The conflict between the Italian government and the “Troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund) is making news headlines around the world. To understand fully the meaning of this clash and its consequences, we need to go back to the political earthquake of the 4 March elections.
The Italian masses decided to punish the political parties that had ruled Italy since 2011 (and carried out vicious austerity policies), the Democratic Party and Forza Italia, by voting for the only feasible alternatives: the 5 Stars Movement and the League.
The result was the worst-possible scenario for the Italian bourgeoisie, who face a situation where the parties through which they have controlled the government for the last 25 years have been relegated into opposition. The bourgeoisie has lost direct control of the government: an unprecedented situation that serves as a testament to the depth of the crisis facing society.
The petty bourgeoisie, shocked by the effects of the crisis, has lost confidence in the established powers. It is challenging (albeit in a confused way) the role of big capital, especially finance capital. There is a general hatred of the banks and the bankers, who escaped the crisis at the expense of the great majority of the population. There has therefore been a radicalisation, (partially in a reactionary direction), of these sectors in Italy. This is one of the reasons for the rise of Salvini’s popularity.
The yellow-green government
At the same time, the new government was formed with big expectations from the workers and their families. The M5S is a typical petty-bourgeois party, which swings continuously to the right and the left. It won the election with a programme that included quite radical demands by modern standards, including a “citizenship income” (the equivalent of unemployment benefit, which does not exist in Italy) of 780 EUR a month; an end to the casualisation of labour; and the end of the Fornero law: a vicious counter-reform of the pension system, implemented during the Monti government (2011-2013). The M5S was seen as the anti-establishment party, and this is why it won the elections.
The (former northern) League, a petty-bourgeois reactionary party, had not been involved in any national government in the previous seven years and so Salvini could stand before the electorate with a ‘clean’ record (or, at least, cleaner than that of the others). The League was the party in parliament seen by workers as most consistently against the Fornero law.
The attitude of the majority of the workers was (and still is) one of “wait and see”, as they think that this government can deliver. Many workers think that this can be a "friendly government" that solves the problems that the unions were unable to: pension cuts, casualisation of labour, unemployment, etc.
Di Maio, the leader of M5S, is the new Minister of Labour and Economic development. He is perceived as being different from the previous ministers in this role and as being open to the demands of the working class. This has brought forward expectations and demands that have been frustrated for years. However, there is a vast distance between these expectations and what this government can actually deliver.
Already with the first act, the so-called “Decreto dignità” (dignity decree), which Di Maio declared would end the casualisation of labour, we saw how big the distance between intentions and reality is. The “Decreto dignità” does not eliminate casualisation, but merely introduces some cosmetic changes. For the bourgeoisie, however, even this was too much, and they raised a hue and cry that was then taken up by Salvini, who called for changes to be made to the decree.
We have witnessed this kind of tension between the two coalition partners several times in the last few months. The collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa on 14 August provoked a wave of emotion throughout Italy, and, most importantly, an even bigger wave of anger and indignation. The M5S raised the idea of nationalisation of the Autostrade company (the private owner of most motorways in Italy). Within a few days, a slogan that was initially confined to a small vanguard became very popular amongst the masses. According to a Sky Tg24 survey (carried out in the days after the tragedy), 81 percent of Italians agreed on the revocation of the concession to Autostrade and were for the nationalisation of the motorway network.
This mood of radicalisation has been thwarted by the government's hesitations. The stumbling block of legal actions that the multinational company would have taken before the revocation of its contract, and the cost of compensation for the expropriation (a “right” guaranteed by the constitution) forced the government to desist.
This petty-bourgeois obsession with “legality” led to impotence. The bridge is going to be rebuilt by the same people responsible for its collapse, Autostrade, “given the urgency of the matter”! The Special Commissioners for the reconstruction will be the president of the Liguria region and the mayor of Genoa: both close to the League and to the right-wing.
It goes without saying that the League was opposed to any idea of nationalisation from the very beginning.
The scenario keeps repeating itself: whenever the ministers of the M5S try to implement any kind of “progressive” measures, the capitalists exercise huge pressure through their men in the government (Tria, the finance minister, and Moavero Milanesi, the foreign minister) and through the League, to hold them back. And they always succeed, because the M5S has no consistent ideology and programme, given its petty-bourgeois character.
The 2019 Budget was meant to be the final showdown for the government. Di Maio has described the budget as “a people’s budget” (“la manovra del popolo”), but there is very little in it to improve the living conditions of working-class families.
The conflict between the government and the Troika hinges on some decimal percentage points on the budget deficit. The so-called challenge to austerity and the confrontation with the EU have produced a molehill rather than a mountain. They will add a further 0.8 percentage points to the deficit next year, resulting in about 13.7 billion EUR more to spend. With this amount, it will be impossible to provide a wage for the seven million Italians who live below the poverty line and for the three million unemployed, and also cover the extra cost of the retirement of millions of pensioners who meet the new “quota 100” (which means one can retire if the sum of one’s age in years and the number of years one has paid social security contributions adds up to 100).
The tax amnesty that the government has introduced, on the other hand, is a huge gift to big business and the rich, as we all know that there are not many pensioners or metalworkers who are in a position to need a half-a-million-euro amnesty (the limit proposed by the yellow-green coalition).
However, the EU Commission cannot allow even this extra 0.8 percent addition to the deficit. Moscovici (the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs) is blatantly applying a double standard here. In the past, the EU allowed Germany to break the rules more than once. But Germany, of course, is the master of the EU and the German ruling class are allowed to break any rule they wish, while at the same time imposing stringent conditions on all other EU member states.
The initial belligerent tone of Di Maio lasted only a few days. The government very quickly announced that the citizenship income and “Quota 100” would not be included in the 2019 budget, and that they will be delayed to future budgets. But for the EU, even this is not enough: they want the Italian government to surrender completely.
This approach on the part of the EU commission will further increase the resentment of the Italian masses. According to a poll conducted by the European Commission, only 44 percent of Italians now support membership of the EU. With the European elections due next May, this spells danger for the European ruling class. Italy is not Greece. It is the second manufacturer on the continent, and a crisis in Italy could shatter the fragile structure of the EU. In this conflict, the working class has nothing to gain and no-one to support.
The solution presented by the M5S is a typical Keynesian one. Di Maio in a recent interview with the Financial Times, said: “We believe in the fact that we can greatly reduce public debt with an expansive budget. I am convinced that we can change the rules on austerity and investment (...) We will tattoo ourselves to explain to the investment community that we do not want to leave the eurozone.”
How someone could think of increasing the budget deficit and reducing the debt at the same time, while remaining within the eurozone, is a mystery to anyone, especially on the eve of a recession. Italy’s GDP in the third quarter of 2018 grew by a mere 0.8 percent. The forecast for 2018 is growth of 1.1 percent.
Here we have the old dream of the reformists of the possibility of reconciling the interests of the bosses with those of the workers. Now, more than a dream, it is a utopia.
Fascism at the gates?
And what about the opposition? The main opposition party in parliament is the Democratic Party, which is jokingly referred to as the “the party of the spread” [a reference to the fact that it is constantly reminding everyone that if austerity does not continue then the “spread” between interest on Italian and German treasury bonds will increase]. Every day, the main PD leaders warn the government that if it does not stick to the rules drawn up by the EU, the Seven Plagues of Egypt will hit the country. They are the main supporters of the EU and of austerity. It is the party of big business. The only little problem now is that it has been rendered useless as a representative of big business.
The common view of so-called “left-wing progressive” intellectuals (who are desperately attempting to bolster the PD and the ruling class) is that the people are stupid, illiterate, believe in fake news, etc., and that is why they vote for the M5S or the League. This highlights how out of touch these people are and why it is impossible it is for the so-called left to find an echo amongst the masses.
Anyone who reads the articles of these “intellectuals” (including those who are widely known outside of Italy), would think that Italy is on the brink of fascism. Salvini may well dream of going back to the good old days of Mussolini. But here we are not in the realm of dreams. In the real world of today we have to see that the social base of fascism does not exist in Italy. This does not mean that this government is not a threat to the labour movement. On the contrary, it is a serious threat, but we should not confuse this with a totalitarian regime capable of destroying all the workers’ organisations and setting up a dictatorship.
The new Minister of the Interior (Salvini) expresses all the most reactionary sentiments in society, similar to the typical features of fascism: demagogically railing against big capital in defence of the petty bourgeoisie, an exasperated nationalism imbued with the worst kind of xenophobia, ultra-traditional values on the question of family, a fundamentalist Catholicism and so forth.
Is all this propaganda, however, pushing the mass of Italians onto the streets to beat up immigrants? Not at all. There have been attacks, but they have been staged by tiny groups of fascists, with no involvement by the majority of ordinary people. There are widespread racial prejudices among backward layers of society, but they are expressed in a passive manner. What we have is a thin, superficial layer of reactionary propaganda, spread by the media, that finds an echo because there is no wave of class struggle and of militant united action to sweep it away. However, once such a wave rises again, everything will change into its opposite. These reactionary ideas are not acted on by an active, mass force of frenzied petty bourgeois and lumpenproletariat, smashing the heads of immigrants and communists, as in the 1920s. Salvini is aware of the fact that he cannot pursue those methods, so he is trying to impose reaction through the apparatus of the state. The League therefore presents itself as the party of law and order; as a “modern” reactionary, conservative party.
The decree on security just approved by the lower house of parliament, drafted by the League, is a declaration of war against immigrants, but it is also designed as a measure against anyone who protests against the government. The decree removes humanitarian protection for refugees, which will be accessible only to unaccompanied minors and those who are already holders of international protection: thus, 90 percent of asylum seekers will be excluded. The crimes of immigrants will be doubly punished, up to the revocation of Italian citizenship. The previous PD government had already limited the legal rights of refugees and increased the number of repatriation centres. They had already created the conditions for immigrants to become second-class citizens, but today Salvini has made this a reality.
Couched in “nice and responsible” language, i.e. to “improve urban security”, Salvini has also moved against protests and strikes. In cities of more than 100,000 people, police will be able to use Tasers to combat local crime. A roadblock or any occupation of private property will become criminal offences, and no longer punished with an administrative fine. From now on, any worker who occupies a factory or blocks a road could go to jail.
At the present time, there would seem to be no need for such measures. If you look at the surface, in Italy there are no strikes, no protests, and very few demonstrations. These are in fact measures for the future, as they are fully aware of the fact that a storm of class struggle is being prepared.
All the present xenophobic propaganda is useful to strengthen Salvini’s leading role within the government. The ruling class has always created scapegoats to divert the attention of the masses away from its real problems.
Racism can be a powerful weapon to divide the working class, but it can also turn against the bourgeoisie if it is not combined with concrete concessions. This government, by failing to seriously challenge the EU’s rules and regulations, and – above all – capitalism, has nothing to deliver. More than that, the blatantly racist propaganda of the League is beginning to alienate layers of society, primarily the youth.
The freedoms granted by the state for neo-fascists to organise are already provoking a backlash, as we witnessed in Trieste on 3rd November, where 5,000 people (in a town of 250,000) demonstrated against a march by Casapound: the largest of these neo-fascist groups.
A future of class struggle
While the trade union leadership is at a low ebb of popularity, the reformist left continues to fragment. The two main electoral lists created for 4 March elections, Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal) and Potere al Popolo (Power to the People) have already split. Potere al Popolo did so in the worst possible way, with an avalanche of insults exchanged between the two main wings of the coalition. This project is therefore already dead.
The vast majority of the longstanding activists on the left are in a state of deep depression, as they only see black reaction and no immediate response from the masses. The Marxists, on the other hand, are confident about the future perspectives, as there are clearly a number of factors that are preparing the ground for a new wave of struggle and mobilisation after years of deafening silence.
The working class has now absorbed the shock of the great crisis and is beginning to come to terms with the "new normality" of precarity, blackmail and poverty wages. There was, in the last year, an economic recovery, albeit a small one, that allowed for the posing of economic demands, while at the same time placing very strong pressure on working conditions and safety at work, forcing many Italians to work longer and harder in impossible shifts.
The point we have to understand is that workers now feel they can influence this government. The working class in fact voted massively for the M5S, expecting it to act on its electoral promises. In these conditions, the trade union bureaucracy will not be able to stop the coming mobilisations. Among the youth, a layer is already gearing up to mobilise against racism and repression.
In general, following on from the elections, there has been a mood of widespread political debate that we have not seen for a long time. The measures of the government and the political positions of the different parties are subjects of discussion, not only among activists and militants, but among a much wider layer of the population. This is an important point that has to be understood. The normally inert, inactive layers are being politicised. It should not come as a surprise that these layers will initially be confused, but the confusion will be clarified by the big events that are coming.
In these conditions anything can spark a movement, from important corporate crises, to a conflict over government measures, to episodes of repression, environmental crises, and so on.
In the beginning, any mass movement will be politically heterogeneous and even contradictory. The process of political clarification will have to go through many different phases, as well as many trials and errors. But we can be sure that, sooner rather than later, the same opposition against the establishment and the status quo that was revealed in the polls will begin to manifest itself in the form of militant actions.
Sinistra Classe Rivoluzione, the Italian section of the IMT, is ready to intervene in this new epoch of class struggle and provide the necessary class analysis and understanding which no one else is providing. We have every reason to be confident that the Italian working class will rediscover its old traditions of 1920, of the Resistance against fascism and the mighty struggles that began with the Hot Autumn of 1969.