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Italy Rejects Austerity


These are comments on an election in which votes are still being counted, so some slight changes in outcome are possible. I just want to note a few things in broad outline about the apparent results of the elections in Italy.

First, the current, caretaker government of Mario Monti, a government that even Nobel Paul Krugman today in the NY Times called “a proconsul imposed by Germany” to carry out austerity policies, was decisively rejected: its 9% is under the threshold that allows some of its coalition partners that running below 2% as parties, to have seats in parliament. Thus, Gianfranco Fini, once leader of the ex-fascist National Alliance, is excluded from parliament for instance.

More importantly, 91% of the Italian voters rejected Monti, his politics, austerity. A more thorough rejection of a sitting government and the policies it stands for, is hard to imagine.

Second, only 75% of eligible voters voted. This is a new low in Italian history since World War II. This refusal of the existing political establishment also took somewhat more, if inchoate form in the massive and unexpected (by mainstream thinkers) vote for the Comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement.

This movement has garnered about 25% of the national vote. It is now the largest party in Parma, in the region of Veneto (where we live), and among artisans and crafts workers – a group that until now, in the North at least, was the backbone of the racist Northern League. Wherever Grillo’s party has grown, the Lega Nord has shrunk.

Now, Grillo’s movement cannot be defined as “Left” or as “working class”. It is however, probably also unfair to call it Right wing. So the question is: what did people vote for in voting for this protest movement?

I think it is clear that they responded to two things: the vote for Grillo was a vote against all the existing parties first of all, against their monopoly not only on political power, but over everything – getting access to jobs, promotions, financing, everything.

Second Grillo’s program included the following measures:

1. unilateral default on the public debt

2. nationalization of the banks

3. a guaranteed “citizenship” income of 1000 euros a month

in other words, much of the vote for Grillo was a vote for a program that is as close to the program advocated for years by Midnight Notes, or by the books of Negri and Hardt, etc. as any political party in a rich country has approached.

The vote for Grillo, in other words, exists in lieu of a serious left that says these things. (I went to hear Toni Negri speak the other day here in Padua, presenting the book version of his and Hardt’s non-manifesto of last year. He was interesting and I will send some further notes about that talk in the next day or two.)

This point is reinforced by the fact that the “far left” – at least among electoral parties – is now, in Italy, reduced to close to US Green Party levels – Nichi Vendola’s SEL – part of the larger coalition of the center-left got about 3% or less nationwide and the further left “Civil Revolution” coalition of Ingroia, despite polls showing it polling 4-5% which would have gained seats in parliament, ended up around 1%.

I think this is because these supposedly radical left parties never really clearly spoke out against the use of public debt to impose austerity and destroy labor and welfare rights, nor call for the kind of radical measures one hears only from Grillo on the one hand, or Negri on the other. Since one is a major media figure with a party and the other is considered the anti-Christ here, never referred to in any media, the votes went to Grillo.

The Democratic Party, together with Vendola’s and a couple of smaller parties, will almost certainly end up with more votes than any other coalition – by 2-3% more or less, but will not have enough seats to form a government EXCEPT if they did the unthinkable: form a coalition with Grillo on the basis of default on the debt, nationalization of the banks, massive investment in green industry, transport, research and alternative energy, and a guaranteed income for all. This will not happen.

Berlusconi is in second place, and is not quite done. The vote for him is also partly a vote against Monti – always freer to speak what’s on his mind (even if only for opportunistic reasons) than is the center-left with its concern for “respectability”, he spoke out against imposing austerity during a major recession, against government by EU imposition and market and ratings agencies pressures, and demanded the return of taxes created by Monti to cover the debt.

That is true and Berlusconi did well, but it is still worth noting that the two coalitions directly identified with capitalism – Berlusconi and the Northern League who stand for government by entrepreneurs big and small, and Monti who stands for government by private and central banks, lost. The first because they came in second to the center-left, the latter because they were thoroughly rejected and ended up with less than 10%. Together these two pro-capitalist coalitions ended up with around 35%.

This again means that nearly two-thirds of voters rejected direct rule by different factions of the capitalist class as such.

So, what now ? I have no idea. But the results demonstrate that a politics that rejects payment of the public debt, calls for default, supports making finance a public utility like water or electricity, and provides a guaranteed income and a new direction for society has some potential in Italy. But for this to happen a movement much larger than even the 800,000 that showed up for Grillo in Rome a few days ago will be needed — if only to impose new directions on the political forces existing,as well as to create entirely new ones and new institutions.

Steven Colatrella can be reached at:


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