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The crisis of Italy’s political institutions: a view from inside government

Paolo Ferrero was Minister of Social Solidarity in the Prodi Government. He describes here the difficulties of achieving radical reform in the face of a weak coalition, social conservatism and the crisis besetting Italy's weak political institutions

April 13, 2008
11 min read

What difficulties and obstacles were underestimated or came as a surprise to you on entering the Prodi coalition government?

The feeble majority was really unexpected. We were conscious that the centre right had significant social and cultural strength, since it also obtains significant working-class votes, so is often capable of dictating the political agenda. However, no one imagined that after five years of Berlusconi’s government there would be a substantial draw between the votes of the centre-right and those of the centre-left. The particularly complicated voting system played its part in making one of the two chambers, the Senate, ungovernable.

The structural weakness of the government favoured the political bribery of centre-oriented factions close to the influential organisations (in particular Confindustria, an association of the Italian industrial managers) and of the Catholic Church. This rendered even more difficult than we had imagined our initiative for the redistribution of wealth to the advantage of workers. Even those objectives that seemed, at first glance, relatively easier, such as the acknowledgement of the civil rights same-sex partners, were difficult to achieve.

The weakness of the centre-left coalitions is a faithful mirror of the strength of the social values of the right faction. This strength must be taken into consideration not only in drawing conclusions about Prodi’s government but also when redirecting our future policies. This does not mean that we have to automatically ‘moderate’ our intentions. However, it is important to keep in mind that the electorate is culturally more and more distant from the values of the left-wing parties.

We certainly overestimated the ability to mobilise political movements against even the most moderate policies of the Prodi government. Some positive connection was established, for example, with the mobilisation against the privatization of the water. For the rest, there was a strong difficulty in connecting with both the most ‘radical’ movements (such as the one against the TAV in Susa Valley, or the one against the NATO base in Vincenza), which were ignored and criticised by the government, and with those of the ‘moderate’ actors (including the trade unions), which chose to negotiate and lobby largely without promoting demonstrations. The result was a scenario completely different from what the PRC had foreseen, rendering its role in the government more difficult, and at times, isolated.

What did you learn from the inside about the crisis of the political institutions, which has always been so central to Rifondazione’s analysis?

The crisis in the Italian institutions is confirmed by the incapacity of the government to respond to the basic necessities of marginalised groups. This incapacity derives principally from the political choice to prioritise economic growth and the management of public debt over wealth distribution. However, the crisis has worsened because of the country’s institutional structure, especially as regards welfare.

We came across this during our experience in the government. Except for the pension system and national health services – which constantly faced attempts to cut their budgets, reduce services or privatize them, but which have relatively “robust” institutional mechanisms – the institutions managing unemployment, poverty, disability, state housing and other social problems are subject to little central control. Their organisation is very fragmented, with a strong role for the regional offices, religious associations and the non-profit sector. In particular, the non-profit sector is often synonymous with contract-less, informal, underpaid work, which implies low quality standards in the social services.

All of this is typical of the contemporary form of capitalism, which generates rising social uncertainty, so should be addressed by an efficient welfare system that is equally available for all.

On the other hand, the institutions have demonstrated a strong capacity to involve in their governance structures all of those associations that look after the interests of citizens, in particular those in disadvantaged circumstances. In fact, from this point of view, the Italian political institutions are not so weak.

An updated analysis of the ‘crisis of the political institutions’ is needed, therefore, which takes into account the fact that this crisis is mitigated by a counter force operating against it.

What lessons do you draw about how to open up a dynamic of transforming these institutions – and about the role of the party and the movements in this process? Is such a transformation possible? If so, under what conditions?

What I have mentioned above demonstrates that there is closure in the institutions when dealing with general economic policies. On the other hand, they are also very open in their day-to-day administration. What is needed now is for the institutions to open up to more complex solutions regarding the [economic] necessities of their citizens, beyond simply their openness to collaboration with citizens’ associations.

For this to happen, there would need to be a shift in the balance of forces – brought on by (a) the worsening of the Italian crisis (even in relation to the foreseen global economic crisis); (b) the associated failure of the moderate left wing project (as embodied by the new Democratic Party) and (c) the ability of workers and citizens to organise themselves in committees that are not simply about civil defense. It isn’t easy to foresee a situation when these factors coincide.

Meanwhile, the PRC could unite the different left-wing factions to construct a ‘critical mass’ that is necessary for political effectiveness, reconstructing its militant base, gaining political trust and re-orienting itself in relation to its electorate. Secondly, it could take advantage of the decentralisation of Italy to act at regional and even local level, to bypass the closure of opportunities on the national sphere. Thirdly, the PRC could contribute to the construction of a popular self-organised network to act as a counterpart to both the regional and national governance.

All this, and above all the last point mentioned, presupposes a reevaluation of the role of movements and of the party. On the one hand, the limits of the political movements must be considered – including their failure, sometimes, to reach out to the broader public. As a result of their language and practices that are often as far from the needs of the people as the political parties themselves are. However, these limits can not be overcome by pedagogic intervention from the party. The political movements and the associations that form part of their governing structures have to identify the problems and solutions based on their own practices and background. On the other hand, a political party is need more than ever, that can have a wider vision than that of the PRC, and that can be more competent and more grounded in society.

How did the PRC prepare for its role in government? With the benefit of hindsight are there further ways it should have prepared?

I believe the PRC was not prepared enough for its participation in the government and did not have a proper political culture for this challenging task. Partly, this was inevitable: inexperience does count.

However, there was at least one avoidable error: that of interpretation. A group within the PRC thought this to be a government of change, based on a dynamic compromise between the workers movement and some of the more economically advanced parts of the ‘bourgeoisie’. But the conditions for this to occur were not there. At present, there is no interest from the economically well-off to find a ‘dynamic compromise’. Namely a compromise based on the acknowledgement of the autonomy of the workers’ movement, on the adequate ‘payment’ for production (rather than simply increasing profit and growth), on acknowledging the collective knowledge and creative ability of the workforce as a determinant in social innovation and thus in production itself. Only the unfolding of the economic crisis in conjunction with a resumption of social conflict could, possibly, construct the conditions for such a compromise.

The Prodi government was more of a compromise between political factions where the moderate left could occasionally be forced (for electoral reasons) to make some concessions to the radical left. This ‘exchange’ could have led to some positive results. In fact, Prodi’s government had recuperated some part of the tax evasions that were instigated by Berlusconi’s government, and part of this wealth – as a result of initiatives by the PRC and other radical left parties – should now have been redistributed to workers. Maybe it is not a coincidence that the government has failed exactly when something tangible could have been achieved. But, in any case, even if such a result would have given some hope to workers, it would not have been a real change. Deluding the electorate and militants by speaking of the possibilities of real change was a big mistake, because after the illusions came the disillusions.

In brief, there was a wrong analysis of the balance of forces, of the strong influence of dominant social and economic groups, and of the nature of the centre-left.

How should lessons from this period of government shape a new phase for the left in Italy?

The first lesson is that a real ‘progressive’ government is only possible if the mechanisms of force are different between the social classes. Should that not be the case, and for some reason we are obliged to participate in the government, the limits of our ability to negotiate and reach our objectives must be explained with far greater clarity and sincerity.

The second lesson is that, to participate in a government and to act as an effective opposition, a left leader must be able to count consistently on 10 per cent of the electorate. Most importantly, this leader must address the working class and construct a social based from those who been stably organized, starting with the trade unions. Finally, such leadership requires a person who can meet with intellectual workers (environmental activists, lawyers, economists, architects, etc.), whose inputs are essential for defining the policies or for opposing in a constructive manner the policies defined by others. There is a need for a ‘social’ and ‘competent’ party, in other words.

The Sinistra Arcobaleno has been born in the hope that it might solve this problem. The party must overcome the quantitative limits of Rifondazione, not dissolving the different parts that make it up, but constructing a federal structure that includes not only the different political currents but those associations that want to sign up. It must construct ‘case della sinistra’ [left houses] all over Italy, capable of offering firstly a place of social aggregation and secondly, a place for discussions and political initiatives. An alliance between the social classes must be built between the workers and the intellectuals (who are no more than workers of a particular type and who, like other workers, suffer similarly uncertain and precarious labour and social conditions).

The political phase that has just opened is more diverse than the previous one. The political parties of the Ulivo and the La Margherita have come together under the banner of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD). This party is in the Blairite, New Labour mold. It will run for election by itself, breaking its previous relations with the radical left, and move in a more centrist direction. Even if Berlusconi’s new party, born of the merger (for now only for electoral reasons) of his Forza Italia party and Fini’s post-fascist party, is definitely ahead in the polls, although the PD is gaining some support. It is not improbable, after the elections, that we will see a political accord between Veltroni and Berlusconi. In any case, the radical left seems likely to a face long period of opposition.

A strong Sinistra Arcobaleno opposition, capable of capitalizing on the difficulties that the next government will face, as well as the decentralisation of policy making; and capable of reconstructing its social ties, has the capacity to make decisive progress. It could organise the resistance and prepare the conditions for a broader change in future. This is our challenge.

Paolo Ferrero is an MP for the Partito della Rifondazione Communista and was Minister of Social Solidarity in the Prodi Government.

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