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Italy: Austerity and resistance

By: 
Stefano Agnoletto

January 3, 2012

Italian workers celebrated a bittersweet victory in 2011: while they cheered the end of the hated Berlusconi regime, they braced themselves for deep government cuts and harsh austerity measures.

Ironically, despite nearly two decades of a strong labour-led fight against the Berlusconismo, the defeat of his right-wing government was not the result of a mass mobilization of workers. Instead, it was a diktat coming from the European Central Bank (ECB) and other global financial institutions that no longer trusted Berlusconi.

Anti-democratic

As in Greece, capitalist interests showed little interest in the official democratic process, simply appointing a new government of technocrats. On November 16, Mario Monti, an economist, became Italy’s new prime minister. Until becoming premier, Monti was a member of the European Commission, the European president of the Trilateral Commission (a secretive, undemocratic discussion group of world leaders) and an advisor to multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs.

Italy is a perfect example of how the ruling class is exploiting the crisis to dramatically restructure Europe’s economy and society. Monti’s government took power in response to widespread fears that Italy would default. In recent months, both government propaganda and almost all of the mainstream media have campaigned incessantly about the need to reduce Italy’s public debt. They have created the impression that the only way to save the European economy from complete collapse is by dismantling the welfare state, raising taxes on workers, gutting social programs and deregulating the labour market. In other words, they are trying to argue that there is no alternative to austerity.

Neoliberal ideology

Both right- and left-wing media echo this argument, including newspapers that endorse the centre-left opposition of the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico). They describe Monti and his ministers as “neutral experts” who can rescue Italy from the failure of the “politicians.” The neoliberal ideology that guides the economic and social policies of the new government becomes hidden behind the “laws of the economy” and the “rules of the market.” The public is expected to wholeheartedly endorse the government, in the name of the “national interest.”

It is in this context that, on November 17, the new government won a confidence vote in the Senate, with 281 votes in favour and just 25 against. The following day, the Lower Chamber of Italy’s parliament also backed the new government, with 556 votes in favour and only 61 opposed. Not since the end of the fascist regime has any government won so much parliamentary support in Italian history. The only opposition came from the Northern League (Lega Nord), an extreme, right-wing racist party. Both Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (Il Popolo della Libertà) and the Democratic Party, the centre-left official opposition, supported Monti.

‘Save Italy’

On December 16, the Lower Chamber approved the austerity program contained in Monti’s proposed budget law: 495 voted in favour and 88 voted against. On December 22, the Senate followed suit, with 257 votes backing the program and 41 votes opposing it. The new law is called “salva Italia” (save Italy). In the days before the vote, Monti and his ministers went on a media offensive, constantly repeating the word “equity,” as part of their attempt to win the support of the Italian public.

During the press conference where the government presented its austerity program, Italy’s Minister of Welfare Elsa Fornero broke into tears as she attempted to describe cuts to pensions. She said she was “very sorry” but that “there was no alternative.” Monti supported his minister by insisting that the law is “fair” and that the pain of austerity demanded “by the international markets” is equally shared. The reality, however, is another story.

Who will pay?

The key features of Monti’s budget have all the usual characteristics of classic neoliberal austerity programs: higher taxes on low income earners and the middle class (VAT will rise from 21 per cent to 23.5 per cent); higher regional taxes; new and higher taxes on family households; cuts to pensions; an increase in the retirement age; cuts to health, education and social welfare; etc. In addition, Monti has announced the deregulation of the labour market and the privatization of local and municipal services.

Despite the government’s claim that “we all must tighten our belts,” corporations and the richest Italians will hardly notice the new austerity measures, if at all. For instance, there will be no new taxes on large assets and estates, capital gains or high incomes. Military spending has also been excluded from any cuts. Worse still, Monti has refused to address wide-scale tax evasion, one of the most problematic (and embarrassing) characteristics of Italy’s economy.

Just as Italians realized their dream of ending 20 years of rule by Berlusconi, they are now faced with the nightmare of a devastating austerity agenda. How is that possible? The recent history of Italian politics provides us with some answers.

Berlusconi has dominated Italy since the early 1990s. He came to power at the end of the Cold War, when political scandals and judicial inquiries destroyed most of the old mainstream parties, especially the Christian Democratic Party (Democrazia Cristiana). The Christian Democrats had guaranteed for more than 40 years after Word War II that the powerful Italian Communist Party (Partito Comunista Italiano) would never form a government. The disappearance of the Communist threat undermined the existence of the mainstream parties, which were no longer useful for Italy’s capitalist class. Through Berlusconi, Italian capitalists could more easily access power, without any kind of political mediation.

A new populism

In the last two decades, Berlusconi performed his duty exceedingly well. He successfully changed the culture of Italian politics, breaking the left’s hegemony and replacing it with a neopopulist, old-style anti-communism. The effect of Berlusconi’s approach was to destroy the militant tradition of the Italian workers’ movement. But now, Italy’s capitalist class has no use for him. The time has come for “serious” neoliberalism.

Berlusconi had to be replaced by a technocratic government that, on the one hand, could take advantage of the anti-labour culture spread during Berlusconi’s reign, but on the other hand, is considered by Italy’s economic and financial elites to be more effective in imposing neoliberal reforms. Even for Italy’s most desensitised citizens, Berlusconi’s “immoral” behaviour, his all-night “Bunga bunga” parties with underage women, and his egocentric vision of the world became intolerable.

Anti-labour

For Italy’s ruling class, the “serious economist” Mario Monti was the best alternative. Already, the so-called “Super Mario” is off to a great start, by imposing harsh anti-labour policies that Berlusconi himself had failed to pursue.

Despite Berlusconi’s much celebrated departure, the situation for ordinary people in Italy is getting worse, especially in the absence of any significant political opposition. This is the result of an attitude generally referred to as “anti-Berlusconismo,” in which Berlusconi himself becomes the personal embodiment of all Italy’s problems, rather than as a representative of a much bigger system. Over the last 20 years, the personification of power in one man, not surprisingly, led to the belief that simply getting rid of him would solve the problem. The most important opposition newspapers often represented Berlusconi as a sort of devil, as if he alone were the source of all the challenges facing Italians. He was variously described as the “Mafioso,” the “immoral libertine” or the “embarrassing gaffeur.”

The “common sense” view among many left-wing activists was no longer based on concepts of right versus left or rich versus poor. Instead, they adopted the view that the main dividing line in society was between the dishonest Berlusconi (and his supporters) on one side and the honest people on the other.

Far too many articles argued that Italy’s economic and financial crisis was not the result of neoliberal capitalism (of which Berlusconi was just one representative), but of Berlusconi’s personal behaviour. As a consequence, when Berlusconi was forced to resign and Monti took over the government, the parliamentary opposition, steeped in the dogma of anti-Berlusconismo, fully embraced the “serious economist” who doesn’t attend all-night sex parties with underage women.

The situation has worsened as many members and supporters of the centre-left coalition—among them one of Italy’s most influential newspapers, La Repubblica—publicly congratulate Monti for “having the courage” to impose neoliberal measures that, they believe, are long overdue and will save Italy from default.

Resistance

In this context, resistance to the government’s austerity agenda can be very difficult. Unfortunately, the idea that there is no alternative (and that anything is better than Berlusconi) has gained support among some activists and the wider public. Another challenge is the ongoing crisis of the radical left, particularly the Communists. Since 2006, the Communists have absolutely no representation in Italy’s parliament, the first time in history since the end of fascism.

Moreover, after decades of scandal and corruption, there is widespread distrust in official politics, popularly expressed by the slogan, “They’re all the same!” The situation is made worse by the growth of the extreme right, from the Northern League to many other neofascist movements. These groups have attempted to blame immigrants and refugees for the effects of the crisis. The recent murder of two immigrants in Florence and attacks on Roma camps in Turin and other cities are just a few examples of this alarming development.

Trade unions

However, despite these obstacles, there are signs of resistance. The devastating effects of Monti’s austerity measures on the day-to-day lives of ordinary people have begun to generate a feeling of anger and bitterness. In the absence of any organized political force on the left, a number of Italy’s trade unions are now beginning to build support for large-scale mobilizations. Immediately after parliament approved Monti’s austerity budget, some unions called a three-hour general strike, while other sectors organized demonstrations.

The leadership of the most important trade union federation, the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL), is traditionally reformist and not at all oriented to radical, grassroots struggles, but it has recently shown a willingness to lead a real fight against austerity. Its metal workers’ union, the left-wing FIOM (Federazione Impiegati Operai Metallurgici), is playing a strategic role in organizing resistance and trying to assemble a large, united movement of workers, pensioners and students.

Solidarity

Militants in smaller trade union organizations, such as the rank-and-file COBAS (Confederazione del Comitati di Base) and USB, and which have a more radical tradition, have been on the streets almost daily, distributing leaflets and posters. In addition, the response of the social movements—including students, anti-capitalists, the Indignados, NGOs, etc.—represents an attempt to link the struggles of organized workers with the wider public, especially those sections already engaged in their own fight-backs.

Ordinary people in Italy are facing both a deepening economic crisis and a devastating austerity agenda. Berlusconi’s legacy makes the situation more difficult for workers’ and social resistance. However, we should remember that the Italian situation is structurally similar to that of many other European countries, including Greece, where there has been an inspiring movement against the cuts. We should also remember that, although the crisis is described as purely a financial one (with all the usual fear-mongering about debt defaults), the reality is completely different.

Capitalism in crisis

The crisis is a natural process of capitalism, and the result of the system’s inability to sustain growth—even with the help of neoliberal measures. In Italy and worldwide, the ruling class is trying to overcome the system’s limits by destroying the welfare state, slashing social programs, privatizing services, reducing workers’ rights and impoverishing the mass of ordinary people.

These same political problems are increasingly present in many other countries: aggressive, extreme right-wing movements that try to exploit the fear created by the crisis and neoliberal centre-left parties that are completely subservient to the dominant logic of capitalism.

In these conditions, in Italy and worldwide, workers’ and social resistance to austerity can win. The movements can challenge neoliberal dogma by exposing its fallacies: workers shouldn’t have to pay for a crisis they didn’t create. An “Italian spring”—one that goes beyond the limits of the current anti-Berlusconismo politics—will become possible once we demolish the lies of the neoliberal agenda, and when we see the possibility of a truly global resistance to austerity. The fight in Italy is the same as in Greece—and in France, Canada, Egypt and elsewhere. Now more than ever, another world is necessary.

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