Letter from Italy

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With Silvio Berlusconi's government embroiled in fresh controversy, new struggles are taking off, writes Phil Rushton.


Photo: Elizabeth Austen

In the months after the election of the Berlusconi government in 2008 an overwhelming sense of gloom took over the Italian left. But in recent months those clouds of despondency have been progressively blown away. That's not to say that there's been a wholesale recovery of the kind of optimism that pervaded the left during the growth of the anti-capitalist and especially anti-war movements between 2001 and 2003, but in the space of a year things have changed markedly.

The left was in crisis after the fall of the centre-left government and saw Berlusconi's combination of media empire and political popularity as heralding a new age of dark reaction.

And yet today the hard right of Gianfranco Fini has broken away from Berlusconi's "Popolo della Libertà", open conflict has broken out with the bosses' organisation Confindustria and the government only just survived a vote of no confidence. Also an attempt to pass a law blocking any move to bring Berlusconi to court on the many charges he faces has been declared unconstitutional, leaving him open to prosecution.

What happened? Much of the answer lies in the failure of the government to solve Italy's economic problems, with a growth rate well below the European average and where the finances of the country expose it to attacks by speculators. The Italian ruling class was prepared to tolerate Berlusconi's clowning around if he managed to put forward a strategy for making Italian capital more competitive, but the instability created by his style of rule has created more problems than his populist appeal managed to solve.

So what of a fightback? The situation is still difficult. On the radical left, Rifondazione, which had thrown itself into the mobilisations of 2001-03, disastrously participated in the centre-left led government of 2006-08.

The departure of a section of the right wing inside Rifondazione seemed to offer the prospect of a turn away from a political strategy of electoral alliances and holding on to seats in local and national administrations. Paradoxically it has been the section which most seemed to hanker after a return to "the movement" which has lacked initiative. The section around Nichi Vendola, governor of the Puglia region, has made most of the running so far, despite representing more or less the same electoral option which led to disaster in 2008.

Outside Rifondazione, a number of noted national political figures have offered the possibility of moving from consistent and ferocious attacks on Berlusconi's corruption to a broader social base beyond the middle classes. But so far they have not put down any considerable roots in the working class.

Yet despite the lack of a new political leadership, struggles are taking off, though defensive and often isolated. School and university students have been fighting the Gelmini law, which imposes huge cuts and privatisation. More than a million and a half signatures have been collected in a campaign calling for a referendum to rescind the government law imposing privatisation on water services.

The metal workers' union Fiom has been locked in a fight with Fiat management which in mid-January forced a referendum on workers at the Mirafiori car plant in Turin. The alternatives: accept greatly worsened conditions or we shut the plant. Despite being abandoned by the CGIL national union confederation, and by its old political allies in the "Democratic Left" who have now sunk into the Italian Democratic Party, Fiom rallied workers far beyond its own membership at the factory to a "No" position. Against all the odds, 46 percent voted against the management ultimatum, which will infuriate the bosses and act as a beacon to other groups of workers.

In October a national metal workers' demonstration drew workers into the streets from the schools, the transport unions, public services and many other sectors. It is to be hoped that the strike call by the same metal workers for 28 January can act as a catalyst in the same way, helping millions of workers made to pay for the economic crisis begin to find a way to respond and build a fightback.

Phil Rushton is a member of Sinistra Critica in Naples.