Italy: Beyond the scandals

A fighting alternative to Berlusconi is needed

In recent weeks the Italian and international press has given a lot of coverage to the umpteenth wave of scandals that has hit Silvio Berlusconi and his government. In the last few days, the David Mills trial has been re-started – one of many which see the Head of Government under accusation.

In Italy the parliamentary opposition thinks that weakening the image of the Prime Minister without calling into question his policies is the best tactic to prepare the way for a centre-left government – building on the work of Berlusconi in the field of economic policies without any moral ’mishaps’ on the way. But the end of ‘berlusconismo’ will only come when a strong opposition is developed capable of challenging the material foundations on which it is based and the links that tie Berlusconi in with particular sections of society and with the powers-that-be within Italian capitalism.

In the following article, Piero Acquilino, a worker at the Fincantieri shipyard in Genoa, examines the web of material interests which for almost 20 years has determined the fate of Italy.

In the first few months of this year, Italian politics has been worrying and, in some ways, incomprehensible. In the face of a worsening economic and social situation, the prime minister, Berlusconi, has been taken up with saving his own future and that of his business affairs. His parliamentary majority has been bought with money and favours, and the MPs which form it are ready to support the most improbable legal acrobatics. His lawyers, who are often also MPs and ministers, prepare laws especially so that he can avoid having to go before the courts and reply to well-known and well-proven accusations.

Luckily for Berlusconi, he is facing an inconsistent and ineffectual opposition which is more at home with gossip than social conflict. Never before has Italy seemed as divided as it is now, between the real country grappling with pressing economic problems and the political world which discusses and clashes over the notorious parties in the PM’s villa and celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the unity of Italy.

To explain all of this, some questions need to be asked. How has Italy, which, notwithstanding everything, is one of the most industrialised countries on the planet, fallen into this situation? How could a cement and television entrepreneur (Silvio Berlusconi) have come out of the political and criminal undergrowth to become the unchallenged arbiter in Italian politics for the last 20 years? How could the strongest communist party in the West sink into a never-ending crisis which has now transformed it into a gelatinous political amoeba?

Berlusconi enters politics

The international changes at the end of the 1980s contributed to the crisis of the Italian political system. Added to that were the conflicts caused by widespread corruption at every level. The big mass parties, which had represented the main government (Christian Democrats) and opposition (Communist Party) forces, dissolved, along with their lesser satellites, and left behind an enormous political vacuum. Both the capitalist class and the working class were orphaned by their traditional political points of reference.

In this situation, Berlusconi, who until then had been a parvenu businessman who was never accepted into the “good circles” of Italian finance capital and was burdened with debts and legal problems, had the idea of using his organisational, financial and media resources to fill the vacuum left by the Christian Democrats (DC).

By launching unknown people into politics, many of them from his own companies, he managed to win the 1994 general election and to consolidate a real reactionary social bloc around his party and himself. The very name of his party – Forza Italia (‘Come on Italy’) – was directed at non-political layers in Italian society, steeped in football and television. It managed to replace the DC and occupy its political space.

Even though it was the creature of one of the richest capitalists in the country, Forza Italia (FI) managed to break through to the small and medium bourgeoisie whom the DC had always reached with the a clear message: “Of course, our government has to impose many taxes but, as long as we are in power, you don’t have to pay them!”. Leaning on the middle classes’ fear of petty crime – blown up by the media – the DC kept the support of those layers and, at the same time, did not punish their illegal tax evasion. In fact, in Italy, 90% of taxes come from employed workers while other social groups get away with widespread evasion.

Support for Berlusconi

The second pillar which had guaranteed the dominance of the DC in the preceding decades was the open and unconditional support of the Catholic Church. At first sight, the dissolute and libertine lifestyle of the current prime minister seems clearly at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. But despite appearances, the Pope and Cardinals seem quite happy with a prime minister who has been prepared to pass medieval laws on civil rights and to finance Catholic schools, exempting them from taxes.

The third pillar is the relationship with the bosses. Berlusconi is one himself and he has totally adopted their programme. Up until the 1970s, Italian industry developed spectacularly, led by the chemical, car, construction and light engineering sectors. Italian capitalism, despite suffering from a lack of raw materials and being quite dispersed, exported its products all over the world. It was aided by low labour costs and a weak currency which, if necessary, could be weakened further.

Small businesses with few workers and low wages sprung up like mushrooms in former agricultural areas. (“Small but beautiful” was the employers’ slogan in the 1980s). This system became blocked even before the current economic crisis broke. Entry into the Euro put an end to the often-used tactic of periodic devaluations of the Lira. Production costs, however low, have suffered devastating competition from Eastern Europe and Asia. In this situation, the only perspective which the bosses considered practical was to attack wages and to support a government which promised to reduce taxes, at the cost of cutting public services.

Electoral alliances

To govern the country, Berlusconi needed an electoral support which would give him a solid majority in parliament. Without any scruples he set out to tie two other forces to his party – both of them on the right and apparently irreconcilable. They were the Lega Nord – racist, separatist and rooted only in the rich northern regions – and Alleanza Nazionale (AN) – inheritor of the neo-fascist MSI and based mainly in the South. Exploiting the weaknesses of both parties – the limited potential expansion of the former and the isolation of the latter, because of its links with fascism – Berlusconi got a relatively solid parliamentary majority. (This remains despite the recent defection of a part of the former AN – which had merged with FI to form the PDL – led by Gianfranco Fini.)

Not content with that, he got an electoral law passed which is unique in Europe. It has a threshold of 4% for any party to get into parliament, it gives extra seats to a winning party or coalition which assures it an absolute majority and it includes a block list system which gives the leaders of each electoral alliance or party the power to decide which candidates will be in parliament. It enables a party with a minority of votes the possibility of getting a firm control in parliament.

Ineffective opposition

It has been the opposition, however, whose role it should be to fight Berlusconi, that has been the real reason why he has lasted so long. Faced with this social bloc, centred on a rough but clear programme, the opposition is gathered around the Democratic Party (PD), (which includes forces from the former Communist Party and the Christian Democrats). The PD has always carefully avoided building an alternative mass movement, preferring to follow the government in courting the bosses and the middle class.

When in 2002 Berlusconi decided that the time had come to attack workers’ rights head on by proposing to abolish Article 18 of the ‘Workers Statute’ (which gives workers in larger factories some protection against dismissal), an impressive mass movement developed, led by the CGIL trade union federation. This culminated in one of the biggest trade union demonstrations in Italian history on 23 March, 2002, and forced the government to withdraw its proposals.

Instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to defeat the government, the opposition parties preferred to let the movement ebb rather than risk governing on the wave of a workers’ victory. In this case it would have been difficult to get the support of Confindustria (the employers’ federation).

In fact, the victory of the ‘centre-left’ four years later took place in the absence of any mass movement and by just a handful of votes. In two difficult years of life, the second government led by Romano Prodi, which the PRC (Party of Communist Refoundation) took part in worsening the already bad Italian welfare system, supported the military missions abroad, allowed the USA to double its military base in Vicenza (despite the strong opposition of the majority of the population), and carried out policies decidedly in favour of the bosses, putting off carrying out the promises it had made to workers of a ‘second phase’ which never came.

The disappointment that this caused amongst voters on the left was disastrous. In the following elections (April 2008), Berlusconi returned to power. The PD was roundly defeated. The two Left parties, PRC and PdCI (Italian Communists), disappeared from parliament. Abstentionism amongst workers and youth increased. Amongst the poorest sections of the population and in regions of the North, there was the beginning of a transfer of votes from the Left to the Lega Nord. Above all, the elections highlighted social passivity, workers’ isolation, the alienation of young people from politics and the crisis of the Left organisations.

The role of the trade unions

In all of these events the role played by the trade unions has been crucial. In the post-war period the three big trade union federations (CGIL, CISL, UIL) were the main link between political power and the working class. Closely linked for years with the Left and centre parties, and with millions of members, they exerted a fundamental influence on governments. In the ‘hot autumn’ of 1969 they were enormously strengthened and a process of trade union unification was begun. This only happened concretely amongst metal workers while the other three sectors of workers only went as far as a pact for united action.

As the struggles ebbed and the first economic crisis took place (middle of the 1970s) this union bloc was used by the bureaucracy to direct workers towards economic sacrifices and wage freezes. In brief, the compromise between trade unions and government was the following: CGIL, CISL, UIL would try to keep the workers in line and subjected to the demands of capital, while in return they would be involved, together with Confindustria, in decisions concerning social issues.

The end of the ‘first republic’ (following corruption scandals) and the beginning of Berlusconi’s reign destroyed this unwritten pact. The personality and populism of the new prime minister was not suited to long negotiations and mediation with ‘social partners’. Furthermore, the weakening of the workers’ movement in the previous period meant that the government could ignore symbolic and ever rare general strikes.

This change put an end to unity of action between CGIL, CISL and UIL. While the latter two went down the road of increasingly worse compromises with the government and the bosses, in return for a few crumbs to feed the bureaucratic apparatus, the CGIL is proving incapable of deciding whether to go the same way as the other two or to try to represent, in what are certainly difficult conditions, the growing social unrest. The CGIL’s national congress which took place last year, did not resolve this dilemma and the discussion was mainly focused around internal organisational issues in an attempt to maintain a bureaucratic balance and isolate the FIOM (metal workers’ union, an autonomous category within the CGIL).

A political alternative based on struggle

In fact, today the FIOM is the only exception to a rather dismal trade union panorama. Depicted by the media as extremist and unrealistic, the FIOM is the only big trade union organisation which has been able in the last few years to organise efficient struggles to resist the bosses’ attacks in a sector which, historically, has been the most involved in social conflict. This has been without any support from the CGIL, and has meant clashing with the shameful pro-boss attitude of CISL and UIL and with most of the political parties.

The recent demonstrations called by the FIOM all over the country in support of the FIAT workers and in defence of the national contract have had huge turnouts, not only from workers in their sector but from activists in the CGIL and other unions, and political activists on the Left, disappointed with the stance of the unions and political organisations which they are members of.

These demonstrations have not been only an expression of solidarity with workers in struggle, but of the growing idea that Berlusconi and everything he represents can only be defeated through class struggle and not through political alchemy.

This is the most interesting element of the current situation in Italy. The trade union opposition of the FIOM today represents the starting point for rebuilding a political opposition not only to the grotesque Berlusconi government, but also to policies that support industrial and finance capital and the attacks on workers which are taking place in Italy, as in most other European countries.

Faced with a parliamentary opposition which only intervenes in relation to Berlusconi’s sexual exploits and hopes that the judicial system will make up for its political impotence, an alternative is needed which is based on struggle and on the concrete needs of workers. The demonstrations and strikes of recent months show that this is a difficult but viable road ahead.

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March 2011