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In the first of a regular series, Elle Gierre's letter from Italy reports on a left struggling to get a grip on a country in crisis

'We ain't gonna pay for your crisis'

On Sunday 28 April Luigi Preiti, a 49-year old unemployed man from the Calabria region of southern Italy, walked towards Palazzo Chigi, the seat of the Italian government in Rome, holding a gun. As the military police patrolling the palace tried to stop him, Preiti went on a shooting spree. He wounded two policemen before the he was restrained and arrested by the Carabinieri.  Apparently, this was not how Preiti’s plan should have unfolded, the intended aim was ‘to kill a politician’ and then commit suicide.

Meanwhile, inside the heavily guarded walls of Palazzo Chigi, the new Italian government was being sworn in. This was the latest act of a political circus that started two months ago when the general election resulted in a stalemate. The party of the Prime Minister Mario Monti had been resoundingly defeated but whilst the centre-left coalition led by the Democratic Party, which received largest number of votes (but only just), had a won majority of seats in the lower house of Parliament it had fallen short in the upper house, the Senate. A new government needs to pass a vote of confidence in both houses to take office.

One way out of this deadlock was attempted by the PD leader, Pier Luigi Bersani:  an accommodation between his party and the Five-Star Movement, a populist, ‘anti-political’, Internet-based party led by comedian Beppe Grillo. In fact, on issues such as “the common good” or welfare, the Five-Star Movement has looked close to traditional social-democratic politics. However, mutual mistrust made such an alliance hard to establish. Furthermore, from the start the Italian and EU establishments lobbied heavily for ‘stability’ and ‘structural reform’- in other words, for the creation of another technocratic, neoliberal government, supported by both the PD and its arch-enemy Silvio Berlusconi. This solution was hardly palatable to the left's voters, who had already endured a year and a half of austerity at the hands of Monti's technocratic government, and (rightfully) had a strong aversion towards Berlusconi and his cronies. And yet…

And yet, after weeks of petty bargaining, such an opportunist deal was eventually sealed during the elections of the President of the Republic – the Italian head of state.

Grillo had in the end paved the way for an alliance with the PD. His party choose as its candidate in an on-line poll Stefano Rodotà – a respected left-wing academic, and former Vice-President of the PDS, the party which became the PD. They appealed for the PD to back him, and indeed its smaller left-wing ally the SEL party did so.

The PD, however, was torn apart by internecine power struggles.  The party's first two candidates were scuppered by the many of its own MPs voting against them, a final humiliation which forced Bersani to resign as leader. The  leadership then decided to join with Berlusconi’s party to re-elect, for an unprecedented second term, the incumbent Giorgio Napolitano – an 87-year old former member of the Italian Communist Party, and a leader of its right wing (though he had also  supported the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary).

A 'President's government'

The political implications of this decision were huge: not only had a President of the Republic never been re-elected before, but Napolitano’s first term had been marked by  interventions in government affairs, a deviation from the traditionally ceremonial role of the President. In fact, it was Napolitano who had been the architect of the Monti government. Now, the former Communist was said only to be available for re-election if the PD and Berlusconi’s party could meet a number of conditions, namely, to form a stable, pro-EU coalition government, including a few ‘wise men’ chosen by Napolitano himself. As in 2011, Napolitano foisted upon the country a “President's government” in line with the demands and wishes of the Italian ruling class and the EU.

While a new pro-austerity government headed by Enrico Letta has now taken office, outside the Parliament the calamitous effects of years of neoliberalism and corruption are obvious – if you take an afternoon stroll through any town or city you will see dozens of empty shops, elderly people rummaging through rubbish and hundreds of handwritten notices stuck up on walls by well qualified people advertising themselves for “any kind of work”. In 2012, the average number of unemployed people was 2.74 million, while youth unemployment reached 35.3% (with a peak of 46.9% in southern Italy) – both all-time records. And as Italy is one of the few European countries where there is no unemployment benefit, the social impact is even greater than elsewhere.

Austerity has even impacted on the eating habits of Italians: sales of meat, fish and fruit are down, those of bread and pasta are up.  Last year no fewer than 3.7 million people asked for food aid. In 2013 in Italy, food theft has become the crime of the day. No wonder that many Italians, and the young in particular, are choosing to emigrate, first and foremost to Germany.

It is not just  consumption that is affected: savage spending cuts also mean fewer (and worse) public services for those who cannot afford to go private. Waiting lists in public hospitals are getting longer and longer, and according to recent estimates  1.8 million Italians can no longer pay the fee for a specialist consultation. Mental illnesses is also on the rise: between 2000 and 2010 the consumption of antidepressants rose by 430% per capita. Suicides for economic reasons have become so frequent that they no longer even make the news.

Of course, the brunt of austerity has been borne mostly by those who were already the worst off: women, migrants, the poor, the young, people from the south of the country. Last year the income gap between the richest 20% and the poorest 20% widened by 5.6%. In Austerity Italy, class, gender, generational and geographic divisions separate the Damned (the vast majority) from the Saved (a tiny minority).

A weakened Left

Despite this, unlike Greece, Italy has not been fertile ground for left-wing opposition to austerity. Both the 'radical' and the ‘reformist’ lefts started the decade huffing and puffing, out of breath and tired. Both have been weakened and discredited by their obsession with Berlusconi and stale, parochial, leaderships which have yet to free themselves from the burdensome legacy of the Italian Communist Party.

As a result, the left has not been able to tap into the widespread discontent with austerity. This has instead turned into a blind rage against politics and politicians in general, an anger which only the populist Five Star Movement has been able to exploit. On this ground the left should have sown hope for change, yet only despair and hatred have grown up, or in Antonio Gramsci’s words: when the old is dying and the new cannot be born, a variety of morbid symptoms appear.

Luigi Preiti had no previous criminal convictions. He used to work as a building contractor, but went bankrupt (though this may also have been linked to an alleged gambling habit). A couple of years ago, after he broke up with his wife, he was forced to move back to his parents’ home, and at the age of 47, fell into depression. He was so full of anger and despair, bereft of hope, that he foolishly believed ‘killing a politician’ and committing suicide might be a solution. Over the last few days, many Italian pundits have asked whether there may be a relationship between Preiti’s violence and the violent rhetoric typical of Italian political debate. But perhaps we should rather ask whether there might be a relationship between a welfare state which is weak and fails to provide for the unemployed, the homeless, and the mentally ill, and such sad tragedies.

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