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Italian Election: another blow in the European Union

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Italian Election: another blow in the European Union
 
Dave Stockton
 
 
The Italian general election has left none of the parties, or either of the two main electoral coalition blocs with enough seats to command a majority in parliament.
 
There is no doubt that the big winners on 4 March were the Five Star Movement (M5S) with 32.6 per cent and La Lega with 17.4 per cent. These populist parties, who have never been in government, displaced the traditional ruling duopoly of the Democratic Party (18.7 per cent) and Silvio Berlusconi’s rebranded Forza Italia (14 per cent).

Whilst the M5S stood alone, it has abandoned its pledge not to govern in coalition. Given that it claims to be “neither left nor right” and to be “post-ideological”, its search for a partner is not likely to be hampered by its famous five principles -publicly owned water, eco-friendly transport, sustainable development, right to internet access, and environmentalism.
 
 
M5S shares with La Lega a demagogic assault on the 600,000 migrants who have entered Italy since 2013 and who have been refused entry by the country’s EU “partners” France and Austria. Salvini, a nasty racist demagogue wants to deport them all. How and where to he cannot say. Berlusconi and Forza added their “humane” version. “We have to prevent racism taking root by expelling, in a humane way, all the illegals and returning a sense of security to Italians”.
 
Allied with the League and Forza is the “post-fascist” Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) which won 1,426,564 votes and 19 seats. It is a descendant of the MSI and the Alleanza Nazionale, though it now calls itself national conservative. Clearly together with the League it forms a major racist and anti-working class force that in a serious economic and social crisis could easily retrace it steps to its fascist roots.
 
Whereas the League has conquered the North – including industrial areas, where the old Italian Communist Party (PCI) was strong - and the central provinces around Rome, the M5S has swept the Mezzogiorno (South), including Sicily, hammering Berlusconi in his former strongholds. The M5S won 49 % in Campania, 48% in Sicily, 44% in Apulia, 43% in Calabria and the Basilicata, and 42% in Sardinia. Clearly pressure will be on Luigi De Maio to do something meaningful for his impoverished electorate. To achieve this victory M5S has promised the huge numbers of unemployed youth in the region a Universal Basic Income (UBI) as well as a crack down on the enormous corruption endemic to Italian politics.
 
Crisis ridden capitalism
 
However Italian capitalism is still in enormous trouble, both for domestic as well as international reasons. Obviously, the austerity measures imposed by the European Union and the pressure of big Italian capital too, by governments of the right as well as of the “left” have proved unable to solve any of the problems of Italian capitalism. Indeed, they have, if anything made them more explosive.
 
A key is to understand the enormous inner contradictions and unevenness of Italian capitalism. On the one hand, it is based on a highly developed a massively concentrated and highly centralized finance capital both in industrial and banking sector, on the other hand, it has high proportion of small to medium size companies. All this is accompanied with a dramatic regional divide between a highly developed north and the impoverished south –a phenomenon unseen in other large imperialist countries in Europe.
 
During the past decade, since opening of the global crisis period, Italian finance capital as well as the small companies have been shaken dramatically. Its banks were threatened with collapse and, received big government bailouts. At the same time, many of the smaller companies ran up huge debts with banks that they increasingly could not pay. Currently the Italian banks still have more bad debts than the rest of the Eurozone put together. The Italian state also has the worst debt to GDP ratio - 132.6 % next to Greece. This debt burden threatens the country and the EU with a state insolvency. This can only be avoided either by another ferocious onslaught on the working class and poor or by state intervention into the “market”, i.e. by a workers government that does not stop at the expropriation of finance capital.
 
The European Commission will continue to demand it carries out further structural reforms and tighten fiscal discipline, even though – unlike in Creech - this may be combined with some presents for the Italian ruling class and keeping interest rates down by the European central bank. Bond markets too will respond to any major increase in public spending by raising the risk premium on government bonds.
 
Political crisis to continue
 
However, the major victors of the elections – populist and racist as they are – will find it difficult to enter a government of austerity and outright attack, which would also need to disillusion their votes immediately. In addition, it would be vulnerable to a demagogic onslaught by the parliamentary opposition. In addition, it is unlikely, that the different “leaders” would submit to each other.
 
Salvini is unlikely to submit to De Maio’s leadership or programme, which would include huge subsides for the south. After all the League spent decades stigmatizing southerners as idle spongers off the taxes paid by the hard working northerners; even calling for secession from Italy and the founding of a new state named Padania, (after the Latin for the River Po).
 
Could M5S ally itself with the other party of the “caste” – a term they took up from Podemos in Spain? That too would be difficult. As Democratic Party prime ministers Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni passed the de-regulating Jobs Act, enacting labour market “reform”, cuts in anti-poverty programmes for pensioners and social spending cuts. But perhaps it is not impossible given how much the Democrats have been humbled - down from first to third of the electoral blocs, and from nearly 9 million to just over 6 million votes. They are hardly in a position drive a hard bargain and would probably lose even more seats and votes if another election proves necessary.
 
However, in the incoming months a continued political crisis is almost certain. But such a development would not just be a period of manoeuvres amongst the parliamentary fractions, old and new elites, but, given the underlying structural economic problems of Italian capitalism, it could lead to the outbreak of a debt and financial crisis, which in turn would cut short the current, mild economic recovery in the European Union. All this suggests intervention from the EU, but also from the Italian president to “solve” this political crisis – for example by a government of experts or technocrats.
 
The far right and the far left
 
Given this political turmoil, forces outside the contenders for power could actually grow and take advantage of the situation. In this case we need to consider the strength of the far right and the reformist and far left.
 
The left’s performance was truly lamentable. Veterans of the huge mobilizations against the G7 in Genoa in 200 or the European Social Forum in 2002 will remember the impressive showing of Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation). With historic roots in the PCI, recently acquired roots in the anti-capitalist movement with its network of social centres across the country it became a new model for the European left. It played a leading role in the antiwar movement that saw three million people on o Rome’s streets on February 15, 2003.
 
So what has happened to it? In fact all that is left is Potere al Popolo (Power to the People, PaP), which presented itself at the election as a populist alliance modelled on Spain’s Podemos It received a derisory 1 percent of the votes and no seats. Yet In the 2006 election Rifondazione had received 5.8 per cent of the vote and 41 seats. How did it fall so far? The answer is simple: it entered a bourgeois government, which attacked the working class. Joining a Democratic Party led coalition, supposedly as a lesser evil than to Silvio Berlusconi. It defended social spending cuts and voted for military interventions in Lebanon and Afghanistan – even expelling two of its two senators who vote against the latter. All for what? Only two years later, Berlusconi swept back into office and Rifondazione didn’t win a single seat, making it the first time since 1945 that Italy’s parliament had not a single Communist deputy.
 
With party the social movements disintegrated and the far left shattered into tiny sects this was living proof that the wages of opportunism are political death. Even those who opposed Rifondazione’s sell out did badly. The “Bloc For a Revolutionary Left”, led by Marco Ferrando of the Workers Communist Party, formed in 2006 as a split from Rifondazione, scored only 29,176 votes or 0.08 %.
 
Clearly this reflects a historic organisational and political crisis of the working class and the left, which is made even more acute by the decline of social movements, the backing of the Renzi government by the CGIL and the general weakening of the Labour movement. In addition, the populism of the M5S has further fragmented and disoriented the left. Because of its combination of anti-elitism, post-modernist forms of essentially plebiscitary  “democracy” and its anti- EU stance, whole section of the Italian left fell in love with an authoritarian, self-promoting comedian whose slogan for dealing with the corruption of Italian politicians was Vaffanculo! (Fuck Off!).
 
They turned a blind eye to his essentially rightist policies, including his anti-European Italian nationalism. From this, is was only a small and logical step to stirring up racism and compete with the “respectable” parties (DP, Force) and the far right, who would turn against the refugees and immigrant workers more resolutely. It demonstrates once again that toying with a national isolationist response to the crisis of the EU and the formation of European imperialist block a la Brexit is a not an opportunity for radical socialist policies but a reactionary response. Just as on the Italian level, an internationalist programme and policy, which puts the common interest of the working class and the masses first, will be a way out for the Italian left and working class.
 
Otherwise, further fragmentation and further defeats threaten – be it by a government of technocrats or one headed by the victors or the recent elections. Furthermore, it the left cannot give a political response, based on an action program to address the crisis, the extreme right, including fascist forces could easily benefit from the disillusionment of the people by the next government.
 
There are two openly fascist organisations. Casa Pound, led by Gianluca Iannone, received 310,793 votes or 0.94% and Forza Nuova, led by Roberto Fiore (standing in coalition Italy for the Italians) scored 126,207 votes 0.38%. Clearly they represent no serious political force at the ballot box. But before celebrating we should remember than in 1928  (five years before coming to power) the Nazis gained only 2.8% of the vote (810,000 of 31 million voters). Fascism does not begin its rise at the voting booths but on the streets.
 
CasaPound and Forza Nuova are behind a series physical attacks on refugees, immigrants and leftists. It is no surprise they refer back to Benito Mussolini’s 1919 fascists programme. But to stand a chance of imitating him they will need to provide a service to the bourgeois, smashing up a threatening workers resistance in a period of deep economic and political crisis.
 
The 2018 election has left the bourgeois parties with serious problems - following the pattern of the British and German elections, the question for the Italian ruling élite is whether to summon to office the openly racist populists of the Lega, who are critical of the Euro at least, have made clear pledges to expel 600,00 refugees and migrants into power or whether to try to tame the Five Star populists who have made expensive promise to their electorate. A Grand coalition on the other hand would really be mixing oil and water.
 
For the Italian left meanwhile - reformists and would be revolutionaries - it is virtually a year zero. Italy has a long tradition of mass workers parties, militant trade unionism, and leftist and spontaneous upsurges by libertarian youth to draw on. But to get anywhere it will be essential to draw the harsh lessons of the past twenty years. These include to rejecting parliamentary cretinism without turning ones back on elections. They include rejecting the popular front – alliances with bourgeois parties to “block the right (lesser evilism).  
 
They will probably have to start from square one in the few remaining strongholds, basing themselves on the unions that will fight back against the new governments attacks when they come. Obviously defence of the refugees will be a critical staring point sine either a “centre-left” or a right wing government can be relied on to attack them.
 
But to create a new fighting party of the Italian working class a revolutionary programme will essential to avoiding a repeat of the Rifondazione debacle and the frittering away of the powerful social movements of the early 2000s.