Italy - The Genie is out of the bottle

Renzi lost and has resigned. The result of the recent constitutional referendum is without precedent: almost twenty million NO votes buried the constitutional counter-reforms, and the Renzi government with them.

The vote on December 4 reflects an anti-establishment wave that is rocking austerity governments worldwide. Events such as the Brexit vote and the US presidential election show that anger against a political establishment that does not represent the majority is becoming more and more widespread. Blackmail ‒ repeated endlessly in the Italian media ‒ threatening “a collapse of the banking system”, “the end of the euro” and “the breakdown of the system” achieved the opposite to its intended effect. What the media ‘pundits’ do not realise is that the majority of the population – admittedly, often in a confused and contradictory way - are fed up with the financial elite and the system that supports them.

Matteo Renzi is a typical example of arrogance-induced-blindness of the man-in-power. During the 1,000 days he spent in office, he faithfully served the interests of big business. His resignation speech claimed this legacy, defending all of the government’s counter-reforms, from the Jobs Act to the “Buona scuola” education counter reform and anti-trade union measures like the abolition of Article 18 of the Labour Statute.

On December 4 twenty million Italians rejected all these so-called reforms, choosing the only means they had at their disposal by voting NO in the constitutional referendum. "I did not think they could hate me so much," Renzi confessed to his collaborators: "a distilled, pure hatred", he added. The surprise of the Democratic Party Secretary is shared by all the elites in their ivory tower, so far away from understanding what ordinary people think. The detachment of these prime ministers and heads of state bears some similarities with the court of Louis XVI before the French Revolution. Some of the cleverest analysts of Capital are finally waking up to reality, as evidenced by W. Munchau’s editorial in the Financial Times a few days before December 4, titled “The elite’s Marie Antoinette moment” ‒ and we all know what became of the Queen of France after the Revolution.

The reasons for the NO victory are much deeper than mere opposition to amending the Constitution in an authoritarian direction. Some months ago, the McKinsey Global Institute published a study with the very telling title, "Poorer than their parents?” The study highlighted a phenomenon which is virtually without exception in the developed world: "Between 65 and 70 percent of households in 25 advanced economies, the equivalent of 540 million to 580 million people, were in segments of the income distribution whose real market incomes - their wages and income from capital - were flat or had fallen in 2014 compared with 2005.” Italy is by far the most affected country with 97% of Italian families with stagnant or decreased income.

These figures help to explain the outcome of the vote on December 4. It is not a coincidence that the NO vote prevailed in the southern regions, which were most affected by the crisis. In Sardinia - a region transformed into an industrial and employment desert by the government and their capitalist backers - 70 percent voted NO. In all the big cities of the south NO won by a big margin: in Naples with 70 percent; in Palermo with 73 percent. Apart from the regions of Alto Adige and Tuscany (where Renzi is from), the only other region where the YES won is Emilia - Romagna, but only by a tiny margin (50.3 percent).

Even more significant is the vote share among young people. According to the poll institute “Quorum” 81 percent of 18-34 year olds voted NO, whereas the YES vote prevailed among those over 55 ‒ but only with 53 percent. (Source: Sky Tg24). The vote was also objectively divided along class lines, as confirmed by Il Sole 24ore, “[t]he youth, the unemployed and the poor voted NO (...) In the areas of Italy where the gross income does not exceed 14,000 euros, YES remained well below the national figure." This was a NO vote of those most affected by the crisis: in the 100 municipalities with higher unemployment the NO vote was above 65 percent. A class and a generation whose future is being destroyed voted against those responsible for their situation.

The polls defeated not just Renzi, but the strategy of the entire ruling class, who during these 1,000 days staked all their bets on the former mayor of Florence. Some commentators have described Renzi’s decision to gamble everything on this referendum as risky. However, the constitutional amendments were not a whim of the Prime Minister, but a response to the specific needs of capitalism and global finance. An infamous JP Morgan 2013 document advised the South European governments to “get rid of the socialist influences” still embedded in their Constitutions. The reactionary offensive waged by the Democratic Party on the social sphere and against the rights of workers had to be matched on the institutional plane.

Today the same bourgeoisie who unreservedly supported Matteo Renzi is deeply concerned with the future, as summarised in the foreboding (for the capitalists) headline of an editorial by Mario Calabresi of La Repubblica: "A shot in the dark". The ruling class has every reason to be worried. The Italian and international bourgeoisie have to face the present government crisis when they have already played most of their best cards. In 2012, when faced by the radicalisation of the struggle against the Berlusconi government, they used the card of a national unity government headed by Mario Monti to impose a policy of blood and tears. In 2013, following the deadlock in Parliament and the brief Letta premiership, they seized the opportunity presented by the final transformation of the Democratic Party into the main party of the bourgeoisie through the rise of "man of providence", Matteo Renzi.

Today the Italian bourgeois have lost their favourite candidate, as the Democratic Party will inevitably enter in a deep crisis in the coming months. To complicate matters further, none of the other bourgeois and petty bourgeois opposition parties can claim victory. Renzi has lost, but neither the leader of the Northern League Salvini, nor Berlusconi, nor Beppe Grillo can capitalise fully on his defeat.

We are not, therefore, facing the prospect of a return of fascism ‒ with black-green troops of the center-right assaulting Palazzo Chigi (the premier’s residence). The necessary opposition to the reactionary propaganda and actions of the Northern League does not justify the logic of ‘lesser evilism’ that pervades the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia of former leftists, now sacrificing their residual authority on the altar of defending Renzi against ‘the eternal danger’ of a Berlusconi-Salvini comeback.

In the short-term there is no possibility of a government of the right wing, partly because they are too weak and divided to provide an alternative ‒ partly because the ruling class is not interested for the time being in such a solution. The ruling class stated quite clearly what they would like in an editorial on December 5 on Sole 24ore: "The markets will be pacified if the surprise resignation of Matteo Renzi announced in the night, are followed in a short time by a government that promises to do what must be done: new electoral law, solving the problems of some banks without delay and opacity, budget law, confirmation of structural reforms in the pipeline and fiscal consolidation." The bosses’ programme after Renzi is the Renzi programme.

The bourgeoisie has an urgent need to deal with the crisis in the banking sector. The attacks on the Italian banking system ‒ primarily concentrated on the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, which in effect is an already-failed bank (for which the international capitalists invoked a bailout with public money) ‒ will inevitably intensify in the coming days and weeks. A third of the gross non-performing loans of European banks, amounting to 276.6 billion euros is in the hands of 15 major Italian banks. They are therefore sitting on a real time bomb.

However, between the desires of the bosses and their realisation lies the will of twenty million people who have said NO to all this. Any "technical government" cobbled together by the President of the Republic will be installed in the face of the weakness and total instability brought about by the referendum vote, and will find strong opposition in society.

Moreover, which political party would be prepared to support a caretaker government to oversee further sacrifices? The Five Stars Movement (M5S) and the Northern League want to capitalise on the referendum, and even Renzi intends to go to the offensive, by calling early elections as soon as possible, even if this could mean a victory of Grillo’s M5S. At present, early elections are the most likely prospect, and even the strategists of big business are now oriented in this direction, on one condition: that the new electoral law prevents a victory of the M5S.

After December 4, confidence in the apparent strength of Renzi and the Democratic Party has been deeply shaken. As a result, resisting attacks by the government and the bosses no longer seems impossible in the minds of thousands of activists, workers and young people. The Italian political crisis has entered a new, turbulent phase ‒ but at a higher level. The Italian working class has taken the initiative and laid the foundations with the December 4 vote to lead a new wave of class struggle and to recover its rightful place, alongside its Spanish, French and Greek brothers and sisters.

The explosive nature of the NO vote will make it easier to build a left wing alternative, as long as that the heads of the labour movement provide strong and viable leadership. In the weeks before the referendum the leaders of the CGIL and FIOM (the metal workers’ union), while taking a position in favour of NO, have certainly not stepped forward to lead opposition to Renzi. Just a few days before the Referendum, they signed national agreements for the metal workers and public employees which accept the conditions posed by the government and the employers, achieving risible increases for workers’ wages.

The trade union leaders are still under the illusion that it is possible to go back to the ‘good old days’ of ‘social partnership’ consultations between them and the bosses. The Democratic Party left wing is increasingly residual and out of touch. Their proposal for a way out of the Renzi government crisis is that "the Democratic Party must take the responsibility to govern" (Massimo D'Alema). With such a position, it is inevitable that the Five Stars Movement will continue to be considered as a viable alternative by a section of workers, although with much less enthusiasm than previously.

The December 4 vote has revealed that there is an enormous anti-establishment tide rising within the Italian population. The only problem is that it is not organised or given a point of expression. It cannot be organised by the M5S that, besides not having an interest in doing so, does not have a programme that challenges the capitalist system. When put to the test in local governments in Parma, Rome and Turin, the M5S has restrained its rhetoric by abiding to the limits imposed by a balanced budget and austerity.

A mass workers' party can only be rebuilt on the basis of social mobilisations, by putting the class struggle to the fore. Such a party will have to learn from the mistakes of the past and reject conciliation with capitalism in order to fulfil the tasks posed by the current historical period. It must present a programme which breaks with the capitalist system, and strives for a revolutionary alternative. This party must be willing to expropriate the big banks and monopolies from the hands of the super-rich capitalists, seize the levers of economic power and deliver them into the hands of the working class and oppressed masses, who entered the political arena on December 4 to declare: NO!