How did the scapegoaters take power in Italy?

June 8, 2018

The mainstream media worry that Italy’s new government will pull out of the euro, but the real threat is to migrants and other oppressed people, writes Alan Maass.

A NEW right-wing government is in power in Italy, with the Five Star Movement (M5S) — often described as populist or anti-establishment, but with a clear nationalist streak — sharing power with the unambiguously hard-line right League.

Both of these parties, but especially the League, have Trump-like characteristics and political positions. This is clearly an advance for the right in Europe, with a government representing anti-refugee, nationalistic and authoritarian policies taking charge in the fourth-largest economy of the European Union (EU).

Scapegoating and violence directed at migrants, already worsening under the preceding center-left government, will intensify as reactionaries inside and outside the leading parties are emboldened. Meanwhile, the center-left Democratic Party is in disarray after a terrible election, labor and left-wing social struggles have been muted, and the radical left has little national profile.

After nearly three months of maneuvering to form a government since the March election, the new prime minister is Giuseppe Conte. But he is a barely known lawyer, without any experience in office, who will balance between the two main governing parties, led by Luigi di Maio of M5S and Matteo Salvini of the League (known before this election as the Northern League).

Left to right: Luigi di Maio of the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini of the League
Left to right: Luigi di Maio of the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini of the League

The Five Star Movement, which rocketed to a first-place finish four years ago in its first national election, again won the most votes of any single party, just shy of one-third of the total.

M5S is a product of mass disillusionment with the main parties and political forces in Italy. Founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, it claims to be “neither left nor right,” and a “clean” alternative to a corrupt system.

But this hides a commitment to a mostly conventional neoliberal agenda — not unlike France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who passed himself off as an “outsider” in last year’s election, but who is now stoking resistance as he accelerates the same austerity politics and pro-business “reforms” of his predecessors.

On issues like immigration, the supposedly “non-ideological” M5S will allow the League to set the tone with its more explicitly right-wing agenda.

Thus, in a speech before a vote of confidence in the Senate, Conte promised “a radical change” that challenges “old privileges and encrusted powers” — but he also repeated a talking point of both M5S and the League: that aid groups and migrant advocates in Italy constitute an “immigration business that has grown disproportionately under the cover of fake solidarity.”

According to the New York Times account of the speech, this statement “visibly pleased” Matteo Salvini of the League, who, along with di Maio, flanked Conte.

Two days earlier, Salvini sent an uglier version of the same message when he visited a migrant reception center in southern Sicily and declared: “The good times for illegals are over — get ready to pack your bags.”

THE MARCH election was a rejection of the center-left Democratic Party, which predominated in Italy’s government since 2013. With its numbers in parliament reduced by nearly two-thirds, this was the worst showing for the center-left bloc in any election since the Second World War.

There was a shakeup on the right as well, with the League surpassing Forza Italia, the main right-wing party of Italy’s recent past, led by reactionary media baron and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The League is the new incarnation of the Northern League, formed in the early 1990s among regionalist parties in Italy’s more industrialized and prosperous north to represent anti-south prejudices and policies.

In this election, Salvini, who succeeded the party’s scandal-plagued leader Umberto Bossi, set out to extend the Northern League’s national influence by muting its regionalist obsessions. His chief weapon: anti-refugee agitation to appeal to right-wingers across the country.

The League is similar to other European right and far-right parties in claiming to stand up for “ordinary people” — as long as they are native-born, of course — against a corrupt establishment, while in practice enforcing neoliberal austerity. No wonder Trump’s former adviser and alt-right darling Steve Bannon showed up in Rome before the election to celebrate Salvini and the League.

Salvini fell short of becoming prime minister, as Trump himself wished for Salvini when the two posed for a photo op at a Trump rally in 2016. But as interior minister in the new power-sharing regime, he will have extensive power to inflict suffering on the most vulnerable people in Italian society.

“The poisoning of significant layers of the working class by this demagogue,” wrote the revolutionary socialist organization Sinistra Anticapitalista in a post-election statement, “represents a decomposition of solidarity and of collective democratic action that is a serious threat for the future.”

The dangers are already clear. Italy’s far right has thrived by scapegoating migrants fleeing war and repression, who came to Italy in the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Northern Africa and the Middle East.

The anti-refugee hysteria reached a fever pitch several weeks before the March election when a fascist named Luca Traini — who ran as a candidate of the Northern League in local elections last year — went on a shooting spree in the town of Mercerata, injuring six migrants with a semi-automatic weapon.

As Eliana Como wrote in an article for the A l’encontre website: “Traini was arrested shortly thereafter by the police as he wandered around, wrapped in Italy’s tricolor flag, making the fascist salute with his arm raised. Searches of his house turned up, among other things, a copy of Hitler’s biography Mein Kampf and swastika-emblazoned flags.”

And now, the party that this Nazi represented in municipal elections is helping to run the government, with its leader in charge of national law enforcement.

This is bound to lead to more atrocities, like the murder of a Malian man in southern Italy, near Sicily, on June 2, the very day that the M5S-League coalition government was sworn in.

Soumaila Sacko was shot in the head by a white man who drove up and opened fire with a shotgun at a group of migrants as they gathered scrap metal near the tent city where they lived.

Sacko had lived in Italy since 2010 and was known locally for his activism to win more rights for migrant workers. “Soumaila is dead because someone around here decided he should be,” Father Roberto Meduri, a priest who also campaigns for migrants’ rights, told a reporter. “Here, it’s not only the Mafia, cancer or lack of health care that kills you. Racism does, too.”

THE FIVE Star Movement has a different image from its new coalition partner, but there are similarities that go beyond the media’s misleading description of both as “anti-establishment.”

M5S’s base of support includes sections of the population once loyal to the Communist Party and the left: the unemployed, blue-color workers and young voters. It has been harshly critical of all mainstream parties, but its success is primarily the result of the “collapse of the left,” as David Broder explained in a valuable article at Jacobin:

[T]he M5S arising in 2009 was bound to reflect the despair of our time. While it purports to stand for an apolitical common sense, it in fact expresses the particular common sense of an era in which atomized, crisis-hit individuals distrust public institutions and do not see collective action as a viable solution to their problems.

More so than the League, M5S is associated with some popular reforms like the “citizen’s income” — a minimum-income proposal of 780 euros ($920) a month, though with strict conditions attached. M5S leader Luigi Di Maio got himself named minister of economic development and labor, presumably to see the policy through.

But at the same time, M5S and the League both support a “flat tax” proposal for a 15 percent income tax rate for most Italians, with 20 percent for wealthier families. According to Broder, under this flat tax, a family making 300,000 euros a year would save 67,940 euros — and a family making 30,000 euros a year, nothing at all.

M5S once vowed that it would never join a coalition government, but it found common ground with the League without too much trouble. And there will be no “populist” opposition on the social issues where the League is driving a particularly reactionary agenda — because M5S is literally silent, as Broder explained:

[Five Star members of parliament] have consistently abstained, en bloc, on social issues like gay rights or immigration, which might otherwise divide its ranks. It rages against “head in the clouds” liberals with similar vigor to its attacks on wasteful public spending. It stands only for the “ordinary guy in the street” — as long as he’s a small businessman, and it probably helps if he’s not from any of those troubling minorities.

Though di Maio once joined the right-wing clamor against migrant aid organizations with a rant about “taxis for migrants” crossing the Mediterranean — a particularly cruel statement given the number of refugees who have died on this voyage — the League is clearly driving migration policy in the new government.

The “contract” establishing the M5S-League joint government promises the expulsion of 500,000 migrants, construction of more detention centers, and a review of the EU regulation that allows refugees to apply for asylum in the first EU country they reach.

NONE OF these threats to vulnerable people already enduring awful conditions seem to concern the mainstream media nearly as much as the reputations of M5S and the League as critics of the EU and the euro. The main question in a lot of articles was whether Italy would follow the UK in exiting the euro.

In fact, late last month, Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella exercised his office’s undemocratic veto power over the composition of a new government by objecting to the League’s proposal for a finance minister with a reputation for criticizing the EU regulations that put strict fiscal controls on member governments.

For a brief period, it seemed like this might be the excuse for the pro-EU Mattarella to impose an unelected government led by another banker — like the “eurocrat” regime of former Prime Minister Mario Monti, which ran Italy from 2011 to 2013. But M5S and the League were apparently greedy enough for power that they replaced the offending nominee, and the coalition government was established.

In reality, the anti-EU sentiments of both parties are overstated. M5S dropped any talk of leaving the euro well before this election, and so did the League, whose base in the north is drawn toward integration with Europe anyway.

Mattarella’s maneuver was a warning shot on behalf of European capital, both inside and outside Italy, but M5S and the League were ready to comply.

Thus, Prime Minister Conte’s Senate speech “assured Italians — and international investors and nervous markets — that Italy...would stay in its ‘home,’ and that leaving euro was ‘never in discussion,’” the New York Times reported.

So the new government isn’t likely to head for the “Italexit.” But there’s a reason why two parties associated in many Italians’ minds with opposition to the EU did well in this election.

As David Broder pointed out at Jacobin, only 39 percent of Italian voters said they thought EU membership was a “good thing” in a recent poll — well below the 47 percent who answered the same in the UK, which voted for “Brexit” two summers ago.

The backdrop looming behind all the developments in Italian politics is the debt crisis that followed the 2008 financial meltdown. Italy was caught in the same “debt trap” as Greece, and if the outcome in Greece was an economic depression on par with the 1930s, the less severe crisis in Italy was plenty bad.

Five years after the initial crash and the double-dip slump in Europe a few years later, Italy’s gross domestic product had fallen by 10 percent, while unemployment soared to nearly 20 percent. The real economy has stagnated ever since.

As in Greece, though to a lesser extent, Italy’s government has been forced under EU rules to carry out austerity measures to meet the demands of the same so-called Troika — the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. Yet government debt is higher now compared to GDP than at the start of the crisis.

In 2015, Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, or SYRIZA, was elected to oppose EU-mandated austerity. But Europe’s bankers and bureaucrats forced a capitulation.

Italy may not endure the same harsh conditions, and not only because its new center-right government is less of a radical challenge to EU dominance. Italy’s banking system is close to the brink, with an overhang of bad loans estimated at half a trillion dollars. If the EU pushes as hard as it did in Greece, Italy’s banks could collapse — with unknown consequences for the financial sectors in other EU countries.

WILL THE capitulation to Mattarella on the EU expose at least the Five Star Movement, with its base that was loyal to the left in the past? Will the “outsiders” wielding state power to impose the same austerity measures anger M5S supporters?

Definitely. But that discontent won’t necessarily find expression within the party, which has no democratic mechanisms for holding the leadership accountable. “The M5S is a party of media stars and fans, rather than organizers and militants,” writes David Broder. “When the leaders change the line, the passive membership simply follow suit.”

Follow suit...or look for an alternative. But the dilemma in Italy is that the radical left has almost no national profile to offer that alternative.

This is a consequence, in large part, of the collapse of Italy’s major left political force Rifondazione Comunista a decade ago.

Rifondazione joined the Democrat-led government of Romano Prodi in 2006 — and within two years, “the government approved, with the support of the ministers of the left, a tax cut for the bosses of 8 million euros, a cut in pensions and an increase in the defense budget for the military campaigns in Lebanon and Afghanistan,” said Yurii Colombo in an interview with Socialist Worker.

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This threw the left into a crisis that it hasn’t yet recovered from. Radical left initiatives in this year’s elections were important, but modest.

But this much is certain: There will be no challenge from within the system to the rightward lurch of Italian politics in the M5S-League era. The poisonous political climate that allowed a hateful party like the League to win top positions in the government has been long in the making, under parties that claimed to oppose racist hate.

As in France today, it will take a renewal of struggle by unions and social movements to constitute a new resistance to austerity, repression and hate.

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