Elections in Italy: populism is a problem for the bourgeoisie, an obstacle for the proletariat

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This article was written soon after the formation of the new populist coalition government in Italy. It places immediate events in a global context, so its overall analysis has in no sense lost its validity a few months later. In future, we will try to update the analysis, particularly given the need to examine the swollen growth of Salvini's political influence, and the encouragement, by his government, of a pogrom-like atmosphere in Italy.  

It's certainly not the first time that the Italian bourgeoisie has suffered a serious crisis in its political apparatus that has impacted on its ability to form a government, as for example the Monti government in 2011 and the Letta government in 2013, which only lasted for ten months. However the troubled management of the League-5 Star government coalition has taken on a particularly serious political significance which could even bring about a constitutional crisis, with the threat of a demand for the dismissal of the head of state of the 5-Star Movement (5-SM) and the Brothers of Italy.

After a very hard and confrontational election campaign from the forces in play, in which each one declared that they would never govern with the others, and where the most audacious promises were made in the name of the defence of families, young people and the insecure, the result saw the triumph of populism, but without a clear government majority and an intersecting series of vetoes (the League against the Democratic Party (PD), the PD against the League, 5-SM against Berlusconi, etc.). After several rejected attempts by the distinguished Christian-Democrat President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, he returned to negotiate with the parties concerned and finally an agreement was reached to form a government, avoiding the immediate prospect of another election, which would have been an additional problem for the Italian bourgeoisie both because of prolonging a period of great instability with major economic consequences, and because the result of a new vote was far from predictable, risking an aggravation of the problem. How can one explain this political storm?

Populism, a problem for the bourgeoisie at an international level

The main problem is that the bourgeoisie is confronted with the development and weight of populism at an international level, as it is with the effects of decomposition on its political parties, with the dominant tendency of "everyman for himself".[1] As we've already shown in other texts[2] this development is the consequence of the present historical phase of capitalism. Deep layers of the population, above all the proletariat, have suffered daily from the effects of the aggravation of the crisis: an increase in economic instability, the rise of uncertainty and social insecurity, the causes of which are extremely difficult to understand. This generates a great deal of anger but also a profound loss of references, a feeling of impotence and a fear of everything which seems to contain more dangers for present and future situations. Furthermore, the "historic" parties, who, by reason of their political experience have been essential instruments for the bourgeoisie in diverting and containing discontent in the alternating right/left game of democracy, have suffered a great loss of credit. In particular the social democratic parties, historically portrayed as defenders of the workers, have for a long time themselves had to adopt all the measures of economic reform which have seriously degraded the situation of the working class, thus revealing their anti-proletarian character.

As we said regarding the victory of Brexit, "populism is not another actor in play between the parties of the left and right; it exists because of the generalised discontent which can find no other means of expressing itself. It is entirely on the political terrain of the bourgeoisie but is based on opposition to elites and the establishment, an aversion towards immigration, on distrust towards the promises of the left and the austerity of the right, expressing a loss of confidence in these institutions of capitalist society but at this stage blinded to the revolutionary alternative of the working class".[3]

From this point of view these forces, in a certain way, can also be useful to the bourgeoisie because they can channel this anger and distrust onto democratic and institutional grounds. As Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the 5-SM, Luigi Di Maio, affirmed, it is they who have brought back onto the domain of democratic protest and elections the majority of those distancing themselves from it due to disgust, disillusionment and anger against the political class and its institutions. But, contrary to the "historic" parties of the bourgeoisie (the right as well as the left) who, despite everything, still retain some sense of state, the vision of the populist forces is shown through the concrete policies which frequently come up against the global interests of the national bourgeoisie, as much on the economic as the political and ideological levels. For this reason, they constitute a threat to the coherence and political interests of the same ruling class.

The presence of the populist phenomenon and the discrediting of the historical parties also explain the growing difficulties for the bourgeoisie internationally and, particularly in Italy, its capacity to control the electoral circus and predict its outcome. This unpredictability is seen for example with the Democratic Party where Matteo Renzi (PM from February 14 to December 16), on the basis of 40.8% votes obtained at the elections of 2014, took a slap in the face with the referendum on the constitution in 2016 which anticipated the current collapse of this political formation. In the past, voters maintained a certain loyalty to the traditional parties because that also corresponded to political ideals and programmes which, at least in words, suggested different choices. The right and left of capital expressed different choices for the management of society; the voter, however critical, identified with one or the other of these parties. Today, this distinction no longer exists because the economy no longer allows alternative global options. Any party or coalition in power can only follow a policy of austerity and impoverishment for the great majority of the population and can do nothing about the deterioration of living conditions at other levels (precariousness, insecurity, degradation of the environment, etc). The vote is thus cast for the political force which, at that moment, seems to be the "less worse", the one which perhaps doesn't seem to make false promises or responds more closely to doubts. It's not by chance that the electoral "battle bus" of the 5-SM has been the "minimum payment for the citizen" and the promise of reductions in the cost of living, above all in the south of Italy where poverty, insecurity and the lack of perspectives weigh heavily in the daily life of the majority of the population. For the League (ex-Northern League, with the "northern" dropped in order to broaden its appeal) however, it's security with the expulsion of migrants and more police on the streets, the right to self-defence and the flat rate tax which gives advantages to small and medium entrepreneurs who are strong in the north.

We've recently seen a similar phenomenon with the difficulties of the British bourgeoisie to manage the effects of Brexit, of the Americans to contain the irresponsible policies of Trump, of the German bourgeoisie to form a coalition government which, although it must include the anti-European CDU, will have to maintain internal and international policies which conform to the interests of the German state. It was only in France, faced with the danger of an eventual victory of Marine Le Pen, that the bourgeoisie found the Macron solution which ensured the continuity of the national and international political choices and which, at the same time, was presented as "a force for renewal", "neither right nor left", thus responding to growing distrust and discontent.

That also explains why, in relation to the elections in Italy (just prior to and during the political crisis), there was a strong preoccupation (particularly from the European countries) and pressure from influential personalities in the EU and the business world, insisting that whatever the composition of the new government, it shouldn't call into question the results obtained by Italy thanks to reforms put into place in recent years, with a strong recommendation not to change tack towards thoughtless and irresponsible policies for Italian capital which would create international instability.

... and for the Italian bourgeoisie

We can look a little closer at the Italian situation in order to understand a series of important stages in the policies of the national bourgeoisie. For example, why has the President of the Republic, Mattarella refused to sign the nomination of Poalo Savona for Minister of the Economy? Why this desperate struggle over just one name? In reality, Mattarella, who represents the most responsible part of the national bourgeoisie and has a broader and longer term vision of the interests of the national capital and the instruments necessary to defend it, finds himself managing a situation characterised by:

1. The electoral victory of two forces which, although in different ways,  are both expressions of a populism characterised by a strong irresponsibility, combined with lack of experience and lack of political depth. 5-SM, born with the slogan "Screw you!" aimed against "the cast of parliamentary buffoons and crooks", once in parliament had to take on a more moderate and institutional role in order to enlarge its consensual base and move into the corridors of power, but it remains a force totally bereft of experience in managing the state and is strongly characterised by policies which are based on immediate knee-jerk reactions of the "people". That means it's an uncertain force, difficult to rely on in a situation which demands rigour and responsibility by taking drastic and unpopular measures. After all, it's enough to see the irresponsible and infantile reaction of Di Maio and Di Battista (also 5-SM, and both in good company with Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy) immediately after Mattarella's rejection of their proposed government. The repeated threats to resign in various interviews and at the Naples meeting, as well as declarations from the League through its leader and joint Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, have stirred things up against Mattarella and the higher functions of the state. Finally, despite present assurances, the 5-SM still stands out against interference from the EU in the political economy of Italy and for the return of a national currency.

The League, having already assumed some governmental responsibilities in the past with Umberto Bossi, former League leader, presents itself today as less variable and more coherent and (after dumping its regionalist character), as a national force. However, it remains a force with a strong anti-European significance ("Italy must not be restrained by Germany"), as Russophile and xenophobic ("If I get into government, I'll begin with a big clear-out, make rules to arm and protect the frontiers from the Alps to Sicily)[4].

These two parties could call into question Italy's choice of imperialist alliances, both being more or less favourable to an "overture" from Russia:

2. A governmental programme (that of a deal between 5-SM and the League), which behind a torrent of words hides a total incoherence on some crucial choices regarding the economy, such as employment, while on others it proposes measures such as the "citizen's income", the low "flat rate tax" and the abolition of the "Fornero reform" on pensions (which envisaged higher retirement age, higher contributions, etc.). There's not only no financial budgeting for all of this, but it also dangerously calls into question the positive results (from the point of view of capitalism's interests) obtained by the state over the last years from this so-called reform. This deal moreover, was associated with the economics minister Savone who, although he says today that he doesn't want to come out of the EU, is a declared fervent anti-European. Putting his policies in place would mean evident problems for the Italian state within the EU;

3. A strongly discredited political apparatus (the Democratic Party and the Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi, this latter fraction of the centre-right having only gained power in the past as a member of a coalition with the League and the Brothers of Italy), incapable of setting up a real alternative to the populist forces and equally torn apart by internal divisions and conflicts.

All this is in the context where beyond such phrases as the "defence of Italian interests", each element tries to defend their own interests, to maintain and strengthen the place they have on the political stage to the detriment of the others. For example, in the case of the refusal of the DP to accept 5-SM, which would have probably discredited it even more, or the League, which has played on its electoral success as much in negotiations with 5-SM as with the centre-right coalition.

Taking account of this framework and of the absolute priority of the Italian state to assure a relative stability in its budget, of its hard-won capacity to negotiate within the EU and its respect for present imperialist alliances, it is clear that the planned government would cause a great deal of concern to the dominant class. The veto on the nomination of Savona comes from this, with Mattarella fulfilling the role conferred on him through the Constitution to the President of the Republic as the guarantor of the defence of the national interest. In fact Di Maio has a point when he said at a meeting in Fiumicino: "In this country, you can be a condemned criminal, condemned for fiscal fraud... you could have committed crimes against the public administration, you could be subject to an enquiry for corruption and become a Minister. But if you've criticised Europe, you can't even be allowed to become a Minister of the Economy". In fact that's how it works because contrary what to what he, Grillo (comedian and co-founder of 5-SM) Salvini, Meloni, Travaglio (a journalist investigating corruption among Italian politicians) and their consorts want us to think, the Italian Constitution, as well as that of any other state, is nothing less than a tool in the hands of the ruling class for controlling and managing its domination over society in the best way possible, in a democratic framework, safeguarding the national capital on the economic level and on the international political scale.

However, the bourgeoisie, as much in Italy as Germany, Britain or the United States, has another problem: it can't exclude from the populist forces which win elections from forming governments, because that would demolish the democratic mystification which constitutes the most powerful tool of its domination. The extremely prudent and patient waiting-game of Matterella is based on this recognition and his attempt to form a government that is as weak as possible is similar to what Angela Merkel is manoeuvring around in Germany. The supplementary problem posed by the situation in Italy is that here there isn't the possibility of deploying a third force along with Salvini and Di Maio. It's not by chance that the first attempt by Matterella was to try to form a government of all of the centre-right forces with 5-SM and with the presence of Forza Italia, because despite all the discredit he has suffered, Berlesconi (who has served in four governments as Prime Minister), has nevertheless shown his loyalty to NATO and the EU.

The finally constituted Conte government maintains all its problematic nature and it will have to be mastered. But the firmness of Matarella on the Economy minister and on the institutional role of the President of the Republic have at least forced 5-SM and the League to fall into line from previously irresponsible attitudes of protest and to express their opinion on the position of Italy at the international level.

What are the consequences for the proletariat?

As we've already said, the programme of this new government will do nothing to stem the increase in poverty and precariousness, the lack of perspectives, the social degradation that the vast majority of the exploited are living through, many of whom can't even sell the only thing that they have: their labour. Or, if they have a job, it's in conditions of slavery which often doesn't even allow them to survive. The great measures promised by the government are the "citizen's income" and the flat rate tax (a 15 - 20% tax rate). The first, already largely re-scaled down from the electoral promises, doesn't rise much more than 80 euros and carries with it growing conditions of blackmail: either you accept any type of job with whatever wages going or you get nothing. In fact that means that you must live on 780 euros a month which hardly covers the rent or the cost of a roof above your head. For its part, the flat rate tax raises nothing and adds nothing for lower incomes but allows a lot of saving for higher incomes. Paradoxically it favours businessmen of the Berlesconi type and certainly not the ordinary wage earner. It's clear that in judging the first steps of the Conte government, the consolidation of the public accounts and international politics can only be made at the expense of the workers who are the producers of all the national wealth.

However, the greatest effect of this electoral farce and the recent events on the proletariat is situated on the ideological level.

Democracy at work against the proletariat

There's no doubt that events over the last months have caused incredulity and confusion but they have also further discredited a divided political class that is hesitant in its political choices and incapable of facing up to a tragic situation. There's no doubt that this gives rise to some reflection and questioning and an attempt to understand the reasons behind it, beyond the contingencies of the formation of a government. But this process of reflection is trapped and skewed by a whole series of mystifications used by the League and 5-SM in order to push the proletarians to look for the reasons for their suffering in this or that particular evil, this or that institution, but never in the economic system of capitalism itself which, based on exploitation, competition and the struggle between nation states, can only favour a small, dominant minority to the detriment of the rest of humanity. Thus, in this lying framework, refugees and immigrants become the scapegoats, "invaders" against whom it's necessary to protect ourselves; together with dependence on Germany, all this is presented as being responsible for crippling taxes and the loss of life savings, for people losing their jobs and living on miserable wages of misery, for depriving the new generation of a decent life.

However, the most damaging mystifications which have regained their full force over the last months are those of the defence of democracy and nationalism. Matterella’s veto on Savone has unleashed a ringing choir from 5-SM, the League, the Brothers of Italy and a whole series of media representatives such as Travaglio, according to whom democracy has been trampled underfoot, preventing the parties freely chosen by the "sovereign people" from governing. For this reason Matterella and his clique are painted as puppets manipulated by other nations who want to dictate their law to the Italian "people".

This campaign has had a certain echo in the population and also among the proletariat, provoking a division between two opposing camps: between those defending the institutions (represented by Matterella in this business) and those defending the sovereignty of the "Italian people" against interference by foreign states. This opposition is more apparent than real because the idea that unites the two positions is the defence of the democratic state as expressing the interests of the "citizens" of a given nation who decide their own destiny through voting.

But it's precisely the weight of this mystification which prevents the development of consciousness within the working class on the fundamental nature of this system and its political apparatus. Democracy carries with it the idea that the basis of society is not that of classes but of the individual and that the individual as a "citizen" can only act by delegating the defence of their interests to a larger group (party, union or institution). This is what leads millions of workers to vote, to think that such and such a party can change anything despite the growing disillusionment and distrust towards the parties, despite the anger faced with the inhuman living conditions imposed upon them. Nationalism strengthens this idea by posing the defence of the individual as part of a national whole, in which our interests as the exploited are the same as those that exploit and oppress us, and where we all have an interest in a minimum of security faced with a common enemy (whether this takes the form of the interference of other powers or an influx of migrants). This strengthens still more the difficulty of the proletariat in seeing itself as part of one class with distinct interests from the rest of society; a world class where millions of workers are in the same position and must defend themselves against the attacks of capital whether in Italy, Germany, China or America. The two aspects of this mystification thus tend to keep the workers attached to the state and to its institutions but, above all, they hold back the development of class consciousness in a collective, social force which can not only defend itself but can also radically change society.

Populism feeds these mystifications which are the main weapons of the bourgeoisie. It is only by taking up its class identity, its status as a class that is both exploited and revolutionary, that the proletariat will be able to confront the traps of democracy and populist ideology and, above all, overcome the capitalist system and its noxious consequences for humanity.

From Rivoluzione Internazionale, the ICC's section in Italy, June 13 2018.


[1]  See our Theses on decomposition, the ultimate phase of capitalist decadence, written in May 1990 and re-published in the International Review no. 107.

[2]  Contribution on the problem of populism and Resolution on the international situation of 22nd International Congress of the ICC.

[3]  Growing difficulties for the bourgeoisie and the working class, 13.7.16, ICConline.

[4]  Interview of Fattie/Misfatti with Matteo Salvini, ex- Federal Secretary of the Northern League, now joint Deputy PM and Minister of the Interior, 29.1.2018.