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Italy's Summer of Discontent | The Nation

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Italy's Summer of Discontent

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Maastricht--shorthand now for the speeding up of the European Community's financial integration--is both an eye-opener and a mystification. The prospect of financial and political unity, which may or may not take place by the end of the millennium, is compelling member states to reach certain common standards. But this convergence is also being used by the establishment in most of the countries, like the diktats of the I.M.F. in the Third World, to introduce deflationary policies. Italy presents a good example of the tensions thus created. Its press is full of cliches about open borders and the financial measures the country must take to remain in the top league of European players. Full of editorials, too, about the need for a strong government capable of imposing such policies.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

When I reported from Rome a year ago the political climate was already reminiscent of France in 1958, when General de Gaulle changed the number and the nature of the republic [see "Fiddling While Rome Smolders," July 29/August 5 , 1991]. Now two of last year's major preachers of strong rule are no longer a threat: President Francesco Cossiga duly retired, and Bettino Craxi, the Socialist leader, is up to his neck in a scandal emanating from Milan and ensnaring some of Italy's biggest firms and leading politicians. The feeling of crisis is stronger than ever, heralded by a series of dramatic events.

In April's parliamentary poll the ruling four-party coalition clung to office by the skin of its teeth. The election foreshadowed the end of the reign of the Christian Democrats (D.C.), now nearly half a century old. That decline was coupled with, indeed rendered possible by, the even bigger collapse of Communist influence. The Democratic Party of the Left (P.D.S.) got less than half the vote its Communist ancestor (the P.C.I.) used to have. Were it not for the disappearance of the "Red peril," the angry middle classes would not have deserted the D.C. in such great numbers for Umberto Bossi's Lombard League. For their part, the leghe are bound to prosper on the putrefaction spreading from Milan, the symptom of the twilight of a reign.

And so I went to Rome, which, for all the strains affecting the unity of the republic, is still very much the political capital; to stately Bologna, the fief of the P.D.S.; and to Milan,now nicknamed tangentopoli, the city of kickbacks. I talked to politicians and labor leaders, economists and sociologists, professors and fellow journalists. They all confirmed that the regime is at the end of its tether. None, however, could clearly define what solutions the capitalist establishment can invent to forge the strong executive needed to perpetuate its rule. (Although the country has been badly shaken by the Mafia's deadly explosions and though its open defiance of the state is very much part of the present crisis, as shown by the shipment of troops to Sicily, the growing connection between organized crime and politics is a subject on its own.)

Ciao Giulio

White the newspapers were full of stories about the new government, most commentators were already thinking about a new regime. The old has done its time. Italy is probably the only country, along with Japan, in which the same party has been in office since the war. The same system and almost the same men. The novelty in the new team was the conspicuous absence of Giulio Andreotti, the outgoing prime minister, who had started his ministerial career in 1947 and had a post, in most of the fifty-two governments since the war.

The fifty-third, in its backing, is no different from its predecessors. It must rely on the now barely sufficient support of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists (P.S.I.) as well as their tiny allies, the Social Democrats and the Liberals. In many ways it is a second team. Giuliano Amato, Craxi's lieutenant, got the job of prime minister because his master was not presentable. The D.C., too, withheld its key figures. For a government of transition, designed to tighten the belt and prepare the ground for the sale of public assets, this may not be a drawback: The blame will be put on less influential politicians. Besides, with the people hungry for a new deal and parliamentarians frightened of a new poll, the government may last longer than assumed. But to carry out major reforms it will have to broaden its base.

Only now can one perceive how the whole system has depended on the hypothetical Communist threat. Until recently the D.C. could tell its allies and its electorate: Accept the mess, the patronage and the corruption as the price of insurance. With the Communists split and no longer contenders, however, no fool is willing to pay the premium. The establishment must find new mechanisms to preserve its domination.

The presidential system was seen as a possible option, with the ambitious Craxi as a potential bidder. If the Socialist leader is now out of the running, it is not only because of his link to the Milan scandal. It is also because his assumption--that a united left can be an alternative only after the Socialists have overtaken the Communists--proved a miscalculation. Since he seized the leadership of his party in 1976, the PSI. has climbed from 9.6 percent of the vote to 13.6 percent, while the Communists have slumped from 34.4 percent to 16.1 percent, so the two together could no longer form a government. In any case, the idea of a strong presidency has been a non-starter since the election to this office, in May, of Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, a conservative Catholic but essentially a parliamentarian.

Instead, there is talk of strengthening the executive by changing the electoral system from proportional representation to one of single member constituencies. According to the experts, this is merely talk, since the D.C.. itself a coalition, could not preserve its unity and predominance under the altered mechanism. All that can be expected is a combinazione: a bonus for parties that, though going to the polls separately, are linked together by an electoral pact. Italy may also get the direct election of mayors, but all this, while significant, is not revolutionary. Yet why should the Italians radically reform their institutions? Because as the price of admission into post-Maastricht Europe their leaders promise them a period of blood and tears.

'Lacrime e Sangue'

Italy's capitalist establishment has not done badly since the war. It has presided over the country's second industrial revolution, then the overhaul of the economy, defeating the labor movement in the battle of Fiat and the struggle over the indexing of wages. In the past twenty years industrial productivity has risen 1.5 percent faster in Italy than In France and 2 percent faster than in Germany. There is a seamy side to this story. Spending less than its competitors on research, Italy lags in the most advanced sectors of electronics and chemicals. Medium-sized and small industry, the engine of Italian dynamism, is now vulnerable to growing foreign competition. And Italy has not quite paid the bill for its transformation.

Its restructuring has been described as Thatcherism with fewer tears. The low salaries of public servants have been raised in recent years. Redeployment of labor has been cushioned by a relatively good allowance for temporary unemployment. Small enterprise has been helped by a very loose network of taxation. All this has a cost. The budget deficit is now about 11 percent of the gross domestic product and the cumulated public debt is some 108 percent. The corresponding targets worked out at Maastricht are 3 percent and 60 percent. Besides, with such a debt, the government loses almost all that is saved through austerity measures when it raises the interest rate to defend the lira.

Cutting the deficit is very tough. The share of public revenue in the G.N.P. is almost as big in Italy as In France or Germany. The Italians who do pay taxes, the wage and salary earners, are paying a lot The snag is with those who do not. Like the rest of Western Europe, Italy has got rid of the peasant; farming now accounts for only around 8 percent of the labor force. But it has a much higher proportion than France or Germany of the "self-employed" in industry, trade and the services. Here capitalist concentration has not yet done its job. Here too are most of the people who first deprive the state of money by cheating on taxes and then lend the state this money in exchange for high-yield bonds. A visitor is struck by the conspicuous consumption, by the expensive restaurants, the luxurious boutiques, even in small towns. Much of the ostentation of the middle class is based on fraud. Yet to attack it seriously is to threaten the very mode of production and to antagonize one's own supporters.

Cutting expenditures is not easier. Any reduction in subsidies to the South would not so much hinder growth--unemployment there is already three times higher than in the North--as deprive the ruling coalition of its electoral clientele. In a Naples district of a D.C. leader, the number of disability pensions beats all records; not much is needed to bribe the voters.Why not muddle through as before? For this, one must turn to the scandal that beats all scandals.

Cosi Fan Tutte

The tangenti are the talk of the town. At a dinner one night, having put a silly question--When did the scandalous corruption begin?--I was given the obvious answer: "With the Romans." I was also given less facetious information. An expert argued that whereas in Kuwait all contenders for a government contract competed on the basis of how much they gave the princes, thus affecting only the cost of a project, In Italy the "envelope" often determined what was to be built. A shrewd observer added that the Milan mechanism depended on a dual monopoly: Only a number of big companies could do the bribing and only a limited number of parties in the town hall could share the money; outsiders did not stand a chance In the juicy contracts for the construction of roads and hospitals, the Metro or the airport.

Without going back to the Romans, this greasing of the machinery is not new. Why does the scandal break out now, with such force, in the commercial but also "moral" capital of the country? Although the first arrest took place in February, everybody agrees that if the April vote had not expressed Italy's changing mood, the magistrates would not have been allowed to go so far and the accused would not have spoken so profusely. A judge explained that the proceedings depend very much on the independence of an area's chief prosecutor. If Venice has now followed boldly in Milan's footsteps while Rome looks pretty "safe," this has nothing to do with the probity of the politicians and businessmen in the capital.

Reporters insist that it all started like an American thriller, with the arrest of an influential go-between who spilled the beans. The investigating magistrates--the best known, Antonio di Pietro, is now a national hero--are more interested in results than in legal niceties. They proceed methodically with their salami tactics, one slice after another. Their achievement is not that more than seventy people have been indicted. It is that, since these include ex-mayors, parliamentarians and key industrialists, Milan's political and business establishment is on trial. Everybody seems ready to confess, revealing the crumbling faith in the protection of the parties.

Not quite everybody. The president of a construction company controlled by Fiat kept mum for a time. The country's biggest private company provided him with an eminent counsel who made an interesting plea: Since the accused had given money to an employee of the Milan subway, a company that, while fulfilling a public function, is not in the strictly legal sense public, he could not be sued for the corruption of a public servant. The plea, which failed because of a precedent, says great deal about society's zeal for privatization: If you bribe a public employee it's corruption; if he works in a private company it's business as usual.

In this unfinished scandal, all the main parties are involved--the Christian Democrats inevitably, the ex-Communists to the shocked surprise of the faithful. In Milan. however, pride of place is taken by the Socialists, and it was their leader who opened the counterattack. Speaking in the lower house, Craxi said in substance: We are all guilty, let those whose parties did not take a dime cast the first stone; we may have to mend our ways, yet if we allow this onslaught against the system to continue, democracy will be the victim. He raised the specter of the leghe.

Lombardia Fara Da Sè

On a sunny Saturday I walked along the extravagant Duomo, with its innumerable statues of saints, to the square housing the famous La Scala. Behind the statue of Leonardo, outside a tent, I was struck by the sight of all sorts of scribblings about thieves and scoundrels. The Lombard (now Northern) League was collecting signatures for a petition against parliamentary immunity. A dark, handsome local councilor told me, "They should hold their sessions not in the town hall but at San Vittorio [the local jail]. Not that they are all thieves, but now nobody can trust them. We must have elections and Bossi as mayor." But even if you gain, I said, you will not get more than a third of the vote; with whom will you strike an alliance? "With nobody. We shall produce our project for Milan and those who like it will follow," This sounds less plausible than the claim that he joined the League four years ago and used to vote Communist.

Umberto Bossi's League, previously a regionalist sect, made a spectacular entry into Lombard politics during the local elections of 1990. This year it merely reinforced its conquest, raising its share of the vote from 19 percent to 23 percent. But the leghe, taken collectively, made rapid progress in the regions of Venice and Turin (Piedmont) and some advance farther south. On the national scale they still have only 9 percent of the vote, but in the North the League is second only to the D.C., and in Milan second to none.

Is this a xenophobic movement like France's National Front? Yes and no. It has no love for foreigners "from outside the E.E.C.," a euphemism for Africans. But it has none either for the Southerners, be they the terroni, the peasants gone North to find work, or the "parasitical" public servants. The League plays on social resentment rather than plain racism, preaching against the tax collector, the Roman invader, the rotten politician. Yet it is not a movement of squeezed shopkeepers, like poujadisme in France In the 1950s. Because the League represents the richest part of Italy, it is the revolt of the Haves who, like Croats or Slovenes, refuse to subsidize their poorer compatriots. With class solidarity shaken and universal goals forgotten, the leghe are playing on the unity of kith and kin, on the alleged community of interests between the Lombard worker and his employer. This middle-class movement adds Socialist and Communist votes to the previously captured Christian Democratic contingent.

Where is it heading? One day Bossi talks of Kalashnikovs or a tax strike; on another, of an orderly government party provisionally in opposition. What I t could do in power may be gathered from the suggestion of its chief ideologists, Professor Gianfranco Miglio, that public servants and those getting state assistance should have limited electoral rights. With no intention of tackling the economic system in its fundamentals, the League has no genuine answers. But it has plenty of easy targets. The ill-functioning of medical assistance allows it to curse the welfare state; the money wasted in the South for electioneering purposes enables it to damn subsidies for less-developed regions. The political scandals and the terrible blows of the Mafia are a godsend for its propaganda. Like all the right-wing revivials in Western Europe, the League is a product of the economic crisis and consensus politics. As the author of a valuable study on the subject told me at the Milan headquarters of the P.D.S., in an implicit indictment of his party: The League has a future because of the left's failure to grasp the transformation of Italian society and the changes in the world at large, and to provide projects capable of mobilizing the people. He thus came to the heart of the matter: the dramatic debacle of the left In a country that had the biggest C.P. and the most sophisticated labor movement in the Western world.

No Bandiera Rossa

Patrician Bologna, with its neatly restored palaces and its elegant arcades, does not look like the Communist city one imagines. But it is the capital of the red, or rather pink, Emilia province, where the P.D.S. still captures a third of the vote. The party's members and sympathizers alike are proud of an efficient administration, of superior health services, of child care. But they are on the defensive. Having talked with a senator, with a Catholic fellow traveler, with a judge and with a teacher who used to sell L'Unità come rain or come shine, I gathered the same impression as I had from conversations with the Milanese official and with a critical member of the central committee in Rome--one of total bewilderment. P.D.S. members of whatever faction don't know where their party is heading, what is its purpose, what it will do next. The presence of ex-Communists among the guilty men in Milan came as a shock. It also suggested that the trouble started before the party split and changed its name. When it became a party like any other and stopped pretending that it had a vision of a different society, the P.C.I. embarked on its road to ruin. (The contradictions of this historic compromise were illustrated recently by Bruno Trentin, the P.D.S. leader of the country's biggest labor confederation, who entered into an economic pact with the new government and then resigned from his union job because he couldn't live with it.)

Proportionately the party lost more militants than voters after the split. Rifondazione Comunista, the splinter, took nearly a quarter of the Communist vote (6 percent of all those cast). It did not inherit the same share of activists. The P.C I. claimed 1.4 million card-holders In 1989. Last year the P.D.S. had more than 800,000. This year, so far, only 400,000 cards have been distributed, and Rifondazione can account for only about 150,000.

Historians of this period will devote much space to Pietro Ingrao, the grand old man of the left, who failed to cross the Rubicon this time, as he had faded during the Il Manifesto crisis after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Had he left the party on this second occasion, it would probably have split into two equal parts. The Rifondazione would have had a mass of militants to cope with its tremendous task: to evolve a new strategy for the vastly changed working class and to find within it scope for other movements, notably women and the Greens. As it is, the New Left within its ranks must both discover new roads and carry nostalgia along. At Montecitorio, the outwardly ancient and inside quaintly ornamental Chamber of Deputies, Lucio Magri, the leader of Rifondazione's parliamentary group, can, with his usual brilliance, describe for me the social roots of the political crisis. He cannot conjure up the vision of a bright future, at least not for some time to come.

Europe must march in step. Maastricht is the sergeant-major supervising that all keep pace with Germany. Italy is the last big Western European country to be "normalized," fitted into the established capitalist mold. France did it in two stages: De Gaulle altered the institutions; Mitterrand deprived the left of its dreams and ambitions. Italy wants to do both at once, and it is not easy.

In the past half-century Europe has changed beyond recognition, the countries where the Industrial Revolution was not complete, like France and Italy, altering more than Britain and Germany. It would be absurd, in the circumstances, to stick to Stalinist shibboleths and obsolete models. The left must find solutions for its time. But if it does not provide them--nature abhorring a void--the right will. Depending on the gravity of the crisis, the Bossis and Le Pens will perform as the main actors or merely as aiders and abettors. From Gramsci's country, one must sadly report that at this stage the enemy's hegemony, his ideological domination, seems complete. Still, in Rome, where the past and present are so entangled, one cannot write without a sense of history. A defeat does not mark the end of the conflict. To borrow a conclusion from Rossana Rossanda of Il Manifesto, in the left's struggle to face the future, "Italy remains, despite the defeats, the most in Europe."

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