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European Politics Is the Italian left waking up?

ROSA GILBERT takes a look at the foundation of Potere al Popolo, a party seeking to challenge both the neoliberals in Rome and the far-right marching on it

A NEW political movement has emerged in Italy in the last few weeks, aiming to provide a focal point for the anti-austerity left in the build-up to the general election next spring.

This is particularly good news, since the alternative options range from neoliberal austerians to overtly xenophobic, racist, quasi-fascist formations, with no genuine left-of-centre party in the running.

Dubbed Potere al Popolo (Power to the People), the initiative emerged from an assembly in Rome on November 18 organised by groups associated with a social centre in Naples called Je So’ Pazzo, located in a former psychiatric unit.

With dire social security and infrastructure in much of southern Italy, the activists occupying what is essentially an old mental health prison have set up healthcare provision, migrant and legal aid drop-in services as well as cultural and recreational activities.

They assist with helping people to understand their rights and give them the tools to organise against exploitation; then provide library space for learning, and ample space for sport.

In doing so, they provide the sort of infrastructure and communal space that was common across Italy in the heyday of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), whose tradition of Casa del Popolo (House of the People) provided an outreach of communist praxis in daily life outside of the formal party structures.

The initial assembly held under the Potere al Popolo banner was hugely successful and brought together several leftist parties including Rifondazione Comunista, the party formed out of the glowing embers of the PCI after its dissolution in 1991, along with labour, civil society and student groups, housing and migrant struggles and radical trade unions such as USB.

These rank-and-file unions provide representation to workers excluded by the failed social contract model followed by the big unions (CGIL, CISL, UIL), who have consistently failed to rigorously oppose the neoliberal reforms and destruction of Italy’s progressive labour charters, dropping the most exploited, precarious, unorganised workers in favour of maintaining hegemony amongst an ever-shrinking labour aristocracy.

The common political programme worked out at the assembly, and pursued at over 80 local assemblies springing up across the country under the same banner, is based on a few key principles: the right to decent work and decent pay (youth unemployment in Italy is 35 per cent, and there is no national minimum wage), state-provided free universal healthcare and education, abolition of gender inequality, environmental protection and asylum for those fleeing war and hunger, as well as withdrawal of Italy from all international military missions and commitment.

They also strongly oppose ex-prime minister Matteo Renzi’s implementation of the EU’s fiscal compact, describing it as a “straitjacket.”

The current governing party, the ostensibly social democratic Democratic Party (PD), has locked Italy into permanent austerity and neoliberal reforms via the EU’s fiscal compact, eroding progressive elements of the Workers’ Statute won from struggle in the 1960s by implementing the Jobs Act increasing casualisation, precarity, and low wages.

In doing so, they did what Silvio Berlusconi failed to do — his attempt to make major changes to the constitution’s article 18, which protects workers’ rights, was defeated by the major trade unions.

A left split from the PD, the MDP which formed last spring, has formed a left alliance named Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal People) based on opposition to the influence of Renzi’s politics on the PD.

Its opposition to the PD is opportunistic and skin-deep; most of its key figures supported or participated in the Renzi government (like Pier Luigi Bersani) or previous social democratic administrations (such as ex-PM Massimo D’Alema), implementing the austerity policies that they now claim to oppose, or at least setting the left on a trajectory towards the Third Way.

Just as Blairism is tarnished with the memory of the Iraq war, D’Alema’s premiership is remembered for his role in assenting to Italian involvement in Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia.

The duplicity of one of the key figures of the MDP, Roberto Speranza, can be seen in some of his tweets from November 2014 — in which he thanked his fellow PD parliamentarians for approving the Jobs Act — and another from November 2017 where he accused the PD of not protecting article 18 which the Act seriously eroded.

What’s more, it is clear that if the results go their way, they will quickly enter into a governing coalition with the PD, making them useless for anything other than bringing potential left votes back to the general orbit of the PD.

Hoping to play off the growing discord with the PD’s imposition of EU-mandated austerity is the far right, represented by its institutional wing (Berlusconi’s Forza Italia), its populist wing (the much-vaunted Five Star Movement) and its quasi-fascist wing (Northern League and Brothers of Italy). 

The Five Star Movement has benefited greatly from the PD’s austerity, using rhetoric against the “elites” and “the system” but taking anti-migrant positions and defending fascist apologism, allying itself with Ukip.

Currently, it is the right in the ascendancy, a coalition between Forza Italia and the Northern League is a real possibility and could even be headed up by Berlusconi if he wins his case in Strasbourg after appealing his electoral ban for tax fraud.

In this context, having an avowedly socialist, youth-led, anti-austerity electoral list will take the edge off the increasingly reactionary political discourse in Italy.

But the elections next spring serve only as a focal point for the accumulation of forces; the aim is to create a lasting movement among workers, particularly the younger, disenfranchised, precarious workers whose salaries, pensions and employment security are considerably lower than those of their parents’ generation.

This sets Potere al Popolo apart from the likes of the PD and Liberi e Uguali which represent an older generation of besuited men with no base in the working class or the labour movement, coming to political power in the post-PCI period to facilitate the left’s move towards the centre.

By contrast, Potere al Popolo introduces its manifesto by explaining: “We are the young people that work without contracts, precariously, for €800 a month, because we need to, often emigrating to find a better life.

“We are the workers subjected everyday to blackmail, always heavier and more offensive for our dignity.”

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