Italy: No backing for austerity but no political alternative either

The  ‘jaguar’ really did bite the backside of the Italian political caste writes Dave Kellaway. Beppe Grillo was flippantly caricatured as that wild cat by a patronising Italian media. After just three years of standing candidates this protest movement has just become the number one political party, outscoring the PD by just 0.1 per cent. A week ago Grillo was being vilified by Unità, the Partito Democratico (PD) daily newspaper as a populist who imitated the fascists’ slogans with his taunts to the political caste ‘Give up you are surrounded’ roared out by tens of thousands in squares throughout Italy. Today there are earnest articles by PD intellectuals analyzing how Grillo captured many militant trade unionist votes.

Several articles in the British media underestimated the radical anti-austerity dynamic of Grillo’s Five Stars Movement. Tom Foot in the Guardian used the term grillosconi lumping him with a right wing populist like Berlusconi and a Counterfire article defined him as far to the right. Most of the five demands (the five stars)are things the left supports such as for public ownership of water that the PD has been at best weak on. True he puts the unions in the same basket as the decrepit political caste and does not have a clear political alternative for working group people on austerity but we should not forget that the unions have more or less supported or tolerated Monti’s policies. He has also made soft comments on a fascist group called CasaPound and puts forward demands for small or medium sized businesses against the corporations. However many of his activists and some of its new MPs come from the mass movements which won the anti-water privatization referendum and there were speakers from the NoTav (movement of a whole mountain valley north of Turin against a high speed rail link) on the platform at their rallies.  The PD has been a key backer of the rail project. Also when the PD say the M5S are anti-political because they say all the political parties are the same they have some cheek since the PD have been responsible to a large extent for.working people saying they are all the same because they have supported neo-liberal policies for decades now.

You can win and be a loser

You can win and be a loser

The M5S is a lot more than Grillo. The big unknown is how their hundred plus representatives will respond in parliament. Up to now they organized online and the whole operation is not very democratic and and depends on Grillo’s team making top down decisions. The establishment and big business is hoping that they can be brought into the framework of sensible management of austerity, or at least some of them. Bersani has already put up five propositions around reform of political parties and institutional changes to tempt them into an alliance or at least a non-aggression pact allowing him to govern like a minority government. Currently thc jaguar is not changing his spots and has said that there will be no alliance. Grillo may play the long game thinking new elections in a few months or even longer could allow him to win a majority on his own.

The winner loses

Paradoxically the formal winner of the election, Pier Luigi Bersani (pictured), is the big political loser. His campaign was complacent as he rested on the laurels of his successful primary campaign. He played the responsible premier in waiting, reassuring the markets and repeatedly saying there was a place for Monti in his cabinet. He inspired and galvanized nobody losing votes to Grillo and still worrying the right wing voters enough for them to see Berlusconi as a bulwark against the left. Bersani already faces rumblings in his own ranks with members suggesting the defeated primary candidate, the moderniser, Renzi, would have held up better against Grillo.

The other great loser was the troika and bankers’ favourite, ex-Goldman Sachs manager, Monti (no longer supermario in the Italian press). Everything was lined up to set up a Bersani/Monti government, it had been publicly endorsed by leading global troika leaders like Merkel. Unfortunately the bankers and neo-liberal leaders cannot yet buy the electorate and the Italian voters refused to play ball and voted, albiet in a confused way, against austerity. Monti never got the votes in the Senate to help the PD. Nevertheless unless there is a political alternative government or a new season of struggles Monti’s policies might still win out. There is talk from Berlusconi of a great national unity government ant there are many twists and turns to possibly come yet.

Despite losing millions of votes compared to last time Berlusconi did manage a minor miracle. His party was riven with infighting and he was submerged in sex scandals and other legal battles but through populist campaigning such as promising to pay back a housing tax and cut taxes generally he managed to remobilise his historic base and place himself as the stop Bersani candidate.

The left of PD list, that was not really left of it, failed to cross the threshold and so the remnants of Rifondazione did not get back into parliament which was their overriding priority rather than providing a platform for the class struggle left and the movements. Led by the Di Pietro retread, Ingroia, the. Civic Revolution slate was squeezed by Grillo’s radicalism and the pressure of the ‘effective’ vote being one for the PD. Ingroia was at one and the same time denouncing Bersani and pleading for a space in his future government.

Today it difficult to say whether this welcome crisis of bourgeois leadership, even if temporary,  could provide some space for a renewal of struggle. Similarly does the M5S breakthrough in an ambiguous way provide some encouragement to an alternative to austerity.  Like Berlusconi Grillo adopted a rather anti-European line but also suggested policies such as questioning the debt, nationalizing banks and providing a basic income for all those without work. How much of these demands Grillo’s movement will actually fight for is another question. What is certain is that getting neo-liberal policies safely implemented is not all straightforward for the national and European ruling class.


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8 Comments on Italy: No backing for austerity but no political alternative either

  1. I understand Grillo has made several attacks on immigrants, which would justify his being characterised as a right-wing populist.

  2. Yes he has made a statement questioning whether children of migrants should be considered Italians but there is no consistent message that is racist or anti-immigrant in the election campaign that I have seen, certainly not along the lines of either the EDL or UKIP or for that matter the xenophobic Lega Nord. As I friedlich

  3. Sorry I clicked by accident…tried to indicate you have to also distinguish between the movement and Grillo. All the surveys done by the press show the majority consider themselves on the left or on the progressive side. Indeed since the election one hundred thousand people have gone on to the Grillo site ( which is the organising structure) to ask Grillo to format a progressive government with Bersani. Furthermore M5S are fully supporting the upcoming No Tav demonstration which you remember is opposed by the PD. The No Tav people have been leading an immense struggle against this high speed rail project that will devastate their valley community. 60per cent of the Valley details Susa voted for Grillo as did 40 per cent of the 18 to 25 year olds. The Sinistra Critica cdes identify quite a lot of the movements activists as playing a role in the anti water privatization successful Referendum.

  4. Not quite finished.. All of this points away from. Defining either Grillo or his troops as right with great populist. Indeed both the PD and Vendola have dropped any such name calling. For the radical left it means a thoughtful and flexible attitude towards them. Their success is partially due to the failure of the Refondazione project. I will return to the Grillo phenomenon in a future article

    • “Defining Grillo or his troops as right with great populist”. What on earth does that mean? I think he’s bloody dangerous. He has no links with the organised working class, or any left-wing current, only with the neo-fascist CasaPound. Riding on the backs of various popular anti-corruption movements, or even environmental ones, is one of the many tactics of the populist right.

      I don’t think it is adequate to claim that Grillo’s supporters consider themselves to be on the left. If they are willing to vote for someone whose party has no democratic structures, who consorts with neo-fascists and is given to anti-immigrant outbursts, then their incipient “leftism” is very fragile indeed.


  5. Apologies for the typo (was writing on a tablet while away) it should read ‘defining Grillo as right wing populists’ I don’t know where the great came from (joys of predictive texting). You are right that he has no links with the organised working class, indeed as I stated he has put the trade unions in the same basket as the rest of the political caste. However huge numbers of young (and older activists) have little links with organised labour today in Italy. Why? A lot are outside the labour force unemployed or in non-unionised precarious work, a lot are students and a lot are mightily discouraged with an organised labour movement who have co-managed Monti’s austerity. Of course our orientation towards those activists is to say a political alternative has to have the organised working class at its core since they have the capacity to really change society. However this has got to be done concretely, it is a bit like the classic response of some sectarians t the occupy or indignados movement which just abstractly tells them to orientate to the organised working class. Nobody in Italy from right, left or centre is today just calling Grillo or even less his movement a bunch of right wing populists. Obviously this movement can go in different directions and implode. We are not talking of incipient leftism – I was careful to avoid comparing it to Syrizia which is a different phenomenon. Above all you have to distinguish between the leadership and the mass of genuine activists and of course a lot of other people who can include careerists, rightists or whatever. Just to give you an example of the complexity of the thing, the other day a monument to the anti fascist struggle in the war was defaced with the slogan Death to Communists, Viva Beppe Grillo. What the explosion of this movement and the political instability for the ruling class has temporarily opened up is a breach within which there is a possibility of progress in developing some resistance to the anti-working class austerity policy. Nothing less, nothing more.

    • Perhaps another way of looking at it is: “what tactics would revolutionaries deploy towards M5S?”. Would it be a united front policy, or even joining it as loyal members, but to win it over to our positions? Would it be entrism, to split the best class fighters from the party? I hardly think it would be any of these. The only poaitive thing I can see about the party is that is is so loose that it may not be able to organise or hold onto its supporters. When/if they start to tighten their structures, and start to impose some kind of discipline on their supporters, then I will be even more worried.

  6. Good question. You can have some differences over how you define such new phenomena but as long as you accept the core activists and most voters are not fascists, racists or righting populist then you need a tactical orientation. I would suggest you engage with their base in mobilisations you both support like the No-Tav demo in March or for communal control of water. There is also plenty of possibilities for discussing concrete solutions to the financial crisis at a local level. You put your finger on the real opening here – the fact that it is a new movement that now has nearly 150 MPs or senators and it has mostly been organised online with less local meetings. It is definitely not a question of winning over the whole movement or of entrism. Aspects of the United front or transitional methods do apply even if we are not dealing with a labour movement body.

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