Italy: stagnation and instability

Article first published in Socialism Today

Italy is experiencing a “dramatic social and economic emergency”. Thus spoke the deputy minister for the economy Stefano Fassina as he resigned from Enrico Letta’s coalition government in the New Year. At the end of 2013 Italy was the only G7 country still in recession and the only southern European country to have seen no economic improvement. The recent world crisis has exacerbated and laid bare the long-term stagnation of Italian capitalism: no growth in real terms since 2001 and the worst performer in the G7 over 15 years. Estimates for growth in 2014 wallow around 0.5%.

The initial reaction of workers and the middle class to the loss of more than a million jobs, endless austerity and a permanent economic and political crisis was to voice their rage electorally in February 2013 by either abstaining or voting in huge numbers (more than 8.5 million, 25% of the vote) for ex-comedian Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment, anti-austerity Five Star Movement (see Socialism Today No.167, April 2013).

This represented a massive crisis of political representation for the Italian capitalist class which has in no way been resolved. And 2013 ended with a five-day all-out strike of transport workers in Genoa against privatisation. This provoked shocked national newspaper editorials about a revival of the militant methods of class struggle which many thought were dead and buried.

Economic, political and social crisis are intertwined. After the fall of the last Berlusconi government at the end of 2011 (a consequence of the eurozone debt crisis) the Italian bourgeois desperately sought a stable political voice, imposing the unelected government of the (then) technocrat Mario Monti. When his government collapsed and elections saw a tidal wave of votes for Grillo the ensuing political stalemate risked further economic turmoil. The only card left to play was a grand coalition embracing right, ‘left’ and centre, led by Letta of the Democratic Party (PD). It has been a lame duck government from the outset, staggering from one crisis to the next.

One of these crises seemed to end when Silvio Berlusconi, who had been constantly threatening to bring down the government, was found guilty of fraud and was ejected from the Senate. When he withdrew support from the coalition his party split in two. Berlusconi headed Forza Italia outside the government, while his former heir apparent (and interior minister) Angelino Alfano established the New Centre-Right party (NCD) and remained within it.

The ruling class hoped that this would make it possible to introduce electoral and economic changes – to form a more stable pro-capitalist government, and implement further attacks on workers’ rights, pay and conditions. Instead, the ‘friendly fire’ has continued, this time led by the newly elected leader of the PD, Matteo Renzi. He has grasped every opportunity to criticise the increasingly unpopular government even though it is led by a member of his own party.

Renzi’s election as leader represents a significant turning point for the PD. Despite adopting a populist ‘opposition’ to the government and the political establishment (suggesting, for example, that the 3% budget deficit ceiling could be loosened), he is firmly on the right of the party. His ascendancy is a ‘Tony Blair moment’, marking a definitive victory of the pro-bourgeois wing over a residual social-democratic base left over from the old Communist Party – the PD was formed out of a fusion of the CP and former Christian Democrats.

Although Renzi tries to avoid putting forward concrete policies it is clear that he is the candidate of Confindustria (the bosses’ organisation). If the PD manages to win a future election, he is ready to impose the attacks on workers which the bourgeois so desperately crave. But those expectations could be dashed. Despite Renzi winning 68% of the vote in the primaries for leader (open to anyone, not just party members), in the preceding party vote he got just 46%. The Letta/Renzi conflicts and the resignation of Fassina from the government expose fault lines in the PD which could explode in the not too distant future, most likely as a result of industrial and social struggle.

Electorally, the PD could experience a small ‘Renzi bounce’. However, the strong anti-party, anti-political establishment mood which dominated the February elections has intensified as economic stagnation continues and a dysfunctional political class appears totally divorced from the needs and concerns of ordinary people. Over 41% of young people are unemployed, wages have fallen, taxes increased and services have been cut.

The Five Star Movement was the main lightening rod in elections for this widespread anger and frustration, from all sides of the political spectrum. But, despite starting life in virulent opposition to the political ‘caste’, it has been incapable of mobilising on the ground in workplaces and communities against austerity and around social issues. Instead it has concentrated on the national parliament and local councils, the very institutions which Grillo had railed against at huge rallies all over the country.

The movement is riven with contradictions. While Grillo expressed his solidarity with the Genoa strikers, Frederico Pizzarotti, the Grillini mayor of Parma, voted to privatise local transport! There have been many defections and expulsions for policy differences and over the authoritarian methods of Grillo. Five MPs have left the movement and another two have been expelled. Rival lists are being presented in several local and regional elections. Given the populist character of the movement and the way it is structured more splits and expulsions are inevitable.

In last May’s local elections the Five Star Movement’s vote fell on average by 11% (23% in the south). In Syracuse its vote plummeted from 40.9% to 9.6%, and in Messina from 27.7% to 2.5%. Nonetheless, it would be premature to write the movement’s obituary. Grillo has been able to channel political opposition precisely because of the huge vacuum, with no party on the left capable of articulating and mobilising the anger of workers and young people on a national level. Despite their internal problems the Grillinis could still partially fill that vacuum. They are at around 20% in the polls and are likely to get significant votes in the European elections on an anti-austerity platform. Berlusconi will probably move in a similar direction.

For most workers the political theatrics of all the parties are light years away from their daily reality. But, with the main union federations either actively holding back struggle or unable to stem the haemorrhage of job losses and factory closures, a general lack of confidence in workers’ own ability to fight and win even defensive battles is rife. Struggles are mainly localised, often where smaller unions or groups of activists are prepared to give a lead.

This was the significance of the Genoa strike. Over a period of time a small nucleus of Marxists from Controcorrente (CWI Italy) were able to play a role in building the confidence of workers that the privatisation of transport and other services could be stopped. Leafleting bus garages and other council workplaces, holding meetings, collecting workers’ signatures in an appeal to the union leaders to call action, organising protests and storming the council delayed the privatisation vote three times. The action culminated in an illegal transport strike which paralysed the city for five days. Despite the obvious disruption that ensued, the strikers attracted overwhelming support from local workers and sections of the middle class.

Struggles against privatisation were also brewing in other cities such as Florence and Rome, and in May Controcorrente took the step to launch the beginning of a national network to defend public transport against privatisation. Union leaders, however, were able to seize the initiative, agreeing to a deal which merely delays privatisation until 2015. Further struggles will be necessary. The Genoa action, however, has had a national impact, reviving the idea of collective and mass struggle. It gave a glimpse of how workers can rebuild their industrial strength and how struggles such as these could be the springboard for recreating a political voice for workers.

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