The Italian Malaise


We had the election in Italy four weeks ago. The build-up was a morbid affair with an 81 year old Berlusconi attempting another comeback while the left appeared lacklustre and divided. The result was a hung parliament. Can you tell me what your thoughts have been on the result and what coalition you see emerging?

The election saw the collapse of the parties that have ruled Italy for the last quarter-century. The Democrats, who led the previous government, fell to just 18%, while the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), at 32%, was the biggest single party. M5S had already scored well in 2013, but the more striking development was the radicalisation of the right, through the electoral pact which combined the hard-right Lega, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and smaller allies. The Lega has in recent years become a national rather than only Northern-based party and embraced a harsh anti-immigrant platform. In leaping to 17% it for the first time outcompeted Forza Italia (14%), which had in various guises been the main centre-right party since 1994.

The Lega and M5S increased their vote but no party or coalition won an overall majority. Now we can expect a realignment in which these rising forces seek to replace the centrist parties as the new normal. Lega and M5S both pose as ‘outsiders’ and together hold a majority of seats, but there are definite obstacles to them now forming a coalition with each other. The Lega’s Matteo Salvini wants to cement his party’s leadership of the whole right, consuming Forza Italia, and so can hardly agree to play second fiddle to M5S leader Luigi di Maio. For its part, M5S is a strongly Southern-backed movement with strong support among the unemployed and the youth, but also claims to transcend left and right. It remains politically amorphous and to clearly align with such a coherent hard-right force as the Lega could destabilise it.

The first votes in parliament last weekend highlighted some of these dynamics. The M5S made a deal with the right-wing parties to elect its own Roberto Fico as president of the lower chamber and Forza Italia’s Elisabetta Alberti Castellati as president of the Senate, but this was only after the Lega had pushed aside Berlusconi’s favoured candidate. Weakened by the Lega’s advance, Berlusconi has said that the right-wing alliance is ‘over’ and is also deeply hostile to M5S. In policy terms the Lega (which wants to slash tax to a 15% flat rate) and M5S (which wants to roll out an unemployment benefit they exaggeratedly call a ‘citizens’ income’) seem incompatible, but they could make a short-term deal so that they can change the electoral law and hold new elections in which they could capitalise on Forza Italia and the Democrats’ current weakness. Even since the 4 March election the Lega has gained six percent in the polls.

In government since 2013, the Democrats cannot remain in office even in a grand coalition but could conceivably grant external support to an M5S administration. After years of decrying ‘irresponsible populism’, most of its leaders and base remain hostile to this, despite the appeals made by some of the left both within and outside the party keen to block the Lega. President Sergio Mattarella shall in the next few days ask either Luigi di Maio or Matteo Salvini to start trying to form a government. I would expect this to be a protracted process in which the M5S will be concerned to maintain the ‘optics’ of equidistance from the other parties. This will more likely produce some kind of temporary fix rather than the formation of a coalition able to last for five years.

Tell me about the Five Star movement. For many it’s not clear what their politics are exactly and at a glance their support for direct democracy and their anti-establishment rhetoric can appear attractive to some leftists in the UK.

Five Star well-reflects the current ills of Italian society. Its support feeds on a popular distrust in Italian institutions, which has proceeded unbroken since the collapse of the so-called ‘First Republic’ in the corruption scandals of the early 1990s, and the quarter-century of economic malaise, aggravated since the 2008 financial crisis. Italy is one of just four Eurozone countries yet to recover to pre-crisis GDP levels, has close to 35% youth unemployment, and a crippling public debt which membership of the Eurozone prevents its governments from even beginning to tackle. Created in 2009 after the Vaffanculo (Fuck You!) protests organised by comedian Beppe Grillo, M5S reflects the atomisation and social despair that results from this long-term malaise, including a distrust in the kind of state-led projects that might improve living standards.

M5S’s very strong support among the unemployed (at over 50% of the vote), in the South, and among younger layers (over 40% among all under-45s) reflects its attraction to those excluded from the employment market, as well as small business owners and employees who are in work but in danger of losing what they have. It claims to be politically transversal and to cross class divides, but in this it actually represents a very specific phenomenon: the disaggregation and social pulverisation of the social categories which the labour movement and political left used to unite under the banner of either ‘the working class and its allies’ or ‘the people’. M5S does not speak in the name of a class or even ‘the people’, but ‘citizens’; it promises not progress, but a vague notion of turning the tables on arrogant elites. The M5S’s policy proposals are far less ambitious than its fierce rhetoric against the ruling ‘caste’ might suggest. ‘Cleaning up politics’ is both the instrument and end goal of change, and its economic programme is slight.

Liberal press often tie it to the far right, and Luigi di Maio has indeed harshened its rhetoric on immigration, even speaking of a target of ‘zero boats’ disembarking in Italy. This election followed the refugee crisis but also the collapse of a late 2017 move to grant citizenship to the children of migrants born in Italy. A country with so little regard even for its ‘indigenous’ children is also shutting the door to new Italians, and M5S simply goes along with this, if not embracing the extremist policies of the Lega or Berlusconi. Ultimately, M5S’s concern is to maintain a ‘catch-all’ identity, and this forces its MPs to abstain on divisive issues like gay rights or migration. Its online Rousseau platform, the hub of its ‘direct democracy’, stands above an atomised and passive membership, who never meet or take important decisions, and vote in very low numbers. The assumptions behind the movement, such as they exist, are in fact curiously technocratic and neoliberal, postulating a rational administration of the state denuded of politics or what they call ‘ideology’.

M5S has nonetheless cornered the market. In railing against failed parties and institutions it expresses the anger of the atomised individuals faced with the effects of the crisis. Without doubt, its ability to monopolise an ‘anti-establishment’ feeling, railing against ‘the parties’ and the ‘caste’, particularly owes to the hollowing out of the Left. In this it benefited from the collapse of Rifondazione Comunista, which in the early 2000s secured around three million votes, but ultimately allied with neoliberal centrists in government. Unable to create a new anti-systemic force, in 2008 it lost its remaining parliamentary representation. But not only the radical Left’s strategic choices, but the material disaggregation of its social base, helped create a climate in which anomie and distrust rather than solidarity comes most naturally. If large swathes of older ex-Communist voters and the subaltern categories today vote M5S, this is also because they are less bound by class feeling or political identity.

Five Star backed away from an anti-EU position while parties of the left, including Potere al Popolo, didn’t appear to want to discuss it despite evidence that young voters in particular are hostile toward the EU. Questioning Italy’s membership of the EU was the dog that did not bark in this election – why is that?

The key issue is the Eurozone, although this is often described as a matter of European belonging. Older voters are more strongly bound by the European idea, because of the cross-party support for this over recent decades, the belief that ‘Europe’ is an outside guarantee able to save Italy from its ills, and the fact that elderly Italians are, on average, less hard-hit by the crisis than the younger Italians unable to make their way in the current context. Given this divide in what was once a solidly pro-European country, we see that over-45s favour staying in the Eurozone by about three-to-one, while a slight majority of younger Italians would prefer to break away.

The Lega and M5S have in recent years called for a referendum, but in the immediate pre-election period abandoned this. Doubtless neither wanted to be saddled with actually leading Italy out of the euro, a difficult task given its generally febrile politics, and parts of the Lega’s Northern middle-class base are particularly reluctant to make such a leap. For Matteo Salvini’s party, it made sense to shift the anti-EU focus to more consensual questions of immigration and race, while also complaining about the budget limits imposed by the Eurozone.

The Democrats stand as defenders of the budgetary ‘responsibility’ and austerity demanded by ordoliberalism and treat criticism of the Eurozone as driven by racism and stupidity or indeed a transgression of ‘anti-fascism’. The centre-Left Free and Equal list have something of the same cultural baggage, but perhaps more surprising is the radical Left’s unwillingness to confront this question head-on. Potere al Popolo’s rather vague call for a ‘break with the EU treaties’ was designed to hold together a variety of positions among its component parts, notably elements of Rifondazione Comunista who remain wedded to the analysis already tested to destruction by Syriza in Greece.

While the Lega has dropped calls for Euro exit the hard right continues to be seen as owning this territory. An alternative model comes from France, where Jean-Luc Mélenchon has attached the fight for a refoundation of Europe to the possibility of breaking away if this change proves impossible. This is designed to show that the Eurozone cannot indeed be reformed, and beyond unlikely and limited proposals like relaxing budget limits or facilitating some sort of transfer union this does seem the case. Italian manufacturing capacity has fallen by around a quarter since the crisis and Eurozone membership has, if not caused this, at least impeded a government response. Clearly this question is not going to go away and demands a decisive response.

The left is failing to make any headway in Italy. There seems to be two problems here, the first, as you’ve already hinted at, relates to the history of the Communist Party which at its height in 1947 boasted of 2.3 million members, yet holding on to this tradition now appears one source of the current malaise. It is also the case that in Europe after the crisis and globally since the fall of the USSR and the rise of globalisation, the left’s horizon is a social democratic one. However at this juncture the Italian left has historically authored few social democratic victories, such as the NHS in the UK, from which it can draw strength. Can you say something about how this impacts strategy in Italy and what possible solutions there are?

Italy has weak social-democratic traditions and the achievements of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), historically the dominant left-wing party, are both distant and governed by its half-in, half-out relationship with the postwar republic. The 1948 Constitution, produced by the leading parties in the anti-fascist Resistance, proclaims Italy a ‘democratic republic founded on labour’, and in postwar decades this symbolic triumph for the PCI was combined with a strong workers’ movement able to carve out a space for itself after the end of Fascism. In the Cold War period this went hand-in-hand with the exclusion of the Communists from national government, which was instead the constant preserve of the Christian-Democrats (at times together with smaller parties). The PCI did achieve state-level gains, from the referendum legalising divorce to extensive redundancy benefits, but its towering success was the creation of a ‘country within a country’ based on the direct provision of social solidarity. Not only was it able to run regional administrations and mayoralties but a vast apparatus unions and cooperatives. This maintained an ideal tension between the symbolic promise of the Constitution, the PCI’s gradual building of counter-power, and immediate material gains.

All this ended with the collapse of the USSR. The PCI had held together different sensibilities, some more reformist and others more wedded to a kind of nostalgic vision of October 1917, but without the Cold War dynamic keeping them as the party of opposition, the PCI’s leaders rushed to occupy the political centre, amidst the wider anti-communist counter-revolution. They became not only a social-democratic force, but – even more than Berlusconi – asset-strippers who dismantled whatever the Left had once achieved. As labour rights are rolled back and Italians lack even a UK-style welfare state, the invocation of the ‘democratic republic founded on labour’ is more an appeal to left-wing identity than a promise to youth. The weakening of the ‘country within a country’ since the dissolution of the PCI has gravely undermined the social roots of left-wing politics, and indeed it has even been turned into its opposite. Indicative are the cooperatives once run by Communists, but which today often serve as something more like a supply of cheap labour under a layer of middlemen creaming off the profits. The general suspicion over the state handling anything, together with the success of a moralistic narrative about public debt, have also closed down the space for calls for mass public investment.

Matteo Renzi’s December 2016 bid to rewrite the Constitution, a symbolic blow against the left even within his own Democratic Party, did bring an older left together with a youth revolt (perhaps 80% of young people voted against his centralising moves). This kind of convergence remains a burning necessity, though in truth the M5S was far better to mobilise the No voters than were either the left-wing splits from the Democrats or the far Left. These latter forces are forced to fight rearguard campaign to defend historic gains and lack the cohesion or political space to be able to propose a clearly anti-systemic identity and politics even in the manner of such a force as M5S, which is hardly proposing a grand vision of Italy’s future. The traditions of the PCI are a burden on the Left, more like a foil casting the current situation in a negative light than a history which itself needs to be critically appraised. It is one thing to talk about 1945 when you mean a public service like the NHS of immediate present relevance, but this cannot be mere nostalgia for more optimistic times.

Trade unions have been an essential backbone for Corbyn’s breakthrough in the UK, while social movements have also lent Corbynism a repertoire of tactics for popular mobilisation. Can you tell me about these two dynamics in Italy?

The most dynamic elements of the Italian workers’ movement lack expression in the political left. Particularly under Matteo Renzi’s leadership the Democratic Party has strongly acted to reduce union power, most notably through the flexibilising ‘Jobs Act’ and the watering-down of the Workers’ Statute, making it easier to sack workers. The largest union confederation, the CGIL, did little to react against this but having grown apart from the Democrats stands close to the centre-left splits which stood in the election as Free and Equal. It did not mobilise in the way that a union like Unite does for Labour through phone banks, organising canvassers etc., and this list in any case performed very poorly at not much more than 3% of the vote. The more radical USB union, which has about half a million members, backed the Potere al Popolo list, which scored just over 1%.

There are sporadic examples of labour militancy, for instance in the logistics sector, and also in response to Renzi’s ‘Good School’ reforms, and the feminist movement Non Una di Meno is also a dynamic force frontally raising issues of violence against women. In 2015 the FIOM (engineering workers’ union) leadership spoke of launching a new social movement beyond the workplace called Coalizione Sociale but the initiative went nowhere. There is still an impressive array of social centres, a movement that took off in the 1990s. But with a few notable exceptions they have largely been forced to turn their focus to defending local communities rather than projects for national politics. The Je So’ Pazzo social centre in Naples was key to launching Potere al Popolo and decisive to affiliating together the small communist parties who joined this coalition, but the kind of work it does at a territorial level is evidently difficult to expand into a project that offers a vision for national politics. The difficulty it faced, even beyond the general reactionary and depoliticised climate, was that of overcoming the rivalry between dislocated ‘scenes’ and small bureaucracies unable to reflect even on their most recent political failures.

Finally, you’re writing a book for Verso exploring some of these themes. Can you tell me more about this work, in particular whether you see any signs of hope for the left emerging from this otherwise depressing moment in Italian politics?

A lot of historians of Italy, both domestically and abroad, cite its peculiarities, and not least its regional diversity, to present an image of Italy as mysterious and unfathomable, a confusing mosaic which cultural historians alone are able to interpret for us. But when we look at the history of the Italian Left, we see that what is happening there now is not so strange, and not so nationally specific. No other country’s politics or public life are quite the same, but what is happening in Italy is also a concentration of certain broader dynamics. Currently, these are mostly negative lessons, in a country struck by a postmodern counter-revolution that feeds on a broader social malaise.

The important thing is that its situation has to be understood historically: while Italy is indeed a fragmented society where family or community links often prevail over the formal public realm, this condition should not be imagined to be eternal or embedded in the soil. M5S reflects the current social anomie, and in a sense also the social position of the endangered small businessman or precarious worker seeking individual relief in a moment of social crisis. But it is also important to recognise that Italy was not always like that: the present era is marked by the blowback after the collapse of what was once Europe’s largest and most dynamic Communist Party, as well as a general crisis of the public realm.

As for signs of hope, left-wing cultures and local struggles remain points of aggregation but are not the whole picture. When Italians look at France Insoumise, or the left-wing tide in the UK Labour Party, they should understand that these were not obviously always about to happen. Of course, the 2010 UK student movement or Occupy or Nuit Debout did mobilise anger at austerity and the crisis of political representation, and left traces on public consciousness, but they also soon dissipated. There was not a swell of mobilisation which was then captured by party politics, but rather an electoral upsurge that took place after the movements had run out of steam. In Italian conditions it was M5S that captured something of the same mood, after many years of crisis, but in the 2000s the opportunity for Rifondazione was real, too.

It is possible that M5S will run aground, once it turns from being a party of opposition to one of government, possibly with hard-right allies. But we should not delude ourselves that its base would then automatically revert to more radical or progressive solutions, regardless of the weight of defeat or their own atomised condition. Positive change, or even for voters to turn away from M5S, requires the overcoming of a long cultural counter-revolution and the creation of some new force able to combine a credible path to social progress with a galvanising national identity. The PCI was once an example of this. But to do so in the present demands a break with the minoritarian attachment to a language and imaginary that belong to the 1940s more than our own time.