership of ) the union and the left, often accompanied by a waiting for something to re-shuffle the cards and show a way out (of the problems they face). Two themes constantly re-occur. The request for maximum unity between the forces of the left partly reproduces the mistaken front idea of ’all against Berlusconi’, but, from another point of view, represents the justified reaction against sectarianism and the struggles for the separation of power in leading groups. On the other side, amongst workers (and even amongst the youth and the movements of struggle) the feeling emerges of being orphans of a left that is no longer interested in them. This feeling of ’abandonment’, that is reflected in the trade union bureaucracy as nostalgia for the a political point of ref. for the unions. And just this desire for a re-composition on the left represent, in my opinion the keystone for re-building class action.

The congress process of the Cgil is bringing out a section of the trade union bureaucracy which, in part spontaneously and in part under the pressure of the workers, recognises that the crisis closes the era of collaboration and forces a return to a more combative trade union, that takes action in the first place through the exercising of their own strength organised in the workplaces. I am not referring to the whole congress minority but to Fiom and other parts of the alternative motion. Once the congress is over these sections will have to get to work on rebuilding a trade union left. But this brings with it also the germs of another discussion, that on a possible political point of reference capable of giving strength to a new trade union left and to the defensive struggles of workers.

A regrouping of the anti-capitalist left forces and the beginning of a ’reflection’ of this type, inside the Cgil but also in the trade unionism of the base, could interact positively and push towards a political opening, like what has happened in Germany and Brazil at the time of the birth of WASG and P-Sol or in Britain, with the experience of NO2EU during the last European elections. This is the context in which Controcorrente will seek to play their own role from the days immediately after the elections of 28 March.

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March 2010