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Country for Old Men

by | June 26, 2017

Giuliano Poletti made one of the more remarkable interventions in recent political life as he offered his view of the ‘brain drain’ of mostly young Italians departing for more prosperous shores. According to the Democratic Party’s labour minister, ‘If 100,000 have gone, there are 60 million still here: and some say those who have remained are all dimwits. Allow me to challenge this argument. I know some people who have left, and it is a good thing that they’ve gone away. Certainly this country won’t suffer when they’re no longer getting under our feet’.

Speaking two weeks after a referendum in which over four-fifths of young Italians voted ‘No’ to Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms, Poletti’s contemptuous tone was rather tone-deaf. This wave of youth grievance had, after all, been a major part of the 59 per cent vote that forced Renzi’s resignation on 12 December 2016. Yet while Poletti’s crankish remarks reflected the often gerontocratic codes of Italian public life, they also drew political debate back onto one of the country’s defining social ills.

The prospects for Italian youth are indeed dismal. Nearly two-fifths are unemployed. A crushing 67.3 per cent majority of 18–34 year-old Italians live with their parents; the respective figures are 34.5 per cent for France, 34.3 per cent for the UK and in Denmark just 19.7 per cent. Looking at the 25–34 age bracket alone, the respective figures are 50.6 per cent for Italians – up from 44 per cent in 2011 – 16 percent for the UK, 10.1 per cent for France and 3.7 per cent in Denmark. The figures for Germany are a few per cent higher than the British; the Spanish closer to the Italian.

I took these Eurostat figures from Il Fatto Quotidiano, a critical-spirited Italian daily well-known for its investigative journalism. The headline of the article however condescendingly describes Italians as ‘among Europe’s più mammoni, the most incorrigible ‘mummy’s boys’ (and girls, though the idea seems rather gendered). This is part of ‘Italian culture’, insofar as social solidarity has historically been based more on the extended family than any kind of welfare state. Yet never before have Italian young people been less able to make their own way in the world, without having to fall back on the familial home.

Indeed, given that this problem has rapidly worsened in just a few years, it seems more a public policy concern than an expression of earthy Catholic national spirit. And after over two decades of economic stagnation, it is also increasingly reflected on the political terrain. While patronage remains an overbearing force, given the flatlining job creation since the early 1990s the dominant parties struggle to integrate new generations of Italians into their networks, or offer an optimistic vision for the future. The main alternative for those left on the sidelines is a vote for the Five Star Movement (M5S), which today attracts young Italians’ support across class divides and across self-described ‘Left’ or ‘Right’ affiliations.

M5S’s promotion of leaders without a political past such as thirty-eight-year-old Virginia Raggi (mayor of Rome) and thirty-year-old Luigi di Maio (parliamentary vice-president) gives a youthful face to its promise to ‘clear out the caste’. During his own rise, Matteo Renzi had similarly promoted himself as an ‘outsiderish’ fresh face replacing the ancient ex-Communists and Christian Democrats of his Democratic Party (PD). Yet in both instances, this is less driven by some meaningful policy alternative, than a recognition of the messaging value of presenting a less gnarled visage.


Yes we can!/an Italian Blair/Macron

Winning re-election as Democratic Party national secretary at the beginning of May, Matteo Renzi ensured that he will lead the party into the general election which must take place by next February. The 2014–16 prime minister now speaks of pulling off the same trick as Emmanuel Macron – by which he means, a young aspirant sweeping aside the old gerontocratic structures that so hold back his country’s political life. Yet while Renzi is just 42 years of age, this routine already seems rather old hat.

Describing himself as the demolition man, Renzi first appeared on the national political stage after his 2009 election as mayor of Florence, presenting himself as a business-friendly and liberal fresh face. Despite his apprenticeship in Margherita (‘Daisy’; a fragment of the old Christian-Democrats), the novice Renzi was less bound to the ‘First Republic’ (1948–92) than either the ex-Communists making up the bulk of the Democratic machine, or ex-Christian-Democrats in the party like two-time prime minister Romano Prodi. Renzi could thus present himself as not only a new man with new ideas, but also as somewhat freer of the old men’s patronage networks that dominated the Italian state.

By 2007 the centre-Left forces disorganised by the 1992 collapse of Italy’s Cold-War order had created a Democratic Party explicitly modelled on its US namesake. The 2008 elections even saw leader Walter Veltroni attempt to capture some Obamean stardust with his own cries of ‘Yes We Can’. Voters quickly decided he couldn’t. Rising through Democratic ranks in the wake of Veltroni’s defeat, Renzi plumbed the depths yet further in his search for an Anglophone paragon: his hero, one Tony Blair. As Perry Anderson noted, this was a curiously parochial foreign reference point, given the discredit into which the once-grinning New Labour supervillain had already fallen in his own country. It was also a politically wrong-headed one, ignorant of what the Liberator of Baghdad had actually done.

Blair had not only sought to reposition an old party of liberals, socialists and trade unionists toward the centre, to speak the language of enterprise and business-friendliness, or to adopt militarist or securitarian policies, but to do so on the assumption that continual economic growth would allow the bulk of the party base to be bought off, even despite everything they disliked: better than the Tories, anyway. Even the recalcitrant and left-behind would in any case have no one else to go to, unless they resorted to toxic parties confined to the fringes of national politics like the BNP, thus allowing these voters and the towns they lived in to be safely written off.

Taking over as prime minister in spring 2014, Renzi adopted the pro-business and right-wing aspects of Blairism, sharply confronting the trade unions and whatever traces remain of the PD’s socialist or social-democratic legacy. Yet he did so while cutting government spending, and even though large sections of the working class (not least the young) were no longer tribally attached to his party in the manner of older ex-Communist voters.

Despite winning set-piece confrontations with the unions over his school reforms and his Jobs Act, this all went pear-shaped in his December 2016 constitutional referendum. Beyond reactions against the centralising intent of the reforms, voters were most of all mobilised by Renzi’s promise to resign if he lost. The day after the result the Guardian headlined ‘Italy Reels After Shock Vote’: there was not much reeling among the 59 per cent of Italians who voted for this very outcome.

While Renzi’s former foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni took over the reins in what has proven to be anything but a ‘caretaker government’, the newly re-elected PD secretary is now somewhat shifting his position, extending the referendum-era theme of ‘resisting the far Right’. His current attempt to associate himself with Emmanuel Macron is telling, in this regard. While evidently at a certain level Renzi is just a charlatan going along with the latest flavour of the month, it is worth noting the distinction between Blair’s project and Macron’s, if he is indeed to copy this latter.

While bringing together figures from both centre-Left and centre-Right governments of the past, Macron seeks not to renew but to displace the old party structures; hence his creation of En Marche! and pissy refusal to offer a parliamentary seat to former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls. The attempt to provide a real ‘change of face’ is fundamental to his attempt to create a new centrist force breaking voters from their former party loyalties. Heavily backed by centre-Right voters in the December referendum, Renzi has clearly also made some progress in doing the same. This was further encouraged by the March 2017 split in the PD, as ex-Communist leaders who had hitherto joined its ride toward a US-style liberalism now walked out of the party.


Attempts to create new Left party: not going well

This split in the Democrats saw party old-timers creating a new centre-Left force named ‘Article 1 – Movement of Democrats and Progressives’. While ‘Article 1’ refers to the opening lines of the 1948 Constitution, which declared the state re-emerging from fascist collapse a ‘democratic republic founded on labour’, this far-from-radical force merely represents a retreat to an earlier moment in the once mighty Communist Party’s (PCI’s) 1990s–2000s liberal transformation. While around the turn of the millennium Rifondazione Comunista managed to combine significant youth support with a base in the old PCI heartlands, A1-MDP is a stillborn project of slim oppositional credentials.

The profile of A1-MDP’s leaders well indicate that it is more a split among Democratic élites than a movement emerging from within the mass of society. Protagonists in the split include such figures as 1998–2000 prime minister Massimo D’Alema (an ex-PCIer; in office he introduced the ‘fiscal straitjacket’ EU Budget and Stability Pact and joined the 1999 NATO war in Yugoslavia) and early 2010s Democrat leader Pierluigi Bersani (from autonomist and then Communist roots, in the 2013 election proving something of a poor man’s Ed Miliband). With the referendum, these ‘realist’ social democrats understood that Renzi was destroying the party’s social base, and also sought to exploit his own difficulties.

Yet while winning over most of small green-Left party Sinistra Italiana’s parliamentarians, A1-MDP like this fellow minnow rarely hassles 4 per cent in the opinion polls. Even if it does secure representation at the elections due before next February, it is hard to see it breaking with the longstanding centre-Left bloc with the Democrats, except insofar as Matteo Renzi prefers simply to deal with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or other small centre-Right forces. The Five Star Movement has also strongly rebuffed Bersani’s advances, first attempted in the wake of the 2013 election when he was Democrat leader.

While there is a certain tendency among foreign media to consider the M5S an equivalent of Syriza, Podemos and such like – not only through its invocation of ‘people’ against élites or its challenge to the old party system, but also its alleged leftish hues – the reality is far more complicated. Polls (and indeed, speaking to almost anyone) consistently show this party’s very strong support among the under-30s, the precarious and the unemployed. In its greatest electoral victory so far, the 2016 Rome mayoral contest, the map of the capital’s working-class periferia was a sea of M5S yellow, with only the very smartest central neighbourhoods opting for the Democrats.

Without doubt, the M5S has won over large sections of the electorate who might otherwise have been expected to be the Left’s social base. It embodies the kind of challenge to ossified party patronage structures that in Southern European countries is mounted by the radical Left. Yet the political perspectives of this party also reflect the deep atomisation of Italian society, and the lack of recent social movements of a type with 15-M in Spain or the years of trade union struggles and square occupations in Greece. The social centres that flowered in the early 1990s soldier on, and in Naples in particular they have established links with electoral/mass politics. Yet across Italy we see declining youth engagement and movement structures struggling to survive, not helped by precarity and mass emigration.

Where even defeated movements against austerity or local activist-welfare initiatives can spread a sense of class solidarity and impose their own lines of division on the national political context, in Italy since the early 2000s the most visible social struggles have been sectorially limited and lacking in any broad social project. Large-scale yet occasional moments of service user-worker solidarity (most notably the strikes and demos against Renzi’s school reforms) have never been the decisive forces in polarising electoral politics. The M5S is a pure reflection of the atomised mood of grievance, built up over a two-decade crisis; in its mobilisation against the ‘caste’ its disparate forces are held together only by the belief that ‘common sense’ politics can return once the corrupt personnel of the leading parties are finally ousted.

This fails both at the level of concrete policies dealing with the social crisis, and in terms of fighting corruption. Having won power off the back of a €1.3bn embezzlement case involving both Democrat and centre-Right officials in the capital, Rome’s M5S mayor Virginia Raggi has so far made a basket case of the city’s already dire public transport and refuse-collection-services, and if anything her programme promises yet harsher cuts in public service employment. Raggi has also been drawn into continual scandal with her dubious appointments of business associates to public jobs and tendering processes. Once she was subjected to a judicial examination for her conduct, M5S even had to change its own internal anti-corruption charter, which would previously have compelled it to expel the party’s most prominent elected official.


Oddball coalitions

If M5S is most successful when it can remain all things to all people – the fight against ‘the caste’ thus representing an empty cipher onto which anyone can project whatever grievance they like – it is harder right-wing forces who currently seem best placed to impose their agenda on its government, should it come to power in the next election cycle. While ex-comedian M5S founder Beppe Grillo says he wants nothing short of a parliamentary majority, party realists seem more open to a post-election alliance with the Lega Nord. Not only the party’s plans for a referendum on euro membership but also certain leaders’ harshening rhetoric about refugees (according to M5Ser Luigi Di Maio taken to Italy by NGOs on ‘Mediterranean taxi’ boats) highlight this connection.

This dynamic is also reinforced by Italy’s new and more proportional electoral system, in which the two largest parties (PD and M5S) on around 28–30 per cent of the vote will seem far short of a majority. In this context, either Italian politics can polarise into grand coalition (PD + Berlusconi) or not-yet-established Right (Lega + M5S) alliances. Apparently more likely is that the country will sink into a Spain-like situation of blocked parliamentary arithmetic, thus throwing the same problem back to the voters over and over. In this sense, unlike in Spain the PD and not a fragmented centre-Right (today at 15 per cent in the polls) seems like the most obvious ruling-class fall-back option.

It is currently difficult to envisage any alliance of the Democrats with the M5S, a possibility tentatively explored by Pier Luigi Bersani in the wake of the 2013 election. It would cut against the Democrats’ present attempts to present Italy’s situation as something rather more like France’s, in which they (like Emmanuel Macron) stand for liberal republicanism and the M5S a mix of craven irresponsibility and flirtation with the far Right. The M5S’s entirely quixotic attempt to defect from the EFDD group in the European Parliament (UKIP etc.) to the ALDE (Liberal Democrats, Guy Verhofstadt etc.) was an apparent response to this charge, though after 71 per cent of M5S activists voted for such a change, ALDE’s own objections soon saw party guru Beppe Grillo ringing Nigel Farage to explain that it was all a big misunderstanding.

Any portrayal of a hardening Euro-liberal vs. populist-Right divide in Italian politics demands two important qualifications. Firstly, the Democrats have form in radically shifting their own alliances. Silvio Berlusconi had long served as the perfect foil for the PD’s project of occupying the liberal centre, converting Communists into ‘anti-Berlusconians’ as the party prioritised the rhetorical defence of republican decency over questions of economic, social or foreign policy. The PD nonetheless joined with Berlusconi’s PdL vehicle in supporting a technocratic budget-austerity government in 2011-13, before then forming a coalition with the sleaze magnate himself after the inconclusive 2013 election. This brief alliance (renewed in the second round of the 2016 Roman mayoral contest) fed the M5S’s argument that centre-Left and centre-Right are all the same.

Secondly, the PD’s sometime claim to be holding back the rise of xenophobia is fundamentally spurious. Just as the Democrats once attacked Berlusconi for his unseriousness in cutting Italy’s budget deficit to meet European Central Bank demands, these brave fighters against fascism now out-compete in practice the anti-migrant agenda that even the M5S’s wilder shores only offer in rhetoric. During December’s referendum, international press excited by the reactionary mood and their own ignorance of Italian politics hailed Renzi as a rampart in ‘saving Europe’ and ‘resisting the radical Right’. Who could have guessed that his defeat, blocking a series of reforms designed to empower the executive, would indeed coincide with an onrush of attacks on immigrants… put into effect by his own party and its new prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni.

Interior minister Marco Minniti’s asylum ‘reform’ introduced in late March not only extends the network of refugee ‘Identification and Expulsion Centres’ but shortens the time before refugees are informed of whether they are allowed to stay in Italy and fast-tracks their deportation. In the meantime all asylum applicants will have to do ‘socially useful work’… unpaid. In welcoming the reforms, Forza Italia parliamentary leader Renato Brunetta announced that he and his fellow Berlusconian MPs would now be following a more conciliatory policy of ‘responsible opposition’ to the PD-led government. Brunetta hailed a ‘paradigm shift’ in immigration policy, while also defending Italy’s past record in collaborating with the Gaddafi regime to police North African migrants.


To the vote

A referendum planned for 28 May was cancelled in late April, as the government apparently abandoned Renzi’s unpopular ‘voucher’ system. His measures had normalised the disappearance of real salaries, with the massive proliferation of vouchers remunerating discrete hours of labour (and taxed at source). They were thus counted among the most strongly anti-worker moves his government had taken, together with a similarly precarising ‘Jobs Act’ and the abolition of Labour Code article 18, placing legal limits on sackings.

Yet while the Gentiloni government had announced plans to drop the voucher policy in order to avoid a fresh referendum (and also to deny political capital to the former comrades of A1-MDP), on 25 May it attempted to introduce a near-identical scheme. Having collected three million signatures in order to force the voucher referendum, the CGIL union now speaks of going back to the Constitutional Court in protest.

The row over the referendum will play an important role in determining when the next general election will be held, with the PD – today in government with small centre-right forces – seeking the right moment for a decisive contest with the M5S. At the moment the parties are neck-and-neck in the polls, with only the Lega Nord and Forza Italia also certain to secure parliamentary representation. A further factor for delay are continued attempts to reorder the electoral law on slightly more proportional lines.

It seems, however, that the decisive question in the coming months and years will be the European Union, whose single currency aggravates falling employment numbers and prevents effective action to relaunch the economy. Voters are caught in a bind between ‘more of the same’ with the Democrats, now emboldened by Macron’s victory in France, and M5S’s as yet unclear proposals for a referendum on euro membership. Certainly Renzi’s plan is to polarise politics against this spectre, mobilising the centre-Left and centre-Right in defence of the existing way of things.

As we already saw with the referendum in December, this kind of blackmail has unimpressive effects among the young Italians unbound to the old party affiliations. Those unable to secure their existence, to find their own meaning and place in the world, to have their lives taken seriously by the powers-that-be, are struck less by the fear of the unknown than by the abyss of continuity. Perhaps labour minister Poletti hopes they will eventually all leave, stopping them getting in the way of the Democrats’ best-made plans. With yet another bid to advance the cause of labour precarity, his party shows its contempt for their future.

David Broder is an historian and translator writing a book on the crisis of Italian democracy.