Italy's New Opposition
by Geoff Andrews
27th September 2002

A squatter’s theatre group, housed in an old warehouse in Viale Lenin, was an ideal location for a meeting heralding the rebirth of the Italian left. The ‘Left:Year Zero’ meeting in December 2001, held in Bologna, traditionally Italy’s reddest city, was packed with a range of protesters indicative of Italy’s recent discontents. Squatters and grungies from direct action environmentalist movements, students on strike against government proposals to marketise Italy’s schools, slick socialist veterans of 1968 and, most prominently, pacifists and other activists opposed to the war in progress in Afghanistan. On one of the coldest nights of the year someone is even wearing sandals, bright red socks protruding. Italy’s protests had grown sharply in recent weeks; in addition to the big school occupations, there had been general strikes by public sector employees, a mass demonstration by metal mechanics and the largest demonstrations against the Afghanistan war seen in Europe. Indeed two of the major speakers, Fausto Bertinotti, leader of the Refounded Communists and Luca Casarini of the White Overalls movement, had to pull out at the last moment because of pressing engagements.

The main speaker did arrive however, albeit over an hour late. Vittorio Agnoletto, former leader of the Genoa Social Forum which organised the opposition to the G8 summit the previous July, had spent the previous six hours in the company of magistrates, who wanted to interview him over the summit’s traumatic events. ‘It’s been a terrible day’ he told me after the meeting as we talked at Bologna station, for him a pit stop in an increasingly intense schedule. Prior to Genoa he had been a relatively unknown figure, working for LILA, Italy’s Aids trust. His life has been transformed since the Genoa summit, with the events having dramatic personal consequences as well as the much-discussed political ramifications. He and members of his family have received death threats, his phone calls are now monitored and he has had to sleep at separate houses. Unquestionably he has become the new hate figure for the Italian right. The Alleanza Nazionale, the ‘post-fascist’ allies of the Berlusconi government, have accused him of corrupting young people into taking drugs and he has been removed from government commissions on Aids prevention. Berlusconi himself blames Agnoletto and his ‘No Global’ movement for stirring up trouble in the public sector strikes. However, Agnoletto has found some comfort from the wide support he has received: ‘People come up to me in the street telling me they agree with my position and that helps to keep me going’

On the face of it, he makes for an unlikely heir to the likes of Palmiro Togliatti. In his mid 40’s, bespectacled and timid-looking, he is seen by some as a Gandhian figure, seeking peace and calm in a world of violence. His rise has been rapid and reflects the preference in contemporary politics for movements rather than parties, the attraction of taking direct action in pursuit of big global causes. In this respect Agnoletto sees the experience of Genoa as crucial in the development of the anti-global capitalist movement. ‘’Genoa changed things because we understood immediately our importance, our power as a movement’ The death of Carlo Giuliani, the first person to be killed in an Italian piazza since 1977, opened the eyes of a new political generation, he claims. ‘The movement grew up in Genoa. It became adult immediately. It was also the first political act of the Berlusconi government and as a consequence we discovered their intolerance’. The influence of ‘No Global’, the successor movement to the Genoa Social Forum which Agnoletto convenes, has had a big impact. Berlusconi’s attempt to mobilise support for the Afghanistan war effort by calling a ‘pro-American’ demonstration the previous month had been overshadowed by ‘No Global’’s rival march which outnumbered it by four to one.’Social Forums’ had sprung up in more than 50 Italian cities. ‘We are now the only opposition to the government’, he claims, dismissing the opposition led by the Democratic Left Party (DS). Indeed such has been the impact of Agnoletto that an invitation by the DS to speak at their last Congress caused a political storm within the party, with its leadership worried that he wouldn’t stick to Aids related issues, but venture onto the more contentious terrain of anti-war protest an issue, like Genoa, that has split the centre-left.

In fact, a defining feature of Agnoletto’s politics is the way in which he uses the example of Aids to illustrate the extent of global economic inequality. The battle against Aids, he says, will only be won ‘by changing the relationship between North and South’, by ending debt, investing in research, and democratising global institutions.He also rejects the view, predicted by many commentators, that the events of 9/11 would undermine the anti-global capitalist movement or, at the very least, call into question some of its main assumptions. Despite what he sees as a media attempt to divide the movement in Italy by linking the protesters to terrorism, he says ‘there was no big problem’ in the anti-global capitalist movement resituating itself as an anti-war movement. He sees little evidence to support Blair’s idea of a ‘New World Order’, pointing to similarities between the current conflicts and the Kuwait and Balkan interventions. He also contrasts the strength of the anti-war movement amongst the Italian people, where figures suggest between 40-50% opposed the Afghanistan War, (a similar figure to that which opposes conflict with Iraq) with the 93% of politicians who voted for it in parliament. In fact he saw ‘a dramatic opportunity for the left to rebuild itself, to think in a global way, to organise a mix between liberals committed to human rights agendas, greens and those from the more traditional left’.

In late 2001, not everybody shared Agnoletto’s optimism that things were happening for the left. Many saw in the police actions in Genoa and in the public support for them, confirmation of their worst fears that the current Italian Government is prepared to ride roughshod over the constitution. Moreover, the next two months brought more fears; the lack of widespread public concern of Berlusconi’s failure to resolve his ‘conflicts of interests’, a situation made more serious by his appointment of himself as foreign secretary following the resignation of Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero in January 2002, amidst fears of Europhobia. In February this was extended even further with the news that he was now effectively in control of 90% of Italian TV after filling the board of RAI (the state broadcaster) with government loyalists to add to his own extensive ownership of three major private channels. The so-called Bossi-Fini bill on immigration, the most reactionary in Europe, was also unveiled at this time, a law which has subsequently made employment a condition of residency and which has had real effects, following the drowning of asylum seekers off the shores of Sicily after being refused entry and populist attacks on the ‘clandestini’ . The ‘post-constitutional’ moment that many predicted had appeared to arrive with the threat of a new Peronism on the horizon. The centre-left, the Ulivo (olive tree) coalition of the DS, the Margherita (Daisy) network which includes defeated centre-left candidate Francesco Rutelli and unreformed communists, and independents, looked haggard and divided. ‘We were waiting for some self-criticism for the errors that you have committed’, Nanni Moretti, the left wing film director, told the leaders of the centre-left after they had invited him to speak at a rally in Rome. ‘But the bureaucrats have learned nothing. I am very sorry to have to say this, but with these kind of leaders we will never win’.

However, while left parties struggled to deal with the impact of Berlusconi, the gloom for the left was lifted by the beginnings of an extraordinary set of events which not only brought a strong challenge to the government but questioned the capacity of political parties to deliver change. It confirmed Agnoletto’s belief in that the revival of the left would come from movements rather than parties; a position which, until then, was viewed with a certain amount of scepticism. The rise of the new movements has also been pivotal in shifting the agenda away from the Italian version of the third way, where leaders like Veltroni, Rutelli and D’Alema have talked variously (and vaguely) of the ‘end of ideology’, and ‘new beginnings’, towards a mix of traditional values which emphasised job security and social justice and new left objectives of challenging global capitalism and campaigning for peace. The trigger for this was the attempt by the the Berlusconi Government to suspend Article 18 of the Italian constitution which prevented employers with more than 15 employees dismissing workers ‘without just cause’. This, according to the government, was arcane and intransigent; the realities of a global economy, meant employers had to have ‘flexible’ labour, to adapt to fast changing economic circumstances. This was the basis for drawing up the reforms, not unlike proposals considered by the previous centre-left government and ones which formed the basis of an alliance with the Blair government.

The Italian workers movement, formed into different political, as distinct from occupational federations, was still part of a strong left infrastructure and had the capacity to mobilise opposition. Before the demonstration could take place however tragedy struck. Marco Biagi, one of the authors of a report which endorsed the Government’s proposals (though himself from the centre-left) was assassinated in Bologna by a terrorist group claiming to be a successor to the Red Brigades. In the past, coming four days before the demonstration this sort of event usually would normally have very negative repercusions for the left. However the organisers, in particular Sergio Cofferati, the leader of the CGIL, the largest and most left wing union, successfully turned the demonstration into a dual attack against terrorism and for social justice. Moreover it brought an extraordinary - and by European standards very unusual - display of solidarity between ‘older’ and ‘newer’ social movements. The result was the largest demonstration for over twenty years. The demonstration attracted three million peopple to the Circus Maximus in the centre of Rome, the biggest demonstration in the post-war period. The 23 March has gone down as the moment when the Italian left made its comeback. The ‘Sun Shines Again’, said the headline of Il Manifesto, Italy’s left wing daily, in whose offices I had spent a gloomy election night ten months earlier.

A month later, a follow up General Strike brought twelve million workers out, sending another message to the government. By now Cofferati was leading the main opposition and was being talked of as a potential leader of the centre-left. There was also evidence that these movements were having a serious effect on the main left parties. Many DS members, uneasy at their leadership’s support for the War in Afghanistan (and ambiguous position over Genoa), and frustrated by their own benign and ineffective leadership, reflected in a forgettable Party Congress, were eager for a new political direction. Rifondazione Comunista, the other, smaller new left successor to the PCI, was happy to take a supportive role. As a ‘refounded’ communist party influenced by anti-global capitalist movements they were closest to No Global and had a lot to gain politically from the rise of Cofferati, a potential leader of the DS. As a result they were keen at their Congress in April to give the movements their own space. Effectively, Lennonism replaced Leninism, with John Lennon’s Imagine replacing the Internationale as the theme tune and leaders of the two movements given a rapturous welcome.

The growth of the two movements has defied orthodox assumptions made about the decline of the organised working class, the erosion of left-right boundaries and the inevitability of neo-liberalism. Within Italy it has had several implications. Firstly it has sharpened the conflict with the government. Secondly it has sent a message to the main political parties that protest and direct action can produce results. Thirdly, however, it confirms major divisions in Italian society, between on the one hand an authoritarian populist right and, on the other, an idealist, egalitarian new left. And of course the Berlusconi government still has a clear majority in both houses. This has meant that, despite the failure to resolve his conflicts of interests, Berlusconi has still managed to remain popular with large sections of the Italian electorate. In fact he has gone on the offensive vwith further legislation to protect his conflicts of interest, while pushing through legislation before the summer recesss which would make it possible to object to particular magistrates on grounds of political bias; a sinister piece of legislation, with obvious implications for his own longstanding battles against corruption and other charges, with up to eighty lawyers currently keeping him out of prison.

It was this increasing disjuncture between Berlusconi’s conflicts of interests and the inability of parliamentarians to apply sufficient pressue that led to the development of what has now emerged as a third oppositional movement. Its political trajectory was that predicted by Agnoletto to me a few months earlier, namely the defence of human rights and democratic accountability. Nanni Moretti, dismayed by the ineffectiveness of the centre-left and in particular their inability when in power to pass legislation which would have dealt with Berlusconi’s media ownership, vowed in February to organise a movement for justice without the involvement of the main parties. At the time he didn’t see it as more than ‘a group of lackadaisacal voters addressing a group of shell-shocked politicians’. It was this third grassroots movement that packed one of Rome’s main squares on September 14 in protest at the latest attempt by Berlusconi to change the laws for his own protection. This protest, made up of one million people who (in the words of the Manifesto) ‘arrived from all over Italy, and no trade union, or political organisation had asked them’ was the expression of a spontaneous non-parliamentary opposition, made necessary by the failures of established parties and leaders. ‘They have asked me - and I have asked myself why in these months we have done all this’ Moretti told the crowd. ‘Because the situation has been made too serious to do nothing’. Italy’s future is still uncertain under Berlusconi and Fini, with greater instability and more authoritarianism still on the horizon. But at least, at last, the opposition has arrived.

By Geoff Andrews