The year since Silvio Berlusconi’s election victory over the Democratic Party (PD) in Italy has been one in which the right wing agenda of the ruling coalition has been made brutally clear. In the midst of severe economic crisis—officially Italy’s fourth recession in a decade—Berlusconi’s government has launched a series of assaults on workers, immigrants and students, has allowed the Vatican to dictate policy1 and has abandoned parliamentary democracy by pushing through a series of “emergency” decrees.
Italy’s recession is deepening, although up until recently the government’s response had been to “generally act as if it didn’t exist”. Giulio Tremonti, the finance minister, said in January this year, “You’ll see that we improve our position in this crisis, even if it’s because other nations are going backwards faster”2—despite the fact that Italy’s economy contracted more rapidly in the fourth quarter of 2008 than during any year since 1980, falling by 1.8 percent. Only in March did he grudgingly admit that the country faced “a difficult year”.
That is likely to be a considerable understatement: economists envisage that Italy’s crisis will hit in “reverse order”, with a slump in production precipitating bank collapses.3 Unemployment is beginning to rise and workers are feeling the impact of the crisis very sharply. Fiat, the country’s largest private sector employer, has halted production at a number of plants, and 48,000 of its workers have been affected by temporary layoffs and short working so far this year. There have been losses at Indesit, Benetton and De Longhi. The total number of workers temporarily unemployed and receiving benefits (“cassa integrazione”) rose five-fold in 2008. Workers in well unionised industries are eligible for such state benefits, but for the 4.5 million “precarious” workers such protection is not available if their contracts are not renewed.
In Turin, where 70,000 workers, pensioners and students marched in February this year in defence of contracts and for rights at work, one local union leader illustrated the depth of the problem: “Over 200,000 Piedmontese workers have been caught up in the crisis in the last few months—that is the same number of jobs that were lost in the ten years between 1980 and 1990”.4
The Berlusconi government has meanwhile been focusing its fire on the poorest in Italian society. Its savage anti-immigrant policies include a “security package” imposed by emergency decree, which includes instructing medical staff and landlords to report suspected illegal immigrants. Berlusconi and, crucially, his partners in the Northern League and the “post-fascist” National Alliance have deliberately linked immigration with crime following several high profile rapes allegedly carried out by non-Italians. Responding to these, the government has decreed mandatory life sentences for the rape of minors or attacks in which the victim is killed. It has also set out to criminalise all immigrants, proposing the fingerprinting and documenting of all non-Italians. Most ominously, it has provided for street patrols to be conducted by unarmed and unpaid volunteer squads (“ronde”), including retired policemen and soldiers.
These measures are designed to terrorise Italy’s immigrant population. In July 2008 a coalition of organisations working on rights for Roma people documented a vast number of human rights violations in Italy including extreme violence, harassment and maltreatment by police and officials as well as by right wing youth encouraged by the state’s endorsement of racism. Since Berlusconi’s election there has been a steady rise in racist attacks—an atmosphere of violence that has been condoned and promoted by government ministers. In May 2008 Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni of the Northern League stated, “All Roma camps will have to be dismantled right away, and the inhabitants will be either expelled or incarcerated.” Two days later a Roma camp in Naples was burned down. Following the attack, Northern League leader Umberto Bossi said, “People do what the state can’t manage.” Maroni has also been quoted as saying, “That is what happens when Gypsies steal babies, or when Romanians commit sexual violence”. 5
The election of Berlusconi’s coalition, and the presence in its ranks of the Northern League and the National Alliance, has given confidence and cohesion to the extreme right and since the election attacks have taken place against immigrants from various countries. In October 2008 a 36 year old Chinese immigrant in Rome was badly beaten, in Parma a young Ghanaian student was assaulted by traffic police and in Milan a 19 year old from Burkina Faso was beaten to death by owners of a bar who suspected him of stealing a packet of biscuits. In February this year unemployed Indian labourer Navtej Singh Sidhu was doused with petrol and paint and set alight as he slept rough in Nettuno, south of Rome.
Fascist groups have instigated and whipped up such attacks. One such group, Forza Nuova, covered Rome in posters showing a woman in a white bloodstained dress with the slogan “Stop immigration”. The attacks have not been restricted to foreigners. In May Italian Nicola Tommasoli was beaten and killed by fascists who accused him of “communism” in the city of Verona, which has a Northern League mayor; in November a homeless Italian man was beaten and set alight while sleeping on a park bench in Padua in the Veneto region.
The dominance of the right in Italy at present is a very serious development and one which poses difficult challenges for a fragmented and demoralised left. Rather than despair at the current situation, however, it is important to understand how Italy arrived here. The right has not ascended on the strength of its own attractions. Since the “Clean Hands” campaign in the early 1990s, which aimed at ending political corruption and led to the collapse of the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties that dominated the post-war period, successive “centre-left” administrations under Romano Prodi and Massimo D’Alema have failed to provide an alternative to the misery inflicted on the Italian working class by decades of political corruption.
Berlusconi has been greatly assisted by the supine nature of his opposition. Not only did the Olive Tree Alliance in the 1990s fail to curtail Berlusconi’s escalating empire or to press the many charges against him, but they created a culture of “indulgence and pardon” towards him.6 Such a culture continued under Prodi’s recent Unione government and lives on in the PD, whose previous leader, Walter Veltroni, tried to strike a deal with Berlusconi after losing the election and who, in opposition, has been outspoken against the government’s racist legislation but has done nothing to organise resistance to the right’s policies. The weakness of the centre politicians on immigration has been disastrous—the first raids on Roma camps and deportations were carried out in Rome under the Prodi government after the wife of a naval captain was allegedly raped and murdered by a Romanian in 2007.
The Clean Hands period also coincided with the onset of economic stagnation. For many ordinary Italians Prodi and the centre are detested for taking Italy into the euro—driving up the cost of living and housing—and presiding over the slowest growth in the EU while the political class has enriched itself in ways that bear a striking similarity to the era before the “clean up”. Italian parliamentary deputies and senators are, for example, the highest paid in Western Europe, while average Italian salaries are among the lowest.7
Berlusconi is therefore making the running in the absence of any genuine parliamentary opposition. The PD offers no serious alternative: its new leader, Dario Franceschini, stated that the cassa integrazione should be extended to precarious workers, but the party does nothing to oppose government threats to curtail the right to strike or to back the main CGL union’s protests which are trying to build—alongside the metal workers’ Fiom union—a united defence of workers.
The left also, tragically, bears some responsibility for the current situation. In joining the Prodi government, Rifondazione trampled on the principles and spirit of the movement that it had been an important part of. Many of the party’s activists remain engaged in the student and anti-racist campaigns, but Rifondazione as an organisation is currently preoccupied by internal disputes to such an extent that it is not offering the kind of responsive national leadership over the recession or racism that is needed. And it has lost respect and adherents as a result of its compromises.8 The retreat of the party which won such significant respect and identification at the 2001 Genoa G8 protests and Florence European Social Forum in 2002 in a “Caporetto of the left”, to use Perry Anderson’s apt description,9 has demoralised activists and the Italians who identified with Rifondazione.
However, it is not the case that there is no opposition at all. There has been resistance to the security package from magistrates, doctors (who have produced badges saying “We are not spies”) and immigrants’ rights groups. Restrictions at the immigrant holding camp at Lampedusa provoked a riot and protest marches on the island in January this year. Racist attacks in local areas have been met with anti-racist marches. Government plans to “reform” the education system, including raising tuition fees and cutting jobs in higher and primary education, were rolled back at the end of last year by a massive student movement—the “anomalous wave”—which brought together parents, students and teachers, and forced Berlusconi to postpone the education bill. Berlusconi’s proposals to ban city centre demonstrations and outlaw strikes suggest that he is expecting opposition to come from the streets and the workplaces, and there have been national strikes in December and February as well as local protests against job cuts organised by the CGL and Fiom.
These movements have connected politically with the economic situation, with the student movement in particular raising the slogan “We won’t pay for your crisis”. The question is which political ideas will dominate. Rifondazione’s retreat has meant a degree of disillusionment with left parties as well as the—hopefully temporary—absence of a serious force that can generalise struggles and bring them together as national campaigns. In the vacuum, the prevalent ideas among activists are increasingly those of autonomism which often focus on individual action. In the Veneto region members of social centres have physically attacked the citizen squads, especially in Padua, where police have broken up fights between the ronde and the “contra ronde”. A strategy of individual violence will do nothing to break the complex interconnections of racism with the ideology of protecting Italian jobs and opposition to globalisation that characterises the propaganda of the Northern League.
It is, therefore, critical that the left refocuses on building strikes and protests to defend jobs and on forging a unified national strategy against racism. The crisis and the combative stance of the government make it likely that Italy will face serious social conflict in the near future. Berlusconi’s agenda is clearly the crushing of the movements that brought him down in the past, and his side is more confident and organised than for some time. However, the situation is far from hopeless—it is, rather, cut through with contradictions that suggest numerous possible trajectories for the massive social anger that exists. For example, in regions where the Northern League does well electorally there are also significant movements opposed to a high speed train link and the extension of the US airfield at Vincenza. In Naples the burning of Roma camps took place alongside popular neighbourhood risings against plans to build incinerators and burn rubbish in working class areas that were referred to by the mayor of one town as “civil war”.10
There is opposition to the government that can be built upon and shaped. The left, though damaged, is far from finished. The majority at Rifondazione’s conference in 2008 backed the position that support for Prodi’s government had demobilised the movement and hurt the left, insisting the key task for the party was its re-engagement with the movements and rejecting any future electoral collaboration with the centre. The European elections in June represent an opportunity to propose a political alternative to past compromises and to the present impotence of the PD. For example, Sinistra Critica, which broke from Rifondazione last year, are putting forward an anti-capitalist list under the slogan “Banks and bosses should pay for the crisis, not the workers”. Such politics have the potential to gain influence in the current volatile climate if they are matched by consistent action against cuts and racism that involve the broad forces we have seen mobilised in Italy time and again over the past decade.
1: For example, in the recent case of Eluano Englaro, a young woman left in a persistent vegetative state for 17 years, the Vatican intervened to oppose a supreme court ruling allowing her father to find doctors who would end her life. Berlusconi rushed through yet another emergency decree ordering medical staff to restore feeding to Eluano Englaro, though she died before this could be done. The controversy caused open conflict between President Giorgio Napolitano, who upheld the supreme court decision, and the government.
2: Gavin Jones, “Italy Is Hardly Noticing Crisis”, Reuters, 18 February 2009.
3: Financial Times, 6 March 2009.
5: “Security a la Italiana: Fingerprinting, Extreme Violence and Harassment of Roma in Italy”, report by the Open Society Institute, ERRC, COHRE, Romani Crisis and the Roma Civic Alliance in Romania, July 2008, www.errc.org/db/03/4D/m0000034D.pdf
6: Ginsborg, 2001, p315.
7: The basic salary of an Italian deputy is €11,703 a month. By comparison, British MPs earn €7,450, German MPs €7,009 and French assembly members €6,953. The best selling books La Casta and La Deriva by two journalists on Corriere della Sera, Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, which detail the many privileges of Italy’s politicians, have highlighted the extent of national and regional political corruption.
8: One section of Rifondazione’s right (confusingly called “Rifondazione of the Left”) around Nichi Vendola, who lost the leadership election to Paolo Ferrero, will stand in the European elections alongside the Greens and separately from the rest of the party. The expectation is that the rest of the right of Rifondazione, around former leader Fausto Bertinotti, is biding its time waiting for the PD to split, at which point a “progressive” Democrat wing under D’Alema may provide them with a home.
9: Anderson, 2009. Caporetto was the site of an Italian defeat in the First World War.
10: Phil Rushton, “Class Struggle May Be The Shape Of Things To Come In Italy”, Socialist Worker, 31 May 2008.
Anderson, Perry, 2009, “An Entire Order Converted into What it was Intended to End”, London Review of Books, volume 31, number 4, www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n04/ande01_.html
Ginsborg, Paul, 2001, Italy and its Discontents (Allen Lane).