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Italian Elections 2013 - a shock for Europe’s capitalists – and the Left

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When news of the results of the Italian general election of 24-25 February hit world markets, the first response was one of shock. The Dow Jones industrial index fell 1.6 percent, its biggest drop since November 7. The FTSE 100 in London fell 1.3 per cent and both the French and German markets were down by more than 2 per cent. As was to be expected, Italy's index, the FTSE MIB, was the worst hit, ending the day nearly 5 percent lower. The converse of the stock exchange falls was a rise of 4.9 per cent in10-year Italian bond yields,

The unwelcome surprise was the failure of the candidates favoured by the rulers of the European Union and “the markets”, Mario Monti and Pier Luigi Bersani, to win a working majority in both houses of parliament, the Chamber and the Senate. Although he was the out-going premier, Monti had never been elected. Instead, at the height of the Italian debt crisis, in November 2011, the former European Commissioner was made a “Life Senator” by President Napolitano and then invited to form a government of supposed experts to replace the thoroughly discredited media tycoon, Silvio Berlusconi. Since then, he has implemented a series of austerity measures with the support not only of Berlusconi but also of Bersani's Democratic Party.

The Democrats, the largest descendant of Italy’s once two million strong Communist Party, despite ditching their ideological connections to communism, still have the support of Italy’s largest union federation, the Italian Confederation of Labour (CGIL), which put up only the most feeble resistance to Monti’s reforms. What Brussels, Berlin and “the markets” anticipated was a government led by Bersani but including Monti and freed from having to rely on the support of Berlusconi.

So, the unexpectedly high vote (29.17 per cent) for Berlusconi, who had reinvented himself as an opponent of both austerity and “the Germans”, came as quite a shock. However, an even bigger one was given by the comedian Beppe Grillo, who won 25.54 per cent of the popular vote. Worse still, he had fought the election on a strongly anti-austerity programme, attacking not only the the EU austerity plans but also the entire Italian political elite, left and right.

The EU’s preferred candidates thus fell far short of a popular majority; Bersani's centre-left alliance received 29.55 per cent of the vote and Monti's alliance a humiliating 10.56 per cent.

Thanks to Italy’s constitution, even Bersani's wafer thin lead over Berlusconi was enough to give him 340 of the 617 seats in the lower house, the Chamber. That, however, is not enough to form a government because the constitution gives the upper house equal law making powers. The Senate is elected on a federal basis and gives the undemocratic “top up” to front runners region by region. Since Berlusconi and his right wing-allies, like the Lega Nord, won in the biggest regions, they get the bonus in the Senate.

There is agreement amongst all commentators that this is an untenable situation. Corriere della Sera (Italy’s senior newspaper) groaned that the country was, “ungovernable.” Other foreign observers insisted that the Italians, who had plainly got it wrong, must simply be made to vote again; like the Irish on the European Treaty. Keep voting till you vote the way we want – that’s democracy!

However, that is unlikely, at least in the short term. Without a major electoral reform it is possible that the result would be the same or that the tactic would even backfire and produce more votes for anti-austerity candidates.

Given this rejection of an austerity that was planned as much in Berlin as in Brussels, and given Berlusconi and Grillo’s demagogic attacks on Angela Merkel during the campaign, it is no surprise that the press in Germany has been in near apoplexy over the results. “Italians choose a government of chaos!” shouted Germany’s tabloid Bild Zeitung and asked: “Will they now destroy our euro?”

Even the normally staid Die Welt frothed, “If you count the results of the Five Star Movement of the rabid Beppe Grillo, who has been preaching wild hatred of the 'freeloaders up there,' then more than half of Italians voted for some form of populist. This amounts to an almost childlike refusal to acknowledge reality."

And the slightly more left-leaning Süddeutsche Zeitung joined the chorus; "Two comedians stood in the election campaign and were rewarded for their defamatory shouting. (…) Now populism, yelling and lies rule Italy once more. …They deny reality, they pass blame for the misery to enemies outside the country.”

It is also noteworthy that the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, Peer Steinbrueck, referring to Berlusconi and Grillo, declared himself "appalled that two clowns have won" the Italian election.

But Germany’s rulers will not find it as easy to bully Italy into submission as they have with Greek governments. Italy has the third largest economy in Europe and the seventh largest in the world. In short, it is an imperialist power. Nor should the German imperialists be surprised if the other imperialist powers in the EU fail to submit meekly to having their industries closed down or taken over via the mechanism of a currency that is, for them, overvalued.

For the time being at least, Mario Monti is out of the picture and any government, whether it is a minority or a grand coalition, will certainly not be able simply to press on with the austerity. Of course, the first response of “the markets” and ratings agencies is likely to be an assault on the Italian state, forcing up interest rates on its bonds, while the stock exchanges attack Italian companies. But they have to be careful. The whole European recovery plan could easily be tipped into another major crisis. Merkel herself faces an election in November and if Germany is in stagnation and its markets wallowing in crisis, then further electoral shocks, even if not on the Greek or Italian scale, are a real possibility across the continent.

Whatever the parliamentary arithmetic produces, the most important issue in the Italian election is that the labour movement was unable to take any advantage from the obviously widespread opposition to the whole austerity programme. While it is true that the right wing parties have taken a drubbing, with Berlusconi himself losing 7 million votes in comparison to 2008, this was not the total wipe out that many predicted and hoped for. And Bersani’s centre left vote also fell, by over 3.5 million.

The reason is plain enough. The Democratic Party supported Monti’s reforms more consistently, even more enthusiastically, than Berlusconi. Everyone was predicting a Bersani and Monti coalition as the likely outcome and Bersani evidently told the Wall Street Journal that he would “stick to the fiscal commitments Italy has made to its European partners and wouldn’t roll back the pension and labor overhauls introduced by Mr. Monti”. He also said that he “would not be held hostage on labour issues”, thereby clearly signalling that he would not respond to the demands of the CGIL, despite everything it did to get him elected. If elected, a key part of Monti’s “medicine” would have been to “reform” the Labour protection laws, so that capital could worsen working conditions, sack workers or put them onto precarious contracts.

In this, Bersani is following the pattern of the whole European centre-left; use the support of the official labour movement to get elected with the vaguest promises of stimulating the economy, then carry out the austerity policies demanded by the financial and industrial elite of big capital. Meanwhile, in Italy as in most other European countries, the bureaucracies of major union federations, like the CGIL, stifle resistance or, at best, turn it into once or twice a year “days of action” or impotent parades. Even FIOM, the traditionally more militant metal workers section of the CGIL, which showed a more militant stance under Berlusconi and even talked of the need for a new working class party, largely fell silent under Monti. No wonder demagogues like Beppe Grillo grow like mushrooms after rain in such conditions.

The failure of the left

The most striking thing that can be said about the rise of Grillo and his movement is that it is testimony to the abject failure not only of the reformist left stemming from the tradition of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) but also of the anticapitalist left of the first decade of the 2000s – be they libertarian, Leninist or Trotskyist. This is sad indeed since these forces together did create a truly mass movement of workers and youth, which was able to mobilise millions on the streets against war and neoliberalism. What they could not do was build a political party with a strategy for defeating the various bourgeois governments and for posing the question of power for workers and youth.

Rifondazione Comunista (RC) played a prominent role not only in Italian politics in the 1990s and the first half of the 200s but also on the European Left and was widely regarded as a party model to emulate, much as today there is great excitement in some quarters over Syriza in Greece. What happened in Italy is a warning to those with illusions that a reformist-led party, focussed on a parliamentary road to power, will nonetheless find the right road for the working class, providing it is open to many tendencies and has organised revolutionaries in its ranks. And it will do so without all the time consuming efforts of building organisations on revolutionary programmes.

Those who took part in the mobilisations against the G8 in Genoa in 2001 and the Florence European Social Forum in November 2002, had good cause to be impressed by RC. It was a very large, if not a mass, party with organic links to the social forum movement in towns and cities right across Italy. In Florence, a rally attended by thousands of Italians, as well as activists from all over Europe, heard RC’s main leader, Fausto Bertinotti, referring to the two years when RC had supported a government led by the Christian Democrat Romano Prodi, promise “never again!” and reject a parliamentary road.

Yet, in 2006, RC not only supported but also actually entered another Prodi government, citing the need to keep out Berlusconi. Bertinotti was rewarded by the presidency of the lower house and RC reciprocated by supporting Italian participation in the occupation of Afghanistan and the extension of a huge US air base near Vicenza to help it wage the war on terror.

The result was a series of splits by the left from RC, followed by a catastrophic defeat for the party in the 2008 elections, when Berlusconi was elected after all and RC lost all its deputies and senators. In that election, RC stood as part of the Sinistra Arcobaleno (Rainbow Left) a mini-popular front with small anticorruption and green parties. It received 1,124,428 votes (3.08 per cent). For the first time since the Second World War, not a single deputy calling themselves a Communist was elected to the Italian parliament.

In 2013, RC tried the same tactic forming another front with the equally uninspiring name Civil Revolution (Rivoluzione Civile) headed by Antonio Ingroia, previously an anti-mafia mayor from Palermo. This alliance received only 765,172 votes (2.25 per cent).

The only candidates standing on a programme of class independence were from the small, far left Workers' Communist Party (Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori) led by Marco Ferrando, but this also saw a steep decline in its vote, from 208,000 votes, or 0.6 per cent in 2008 to 89,995 or 0.26 percent in 2013.

So why has the left, including reformists, trade unionists, libertarians and “Trotskyists", failed? To explain in detail would take a long time but it can be summed up in one word: opportunism, that is, the pursuit of supposed short-term objectives, at the cost not only of violating tried-and-tested principles but also the fundamental, longer term interests of the working class as a whole. The necessary alternative can also be briefly summed up; “no support for any government of the ruling class”, that is, any government that will make the workers pay for saving the system. Against this, the marginally more progressive or less reactionary character of any given set of policies is utterly secondary.

Indeed, from the standpoint of the real interests of the working class, the paralysis that the union leaders impose under “left” governments more than makes up for any policy differences. It is not for nothing that the highest levels of class struggle nearly always come under a Thatcher, a Bush, a Sarkozy or a Berlusconi when, to some degree, the union leaders take their feet off the brakes.

Rifondazione’s repeated inability to break from the policies of forming class collaborationist governments with the excuse of “keeping out the right”, brought about its electoral downfall as well as disorganising and frittering away the strength of the Italian left at a national and local level.

What it meant in practice was simply a small scale version of the policy of the Democratic Party and before that of the PCI, whether under Togliatti, or Berlinguer, now sprinkled with the holy water of Antonio Gramsci’s “war of position” and “counter-hegemony”. Unless the Italian left dumps the whole rubbish of the popular front, together with its fear that posing the question of working class power will open the road to fascism, the truly magnificent struggles of Italian workers and youth will repeatedly come to nothing.

The libertarian and syndicalist trends on the Italian left, with their anti-political prejudices, also have to take a share of the blame. They have played a remarkable role in several waves of social movements and militant strikes, setting up networks of social centres and social forums, but their failure to build, indeed their aversion to building, a fighting party that could challenge for power not primarily via elections but in the workplaces and on the streets, eventually led to the decline of these institutions. Here, too, the counter-hegemonic strategy of countervailing the state power “from below” and building an alternative culture, only led, time and again, to avoiding any head-on confrontation with the right wing and centre left governments.

The only hope for the left in the communities, the colleges and schools, the trade unions and workplaces is to set about building a new working class party clearly pledged to a revolutionary strategy which breaks decisively with these traditions of defeat and impotence.