Dave Kellaway reports from Italy on the danger posed by rise of racism and the far right following the recent elections.
An Italian national discus thrower attacked and injured seriously in the eye by unknown men in a car, a man suspected of stealing is chased by two local men and when he crashes they beat him to death and a baby is shot by a rifle – what had they all done to deserve such treatment? They were all black or roma and they happened to be living in Italy today where the main leader, Salvini is a racist who called for the mass repatriation of 600,000 migrants and closed Italian ports to drowning migrants. The media has highlighted at least a dozen serious hate crime incidents in the last 45 days. Just today a long time Senagalese/Italian resident when attending his local health clinic was told to go away since this place was not a vet’s. Even the Church in Italy has denounced Salvini’s policies and its house magazine, Famiglia Cristiana put Salvini on its front page with a play on the biblical message ‘Get thee behind me Satan’ replacing Satan with Salvini. The Supreme court recently decreed that saying migrants go home was racist. Salvini’s response was to tweet three times ‘Migrants go home’. Although resistance is growing, not least from progressive Catholics his popularity (and of the government) is at 60% in the polls. The minister of the interior who is seen as the true leader of the government denies any racist emergency and says the true threat to security comes from the number of migrant criminals. But how did we get to this situation?
Why did this coalition came to power?
A succession of governments led by the mainstream left of centre and right of centre parties had implemented austerity since 2008 and hit living standards and jobs even harder than in Britain. Authoritative agencies report 10 million poor, high youth unemployment, a huge low wage ‘precariat’ and mass emigration of young people. Italy’s higher levels of corruption and political class privileges further makes for toxic context in which populist parties can flourish. Particularly striking is the loss of collective solidarity and both the defeats and retreats of a labour movement that was one of the strongest in Europe. This makes it easier for hard right and simplistic anti-caste ideology to make inroads into the common sense thinking of working people so that a war against people worse off than you or with a different colour skin and culture makes some sort of crude logic.
Both the Five Start Movement (M5S) and the Lega who form the coalition government are populist, both benefited from opposing traditional mainstream parties and refusing to accept the pro-EU consensus in Italy, both rejected (in words) austerity policies. The M5S were able to appeal more to left of centre, more ecological, younger, graduate and Southern voters with its policies on reducing the cost of politics, digital participation, against the big infrastructure projects and limited opposition to the unpopular pensions law, Jobs act and school reforms. Its stand out policy was for a monthly 800 euro floor income for the unemployed, poor pensioners or part time workers. Welfare coverage is much less in Italy than in Northern Europe. The day after the elections poor people started to queue up at government offices in some southern towns to ask for the forms for the new income. Unsurprisingly over 2 million voters M5S came from the PD.
At the same time victory of Di Maio over the orthodox (more progressive wing) meant the election campaign was all about being government ready, it meant they tended to move to more reactionary positions on the migrant issue.
The Lega appeals to more right of centre voters, it won votes from Berlusconi’s party, but also picked up votes from workers in the north and even began to win support in the south despite previously railing against the lazy southerners. It used to be based in the North, calling for a northern independent state when it was the Northern League. It is strong in small towns among the petty bourgeoisie and small business – but its key mobilising factor is racism combined with the need for a crackdown against crime and insecurity. The two themes deliberately blur into one so the migrant ‘criminal’ is a key element of the fear of insecurity. The regressive Flat tax proposal helped it too, particularly in the north.
The election saw the M5S as the biggest party on 30% and the Lega with 18% became the biggest component of the centre right coalition dethroning Berlusconi as national leader of the right of centre.
Neither before or during the election did either propose a coalition and most commentators ruled it out. But the numbers did add up to a majority between the two and there are obviously areas of convergence between the two populist forces i.e. rejection of traditional political caste, neither right nor left, critical of the EU, and for reducing the cost of politics.
What is the government doing and how can we characterise it?
This government represents a decisive shift to the right similar to tendencies elsewhere in Europe and the USA.
The official prime minister is Conte but that is only because neither Salvini nor Di Maio could stomach the other being prime minister. So he is essentially a puppet. The declarations and actions of Salvini means that he is the real leader. Like Trump (whom he admires) he makes a dramatic tweet a day. He closed the ports and visited Libya to portray the detention centres there as holiday camps despite widespread evidence of abuses there. He has denounced the NGOs as foreign agents for traffickers and put out a circular to tighten up any humanitarian concessions to asylum seekers. Ironically the numbers of migrants landing in Italy has declined by nearly two thirds in the last year or so. Nevertheless the port closure contributed to several hundreds more drowning
These policies are paying off politically at the moment as the Lega advanced in local elections last month. The Democratic Party (left of centre) lost more than 60 town halls, some of its historic strongholds like Immola.
At same time Di Maio is in charge of the jobs economic portfolio and tries to project the moderate face of the government – with his Dignity legislation focussing on bringing in the citizens income and slightly moderating the Jobs act by making short term contracts only renewable 3 times rather than 4 and modifying the pensions law. But there are big problems funding these things if there has to be a 10 billion cut in the Autumn budget. The citizens income reforms depends on Job centres to provide the 3 job opportunities to be provided for people on this income and to organise voluntary work with local councils. These Job centres are far from being adequate. Today’s Manifesto newspaper has an article showing how the current job centre employees are on temporary contracts Salvini is happy to let Di Maio get on with this.
Another concern is the way Salvini is using his new power to encourage a European wide far right, racist movement linking Orban and le Pen.
The M5 component is distinctive and already there are tensions between the two sensibilities. Fico the M5 speaker of lower house has denounced S line on the So the government is it fascist? No, it is not dismantling trade unions or organising squads to attack the left or minorities. It is a decisive move to the right with racist policies but not the result of a mass fascist vote. It creates a lot of space for far right groups and racist attacks. If the opposition is weak and if it manages to resolve contradictions between the Lega polices and those of its partners for example on the high speed TAV train project then the government could survive and be even more challenging for the left.
Trying to marry the Flat tax, the citizens income, some of tis reflationary polices with the huge public deficit and the EU constraints will prove difficult. However it has the numbers and could last if both sides see their interests as remaining in government. If the M5S sees Salvini eating too far into their votes or if its ex-PD voters start to return home then they could question the coalition. Berlusconi is not quite dead too – his group is currently opposing the government nomination for the head of state broadcasting (RAI).
What is the Opposition?
Both the PD opposition, the PD split (LEU) and much of the social liberal media tend to rather hysterically call for the defence of European values and liberal democracy against the barbarian populists. For example they denounce Salvini’s lack of education as compared to the educated lawyers and professors of the left and liberals . They think it is just an abstract debate of ideas or a battle of culture, unconnected to real material living conditions.
In fact Salvini is no mean politician, transforming the Lega Nord from folkloric padanist nationalists into a national political force defeating Berlusconi for the leadership of the right – without internal splits and keeping an alliance with Berlusconi.
The Pd is in complete turmoil. There is a meme going through social media that shows a picture of Renzi, the ex-PD leader as a baby with the lines: Renzi the only baby that ate the communists. He once accused the old PD guard of taking their vote below 22 % if they were not removed, he managed to take them down to 18%. At the recent national assembly of the party Renzi made a huge attack on the rest of the party, even attacking Gentiloni, his successor as PM. One of the questions tearing it apart is whether the PD should be more proactive in getting an alliance with the M5S which Renzi is totally against. Renzi has strong base still and either aims to win next year’s congress/leadership primaries or float a new Macron type party. Other currents such as one led by Zingaretti, a regional governor, is for making a new alliance with progressive Catholics. There are one or two voices you hear in Pd that understand that their failure to challenge the narrative on migrants and insecurity has allowed Salvini to strengthen. The deputy major of Pisa who recently lost the election said we gave no solutions on jobs, education or security. The internal debate is paralysing any slight ability they would have of organising resistance.
There is resistance. Saviano the famous writer on the Camorra that has a stage bodyguard has denounced Salvini’s racism and was rewarded by the minister threatening to take his bodyguards away. Many mayors of port cities made statements opposing the port closures. The women’s movement, enjoying a renaissance in Italy, has been active in opposing Salvini. A day when people were invited to wear red in support of human rights was a success with even TV newscasters joining in. The Catholic church has been prominent in all these protests and there are firm moves to set up a progressive catholic political movement which would look to the centre left.
What about the radical left?
Potere al Popolo (Power to the People) which was set up for the last elections winning just over one percent had a recent national assembly with 1200 people, which decided to structure itself more as a party with individual membership and to build bases both in the community with its Casas di popolo (people’s centres) and in national political action against the reactionary government. It is a combination of young non-aligned people involved in the community, in what is called the centri sociali – like community/culture/mutualism projects and what is left of Rifondazione, which has enthusiastically gone into it as well as much smaller forces like Anticapitalist. There are 80 or so local groups, intends to intervene in European elections but not to over focussed on elections. It is having a summer camp in Grossetto and recent national surveys give it up to 2%. A constituent conference is planned in October.
Sinistra Anticapitalista – along with Communia net – forms the currents supporting the Fourth International in Italy.
Both currents have no illusions in the M5S side of the government and clearly identify the government as a move to the right. Both recognise the difficulties of opposition given the disastrous line of the PD and capitulations of the trade union leaderships over the past decades.
A movement at the base needs to be developed and a class struggle opposition in the main CGIL union. Defending migrant workers against growing attacks is a priority. The Anticapitalistas are working inside Potere al Popolo although disagree with some of the decisions taken at the recent national assembly. They do not think there should be internet voting inside the movement, they think individual membership is not necessary and that the role of national currents on the leadership should be maintained as opposed to all leaders being elected through local structures.
Communia has a different understanding of the historic defeat of the labour movement in recent decades and consequently about the need to rebuild basic structures of solidarity and conflict based mutual aid. Therefore they did not join in with PoP or participate very much in the recent elections. Given the resources they have they consider the priority is building the different networks such as the recuperated factories, the rural workers cooperatives and other structures of distribution challenging the capitalist market. In other words repeating the old formula of building left parties is not seen as productive. So for example the weight of the remaining Rifondazione apparatus inside PoP is not seen as particularly positive. The comrades of Communia have developed a lot of work with migrant groups and it was no surprise that one of the centres associated with them was attacked by the fascists the other week.
Both approaches have their merits and each can contribute to building up a socialist alternative.
Yesterday Salvini commented on how the left were attacking him and accusing him of fomenting the rotten anti-migrant atmosphere in Italy. His response, on the day of Mussolini’s birth was to repeat the Duce’s famous declaration: ‘So many enemies, So much honour’. Salvini is too politically cute not to realise the significance of such a statement.
Italy, 30 July 2018