SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Italy – the sick man of Europe

‘A BASKET case’, the new ‘sick man of Europe’… whatever name you give it, Italy seems unable to overcome a downward spiral in its economic position.

The latest OECD report shows the economy shrinking by 0.6% this year. The least competitive in the euro area, it comes 47th in a global ranking compiled by the World Economic Forum. Italy’s large companies – like Fiat and Alitalia – are struggling to survive and small industries which make up a large part of the economy are hard hit by the massive increase in imports to Europe from China of cheap shoes and clothing.

Italy’s budget has been badly in the red for all four years of Berlusconi’s government and no more una tantum or ‘one-off’ special measures can be used to balance (fiddle) the books. Predicting Italy’s deficit to be 3.6% of GDP this year and 4.6% in 2006, the European Commission is preparing some kind of sanctions for Italy’s persistent failure to implement harsh spending cuts. (Taxes on the rich have been lessened by €6bn – almost exactly the same amount as the savings being made through pension ‘reform’.) Public debt at 106% of GDP is the third largest in the world by value after Japan and the US.

In spite of promising to turn things round and bring prosperity to all, Italy’s longest serving prime minister since the war has been unable to get through the radical, anti-working class ‘reforms’ he promised. His attacks on job protection within the labour law met huge resistance and failed. His government’s pension reform proposals also provoked general strike action. Attempts to cut back on the pensions – proportionately the highest in Europe – were stymied and only the pusillanimity of the trade union leaders allowed the age for retirement to be increased from 57 to 60.

In May this year, those ‘leaders’ were again forced from below to threaten general strike action. This time it was in pursuit of a pay rise for the country’s three million public service workers, held pending for seventeen months in the face of constantly rising prices. The head of the Italian employers’ organisation, Confindustria, made an unprecedented intervention in the dispute, condemning any rise of over €100 a month that would set a pattern for the private sector and eat into profits. This provoked even moderate trade union general secretaries to talk of bringing out private as well as public sector workers in a countrywide general strike. In the event, they preferred to sign an agreement over the heads of the workers, which was short of the claim, assisting the bosses and the government to avoid a major conflict they might not have been able to win.

Montezemolo, the Confindustria president, is also head of the Fiat empire he ‘inherited’ from the Agnelli brothers. In the early days of the second Berlusconi government, they opposed Berlusconi’s confrontational politics which were provoking mass strike movements. Montezemolo favours a ‘social contract’, including severe wage restraint, to be agreed with the union leaders and, preferably, a ‘centre left’ government, to do the dirty work of holding back the demands of workers. But, with his intervention over public sector pay, he has already shown his true colours.

Workers should take this as a clear warning of why a real alternative is needed to any kind of coalition with capitalist parties. The Financial Times, in its campaign for harsh neo-liberal ‘reforms’ in Italy as elsewhere, cites an estimate that, to lift productivity in Italy, 500,000 jobs out of the five million in manufacturing, must be slashed. Another period of neo-liberal policies being pursued by an apparently more sympathetic government will be bringing Italian workers even greater hardships.

If and when another centre-left government led by Romano Prodi, the former head of the European Commission, takes over the reins of government, things could be very different from the last time round. Then the ‘Olive Tree’ governments were given an easy ride by workers, convinced that they were run by parties much more sympathetic to their needs than Silvio Berlusconi. (This billionaire businessman has tripled his personal wealth in eleven years in politics and is 25th on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people!). This time round, with workers being asked to shoulder the burden of an economy in worse difficulties, memories will be revived of the privatisations and cuts carried through by the Olive Tree governments of the 1990s, and workers’ opposition to capitalist ‘solutions’ could develop more rapidly.

In spite of surviving longer than any other prime minister since the second world war, Berlusconi’s government appears constantly on the verge of collapse. The ruling coalition – the House of Liberties – now controls only four of the country’s 20 regions. The centre left gets around 54% in opinion polls and the regional elections in April produced a twelve-to-three victory over the right, with the prime minister’s Forza Italia faring worse than its coalition partners, polling just 18%. The resultant squabbling between the constituent parties forced Berlusconi to resign and put together a new cabinet.

Berlusconi’s plans to coalesce the allies in his coalition into one party have come to nought. But one other factor working in his favour is the similar difficulties Prodi is encountering in forging a solid alliance of the left and centre parties who would be expected to be pressing home their electoral advantage and demanding Berlusconi’s resignation. After patching up disagreements over troops for Iraq and obtaining, through its leader, Fausto Bertinotti, the participation of the left-wing Rifondazione Comunista (RC) in his Grand Democratic Alliance, Prodi was then forced to drop the unpopular acronym GAD and devise a new name for his alliance – ‘The Union’.

New differences, apparently now resolved, arose over how the alliance’s programme and leadership should be chosen. The Margherita (Daisy) party led by Rutelli, was insisting on its right to stand separately in the party list voting (which accounts for 25% of parliamentary members, the other 75% being elected from constituencies).

Differences were also revealed over attitudes to the June national referendum on fertility legislation. Rutelli came out for maintaining the reactionary changes passed earlier this year while even the ex-fascist right-wing National Alliance Party’s leader, Fini, trying to appear as a ‘progressive’ bourgeois, came out for the proposed changes which would greatly assist infertile couples to start families. The new Pope, predictably, endorsed the recommendation of the leader of Italy’s bishops, Cardinal Ruini. He cynically advised his flock to abstain in order to get the result invalidated by a less than 50% turn-out. With just 25% voting, the attempt to get these reforms has been scuppered, at least for the time being.

After four years of Berlusconi government, workers want to see the maximum unity forged between opposition parties to get him out! Bertinotti, at the head of the RC, strikes a chord with many, who imagine his involvement in ‘The Union’ will guarantee victory and could increase the RC’s support at the next election.

But the 40% of delegates at the RC’s recent congress who voted against participation in a centre-left government or electoral alliance reflect a growing layer of workers who have drawn lessons from past experience. They correctly fear that a centre-left government will, like the last ones between 1996 and 2001, attack the gains of the Italian working class on behalf of a rapacious capitalist class.

Hopefully, the working class base of the RC, now in its thirteenth year, can pull the party back to its genuinely communist and anti-Stalinist founding ideas. But only a determined ideological and programmatic struggle could now reverse the trend. Its leader, Bertinotti, chooses to base himself on the ideas of the pacifist Gandhi rather than those of Karl Marx. He refers to the principles of Bad Godesburg, meaning those adopted by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in 1959 when its congress rejected class struggle, accepted the market and spoke of socialism only as a distant goal.

There are already workers who have seen local examples of elected Rifondazione members implementing neo-liberal policies and cannot see the RC as their party. In Venice, for example, a group of workers stood independently in recent elections after elected RC members participated in the privatisation of water, refuse collection and education.

On the other hand, Bertinotti himself has felt obliged to come into open conflict with the DS (ex-‘communist’ Democrats of the Left, co-members of ‘The Union’) in Bologna. He has clashed with the former trade union leader, Cofferati, who is now mayor of the city, over a campaign against squatters who occupy empty buildings as homes. He has had to oppose Cofferati’s policy of sending in police to break up demonstrations. (The police themselves have recently been on strike and demonstrating in the city in pursuit of their own wage claims!).

The real test for the RC must be whether members who implement anti-working class and anti-youth policies are kept within the ranks of the party or expelled. At the April congress, no such disciplinary measures were discussed. In addition, the majority around Bertinotti strengthened its grip on the party by passing an amendment to the party’s constitution abolishing places on its national leadership body for the internal factions according to their strength.

Opposition to the leadership within the RC has grown in numbers, but remains weak and disparate. If a coherent opposition to the class collaborationist policies of the present leadership is to be forged, aiming to win a majority within the party before it is too late, it must be done on the basis of a clear alternative programme and strategy. It must express confidence in the capacity and will of Italian workers to fight and in the possibility of winning a majority in society for an anti-capitalist alternative to Berlusconi and co.

If Rifondazione fails to do this, and to regain the trust of workers who feel once again let down, it will act as a negative example for all those – in Europe and elsewhere – who are looking for a new mass party to take up the struggle against capitalism and for socialism.

Clare Doyle


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