italy: saving the first class passengers on the titanic

David Broder writes on the economic and political crises in Italy, and the lack of a viable left alternative to Silvio Berlusconi

In recent days punning headline writers have turned their focus from the Greek tragedy to the Italian Job as news came from Rome of economic woes and a cuts budget which couldn’t be built in a day. The Milan stock exchange is in steep descent, amidst growing fears that potential default by Greece, Ireland and Portugal may have a ‘domino effect’ on Italy and Spain.

the European Union has pushed hard for austerity measures in Italy

Mounting economic crisis is twinned with simmering political and personal headaches for Silvio Berlusconi. However, the parliamentary opposition is remarkably tame, while the Prime Minister has also managed to distance himself somewhat from blame for austerity.

Last week Economy and Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti announced a  €48bn budget of public service cuts and tax rises. There will be less tax rebates for the poor, medicine will be more expensive and pensions will be worth less. Tremonti styles himself as a neo-liberal hawk, and assumed an unashamed class-warrior stance as he outlined his budget “We can’t be like the Titanic, where they didn’t even manage to save the first class passengers”. A bold statement from a man attacking millions of people already suffering after years of capitalist crisis: today over 8.2 million Italians live under the poverty line, calculated at two people having to live on €992 a month.


Of course Berlusconi, Il Cavaliere (‘the Knight’) couldn’t give a damn about the victims of austerity, but he is also more interested in his personal affairs than the fiscal rigour championed by Tremonti. Indeed, the Italian PM has chosen to stay largely silent about the cuts plan, distancing himself from responsibility. After poor results in June’s local elections and referendums on water privatisation and nuclear power, he is most of all concerned not to further trouble the opinion polls. Even as they are, the cuts are largely postponed until the next parliament, with some  €24.4bn of the  €48bn cuts planned for 2014 alone.

The Italian Premier has also high-handedly criticised Tremonti “he thinks he’s a genius and everyone else is a cretin”, demagogically heaping blame on his own minister. The flames of a corruption scandal involving two MPs from Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà party and the P4 secret society  have also started licking up around Tremonti, even if Berlusconi himself is clearly more directly and systemically involved in the nepotistic ties between big business and government.

Although Berlusconi has long been an overt champion of business interests, this does not guarantee him the loyalty of the Italian ruling class. Many see him as reckless and focused on his own interests rather than those of capitalism in general. In the press there is thus much talk of the idea of a ‘technical government’, an all-party transitional régime which can implement austerity without any troublesome opposition. Mario Draghi, Governor of the Bank of Italy, has floated precisely this idea, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Carlo Ciampi in the early 1990s.

The left

There is nothing progressive as such in the idea of Berlusconi being thrown overboard by a sinking élite, particularly if the alternative is the rule of unelected business experts. Draghi’s surname means ‘dragons’ for a reason. Unfortunately, we already saw the first expression of such a political turn in the budget vote. The Partito Democratico, ultimately descended from the old Communist and Socialist parties, along with the other opposition parties voted against Tremonti’s budget but refused to employ filibustering techniques as to hold up the austerity plan. They stopped short of doing so out of fear that any delay might “upset the markets”, as ex-Communist Party Italian President Giorgio Napolitano had warned. As such the budget passed more quickly than any other in recent memory.

The parliamentary left claim that the government is in hock to the markets, yet themselves think defending public services is less important than keeping the stock exchange happy for a few days. Such a defeatist attitude, utterly bereft of any positive alternative to the government, can hardly expect to rally support. Yet it is also a symptom of a broader crisis in Italy. In 1991 the Communist Party dissolved, and in subsequent years all the mainstream parties fell apart amidst the Tangentopoli bribes scandal; today politics appears as a clash between rival groups of administrators, merely jousting for control of an economy which has grown less in the last 15 years than that of any other country.

As for resistance to the cuts, this is heavily conditioned by the summer-time slowdown in all political and economic life. The major three union federations have remained passive, although the more radical Unione Sindacale di Base organised a strike by its public sector members for two hours on Thursday, while pensioner groups have also organised large demonstrations. Some 11 out of 20 regional administrations have declared they are unwilling to implement the plans to make healthcare more expensive, although all of them plan to make cuts elsewhere as to balance their budgets.

10 years ago this week Genoa saw mass protests against the G8 summit, the clashes all the more bitter following the police shooting of 23 year-old Carlo Giuliani. Yet as mourners mark the anniversary of his passing, the political situation seems very dark indeed. A Prime Minister remaining in power despite a welter of corruption and prostitution scandals, a harsh assault on working-class living standards and a lack of hope in an alternative. When that alternative does come, it will surely have more to do with the masses who rallied in Genoa in 2001 than today’s feeble parliamentary opposition.

6 thoughts on “italy: saving the first class passengers on the titanic

  1. ‘Cavaliere’ translates better as ‘gentleman’, even if in traditional nobility ranks was ‘knight’. The notion is not so much a paladin in shiny armor with a high honor code as someone who is stylish and has good manners, notably with ladies. Anyhow this is a propaganda nickname, the populace rather knows him as Bunga-Bunga for his lavish parties full of young women.

    Otherwise I’d agree that the system still seems to have some margin to oscillate between the pseudo-left and hardcore right political brands until it a real alternative is conformed. There have been signs in Spain and Greece of total discontent with the false sychotomy of the “political market” (in Greece the situation is surely quite mature but the country is small) but I do not know yet of anything of the like happening in Italy. The country seems doomed to go through a disappointing PD phase before anything happens.


  2. Obv my intention was not to big up Berlusconi, I think his favoured nickname Il Cavaliere is also remarkably un-self-aware. I read though that he calls himself this because it’s an actual honorific title he once received, the (republican) equivalent of e.g. getting a knighthood from the Queen.


  3. You’re right – my bad. I always thought it was an adulatory nickname.

    In Spanish “caballero” (kinght) is used as “gentleman” (someone stylish, classy) (and “dama”, dame, as “lady”). “Ladies and gentlemen” is said “damas y caballeros”, for example, however this may not be the case in Italian where “gentiluomo” (gentleman) does exist as such and is used, it seems, as in English. Same in French (gentilhomme).

    So my apologies for the misunderstanding. You always learn something new.


  4. Question rather than a comment – why is Italy’s working class unable to/uniterested in organising against the proposed “shock therapy”.



  5. There have been big protests about other things, e.g. the June referendum campaign involved the whole left, from parliamentary to anarchists and was a success; there was 70000-strong protest two weeks ago against the Val di Susa train-line building project, and fighting with the police involving some 400 people being injured. But that said political activity is sleepy over summer.

    As I mention the cuts are planned for years ahead, starting next year but more than 50% being put into effect in 2014. It’s hard to say if the government will last that long, although if and when the Partito Democratico and its allies get into power they will probably do something similar.

    Some of the cuts are hard to organise against, for example the tax rebates really will hit people very hard (L’Unita’ gave the example of someone on 8000 euro a year getting 2000 back) but they are a bit intangible since you have to apply for them as an individual, they get paid retrospectively, etc.

    I don’t know if the cost of medicine/prescriptions going up might become more of an issue, since some of the regional administrations have said they are against it. I’ve seen a few banners and posters about health costs.

    The piece casts a fairly downbeat perspective on the extent of anti-cuts resistance but it will probably pick up when stuff actually starts affecting particular workplaces and groups of people. At the moment it’s still just a budget plan voted through by parliament.

    Later there may be more widespread resistance to shock therapy, and there is also the question of to what extent a change of government would be enough to quash that mood.


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