Is Italy flirting with fascism?

Silvio Berlusconi is back in power. Rome's mayor won on an anti-immigration platform. The right is n

Is Italy going fascist? Is Berlusconi like Mussolini? Will the past repeat itself - this time, unquestionably, as farce?

The signs are ominous, and as Silvio Berlusconi emerged victorious in Italy's elections in April, the international press reached for the history books. The triumphant coalition included, along with a "party" financed almost entirely by Berlusconi's media empire, a "post-fascist" party (the National Alliance, which merged its list with that of Berlusconi) and the xenophobic Northern League, still led by Umberto Bossi despite a stroke that has left him semi-paralysed and his voice a barely audible croak. Two weeks later Rome had a new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, a post-fascist elected on an anti-immigrant platform.

To add insult to injury, Berlusconi appointed as minister for equal opportunities a 33-year-old former glamour model and Miss Italy aspirant, Mara Car fagna, who is, apparently, deeply committed to "family values".

This Italian saga may be distressing, demoralising and upsetting. But fascism - a word that some use to signal their indignation and mortification - is the wrong diagnosis. The opposition will still be able to regroup and go on fighting without being threatened by black-shirted bullies or anti-democratic legislation. There will still be elections, a few strikes, and the odd demonstration. On the other hand, broadcasting will be more servile, because Berlusconi, owner of almost the entire media private sector, will, by appointing cronies, also control the state sector. Yet even 20 years ago a Jeremy Paxman would not have lasted five minutes. The daily press remains relatively free from Berlusconi's control.

There is no denying that Berlusconi's victory was stunning. His coalition obtained almost 47 per cent of the vote - far better than any British government since 1966. He triumphed throughout Italy with the exception of the centre, the left's last redoubt. The various radical and unreconstructed communist parties that had made life difficult for Ro mano Prodi's short-lived centre-left coalition were wiped out.

The Italian electorate was not in search of novelty. Berlusconi is no longer "new". He is now a seasoned poli tician who won in 1994 and 2001. When he lost in April 2006, it was by only 25,000 votes.

Nor is it accurate to suggest that the electorate was punishing Prodi. Considering his tiny majority and the absurdly fractious behaviour of some of his partners, he could never have been a great success. Yet it was not a disaster. In his two years in office, Prodi abolished a host of petty bureaucratic restrictions, took decisive measures to counter tax evasion and succeeded in reducing the budget deficit to less than 3 per cent of GDP (to plaudits from the European Union but the dismay of Italy's taxpayers, who had to pay for this feat).

Not much unites the victorious coalition save an appetite for power, but that is usually enough. The Northern League is in favour of regional devolution to ensure that the wealth generated in the north will stay there instead of subsidising the south. More recently, the League has refocused its target, toning down its usual verbal abuse of southerners. The main enemies now are immigrants to Italy, accused of being behind a recent spate of serious crimes - a new pinnacle of chutzpah in a country where the Mafia, the world's best-known criminal organisation, is entirely home-grown.

Vigilantes now prowl among the Roma and burn their camps down. The post-fascists, too, are keen on their law and order, but they cannot share the anti-southern mindset of the Northern League because they are strongest in the south. Berlusconi is supposed to be a neoliberal; his past rhetoric was conventionally demagogic, however: lower taxes and more public spending. His liberalism stops where his business starts. Monopolies are fine if you happen to own them.

Why did Berlusconi win? One obvious reason is that he was the leading conservative candidate in a country in which the majority will vote for whoever is to the right of the left. In the early 1990s the bribery scandals that wiped out the Christian Democracy party (DC), the linchpin of Italian politics since 1945, created a vacuum. Berlusconi stepped in, legitimising at a stroke Gianfranco Fini's neofascists, hitherto confined to pariah status. Then he made a deal with Bossi's Northern League. No other force, not even a somewhat reconstituted Catholic party, has managed to dent this fierce trio. The three hate each other, but they also need one another - the solid foundation of many political partnerships.

The fascist past no longer bothers voters. They do not ask themselves why Fini, born in 1952, decided to join the neo-fascists when there were so many parties to choose from. Fini once described Mussolini as "the greatest statesman of the century". Now he knows better and presides over the Chamber of Deputies. Success is a great teacher. It is the communists who are expected to show contrition. Once, they could proudly claim the mantle of the heroic struggle against fascism. Now to have been a Red is a political embarrassment, as anti-communist pundits have taken up disparagement of the Resistance with enthusiasm. A spate of books and articles on postwar revenge killings by partisans against former fascists has helped to put communism and fascism on the same level.

In search of political virginity, the post-communists keep on changing their name. In 1991 they were the Democratic Party of the Left. In 1998 they dropped "party" and the hammer and sickle, becoming the Democrats of the Left, with a rose as a symbol. In 2007 they dropped "left" (turning themselves into the Democratic Party), discarded the rose and adopted olive leaves.

Honest government

Many Italians feared not communism as an ideology, but what the communists or the post-communists might bring about: honest government. They might have to pay taxes. If you have spent your entire life cultivating personal relationships with those who have power and influence and who can protect you and help you with the endless bureaucratic tasks that plague your life; if you know that no one will investigate too closely if you have built an extension to your home, or built a home where one cannot be built (as is the case with so many houses constructed in Italy); if you know that your fiscal evasions and frauds will be overlooked because "everyone does it" - then, of course, you will be afraid of "the communists", that is to say, of those puritanical, holier-than-thou characters who threatened the foundations of Italian civic culture. To many Italians, nothing, not even the Red Army, is more frightening than good governance or "il buon governo".

Then there is the enormous weight of small enterprises in the country, coupled with the very large number of self-employed workers (three times the ratios of Germany and Japan). Compare a high street in Italy with one in Britain, let alone a shopping mall in the United States, and you will see the difference between a country whose economy is dominated by large companies and supermarkets and one that is at an earlier stage of development.

This makes Italy a much nicer place to shop in, especially if you are a tourist and have time to shop, but these shopkeepers have been protected and featherbedded by the state and they know it. The political masterpiece of the old Christian Dem ocracy party was that it protected this huge petty bourgeoisie while modernising the country. Berlusconi is the DC's natural successor.

His problem is that he does not have the margins the old DC had. Italy's manufacturing system - the production of machine tools, shoes, handbags, tiles, cheap furniture, ready-made clothes - is being steadily wiped out, above all by China. Between 2001 and 2005, under Berlusconi, Italy dropped from 14th to 53rd place in the global competitiveness index.

The phenomenon of Italy's small enterprises is at the root both of Italy's past successes and of its present political and economic predicament. This petty bourgeoisie is naturally "neoliberal", but in a very peculiar sense: it does not want an efficient, minimalist state, because this would annihilate the petty bourgeois class. They want things to remain as they are, even including the terrible bureaucracy so universally hated and so obviously absurd that it is reasonable for everyone to do everything possible to bypass it.

Berlusconi is the expression of this petty bourgeoisie. He thinks like them. He acts like them. He does, almost instinctively, what they do. He has the same tastes, the same sense of humour. The only difference between him and them is that he has more money. This is why Berlusconi has done little to cut down on the red tape and restrictive practices that plague Italians. Meanwhile, an economy which 15 years ago overtook that of the UK is now on a par with Spain and may soon be overtaken by Greece. What lies ahead is not fascist resurgence, but the economy's decay.

Donald Sassoon is professor of comparative European history at Queen Mary, University of London and author of "Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism" (2008), published by HarperPress (£14.99)

ITALY BY NUMBERS

  • 62 governments since the end of the Second World War
  • 80% of voters turned out for the April general
    election
  • 5 major TV stations are now controlled by Berlusconi
  • 7% of the economy is generated by organised crime
  • £15,000 average income

Research by Owen Vanspall

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?