Italy: an uncertain victory
Danilo Corradi, Brune Seban and Barbara de Vivo are members of Sinistra Critica, an anticapitalist platform within Rifondazione Comunista. They spoke to International Socialism about Italy’s election and the new centre-left government.
There have been big struggles against Berlusconi in recent years and he was well behind in opinion polls at the beginning of the election campaign. But his Casa della Libertà alliance still managed to win half the votes and his Forza Italia is still the biggest party. How can we explain this resurgence, and what do you think the breakdown of the vote points to?
Danilo: There were two phases to the Berlusconi government. In the first the movement and the social struggles against the government and globalisation provoked a crisis within the section of society that voted for Berlusconi. The right was losing, which was reflected in a fall in its electoral support.
But the formation of the Unione centre-left coalition led to a second phase, in which the social movement was removed from its central position in the united front against Berlusconi. The formation of the coalition broke the Italian social forum alliance that was the most political part of the movement against the government. This was the determining factor in the recuperation of Berlusconi’s support. Under these conditions, Berlusconi was able to regroup and enter the election with a radical populism and racism that managed to win him back much of his support. The moderation of the Unione meant it really had nothing to say and seemed very weak. Compared to this, Berlusconi appeared very strong.
There have been movements—of the metal workers, the students—but none of them has become a clear political force. No movement in Italy since Genoa has been able to penetrate the whole of society as, for example, the fight over the CPE in France has done. There have been enormous mobilisations, and many local struggles, but nothing that has been able to profoundly impress itself on wider society. In my opinion, this is the second main reason for Berlusconi’s vote.
Brune: There is a similarity with the 2004 Bush election. At least Berlusconi was saying something, whereas Prodi’s slogan was ‘La serieta al governo’ (‘Seriousness in government’).This meant nothing to those looking for an alternative to neo-liberalism, but was a clear message to the Italian ruling class. The priority of Prodi and the DS (Democratic Left) became convincing the ruling class that the Unione could organise capitalism more effectively. And Rifondazione had now joined them.
The Democratic Left is more important than Prodi. He is an individual, a figurehead, but the Democratic Left has a real working class base. For many working class people it is still The Party and is central to the Unione coalition. It got the largest vote of any of the left parties and has been central to convincing the working class that they have elected a left government. But the best campaigner for Prodi was the leader of Rifondazione Comunista, Fausto Bertinotti. That makes it more difficult for Rifondazione to leave the government this time, and is also why building a real alternative is so important.
Another element to the vote is that the ruling class was divided on Berlusconi. A part of Confindustria, the Italian employers’ organisation, opposed him and may push for a ‘grand coalition’, a centre government like the Christian Democrats after the Second World War.
The new government is not a united one. The coalition ranges from the centre-right to the extreme left. It is completely unstable and things will be difficult for it. At the same time, Berlusconi and the right are very clear that they have not lost. His Forza Italia is still the first party in Italy, with the highest number of votes.
What do you think the Prodi government is likely to do?
Danilo: I believe that Prodi will continue the neo-liberalism that we had under Berlusconi, but with some adjustments. Maybe there is the possibility of some economic recovery that will enable him to construct a classic social democratic neo-liberal politics—totally neo-liberal on an economic level but with some social reforms.
Brune: Every time the Unione has been asked whether it will repeal laws that Berlusconi passed, it has replied that it wants to build on them and go further. Prodi is a neo-liberal; he wants to manage neo-liberalism, not dismantle it. He proposed the Bolkestein services directive when he was head of the EU and then defended it when the movement opposed it. He won’t abolish the flexible labour law. He will conduct the same kind of neoliberal project as Berlusconi, just expressed in different ways.
And this is true even of the more left wing members of the government like those from the Democratic Left. For example, the proposed education law is similar to that of the right, cutting government funding and allowing private companies to provide up to half the funding for schools from primary level to university. It also allows for part of the teaching staff to be provided from outside the universities—from corporations, from the military, etc. It opens up education to privatisation: corporations can intervene in education on both the economic and ideological levels.
But the main argument is the war. There is agreement within the Unione that the troops should withdraw from Iraq at some point, though it is vague about when—and Bush had already agreed that with Berlusconi anyway. There is no agreement on withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the government has made clear it will participate in other wars if there is a threat of terrorism or if it is needed by its allies, and it is under UN control.
Bertinotti justifies the participation of Rifondazione in government on the basis of the programme of the Unione. But it is a programme that can be interpreted in many different ways. Bertinotti pushed the idea of the left coalition to oppose the ‘grand coalition’ that Confindustria wanted, arguing that within the Unione Rifondazione was the ‘left of the left’. But in reality, there will be no real change. Look who is in the government. Massimo D’Alema, who was responsible for Italy’s involvement in the war against Serbia during the last centre-left government, is now foreign minister. Padoa Schioppa, a former director of Banca d’Italia, is economy minister. Fiorini, an extremist Catholic, is education minister. Napolitano, an ex-Communist who is the new president of the republic, made the law to build the first camps for immigrants, opening the door to the attacks on migrants by Umberto Bossi of the Northern League and Gianfranco Fini of
the ex-fascist Alleanza Nazionale. The centre-left introduced these things, and the right built on them under Berlusconi.
What is the response of the trade unions to the new government?
Danilo: The general attitude of the principal trade unions, particularly the CGIL federation, is one of conciliation with the government. They have said that they will work together with the government, and is trying to establish a dialogue. But at the same time a number of struggles that have taken place in recent years, especially the action of the metal workers, have created conditions which mean the unions could mobilise for the repeal of at least the most aggressive laws of the Berlusconi government. We will have to see what happens.
Brune: In the last two years there have been local strikes, but no major confrontations with the government. Now the unions are waiting to see what Prodi will do. The left unions, like Cobas, Fiom and the metal workers in the CGIL, have already declared their opposition to labour flexibility, and have announced united action against precarious employment. They are preparing for a big demonstration in October when the budget is announced.
How are people responding to the inclusion of Rifondazione in the government? What is the position of, for example, the press? What do Rifondazione members think about it?
Danilo: The Italian press is one indication. Corriere della Sera, which is the paper of Confindustria, says that it is a good thing that Rifondazione is in the government as long as it is absorbed by the Unione. This would be a perfect situation because then there would be no political opposition to the government from the left. But if the government is even slightly influenced by the radical left, it will withdraw its support and argue for a ‘grand coalition’ of the centre. There are little indications that they are testing what Rifondazione will do—already there are attacks on the more ‘difficult’ Rifondazione elements in parliament, like Francesco Caruso, whose background is the disobbedienti and Vladimir Luxuria, a transsexual. Marco Ferrando was removed from the Rifondazione list and not permitted to stand because he said something ambiguous about the resistance in Iraq.
Brune: Many people hope that Rifondazione will be the left of the government. I think they will be disappointed. Many others are disillusioned with Rifondazione and voted to the right as a result, for the Greens or the Comunisti Italiani, or didn’t vote at all. This was true of many people I spoke to. The argument is continuing, at least in the youth section of the party.
Barbara: There are some in the party who say they don’t agree with participation and insist that we have to be independent from the Unione—Gigi Malabarba, the head of the Rifondazione group in the Senate, for example, who is going to exchange his seat with Haidi Giuliani on the 21 July, the anniversary of her son Carlo’s murder in Genoa four years ago.
Brune: On the question of the war, it will not be so easy to win the vote to finance the troops. It is by no means clear that the argument that we shouldn’t bring down the government will convince people.
There were various currents inside Rifondazione who opposed Bertinotti entering the coalition with Prodi. What will they do now?
Brune: At the last Rifondazione congress, 40 percent opposed the coalition, but the main opposition group, 23 percent, was actually to the right of Bertinotti and has recently been discussing rejoining the majority. Much of the opposition now is on the part of people who are not part of the movement, who opposed Bertinotti when he argued that the movement was the way forward after Genoa. Danilo: The rest of the opposition is completely divided and has split into several different groups which are now leaving Rifondazione. And then there is us. Our objective is to build the largest possible left within Rifondazione, but also to move from being a platform to being a wider political current which can draw people around common perspectives and analysis and can propose initiatives. We want to be able to act autonomously within and outside the party, becoming a political organisation, independent within but not separate from Rifondazione.
Brune: Our emphasis is on continuing the work Rifondazione began after Genoa on three main points: first, that we should be an alternative to centre-left neo-liberalism, we need an alternative to capitalism; second, we must build and push the movement, and to do that we must be inside it; third, therefore, we should not participate in a government that aims to organise neo-liberalism in a slightly different way.
Italy had a huge autonomist movement. Groups like the Tute bianche and the disobbedienti had a big impact on the movement around the time of Genoa and its aftermath. What condition are they in now and how are they reacting to the new government?
Barbara: The disobbedienti participated in the elections, although not in a clear way. They stood as candidates for the Greens, and in the Rome mayoral elections they are standing as part of a ‘list of movements’ with Comunisti Italiani and the slogan ‘The movement without parties to beat the right’. They are smaller in number than they were after Genoa, but they have a big influence in the movement and among left wing intellectuals ideologically.
They have no clear project of how to transform the world, and without a clear analysis of the role of the working class, their proposed construction of a ‘multitude’ can take opportunistic and confused directions, which leads to some standing for election.
For example, they had a totally wrong analysis of the French events. When they went to France they only related to the autonomists at the Sorbonne and not to the coordinated student movement, so when they came back they argued the events were made by ‘spontaneous groups of urban guerrillas’ based in the banlieues and that this was why the government was afraid of the movement. They did not want to say that the strength of the movement was the connection it forged between organised students and workers.
It was proof that their theory doesn’t work, that they could not explain how people’s consciousness changes in the process of struggle and how organisation develops in a real movement. Nonetheless they have a big influence, especially in the universities.
Brune: They are divided on their attitude to the government. The disobbedienti that people remember from Genoa, the most organised section, represent a kind of radical reformism, which combines sectarianism—as around the events in France—with presenting themselves on lists with the Greens. For many people around them, their attitude to the election is very confusing, but it fits with their politics. They criticise the government at a national level, but often participate at a local level, in municipal elections and so on, because for them local politics is what is important. For example their social centres need to be protected from attack, so they look for allies in local government. It is characteristic of the disobbedienti that they are both part of the political structure in this sense, and also present themselves as the movement. This confuses people.
What do you see as the immediate prospects? Are new struggles likely?
Barbara: There are struggles, the movement is still there, but there is not the political force to lead it forwards.
Danilo: On some specific questions, people are not prepared to simply let the government do whatever it wants. This kind of radicalism means that there is the possibility of struggle, especially over the questions of the war and precarious employment.
Brune: The election result shows that the movement was not enough. It is an important lesson. Rifondazione missed a step. It had the chance to build a real alternative to neo-liberalism and it missed the moment. We can’t predict what will happen—everything is possible. Rifondazione has left a government before and it can do so again. It has made left and right turns before, and it can turn left again. It depends on the internal debate, and on the international movement and the impact that can have. This is why we have to be prepared politically, organisationally and especially theoretically.
Democratic Left: (Democratici di Sinistra, DS) The party formed from the majority of the old Italian Communist Party when it endorsed social democratic positions.
Rifondazione comunista: (Communist refoundation) Party formed by minority of old Italian Communist Party to continue the communist tradition.
Comunisti Italiani: Party formed by those who split with Rifondazione when it broke with the centre-left government in 1998.
Tute bianche and the disobbedienti: Non-violent autonomist movements that stressed direct action.
Unione: Electoral alliance led by former prime minister and former head of the
European Commission Romano Prodi, stretching from a section of Christian democrats
at one extreme to Rifondazione comunista at the other.
Cobas: Minority far-left trade union.
Fiom: Powerful metal workers’ union.
CGIL: Biggest trade union federation.