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Italy’s Political Chaos Wasn’t an Exception – It Was the New Normal

For years, Italy was cast as Europe's basket case – plagued by political instability and economic malaise. But today its chaos looks less like an outlier and more like a model countries like Britain are destined to follow.

With its chaotic politics and continual economic crises, Italy is often portrayed as the most backwards member of the European family. In actual fact, Italy offers us a glimpse into our collective future, as neoliberalism severs the link between social class and political representation.

In First They Took Rome, David Broder shows us how the great fortresses of Christian Democracy and Communism suddenly collapsed in the early 1990s and brought us to where we are today. Broder unravels the mystery of how one of Europe’s most stable democracies, boasting superb labour rights and a thriving manufacturing economy, became a basket case almost over night – plagued by political instability, poverty, and mass emigration.

The First Republic

The Italian state which emerged out of the Second World War was constituted by a coalition of the main forces of the anti-fascist resistance. The partisan government was a popular front alliance of communists, socialists, and liberals, and lasted just long enough to draw up Italy’s treasured constitution, which enshrined economic as well as political rights for the popular classes.

However, this short-lived political unity was crushed by the imperatives of the Cold War. Italy’s new NATO sponsors dictated that the Italian Communist Party (PCI) be expelled and permanently excluded from participation in government. The CIA even went so far as to implement a top-secret ‘stay-behind’ infiltration mission, Operation Gladio, to ensure compliance with this dictat.

The First Republic was, functionally, a one-party state, with the Christian Democrats (DC) forming a permanent—albeit factionally changeable—government, occasionally supported by the pro-western Italian Socialist Party (PSI). The DC, with its own base in business, the Church, and the Catholic trade unions, created a patrimonial welfare state on the basis of a mixed economy.

Going from strength-to-strength electorally, but legally locked into national opposition, the PCI created its own state-within-a-state. The Italy of the PCI, described by Pier Paolo Passolini as a ‘clean country within a dirty country’, manifested in an interlocking network of cultural institutions, co-operatives, and mutualised businesses. It was rooted in the powerful communist-aligned section of the trade union movement and shaped by the party’s ample presence in local government.

The PCI, with its compelling legacy as the leading actor in the anti-fascist resistance, was a persistent political check on the DC. It negotiated policy concessions for the working class through trade union action, as well enjoying the more subtle leverage derived from the political threat posed by a mass communist party actively supported by 30-40 percent of the population.

Revolution on the Right

Ending not with a bang, but a whimper, the once mighty PCI quietly dissolved itself along with the general collapse of Soviet-style communism in the early 1990s. Christian Democracy, deeply rooted in the fabric of the state itself, was destroyed with much greater violence.

With the threat of communist takeover vanquished once and for all, light finally began to pour onto the DC’s networks of personal patrimony, outright corruption and links to organised crime. With massive popular backing, an activist judiciary went to war with Christian Democracy, uprooting and prosecuting one powerful figure after another, destroying both the party and the First Republic in the process.

While this might have been expected to ‘clean up’ Italian politics, in fact the opposite was true. Into the smoking ruins of the First Republic stepped media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI) arrived on the scene with a completely new model of party organisation. Dispensing with any form of local cadre organisation, and without an activist base rooted in society, FI rapidly advanced to electoral triumph on the back of Berlusconi’s privately-owned television empire. FI officials were selected by Berlusconi personally, and the entire operation was conceived of as a business for winning elections, rather than as a vehicle for mass political participation. FI had no real agenda other than to defend the vested interests of Berlusconi and his associates, his right-wing political showmanship and cronyism preempting the rise of Donald Trump by decades.

As Berlusconi rose to demagogic status, other new forces were coalescing on the right. With a more traditional activist base in local branches, the Lega Nord began life as a separatist movement in the wealthy industrial north. But despite being mostly rooted in the resentful small business class, Lega Nord was not in itself the product of class politics. The Lega’s regionalism was highly identitarian, with activists kicking against perceived threats to their specific local privilege. Generally sceptical of the European Union and actively opposed to immigration, their dislike of outsiders was conspicuously extended to Southern Italy, which they considered a different, grossly inferior country.

Although decisively in favour of the market economy and a small, austerian state, the main political appeal of the Lega was its defence of a supposedly unique northern Italian cultural identity. If Berlusconi’s glitzy populism was even then creating a model for Trumpism, the Lega were pioneering a political model that would be employed with devastating effect by the UK’s Nigel Farage.

Capitulation on the Left

Although willing to conform sluggishly to pressure from the European Union for economic ‘restructuring’ (a euphemism for mass privatisation and deregulation), Berlusconi’s FI were not exactly doctrinaire neoliberals. They did not view the bloated carcass of the First Republic as something to be swept away, but a resource to be cannibalised at a steady pace. In a more extreme twist of fate than that which occurred under the New Democrats in the USA and New Labour in the UK, the post-communist Democratic Party (PD) would take up the mantle of extreme free marketisation of the Italian economy.

Going further than even Tony Blair, the PD demolished the historical link with organised labour that they had inherited from the PCI. They replaced the political leadership of the working class with a caste of unelected ‘experts’, mostly bankers and free-market economists. These technocrats would oversee Italy’s transformation into a ‘normal country’ without any undue democratic pressure from the masses, considered over-susceptible to losing sight of their real interests in favour of the temptation of populism.

The PD invited these technocrats to step into positions of ministerial authority, in a shocking gesture of contempt for the core principles of liberal democracy itself. The appointment of unelected individuals to governmental posts has sadly since become standard fare in Italian politics – most recently in the installation of European central banker Mario Draghi as Prime Minister, who immediately proceeded to outsource the creation of economic policy to management consultancy firm McKinsey.

When the neoliberal reform package failed to produce economic growth—as it did everywhere—and instead created gross inequality and a mass exodus of the youth, the PD blamed their declining social base for their inadequacies. The young, when not fleeing the country altogether, were feckless and lazy, freeloading on their parents by choosing to live at home, on average, well into their thirties.

Conversely, the ageing section of the working class still in secure employment were acting as a blockage on the labour market, stifling the dynamism of the free market with their selfish insistence on clinging to those contractual protections left over from an age of greater trade union freedom. The result was the political destruction of the Italian left, who had done everything in their power to erase the main sociological basis of their own strength.

After the collapse of their own ‘Red Wall’, the PD survived on a shrinking electorate of former PCI voters – those comfortably well-off enough to see their political allegiance in cultural rather than economic terms.  When it could mobilise large voter turn-outs, it was against the presence of the ‘barbarians at the gate’ – the barbarians being the multiple threats of Berlusconism, neofascism, and an increasingly confident Lega, who had abandoned their northern regionalism in a pitch to unite all Italy behind their xenophobic nationalism. Having given up on the future, the PD’s sole electoral appeal was a despairing cry of ‘we’re not as bad as them!’.

The Empty Heart of Anti-Politics

Against the disintegration of the PD, there arose a new populist movement among the young, the working class, and the unemployed. The Five Star Movement (M5S) organised online, via the blog of comedian Beppe Grillo, which became one of the most frequently visited websites in the world.

Superficially, the social movement-ism of M5S mirrored that of Podemos, Syriza, or La France Insoumise. But despite being attached to a defence of the welfare state, M5S maintained itself as a deliberately blank political canvass, attempting to appeal to both right- and left-wing voters disgusted that the ‘Clean Hands’ anti-corruption drives of the 1990s had produced an even less democratic political culture.

In the rootless carnival of Italian politics, M5S was nonetheless able to emerge from obscurity to national prominence in an astonishingly short time. However, upon assuming institutional power at local and national level, the deliberate emptiness of M5S’s political centre became an absolute liability.

In an effort to maintain the movement’s political amorphousness, the organisation’s centre routinely expelled its elected representatives when they attempted to break this way or that on particular issues of policy. Further, lacking in any programmatic or social cohesion, M5S officials found themselves more easily changed by the institutions they stepped into than they themselves were able to change those institutions. The movement was therefore forced to drop its few concrete positions against corruption and coalitions, and in favour of term limits for MPs, as its elected representatives proved incapable of living up to them in practice.

Worse, despite impressive electoral showings, M5S were forced to sharply break out of a ‘anti-political’ coalition government with the Lega’s Matteo Salvini. Salvini’s fierce nationalism and savvy media performances dominated his numerically stronger coalition partners. Having been shown up as playing second fiddle to the ideologically confident Lega, M5S instead pitched their tent in PD camp, in opposition to an increasingly threatening far-right coalition in the Italian mainstream.

In doing so, the social movement whose only real purpose was to ‘put the people back into power’ has become complicit in a programme further alienating political authority to unelected technocrats acting on behalf of unaccountable European capital.

Italy’s Present, Our Future

First They Took Rome is a clear, methodical dissection of the confusing mess that is the last thirty years of Italian politics. It is not a comfortable read, each page revealing Italy’s political slide into ever more convoluted farce. Although the book deserves rich praise for making this mystifying subject matter intelligible to a non-Italian readership, its principal achievement lies in its analytical subtext.

Italy is widely slandered in similar terms as countries in the developing world: it is innately non-disposed to political stability and a functioning market economy, perhaps due to some racial, cultural, or even climatic inferiority. David Broder shows this lazy stereotype for the nonsense that it is. Italy’s suffering is the direct result of the harsh neoliberal experiment that, in conjunction with the ideologues of the European Union, its ruling elites have forced upon their own people.

The Italian farce is a premonition for the future of the entire developed world, unless it breaks sharply with the failed orthodoxies of the free market. The unspoken conclusion, however, is that it may already be too late.