The Cold Chill of Reality Returns to Italy

The prosecco and panettone are finished, the befana has delivered her gifts. Natale is over. For millions of Italians the cold chill of reality has returned. The powers that be are trying to keep the mood music upbeat as the New Year starts. After a long economic winter, it is all going in the right direction on the economy and jobs, say the national and international media. But people are not feeling any thaw. Italy remains a deeply divided and disillusioned nation, full of fears for the future.

Italy is indeed riding somewhat of a rebound in the Eurozone economy but it remains fragile and the foundations are even weaker. A million jobs have been created the past four years ago – but they are mostly low paid and insecure, thanks to hire and fire labour reforms that came into force in February 2014. Youth unemployment is 36%, the third highest in Europe, after Spain and Greece. Growth is the highest since 2010 – but 1.7% is nothing to write home about. Italians are still materially worse off than a decade ago. The absolute poor – those unable to purchase a basket of basic goods and services – has soared 3 million to 4.7 million over the past 10 years. Wages have been kept back, and over the past year have fallen behind cost of living rises. On almost every socio-economic indicator, the south trails way behind. To take just one: GDP per capita in the mezzogiorno it is 44% lower than the rest of the country, and the gap is widening. But there are winners. The same as always. The owners of capital gobbled up 16 billion euros in dividends, according to the most recent annual figures from the Bank of Italy (a total of 45 billion euros since 2014). The millionaires club added 10% to its membership in 2016. Credit Suisse estimates there’s now close to 1.3 million with assets of seven figures or more. The richest 1% now account for 25% of the nation’s wealth.

In a healthy democracy, for the ‘left behind’ elections offer hope for better days ahead. But both the economy and the body politic of Italy are very sick. Polls are due in early March. The over-riding narrative is that a new electoral law – removing a bonus in seats for the winning party – will result in no clear winner, leading to political instability. A return to the bad old days, it is said. But while Italy has had 64 governments since 1946 it managed an ‘economic miracle’ that projected it from a war-torn economic laggard into the big league of wealthy manufacturing nations.

The main issue today is what parties and what programmes will feature in the next government. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tangentopoli corruption scandals put an end to the Christian Democrats and Italian Communist Party that respectively ruled and opposed within the mostly civilising constraints of the Cold War until the early 1990s. Today, the global capitalist gloves are off, and the ballot papers in Italy will be dominated by right-wing populist and otherwise politically confused forces that are now spreading like wildfire across the West.

Yet again, there’s the Forza Italia party of billionaire tax fraud and four times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who first entered politics 24 years ago. Although his conviction means he is not able to stand for parliament, the 81-year-old is confident he pull off another coup with a hand-picked front man as PM. The 81-year-old media mogul’s on-off allies and main competitors on the right since the mid-1990s, the nasty League, led by Matteo Salvini, are bullish too. Italy’s original anti-immigrant party, they have left their secessionist roots behind and now have national ambitions (hence “Northern” has been dropped from the name).

There’s the other Matteo (Renzi) and his Democrats, which has been leading the outgoing government and includes former communists and christian democrats. Renzi (think Tony Blair or Emmanuel Macron) was PM for nearly 3 years until December 2016 and is hoping for a comeback. His chief achievements were to slash labour rights but he badly misjudged things when he sought – and failed – to bulldoze the Italian constitution, the Magna Carta that was fingered by American bankers as a block on completing the corporate takeover of Europe’s fourth largest economy.

Then there’s the Five Star movement, the frontrunner, but not by much. A pirate style party founded 9 years ago by comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo whose promise of shaking up Italian politics failed to deliver. Its maverick leader, stubborn focus on corruption, and refusal to do deals with other parties helped it win 100 seats in the lower house and power in a number of cities. But with a haphazard mix of right and left policies, its parliamentary opposition and performance locally has mostly been weak and ineffectual. In Rome, it has suffered the humiliation of sleaze in Mayor Virginia Raggi’s administration.

Immigration will likely to be a top issue with all three main parties taking a hard line, including the once dovish Democrats. When Paolo Gentiloni took over from Renzi as PM a year ago he saw it as his top priority to slow migration to Italy: half a million migrants had arrived in the previous three years, more than the population of Florence. He struck a dodgy deal with the Libyans. This slashed arrivals of those fleeing war and collapse in Africa and the Middle East but  left huge numbers of men, women and children at the mercy of slavers and torturers. The Democrats have also joined the rest on the matter of the children to immigrants’ who were already on Italian soil. Renzi and Gentiloni formally supported the idea but last month Democrats failed to turn up in sufficient numbers to a crucial vote on granting citizenship in the last days of the outgoing parliament. The Five Star movement – which over the years has wavered between a League-style xenophobia to more liberal positions – failed to show at all.

The relationship with Europe, in what was once a bulwark of the EU, will be a major issue too. Studies and polls earlier this year showed only around half of Italians back the euro and just 17 percent of Italians said they were satisfied with the direction the EU, half the EU-average.

The League, Five Star and Forza Italy have flip-flopped on the issue of membership of the common Euro currency but all have talked of launching a parallel currency to try and mitigate some of its lethal economic effects. Salvini’s plan is for 70 billion euros worth of small denomination, interest-free bonds to be issued by the Treasury to firms and individuals owed money by the state as payment for services or as tax rebates. They could then be used as money to pay taxes and buy any services or goods provided by the state, including, for example, petrol at stations run by state-controlled oil company ENI. For the League this is to prepare for Italexit. For the other two parties, it is more of a bargaining tool to force Brussels to loosen the Europe’s draconian budgetary rules that impose austerity on Euro states.

Berlusconi, and the Five Star at least, like Le Pen in France, are currently backpeddling on talk of Euro-rupture. Five Star once promised a referendum on membership but shortly after taking over the Five Star in the autumn Luigi Di Maio declared loyalty to the EU, arguing that a popular vote on euro membership was now a ‘last resort’, if Europe didn’t play ball. Berlusconi, replaced by former European Commissioner and Bilderberg member Mario Monti 2011 as his tenure as PM (replete with sex scandals and a sovereign debt crisis) threatened the entire European project, is trying to position himself as a safe pair of hands. Laughable as that is, he’s playing on fears of Salvini and the smaller Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party, who are most closely connected with Benito Mussolini’s political heritage and who now have many like-minded counterparts in high places in various European capitals.

There’s also been efforts among the main parties to show, after years of anti-worker ‘reforms’, that they do care. Both Five Star and Forza Italia are proposing versions of a basic universal income. De Maio plans a ‘citizenship income’ of 780 euros a month for nine million people. Never to be outdone, Berlusconi has followed suit with a plan for a monthly ‘dignity income’ of 1,000 euros . (Italy currently lacks a minimum wage). Neither pledge – costing around 84 to 157 billion euros respectively –  is credible without a significant a significant break from European budgetary constraints, or a significant rise in tax income. A comprehensive wealth tax has long been ducked by the main parties and no party has pledged to do anything serious about the zillions lost in evasion and avoidance. This is of course unsurprising when it comes to Silvio, who clearly is disinclined to pay them and is once again floating cuts in taxes.

The truth is none of the main parties are on the side of the 99%. The appearance of Grillo’s successor, De Maio, at the annual meeting of bankers and top business executives in Cernobbio, near Lake Como, in September was a reminder that the business casta (as opposed to the political establishment it has long raged against) will be safe in his hands. With the Democrats and Forza Italia in alliance – formal or implicit – for years, a recent change in the statutes of Five Star to lift its ban on party political alliances (hailed as a healthy bit of realism) actually signals even less choice at the ballot box.

Some are investing hopes in a left splinter of the Democrats – Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal People). But among the leaders are some of the chief architects (ex-PM Massimo D’Alema) of the once great communist party’s morphing into a cheerleader of neo-liberalism. It also includes former Renzi government ministers (Pier Luigi Bersani). Moreover, Liberi e Uguali has already indicated it is prepared to team up with the Democrats. Voters opting for them – as with similar austerity-lite initiatives and tie-ups with centrist forces in the past – will be in for yet more betrayals and disillusionment.

Potere al Popolo or Power to the People, is a more serious proposition for those wanting a left turn , precisely because it is not seeking a quick root to power, at any cost, but aims to build a new movement rooted in labour and social struggles.

Founded mid-December, Power to the People is backed by the Cobas unions, labour organisations independent from the three great union confederations that have been organising some of the most exploited workers, and a variety of grassroots protest and social movements. It has also enjoys support from the self-managed social centres – centri sociali – like Naples’ Je so pazzo. Two of the more significant elements of a much-diminished communist diaspora, Communist Refoundation and the Italian Communist Party, have also endorsed the project. And for activists and voters on the left who successfully rallied against Renzi’s attempt on the constitution a year ago it provides a political platform that’s an alternative to the League and Five Star that led that battle.

Power to the People is highly unlikely to break through the minimum 3% needed to get any parliamentary seats. But supporters feel it could eventually become Italy’s answer to Melenchon’s La France Insoumise, Spain’s Podemos Unidos and Britain’s Momentum (and Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalised Labour Party).  There is much that is different in each, but this is true in as far as they all seek to combine social movement activism with a serious left project for state power.

Power to the People has pledged to reverse Renzi’s attacks on labour rights, abolish healthcare charges, introduce a wealth tax, reverse privatisations of ‘strategic’ infrastructure, nationalise parts of the finance sector and gradually introduce forms of ‘popular control’. It also has plans to slash military spending and withdraw from NATO. Most significantly, it calls for an exit from the Maastricht and “other neo-liberal” EU treaties. Although not advocating a Brexit-style unilateral break, by signalling the need for a Left Exit from Europe represents a clear shift from the past pro-European positions adopted by Italy’s radical left, including sections of the communist movement. It puts the question of reclaiming national sovereignty – until now championed in Italy and elsewhere almost exclusively by the neo-fascist and nationalist right – centre-ground.

One of the more high profile candidates – all would-be parliamentarians are being chosen by local communities based on their ‘social curriculum’ – is Giorgio Cremaschi. A former leader of the FIOM metalworkers union, unashamed class warrior and long-time campaigner for a Lexit, Cremaschi argues that it is time to give up the ghost on reforming the existing European set up. He says: “The EU is an enemy, and we want to break from it.”

The biggest prize for the new radical left party could be Italy’s youth, the group with the biggest stake in radical change. The highest percentage in the EU not in education, training or work, young Italians are unsurprisingly a huge migrant group: 285,000 fled the country in 2016, more than the number of foreigners who arrived on the peninsula. A No vote in a referendum on EU membership would gain 51% of the under 45s backing, compared to just 26% of the over 45s, according to a recent study. Potere al Popolo’s stance will be tapping a rich seam: one that will otherwise continue to be mined and manipulated, with ever worse consequences, by Salvini, Berlusconi & Co.

Tom Gill edits Revolting Europe.