• The Dilemma of the Italian Left:Origins and Perspectives

  • Luciana Castellina | 09 Nov 10 | Posted under: Italy
  • The Italian left has been an extraordinarily large and important left. In many respects it was an anomaly in the European left – this, both in terms of traditional organisations (a very strong communist party, the PCI, and a socialist party, the PSI, that long cooperated with it) and in terms of those which emerged after 1968 (present also in parliament and in the trade-union movement). It played a determining role in post-war Italy. For this reason, the crisis that is now affecting left parties in Europe has a much greater impact here than elsewhere: socially, culturally, and politically. As a result, in Italy the coincidence between the crisis of the left and of the whole society is much stronger than elsewhere and is seen in the dramatic deterioration of the democratic and civil institutions themselves.

    There are many reasons for this close connection. First of all, Italy never had a state fully regarded by the population as legitimate. This was first because of the elitist character assumed by the Risorgimento that led to the country’s unification and left its mark on the whole pre-war era (as Gramsci lucidly described), and later, because of the fascist dictatorship. Consequently, democracy in 1945 was not so much embodied in the fragile and unpopular state institutions but was born from below, with the Resistance, which was not only a military phenomenon but a widespread assumption of civic responsibility on the part of those who defined themselves as “partisan society” (the very progressive Italian Constitution of 1948 is much more the result of this shared experience than of a political compromise agreed at the top). In the years to follow, it was the left, especially the PCI, that guaranteed, or, better, built, democracy in Italy. It worked to create an extraordinary network of collective organisms involving peasants, workers, middle strata and intellectuals, transforming them into protagonists for the first time in history, and thus promoting an unprecedented phenomenon of politicization and acculturation that had never before been seen. The traditional rebellious popular minority, which for a century expressed itself in the angry burning down of town halls, and whose counterpart was an apathetic majority, was now replaced by an extensive and precious democratic participation, which also generated and maintained – and this was undoubtedly Togliatti’s masterpiece – a profoundly alternative life and culture, with extensive organisational expressions, in relation to the system in which it operated, saving it for many decades from the danger of absorption.

    I mention these things to emphasise the great degree to which the deterioration of democracy was determined by the dissolution of the PCI in 1990 (which did not lead to the emergence of any other force which could boast of a comparable popular rootedness) as well as by the traumatic effect of the stubbornness with which a part of the left (the leadership of DS – the successor organisation of the PCI – but also a wing of the old new left) wanted completely to liquidate the experience of the 20th century, as if it were only a heap of rubble.

    Certainly, at each change of historical phase it is necessary to look with fresh critical eyes at the past, but in Italy there was very little critical analysis and instead a true erasure of memory, as if people wanted to throw off a burden that hindered full integration into the dominant culture, seen as “modern”. As a consequence, since the 1990s Italian society is full of people who, in terms of political thought, are “stateless”, and unable to till the fields in which they could have grown new plants. (Instead, in the form of new political icons, these fields sprouted oaks, olive trees, daisies – the symbols, respectively, of the DS, the centre-left government coalition, and a part of the ex-Christian Democrats – and other vegetable matter in a hitherto unheard of profusion, but without roots.) From 1990 to 1991, in little more than a year, 800,000 activists quietly abandoned the PCI, and, at the same time, politics. (Only a very small fringe was absorbed by Rifondazione Comunista, still alive in protest movements, but quite incapable of rooting themselves in society.)

    Mine is not a nostalgic lament; rather I am attempting an explanation of what is difficult to understand: How could Berlusconi – a bit weakened today but still continuing – have succeeded to the extent he did in a country with such a strong left hegemony? If today anti-government protest, however fragmented, has as its principal distinctive feature an anti-politics, which is gaining ground and becoming still more vulgar everyday, this is because in the last 20 years the experiences, values and visions of the world of many people have been humiliated, making many silent and mistrustful. Erasing all traces of oneself, exalting an empty “nuovismo” (“newism”), a large part of the left has produced an unprecedented kind of generational break, cutting off any transmission of experience, in the end destroying subjectivity. Also, because killing the past is tantamount to killing the future – as it abolishes the sense of time, and with it the utopia of the future, so as to suffer the shortsightedness of the petty dictatorship of the present. As philosopher and feminist Wendy Brown wrote after 1989, an imagery was created that was cramped by the uncritical acceptance of a banalised democracy, reduced to an ever more impoverished ritual substituting for participation. In Italy where the labour movement was less integrated than it was in social-democratic Europe, the death of utopia has been more traumatic than elsewhere.

    In this vacuum it was inevitable that the weakest social strata should become prey of the only nourishment offered them, that of Berlusconian culture, which is the carrier of a model of life: an extreme individualism disinterested in anything collective and common, and consequently arrogant and violent. Resistance was easier for the more educated urban strata who have more critical instruments at their disposal. It is a fact that today’s large anti-Berlusconi demonstrations, which the left occasionally succeeds in mounting, are visibly peopled by those called the “enlightened middle strata”, but are completely invisible to those who live in the urban peripheries and who, with their vote (or their non vote) are deserting the left – both the radical and the centre-left.

    If we do not start again from here, from a project with a long-term perspective of the patient reconstruction of a new culture and new system of values, returning to privileging, not only in words but through being physically present, the places where the people live whom we once called the proletariat, it is difficult to see how we can climb back up the slope. Unemployment, precariousness and the deterioration of social conditions being produced by the economic crisis are insufficient by themselves for inverting the prevailing orientation; they produce rebellions that damage Berlusconi’s image but not an alternative. Thus it happens that although the crisis multiplies the reasons for protesting, the left continues to balkanise itself rather than grow, and the electorate entrusts itself to the most alternative wing of the opposition, to the right, not even Forza Italia any longer but to the Northern League, for example, because the latter at least offers the petty comfort of micro-communalism – or it lets itself be taken in by the “anti-political” broadsides of a movement like that of the comic Beppe Grillo, wo claims he is neither right nor left but “above both”. There is the dangerous enlargement of the muddy swamp which is spreading from the Paduan plain toward the richest provinces of the central regions, where even red strongholds are beginning to vacillate, but, above all, where there is an insidious political-cultural barbarisation of society underway. Increasing racism is only a sign of this. At the same time, in the south, which remains bereft of any democratic rallies and demos, due to the abandonment of the left, the terrain has been occupied by mafia gangs strengthened by the illegal economy they manage and who offer at least some small change to people.

    Not that there are no protest demonstrations – let’s be clear about that. This autumn the streets were filled with middle-school and university students striking against Minister Gelmini’s school reform. The streets were also full of “precarious workers”, by now the great majority of the labour market’s new recruits; of young people fighting against water privatisation, who gathered an unprecedented number of signatures to establish a referendum which would annul the government’s decisions; of “no Tav” (the anti-high-speed-train movement); of “no bridge” (against the bridge that to be built over the Straits of Messina); of “no tunnel”(against the viaducts which destroy the environment); of “no Molin” (against the expansion of the American military base in Vicenza); of the “popolo Viola” who are organising the “No B days” (No-Berlusconi Days). And they are also filled with immigrants who, despite the intimidating climate created by the security obsession, are reacting for the first time, taking into their hands what up to recently were only demonstrations of solidarity organised by native Italians.

    From these movements the embryo of a new political culture is also emerging: the rediscovery of “common goods”, different from public or private ones and practices of participatory democracy through the creation of networks which extend to the international level. These are precious phenomena, and it would be very wrong to undervalue them. And yet, if I am not taken with enthusiasm at seeing them fill the country’s streets, it is because I believe it’s necessary to understand that although these phenomena constitute important cracks in the hegemonic Berlusconian pattern, they do not in themselves present a short-term alternative. Thus they do not seem to have any impact on the various formations that are proposing, in one way or the other, building a centre-left coalition capable of beating Berlusconi. Nor do they seem to be reinvigorating the fragmented left.

    With one positive exception, though: the unprecedented popularity, whose breadth has something to do with these movements, of Nichi Vendola, re-elected last Spring as governor of the region of Apulia after having beaten the candidate of the Democratic Party in its own primary election. He is now at the top of the polls for the national primaries of the DP, which the Party’s secretary is committed to hold in order to select Berlusconi’s opponent in possible early elections aiming at a “limited-purpose government” only for getting rid of the “cavaliere”, not for realising a shared programme (but his party is already tearing itself up again over this perspective).

    Vendola – the head of the minority (49.9 %) of Rifondazione Comunista after the 2008 electoral defeat and now leader of the SEL (Sinistra ecologia libertà) which is also absorbing that part of the dissolved DS which refused to enter into the DP – has been able to invent a new non-politicese language and respond to the desire for a politics not completely centred on governability but endowed with a new vision of the world, and he is above all the animator of new forms of grassroots organisation – “le fabbriche di Nichi” (“Nichi’s factories” which emerged on the wave of positive initiatives created by the Apulian governing coalition aimed at youth). He could certainly be a point of reference for a new grouping of the left capable of conquering new generations for politics. However, also here, although it involves a phenomenon which swells our heart, we have to proceed with caution. For now Vendola is strong from his extraordinary media success, and he was able skilfully to use the new communication technologies.

    These technologies are splendid in generating demonstrations, but they are also bearers of an ambiguous culture that has in fact “Americanised” Italian politics: it has induced a sacralisation of public opinion and of civil society which is proposed as a democratic model alternative to the model based on collective and organised processes to construct projects and strategies, such as the selection of consolidated leaderships which enable movements to continue through time and to accumulate the strength to handle the conflicts that any transformation brings with it (the parties and unions in the European tradition); which produces an assemblage of a multitude of networked individuals, a universe of singularities having in common a very fragile common culture and therefore a source of populist temptations, good for inciting consensus, very weak for constructing sense. It is no accident that Obama’s meet ups, as extraordinary as they may be during elections, where no longer in the field when the newly-elected president had to stand up to the strong powers that blocked his healthcare reform. And God only knows how difficult it will be to transform Berlusconian Italy!

    Vendola knows these things very well, but for now he has not managed to have a party or at least something similar behind him; he is facing a DP incapable of even deciding whether it wants an electoral alliance with the left to beat Berlusconi or if it prefers to unite with the fragments detaching itself from Berlusconi’s alliance, the Catholic centrists and the new party of the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini (emerging originally from the ranks of fascists, no less, even if today among the most active in the opposition) and thus condemn itself to another defeat.

    It would be dilettantish to formulate an hypothesis of what could happen in the near future in Italy. One of the crisis’ characteristics is in fact that it created a situation in which everyone is fighting everyone else; it is hard to know who is really in control and what the next moves of the key figures will be. One example is enough to illustrate this: voices in favour of the candidacy for Prime Minister of Luca di Monteaemolo, the ex-president of Fiat and of Confindustria (the association of Italian employers), current president of Ferrari, are being heard from right and left sectors. He himself commented: “this fact illustrates the confused state in which Italian politics finds itself”.

    Precisely in this crumbling lies the danger of the present moment: the strong powers will act quickly to reunite and could benefit from the generalised instability and uncertainty to ditch even what little of democracy remains, coups de main that become all the easier if one realises that Italy has become a marginal country which a declining Europe does not suffice to save, now that – as when Columbus discovered America and the axis of history shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic – the dynamic is no longer centred in the west but in the east, in the Pacific. For this reason even solely defensive battles are welcome, on the condition that we measure what is to be done not against the short wave of the present but against the long phase which is opening in this historic transition.

    As I read in his last book, Slavoj Z?iz?ek has relaunched the old Maoist motto: “Great is the confusion under heaven, the situation is excellent”. This is to say that the crisis is not only a disaster but also an occasion for transformation – a risky but stimulating proposal – on condition that we liberate ourselves from the idea that we cannot, the real block to profound change, more characteristic of current tendencies than the endlessly repeated but more beautiful yes we can. I want to say that to win again, a lot of courage and imagination are needed. And a lot of time.


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