by Nick Wright writing from Italy
A version of this appeared in the Morning Star on Thursday 29 August. The peice was written the day earlier, just before Conte was reaffirmed as prime minister and the prospect of a M5S.PD government emerged with more credibility
The G7 gathered in Biarritz to ponder the latest threats to the world’s dominant economies. It is a select group, the indubitably capitalist economy of Russia is excluded since 2014 – not because the gangster capitalists who privately appropriated the collective property of the Soviet peoples are thus morally unfit to associate with their longer established brothers in profit – but because the geo-strategic interests of Russia are, in some respects, in conflict with those capitalist states still blessed with the imprimatur of the IMF.
China is not invited which rather makes a nonsense of any collective decision-making unless, of course, such deliberations centre on the substantial role China’s economic miracle has on the faltering economies of the completely capitalist west and the threats to economic stability that Trump’s deviant policies entail.
The famous seafront of Biarritz faces west across the Atlantic but the town itself, despite its 19th century architectural splendours has one cheek turned to 21stcentury France and the other to the Basque country which straddles the border with Spain. This itself tell us something about the tangled politics that are an issue on almost every one of Europe’s frontiers.
Russia’s exclusion is nominally over its reassertion of sovereignty over the Crimean province that Kruschov gifted to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the Fifties. An adjustment of relative international insignificance when the USSR was a united federation of socialist republics has become a source of international conflict ever since NATO’s boundaries have advanced to the Russian frontier in defiance of the deal struck with the gullible Gorbachov.
In his bid to rehabilitate Russia Trump was backed by Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte, now resigned – possibly in remission – in Italy’s ongoing political crisis. In another sign of the dissonance that increasingly surfaces at these gatherings French president Macron, as host, sprung a surprise visitor on the gathering when he brought Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif along for talks.
One one hand the G7 bridle at Trump’s suggestion that Putin be included in discussions about Syria, People’s Korea and Iran while one the other hand the White House is “surprised” when France – which has substantial trade, arms and oil interests in Iran – acts to the collective bidding of the EU which dissents from Trump’s renunciation of the nuclear deal with Iran.
Macron claimed that the G7 leaders had agreed joint action on Iran with the object of defusing tensions and renewing negotiations with the Iranian government. This was promptly denied by the presidential party pooper although, by design or a disordered mind ,he often gives out conflicting messages.
In striking a position at odds with the stance taken by the European Commission Italy’s soon to be ex-prime minister showed the world that, where the political realities of member states conflict with the myths and legends which surround the functioning of the EU, national interests must eventually assert themselves.
“Italy’s political crisis” is the starting stanza of almost every article written about that country since the formation of the Republic following the defeat of the ‘Nazi-Fascists’. But Italy’s present crisis – which may lead to the country’s shortest ever administration – has some distinctive features.
Ever since the closing decade of the last century – when a series of scandalous corruption revelations and the dismantling of actually existing socialism led to the dissolution both of Christian Democracy and the Italian Communist Party – Italian politics has been characterised by a surface fluidity and an almost comic submission to the imperatives emanating from the EU.
The political establishment in Italy, which includes the range of formations which inhabit the carapace of the Partito Democratico, is impossibly enamoured of the EU in a manner which suggest that they see in the economic and political integration of Italy into a federal Europe a mechanism, a compromise now sanitised by a loss of historical recall, to modernise without the agony of challenging the grotesque ways in which the Italian bourgeoisie have maintained their empire of exploitation and criminality.
All manner of negative characteristics are attributed to the Italians in justification of this overarching narrative. Martin Kettle in the Guardian repeated some these last week: “While the citizens of most countries in Europe liked to think that they obeyed the laws, paid their taxes and provided for their poor, many Italians picked and chose which rules to follow, joked about paying their taxes …” etc. etc.
The fact is that most working Italians have their tax deducted at source along with social security contributions. On top of this the VAT rate is at 22 per cent meaning the rich and poor are heavily taxed on consumption at the same rate and thus unequally. Unlike workers who cannot easily avoid their tax liabilities Italy has a commercial and professional middle class and bourgeoisie wedded to tax evasion which runs at 180 billion euros, a level even higher than that of Britain’s notorious state sanctioned tax evasion regime.
Italy and Greece have the distinction of being the only two countries in which constitutionally elected governments have been deposed and EU-appointed functionaries placed in executive office and this goes a long way to explain why Italians, in contrast to their political leaders, are not so enamoured.
Giuseppe Conte, a lawyer close to the populist Moviemento Cinque Stella (Five Star Movement) assumed prime ministerial office with the mantle of “advocate of the people” and as arbitrator between the two deputy premiers; de Maio of M5S and Salvini of the the right wing Lega.
Salvini has now precipitated a government crisis in the expectation that he might emerge as the most powerful among a reconstituted right wing bloc that could include both the Berlosconi vehicle Forza Italia and the semi fascist Fratelli di Italia (Brothers of Italy). Despite his undoubted brio he does not have the authority to totally disregard the middling bourgeois masters of his regional base in Italy’s north east who are more cautious than he in risking a loss of office.
The populist M5S has lost ground leading to speculation that a new alliance between M5S and the PD might be cobbled together. Countervailing forces in M5S make this problematic and the “avvocato del popolo” might, in the apt words of Italy’s leading liberal paper La Repubblica: ‘…jump back into the embrace of his former friend and recent torturer, Salvini” and thus maintain himself in office.” Maybe, maybe not.
Now, part of the social base of the M5S – which itself is comprised substantially from former left wing voters – is in revolt against an M5S PD alliance. When I queried the verdict of an Italian communist journalist a week ago that the PD had hopelessly compromised itself with the working class and diminished its prospects of reentering government they replied simply: “Wait and see.”
The analysis is that this is not a crisis of government but the crisis of a system made plain to all by the reality that the significant decisions are made in Brussels. This is signified by the shift from an anti EU rhetoric which had a popular resonance to a more nuanced acceptance of the political reality that challenging the consensual grip the EU has on the Italian establishment will need more than Salvini’s rhetoric or the ability to fill the piazzas with disgruntled proletarians and petit bourgeois.
The fact is that the inherently unstable M5S is fast losing its internal coherence and the temporary shape that the emergence of these two formations – Lega and M5S as contenders for national power – gave Italian politics is dissipating.
The president of the republic Mattarella, has imposed a very fast timetable and events move swiftly. It recalls the classic line from Visconti’s film – based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard – “If we want everything to remain as it is, everything must change”.
The indisputably liberal analysis of this situation – projected onto the European stage again by Martin Kettle – sees Italy and Brexit Britain together as posing “the most direct challenges to the EU’s legal, budgetary and human rights underpinnings”.
I take Kettle’s analysis as the grounds for this discussion principally because he is, among Britain’s commentators, someone whose youthful communism and engagement with Gramscian political theory has made him a somewhat authoritative source for left and liberal opinion.
In suggesting parallels between Italy and Britain he, despite caveats to the contrary, elevates the more superficial aspects of the comparison – the role of digital campaigning and the opportunist posturing along media-conditioned right wing themes – as critical.
The contorted – and over the piece contradictory – positions Boris Johnson is forced to assume demonstrates that these things are important. Our latest prime minister is driven not so much by ideological consistency but more by a sense of opportunity offered by the breach in the generally monolithic unity of our ruling class.
Kettle’s assertion that today, the political comparison is marked not by divergence but by an increasing convergence cannot be sustained beyond a bricolage of superficial features. In Italy the left is marginalised with the heir to its once revolutionary, even insurrectionary, traditions still enmeshed in a Blairite swamp of class compromise and unprincipled dealings. In contrast, in Britain, the radical potential of a renewed left is so feared by our bourgeoisie that even that grotesque parody of democracy located in Westminster is forced to abandon its supposedly inviolate conventions in order to prevent an election.
The significance of the Trumpian ‘rupture’with the G7’s surface unanimity and the Italian ‘rottura’lies in the increasing inability of the various bourgeoisies – in both their national and international iterations – to resolve either the developing crises of their global system or the political contradictions which arise within the specific conditions of each nation state.
Nick Wright blogs at 21centurymanifesto