Power to the People: Why We Formed a New Political Party in Italy

by Potere al Popolo

This spring, Italians will go to the polls to vote for a new parliament. In the run up so far, the outlook has been grim to say the least. In recent times the entire mainstream of the Italian political landscape has seen a steady shift to the right. This shift has been so pronounce that we must now talk about the ‘right’ of Italian politics as consisting of not just its traditional representations – in its most vulgar form the racist and xenophobic coupling of the Northern League (Lega Nord)/Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) and the more moderate Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party –  but also the now only nominally ‘centre-left’ Democratic Party (Partito Democratico), as well as the ‘populist’ 5 Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle). However, the foundations are being laid for a new left alternative.

Crisis

Despite having been a central partner to the European project from the start, the Italian economy is one of the peripheral PIIGS economies. This is a term used to refer to European states of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – all of which find themselves vulnerable to crisis as a result of growing debt. Italy may have fared better in many respects than Greece, indeed Italian newspapers have recently been reporting what they describe as an economic recovery. But it suffers from the same socio-economic issues – and in certain regions, particularly the south, poverty and unemployment levels are at Greek levels. Although overall unemployment levels are closer to France than Spain (around 11%), youth unemployment is 35%, and in parts of the South unemployment levels are among the highest in Europe. In Calabria, that’s 23% overall with 59% unemployment among young people. Sicily has 22% and 57% respectively. What unemployment data doesn’t show us are the numbers of Italians who leave Italy in search of work. The numbers of Italians emigrating from Italy are in fact higher than the numbers of immigrants arriving. In 2016 almost 300,000 Italians left Italy, which brings emigration figures close to post-war levels. Emigration continues to serve as a pressure valve, preventing an unemployment crisis from reaching boiling point. The majority of those leaving are young people, and many are graduates who, having paid 5 years of university taxes, find that their degree is worth little in a stagnant employment market, and so decide to take their skills elsewhere. The recent so-called recovery has little meaning for the majority of Italians; where work is being created, it is of poor quality. Employment based on zero-hours or short-term contracts for meagre pay (there is a minimum wage negotiated per sector that is often well below the European average or not enforced) and even piece-work, sometimes paid in the form of vouchers, is becoming increasingly common in Italy, a result of successive labour reforms.

The crisis faced by the Italian public goes far deeper than the 2008 credit crunch and Eurozone crisis. Its roots lie in the succession of neoliberal reforms that tentatively began with Berlusconi’s premiership, but which were mostly orchestrated by technocratic governments and by the two administrations of the Democratic Party, the principal proponent of neoliberal reform. The Democratic Party’s record in government is an impressive display of disregard for working people. The most prominent of its policies in recent years was the infamous Jobs Act (the Italian forerunner of France’s Loi Travail reforms), responsible for a huge expansion in precarious contracts and an undermining of protections against dismissal. The Jobs Act arguably went further than the Loi Travail in dismantling labour guarantees, and Italy has never had an extensive social security system as is the case in France, to somewhat cushion the impact of sudden dismissal or poverty. Other policies have included the raising of the pension age to 67, a school reform that increased employee precarity in school education and introduced compulsory unpaid work experience for high school students of up to 400 hours, and severe spending cuts to public healthcare.

The neoliberal centre and the far-right.

The poverty and instability induced by the neoliberal policies of the PD have created the conditions in which right-wing populism thrives. The 5 Star Movement has been one of the main benefactors of this surge, exploiting for self-serving ends the fears of a population that has seen living standards dive following years of austerity. Equipped with slogans against the ‘elites’ and ‘the system’, the 5 Star Movement takes a decisively right-wing position on a range of issues, making it sometimes indistinguishable from the Northern League. Though it’s been more slippery on some issues, courting a trad has voted with the right on the issue of civil partnerships, on the proposals to grant citizenship to the children of settled migrants born on Italian soil, and it has even voted against a bill which proposed the outlawing of fascist apologism. The 5 Star Movement is part of the EFDD group in the European Parliament along with UKIP and Germany’s AfD, it speaks admirably of Trump and Rajoy, and it has described the rescue boats in the Mediterranean as “taxis in the service of people smugglers.” It opens the section of its manifesto on immigration with the line “Italy has been turned into the refugee camp of Europe.” It has no qualms about spouting racist and xenophobic rhetoric.

But there are also many kinds of right populisms gaining strength – from the more traditional right-wing to the also neo-fascist. In a recent interview, former PD Prime Minister Matteo Renzi used his platform to draw attention to what he described as a rise in neo-fascist and far-right militant organisations, indicating that the PD will likely position themselves as the anti-fascist option in the elections. Even if Renzi’s threats of a rising right are instrumental, it is nevertheless very true that it is the right, specifically both the Northern League and Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia, that is currently gaining from the hollowing out of PD support. Based on the last regional elections, where a coalition between the Northern League and Forza Italia scored highest, the upcoming general election could produce a coalition government that includes these parties, though it is also possible that an electoral deadlock will produce a German style broad coalition and yet another technocrat executive. Due to a conviction for tax evasion Silvio Berlusconi, himself is unable to stand (though he is currently appealing this to the ECHR). However, his party Forza Italia are making every use they can of his name, even presenting him on their logo, a move they say will automatically attract thousands of votes. Thus it seems that the political deadlock that has haunted post-Cold War Italian politics is likely to continue, the brief spell of Democratic Party hegemony having seemingly reached an end. The PD, in a bid to hold on to power, is resorting to the well-turned threat of Berlusconi, now in cohorts with the far right, as the stick with which to beat anything left of the self-styled ‘responsible’ centre. In the same breath that Renzi spoke of a spread in the activities of neo-fascist groups, he also spoke of a vote for anything to his left as “a vote that favours Berlusconi and the Northern League.” Renzi in many ways represents an Italian Macron; through the instrumentalisation of the threat of a rising right he seeks to cling on to some form of consensus around the same neoliberal politics which produced the conditions for the far-right to prosper. In doing so, he also hopes to avoid the fate of ‘pasokification’ gripping many social democratic parties across Europe.

A left alternative?

So what about the left? Since the dissolution of the once-huge Communist Party in the early 1990s, the left has been dogged by factionalism and by a lack of clear political direction, leading it into disastrous coalitions with centrist and right-wing parties, thus destroying the confidence of its electorate. One of the problems for the radical left in Italy is that the PD, an ostensibly left-wing party and heir of the legacy of the mass-member Communist Party which dominated parliamentary and extra-parliamentary political life throughout the Cold War era, has skilfully absorbed or killed off potential left dissent. It has therefore been able to impose neoliberal measures on an unprecedented level with pitiful opposition. The PD was formed out of the ashes of various incarnations of the big two postwar parties, the Communist Party and to a lesser extent the Christian Democrats. As a relatively new formation, it hasn’t yet met the same fate as other European social democratic/neoliberal parties of government. However, it has experienced major setbacks chipping away at its support base –  most importantly the constitutional referendum which saw almost the entire political spectrum except for the PD (and even some non-Renzian internal factions) support the successful ‘No’ vote.

Quite incredibly, the party still boasts some 400,000 members, in an age when most social democratic parties – particularly those implementing unpopular neoliberal reforms – have had their membership hollowed out. However, the PD’s membership is firmly in decline. Many of its members are ex-Communist Party, maintaining a position of loyalty to what they see as the continuation of their old party, though these numbers are steadily being depleted as that generation dies out. And many among younger generations consider the idea of continuity between the two parties to be wildly overstated. The PD was formed in 2007 from over 10 different political formations, described by its founders as “the moderate reformists” of Italian politics. The biggest component, but not by much, was the party into which many ex-communist party politicians had converged: the Democratici di Sinistra (Left Democrats), previously the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS). But that party itself was resolutely reformist and had never opposed the neoliberal consensus. When the PCI dissolved in 1991, those who were ideologically opposed to the rightward shift of the PDS led by then-prime minister Massimo D’Alema, left to form smaller socialist or communist parties, the most prominent being Rifondazione Comunista. Furthermore, it can’t be said that the PDS brought with it the solid working-class base of the PCI; many working-classes voters had turned to the right. The PD is therefore founded not on providing a working-class voice in parliament as most old European social democratic parties. There is also little to no chance of having influence over its ideological tilt – it has very little internal democracy. Leaders are chosen by party primaries, but the candidates are chosen by a party executive rather than by parliamentarians.

Partly as a result of this inflexibility, a part of the left of the PD recently split off to form a new party, called the Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP) – also led by Massimo D’Alema. This founding group comes from the part of the PD with roots in the PCI: would-be rebels who, during the time in the PD had been important exponents of all the legislation outlined above, some even taking ministerial responsibility for it. In the face of declining PD support, and following the failure of the referendum, this group is now seeking to carve out their own base. Considering that up until the new party’s formation in, their politics could hardly be described as resoundingly left-wing, it is difficult to imagine that they would follow a very different course when in government – some of MDP’s leaders, including Pier Luigi Bersani, for example, even voted for the Jobs Act. Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that they wouldn’t enter into a coalition government with the PD if the offer was made, or that they could have a meaningful impact as a junior partner in a coalition government. If this is the case, then this project represents little more than an attempt to attract a section of the population which has been politically homeless for some time in order to bring them into orbit which still has the PD at its centre, coalescing and consolidating a consensus around a slightly more left-leaning centre which nonetheless ends up going along politely with neoliberalism. On the further left, an attempt to regroup around the committees for the constitutional referendum ‘No’ campaign, in conjunction with Rifondazione Comunista, fell apart when it became clear that the leaders of this project had their sights set on a merger with MDP. For the grassroots of the project, this was antithetical to their objectives. By autumn, this left the bleak prospect of an election in which there would be no left alternative autonomous of the PD, and no left alternative capable of speaking to the needs of the masses of the population suffering from years of crisis.

Power to the people.

It was at this point that we made the decision to stand in the elections. We felt we could no longer stand by and watch as an election campaign dominated by right-wing, hate-filled rhetoric played out and we know a desire for something better exists in our society. If the efforts put into that first attempt to construct an autonomous left-wing election choice were a sign of this, so are the campaigns that have been waged against the policies of the PD; against the school reforms, the Jobs Act, and the constitutional referendum. But expressions of protest and solidarity have by no means been restricted to these examples. All over Italy people continue to resist the effects of austerity, sexism, exploitation and racism through struggle. We have seen this in the case of the mass feminist movement Non una di meno, and in the workers’ struggles – in logistics and agriculture in particular, most recently in the Amazon warehouses. We have seen it with the mobilisations in support of the proposals to give citizenship to the children of migrants born on Italian soil, and in the war being waged against the useless – to all but the profiteers – and environmentally harmful development projects: the high-speed train-line in Val Susa, the gas pipeline being constructed in Puglia, the military satellite systems in Sicily and the drilling for fossil fuels in Basilicata. It is to give expression to these struggles, to amplify the agency of the disempowered and to fight for the right of communities to exercise control over decisions that affect them that we decided to stand in the next elections. On the 18th November a national assembly to launch the proposal was held. A subsequent national meeting on the 17th December was attended by over a thousand people. Meetings to discuss the formation of the electoral list bearing the name Potere al Popolo (Power to the People) have been held in more almost 200 towns and cities across Italy, and a range of political organisations and parties including Rifondazione Comunista are taking part. What sets the project apart from previous electoral formations, however, is the fact that a big section of the movement is made up of rank-and-file trade unions, civil society groups and student organisations. Based on the discussions that took place in the local assemblies, a shared political programme has been produced. The Potere al Popolo manifesto asserts the right of all to a stable job with dignified pay. It also asserts the necessity of social solidarity and for state intervention to remove the causes of inequality, which means the re-institution of universal free healthcare and education. It asserts the need to abolish gender inequality, to provide protection to our environment, and to provide protection and solidarity to those who have fled war and hunger. In addition, it calls for an end to Italy’s participation in all international military missions, and for the ceasing of any military commitment and a drastic reduction in funding to the military to be diverted to social ends. However, if the foundation of programme is the call for a system of welfare that is universal, indiscriminate and effective in meeting the needs of the people, making this possible requires removing the straight jacket of the EU’s fiscal compact, made law by Renzi’s PD. It means autonomy from the foreign policy of the EU, and it means the retraction of treaties signed without democratic consultation. We view the elections as merely the beginning. We are keen to obtain the best result, but our real aim is to start a process that can give back to our communities a confidence in their capacity to effect change, as well as to shift the terms of an electoral campaign which is shaping up to be the most reactionary of the last twenty years. We aim to construct a lasting movement to break through the neoliberal deadlock, where the choice is between an authoritarian neoliberalism on the one hand, and variations on a more ‘progressive’ neoliberalism on the other. We are presenting an autonomous anti-capitalist alternative for the March 2018 elections.

Published 11th February 2018

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