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Viva Italia?

Italy is the West European state closest to coming apart at the seams. Alan Harding looks at why Italy's national instability has taken a new turn for the worse

Last February I took the Naples-Milan express to Florence. The other occupants of my carriage were going all the way north. All of them were southern women living and working in the north - a primary school teacher, a cleaner and a medical student - and all had tales of the humiliation of being a poor southerner in the rich cities of Lombardy and Piedmont. They all wished they could stay at home. They all knew they had to leave to make a living.

When I arrived in Milan a few days later, I too found a different world. In the slums of Naples the walls thank God for Maradona and Careca. In Milan the walls are covered with posters for Umberto Bossi's separatist movement, the Northern League. Last year Bossi and the League could be dismissed as a passing irritant. Now, after the 5 April general election, the League is the largest party in Milan, the second largest in the north and the fourth largest in all Italy.

The Northern League was the only party to have a successful election. The two most important parties in postwar Italian politics have been the right-wing Christian Democrats and the Communist Party (PCI). Both were humiliated at the polls this time around.

Left and right lose

The PCI was once the largest communist party in Western Europe. In the fall-out from the collapse of the Stalinist bloc, it first liquidated itself, then split into two. In April, under its new name of the Democratic Left, the former PCI saw its share of the vote collapse from 27 to 16 per cent. The Christian Democracy has been the leading party in Italy for almost half a century. In April it polled its lowest vote since the Second World War, and was reduced to being a party of the south, where it can still use its control of the government patronage machine to buy votes and influence.

Empty centre

The Socialist Party (PSI) entered the April elections as a member of the governing coalition with a power base centred on Milan, the dynamic northern heartland of Italian capitalism. It emerged from the election as just another declining party confined to the poor south. A succession of fraud and corruption scandals have engulfed the highest echelons of the Milan PSI, including Bobbo Craxi, the son of former prime minister Bettino. With leading party members having gone either to jail or to ground, the Socialist headquarters in Milan, once the hub of a sophisticated operation, is now eerily deserted. It is as if the Tory Party had done a moonlight flit from its Smith Square HQ. It is the perfect symbol of the emptiness at the heart of politics in Italy today.

The impotence of the established parties was fully exposed after the elections, when their repeated failure to appoint a new president or a prime minister made them appear entirely incapable of running the country. Only the wave of public outrage with the authorities which followed the Mafia killing of another Sicilian judge forced the parties finally to agree on a compromise appointee to the presidency.

The near-collapse of the national parties has opened the way for the regionalism of the Northern League, which advocates the dissolution of the Italian nation state. Success has come with a simple programme - anti-Rome, anti-southerner, anti-immigrant. 'We pay! Rome collects! The south wastes!'; the slogan sums up the narrow chauvinism of the small businessmen, artisans and disenchanted northern workers who make up the League's constituency.

Southern scapegoat

As Bossi argues, the north is nearer to Europe than to Rome. He means that the industrially developed and dynamic economies of Milan, Turin and the northern plains have more in common with Frankfurt and Lyons than with the backward southern villages on the slopes of Mount Etna. At a time when the Italian economic miracle has lost its sheen, the south is the obvious scapegoat.

During the election campaign, a finance minister complained that Italians do not pay their taxes. Bossi responded by reminding him that northerners were paying taxes to keep five million 'invalids'. These 'invalids' are in reality as fit as fiddles. The pensions they receive from the authorities are stipends granted in return for their votes and their allegiance to the status quo. Tens of thousands of civil servants and other state and provincial functionaries receive similar hand-outs. This Lottizzazione (allotment of favours according to party size) exists everywhere in Italy, but is concentrated in the south.

On the payroll

They say that a letter from Milan to Turin (about the same distance as from London to Birmingham) has to go via the national sorting office in Sicily (as far away as John O' Groats), in order to justify keeping southern functionaries on the state payroll. In the northern industrial town of Udine, 15 men are employed to shunt goods in the railway yard. In Reggio Calabria, in the southern toe of Italy, 15 000 are on the books supposedly to do the same work.

The ruling coalition has never had the enthusiastic support of Italians. Nor, despite the postwar economic success of the north, did it have the resources to develop the south. Instead it has used northern wealth to buy power with southern votes. Now the corrupt fabric of the Italian body politic is in danger of coming apart under the pressures of the post-Cold War changes in Europe.

Italy has never been a truly united nation. Indeed the experience of Italy has long provided a powerful riposte to the claim that independent nation states are the natural order of things. It demonstrates how, even in Western Europe, the weakness of capitalism has made it hard for the ruling classes to cohere stable nation states.

Harder than ever

The few postwar years of relative stability and a semblance of national unity have been the exceptions in twentieth-century Italian life. Now that the economy is in tatters and the postwar political order has disintegrated, the Italian ruling class is again confronted with the historic problem of national unity, but in new circumstances which make it far harder to resolve.

Discussion of the absence of national cohesion and identity in Italy focuses on the southern question - the backwardness of the south. In fact, the real issue is the miserably low and uneven level of economic development which capitalism has achieved in Italy. The south is the scapegoat for this failure.

From the foundation of the Italian state in the late nineteenth century, exasperated northern intellectuals defined the southern peasant as a retard who must be weeded from society if Italy was to make it in the modern world. Impoverished and parochial the southern peasants may have been, but they were not so retarded as to believe that they owed taxes and allegiance to a far-off Italian government that gave out only one service - repression. The peasantry gave its allegiance to anarcho-syndicalism, the mafia or the American Dream (through emigration).

Following the First World War, the weakness of Italian capitalism and of the nation state it was based upon was exposed by a revolutionary upheaval among the working classes. When fascist leader Benito Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922, the landowners, the Catholic church, the majority of intellectuals and the northern industrialists proved willing to forgo democracy in order to crush the workers' movement.

Far from being an isolated gang of reactionaries, the fascist regime of the interwar years was the only practical solution which Italy's ruling class had to the problem of capitalist weakness and national disunity. The fascists subdued the working class, but even they could not produce a dynamic economy or a legitimate Italian state. The trains ran on time, but Mussolini's pretensions to make Italy a leading world power were dashed in the debacle of the Second World War, and his attempt to lend legitimacy to the Italian state by associating it with the Roman Empire impressed few outside the fascist cadre.

In 1943 Italy was on the verge of collapse. After Mussolini was deposed in a coup and the Italian army surrendered to the Allies, the country did disintegrate. In the south, the rump of the old regime held sway. In the north and centre, the National Committee for the Liberation of Upper Italy, largely led by communists, was the only force recognised by Italians.

The Italian ruling class came out of the war discredited by its association with fascism, and seemingly incapable of re-establishing any sort of stable capitalist state. It was saved by the Communist Party. The PCI's leading role in the anti-fascist resistance had given it great popular authority among the insurgent working classes. Instead of using that strength to take over, the Stalinists of the PCI handed power back to the old elite on a plate. On 22 April 1944, the PCI entered Marshal Pietro Badoglio's puppet government and swore allegiance to the king. PCI leader Palmiro Togliatti became a minister. The PCI was part of the government until May 1947, by which time internal stabilisation and the onset of the Cold War enabled the ruling class to exclude it.

Alongside the PCI, the other key organisation for the postwar survival of the Italian capitalist nation state was the Christian Democratic Party, founded in 1942 and led by Alcide De Gasperi.

Patriotic PCI

Support from the Vatican and an emphasis on the family gave De Gasperi's party mass Catholic support. A strong anti-communist streak held the middle classes. A corporatist approach to state control and economic development brought together a wide network of bureaucrats who owed their careers to the party leadership. That leadership has had a remarkable continuity. Giulio Andreotti, who was prime minister (for the seventh time) until the April election, was an intimate of De Gasperi.

The Christian Democracy could never have succeeded in achieving a degree of social stability without the PCI. The contempt in which millions of Italians held their illegitimate state was restrained only by the PCI's insistence on demonstrating its patriotic loyalty to those same governmental institutions.

Even so, throughout the postwar period, Italy was unstable by the standards of most advanced capitalist countries. That instability was expressed in various ways: a succession of coup attempts by the right; the combativity of the most militant working class in Europe; the terrorism of the Red Brigades; the endemic corruption; the role of the mafia; and a revolving door system of coalition governments which, from the end of the war to the start of the nineties, achieved an average of slightly more than one change of government each year.

At an end

It is now clear that even the shaky national peace of the postwar era in Italy is at an end. The two major factors which held the country together for the past 40-odd years were relative economic prosperity and the frozen political relations created by the Cold War. Both have now evaporated.

In the 1980s the PCI began to wilt under the stress of trying to keep disaffected Italians loyal to the unpopular state. The party's working class base became more and more disenchanted with the policies of economic austerity and political submission. The position of the PCI finally became irretrievable after the fall of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe.

The end of the Cold War and the demise of the PCI in turn removed the anti-communist raison d'etre of the Christian Democrats. The relative cohesion of the postwar Italian state was founded on the orchestration of Cold War politics by the Christian Democrats with the acquiescence of the Communists. Now that this symbiotic relationship no longer exists, the legitimacy of a state founded on corruption is at issue.

It would be wrong to see current trends as a simple return to the past. The national incoherence which has often characterised Italian life is taking new and unpredictable forms in this unstable era. The rise of the Northern League, or the brief fame enjoyed by the Party of Love and its porn-star MP shows what most Italians think of the old traditional process. Italians are divided on many things but united on two: support for I Azzurri (the Italian football team) and contempt for the Italian nation state.

No new answers

The ruling class has not yet abandoned the idea of an Italian nation state. The populist rantings of Bossi appeal to many small businessmen, but not to big business leaders like media mogul Silvio Berlusconi or Mr Fiat, Gianni Agnelli. Neither is the fascist MSI seriously considered as an option by the Italian elite. Alessandra Mussolini may be an adequate replacement for La Cicciolina, but a handful of teenage skinheads and crotchety old men, and a crude appeal to traditional values, do not provide the basis for national regeneration in the nineties.

But while they may baulk at restaging Mussolini's March on Rome, far-sighted representatives of the Italian ruling class are aware that things have to change. They are trying to dissociate themselves from the Christian Democrats. This explains Giorgio La Malfa's move to take the Republican Party out of the coalition government.

The establishment of 'La Rete' (the Network)-- an all-party alliance against the mafia - shows the trend towards far-reaching realignments. So far, however, all it means is politicians making a token stand against the systemic corruption of which they themselves are still an integral part. They have no new answers to the Italian state's crisis of legitimacy. The fact that one bomb under a Sicilian judge in May could plunge the entire country into a fresh political crisis was less a sign of the mafia's strength than of the weakness of the national authorities.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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