Italy: Political crisis as the bourgeoisie prepares to dump Berlusconi

The government of Silvio Berlusconi could well fall soon. Although it is a right-wing conservative government, the serious bourgeoisie are of the opinion that – in the face of workers’ and students’ mobilisations - it is not capable of implementing sufficiently harsh austerity measures that they feel the crisis of capitalism requires. The process leading to the possible collapse of the right-wing government elected in 2008 started more than one year ago.

WikiLeaks now offer us an opportunity to have some more insight into the first stages of the crisis. WikiLeaks published a confidential message (cable 09ROME1187) sent from the US Embassy in Rome to the US Secretary of State on October 27th, 2009, after meetings with some political informers. In this message, the American Ambassador informs Hillary Clinton that several members of Berlusconi’s own party “are already laying the groundwork for ‘il dopo’, as Italians call the potential post-Berlusconi era”, because there are hints that “‘institutional forces’ are trying to unseat Berlusconi”. The Ambassador comments: “In Italian political parlance, ‘institutional forces’ can serve to mean one of many groups operating and wielding influence behind the scenes: business groups, intelligence services, freemasons, the Vatican, the magistracy, the United States, etc. While Italians are notably conspiracy-minded, their paranoia – at least as far as Italian domestic politics go – has historically been well-founded.” (Well at least they should know, because US imperialism was behind most of these plots.)

The leaked message continues: “Berlusconi believes the Italian intelligence services might have deliberately entrapped him in his alleged affair involving a minor”. Sex scandals have plagued Berlusconi’s political life for months. The most serious one occurred in October 2010, when the media revealed that Berlusconi had made a phone call to a police station in Milan to order the release of an arrested 17-year girl of Moroccan descent, pretending that she were the niece of Egyptian President Mubarak! The girl later declared that she got to know Berlusconi at one of the frequent “parties” with dozens of young women organised by him in his numerous palaces and villas. Berlusconi defended his conduct by candidly declaring that he likes to “help people in need”.

Conclusion: “Sex scandals, criminal investigations, family problems and financial concerns appear to be weighing heavily on Berlusconi’s personal and political health, as well as on his decision-making ability.” This is not only the opinion of the US Embassy: it reflects the point of view of an important layer of the Italian bourgeoisie that has never regarded Berlusconi as a reliable tool to further their interests. While the governments he has led have been useful for the bosses in the sense that they have launched vicious attacks against the working class, Berlusconi is seen as an unstable individual with huge personal interests   he is probably the wealthiest man in Italy – and is suspected of being involved in all sorts of secret pacts with the Mafia, free-masonry and Vladimir Putin, and has often proved impossible to control.

The more serious sections of the Italian bourgeoisie can no longer accept such a figure at the head of the government in a critical moment for the Italian economy. The most far-sighted section of the ruling class is perfectly aware of the fact that Italy could become the next Greece or Ireland, and wants to prevent this by pre-emptively applying extreme austerity measures. Although they are based on real facts, the scandals concerning Berlusconi are instrumental for this layer of the ruling class in creating a surge of public opinion for a more “serious” leadership of the country. And when they say “serious”, what they really mean is somebody who could inflict real damage on the standard of living of Italian working class families.

At the same time, the ongoing criminal investigations, as well as more frivolous matters are used by centre-left politicians, journalists and intellectuals to divert public attention away from the real, everyday problems affecting working people’s lives. Thus, the Democratic Party (PD) and its allies in Parliament can pretend to be an opposition, in spite of the fact that their domestic and foreign policy is virtually identical to the one pursued by Berlusconi on all key issues. The plan worked out by the Democrats was simple: sooner or later Berlusconi will be removed by the bosses, and then it will be their turn to govern again. The problem is that that plan has turned out to be too simple.

The rise of the Third Pole

After having energetically lobbied the government to implement a series of drastic cuts and attacks against the workers, the employers’ association, the Confindustria, led by Emma Marcegaglia (member of a powerful capitalist family with interests in steel, tourism and real-estate), has resorted to lobbying groups and individual MPs in the so-called centre ground of the political spectrum, both within the opposition parties and within those in the government coalition, to push for the formation of a “Third Pole” midway between the Berlusconian Right and the weak Democrat-dominated Centre-left.

Several parties and groups were just waiting for the go ahead from above to start the manoeuvres for the creation of such a Third Pole. There are the UdC (Centre Union – Christian Democrats, mostly former allies of Berlusconi), the ApI (Alliance for Italy – a split from the Democratic Party), the MpA (Movement for Autonomies – the party founded by the ambiguous head of the Sicilian Regional Assembly, Raffaele Lombardo, an ally of Berlusconi until very recently), who all together can muster almost 60 MPs. Then we have the former president of the Confindustria, CEO at Ferrari, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who anticipated Marcegaglia in trying to prepare a centrist bourgeois alternative to Berlusconi with his Italia Futura foundation (not yet a party, but a freemason-like network of clubs packed with “influential people”).

However, the latest recruit to this nascent Third Pole is the man who precipitated the whole situation – Gianfranco Fini, the Speaker of Parliament. Fini was the last leader of the Neo-Fascist MSI party (Italian Social Movement before it metamorphosed into Alleanza Nazionale, formally breaking with its fascist past) and for 15 years was a key ally of Berlusconi. However, just a few months after having co-founded a new party with Berlusconi, the PdL (the People of Freedom party), Fini started to clash more and more frequently with him. Surprisingly enough   given his Fascist background   Fini and his supporters started to distance themselves from Berlusconi and the Northern League party by adopting a more “liberal” stance on social issues like secularism and immigration. Then they moved onto criticising Berlusconi’s obsession with tampering with legal proceedings, and finally started to demand for more democracy inside the party, acting like a minority faction within the PdL. On July 29th, 2010, Berlusconi reacted by expelling Fini from the PdL. Fini then formed a new party called the FLI (Future and Freedom for Italy), taking 37 MPs with him. This weakened the coalition, putting the pro-government majority in serious danger in the Senate (the Higher House of Parliament). Since this decisive shift in the forces in parliament, whenever the parties that make up this Third-Pole manage to unite their forces, they hold the balance.

Workers’ struggles

This palace intrigue reflects the dissatisfaction of the ruling class with Berlusconi. However, the working class is not a passive spectator in this the political crisis. On the contrary, they are moving in a way that is seriously worrying the Italian bourgeoisie, showing that, notwithstanding the weak leadership of the Left, it is still not easy to force the Italian workers to swallow the bitter pill prescribed by the capitalists.

The industrial conflict which started with the workers of the FIAT plant in Pomigliano d’Arco (near Naples in the South), initiated by the arrogant CEO Sergio Marchionne, has spread to the whole FIAT group and from there to the rest of the engineering workers. The bosses are using Marchionne as a wedge or battering ram in an attempt to smash the collective bargaining system. First they divided the trade union movement by signing separate agreements with the “soft” (or yellow) unions, CISL, UIL and UGL, thus isolating the largest union, the CGIL. The engineering workers of the CGIL are organised in the militant FIOM union, but the bosses have negotiated with the softer unions a new bargaining system for the engineering workers. With this new system in place, bargaining at individual company level can set lower standards than the national contract, which is a huge step backwards in industrial relations in Italy. Marchionne is trying to apply this idea at Pomigliano and now also at the Mirafiori FIAT plant in Turin in the North. He is blackmailing the workers: either they accept giving up some of their rights or FIAT will no longer invest in Italy.

The FIOM is also fighting back on a national scale. On October 16th, a mass demonstration was called by the FIOM in Rome, attended by hundreds of thousands of workers who covered the capital with red flags. During the final speeches of the trade union leaders at the rally, the audience started shouting for a general strike. The FIOM is part of the CGIL, but it is much more to the left. The CGIL bureaucracy is resisting the pressure from the FIOM in favour of a general strike, and has limited itself to organising yet another Saturday march for the end of November. It is not yet clear which line will prevail. Obviously it depends a lot on how the militancy of the working class will unfold, and also on what will happen in the economy and with the government.

Immigrants protest

Other layers of society are joining the engineering workers in adding to the social turmoil in the (hopefully) last weeks of Berlusconi’s reign. Two weeks after the FIOM march, there was a demonstration of immigrant workers in the Lombard city of Brescia (an important industrial town to the east of Milan, where a large proportion of the workforce is made up of African and Asian workers) demanding residence permits for all, an end to racist attacks, the legal backing of those workers who denounce their bosses for illicit employment (17.6% of the jobs in Italy are in the black economy), the restoration of full asylum rights, to right to vote after 5 years’ residence in Italy, citizenship for all children born in Italy, etc.

During the demonstration, six immigrants climbed to the top of a crane and threatened to jump if the government did not to issue a general legalisation of unregistered immigrants like themselves. On November 5, another group of immigrants climbed a 100-foot-tall chimney of a closed factory in Milan in solidarity with their Brescia comrades. This was the result of the accumulated anger among the immigrants in reaction to the wave of racism unleashed by the Northern League, but also because of a scam that the government started running in 2009. In order to make a request for legalisation, immigrants had to pay €500 and one year’s social security contributions. And as if that were not enough, if the request was rejected – and this happened to thousands of people – the money the immigrants paid was lost to the state, as it would not be reimbursed.

The immigrants on the crane and the factory chimney have become a symbol of defiance, courage and struggle not only for the immigrants’ movement. In Brescia and Milan, solidarity demonstrations and sit-ins with the participation of Italian and foreign workers and youth were organised by the immigrants’ committees, the trade unions, students’ committees and left-wing political organisations, including the Young Communists, the youth wing of Rifondazione Comunista, who are in both cities led by the Marxist tendency gathered around FalceMartello [the IMT in Italy]. After many days of resistance under the rain, in the cold and snow, all the immigrants have come down, and most of them were ruthlessly arrested and detained in the infamous “Identification and Expulsion Centres”. They have lost one battle, but their courageous struggle has paved the way to the imminent explosion of a broader movement of the super-exploited immigrant workers in Italy.

Mass movements of the youth

And finally, we have the youth starting to mobilise. Education Minister, Mariastella Gelmini has become the well-deserved object of hatred of a whole generation because of a series of cuts to state funding of schools and universities that she has insisted on misnaming a “reform”. The first steps of this so-called reform had already triggered a huge movement of high-school and university students back in 2008 which, however, failed to stop the measures from being implemented.

This year the effects of those first measures (e.g., oversized classes in high schools) have been added to with the introduction of new changes to university education, such as further limitations to access to a university course, the forced closures of some universities and faculties, the further extension of fixed, short term contracts for research and teaching positions, and privatisations. State universities are being turned into private foundations to be managed by a board of directors that includes representatives of private sponsors, etc.

Thus the university research workers have started to mobilise. In Italy they are extensively used not only for research but for unpaid teaching. When in many faculties all over Italy they decided to stop doing work they are not supposed to do according to their contracts, this virtually paralysed dozens of courses. Soon the students started to understand that this attack was an attack on the future of university and research in general and joined the movement, enormously magnifying its scope.

The crisis that the Berlusconi government is in now made it clear to everyone that this time it was possible to checkmate Madam Gelmini. The bosses’ association, the Confindustria, notwithstanding their recent coldness towards the government, urged the politicians of all parties to pass this law quickly. For the first time in months, Fini was in full agreement with Berlusconi in defending the reform. Even if the Democrats voted against it   for political convenience   a former Minister for the Universities, a leading member of the PD, Luigi Berlinguer has correctly explained that the policy he implemented when he was in government had the same traits of this reform.

On November 30th, the reform bill was passed by a majority of MPs while the students were demonstrating and rioting in cities across Italy. The Parliament building was besieged by the students and in most faculties there were assemblies, protests and occupations taking place. Students and researchers climbed to the roofs of their university buildings like the immigrants of Brescia and Milan had done. Now the reform has to go through the Senate in order to become effective. The Senate will not meet before December 14th, so expect another day of student riots.

Who will rule Italy in 2011?

December 14th is also the date the vote of no-confidence is to be presented in the Senate. Fini’s party has insisted on this vote as a bargaining chip. Leading figures of the party have said that if Berlusconi resigns they would agree to him forming another government, on condition that he includes the Third Pole within the new majority. Otherwise, they will work towards the formation of a different coalition government, one that would place as the first point on its agenda a quick and bold implementation of the new “social partnership” pact signed by the bosses and the collaborationist unions. The whole operation clearly has all the hallmarks of the Confindustria.

The Right realises that it is entirely possible that Berlusconi may not get a majority. In that case, the government will fall – and the university reform will be delayed for a while, which would probably be saluted as a temporary victory by many of those who have mobilised in the last weeks. What will happen after the fall of Berlusconi, provided he does not manage to buy enough Senators to survive a few more months? This can only be a matter of speculation, because in theory the decision should be up to the President of the Republic, the Democrat Giorgio Napolitano, who could call for new elections, as demanded by Berlusconi in the event that a no-confidence vote is passed by the Senate, or try and propose a new government, which is clearly the favourite option of the bourgeoisie, the Third Pole and the Democratic Party itself.

In any case, all indications are that the Third Pole – or at least Fini and the other bourgeois centrist parties, if they do not manage to unite in one coherent coalition – will become decisive for the formation of a parliamentary majority in the future. This will frustrate even more all the utopian plans of “influencing” the Democrats from the left. If the bourgeois PD should come to power again, it will most likely be the result of a pact with the bourgeois Third Pole. Even if the “trendy” governor of the Apulia region in the South, Nichi Vendola, who split from Rifondazione Comunista in 2009 to form a vaguely reformist party called Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (Left, Environmentalism, Freedom), were to win the primaries and impose himself as the leader of the Centre-Left coalition, this would not introduce any fundamental change in the situation. The parliamentary opposition to Berlusconi is now enthralled by the intrigues of the Third Pole and Confindustria, and the Centre-Left is being relegated to the role of impotent background actors or, even worse, cheerleaders for Fini.

Left, wake up!

The political instability and the explosive social situation that we now have in Italy could open up huge possibilities for the Left. Even a prostrated Communist movement like the one we have in Italy after the dramatic results of the 2008 general elections, when no Socialist or Communist was elected for the first time since the fall of Fascism, could easily benefit from this situation – on condition that it raises an unblemished banner and clearly states which side it is on. That is the side of the FIOM militants who demonstrated on October 16th, organising the workers’ resistance against the arrogance of a powerful multinational like FIAT, the side of the immigrants who climb to the top of a crane or a factory chimney bravely fighting for their future against all odds, the side of the students who took to the streets, trying to stop the reform with their own forces instead of waiting for the next government to fool them again.

Tragically, this is not a path the two Communist parties (Rifondazione Comunista and the PdCI) seem to be willing to tread. The first farcical congress of the FdS (Federation of the Left)   a kind of electoral alliance that including these two parties and two smaller groupings   has failed to offer a clear perspective to those militants who reject the idea that their role is to merely be the left flank of a PD-dominated “progressive” coalition. The proposal put forward by the FdS leader is to enter into a so-called “democratic alliance” with the PD and its satellites, but refusing in advance to accept any ministerial positions in a future centre-left government (as if anybody had offered them any positions anyway). They desperately want to win back some parliamentary seats at the next elections and their main focus is, once again, to base themselves on “clever” electoral arithmetics to reach this goal devoid of any class content or long-term thinking.

Here we have a major dialectical contradiction. The economic situation is bleak. The political crisis is permanent and each attempt to stabilise the situation inevitably results in a fiasco. The working class, both Italian and immigrant workers, and its natural ally, the radicalised youth, is on the move again and thirsting for ideas and a credible alternative. At the same time, they have very little confidence in their supposed political representatives, with the possible exception of Vendola – a political trickster who is bound to disillusion them sooner than they expect. The FIOM enjoys a lot of support and sympathy from the most radical layers of the working class and youth, but it is a engineering workers’ trade union, not a political organisation, and in any case its leadership has not yet drawn the conclusion that we need to rebuild a mass party of labour. Nobody seems to be in the condition to harvest politically the fruits of these social movements. The joint effect of subjective mistakes and objective weakness virtually rules out the possibility that the Federation of the Left can play this role, notwithstanding the concerted efforts of a large part of its rank and file to reach out to the masses.

Thus there is a huge vacuum on the left in Italian politics. The effect of this contradiction is that within the mass movements the key idea that we need our own banner will gain more and more momentum. This can also express itself in an initial phase in the form of a rejection of “parties” and “politics”, reflecting disgust at all the mainstream parties. In such a situation isolated demands and specific campaigns can for a whole period enjoy much wider support than any single organisation. But very soon the need to unify all these struggles and come together under one banner will prevail.

The task of the Marxists, while being on the front line in all these mass movements, is to prepare themselves for the coming events. We need to campaign for the formation of an independent political force of the working class, based on the best elements of the Communist parties and militant trade unions like the FIOM, in opposition not only to Berlusconi but also to any government involving the Third Pole or Centre-Left in the future.

The Italian working class once had powerful workers’ parties. It had the biggest Communist Party in Western Europe, the PCI with its close to two million members. Through a series of historical events the leaders of that party have ended up in the Democratic Party, formed together with a series of smaller bourgeois parties. In this they have denied the workers of Italy an independent political voice. But the conditions that are maturing in Italy have started to impact on the mass organisations, starting with the most advanced layer, the engineering workers. The FIOM has become a focal point for all radicalised layers in Italy. This is an indication of the fact that the workers and youth are seeking a political expression. As Victor Hugo once said, “Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.”

(Published on In defence of Marxism on December 7th, 2010)

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