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Interview on Italy: Sardines Amid Sinking Stars

14-Mar-2020Interview with Marco Veruggio, a member of ControCorrente, Marxist group in Italy, living in Rome, Italy

Plagued by the Coronavirus, Italy's Political Situation is Dominated by a Weak Left

Interview with Marco Veruggio, a member of ControCorrente, Marxist group in Italy, living in Rome, Italy

After our interview the Italian government escalated the lockdown and people are now required to stay in their homes except for work and urgent needs.

Organizations and parties mentioned in the interview:

Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), the Five Star Movement, is a populist party formed in 2009, claiming not to be left or right

Partito Democratico (PD), the Democratic Party is a neoliberal, social-democratic party with roots in the once very strong

Communist Party of Italy (CPI). Out of the move to the right of the CPI, a part of that party formed in 2001 the Rifondazione Comunista (RC), the Party of Communist Refoundation. The RC's decline lead to new attempts to regroup the left. Amongst other attempts, in December 2017 the Potere al Popolo (PaP), Power to the People party, was launched.

Liberi e Uguali (LeU), Free and Equals, is a party that split from the PD at the end of 2017

Italia Viva is another split of the PD, founded by the former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, launched in September 2019

Lega Nord, the Northern League is a right-wing populist, anti-immigrant party.

FIOM is the traditionally left wing metal workers union and part of the more combative trade union federation CGIL

In the latest news, when Italy is mentioned, it is mainly about the coronavirus. How are you doing?

Iʼm doing well! But in general it seems to me that a wave of panic is unfolding and pushing the country into a chaotic situation. As the Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte partially admitted, the main problem is not COVID-19, but the unpreparedness of our National Health Service after years of budget cuts. Italy’s critical care capacity is not adequate to the needs, due to lack of staff and equipment.

The government tries to manage the crisis, to show strength, pretending that it is leading the country, but prime minister Giuseppe Conte and his coalition of the M5S, the PD, LeU and Italia Viva suffer lack of credibility and have to deal with multiple pressures they cannot resist.

Thereʼs a lack of coordination between the city councils, regional and national governments. From the beginning, regional governments, mayors and even school managers have been taking initiatives by themselves. On Saturday evening, March 7, the national government announced that it would lock down much of Italyʼs north. 16 million people (around a quarter of the population) were restricted in their movement.. But, the following day thousands left the northern region, including the city of Milan, to travel to the south. Some governors of the southern regions threatened that the travelers would be prosecuted and fined, other governors stayed silent, the government looked powerless.

It's chaotic. Two days later, on Monday March 9, Conte announced a new measure: at the moment we are not allowed to leave our city, except for working and ‘state of necessity’. The streets are empty, as are the shelves in the shops.

What does this situation mean for working class people?

Due to the restrictions, workers are threatened to lose their wages. For example, in Genoa, on March 3, responding to the closure of all schools by the national government, the “Unione Sindacale di Base (USB)”, a rank and file union, organized a rally of tutors of disabled children in the city's public schools. Usually the city council does not pay tutors if the pupil they take care of stays home or the school is closed. Those workers occupied the city council demanding guarantees for their wages and the city council had to give in. However, a lot of workers don't have such guarantees to keep wages and jobs.

Furthermore, companies do not tell the workers how to protect themselves from the disease while at work, so that anxiety is rising. To be honest this is the major issue in workplaces since Tuesday.

You spoke about a weak government. The elections in the region of Emilia-Romagna on January 26 seemed to stabilize the government as the oppositional Matteo Salvini and his Lega Nord, the Northern League, were not able to win.

That's right to some degree, as far as the PD is concerned.. However, M5S got less than five percent in Emilia, one of its strongholds. The coalition core, PD-M5S, got weaker; Renzi tried to take advantage of that by blackmailing the government on issues like justice and pensions.

Only two years ago, in the national elections of 2018, M5S was the strongest party with 32 percent. What happened?

In essence, they experienced the same dynamic we've already seen with Rifondazione Comunista (RC) in the past. M5S ran elections with an anti-establishment program. M5S did not have a radical program, not even an anti-capitalist program They put forward some anti-establishment demands and criticized all the established parties from the point of view of the middle class. In 2018, they ran the electoral campaign pummeling all the ‘old parties’, then they built a coalition with two of them, first the Lega Nord, now with the PD.

The government of the M5S with the Northern League had a far-right attitude in particular toward immigrants. Salvini implemented clearly racist policies in pushing back immigrants, refusing to let ships, hired by NGOs to rescue immigrants from the Mediterranean Sea, anchor in Italian ports, limiting the rights of asylum seekers. All of that was accompanied with racist propaganda and attacks on organizations defending migrantsʼ rights.

Despite the M5Sʼs claim, not to be left or right, a lot of its activists had a left wing background. And these policies, including reactionary propaganda on civil rights and pro-big business attitude, were a slap in the face to these activists..

How would you describe the M5S and its class character?

Interestingly, the class character of the M5S and the Northern League are very similar. They represent middle class, petty bourgeois people.

But the Northern League represents the middle class from Northern Italy. Their main demand is to cut taxes (flat tax). The M5S represents the middle class of southern Italy. They want more measures of a welfare state (citizen’s income). This contradiction led the Northern League to split from the coalition with M5S last August..

In response to Salvini a new movement developed, the Sardine Movement. They call themselves sardines as they wanted to bring people attending rallies closely together like sardines in a box.

Yes, this was a movement started by five young people in Bologna, the capital of the region of Emilia-Romagna, in November 2019. In reaction to Salviniʼs racism and populism, a mixed movement erupted, partly spontaneous and partly supported by the trade union apparatus, by the PD, by NGOs and associations close to the PD.

Emilia-Romagna is a special case: itʼs the only region, where you still have an influential left bureaucracy of the trade unions and the cooperative movement, going back to the past, to the strength of the apparatus of the Communist Party of Italy (CPI). In that part of Italy, the CPI is still quite well rooted in society and has some presence on the ground.

Emilia-Romagna is one of the richest regions in the north. However, economically it is more dominated by smaller businesses and ‘red cooperatives’, so that business environment is more fragmented and needs more support from the regional and city governments. Business there has a traditionally close connection to the PD. For them a change toward a majority of the Northern League would have been a significant step into uncertainty. Thatʼs not what they wanted.

So you saw a movement developing against Salvini, that reflected a mainly middle class character. The main goal was to defeat Salvini and his Northern League. But that also means that within the Sardines Movement, they canʼt discuss any political issues. They lack a common approach towards the different issues. Any discussion within that movement would bring the contradictions to the front, possibly causing the movement to implode..

However, the Sardine Movement still spread nationally, right?

Yes, and they had demonstrations of tens of thousands in Turin, Milan, Florence, Naples and many more cities in December. Close to 100,000 people flooded a demonstration in Rome on December 14.

But the movement is very heterogeneous. In some cities the most prominent forces come from a catholic background (catholic trade unions, associations, boy scouts). In other places itʼs dominated by members and activists of the PD. Then you have cities where the leadership is made of intellectuals. It is not homogeneous.

But with the elections in Emilia-Romagna and Calabria over, the Sardines Movement also seemed to have exhausted its role. They still called for rallies and meetings, but we saw a significant decline in participation.

The leaders of this movement made some huge errors. The worst was, when the founders (Mattia Santori, Roberto Morotti, Giulia Trappoloni and Andrea Garreffa) met and posed with Luciano Benetton, a member of one of the richest families in Italy. The billionaire Benettons control 30.25 percent of Atlantia, the motorway concessionaire that operated the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, which collapsed in 2018, killing 43 people. Atlantia put profits over our safety. As the government coalition was discussing whether to revoke the concession, the leaders of the Sardines Movement met a key shareholder. This was a scandal.

So the future of the movement is very open. Some of the leading figures of it might simply join the PD or other center-left forces at the next election as candidates.

Whatʼs left from the traditions of revolutionary socialist organizing in Italy - in those movements and on the electoral front?

Very, very little. It’s a tragedy. In the recent elections, three different formations of the radical left were running. The remainder of the Rifondazione Comunista (RC), a Stalinist communist party, and Potere al Popolo (PaP), Power to the People and some other smaller groups. The results were a catastrophe. All together they got only 1,2% of the vote in the January 2020 Emilia-Romagna election..

Potere al Popolo was launched in December 2017 by self-managed ‘social centers’ (Wikipedia) and small left forces like the RC. But as it was not able to win seats in parliament in 2018, missing the three percent threshold very clearly, it fragmented and the RC left it. So PaP is mainly a small group with a certain base among young people mainly in the south of Italy.

All of that reflects the worst stagnation of left social and economic movements I have ever seen in Italy. The class struggle is on a very low level. The political crisis of the left is deep and continues. Maybe something new, some new list, some new banner will pop up in the near future, for example at elections. But I fear this will not last, because when the first problems arise, such forces split and splinter. As long as you are not clear about what you want to build, it will not survive. It needs a discussion on crucial political issues before even imagining the building of a new left party, one which could gain the confidence of layers of the working people and the youth.

In the past, there was at least some point of resistance in the class struggle in the form of the FIOM, the left wing metal workers union.

Thatʼs not the case any more. The national leadership of the FIOM and the trade union confederation they belong to, the CGIL, seems to lack a clear strategy. Take the issue of the coronavirus for example. They are not taking concrete initiatives in workplaces. In the last weeks they didn’t put enough pressure on the government or on the corporations to save jobs and wages. Now as the crisis explodes companies have already taken advantage of the situation.

The companies are fast to use this crisis to their advantage. They expand the number of people working from home without any trade union oversight. Collective bargaining agreements clearly state that you need the agreement of the union concerning the conditions of people working from home. Workers are being asked to use their residence, computers and network connections for their work. But now, the government declared that in this emergency, the rights of the unions are abrogated. The employers use this to rapidly expand the number of people working from home.

Or look at this example: The multinational steel company ArcelorMittal took over ILVA, the biggest Italian steel producer, which operates Europe’s largest single steel site in Taranto and other smaller sites in Novi Ligure and Genova and elsewhere (altogether 11,000 employees, about 20,000 including subcontractors). Later they decided to leave Italy due to disagreement with the government on several issues. In this arm-wrestling contest they are trying to put pressure on the government; a few days ago they announced the lay-off of 260 ILVA workers. In Genoa, FIOM called for an assembly of workers. But ArcelorMittal did not allow workers and trade union representatives to assemble en-masse due to the coronavirus. And the government stayed silent.

This is how companies are trying to take advantage of the crisis linked to the virus.

They anticipate further economic challenges and a recession and want to restructure themselves, cut wages and get concessions from the government. With the exception of a few local cases, the unions do not react, they do not put forward demands, they seem to lack any other strategy. The weakness of the trade unions reflects the political vacuum to the left. This vacuum must be filled!

Marco Veruggio was interviewed by Stephan Kimmerle.