Sunday, July 06, 2008
What went wrong in Italy? posted by Richard SeymourA good meeting at Marxism yesterday involved a discussion of what happened to the Italian left in the recent elections, at which the right not only won massively, but the far right groups and particularly the racist Lega Nord made real increases in their vote. The Lega increased its vote by a third, while the left vote organised through the 'rainbow coalition' collapsed so much that for the first time since WWII, the communists have no representation in parliament. This is the third time, meanwhile, the Lega Nord have been participants in a Berlusconi-led government. The focus of the discussion by Tom Behan, and Cinzia Arruzza of Sinistra Critica (formerly a critical marxist group within the Rifondazione Comunista that broke away in December last year to form a new party when it was clear just how much the RC had broke with radical policies), was mainly on the horrendous strategic errors of the radical left. The coalition with a neoliberal government saw the Rifondazione vote to send troops to Afghanistan despite the fact that it had been elected as an antiwar party. As one speaker put it "we went from 'Another World is Possible' to 'it isn't even possible to vote against the war'": a drastic contraction of vision. This is very important for the British left, which risks being pulled down with New Labour if it attaches itself to that sinking vessel. And what consistently came through in the contributions was just how much the left has collapsed after the elections - not in numerical terms, but organisationally. There has been precious little mobilisation against the far right as it has engaged in shocking attacks on immigrants with a more or less free hand, with the centre-left preferring to pander to the rhetoric of the far right. Even the 'neutral' organs of the state, as Alberto Toscano pointed out, are becoming the vectors for these racist attacks, as when a court of appeals kicked out a conviction of a far right activist who had agitating against gypsies as 'thieves', on the grounds that gypsies were indeed all thieves (I paraphrase, but it really was something as toxic as that). Toscano's analysis, described a number of times as pessimistic (usually a curse word in such venues, but not on this occasion), was the best by far. I was without pen and paper, so I am unable to give a detailed description of what he said. Instead, I just wanted to try and pursue some of the themes he raised.
What is distinctive, and dangerous, about the Lega Nord is that it has established a sizeable voting base in the working class, particularly the working class in the northern regions, which they refer to as 'Padania'. As Toscano pointed out, the LN is not just a 'protest' party: it has built up support over successive generations, often where the Italian communist party has collapsed. In traditionally left-leaning regions such as Lombardy and Piedmont, it gained votes sometimes in excess of 25%, and among industrial workers has gained as much as 37% of the vote. Although it has drawn on the iconography of Italian fascism, it is not an Italian nationalist party. Rather it has promised to defend fiscal regionalism and has at times explicitly called for Padanian secession. There is a slightly boneheaded analysis in some left websites, which contends that the LN is really defending the northern industrial ruling class from being taxed to support the poorer south. There is an element of this, and racism toward southern Italians has played a role in LN propaganda, but this doesn't explain how it could have gained the support of industrial workers in the north. In part, the answer is that the LN has successfully vocalised the politics of resentment, often using the methods of street politics learned from the left: house occupations in defense of the rights of 'indigenous' people against immigrants, for example.
Part of LN's strength results from a re-alignment of the Italian right. Regionalist parties had been developing since the 1970s, and Umberto Bossi had founded the Lega Lombardy in 1984, which by 1991 had gained 18.9% of the vote in Lombardy regional elections, prompting him to unite with other regional leagues to form the Lega Nord. By June 1993, the LN had won 40% of the local elections in Milan, and was displacing the Christian Democrats as the dominant party of the north. This was the basis upon which it was able to participate, in a turbulent way, in Berlusconi's first administration. What distinguished the Lega Nord apart from its truculent xenophobia was its successful parlaying of social distress into attacks on the corrupt and inefficient 'palazzo' (loosely, the headquarters of the political class), and the defense of a specifically territorial integrity. From its beginnings, it proved able to weld a cross-class coalition on the basis of this mix. Although, for example, the Lega Lombardy's earliest base of support was among wealthier areas that were abandoning the Christian Democrats, the destruction of several manufacturing areas allowed it to pose as the only party interested in defending the local economy. The LN has frequently complained in its propaganda that northern Italians and businesses based there pay very high taxes and get poor services in return. And a consistent theme, repeated in this 2005 election poster, is that immigrants get first place over the 'indigenous'. It complains that the public sector overtaxes and undermines local dynamism in order to subsidise a southern economy permeated by foreign drug-runners, black marketeers Its territorial solution to the social distress brought about by neoliberal capitalism also allows it to oppose the EU, including the Constitutional Treaty, and while it has been supportive of the 'war on terror' and particularly its Islamophobic thrust, it has frequently opposed US imperialism. In other words, it has occupied some of the political space that parties like the Rifondazione Comunista might otherwise fill. The regionalism, incidentally, is inchoate, with a tendency to subdivide into further localisms (a particular Trento identity, for example). And partially as a consequence of this, the Lega Nord sometimes vacillated between asserting that Padania is a specific territorial-cultural entity that ought to be separate, and asserting that its just a metaphor for the historical and cultural unity of the north.
It's important to recognise that the LN's story is not simply one of unbroken upward ascent. For a long time from 1996, its vote was in serious decline. By 2001, in the wake of the refulgence of mass anticapitalism, the party recorded a vote of 3.9%, down from 10.1% in 1996. Not only was it down nationally, it was substantially abridged in several key areas of the north, its vote halved or worse across Lombardy and slashed by two-thirds in Veneto, Piedmont and Friuli Venezia-Giulia. Even so, it had been instrumental to helping the centre-right Berlusconi-led coalition defeat Massimo D'Alema's Ulivo coalition in regional elections in 2000, and was gaining an important foothold in national right-wing politics, despite its apparent alienation from the political establishment. And despite its electoral decline, it was given a privileged position in the second Berlusconi administration, from 2001-2005, with Bossi enjoying a close relationship with both Berlusconi and his finance minister Giulio Tremonti. A regionalist party participating in a national government has a freight of oppositionism to bear, and in this case Bossi chose to oppose other junior coalition partners such as the 'post-fascist' Alleanza Nazionale rather than the more explicitly pro-business Forza Italia (FI). The Lega's position was improved as it, along with other coalition partners, made up for the declined in FI votes in the 2004 Euro elections. And while it has not yet recovered its 1996 position, it has more than doubled its 2006 national vote of 4.1% to 8.3% in 2008.
The Lega Nord's current strength rests largely on its vociferous, and quite successful, scapegoating of immigrants for Italy's manifest economic woes. Umberto Bossi is demanding 'reforms', and threatening that his supporters will take up arms if they don't come: "We have no fear of taking things to the piazzas. We have 300,000 martyrs ready to come down from the mountains. Our rifles are always smoking." The Lega is using "citizen street patrols" in some areas to terrorise immigrant, and particularly Muslim, communities. Deploying a language of insecurity and tension, it has transposed a class antagonism into a territorial antagonism, and now leads the calls for a purge of that territory. The ease with which this can morph into outright fascist politics is obvious from the fascist salutes and cries of 'Duce' that greeted Rome's neo-fascist mayor. Given the sheer redundancy of the left response so far, groups like Sinistra Critica have to be at the centre of reviving Italy's venerable anti-fascist tradition.