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Paradoxes within the Italian government coalition

“THE paradox of a right-wing government also voted by the workers” is how Italian communists characterise the country’s coalition of incompatible left and right-wing populists.

Just weeks in office Italy’s right-wing “populist” Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is making progress in his strategy to reconfigure Italian politics and cannibalise the voting base of his coalition partner Luigi Di Maio’s Moviemento Quinque Stella (Five Star Movement or 5SM).

New opinion polls show Salvini’s Lega (formerly Lega Nord but rebranded to appeal to voters in Italy’s south) overtaking M5S — and eclipsing the election result — while a clear majority of Italy’s voters back Salvini’s headline-grabbing refusal to allow the Aquarius refugee rescue ship to dock in Italy.

Spain stepped in to accept the ship while predictable outrage from EU partners France and Malta merely served to buttress Salvini’s right-wing spin to a growing anti-EU discourse in Italian politics.

As the online communist journal Contropiano put it, “The propagandistic intent of the free-range Northern League leader becomes even clearer. 

“Stopping the waves of migrants is practically impossible, despite the dirty work subcontracted to the Libyan executioners of the Serraj ‘government,’ and therefore its true objective is to eliminate the presence of the NGOs, so far the only civilian filter between migrants at sea and the their ‘military treatment’.”

None of this is what might be characterised as responsible statecraft. Certainly not Salvini’s actions but neither can Di Maio — whose formally correct argument that Salvini’s other publicity ploy, a fascist-style “registration” of the country’s Roma population as a prelude to deportation — was “unconstitutional” claim to have resonated with public opinion.

The fact is that Salvini is simply better at populist politics in the increasingly rough world in which Italian politicians — traditionally a caste separate from the lives of ordinary people — operate.

Salvini’s home turf is the politics of immigration but increasingly he is turning up the heat on his coalition partners on economic policy. 
When French President Emmanuel Macron criticised Italy over the Aquarius affair, Salvini suggested that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte cancel a visit to Paris.

In the backwash from this spat, Finance Minister Giovanni Tria called off his visit to the French capital.

Playing to the tax-averse small-to-middling business sector, Italy’s large self-employed strata and, it is suggested sotto voce, a criminal milieu with money to launder, Salvini proposed the elimination of the existing limit on cash transactions. 

Di Maio can protest that this played no part in the policy agreement between the two parties but the fact remains Salvini took the initiative on this as he has on wider issues such as trade policy — and is treading on Di Maio’s turf as economic development minister.

Il Manifesto, the last surviving critical left-wing voice in what was once a vibrant communist daily print milieu, sarkily remarked that the tax wheeze was in celebration of the 224th anniversary of the foundation of the state’s Guardia di Finanza.

Despite its occasional anti-EU rhetoric, M5S looks unconvincing in its challenge to the central powers of the EU and, compared to Salvini, its critique is unfocused and unsystematic. And despite its muscular tone, Lega is equally unconvincing as a root-and-branch critic. 

Indeed Lega has a track record in government in alliance with Silvio Berlusconi in which compliance with EU fiscal rectitude and regulatory regimes went unchallenged.

The migration crisis exposes to an Italian audience the essence of the European Union. The myths of “another Europe,” of the peaceful reconciliation of diverse interests, are evaporating while fine words from Brussels mean little when confronted with the demagogy of Salvini and his like.

Once before, when the EU and the IMF imposed a technocratic government, and just recently when the president of the republic exercised powers beyond previous imagination to shape this government of “hot air” intransigents more to the liking of big business and the banks, Italians can see more clearly the realities of power in the EU. 

Communist website Contropiano describes it as: “A superstructure of treaties and technocrats that focuses solely on the protection of the economic interests of the ‘markets’ and the dominant country (Germany), but is completely indifferent — rather, hostile — to the people.” 

In a few weeks we will see whether Salvini’s bold words carry much weight north of the Alps.

German initiatives to reshape the EU’s treaty structure could reveal just how few cards this Italian government of incompatibles holds.
Judging by appearances alone, M5S seems to have made the grade.

From its origins as an anti-system populist party with a distinct appeal to the left, the movement — founded by charismatic comedian Beppe Grillo — has gained the biggest share of votes, won the mayoral elections to major cities like Turin and Rome and now occupies the highest offices in the land.

A part of its appeal lies not only in what is now its rapidly eroding “oppositional” style but in its proposal for a guaranteed minimum income — a policy which galvanised a sizeable portion of voters in Italy’s unemployment-ridden south and has a big appeal to the huge numbers of young people who cannot find a regular job or even a precarious living. But it is faltering.

While its electoral base is substantially to the left and made up of working people of one kind or another, its activist base is quite small, organisationally unstructured, highly dependent on “virtual” communications and mobilisation techniques and, inevitably, middle class. 

Its elected officials, parliamentary representatives, councillors and sindacos (mayors) are ideologically a mixed bag. Policies vary from city to city. In Rome it got tangled up with the deeply entrenched civic mafia and now one of its team has had his collar felt in a corruption scandal over the construction of a football stadium.

Holding office in Italy’s political system is, for an oppositional tendency, living in a hostile environment. The latest test of its political maturity arises over the future of the huge Ilva steel plant in Taranto.

M5S have long called for its closure on pollution grounds. Indian steel monopoly Mittal is in the frame and negotiating with Di Maio.

His problem is that shutting Ilva will deprive the southern economy of a big concentration of relatively highly paid skilled work, markedly raise the already catastrophic levels of local unemployment and stymie the government’s appeal to business investment. Politically this threatens to further divide the two government parties.

Di Maio faces another humiliating brush with a Salvini gung-ho for maintaining the plant or a serious split in his own party.

These paradoxes are indeed, as Gramsci remarked of an earlier Italian crisis of ruling class legitimacy, “morbid symptoms.”

In his speech to a conference on “The new Italian government and the interests of the labour movement. For a real anti-capitalist fight against the euro and the European Union” (Rome, June 22 2018) Italian Communist Party national secretary Bruno Steri strikes a positive note: “Everything can happen in politics, but I think this government is destined to lose its game.”

He argues that while the right is playing the immigration propaganda card, it knows that beyond the use of its “weapons of mass distraction” this is not the real subject of contention.

He argues that the right-wing government, to maintain even just one of the promises made on economic recovery and social security, must substantially breach or lessen the budgetary constraints imposed by Brussels.

The communists and the class left can count on a huge advantage over Di Maio, Salvini and company on the direction of economic policy in the interests of the working class — putting first the interests of the exploited — for higher wages, increased social expenditure and the restoration of pensions.

This, he argues, “is precisely what the Di Maio/Salvini duo cannot and does not intend to do. This is why I think they are destined to lose.”

Nick Wright blogs at 21centurymanifesto.

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