The hatred the elite in Italy have inspired, is, for the moment, flowing rightwards, finds Chris Bambery
In the Financial Times, columnist Gideon Rachman was explaining why, warts and all, the European Union remains a good thing. Arguing:
When faced with problems such as supporting liberal values in Hungary, dealing with the refugee crisis, or preserving financial stability in Europe, there is no substitute for the EU. For all its flaws, it is the only real mechanism for trying to find solutions to pan-European problems that are legal, humane and equitable, and that prevent Europe sliding backwards into beggar-thy-neighbour nationalistic antagonisms.
Few of my Italian friends would listen to Rachman arguing the EU is an obstacle to racist parties like the one in office in Hungary (or Poland and Austria), a solution to the migrant crisis, or a guarantor of financial stability, without a guffaw.
Italy was once one of the most pro-EU states in Europe. No more. Brussels sat back and did nothing during the years Silvio Berlusconi was in office, mired in corruption, and in coalition with racists and ex-fascists.
Like Greece, Italy has had to cope with migrants coming across the Mediterranean unaided. France has closed its border, as it can do under the Schengen Agreement, to keep migrants from moving on, as has Austria. The EU shot down Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue service in the Mediterranean, arguing it must be replaced with a naval border enforcement force, before relenting and permitting a much-reduced rescue service. People have paid with their lives by the thousands for this.
I will come back to the EU’s wonderful record on aiding financial stability but, suffice to say, the EU blocked Italy’s government bailing out struggling banks when the dogs on the streets of Milan and Rome know they’d do nothing to stop the German government bailing out struggling Deutsche Bank.
By chance, when I read Rachman's article, my partner had just posted off her vote in the Italian parliamentary elections, the result of which we will know in two weeks’ time. Things do not look good.
No party looks set to capture an overall majority. There is a caretaker government, in office for over a year since the leader of the Democrats, Matteo Renzi, lost a referendum on electoral reform and had to stand down, but the idea was that it would just be an interlude before Renzi’s return. Now it looks unlikely that Renzi, the darling of the EU, will return.
His Democrats trail the Five Star Movement, a party which combines vilification of Italy’s corrupt elite with opposition to the EU and panders to anti-immigrant racism. As if from the dead Silvio Berlusconi has reappeared heading a coalition with the racist Northern League and the Brothers of Italy, the post-fascists who have not taken the post bit too far.
All three are competing as to who will kick out the most migrants. They have helped create the atmosphere where, earlier this month, in Macerata in Italy’s far south a fascist went on a shooting spree attempting to kill immigrants. He wounded six before stopping at the war memorial, draped in an Italian flag, to deliver the fascist salute. An atmosphere too where more openly fascist groupings are gaining ground.
One reason for all this is very simple. Italy’s economy, the third biggest in the Eurozone, has been going nowhere, with low or zero growth, high unemployment, and unstable banks. The government claims the worst is over and Italy is on the road to recovery. Few share their confidence.
Italy’s economy remains six percent smaller than it was at the start of 2008, in the wake of the financial crash. Then it fell by nine percent. In 2013, austerity measures created another recession.
The banking system remains a major problem, with Italian banks holding more than $220 billion worth of bad loans, which will never be paid off. The Italian government has tried to use state funds to rescue some but was barred from doing so by the EU, which demanded bank investors pay for the losses – driving a section of the middle class crazy.
There remains worry that an Italian bank collapse can trigger the return of a wider European one.
Meanwhile, ordinary Italians pay a high price, with millions of Italians pushed into poverty. The number of Italians living in absolute poverty, being unable to pay for basic goods and services, has risen by three million since 2008, the biggest such rise in any EU state.
Unemployment in Italy stands at 10.8 percent, four percentage points higher than in 2008, while in the south it stands at almost 18.3 percent, up 7.2 points in a decade.
Youth unemployment in the south is 46.6 percent, 13 points up on 2008. Between 2006 and 2017 the number of Italians living abroad increased by 60 percent, from three to five million. Most are young.
The second reason for the rise of the right is the collapse of the left.
From the end of the Second World War and the demise of Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship, until 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Italy was a two-party state. The centre-right, pro-US Christian Democrats ruled, and the Communist Party, the biggest outside Russia and China, was the opposition. The Christian Democrats imploded in the 1980s over corruption. The Communists needlessly decided to dissolve the party and create the Third Way Democrats, a party which looked to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.
Many former Communist voters were left homeless but in the 1990s they found a new home in Rifondazione Comunista (the Refounded Communists), which identified with the developing anti-capitalist movement. At the beginning of the last decade, the Italian radical left were the strongest in Europe, and a force globally. But in 2005, to get Silvio Berlusconi out of office they joined forces with the Democrats to enter government. Led by a former right-wing Euro bureaucrat, Romano Prodi, this government pushed through neo-liberal reforms and was voted out. Rifondazione split, effectively it was suicide, leaving a gaping hole on the left.
A splintered and divided left, and weakened social movements have been left to face a challenging situation. The grassroots efforts to aid and sustain migrants has been excellent. But there has not been a force capable of directing popular anger towards the true causes of Italy’s travails.
Nature abhors a vacuum. The right wing and Five Star filled it.
In these elections, there is a left alternative. Free and Equal (Liberi e Uguali) is made up of left-wing Democrats who could stand Renzi no more. To their left is Potere al Popolo (Power to the People), more radical and more grassroots. It is to be hoped they do well but their aim can only be to establish a parliamentary presence, and little more.
Meanwhile, Italy remains a by-word for corruption and nepotism whose elite beat every other to the trough. The hatred they have inspired is, for the moment, flowing rightwards.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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