- Created: Tuesday, 31 July 2018 14:13
- Written by Cat Allison
Italy’s new ruling coalition was sworn in on 1 June. It followed weeks of political turmoil as European imperialism attempted to thwart attempts by the virulently anti-immigrant Lega and the ‘anti-establishment’ Five Star Movement (M5S) to form a government based on opposition to and threatened rejection of the euro. The apparent willingness of both parties to jettison the fiscal restrictions imposed by the Eurozone, fuelling fears of a ‘Greek style’ banking and debt crisis in the Eurozone’s third largest economy, exposes the tensions at the heart of ‘the European project’. It is also the most overtly racist and right-wing Italian government since Mussolini. Cat Allison reports.
A toxic brand of populism
The electoral gains made by M5S (32% of the vote) and the Lega (18% - quadrupling its previous tally) on 4 March 2018 were entirely predictable. The governing Democratic Party was irrevocably tainted through its willing implementation of budget cuts and other austerity measures demanded by the EU in a futile effort to reduce its public debt from a staggering €2.3 trillion, or 132% of GDP. Italy’s long-term economic problems of low productivity, stagnation and falling wages have been exacerbated by its membership of the euro. Unemployment is over 11%, rising to 37% for those aged under 35. It is highest in Italy’s underdeveloped southern region, which has the highest unemployment rate in southern Europe. The number of Italians living in absolute poverty has risen by 300,000 in the last year to just over five million – triple the level twelve years ago. Real income has barely risen in 20 years while wealth inequality has increased, with the poorest 40% of the population holding just 3.7% of the country’s wealth; the top 30% have 75%. Yet the left in Italy has collapsed; the ‘leftist’ Potere al Popolo – seen as inspired by groups like the pro-Labour Momentum in Britain – garnered just 1.1% of the vote. Social movements on the ground, many campaigning in solidarity with migrants, have been unable so far to mount a consistent challenge to the growth of the far-right, with thousands joining fascist organisations across the country.
This was not just fertile ground for both the Lega and M5S to campaign on a toxic populist platform – it was an open goal. While the Lega in the north unleashed vicious racist rhetoric against migrants, Muslims and Roma, M5S focused on an ostensibly ‘apolitical’ and ‘anti-establishment platform. With its promise of a universal basic income for the poor (time-limited and tied to accepting a job offer, however low-paid), and denunciation of corrupt politicians, journalists, ‘financiers’ and the ‘elite’, M5S gained ground in the impoverished south. But in reality there is nothing progressive about it whatsoever. The movement’s ideological leader, Beppe Grillo, also rails against the unions, public sector workers, migrants, Roma and – with barely concealed anti-semitic overtones – ‘globalised financial cliques’. When asked in 2013 by the openly fascist CasaPound if he was an anti-fascist, he dismissed the question as irrelevant, declaring that his movement was ‘ecumenical’. M5S has nothing to say about Italy’s vast concentration of wealth in a few hands. Its much-vaunted democratic ‘online’ participation where members can decide policy with a click of the mouse saw 94% of its supporters backing Lega’s proposals which include:
- deporting 500,000 migrants and detaining asylum seekers for up to 18 months while their claims are processed.
- forcing the registration of all Roma in Italy, shutting down unauthorised camps and deporting Roma who come from outside Italy
- building more prisons and hiring 10,000 more police officers
A number of M5S’s senators and MPs are former members of fascist organisations. Grillo himself is a millionaire. Its ‘neither left nor right’ motto is an opportunist sham: the party’s leader, Luigi di Maio, has facilitated the rise to power of the Lega’s Matteo Salvini – now the country’s interior minister - whose hardline racist policies have seen his party overtake M5S in the polls.
Showdown with the EU
The European Union and the financial markets expressed profound unease at some of the policies being put forward by the two parties. While La Lega’s Salvini had watered down his anti-EU rhetoric during the election campaign he had made it clear he wanted new discussions on the powers of the European Parliament, an end to austerity policies, and a renegotiation of the Dublin accord on asylum seekers. Meanwhile, Lega proposed cutting taxes for companies and individuals to a flat rate of 15% at a cost of €80bn a year. M5S’s basic income policy is estimated to cost €17bn, and scrapping pension reforms introduced in 2016 by the Democratic Party a further €15bn.
Matters came to a head with the proposal by di Maio and Salvini of Paolo Savona – who considers Italy’s entry in the Eurozone a ‘historic error’ - as finance minister. His appointment was blocked by the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella. He was immediately accused by both the Lega and M5S of acting in the interests of European capital – di Maio demanded his impeachment.
In response, Mattarella threatened to impose a ‘technocratic’ government (as in 2011) to govern in the interests of European capital until new elections could be held. Stocks slumped, and Moody’s said it would consider lowering Italy’s rating if it pressed ahead with debt-inflating measures. The European finance commissioner Gunther Oettinger made it clear he expected financial markets to teach the Italians how to vote: ‘My concern and expectation is that the coming weeks will show that the development of the markets, government bonds and the economy of Italy will be so far-reaching that this will be a possible signal to voters not to vote for populists on the right or left.’
The coalition has temporarily backed down. A new finance minister was chosen, Savona has stated he considers the euro ‘indispensable’, and the figurehead prime minister Giuseppe Conte is in place. It’s unlikely that the universal basic income will ever become law. It is however clear that the fight with the European Union is on. Italy is threatening to scupper CETA, the European trade deal with Canada. Salvini has made it clear the policy on migration being thrashed out by the EU is unacceptable and Italy will refuse to freely accept migrants picked up at sea. With the far-right interior ministers of Germany and Austria, he has spoken of forming ‘an axis of the willing’ against accepting migrants into Europe. He has also set out plans to extend his alliance with France’s National Front leader Marine le Pen and Hungary’s racist prime minister Viktor Orban to other right-wing factions across Europe.
In or out of Europe – fight racism and austerity
Groups like the Lega and M5S advocate the same kind of reactionary fantasies of an independent imperialism as those supporting Brexit in Britain. They also represent the same class forces: the petty bourgeoisie who see their living standards under attack, sections of the ruling class who see their financial interests lying outside the Eurozone, small manufacturers hit by globalisation, and better-off sections of the working class failed by social democratic governments and Italy’s moribund left, who blame migrants and Europe for their growing insecurity and poverty. Clearly Italy, as a weak imperialist power, cannot survive outside the Eurozone; but membership imposes intolerable burdens. If the EU attempts to make Italy comply with ever-tighter financial integration, then it is not clear what will happen. Italy is not Greece and cannot be ‘cut loose’.
For the poorest sections of the working class in Italy, and for the many migrants now living there and facing a rise in racist attacks and harassment, neither the EU nor the Italian government can offer a way out of the morass. The thousands of people who have protested in solidarity with migrants need to be part of building a new movement that stands against both this vicious, racist, anti-working class government – and against the dictates of the European Union. Italy urgently needs a new, anti-imperialist movement to challenge racism, austerity and fascism.