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A red guide to Italian politics

Italians have often led the way in creating a European left but now they face a crisis in the return of Silvio Berlusconi. Hilary Wainwright talked to a range of left activists as they prepared for the elections

April 3, 2008
15 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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The creation of a Europe-wide left has proved to be a much stickier process than I imagined in 2002 when I stood in Florence and watched the 60,000-strong demonstration of the first European Social Forum being greeted by local residents. But from this first Forum onwards, the Italian participants have been notable for their dedication to creating a European political space. Their capacity to mobilise, including the trade unions, is impressive, as is their political seriousness, shaped by a national context in which the left visibly matters. The involvement of many in trying to fashion a new kind of political party through Rifondazione Comunista, which saw itself as ‘one actor amongst many’ and sought to break from both vanguardist and parliamentarist routines, also aroused our curiosity – and hope.

Journey with the Italian left

The fall of Romano Prodi’s Unione government, of which Rifondazione was the third largest partner, and the prospect of a return of Silvio Berlusconi, gives a sense of urgency to listening as our new European companions draw lessons from the experience of the radical left in government and debate future strategy. I began such a dialogue in February on an imaginary journey through Italy trying to understand a political process very different from ours yet also with many familiarities and interconnections.

My first stop was back in Florence to meet Paul Ginsborg, whose books on contemporary Italian history present, in an exceptionally lucid manner, the roots of the institutions, social forces and individual biographies now shaping Italian politics. From his local base, Associazione Fiorentina per una Sinistra Unita e Plurale (the Florence Association for a United and Plural Left), he is deeply engaged in but, like most of those I meet, also severely frustrated, with the national efforts to create a new coalition of the left: La Sinistra – L’Arcobaleno (the Left – the Rainbow). We were joined by Tommaso Fattori, who was an organiser of the Florence European Social Forum and is now a coordinator of Forum Italiano dei Movimenti per l’Acqua, against the privatisation of water and public services.

Then to Venice to meet Paolo Cacciari, a professor of architecture immersed in local social movements, especially around environmental issues. He has been a Rifondazione member of the Prodi parliament and has strong opinions on the limits of involvement in the institutions of the Italian state. We met as he was organising 250 ‘banchetti’ ( stalls) to build up support for the rainbow left in the hostile political environment of the Veneto region which, apart from Venice, is a base of support for Berlusconi and the Lega Nord.

From Venice to Catania, the chaotic port on the east side of Sicily, to meet Domenico Simone, a creative organiser and film director who helped to organise the 2006 electoral campaign of Rita Borsellino, courageous campaigner against the mafia and much else besides, and since has been building Un’ Altra Storia (Another Story). This movement aims to ‘give space to the active participation of thousands of Sicilian citizens who are tired of the traditional style of politics and rhetorical language’. This experience deserves an article to itself but surely it offers an example for the would-be rainbow coalition on the mainland?

On to Rome where we pitch up at the Centro Internazionale della Donna and in its open-air cafe we host friends willing to explain what lies behind the present mess of the Italian left and share their thinking about ways out.

Our first visitor is Luciana Castellina, a frontier breaker in the creation of a European left since the 1960s, who is now, in her seventies – still travelling, writing, talking, responding to the new and questioning the old. She gives us a succinct overview. She adds, with her editorial hat on (she was a founder of the Italian left wing daily Il Manifesto): ‘Please do not present a wonderful Italian society, ready for revolution, prevented by [Walter] Veltroni [the former mayor of Rome and Democratic Party leader],’ she says. Point taken.

Alessandra Mecozzi arrives. She is the international secretary of FIOM, the left-wing metal workers union, which is in a special (and quite isolated) position in the Italian trade union movement. It is part of but in tension with the historically left, but now moderate, trade union confederation, CGIL, and the one union that rejected – after a referendum of its members – a damaging social security agreement with the government.

Marco Berlinguer joins us taking a break from his work creating Pensare a Sinistra (Left Thinking), connecting Italy’s diverse but potentially large community of critical intellectuals.

Later we visit the new offices of Carta, near Termini station – a flourishing media hub, which combines a weekly newspaper, monthly journal and interactive website. We are greeted by Anna Pizzo, Carta’s co-director with Gigi Sullo and also an independent councillor – elected on the PRC list for the Lazio region. Carta’s coverage emphasises the conflicts that are emerging from below, especially around issues that have a regional focus, though national and international significance. Most notable have been campaigns against the doubling in size of the US base in Vicenza, the high velocity train in the north and incinerators across the country. Carta is highly sceptical of engaging with the political institutions and the week before our visit, launched the Other Campaign, inspired by Subcomandante Marcos’s Mexican campaign of the same name.

What do you find, however, when you do decide to work in the political institutions? To find out we go to the nearby offices of Rifondazione and meet the ex-minister of social solidarity, Paolo Ferrero. Together with Patrizia Sentinelli at the ministry of overseas aid, who is also a member of Rifondazione, Ferrero is judged to be one of the few ministers who worked closely with social movements and associations to bring about real changes that would not have been achieved without this collaboration. In a very limited way, he strengthened the rights of immigrants. But as he says himself, ministries like his, concerned with ‘day-to-day administration’, are weaker, more fragmented and therefore potentially more open to reform than those concerned with strategic issues of economic and foreign policy.

The context

We were meeting two weeks after the elections had been announced (for 13-14 April) under the same electoral system that Berlusconi designed before the 2006 elections precisely to scupper the chances of his rivals forming a sustainable government. The polls indicate clear majority support for Berlusconi, in spite of the splits in his coalition.

Nonetheless, support for the Democratic Party’s Veltroni is growing. The Democratic Party (DP) was formed last year out of a merger of the two dominant parties in Prodi’s coalition; the increasingly right-wing majority successor to the Italian Communist Party, the Democratici di Sinistra (DS), and Prodi’s La Margherita party. The DP’s ‘Veltrusconi’ platform has a similar character to ‘Blatcherism’, presenting an appearance of inclusivity while rubbishing the left and carrying a reactionary populist undertone on issues of immigration and crime.

Paul Ginsborg puts this in a wider context and draws out some strategic conclusions: ‘All Italy’s history shows that it is basically a right-wing country, heavily influenced by the Vatican. The composition of the Italian middle classes goes very much in Berlusconi’s favour, and dependent workers in small family firms tend to vote the way their bosses vote. But there is also a very strong, though minority, tradition of left-wing action and mobilisation. That is far from dead. It now has to be put in an organisational and intellectual context that is radically new.’

One challenge that this new context presents to the left is to find a way of giving progressive expression to Italians’ deep disaffection with the political system. A recent survey reported that 75.3 per cent have little or no (28.7 per cent) trust in parliament. Only 14.1 per cent of Italians have any trust in political parties. Anti-establishment comedian Beppe Grillo attracts greater esteem than politicians.

Luciana Castellina points to the dark side of this disaffection: ‘Italian society in the last few years has turned rather ugly as people have increasingly lost hope in democracy as a tool for change and have turned to petty, localised and corporate rebellions instead, as well as collectively losing their common values. Essentially a serious social regression and impoverishment has taken place.’

Tommaso Fattori’s perspective also indicates dangers in the present context: ‘There is a small minority still in search of participatory forms of democracy. But there is an overwhelming majority of society reacting to growing insecurity by demanding order, discipline, and a tough leadership capable of making quick decisions.’

The institutions

‘The experience of the Prodi government was not a good one; on that we can agree,’ says Castellina. It might have dealt with government debt and begun to reduce tax evasion but the economic life of the majority in Italy has deteriorated: wages have not kept pace with inflation, insecurity in employment has intensified, privatisation steadily erodes local democracy, the defence budget has grown by 12 per cent, entanglement with US foreign policy has deepened.

The radical left assumed it would have bargaining power: Prodi needed its votes to survive in parliament, especially in the senate. Moreover, Rifondazione assumed that, as Paolo Ferrero put it, ‘there was a significant part of the bourgeoisie interested in a “dynamic compromise” with the workers’ movement.’ A further assumption was that Rifondazione would be able to use its electoral footholds to open up the political institutions, enabling the energy of the movements to push those institutions in far more radical directions than could the left parties on their own.

‘Social movements are the engines of transformation,’ said Fausto Bertinotti, then Rifondazione’s general secretary and the main architect of the deal. He took the job of president of the chamber of deputies on the questionable grounds that this enabled him to give legitimacy to radical values and policies. (He is now the Rainbow Left election candidate.)

‘We were implicated in a crisis of legitimacy, representation and of politics generally,’ declares Paolo Cacciari. ‘We need a new mentality regarding the state; hence the need for a truthful assessment of the Prodi government.’

Paolo Ferrero states the obvious starting point: ‘We didn’t anticipate the weakness of our majority. We knew that the centre-right coalition had a remarkable social and cultural strength. But none of us imagined that after five years of Berlusconi’s government there could be such an equal balance between the votes of the centre-left and the votes of the centre-right. The structural weakness of the government made us more susceptible to blackmail by the centrist parties in the government coalition, which are close to the business confederations.’ The belief in a politically significant ‘advanced bourgeoisie’ proved ungrounded and the DS, ever eager to prove its respectability and its break from the left, added to the rightward pressures in the government.

The movements

And what about ‘the engine of social change’? There seem to have been at least two dynamics in the relations between the left in government and the movements. The first concerned the expectations engendered by the party leadership; the second concerns the cycles of movements and social conflicts themselves.

Considering the first, the readiness of the movements to organise was not helped by Rifondazione’s optimistic presentation of what would be possible through the Unione coalition. Paolo Ferrero says that ‘to deceive the voters by talking of a possibility of real change has been a huge error because disillusion follows illusion’.

Delegation of responsibility to the politicians is another result of such illusions: Paolo Cacciari describes how, alongside a ‘holding back on the part of the movements through fear of undermining the new government, there has also been a handing over of the means of change to the political institutions’. One factor encouraging this was no doubt the symbolism of what Marco Berlinguer describes as ‘the transferring of the party and of its leaders into the state institutions. It gave the wrong messages. This,’ he adds, ‘was one of the most serious mistakes made by Rifondazione.’

On the second issue of the limits of movements themselves, Anna Pizzo expresses a widely shared view: ‘I don’t like to put all the blame on the political system or Rifondazione. I think the movements themselves showed little interest in providing the cultural tools necessary to transform politics and representation.’ A vital condition for such a transformation is the autonomy of the movements as a base from which to engage with the institutions. This, insists Alessandra Mecozzi, ‘should in no circumstances be compromised.’

But it’s not simply insufficient autonomy – of perspective rather than simply organisation – that has been the problem. Since the mobilisations of 2002-2003, the social forums across Italy, the three million on the streets against Berlusconi’s labour laws and the anti-Berlusconi civil rights campaigns, the movements have been in sharp decline. ‘Unfortunately this giant had a weakness. It was not yet rooted deep enough within society and local communities,’ argues Tomasso Fattori. Many movement activists like Fattori are immersed in the new popularly-based struggles around local and public service issues, but beyond forms of mutual support these are fragmented. ‘They are also under-represented within media, in a society where anything that exists outside the media isn’t even deemed real or taken into consideration,’ says Fattori. As several of my informants insisted, they have to face up to the present weakness of the movements.

The party

If movements are weak, what of political parties? Rifondazione (by far the most significant and interesting party on the radical left) has, ever since Fausto Bertinotti’s leadership, seen itself – and been widely seen – as a different kind of party. Hang out with its activists and the culture is generally one of energetic engagement with the movements.

‘We want to be a resource for the movements without trying to dominate them. It involves giving up on the sovereignty of the party and the idea of being a vanguard,’ says Nicola Fratoianni, regional secretary of the party in Puglia, southern Italy, where Rifondazione’s gay communist candidate won the election for regional governor in 2006 through a campaign whose momentum depended on the energy and audacity of local social movements. But Rifondazione’s behaviour sometimes seems to contradict this ideal of an open and plural culture. Take, for example, the action of all the radical left parties in denying local choice of candidates in the upcoming elections.

Domenico Simone holds out a vision of a new kind of political actor, drawing from his Sicilian experience of Un’ Altra Storia: ‘One that is able to renew itself without losing its own historical memory and ethical horizons; to solve the split between citizens and institutions; to be a plural subject whose structure is opened to direct participation; to be able to build and offer a political alternative of government starting from facing the needs of the local communities, that is to say where each one of us lives. In short, less proclamation, less party and much more movement.’

The future: the elections and beyond

These elections come at a disastrous moment for those who share a vision of the future of the left similar to Simone’s. In early December, associations and parties had come together in a general assembly of the left. By all accounts it had been a very hopeful experience. It was the December event that led to the formation of Sinistra Arcobaleno with extensive participation of activists beyond the four parties of the radical left.

Unfortunately though, as Luciana Castellina reports, ‘almost nothing was done’. The fall of the government only one month later imposed an institutional logic with a vengeance, driving it into the hands of the general secretaries of the parties.

Paul Ginsborg is worried by his impressions of the election campaign: ‘It appeals to one class only: with themes of safety at work, trade union rights, very low wages (now among the lowest in Europe) etc. All this is sacrosanct but it’s not enough. There are now more than 55 per cent of the Italian working population who belong to the urban middle classes. This is a very important section of Italian society – there is a very large sector of self-employed (small, often dynamic family businesses) and the great majority of these are Berlusconi fans. But there is also a significant sector of white-collar workers in the public sector. Many of these people were mobilised by the anti-Berlusconi protests of 2001-2002. La Sinistra -L’Arcobaleno does not talk to them. Behind this lies a great analytical weakness – the failure to take on the question of cultural instruments, especially television, and the necessary guard dog role of public authorities, totally lacking in Italy.’

What happens in Italy concerns the whole of Europe. It concerns us, not only because of the appalling prospect of a return of Berlusconi, but also because the crisis of the political institutions in Italy, and therefore the challenge to the left to work for new institutions is particularly acute. By comparison, everything in the UK is on slow burn. But our political parties are just as distant from the public as are the Italians’. And the ‘guard dog role’ of our public authorities is being steadily eroded by privatisation and government contempt for political pluralism. We have much to learn from continuing to follow the Italians as the extremities and danger of their situation spur them to develop alternatives.

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Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


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