Mario Monti appears as a guest on the RAI television show Porta a Porta (Door to Door) in Rome January 14, 2013. Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi
Rome—Italy’s general election on February 24-25 comes at a decisive moment for this country and for Europe. The neoliberal consensus that has powered Germany’s (and Europe’s) mean and miserly response to the 2008 depression seems to be faltering. Italians have a chance to make a real choice. To put it in a nutshell: Is the answer to our present economic and social ordeal more fiscal probity, or is it more social justice?
On the side of probity, there’s the technocrat who was Italian prime minister until he resigned in late December, Mario Monti. Many Italians are grateful to Monti for stepping in to rescue Italy from near bankruptcy in November 2011. He intervened in a crisis gravely exacerbated by his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi, who was forced to sign a series of binding promises to the EU before leaving office. But now that Monti has himself entered the political fray to run for prime minister, it’s evident that his own conservative recipe is pretty close to what has been the EU line (yes, the one that has reduced Greeks to sawing down trees for wood to heat their homes and brought neo-Nazi protest groups like Golden Dawn to the fore).
If you don’t mind an oxymoron, you could call the Monti approach “compassionate neoliberalism.” That is, shrinking the public sector, increasing competition, mopping up social ills with private charity. Political scientist Nadia Urbinati coined the term cattoliberismo for it: free-market ideology paired with Catholic charity, “reducing the welfare state while enlarging Catholic philanthropy, ideally using state incentives.” Monti is in fact a loyal Catholic and so are his backers, most of whom are former Christian Democrats. Gay marriage, to mention the most pressing social issue, is not high on their agenda. “Reform”—doing away with “vested interests,” including job protections, pension rights and “excessive” welfare spending—is Monti’s mantra. The business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore put it this way: “Monti addresses himself to consumers, rather than to producers, and focuses on liberalization, rather than redistributing wealth.”
On the side of social justice stands center-left candidate Pier Luigi Bersani. He believes in public investment to stimulate and modernize the Italian economy; wants to defend what has been achieved in public health, education and welfare; and calls on Italy to promote civil and human rights “such as civil unions for gay couples, automatic citizenship for children of immigrants born in Italy, and gender parity.” He echoes the words of the great union leader Bruno Trentin when he says that holding a job “is not merely an instrument to maintain a family, it represents a person’s dignity.” Critical of Monti’s sometimes off-hand approach to unemployment, Bersani thinks that “all of us should have the right to a share in transforming the world.”
In short, the center left stands for modern European social democracy and Keynesian economic incentives. Bersani, secretary of the Democratic Party (PD), is sometimes accused of not being dynamic enough, but he defeated four other candidates in an energizing two-stage leadership primary in late November–early December. In round one he beat charismatic Nikki Vendola of Left Ecology Freedom (Sinistra Ecologia Libertà, or SEL), who has joined forces with the PD in this election, and in the run-off ran well ahead of the youthful mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, a PD reformer somewhat in the Tony Blair mold whom Italian business considered a far more appealing face for the center left. In late December a second round of primaries to select parliamentary candidates yielded quite a few new faces (and upsets for some longtime pols) and a field that is now a remarkable 40 percent women. In polls, the PD-SEL is far ahead of the field, with more than 35 percent.
Bersani, although he has criticized Monti’s policies, has been reluctant to attack him personally. Monti, however, has been blasting the progressives, calling left-winger Vendola (guilty of the rousing remark “the super-rich can go to hell”), left union leader Susanna Camusso and Bersani’s rather stern economic adviser Stefano Fassina “reactionaries.” He even said they should be “silenced.”