Italy 2018 Elections
Monday 5 March 2018 12:57
The British and Irish newspapers are full of the danger to the EU posed by the recent Italian elections. Some of that (on the part of British papers in particular) is wishful thinking, but in any case it is, in my view, the wrong analysis. Certainly some of the parties are sceptical of the politics of the EU, as are many Italians, and other citizens of the Union in many countries. There are a variety of reasons for this. We could list austerity politics, the shameful neglect by the powerful northern states of the social pressure created by refugees in the mediterranean states (exacerbated by the shameful Dublin Convention), the neoliberalisation of the European project, the lack of accountability and democracy at the higher levels of the EU, the brutal treatment of Greece where a lawfully elected government with a democratic programme was deliberately destroyed by a coalition of bond-holder countries, and so on. Almost nothing that the EU has done on the grand scale in the past 10 years has endeared it to anyone other than bankers and bond-holders.
What does anyone expect to happen in such circumstances?
We have seen in Britain and the USA that citizens, provided with scant and often false information and no coherent political analysis, vote for so-called ‘anti-establishment’ figures and parties. That such ‘anti-establishment’ figures include Trump, Berlusconi and May is illogical to be sure, risible even, but people do not have the time or the politics to understand nuance, and gesture is often more important to them than forethought. The comedian Beppe Grillo’s famous ‘vaffanculo’ (fuck off) day is expressive of the sentiment, and captures the mood to perfection. Beppe Grillo, as it happens is now head of the single largest party in Italy.
There is no widespread appetite for Italy to leave the EU. Italians citizens, like Irish or French citizens complain about aspects of the union. Leftwing thinkers point to the steady drift towards less democratic and more authoritarian behaviour, and to the abanondonment of any pretence at social democracy. Rightwingers moan about the Euro and sometimes sovereignty. But actual secessionists are in a tiny minority. To be sure some of the political parties have flirted with the idea. The Lega Nord (now just Lega, because they want votes in the hated south too) once wanted to set up a republic in Northern Italy (Salò comes to mind– come back Pasolini, all is forgiven). It has abandoned the idea, though it still hoovers up votes in the Veneto and Lombardy, industrial powerhouses of Italy.
Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement (M5S) has also abandoned whatever plans it had to secede and now counts itself as merely ‘sceptical’. The properly fascist parties Fratelli D’Italia and CasaPound are also eurosceptic rather than secessionist. Both are as nasty a group of people as you could chance to meet, but receive very little support in elections and are everywhere faced with antifascist demonstrations.
Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party make a variety of noises about Europe when it suits them but cannot be said to have any ideology other than the will to power (and to pass legislation exonerating Berlusconi from his various clleged crimes, including Mafia collusion).
The Partito Democratico (PD) is pro-European. In theory it is centre-left, but it is perhaps the most complex party of all. It is a shell that contains remants of the old communist party (PCI), the socialist party (PSI), the more socially oriented elements of the Christian Democrats (DC) and other minor formations such as the Social Christians and republicans. Its leadership, however, has been dominated by ex-Christian Democrats, beginning with Romano Prodi (and possibly ending with Matteo Renzi), and this has, I believe, led to a disconnect between those former leftists in the party who will never fully trust an ex member of the DC, and the leadership itself. This is expressed by the odium directed at Renzi.
Friends have pointed out to me that the danger in reading the disastrous PD vote is that it can be read as anti-EU, especially if taken together with the wipeout of Emma Bonino’s Italian Radicals party. They observe that the strongly neoliberal positions adopted by Renzi’s PD and Bonino’s Radicals are much more likely to be the cause. The electorate, they argue, has rejected the neoliberal position, and the fragmented results reflect a casting around for parties which are anti-austerity.
They also acknowledge that the refugee question is absolutely central, not only to the Italian election, but to the future of Europe, a position with which I agree strongly. How the EU handles the problem of refugees in the future will determine the objective conditions for the rise or defeat of fascist forces. Hitherto, it has manoeuvred to externalise the refugee crisis for purely internal electoral reasons, signing savage treaties and orders which confine refugees in the very places they are fleeing. As one friend observed, the EU may well be in breach of the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention. It would be interesting to see that tested in court.
It is also, I believe, wrong to characterise Lega or Forza Italia as populist parties. They are straightforwardly right-wing parties with right-wing programmes which happen to have gained some currency in a fraught political climate. And Frattelli D’Italia is frankly fascist. So the headlines about a populist uprising leading to a populist coalition of those three parties is very wide of the mark indeed. All three parties maintain a kind of nostalgic posture in relation to Mussolini and fascism (while carefully separating it from the German variety), and the Frattelli, in particular, are open in their admiration. Such a coalition, should it come to pass, would be properly right-wing with strong fascist tendencies. It is possible to imagine those fascist elements in the army and police (the carabinieri are in fact a corps of the army) siding very comfortably with aggressive policies towards migrants and leftists. As it is, when leftists protest against fascist marches and rallies (fascism is illegal under the Italian constitution), it is often the leftists who get beaten by the police.
The 5 Star Movement is now the largest party in Italy and there is a tendency to view them as a monolithic bloc like other parties. They are, however, closer to anarchists than to fascists, though only in the sense that they have a decentralised decision making process (in theory at least - in fact Beppe Grillo appointed himself supreme leader some time ago) and under their umbrella are gathered many shades of political opinion. Some of the M5S base is left, or at least antifascist, some republican, some right, some green, some anti-authoritarian, anti-corruption, anti-mafia (in Sicily in particular) and so on. A friend points out that there are also extreme right wing formations within the movement. But probably the prefix ‘anti-‘ is what best describes them thus far. They are anti- almost everything in Italy without actually being anti-capitalist.
Grillo himself (his followers are disparagingly nicknamed grillini), like the insect he is named for, the cricket, is more of an irritant than a theorist, but buried in his assertion that he and his movement are neither right nor left, is the standard cry of the centre-right: We’re not right-wing, and we’re certainly not left. Many Italians tell me that behind the mask Grillo is increasingly right-wing and authoritarian and that any pretence to lateral decision making has disappeared or is perfunctory.
As regards M5S as a party (they prefer ‘movement’), on the one hand it is hard to see them forming any kind of a coherent government (their mayoralties of Rome and Turin have been somewhat accident-prone). Chaotic and unpredictable, they would be the nightmare party in any coalition. However, it should be noted that many of their policies shade into leftist demands - free public water, for example, an alternative form of globalisation (formerly called mondialisatiion), sustainable development, support for public transport, opposition to ‘humanitarian wars’, non-growth based economics etc. As such, their natural allies might be left elements of the PD (former communists) rather than the racist Lega. And Beppe Grillo made his career as a comic lampooning Berlusconi, so an alliance with that particular elephant in the room is unlikely and if not actually impossible, extremely unpalatable to his base.
In fact, if one has to choose between the devil and the deep sea, better the grillini than Berlusconi, Lega and the fascists. A grillino government is likely to fall apart from the energy of its own ignorance and incoherence, though it must be said that there are M5S administrations in some of the smaller cities which have been positive and beneficial.
The question is, to what extent will the M5S stand on whatever principles they have? And, should a right-wing coalition of Forza Italia, Lega and Frattelli D’Italia develop, to what extent will the PD and M5S provide a serious opposition. It is hard to escape the conclusion that however the negotiations shake out, chaos will be the ultimate result. Equally, it looks very much like Italy is partaking of the general malaise of the so-called ‘centre-left’, which in reality has been a kind of soft neoliberalism (exemplified in the UK, for exmaple, by the Blairite ‘Third Way’). The demise of the ‘centre' and the development of a stronger more self-confident Left may well be underway, as witness Corbyn’s Labour Party, but the corollary is the rise of the Right and fascism. It is not a struggle that will be resolved in this or any immediate elections in Europe.
But a threat to the European Union? If I worked in Brussells I would be quite relaxed about that.
I would like to thank my friends Piaras MacEinrí, Laura Fano, Fiorenzo Fantaccini, Daniele Serafine, Maria Rosa Costa, Adele D’Arcangelo, Andrea Bartsch, Andy Lawless and Heiko H. Caimi for their advice and dialogue on this topic – in some cases over many years.