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Super Mario as the Saviour of Italian Capitalism?

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The formation of a "government of national unity" under Prime Minister and former ECB chief Mario Draghi appears to be the last resort to prevent a collapse of Italian capitalism, to lead the country out of the crisis and to save the EU.

For years, Italy has been the problem child of Europe. A steadily rising national debt, a decline in industrial production, corporate and household indebtedness, plague the country. The pandemic and the crisis have dramatically exacerbated this situation. The health system effectively collapsed: 122,470 people died by 8 May 2021.

The national debt at the end of 2020 was around 160 percent of GDP, the budget deficit 8.8 percent of economic output. Growth rates have been languishing at the lower end of the EU range since 2008. Last year, GDP shrank by 8.9 percent. With the slump, the longstanding structural differences between the north and south of the country also intensified.

But, unlike Greece, which was forced into an unprecedented programme of cuts in the last crisis by the EU, the ECB and the IMF, the "Troika", in order to make an example in the interest of German and Western finance capital, imperialist Italy is too big and too important for the EU to risk a total collapse. The previous government of Conte had already relied on EU money to rehabilitate the country after the latter and German imperialism had changed their financial policy and made a "community debt" possible in order to prevent the collapse of strategically important states. Whether this will succeed nevertheless remains to be seen, given the depth of the crisis, the centrifugal tendencies in the EU itself, and the political upheavals and possible resistance of the working class and oppressed on whom the costs of the crisis are to be imposed.

Collapse of the Conte government

The resignation of the former Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, at the beginning of the year illustrated the fragility of the country's political system. The government crisis was triggered by Matteo Renzi, himself a former prime minister of Italy and a member of the Democratic Party, formed by a merger of the former Social Democracy with a wing of the Christian Democrats, until September 2019. At that time, he founded his own party, Italia Viva (Living Italy). On 13 January, he announced the withdrawal of the two Italia Viva ministers from Conte's government, which subsequently broke up.

Despite attempts to blame Conte's behaviour, there were deeper reasons for this collapse. The main trigger seems to be the loans that are supposed to help Italy through the economic crisis. More than 200 billion euros are being provided as aid from the EU's Post-Covid 19 Recovery Fund and are to be invested at critical junctures. Renzi is calling for the money to be drawn from the "European Stability Mechanism", ESM, which serves as the EU's bailout fund and is a political entity in its own right. At the same time, he also attacked the plans for how to use the money. According to him, the proposed measures would only have been "handouts" and not a sustainable investment.

The Five Star Movement, also in the government, strongly opposed reliance on ESM funds, because that would make it difficult to resist the imposition of austerity measures by that institution. Although attempts were made to include Renzi's objections in the new plans, he opted to break up the coalition.

The remaining coalition partners, the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party, then faced a dilemma. All parties involved wanted to avoid early elections, as the polls predicted very poor results for the coalition partners and possibly more than 50 percent of the vote for the right-wing camp consisting of Forza Italia, the second party of that name, founded in 2013, Fratelli d'Italia and Lega, formerly Lega Nord.

Conte then had two options: Either a vote of confidence in parliament which, with the 18 Italia Viva MPs missing, he might not win or resignation in the hope of being entrusted again with forming a government by President Sergio Mattarella. He went for the vote of confidence, winning on 19 January with 156 votes in favour, 140 against and 16 abstentions. However, being non-party himself, he was unable to find enough party support to provide a majority and was finally forced to resign on 26 January. Talks to form a new coalition also failed, leaving President Mattarella either to call new elections or to appoint another leader to form the government.

All for Draghi

Finally, former ECB president Mario Draghi was appointed, who was trusted to unite the parties behind a "sensible" use of the aid money. On 13 February, after securing a majority, Draghi was sworn in as prime minister and appointed a new government, including both politicians from the different parties and "non-political" technocrats. This "government of national unity" now has to bridge the differences between the Five Star Movement, the Democratic Party, the Lega, Forza Italia and Italia Viva. As Draghi stressed in his first speech as prime minister, "Today, unity is not a choice, it's a duty". His government was supported by 535 MPs, with 56 against and 6 abstentions.

The government of national unity thus includes de facto all the forces represented in parliament and the senate. It also relies on the employers' associations and the tacit acquiescence of the major trade union centres. Of course, there is no question of democratic control of the government by the parliamentary institutions. All parties share, to one degree or another, the posts in the cabinet in order to at least take their cut in saving the country.

Draghi himself embodies the overall interests of Italian (and European) big business and the financial world better than almost anyone else. For years he led the Italian central bank, later the ECB, and in the process had a decisive influence on the EU's financial policy.

He presides over this government of all parties, because the country is indeed stuck in a historic crisis and the bourgeois parties themselves are no longer getting anywhere with parliamentary and "democratic" haggling, merely shambling from government crisis to government crisis. Therefore, although his cabinet is supported by all the established parties, the head of government presents himself as being above them. The inclusion of many non-party "experts", as well as the party representatives, adds to this image. Draghi presents himself as the head of government who is above all the factional fights.

This mechanism inevitably strengthens the Bonapartist, authoritarian elements that are always present in every bourgeois state and are needed when the ruling class can no longer afford the normal parliamentary intrigues and manoeuvres. Government crises and changing coalitions were, after all, part of the Italian political system for decades. As the collapse of the Conte government in January showed, these now threaten the entire structure. Therefore, from the point of view of the ruling class, the authoritarian-led government under Draghi is needed.

Draghi and his programme

In this situation, installing an undemocratic government without the clear approval by the people is obviously not a solution in the interest of the masses. Draghi is highly rated, by the rulers. As the European Central Bank, ECB, president, he is credited with having saved the euro in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. His promise to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro accurately summarises his class-political approach.

The former Goldman Sachs employee has been implicated in several allegations of corrupt behaviour, and not only in this case. Draghi is clearly a representative of the ruling class and has few qualms about going against the interests and, above all, the health of the population. His primary objective is to get the economy back on track. Here, he assumes the role of the "ideal total capitalist". He is not acting on behalf of any particular fraction of capital, his aim is to create circumstances that will secure the economic competitiveness of Italian imperialism as a whole in the longer term.

At the end of April, he presented his "National Plan for Recovery and Resilience" which was celebrated by the bourgeois press, and not only in Italy. In the Italian Chamber of Deputies and the Senate it was passed with overwhelming majorities, and the EU Commission approved it without any objection.

The plan provides for 221 billion euros of financial aid from Brussels by 2026 and further billions to be raised on the financial markets. These are intended to boost the economy, digitalisation, energy transition, infrastructure projects and modernisation. These sums of billions are to be financed by government orders and further investment incentives for private capital.

The plan also promises billions in spending on education (day care centres and schools), housing and social services. Draghi cleverly presents this as a service to the masses. But the main reason for these improvements is probably that decades of cuts in education and social systems have led to a shortage of skilled workers in the "industries of the future". Such social promises also serve to present the Draghi government as a new beginning after years of austerity, political instability, corruption and party strife.

At the same time, however, it is clear that the economic crisis in the country will be met with massive attacks on the wage-earners and the oppressed. More than 100,000 people have lost their lives in the pandemic, and the disaster is far from over. Hundreds of thousands have already lost their jobs and, in the industrial sector alone, another 500,000 people are at risk of being laid off in 2021.

The report of the Italian social and economic research institute Censis, presented at the end of 2020, paints a bleak picture of the social situation in the country, especially as far as the poorest are concerned. For example, at the end of last year, 5 million Italians could not afford a full lunch. The monthly disposable income of the poorest families dropped from 900 euros at the end of 2019 to just 600 euros. For a total of 22.3 million people, more than a third of the population, family income deteriorated significantly.

In the light of these developments, Draghi's social promises continue to be far too meagre. There is nothing in his programme about taxing the rich and profits, or about raising wages and incomes.

Protests

The protests against the government and its policies have so far come mainly from the right-wing and ultra-right camps. As in Germany and Austria, the anti-lockdown movement summed up in "#IoApro", "open up", is strongly petty-bourgeois and right-wing and generally expresses the interests of small capital. On April 12, despite being banned, a demonstration in Rome, mobilised some 130 busloads of supporters. Among others, these included fascists from CasaPound, anti-vaccination activists and Corona deniers, who fought a street battle with the police. In the evening, a delegation of demonstrators was nevertheless received by the Minister of Economy to present their demands.

A similar scene took place in Milan, where on 10 November 300 young people violated curfews to participate in a music video by rapper Neima Ezza and were met with excessive police violence. The San Siro neighbourhood where the street fight took place is a poor one and it is no coincidence that here the police "had to" intervene with tear gas and received a delegation of "Concerned Citizens" on Monday.

The frustration with the continuing lockdown may be understandable, but what is needed is not corona scepticism, but pandemic control that starts at the right place, the workplace. Non-essential work, paid time off, would do far more in the fight against the pandemic than curfews that have lasted for a year. At the same time, it would leave much less breeding ground for right-wing forces, corona deniers and the like. However, it is indicative of the new government's orientation that right-wingers are being handled with kid gloves and allowed to present their case to the Minister of Economy, while the state is cracking down on left-wing protests and struggling workers.

Industrial action

The trade unions, on the other hand, as in many other countries, are focusing on social partnership and talks with the government instead of mobilising to fight the pandemic in the interest of the working class and demands to defend wages and jobs and to achieve social security for all.

Therefore, the struggles so far are rather sectoral. An important starting point is the strike at Amazon, which took place in March. These protests were part of a worldwide action against the notorious monopoly. Under #makeamazonpay, there were broad protests internationally around Easter. But the restraining role of the trade union leaders was also evident here. Their demands and tactics remained subdued, although 75 percent of the workforce took part in the actions.

Communists and class-struggle workers, with all their criticism of the social partnership and in view of the weakness and fragmentation of the historical organisations of the working class, must address clear demands to the trade unions.

Firstly, a break with the politics of social partnership and the hope for support from governments is necessary. The more left-wing grassroots unions like Cobas can act as an important, forward-looking force, standing up for militant policies. For example, in October 2020, the grassroots union Confederazione Unitaria di Base, Unified Base Confederation, CUB, called for a general strike against the austerity measures of the then Conte government, which was supported by several tens of thousands of workers. This illustrates both the potential for struggle and the difficulty of uniting the mass of wage-earners, both the unorganised and the members of the major trade union federations, the "united union", the General Confederation of Labour, CGIL, officially over 5 million members, the Christian Italian Confederation of Workers' Unions, CISL, officially around 4.5 million members and the Italian Union of Labour, UIL, officially over 2 million.

According to their own figures, these three could unite around 10 million wage earners. This would be enormous power if they were to use it. But the trade union leaders are betting on social partnership and Draghi is picking up on this, offering consultations and top-level talks.

Meanwhile, his government is resorting to a wave of direct attacks. For example, since 31 March, the layoff freeze introduced for several sectors during the pandemic has been gradually relaxed. Similarly, the employment protection measures are being further slashed at the insistence of industry, with the cynical argument that, after the clear out there could be new recruitment.

Real fighting unity is needed to fight these attacks. Demanding a break with the social partnership will not be enough. It needs organisations for workplace struggle, action committees that can exert this pressure, and the building of a cross-union, class-struggle grassroots movement that stands against the bureaucracy and for a restructuring of the unions on the basis of workers' democracy and class struggle. To do this, it is necessary to advocate a programme of action against the crisis in the workplaces, but also in the neighbourhoods, against layoffs and cuts, social hardship, racism and police violence, and to campaign for an effective fight against the pandemic.

The Italian working class and the left, however, are not only suffering from the strategy of the trade union apparatuses. The politics of class collaboration, as practised by the leaderships of the workers' movement and especially by the former hope of the European left, Rifondazione Comunista, led to political disaster. It marked a strategic defeat of the Italian working class, from which it has not recovered to this day and as a result has fragmented into numerous small left parties, mostly of a reformist or left-populist character, centrist groupings or left-syndicalist projects.

To overcome the crisis of class leadership, two things are needed: first, the building of a movement against pandemic and crisis, anchored in the workplaces and trade unions, fighting against the attacks of the government, demanding the implementation of social promises and formulating its own action programme, an emergency plan against unemployment, poverty, layoffs and for sufficient health care, financed by the rich.

Secondly, there is a need for a political organisation, a new revolutionary workers' party, which does not co-manage capitalism in government, as Rifondazione Comunista once did, but combines the struggle against the costs of the crisis with that for a different, socialist social order. All anti-capitalist and class-struggle forces such as the trade-union left and the more radical, small groupings, are called upon to participate in the discussion and formation of such an organisation. Revolutionaries would not only have to drive this process forward but would also have to stand for a consistent revolutionary orientation, for a revolutionary programme, from the very beginning.

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