Italy: where did the left go?

This is the talk that Toby Abse will give to the Talking About Socialism Zoom discussion on Monday 29 April 2024. A video of the talk and the following discussion will be available on YouTube shortly after the meeting.

It would be easy to give a simple, short-term explanation for Giorgia Meloni’s triumph in the September 2022 General Election, namely the division between the two main opposition parties, the Partito Democratico (PD) and the Movimento Cinque Stelle – the Five Star Movement (M5S).  The electoral system currently in use for General Elections is one-third FPTP (First Past the Post) and two-thirds PR (Proportional Representation), but voters are not allowed to split their vote to vote for one party in a territorial constituency and another one for the national list contest. Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) got 26%, the PD 19.1% and M5S 15.4%, but the latter two were competing against each other. As a result, the FdI-led coalition, with around 40% of the vote, got around 60% of the seats. Whilst there is no certainty that, had the PD been willing to do a deal with M5S such a ‘Centre Left’ coalition would have won, the PD’s refusal to make such a deal was electoral suicide, and contributed to the 36% abstention, the highest ever recorded in an Italian General Election.

However, as somebody who spent all my working life teaching history, I feel we do have to look at longer-term causes. Whilst one could go further back than 1991, the end of the Cold War transformed the Italian political system by triggering the implosion of both the traditional governing party – the Christian Democrats (DC) – and the main opposition party – the Italian Communist Party (PCI) – as well as most of the smaller parties. Moreover, a 1993 referendum got rid of the PR election system of the 1946-1992 period.

On the Right side of the political spectrum, the collapse of the nominally centrist DC opened the way for a succession of openly right-wing populists. The first of these was Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated Italian political life from 1994 until at least 2011. It is worth pointing out that one of the worst things Berlusconi did was to legitimise the Italian neo-Fascists whom he brought in to his 1994 coalition, and into all his subsequent governments. Meloni first came to national prominence as a Youth Minister in one of his later governments.

On the Left side of the political spectrum, the 1989-1991 period saw the slow disintegration of the PCI. The majority of the old PCI became the PDS (Democratic Party of the Left) and then the DS (Left Democrats), before fusing with some of the left of the old Christian Democrats to form the PD in 2007. In case anybody is wondering, the PD’s name was a deliberate copy of the US Democrats. The PDS/DS/PD moved further and further to the right, and the nominally ‘Centre-Left’ governments in which it participated were responsible for more privatisation, labour market de-regulation, outsourcing, etc. than Berlusconi. The PDS/DS/PD, with its repeated support for technocratic governments (Dini 94-96, Monti 2011-13 and Draghi 2021-22) , keeps subordinating the class interests of organised labour and working class pensioners – Dini and Monti both cut pensions – to the alleged ‘national interest’. The PD’s 2007 Founding Document made no pretence at even being social democratic – it was a paean to neo-liberal globalisation, ironically on the very eve of an international crisis of the banking system. Matteo Renzi, the PD Prime Minister from 2014 until 2017, was more forthright in his neo-liberalism than any previous PD leader, and his Jobs Act was the final nail in the coffin of the Workers’ Statute of 1970, destroying what remained of the working class gains of the Hot Autumn of 1969. The Jobs Act led to a split between the PD and the CGIL, the biggest Trade Union Confederation, and the one that used to be linked to the PCI.

At this juncture I had better point out that there was a mass Left alternative to the PDS/DS/PD between 1991 and 2008, namely Rifondazione Comunista, which at one stage had 100,00 members, and sometimes got nearly 10% of the vote. I have no time this evening to discuss its decline in detail. I just want to make the point that one of the main reasons for the emergence of M5S as a serious force in Italian politics in 2013 was the absence of Communists from the Italian Parliament after 2008. Rifondazione, for all its flaws, did give the working class a degree of genuine representation within the institution, whilst M5S, despite its intermittently Left-sounding criticism of the Establishment, does not. In case anybody imagines that the Citizens’ Income, brought in by M5S in 2018 and destroyed by Meloni last year, is the same as the Universal Basic Income, popular among those intellectuals who babble about ‘The Precariat’ , it was not. It was closer to the British Jobseekers’ Allowance, even the inefficient, Italian form of workfare meant that there were fewer chances of employment centres finding you a badly-paid, unsuitable job. However, the appeal of the scheme to the Southern Italian unemployed explains why M5S was ahead of both the PD and FdI in some Southern constituencies in the 2022 General Election. One might argue that the M5S of Giuseppe Conte is an improvement on Beppe Grillo’s original, but it retains Grillo’s racist views on immigration, even if the full horrendous package of anti-migrants racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia, accompanied by contempt for any form of genuine democracy, and bizarre adulation of the Internet associated with the ageing comedian, is a thing of the past. In case anybody wonders what happened to Grillo – Conte gave him a 300,000 Euro annual sinecure on condition he makes no intervention into day-to-day politics.

Meloni is not the first Far-Right racist demagogue to dominate Italian politics in the last decade, but she is far more cunning than the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, who turned the old regionalist Lega Nord into a nationwide ultra-nationalist party in 2013. Salvini had his moment of glory when his party polled 33% in the 2019 European Election, before over-reaching himself a few weeks later, bringing down Conte’s first government (an M5S-Lega coalition) and demanding ‘full powers’ for himself in what appeared to be an alcohol fuelled outburst sitting on the beach. After a period of opposition, Salvini took his party into Draghi’s largely technocratic National Unity Government in 2021-22. Meloni, by keeping out of Draghi’s government, was able to present herself as a more consistent anti-Establishment oppositionist. This explains why the FdI , which only got 2% in the 2013 General Election, 4% in the 2018 General Election and 6% in the 2019 European Election, was able to rise to 26% in 2022, largely at the expense of the rest of the Right. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was weakened by its aged leader’s physical decline, and Salvini’s Lega seemed to have compromised with the system. Both fell to around 8% of the vote, becoming Meloni’s somewhat resentful junior partners.

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