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Italy’s defeated left tries to regroup

No communists, no socialists, no pacifists, no greens, no 'no global' activists. An entire array of old and new political identities, which marked different stages in the development of the Italian left, have lost political representation in the space of one election, writes Paolo Gerbaudo

April 26, 2008
9 min read

The last time something comparable happened was at the beginning of Fascism, in 1924, when socialist and communist MPs withdrew in protests against elections marked by vote-rigging and violence. Today, there is little doubt about the validity of the elections. Berlusconi is back thanks to a landslide victory that stretches from the Mafia-stricken regions of the south to the hyper-industrialised north. The gap between his coalition and Veltroni’s Democratic Party is 9 per cent It is one of the clearest popular majorities Italy has ever witnessed during its republican history. This means Berlusconi will enjoy a greater legitimacy than he had on previous occasions. Thus he will have few obstacles in adopting a strategy of rupture with that shrinking half of the Italian public that continues to resist his seduction.

The only opposition parliamentary spokespersons to Berlusconi will be from Veltroni’s Democratic Party, an unsavoury alliance of post-communists and social Catholics, whose political blueprint is based on the centrism of New Labour. Sinistra – L’arcobaleno, the coalition comprising Rifondazione Comunista, the Italian Communists and the Greens, has not convinced the electorate. Set up in a hurry, a few months before the elections, it has been seen as a ‘new party born old’, as asserted by Ginsborg in an interview recently with Red Pepper. The 3 per cent it obtained in the polls is less than a third of the votes gained by all the parties in this coalition in previous elections.

Berlusconi’s reactionary political menu

On the menu that awaits the Italian people, with the return of Mr Silvio, are a revival of the illegal actions that marked his previous mandate, an assortment of attacks on the autonomy of the judiciary, new laws to defend the interests of his enterprises and acolytes, and an easy going attitude towards tax evaders and illegal construction. These policies will be accompanied by an even stronger attack on trade unions and the cooperative sector, which in Italy are still strong.

Next in line will be the repression of various territorial struggles, which have emerged in recent years against engineering projects: from the No-Tav protesting against an high-speed train line in Piedmont, to Vicenza’s No-base protests against the construction of a US military airport, and the Sicilian and Calabrese activists’ blocking of the construction of the Messina bridge, which Berlusconi hopes to erect as a perennial monument to his era.

Divided left

One could easily predict that strong social conflict will ensue. However, the risk this time is that Berlusconi’s attack on the constitution, social rights and the environment will only be opposed by a confused and fragmented opposition. Yes, leftist politicians having been kicked out of parliament will have no way to go but the streets. But this time they won’t find the immediate welcome of social movements.

The state of the Italian left in the aftermath of the election is best described as a landscape marked by ruptures and distrust – something that was hard to predict only a few years ago when a sense of common purpose united a broad and diverse coalition of forces. The series of struggles on global issues did indeed prove fertile terrain for the construction of networks and for the development of a strong dialogue between movements, civil society organisations and parties. This was clearly seen in the case of Rifondazione Comunista, which played a key role in translating struggles into a political strategy, heralding itself as the ‘party of movements’.

What remains of that period is perfectly exemplified by one moment in the electoral campaign: when an ice cream was thrown at Caruso – a former member of the anti-globalisers Disobbedienti – while he was campaigning for Sinistra-L’arcobaleno in Venice, by activists associated with Luca Casarini, the leader of North-Eastern Social Centres.

In 2001, on the streets of Genoa, the two charismatic leaders had been together in Disobbedienti, born out of an alliance between the Tute Bianche (White Overalls ‘Direct Action’ group) and the Giovani Comunisti (youth section of Rifondazione). The split happened in 2006, when Caruso decided to run for elections with Rifondazione. His decision was met by waves of criticism among anti-globalisation activists, accusing him of abandoning the terrain of conflict to head for a comfortable seat in the lower chamber.

Fraught relationship between parties and movements

The fraught relationship between institutional politics and movements, and the often predatory attitude of the former towards the latter underlies the division. From 2001 until 2005 the social centres in the north east worked closely with allies in the institutions, with social centre activists taking over sections of the Green Party in the Triveneto region. Elsewhere local alliances of social centres linked up with Rifondazione, for example in Rome’s ‘Action – diritti’ network led by Nunzio D’Erme.

It was thanks to these movement-party alliances that local elections in 2005 delivered a major victory to the centre-left coalition and in particular to the radical left. In this context, Nichi Vendola, gay, Catholic and communist and deeply involved in social struggles, was elected against all odds in Apulia, traditionally a conservative region. This marked the peak of support for the institutional left amongst grassroots activists.

Critiques of Prodi’s government

The wind changed with the narrow victory of the Prodi-led centre-left coalition L’Unione in the national elections in April 2006. The most left-leaning government Italy ever had – in terms of numbers of ministers from parties of the radical left – was seen as far too moderate, and soon became the target of deep criticisms from social movements. (for detail, see interviews and articles in Hilary Wainwright’s Red Guide to Italian Politics).

These condemnations first focused on the government’s foreign policy, where the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq was not accompanied by an abandonment of the ‘war on terror’ or a withdrawal of Italian soldiers from Afghanistan. The government almost fell on this issue in a parliamentary vote, after a huge demonstration against the base in Vicenza. Radical MPs were forced to appeal to the fear of letting Berlusconi get back in. Nevertheless, as a result, they got ostracised from demonstrations.

Second, there has been widespread indignation about the lack of action on civil rights. The government was reluctant to see off the attacks of the Church on abortion and failed to approve a law for a ‘solidarity civil pact’ for unmarried couples.

Third, there has been grave disappointment at the lack of action on wages, the problem of living costs and the lack of welfare programmes for vulnerable workers. There were divisions between the industrialist position held by the old left, who continue to consider flexible work as an anomaly to be eliminated and activists who ask for new forms of welfare to support workers in precarious labour conditions. As a result, the government took no action, thus leaving many young people without any social rights, which has no comparison in other western European countries.

The Italian left’s future

So what’s next? In the weeks following the elections, some activists feel like they have sleepwalked into this new era of Berlusconi. Attempts at rebuilding grass-roots movements are already starting. Social centre groups will soon hold a meeting in Marghera near Venice to discuss the bases for a new alliance. Social and various politicised civil society networks, who see the fresh rise of Berlusconi as a disgrace, will also provide an important element for reconstructing the left. Finally, the experiences of progressive local government, such as the Vendola in Apulia or Massimo in the Marche region, and the cities that form part of the Nuovo Municipio network, all inspired by principles of participatory democracy, will provide bases from which to begin re-building a new identity for the Italian left.

Nevertheless, the key issue and potential problem facing the left will be how the question of democracy is dealt with both in movements and parties. The personalisation, machoism and media-oriented strategy that characterises the leadership of many grass-roots movements has proved detrimental for the credibility of progressive alternatives. The time for self-styled spokespersons of the whole movement is over. Will the movement be able to break away from leader-obsessed politics?

A similar reflection needs to take place in both the Greens and Rifondazione. Many argue that the Green Party has been transformed into an unaccountable centre of power that has little to do with the original idea of a federation and has lost its values of transparency. The charges of corruption that have hit its leader, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, are just the most visible evidence of this situation. Also it will be important to see how the question of democracy will be dealt with inside Rifondazione, which at the moment is torn by a fight over the future of the party and its relation to Arcobaleno between the once majority current led by Bertinotti and a new challenging current endorsed by Ferrero, former minister of welfare. The party still has a network of branches across the country that no other left group enjoys. But will it be used for facilitating a recomposition of the left or for tightening control of the grassroots?

The question of democracy, which is central for imagining a different future for the Italian left, will also crucially entail a new discussion of the relationship between parties, social movements and civil society. The experience of collaboration with parties has proved highly disappointing for most activists. Nonetheless those experiences were the symptom of a felt need to translate self-managed alternatives into more stable collective goods for society. What might be learned from the defeat of this experience is thus the need for a greater autonomy and transparency in the relationship between movements and parties, rather than an outright end to all contact. In this context, the local arenas of struggle which have proved the most dynamic in recent years might provide a crucial space for developing clearer strategies and identities beyond the vague inclusiveness of the anti-globalisation era.

Paolo Gerbaudo writes for Il Manifesto and is at present a research student at Goldsmith’s. He sees this article as work in progress as the processes it describes are so uncertain and unclear in their direction.

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