Can Europe Make It?

Italy can no longer ignore its clandestine past

The Five Star Movement owes much of its success to Beppe Grillo's ahistorical populism. This tactic, though, is unsustainable. As anarchist and fascist groups re-stage old conflicts the movement must situate itself more explicitly or face an imminent split. 

Jamie Mackay
21 May 2014
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An anarchist school in Palermo. Photo by the author.

The fond image of Italy as an ailing antiquity, corrupt, confused but ultimately benign, is coming to a traumatic and potentially catastrophic end. As the effects of the economic crisis threaten families, friendships and homes, historic stereotypes of inept bureaucracy, apathy and laziness are rapidly being replaced by a distinctly Mediterranean picture of poverty, desperation and violent resistance.

Both at home and abroad the Berlusconi years were formative for the nation’s self-image, an orgiastic and defiantly modern spectacle of botox smiles and bare flesh. Despite mass outrage at the sybaritic behavior of its Premier, Italy was comfortable in its role as Europe’s tourist destination with Sardinia its millionaire’s playground. For those in power, there were, of course, considerable advantages to this arrangement. Tax evasion and money laundering were allowed to proliferate under the government’s embrace of flexible labour policies and the abolition of state restrictions on inheritance and donations enabled bribes to float freely without any official record.

The EU, feigning ignorance as to the size of the democratic vaccum that these measures betrayed was happy to entertain the charade as evidence of its liberalism and earnest commitment to the preservation of national autonomy. Whether seen as admirably respectful of sovereign power or as a simple act of negligence it is important to recognize that such a stance was much a matter of necessity as it was of conscious commitment to the free market. Unable to estimate the size of the nation’s vast subterranean economy, equally unable to predict what Berlusconi himself might do next, Brussels could only celebrate the show as an avant-garde experiment, a peculiarly Baroque free market. As Erik Gandini argues in his brilliant documentary Videocracy, it is wrong to see the Italian state as in a constant struggle against pressures from the EU. It was, for some time, a major consolidating point for a neoliberal oligarchy with little interest in national issues.

In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis the gravity of this licentious error, and the extent of the hangover, were exposed in a string of economic, political and cultural scandals. Alongside allegations of child abuse, tax fraud, defamation, false-accounting and collusions with the mafia, Berlusconi’s economic policy – a strange combination of monetarism and protectionism - was revealed, as had of course been evident for may years, to be directed exclusively in service of his own assets and thus totally unfit to respond to a crisis situation. The fiscal consequences of Berlusconi’s personal blunders remain unclear, though estimates suggest a national debt of at least €1.9 trillion was allowed to amass during his three terms in office.

The EU was red in the face and Italians were furious and exasperated. Celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Garibaldi’s bloody unification were clouded by a heated discussion about a cursed nation, doomed to repeat the same mistakes. High above the sweat and tears the global elite tried to tidy up the pieces. In 2011 the European Central Bank announced the agreement of an austerity package, comprising cuts of over €48bn, a freezing of public sector pay and a mass sale of Government bonds as a means of ‘saving’ the country from economic collapse. Mario Monti, a sober and unelected technocrat was appointed to replace Berlusoni, his main tasks being to stablise the financial sector, enforce the agreed cuts and quickly reform labour laws away from the Berlusconian celebration of temporary work and towards fixed contracts (this, with the bizarre proviso of making it easier to fire workers in a crisis).

These measures were welcomed with temporary enthusiasm by the centre-left’s electoral base. In the vacuum left by Berlusconi’s resignation, they saw the opportunity to re-build a rational economic system on broadly Keynesian principles. As the reality of the EU rescue mission hit home, however, and particularly as the lay-offs and redundancies began to have an impact beyond the nation’s large public sector, serious questions began to be asked about where the burden of recovery was being placed. By the end of 2012 nine million Italians, in a population of 60 million, were officially living below the poverty line and youth unemployment rose sharply to levels approaching those of Spain and Greece. Monti’s reforms, it seemed, were doing nothing. As rents and food prices began to rise populist arguments found an enlarged audience. Beppe Grillo’s ‘anti-corruption party’, the Movimento 5 Stelle, which until then had been disregarded as a celebrity stunt, gained enormous support, ultimately emerging as the largest single party in the 2013 elections with around 25 percent of the vote. Monti’s impromptu ‘Civic Choice’ coalition won just 10.5 percent. 

While the streets remained safe, the atmosphere across the country was one of division and suspicion, of whispers and raised eyebrows on trains and buses. Berlusconi’s hyperbolic insistence that the M5S marks the start of a terror akin to that of Robespierre is of course ludicrous, but the movement has crippled the plans of the centre-left Partito Democratico, forcing them into a frustrating dialogue with their supposed opponents in Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. Centre-left voters are rightly shocked and appalled. Meanwhile M5S gains ground, collapsing left and right distinctions in favour of populist rhetoric and an impassioned celebration of the creative energies of the precariat. Tantalizingly, and certainly perplexingly, they claim they will provide a €1000 universal income per month to all citizens, funded by tearing apart the public sector - particularly at the level of loval government. The strategy is primarily, though by no means merely, performative, blending nostalgia – “they took away our Italy,” – with a peculiar millenarian energy that is certainly capable of catering to more violent desires bubbling below the surface. Despite their many flaws M5S remain the only force in Parliament that is tackling the vital generational question of labour precarity head-on.

Towards the end of his unremarkable term in office Mario Monti apocalyptically described Italy as “the detonator that could blow up the Eurozone”. Thankfully, that has so far remained metaphorical. In domestic terms, however, there is a more pressing concern that this explosive language might take on a more familiar reality. It is, of course, only 30 years since ex-Prime Minister and Christian Democratic President Aldo Moro was kidnapped and murdered by the left-wing vanguard group, the Brigate Rosse, since train stations and piazzes were regularly bombed by fascist groups and judges and police officialls killed by mysterious 'interest groups'. A repeat of such actions, for now, seems ludicrous. Most of the armed bands of the '70s, including the Brigate Rosse, have been disbanded for years. Moreover, central Rome, like many other European capitals, is entirely prepared for a military lockdown (as Luigi Preiti discovered during his kamikaze attempt to gun down Parliament last year). Nonetheless, as PM Matteo Renzi struggles to put together a ‘social democratic’ programme alongside the mafiosi sleazebags of Forza Italia, the moral bankruptcy of the centre-left is increasingly hard to ignore. So too, then, and more importantly, the radical critique of the party-form which galvanized the '70s struggles is affirmed once again. While Renzi is outwardly cool and collected, playing down Italy’s historic mistrust of representative democracy, Grillo’s movement is actively courting violent expressions of discontent by refusing to engage with this recent and pertinent history. The real importance, then, lies in the large portion of the electorate which, nauseated by M5S and the theatrical farce of Italian democracy, is looking back, to fascism, nationalism and repressed forms of communism, as potential models for the future.

From the '80s onwards the Italian Government - from Craxi to Berlusconi - has been surprisingly successful in tempering the country’s tendency towards radical politics and, in its shadowy operations, has maintained relative peace. This has always been at the expense of democracy. From the manipulation of old fascist laws, including the ominous charge of ‘subversive association’, to media propaganda and the straightforward use of military force, arguments against the legitimacy of the state have been silenced for many years. The repression of Autonomia, a libertarian-communist movement seeking to build an alternative to Leninist dogma, is the best example of this. Between 1977-79, 40,000 activists, primarily students, were ‘blacklisted’ with another 16,000 ‘passing through’ the prison system, being accused of collaboration with the Brigate Rosse. All were tagged by the state for years afterwards and many others were forced into exile. While this response has long been debated in universities the crisis has rendered these conversations current once again. Today, as the generation of '77 speaks out about what really happened in that period, the state is having greater difficulty in sweeping its embarrassing acts of ideological repression under the carpet.

A graffiti by Palermo's Teatro Massimo. Photo by the author.

A graffiti by Palermo's Teatro Massimo. Photo by the author.

While it would be imprudent to suggest that something akin to a second anni di piombo is just around the corner, forms of apathy and disengagement are already starting to express themselves by channels other than the M5S. In December 2013, for example, the Movimento dei Forconi [the pitchfork movement] took to the streets, calling for an end to austerity and the radical redistribution of wealth at a national level. The movement was initiated by a loose coalition of Sicilian workers’ groups united under the banner “the poor cannot wait”. It was the far-right, however, who were first to capitalise on this energy, setting up motorway blockades decorated with fascist insignia and encouraging arson attacks on left-wing bookshops. The narrative that was subsequently imposed on this angry gesture, was sadly and predictably focused on immigration. In Palermo the confusion of such gestures is evident on the city’s walls: the cosmopolitan graffiti of Autonomia sits uncomfortably alongside swastika and the racist slogans of the football ultras. The latter, though, are by far the more numerous.

Unlike other European nations Italy did not see a sizeable Occupy movement in 2011, or even a strong anti-austerity movement. Resistance remained largely confined to the unions of CISL while anarchist groups remained focused on local actions and in building links with asylum seekers and migrant workers. Nonetheless, as Jerome Roos has argued in a piece for ROAR magazine, dissatisfaction with the PD among young voters appears to be galvanising a greater degree of collective opposition than might have been anticipated given the relative climate of demobilization. Groups such as I disobbedienti and NOTAV are no longer marginal but drawing larger crowds to the piazze with more explicit demands. Perhaps the most significant of the new-left initiatives is the Lotta per la Casa, a loose coalition of precarious workers with two clear aims: to win a universal income for all Italians and the right to adequate social housing for all. These cries resonate with the utopianism of M5S but refuse Grillo’s attempt to place the burden on the public sector and the elderly. On 16 May thousands marched in Rome to rapturous applause and won prime-time coverage in the national media. While presenting themselves as an entirely new force, the coherence of the group’s arguments can without much difficulty be attributed to the theoretical arguments made by Autonomia years earlier.

An April 2014 protest in Rome.

An April 2014 protest in Rome.

How the M5S will respond to initiatives like this is one of the most important questions in Italy’s immediate political future, not because the movement per se is capable of implementing such radical measures but because the left-right dichotomy still means something. Grillo does not talk about socialism or fascism and indeed this is the key to his postmodern populism. While individuals within that movement have spoken approvingly, officially, the party has been tight-lipped. In this narrow sense, then, the M5S is structurally closer to both I Forconi and Movimento per la Casa than it might first appear, shadowing both of them, observing each closely in order to assimilate all the demands into its rhetorical smorgasbord. Like a tiger it is biding its time, quietly celebrating all forms of opposition to the Government and attempting to lure these extremes into its own single explosive force. Activists in the Lotta per la Casa must remain vigilent in recognizing that their couragious demands for universal dignity – and universal income - are open to easy ethnic co-option by M5S, I Forconi, or both.

The reluctance of M5S, but more importantly the PD, to confront these issues reveals the historic trauma at heart of the state. The Roman Government is a vast blackhole that has only grown in force as a result of attempts to forget the anni di piombo. The political climate in Italy today is bitter and volatile, similar in tone to the 1970s but without a coherent historical narrative or strong labour movement. For now, the media show will go on, but as this history is re-told and circulated on blogs it will no doubt be appropriated in new directions. Outside of Parliament, this is a time of reflection and of local struggles, of the mobilization of new forces and the exorcism of old ghosts. Sooner or later, though, Grillo’s movement will have to make their move, to cater more explicitly for one of the radical tendencies growing in the streets. What this might mean is uncertain: like the nation itself there is an impossible coalition of fascists and anarchists within the ranks and sooner or later the alliance is going to break.  

While the busy silence from those in power has placated many, then, a heavy question hangs over Italy. Will these radical movements compete to manipulate and tame Grillo’s new Governmental power and drive it towards a specific agenda, or will the M5S’s attempt to unite extreme oppositions result in a more recognizable revolutionary struggle? This is perhaps a more urgent question than elsewhere in Europe. Given the size of its economy, the weakness of its institutions and civil society groups, violent instability would have severe implications and could well render the state ungovernable. The economy might be recovering, and Renzi may be safe for now, but old wounds are open and the ski mask is back in fashion.

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