Thursday February 21 2013

Italy election: Nothing left about Five Star

Contrary to the view expressed by the Socialist Workers Party, Toby Abse shows that the Italian general election result is a disaster

Beppe Grillo: right

Whilst one expected a positive assessment of the outcome of Italy’s general election from the raging Europhobes of the Communist Party of Britain - for whom the European Union, and not the national capitalist classes, is the main enemy - one would have imagined that those such as the Socialist Workers Party, Counterfire and the International Socialist Group (Scotland), who still claim to represent an international socialist tradition, would be capable of a more serious class analysis, and not make the assumption that anything that worried the markets was good for us. Anybody thinking historically might have remembered that the National Socialist German Workers Party was not the favoured option of international capital in September 1930: indeed the Nazi advance worried foreign investors and deepened the economic crisis, as the flight of capital speeded up.

There is, of course, no doubt whatsoever that there has been a massive popular reaction against austerity - on that score the left Europhobes are completely right. The coalition led by the technocratic prime minister, Mario Monti (still in office in a caretaker capacity pending the formation of a new government), the grouping most clearly associated with 13 terrible months of unremitting cuts, obtained a mere 9.1% of the vote for the Senate and only10.6% for the Chamber of Deputies. This overwhelming rejection of a sitting premier, who had all the advantages of the media coverage that is always accorded to such a figure, aroused horror from his foreign fan club. A number of Angela Merkel’s ministers expressed in no uncertain terms their view that Italy’s voters had made a mistake and that Italy must continue with Monti’s ‘reform programme’, regardless of the outcome. The Italian stock exchange fell almost 5% on February 25 and noticeable, albeit lesser, falls on other European stock exchanges demonstrated the markets’ adverse reaction to the Italian electorate’s rejection of austerity.

However, whilst the electorate has reacted against Monti, the left - whether radical or moderate - has not profited from this. The radical left has failed to re-enter parliament - Rivoluzione Civile obtained a mere 2.25% for the Chamber of Deputies and 1.8% for the Senate. The centre-left coalition picked up 29.5% of the vote for the Chamber of Deputies - including 25.4% for the ex-‘official’ communist-dominated Partito Democratico, and 3.2% for the more leftwing Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà. In short the total score for the left in any form was less than a third of the electorate.

The Partito Democratico’s appalling record of abject collaboration in Monti’s vicious attacks on the working class undoubtedly drove some of its supporters away and did not help it gain the uncommitted. However, the geographical distribution of its vote - much stronger in the traditional ‘red regions’ such as Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, the electoral heartland of the old Partito Comunista Italiano - is a clear indication that it largely still enjoys a class vote. Whether on the basis of lesser evilism or because of enduring illusions fanned by a few leftwing statements by economic spokesman Stefano Fassina and, to a lesser extent, party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, is difficult to assess.

The fact that an absolute majority of the Italian electorate voted for either Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition (29.1% share for the Chamber) or Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement, or M5S - 25.5% for the Chamber) cannot be seen as anything other than a move to the right - arguably the far right.1. Socialist Worker’s characterisation of M5S as “leftwing”2 is a disgrace: at this rate Alex Callinicos might as well end the SWP’s involvement with the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and call for critical support for the UK Independence Party. Both Grillo and Berlusconi offer xenophobic solutions - blaming foreigners or immigrants, not capitalism, for Italy’s troubles.

The astonishing revival of Berlusconi’s fortunes during the last weeks of the election campaign meant that his coalition was only very narrowly behind the centre-left for the lower house, leading the 76-year-old, who may have briefly dreamt of a return to the premiership as figures ebbed and flowed on election night, to whinge about the very unequal distribution of seats (340 for Bersani, 124 for his own coalition). That resulted from his very own 2005 ‘pig law’, which gives 55% of the seats in the Chamber to the coalition with the largest share of the popular vote.

The reason the exit polls on Monday afternoon that gave a marked lead to Bersani were so very wrong is abundantly clear: many of Berlusconi’s voters were deeply ashamed of having voted for him. It was no longer a question of ignorance about the tax frauds, the Mafia and Camorra links, the sexual scandals and the general stench of corruption and criminality: they knew all that, but voted for him nonetheless, because he promised to abolish the IMU property tax on first homes introduced by Monti, and, even more demagogically, to refund this year’s IMU payments to all citizens if he won. Any rational person would have remembered his long record of broken promises on other occasions - ‘one million new jobs’ springs to mind - as well as the practical difficulties of financing a refund. But greed and desperation won out.

Whilst readers will generally be familiar with Berlusconi’s record, more attention needs to be paid to Beppe Grillo and M5S, particularly in view of the SWP’s appalling stance on this question. The 64-year-old stand-up comedian - whose own tax records would probably bear no scrutiny like so many of his ilk - is no ‘leftwinger’ and his shadowy media advisers in Casaleggio Associates, who make Peter Mandelson look like a model of transparency, used to have rightwing associations.

Although Grillo’s past manslaughter conviction for a traffic accident ruled him out of contention for parliament under M5S’s own rules (which exclude all those who have criminal convictions, as part of its attempt to present itself as far cleaner than all the established parties), he has ruled M5S with a rod of iron. He has instantly expelled members, including elected representatives, for appearing on television, which he regards as a mortal sin - although he has profoundly benefited from television coverage of his own rallies - or for criticising him in any way whatsoever. Despite his horizontalist rhetoric and copious use of social media, the online ‘primaries’ of M5S were a total farce, with extremely low participation rates and no apparent checks against fraud.

Quite apart from the classic authoritarian, populist structure of M5S, which might be seen as an internet equivalent to Berlusconi’s original TV-based Forza Italia (arguably the present-day Popolo della Libertà is slightly closer to an orthodox political party in structural terms), Grillo has expressed abhorrent views on a variety of key issues. On his Sicilian tour last year, he trivialised the Mafia in a cynical bid to enlist their support - the fact that in the event Mafia prisoners abstained in record numbers, indicating that Cosa Nostra did not take a political position on that occasion, is irrelevant. He has frequently expressed the racist view that the children of immigrants born in Italy should not be granted citizenship rights. He has courted the violent neo-Nazis of CasaPound, having at least one friendly meeting with their representatives.3 Grillo has repeatedly expressed hostility to trade unions, arguing that all workers need are representatives on company boards.

In his anti-parliamentary ranting - for example, in his February 22 closing rally in Rome’s Piazza San Giovanni - he has been quite prepared to adopt slogans derived from the youth movement of the old neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), such as “You are surrounded”. This is an attack on bourgeois democracy from the right, not the left - something in the tradition of the French extreme right’s attack on parliament in February 1934.

Grillo has been praised in some quarters - the SWP, Counterfire’s James Meadway, the CPB’s Brian Denny - for advocating Italy’s immediate exit from the euro and return to the lira. Not only are such nationalist solutions harmful to the cause of workers’ unity that we urgently need to effectively fight austerity on the European level - the only level on which we have much chance of defeating it - but they are also against the immediate class interests of the Italian proletariat in the here and now. The whole record of Italy in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s was one of periodic devaluations, which temporarily boosted the export sector, but reduced workers’ real wages. Italy’s 1992 exit from the exchange rate mechanism was closely associated with the final destruction of the Scala Mobile (wage indexation), won at such cost in the struggles of the 1970s.

A return to such a policy is favoured by many small and medium-sized firms in northern Italy, whose owners used to vote for the rightwing Lega Nord, but are now ardent partisans of M5S - Grillo had a very public meeting with their representatives in the closing days of his general election campaign. Given that for more than a decade living standards have been forced down - a process intensified by Monti’s austerity packages - the last thing workers need is more of this.


1. Some of Italy’s far right were inside the Berlusconi coalition - Lega Nord (4.1% for the Chamber) and two groups of neo-fascist origins - Fratelli d’Italia (2%) and La Destra (0.6%) - were aligned with it.

2. Socialist Worker March 2.

3. CasaPound’s rules require its members to read Mein Kampf, but not deny the holocaust. It organised a physical attack on a Rivoluzione Civile candidate in Lazio during the general election campaign.

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