Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Technocratic governments" - neoliberals with nothing to lose

Technocrats and bankers take over

As the entire establishment falls in behind the new cabinet of bureaucrats, writes Toby Abse, Italian workers must prepare for the attacks that lie ahead

Image: Meet the new masters
Meet the new masters

The jubilation of the Rome crowds after the resignation of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on November 13 is likely to be very short-lived, especially their working class components. The new cabinet headed by banker Mario Monti, formed on November 16 and consisting entirely of unelected bureaucrats, is determined to follow the instructions of the European Central Bank/European Union/International Monetary Fund troika to the letter and make the mass of Italians pay for the failings of capital.

Berlusconi’s resignation on Saturday evening was greeted by the majority of Italians with an enthusiasm equal to that which followed the first overthrow of Mussolini on July 25 1943. Jubilant crowds rapidly gathered in central Rome - largely summoned via Facebook by Popolo Viola (the ‘Purple People’ protest movement) and the Indignati and certainly owing no allegiance to the leaders of the opposition Partito Democratico, who probably regarded all the wild celebration as rather tasteless, even if they had enough political cunning not to say so publicly.

A well organised choir of professional singers put on a spirited performance of the ‘Hallelujah chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah, in addition to the more predictable mass singing of the partisan anthem ‘Bella Ciao’ and of Verdi’s ‘Va pensiero’. The singing was interspersed with energetic chanting of “Buffone!”, “Mafioso!” and “Silvio! Silvio! Vaffannculo!”, as well as the symbolic throwing of low-value coins at Berlusconi’s car (a conscious re-enactment of the scenes that greeted the downfall of his original political patron, the corrupt Socialist prime minister, Bettino Craxi, whose flight into Tunisian exile is, as many have pointed out, not an option available to Berlusconi now that their mutual friend Ben Ali has had to flee to Saudi Arabia).

Berlusconi was the first prime minister in the entire history of the Italian republic to have to leave the Quirinale presidential palace after handing in his resignation by an ignominious back entrance to avoid a crowd celebrating his departure - and it should be noted that many Christian Democrat premiers were far from universally popular.[1]

However, whilst those of us from the generation who celebrated Margaret Thatcher’s resignation will understand the feelings of the thousands who spontaneously came out on to the streets to enjoy an hour or two of carnival, Berlusconi’s fall did not come about in the way we might have hoped - through a crushing electoral defeat or an overwhelming general strike - but as a result of pressure from the troika.

It was Black Wednesday (November 9) that marked the point of no return. There was a certain degree of truth in the Evening Standard’s apocalyptic front page headline, “The descent into chaos begins”. That day did mark the moment when the complete collapse of the euro zone, triggered by an Italian default, became a real possibility. When the interest rate on Italian 10-year bonds clearly breached the 7% barrier, president Giorgio Napolitano realised that a promise about resignation in a few weeks of the sort Berlusconi had made the previous evening was just not good enough, that the markets were - rightly and very understandably - sceptical, that Berlusconi’s word was absolutely worthless, that he might well wriggle out of this allegedly binding commitment, as he had from so many others over his 17 years in politics and his five decades in business.

Napolitano, the 86-year-old former communist, who had generally been incredibly indulgent to Berlusconi, finally plucked up the courage to tell him that Italy had days, not weeks, to get a budget through and that he had better be serious about resigning. Some have suggested that Berlusconi was shocked by the rapidity with which his own Mediaset shares were falling in value and felt that hanging onto his personal fortune and the chance of bequeathing it to his five children was worth more than a few more weeks or months in office. It seems unlikely that Berlusconi, for all his rhetoric, was seriously concerned about the fate of the Italian economy or the euro in any abstract sense - such considerations would have suggested a speedy resignation in July or August as the honourable course (although any notion of honour is, of course, alien to him).

Bourgeois bickering

Whilst Berlusconi may well have realised on Wednesday that his time was up and that he would have to give way to Monti, the 68-year-old rector of the Bocconi private university and former European commissioner, a large chunk of Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà party (PdL) were keen to fight on to the end. This grouping suggested that Berlusconi either get Napolitano to accept a senior PdL figure as his successor or demand an early election in January or February. The hardliners included most of the former Alleanza Nazionale group, whom Berlusconi’s foreign minister and former Socialist Party member, Franco Frattini, has called “fascists”.

The bitter internal arguments within the PdL during the last week would suggest that, were Berlusconi to completely retire from the political stage, his personal creation, the PdL - which is a strange fusion of the already anomalous Forza Italia with some of the remnants of neo-fascism - would fall apart, with many of the more moderate elements being likely to gravitate towards the conservative Christian Democrats (Unione dei Democratici Cristiani e di Centro), who, despite their murky connections in Sicily, retain a patina of respectability amongst their European counterparts of a kind that Forza Italia and the PdL have never attained. Whether it is a fear that the PdL cannot survive his retirement or simply a reluctance to ever completely give up on the possibility of his own return to the prime minister’s official residence, Palazzo Chigi, after another election, Berlusconi seems to have gone back on his apparent willingness to quit politics altogether. “Tomorrow I will redouble my efforts in parliament and institutions to renovate Italy,” said Berlusconi on November 13, “reforming its institutions, judiciary, tax system ...”[2]

Whatever the future of the PdL may hold, there seems to have been a decisive rupture between it and its alliance partner, the Lega Nord. The Lega made it clear that it will not participate in or give any support to a government led by Mario Monti, but instead will take up a stance of intransigent opposition. Whilst one of the questions on which the Lega will oppose Monti will be the planned abolition of seniority pensions, linked to the number of years of continuous employment (an issue of considerable importance to the Lega’s own electorate, since there are proportionately far more of this category of pensioners in the northern regions than in the southern ones, where invalidity pensions are much more predominant), in other respects the Lega’s position has some resemblance to that of British Conservative Europhobes, in that it is hostile to the power of the ECB and the Brussels bureaucracy without opposing neoliberalism as such.

Regardless of both its xenophobic ideology and concerns about issues that impinge on the economic prospects of its voters in retirement, the Lega is also influenced by a very cynical calculation that opposition may allow it to regain the electoral support that it has very clearly lost over the last year or two because of its continuing support for Berlusconi; whilst many Lega supporters may evade some of their taxes, their general, if at times hypocritical, belief in ‘law and order’ means that they are not enthusiastic supporters of Berlusconi’s all-out attack on the magistrates, and their own falling living standards have made them much less indulgent towards Berlusconi’s sleazy entourage - endless stories about southern Italian pimps and Moroccan prostitutes tend to reinforce their deepest prejudices about both southerners and Arabs.

One has to acknowledge that Monti has some considerable merits by the standards of the Italian political class. Nobody would dispute his intelligence or his competence - it is no accident that, having served one term as an EU commissioner as a result of nomination by Berlusconi, he served a second term as a result of a confirmation by the former communist, Massimo D’Alema. It is also worth remarking that as an EU commissioner he was willing to evoke anti-monopoly rules against Bill Gates and Microsoft, showing a far greater consistency in the application of his neoliberal free-market principles than many governments, which have allowed the American monopolist to walk all over them.[3]

Whilst it is impossible to believe that anybody as prominent in the Italian political, economic and academic establishment could have succeeded in completely avoiding underhand dealings at any stage in his career and, as the Berlusconian press has pointed out with great relish, he has on occasions worked for Goldman Sachs, a firm whose conduct in many areas has, to put it politely, aroused intense controversy, he certainly has a reputation for personal honesty and integrity that places him at the other end of the spectrum from Berlusconi. A man that enjoys the trust of both the European and Italian establishment.

Monti’s regular attendance at mass and commitment to conventional family life seem as sincere as Romano Prodi’s - he will not be the kind of Italian prime minister whose sexual antics made him a regular feature of the Metro, the free sheet given out to London commuters which is not known for its acquaintance with the finer points of the Italian party system. There is absolutely no danger that ‘Super Mario’ will be continuously compared to Nero and Caligula in the way his predecessor was and Italy’s negotiating position in any EU or G20 discussions ought to be markedly improved if its leader is not seen as a clown by his German, French and American counterparts.

‘Left’ support

So far the most enthusiastic supporters of Mario Monti have been the PD (which, of course, includes former ‘official communists’), together with the Unione di Centro (Union of the Centre).

For Monti to remain in office until 2013, rather than merely 2012, as he is demanding, probably requires the support of the PdL or a major part of it, but it is worth remarking on the enthusiasm of the PD for such an obvious stalking horse for the ECB and IMF - they cannot be taken in by his claims that, whilst he is demanding “sacrifices”, there will be “no blood and tears”.[4] However, the PD has nothing to gain and everything to lose if it associates itself with a programme of unremitting neoliberal austerity.

It is worth noting that, whilst the CISL and UIL trade union confederations joined the employers’ organisation, Confindustria, and various other economic pressure groups representing bankers, cooperatives and so forth in unreserved support for Monti, Susanna Camusso of the largest union centre, the CGIL, refused to join in the chorus. Although she went along with the ‘national interest’ line (“Due to the emergency situation, we understand that there is no solution but that of a transitional government, able to give answers and restore credibility, to the markets and to the country”), she went on to say, “We don’t give blank cheques to anyone” - once “requests are fulfilled”, there should be elections (presumably in 2012 rather than 2013).[5]

The one party on the centre-left that has shown some hesitation about unrestrained support for neoliberal austerity has been Antonio Di Pietro’s ‘anti-corruption’ Italia dei Valori party. Some readers may have noticed that a small minority of both the senators and the deputies voted against the neoliberal austerity package last weekend.[6] Whilst the Italian mainstream press tended to ignore this no doubt unwelcome opposition for the most part, Corriere della Sera very briefly noted the opposition of the IdV on November 14. Some might see this as simply the ultimate expression of the IdV’s unyielding anti-Berlusconismo, but it clearly fits Di Pietro’s initial opposition to the proposed Monti government, which he originally, and totally correctly, labelled as one of “social butchery”.

However, by November 13 Di Pietro had partially capitulated to an intense and highly orchestrated campaign in the mainstream bourgeois press. He is now willing to fall in behind a Monti government, but still envisages it as a short-term expedient with a limited programme rather than offering unconditional support for up to 18 months, as the PD leaders are currently doing.

The left social democratic Sinistra Ecologia Libertà has been far less critical of Monti than the IdV. Even if SEL leader Nichi Vendola has not shown the same gushing enthusiasm for him as some, he refuses to look reality squarely in the face and attempts to ascribe to the incoming Monti government a programme based on ‘social justice’, corresponding to SEL’s immediate demands for a wealth tax and so forth, rather than facing up to the attacks on pensions and workers’ rights that are far more likely to be on the agenda.

Rifondazione Comunista remains alone in its principled opposition to what it instantly characterised as “the government of the bankers”. Social opposition from trade unionists, the unemployed, students, pensioners and others will doubtless mount - perhaps an orientation towards the working class and the movements will allow Rifondazione to revive at the expense of SEL, whose current line has to be forcefully condemned - it is a sad day when the liberal, Antonio Di Pietro, is clearly well to the left of those who until 2008 were happy to call themselves ‘communists’.

Notes

  1. The extensive footage on YouTube will not only raise all our spirits for years to come, but haunt the narcissistic media mogul until his dying day. The man who managed to ban Nanni Morretti’s Caimano, a satirical film about him, from state television until a few months ago knows that such visual images will outlive him and may well colour posterity’s view of his years in power.
  2. Financial Times November 14.
  3. It is interesting that Monti’s “flagship anti-trust case against Microsoft” has been described as “a case study in futility” by Allister Heath in his rather hostile article, ‘Even Super-Mario may not save Italy’, in which he states: “They call him Super Mario, for reasons that aren’t quite clear” (City AM November 14). This is a very disingenuous statement, since everybody knows that he got the nickname by standing up to Gates.
  4. La Repubblica November 15.
  5. Financial Times November 14.
  6. I am grateful to Stuart Richardson of Socialist Resistance for bringing this to my attention.

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