From International Socialism 2:95, Summer 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Italy and its Discontents
Allen Lane 2001, £25
The magnificent protests at the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001 marked a dramatic shift in Italian politics. The barely two month old government headed by media baron Silvio Berlusconi showed its true colours by barricading the citizens of Genoa and protesters out of the centre of the city, intimidating, beating and torturing peaceful demonstrators, and murdering 23 year old Carlo Giuliani.
The brutality and authoritarian stance of Berlusconi’s government have been matched by a growing determination and collective anger among large sections of Italian society. In the days and weeks following the G8 protests, hundreds of thousands marched throughout the country.  Since then Rome has seen the biggest demonstration in Italian post-war history. Organised by Italy’s biggest union, the CGIL, some 3 million demonstrators filled the city on 23 March 2002 to protest against Berlusconi’s proposed reform of Article 18 – which gives judges the right to reinstate workers who have been sacked without ‘just cause’. Berlusconi’s sneering remarks that the demonstrators had only come to Rome for the day ‘because someone offered them a free trip, a free lunch and a chance to visit the museums’ belied the pressure his government is under from a movement that is fusing anti-capitalism with militant trade unionism.  Any doubt about the potential for trade union unity against Berlusconi was dispelled during the 16 April general strike, which saw the three main union federations come together to bring 13 million workers out on strike. It is clear that Italy is in one of the most exciting and volatile periods in its history. For that reason alone, although written before Genoa, Paul Ginsborg’s monumental volume is welcome. Ginsborg is very much a part of the emerging movement in Italy. He formed an organisation to preserve democracy in the light of Berlusconi’s second election victory, and on the day of the general strike he was interviewed by Newsnight on the streets of Florence, linking hands with fellow Florentines to form a chain around the city as part of the protests.
Italy and its Discontents follows Ginsborg’s classic study of post-war Italy, A History of Contemporary Italy, which was written at the end of the 1980s, and Ginsborg has continued the story in the same thoroughly researched, detailed and accessible fashion. His latest volume encompasses Italy’s social, political and cultural history from 1980 to 2001. Ginsborg’s location of political events in Italian society within wider social and economic changes makes this book essential reading for anyone interested in the background to Berlusconi’s rise (and fall and rise) to power and the nature of the movement that opposes him.
Ginsborg’s history alternates between tracing the socio-economic changes in Italy over the last 20 years – with chapters on the economy, class, families, culture, the state, corruption and organised crime – and telling the story of the political events which culminated in the ‘earthquake’ of 1992-1993, in which a combination of factors toppled an entrenched political class which had governed Italy since the end of the war. In just two years, by 1994, the Christian Democrats were a shadow of their former selves, the Socialist Party had ceased to exist, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia was born.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were years of social upheaval – Italy’s ‘long May’ – which rocked the Italian ruling class. Aldo Ravelli, one of the head stockbrokers at Milan’s stock exchange, is quoted by Ginsborg as recalling, ‘Those were the years in which I tested out how long it would take me to escape to Switzerland. I set out from my house in Varese, and got to the frontier on foot.’ 
The defeat of a major strike at Fiat in 1980 signalled an end to this threat to the employers, and marked the start of a downturn in Italian working class struggle, around the same time as that in Britain. For Ginsborg the 1980s were the decade in which collective action gave way to individualist consumer capitalism and its values, replacing the individual’s social and community involvement with an emphasis on the family and acquisition:
On the one hand, a return of the unquestioned acceptance of hierarchy, by the increased power of monopolies and oligopolies, by the new and deleterious influence exercised by commercial television, by a mass passivity in strong contrast to earlier social patterns of mobilisation. On the other, there were distinct signs of the growth of an autonomous and active civil society. 
Ginsborg meticulously draws together the various elements underpinning the dramatic collapse of the pentipartito – the Christian Democrat (DC)/Socialist Party (PSI) consensus governments.
In the period between 1981 and 1991 Italians elected nine governments. In 1983 the ruling DC, which had dominated Italian official politics since the war, recorded its lowest ever vote in an election – reflecting how badly discredited it was by the scandal revealing government collusion in the secret anti-Communist Masonic lodge P2 (which was to prove so useful to up and coming media magnate Silvio Berlusconi).
Bettino Craxi, leader of the PSI, headed the government from 1983 to 1987, and it is in this period that Berlusconi built his empire. The two were close friends, and Craxi did all he could to stonewall any regulation of television, allowing his crony to amass a fortune now estimated at £14 billion – with assets including the media company Fininvest, 90 percent control over the state media RAI, most Italian daily newspapers and the football club AC Milan.
The DC/PSI stranglehold on Italian politics was consolidated by the collapse of the Communist Party (PCI) in 1989. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall the party split into the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) – remodelled as Italy’s New Labour – and Rifondazione Comunista, the left of the PCI.
In the absence of coherent opposition, the DC/PSI goverment pursued a neo-liberal agenda – ‘freeing’ Italian capital, granting autonomy to the Bank of Italy, and pushing through cuts in public spending to ensure Italy could meet the Maastricht criteria.
Widespread state corruption, historically endemic in Italy, accelerated during the 1980s, and both the ruling parties were systematically involved in clientism, accepting bribes, and stealing from the public purse. An added ingredient in Italian politics at this time was organised crime. The Mafia thrived thanks to the collusion of sections of the state. Key figures in Italy’s various crime families did deals with politicians which guaranteed votes for immunity from prosecution. The ‘maxi-trial’ against the Mafia, led by independent magistrates Falcone and Borsellino, began in 1987, and threatened to expose the links between politicians and mafiosi. The classic and disturbing image of the interpenetration of the state and the Mafia in this period is that of ‘the kiss’ between the leader of the Sicilian Mafia, Salvatore Riina, and the DC politician and seven times prime minister Giulio Andreotti – a mark of respect and a reminder of mutually assured destruction – fascinatingly discussed in Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily. 
This combination of revelations of the state’s implication in the strategy of tension and the existence of an unofficial secret service, Gladio, set up to discredit the left in the 1970s, the rise of the Northern League as an electoral force in previous DC heartlands, and growing public disgust at the corruption, creaking bureaucracy and bribery ensured that the crisis in 1992 was explosive.
Ginsborg illustrates clearly the bitterness with the political system felt by millions of Italians by setting the events leading up to the crisis against wider social shifts. By 1992 there were 6.5 million Italians living in poverty, disproportionately – though not exclusively – concentrated in the south. In Palermo one third of the city’s population live below the poverty line. By1995 unemployment among under-25s was 33.3 percent across the country. The higher education system was disorganised and conservative, workers had faced a decade of defeat and the erosion of their conditions, and small businesses were being squeezed. In sharp contrast to the ‘values’ of individual enrichment pushed by the political class and their business friends, most Italians were not living la dolce vita.
The frustration with the established governing parties and cynicism towards the clientism and corruption of the state were reflected in a myriad of ways – including the growth of support for the Northern League especially in ‘white’ (i.e. Catholic) strongholds, and in the growth of ‘associations’, independent unions, cultural and volunteer groups which Ginsborg groups together as ‘civil society’.
In February 1992 Mario Chiesa, a Socialist politician in Milan, was caught while trying to flush 30 million lire of bribe money down the toilet. When imprisoned, he exposed the system of kickbacks to magistrates, and key political figures including Craxi and Andreotti were placed under investigation in what became known as tangentopoli (’kickback city’). Senior managers at Fiat and Olivetti were under investigation, and details of corporate corruption surrounding the merger between the private company Montedison, owned by the Ferruzi Group, and the state petrochemical firm ENI led to the suicides of the presidents of both firms.
A couple of months later the Mafia fought back against the maxi-trial and killed both Falcone and Borsellino, provoking The Observer to comment in July 1992 that Italy was ‘in a state of war – it has the highest murder rate in the European Community, the most rampant and blatant corruption, an ailing economy, a floundering government, and an anguished and embarrassed population’. 
On Black Wednesday the lira was devalued, just before the pound, and the economic crisis prompted yet sharper attacks from the now utterly discredited government, which attempted to privatise the key state-run electricity and petrochemical industries, and attacked public sector conditions. The anguished population fought back – workers struck against austerity measures, 50,000 demonstrated in Milan, and in February 1993 300,000 protested in Rome and burnt effigies of government leaders, denouncing them as robbers. But incredibly, despite the fact that the political system was reeling, the CGIL did a deal with the Italian bosses’ confederation, Confindustria, and the government, agreeing to abandon the scala mobile – the scale linking wage rises to inflation.
In the March 1994 election the two dominant parties of Italian post-war politics were crushed – the PSI managed only 2.2 percent of the vote. Silvio Berlusconi and his newly formed Forza Italia party in alliance with the ‘post-fascist’ Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance (formerly the MSI) and Umberto Bossi’s Northern League stepped into the vacuum left by the implosion of the major parties. Berlusconi’s first government was short lived – a general strike and the biggest trade union demonstration (until March this year) in Italian history forced him to climb down on attacking pension rights and forced a U-turn on dropping the tangentopoli proceedings. In November 1994 he himself was placed under investigation and his coalition collapsed.
Given Berlusconi’s record – at the time of the election he was on trial on ten counts including bribing financial police, attempted corruption of magistrates, tax fraud, illegally financing a political party, and breaching anti-trust laws in Spain – it is extraordinary that he could ever have come back from such defeat and formed another government. But just as the corruption and cronyism of the Socialist Party allowed him to build his empire unrestricted, so the weakness of the Olive Tree coalition – led by Romano Prodi, and backed by the heirs of the PCI – which governed from 1996 to 2001, allowed Berlusconi to return.
Across Europe, at the same time, social democratic governments were being elected – Blair in Britain, Jospin in France, and Schröder in Germany – in rejection of Thatcherite policies. And today right wing politicians are benefiting from the disillusionment and betrayal millions of people across Europe feel as those social democratic governments pursue the same pro-business policies.
In Italy, Berlusconi was re-elected as part of this generalised polarisation in European politics, but the fact that he was not in prison at the time is largely due to the craven behaviour of the DS, under the leadership of Massimo D’Alema, who let Berlusconi off the hook. The Olive Tree government failed to introduce a conflict of interests law reducing the power of magistrates, and did not force through charges against Berlusconi, despite the fact that he had a virtual monopoly over commercial broadcasting – an influence which now extends over the key state-owned television channels. In Ginsborg’s words, the social democratic government ‘created a culture of indulgence and pardon’. 
For Ginsborg, the 1992 crisis provided a space for a new Italy to emerge, but he laments the fact that the DS didn’t seize the opportunity handed to it, instead allowing tangentopoli to fizzle out without drawing out the links between organised crime and the state – even Andreotti was acquitted. The state survived, and has changed little as a result of the seismic events. Yet, although he is disappointed that political parties and the state have not ‘democratised’ themselves, he is aware that their very resistance to change can contribute to building a momentum from below which has the potential to force the issue.
In the last paragraph of his book Ginsborg holds the Italian population partly responsible for the state of democracy in the country, but also sees it as part of the solution: ‘The strength of a democracy in a single country does not depend only upon the capability or the integrity of its ruling elite, but also upon the culture of its families and the energy of its citizens’. 
Ginsborg points to the growth of ‘civil society’ on the ground – the movements in Palermo against the Mafia, the volunteer movement and the growth of environmentalism which all emerged during the 1990s in exasperation at the inability of the state to deliver. As Tom Behan has written, this was the ‘background to the social forum movement which exploded just after Genoa’.  Ginsborg is positive about these developments, but seems to hold the view, put forward by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri in their book Empire, that the working class is merely one aspect of the ‘multitude’ of groups and networks which form that civil society. So class is seen as ‘another’ cleavage in Italian society, not the central one.  And it is on this question of agency that the weakness at the heart of Ginsborg’s book is apparent. He is gloomy about the ability of the working class to offer a collective solution to capitalism. In one of those unfortunate timings which occasionally wrong – foot pessimists, he describes militant trade unionism as being in grave crisis: ‘What has disappeared almost entirely is the presence of the trade union movement as a major social and political protagonist’.  Just as Andre Gorz utterly underestimated the potential for workers’ resistance in 1968, Ginsborg must be wishing he hadn’t written those words.
His perspective rests on the belief that the working class has shrunk numerically and in terms of its political weight. White collar workers, who form 32.4 percent of the workforce, concentrated mainly in education, local government and health, are considered by Ginsborg as part of the ‘lower middle class’ – which allows him to claim that the middle class are the most numerous in Italian society. This sociological sleight of hand seems to support his political conclusion that it is the ‘reflexive’ or enlightened intellectual middle class who are the key social force for change in Italian society. So in his discussion of the growth of the associations and networks which took place in the 1980s, he argues that ‘the critical and "reflexive" middle classes were certainly at the heart of this construction of civil society, but membership was not just limited to them’.  It is this stress on sections of the middle class which leads him to see the general strike of 1994 which was instrumental in bringing down Berlusconi’s first government as simply one element of equal weight among many, rather than as central in coalescing opposition.
But his political position also means that Ginsborg’s explanations for Berlusconi’s rise to power – although fascinating – tend to rest much more heavily on machinations in state and parliament than on how these interacted with levels of class struggle, the confusion and absence of leadership on the left, and the failures of social democracy. It also leads to Ginsborg putting his faith very unadvisably in the DS – as if the party which let Berlusconi off the hook when it had the chance to finish him off, and has, in true Blairite fashion, pandered to his every whim, is a likely conduit for the flowering of democracy in the state.
In actual fact, if the measure for judging the relative strength of the working class is that of Marxism, Ginsborg’s own figures are grounds for great optimism. Taken together with the 25 percent of industrial workers, the 32.4 percent who work in white collar jobs confirm that the majority of Italian society is working class. By his own figures, the number of those in ‘dependent work’ – ie not self employed – has risen dramatically from 49.1 percent in 1960 to 71.8 percent in 1992, reflecting both the growth of the working class and the pressure on the petty bourgeoisie. 
The growth in Italy’s service sector may have given rise to arguments about the death of the working class, but it has also seen the proletarianisation of previously privileged sections, in very similar ways to what we have seen in Britain, and their induction into class struggle – witness the 90,000 bank workers who closed 90 percent of Italy’s banks just months after Ginsborg’s book was finished.
The social forum movement and the serious initiatives to extend and politicise the movement by Rifondazione Comunista are important political and organisational repercussions of the crisis in mainstream politics coupled with the rise in struggle.
Berlusconi’s victory and the presence of fascists and right wing nationalists in his government, the neo-liberal axis he has formed with Blair and Aznar, and the explosive revival of collective struggle and working class militancy in Italy are part of the accelerated nature of polarisation across Europe. The haemorrhaging of support for the governing Socialist Party in France, the huge wave of anti-fascist protest that followed the vote gained by Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election in April, and the 26 seats for Pim Fortuyn’s List in the Netherlands all express this trend. Criticisms aside, the clarity, rigour and readability of Ginsborg’s book make it essential for those wanting to understand modern Italy to grasp how a right wing politician like Berlusconi can emerge, and to learn the lessons – most crucially how the bankruptcy of social democratic parties can give space to the right. It is therefore the urgent task of the left and the movement to develop a leadership capable of directing the energy and anger that are spreading across the continent in a leftward direction.
Thanks to Jim Wolfreys and Nicki Sellars for comments.
1. For details see T. Behan, Nothing Can be the Same Again, International Socialism 92 (Autumn 2001).
2. Quoted in The Guardian, Wednesday 27 March 2002.
3. P. Ginsborg, Italy and its Discontents (Allen Lane 2002), p. 39.
4. Ibid., p. 96.
5. See P. Robb, Midnight in Sicily (Hanill Press 1999).
6. P. Ginsborg, op. cit., p. 263.
7. Ibid., p. 315.
8. Ibid., p. 325.
9. T. Behan, Digging at the Roots of Dissent, Socialist Review 261, March 2002.
10. P. Ginsborg, op. cit., p. 39.
11. Ibid., p. 57.
12. Ibid., p. 96.
13. Ibid., p. 51.
Last updated on 21.6.2012