By Nick Wright
May 26, 2018
Italy’s right-wing immigrant-bashing populist party, Lega, is the clear winner not only of the recent election but of the traditional orgy of bargaining between the parties that now command a majority in the House of Deputies.
The biggest vote-winner was M5S (Five Star Movement) which took a third of the votes in the March 2018 elections and 36 per cent of seats.
Since the election, its ratings have remained stable but Lega, which rebranded itself as a national rather than regional party, has moved up six points, mainly, it seems, by cannibalising Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
The other right-wing element Fratelli d’Italia remains close to the fascist fringe with a mere 4 per cent rating.
M5S now proposes an obscure lawyer with an invented CV as prime minister after its “virtual” membership approved its governmental programme by over 90 per cent in an afternoon’s online poll.
Despite M5S’s numerical majority, the political initiative lies with Lega’s Matteo Salvini, who has taken what was the marginal and slightly ridiculous regional party of its imaginary Padania (the north-eastern regions of Lombardy and Veneto) with a mere 4 per cent of the vote in 2016 to 17 per cent in the March election and with a 25 per cent rating in current opinion polls.
Despite its populist image and EU-sceptic stance (buttressed by an anti-tax and anti-bureaucracy rhetoric), Lega is emerging as the main instrument for a modified capitalist continuity still based around European integration and the policies favoured by big business and the banks.
Lega already has government experience, having participated for nearly a decade in conventional right-wing governments of Berlusconi.
Five Star’s majority rests on very fragile foundations. Its substantial growth in the unemployment-ridden and underdeveloped south owes much to its populist proposal for a minimum guaranteed income while its more middle class and young professional urban support in other parts of the country is eroding as the opportunist and incompetent performance of the mayors it holds in Rome, Turin and other places demonstrates its lack of coherence and competence.
Five Star’s problem lies in the misfit between its post-ideological attempt to move beyond class politics and the material interests of the substantial numbers of people who voted for it.
The promise of a guaranteed minimum income and the repeal of a pensions reform were effective in mobilising support.
Having harvested the votes of many alienated by the neoliberal policies of the fragmenting Partito Democratico, M5S has opened the way for some of its working-class and impoverished support — attracted by its radical rhetoric — to migrate to the Lega.
The road to perdition included a confused and contradictory economic policy and coat-tailing the poisonous anti-migrant and anti-refugee language of the far right.
Even the vote-winning but uncosted proposal to guarantee €780 a month in income support to the unemployed carries a two-year limit and the obligation to accept any job offer.
The governmental programme combines neoliberal continuity with greater deregulation and some new innovations that will deepen the crisis of public finances and favour Italy’s large professional, artisan, self-employed and small and medium business sector in which tax avoidance is almost a religious requirement.
The top tax bracket of 43 per cent for enterprises and individuals is to go, to be replaced by a modified flat tax system of 15 to 20 per cent.
By thus weakening the capacity of the system to effect a mild redistribution of wealth through social expenditure, the coalition government will give some support to the admittedly beleaguered small business sector while effecting a massive shift of wealth to the richest and undermining the capacity of the state treasury to fund income support.
An extra twist is that foreign nationals living in Italy will be ineligible, thus creating a large unprotected sector that will be forced to compete even more actively for low-paid work by accepting worsened conditions.
Getting rid of the half-million undocumented migrant workers is not going to be an easy process either.
Missing from the substantive discussions about the direction of economic policy is the notion — nominally in the two leading parties’ programmes — of an exit from the euro, a policy which for many Italians has great appeal but little for politicians who have zero real-life appetite for confronting the power of big business and the banks or the intractability of the Italian state.
The eurozone’s fiscal rules limit the size of member states’ budget deficits and, with the country’s economic activity flatlining, the room to manoeuvre is limited.
Having tortured the convergence criteria rules to death in order to admit Italy to the eurozone, the EU Establishment will likely bend the rules a bit more to keep it in.
But the biggest stick it wields is the punishment it could inflict. The example of Greece stands as a stark warning to any eurozone country contemplating the restoration of its national currency and regaining some control over its interest rates.
Nevertheless, the Italian Establishment and its media outriders are exhibiting signs of worry that the popular expectations raised by the oppositional aspects of the two new governing parties’ electoral pitch might threaten the basis of their rule. The rupture with the Nato policy of sanctions on Russia triggered one panic.
In their analysis Fosco Giannini e Lucia Mango of the Italian Communist Party ask “whether the great Italian economic and political powers should really fear that a possible M5S-League government could seriously break with EU constraints and with the historic subordination of Italian governments to the US and Nato. We clearly say no: there have already been many signs that have been deliberately disseminated and made public by the M5S and the League aimed at reaffirming ‘as a priority’ for Italy the Atlantic Alliance and ‘without discussion’ the organic participation of Italy in the EU. The point is that a few critical remarks were enough.”
The EU (and the financial interests that call the shots in Brussels) are not yet panicked about the new coalition government taking the British road.
If they were, Italian government bonds would already be an even more risky investment. The key sectors of Italy’s capitalist class are not as divided on this as are Britain’s; the main centre-left opposition formation, the Partito Democratico (and even its more nominally left-wing fragments) remain wedded to the EU even though Matteo Renzi, its neo-Blairite former leader, is marginalised.
On the left, the politically conscious sector represented by the new Potere al Popolo coalition — which includes the more mature elements in Italy’s fragmented left — is too small to mount a decisive challenge, even if its critique of the EU is becoming more sophisticated and deeply rooted in its campaigning.
In the Italian Communist Party analysis it is clear that the growth of the Lega and M5S has essentially rested on a violent critique of the EU’s neoliberal policies and represent a popular rejection of the Partito Democratico “which over time has become the true Party of Brussels, the European Central Bank and the IMF in Italy.”