In the early months of 2015, various economic indicators seemed to indicate an easing of the crisis which exploded in Italy in 2009. In the first quarter, GDP should start to increase by a fraction of a percent after years of recession. December saw a small increase in employment, consumer expectations (but not businesses) are improving. The spread between Italian and German state bonds has fallen below 100 points.
Some of this data has little significance - a slight increase in employment in the summer and at the end of the year, linked respectively to summer and Christmas holidays, is normal. Other indicators could represent at most a ‘rebound’ which, at least for now, does not cancel out a disastrous trend. Since 2007 Italian GDP has dropped 10 percentage points and industrial production has fallen by 25%. Unemployment is at 13% with youth unemployment at almost 45%. The debt to GDP ratio, in the three years of the austerity government, has risen from 120% to 133%.
Some economists predict that 2015 will be the fourth consecutive year of recession, an historically unprecedented fact. But obviously, for the government, the numbers cited above are a confirmation that the ‘reforms’ are bringing Italy out of the crisis.
On the other hand even a possible growth in GDP, after the capitalist restructuring of recent years, would not automatically bring about a significant rise in either employment or in wages.
The governments which followed Berlusconi have in fact managed to do what Berlusconi could not in 20 years - dismantle the national labour contracts and deregulate dismissals. Thus the link between GDP growth on the one hand and hiring and pay rises on the other has been broken. If the growth of fiscal pressure is added to this, in particular on employment and small businesses, we can deduce that even quantitative easing will find it hard to produce an increase in internal demand and productive investment. This could push Italy into the so-called ‘liquidity trap’ to the point of causing a devaluation of wages.
For now there are no signs of the crisis coming to a head ‘Greek style’ nor warnings of a possible exit from the Eurozone. Notwithstanding the blows suffered from each of the last three governments there are still protection mechanisms, social welfare, still considerable protection of public sector jobs, which continue to compensate partially for the effects of austerity.
At the same time, though, the anger towards all political parties, the banks and the EU is growing, as in the rest of Europe. In recent months Beppe Grillo has moved from criticising the euro to demanding a referendum on leaving the Eurozone. The Lega Nord, Italian ally of Marine Le Pen, is growing strongly. According to a Eurispes poll, 36% of Italians do not feel part of any political affiliation. The institutions which Italians most trust are the Pope (87%) and the police and Carabinieri (67%), while at the bottom of the list are Parliament (7%) and the parties (3%). The union federations are not much higher - CGIL at 17% and CISL and UIL at 14%.
Renzi and the PD, who in one year have lost about 450, 000 members from 550, 000, survive thanks to the absence of an opposition. On the electoral terrain this translates into an unprecedented growth in non-voting. At the European elections 59% of those eligible voted. At the regional elections in Emilia-Romagna (historical stronghold of the “communist” PCI, and then of the PD) fewer than 38% voted (compared to 68% in 2010). The PD candidate for regional president won with 49% of the votes and thus was elected by less than 20% of the electorate.
Renzi advances thanks to an unscrupulous ‘transformismo’ – a tactic used by the old Christian Democracy of combining political forces from across the political spectrum. In one year he has been able to make use of ‘ad hoc’ majorities on every single measure. The so-called ‘Nazareno Pact’ with Berlusconi, on reform of the electoral system and of the Senate, unleashed the opposition (at least verbal) of the so-called `PD left’. He got a comfortable majority for the election of the new President of the Republic, Mattarella by getting support from the centre-right (except for Berlusconi) and the `left’ of Nichi Vendola and his SEL party. Mattarella is an old Christian Democrat (DC) grandee, whose father was a founder of the Christian Democrats (DC) with De Gasperi). Finally, now even Beppe Grillo, placed in difficulties on his own patch by the populism of Renzi, declares himself ready for dialogue with the PD on reform of state television and the introduction of a ‘citizen salary’.
The breaking of the Nazareno Pact after the election of Mattarella, Berlusconi’s ‘old enemy’, appears to be more the fruit of a reaction to the growing internal faction in Forza Italia than a thought-out choice by the ex-Cavaliere, Berlusconi. The former governor of the Region of Puglia, Fitto, has already launched a challenge to the old leader. He has accused him of having sacrificed the interests of the party on the altar of agreements with Renzi, in the interests of his own family and his own companies. On the other hand the Nazareno Pact is not simply an agreement between two leaders but the translation onto the political plane of entwined material interests which emerge ever more clearly in each day’s news.
The scandal of ‘Mafia Capitale’ in Rome has revealed contracts directed by both PD and Forza Italia officials, in exchange for bribes, towards a criminal organisation run by a former neo-fascist terrorist and a manager of the ‘red cooperatives’. The latter, in a recorded telephone call, explains whilst laughing that: “you make more money helping immigrants than selling heroin.”
The PD primaries in Liguria saw the former CGIL secretary, Cofferati, defeated by the Renzi candidate Raffaella Paita. This was thanks to the support of well-known members of the centre-right and blocks of votes from Chinese and Moroccan immigrants and the Sicilian community in Genoa. Magistrates and the Anti-Mafia Directorate have opened an inquiry into this.
The one time associate of Berlusconi, Ennio Doris (Banca Mediolanum) and Renzi’s leading moneyman Davide Serra (Fondo Algebris) in recent weeks have announced a business alliance. After the election of President Mattarella, Berlusconi has undertaken some major economic operations – the acquisition of state television transmitters and the takeover by his publishing group, Mondadori, of RCS, the second largest publishing group and owner of Corriere della Sera (which needs to get the go-ahead from the government).
The new star of the centre-right is the secretary of the Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini. Young, talented, much in demand in television studios, Salvini has managed to resuscitate a Lega Nord rocked by the scandals which a couple of years ago hit the then leader, Bossi, and at the same time to transform a Northern-nationalist and secessionist party into part of the national right on the model of the French National Front. He has formed alliances with parties and groups in central Italy (Fratelli d’Italia of the ex-Berlusconi minister Giorgia Meloni and the neo-fascists of Casa Pound) and launched a new electoral brand (‘Noi con Salvini’) even in the South.
The Lega has quickly become the Italian reference point of Marine Le Pen and has begun to draw votes both from the old parties of the centre right and from those disillusioned with the 5-Star Movement (M5S) becoming, at least in the polls, the leading centre right party, with 15% support.
As well as the slogan `No Euro’, Salvini has worked on problems linked to immigration, to the arrival of refugees from Syria and Iraq and on the fear of Islamic terrorism, in particular after the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen and the arrival of ISIS in Libya. But he has also campaigned on social questions, collecting signatures for the abrogation of the Monti pension reforms, a referendum which CGIL was forced to support, which will not go ahead, because it has been blocked by the Constitutional Court. He has launched a campaign for the introduction of a flat rate income tax (at 15%) directed mainly at the lower middle class.
On the other hand this is probably a transitory phenomenon, with some clear weaknesses. The demonstration of 28 February in Rome, the first test of the Lega outside Padania in the north, went well, but the turn-out was fairly limited (10-15,000 people). In Veneto, the region governed by the Lega, the upcoming regional elections have caused a division between the outgoing governor and Lega candidate Zaia, supported by Salvini, and the mayor of Treviso, Tosi, who has been expelled by Salvini and is going to present his own list at the regional elections.
The M5S (Five Star Movement) seems not to have recovered yet from the disappointment caused by the European election results. Two years after entering parliament, Grillo’s movement has not done anything to improve the living conditions of its electorate (workers, youth and lower middle classes). Since hitting the buffers in the European elections, it has adopted an ever more tactical attitude similar to the old politics, which it criticises violently. On the one hand, the alliance in the European Parliament with UKIP and parliamentary obstructionism at home, on the other attempts to get a seat at the table with Renzi in order to obtain some concrete results, all unsuccessful so far. In the end Grillo has managed to displease everybody. Even inside the movement things are going no better. More than 25 members of parliament have abandoned the M5S and at local level many have left or are waiting for the right moment to go.
In this context, the space for reconstruction of a party of the left able to represent workers and young proletarians should be enormous. The social crisis, the discrediting of the major parties of government, in particular the PD, and the break which has taken place between it and the CGIL leadership, which for the first time in its history took to the streets in November against a centre-left government, would be a scenario extremely favourable to the formation of a new left force, even if at the moment there are no signs of possible left splits from the PD. But this favourable combination is contradicted by the absence of forces and leaders sufficiently credible and capable of constructing an alternative, and above all by the stagnation in class struggle. For months there have been no significant union struggles.
The CGIL demonstrations, though interesting, have seemed more like ‘parades’ - shows of strength against the government, but without a credible platform. With the result that today the Jobs Act is law and the CGIL has been defeated.
The industrial action of recent years (Fincantieri, ILVA, FIAT) has been a defensive reaction to the first cycle of restructuring following the crisis and now probably concluded. In the absence of new threats to the workers from large companies there are no longer defensive struggles, but the ongoing crisis makes offensive struggles unlikely.
Even among students the climate is calm. The Renzi government has not for now launched significant attacks on schools and universities and for years there have been no significant student mobilisations. The heart of the political debate in Italy is now concentrated on institutional themes: the electoral system and reform of the Senate, state television and reform of the justice system. This reflects a conflict within the dominant classes rather than between them and workers.
The victory of Syriza in Greece has so far raised little interest amongst workers and youth. It has created enthusiasm only amongst the Italian cult of Tsipras - left wing flotsam, retired intellectuals and the odd member of the PD left, all looking for a fairly unknown foreign sponsor behind which to hide themselves and have their own actions forgotten. They put forward candidates in the European elections as a “Tsipras List”. In January a delegation of this chamber of horrors, the self-declared `Kalimera Brigade’, left for Athens to take part in the final phase of the electoral campaign and the victory celebration. The only comment we can make is that unfortunately they came back!
But Tsipras’ first wrong steps could represent a problem for them too and it is probable that they will be quickly pushed to change allegiance to Podemos. At the next regional elections there could be some ‘Tsiprist’ candidates but - as happened last year in Emilia Romagna - all incapable of putting themselves forward as a credible alternative. For the rest the three MEPs elected by ‘L’altra Europa per Tsipras’ (Another Europe for Tsipras), disappeared from the radar as soon as they flew to Brussels. We cannot find a single initiative of any note which they have been able to instigate since last June.
FIOM and the ‘social coalition’
Recently, Landini, the secretary general of FIOM (engineering workers’ section of CGIL), the only real credible leader on the left, has given an interview in which once again he underlines the absence of a political representation of labour and calls for the establishing of a `social coalition’ of which the union should be part. The media have interpreted it (as in the past) as the entry of Landini and FIOM into politics (something which is banned by Italian trade union rules), but the FIOM secretary has denied it. Susanna Camusso, general secretary of the CGIL, replied to Landini that she hadn’t been informed of this initiative and CGIL is not in favour of it.
These political interventions in reality reflect the difficult situation in which the FIOM leadership finds itself, having in recent years struggled courageously, winning a well-deserved respect among workers and the left in general. But - to tell the truth - it has not brought home significant results. The problem for FIOM is that, on the one hand it faces objective difficulties in developing a long term union strategy, and on the other, its leading group is extremely confused politically.
Responding to the industrial defeats and playing the role of a ‘surrogate’ for a left which is not there, with the effective appearances of Landini on television, and developing its political lobbying, is an understandable reaction. But it also risks creating illusions in what at the moment represents the only social vanguard capable of speaking to millions of people.
FIOM can play a role, but cannot take on its shoulders the whole responsibility of rebuilding the left in Italy. The preparedness to struggle of certain elements inside FIOM (and in some measure also in its parent organisation, CGIL) could lead to new developments. But this is clearly not enough for the first steps in the process of rebuilding a new political party of workers - a process in which it could have a role. But they will not initiate the process and lead it in the situation we have described – one of desertification on the left and social stagnation. While it is vital to argue the case for a workers’ party with a programme of clear, anti-capitalist demands, for its development in practice, a new wave of class struggle is needed.