The rise of the right in Italy

September 10, 2008

Italy's immigrants have been the victims of a series of barbaric attacks in recent months, with the assault escalating since the victory of right-wing parties in elections last spring that made media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi prime minister again.

Berlusconi's Forza Italia party leads a coalition government that includes the National Alliance, whose leading light, Gianni Alemanno, a hard-liner with connections to neo-fascist organizations, is now mayor of Rome. In the more industrially advanced north, the Northern League had a strong showing, winning support in working class areas formerly represented by the left.

The election was a crushing defeat for the center-left government of former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, just two years after it took power from Berlusconi and in the wake of the formation of the Democratic Party in 2007 out of the merger of center-left parties. The vote was also a dire blow to Rifondazione Comunista, the radical left-wing party that stunned its supporters internationally by joining the Prodi government in 2006.

Since the election, physical attacks on the most oppressed and vulnerable in Italy--in particular, the Roma minority, also known as Gypsies--are on the rise.

Cinzia Arruzza is a member of the group Critical Left and director of the Livio Maitan Research Center. She talked to Alan Maass about the situation in Italy today.

CAN YOU describe what has taken place with the increase in attacks on immigrants since the right won the last elections?

THE ATTACKS on immigrants started not with the government of the right, but with the government of the center-left. The first party to start the attacks with a series of laws was the new Democratic Party. It tried to use the issue of security and public safety in order to win votes on the right.

For example, it was the former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, who began the attack on immigrants from Romania, after the rape of an Italian-born woman by a Romanian immigrant. In this case, Veltroni said that policies were needed to stop immigration from Romania. The government of the center-left passed a law that it said was about public safety, but which was, in fact, a law against immigrants.

Of course, the right's propaganda during the election campaign was substantially based on attacking immigrants, and that has produced, along with the economic crisis and the social situation in Italy, a shift to the right in consciousness. So, for example, during the spring, there were attacks against Gypsy camps not only by organizations of the far right, but also by ordinary communities, with the demand that the camps be closed.

Right-wing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi speaking in Rome during the spring 2008 election campaign
Right-wing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi speaking in Rome during the spring 2008 election campaign (Maria Nella | Sipa)

Immediately after the election, the right-wing government proposed a law that involved control over Gypsy camps, and also raised the possibility of the use of the army in social conflicts.

The latest proposal from the Northern League, one of the parties of the right-wing coalition government, was for a law against Muslim people. The proposal would forbid Muslims from using Arabic for their prayers--so they would have to, under this proposal, pray in Italian.

Another proposal from the right was that the government should take the fingerprints of Gypsy children. The excuse was that this would help the children, by making sure that they weren't exploited and that they go to school. But it's absolutely clear that it's a discriminatory proposal on a racial and ethnic basis.

So the situation we have is one of institutional racism on the one hand--carried out by the right-wing government and also by the main parties of the opposition. And on the other, there is an increase of racism in the population, including in the working class, as shown by examples like the attacks on the Gypsy camps.

TWO YEARS ago, Berlusconi's government was defeated in national elections, and he seemed to be discredited. How could the right make a comeback so quickly?

IN FACT, Berlusconi wasn't clearly defeated two years ago. The results of the last election were ambiguous. The center-left parties under Romano Prodi won a bare majority, especially in the Senate.

During the years of protest against the Iraq war, Berlusconi, who supported the U.S. invasion in 2003, was discredited and unpopular. But at the same time, he managed, especially in the last year of his previous government, to gain popularity, thanks to propaganda about security and other issues, such as reducing taxes. So public opinion was still on the right.

But one of the causes of this lack of a shift to the left was, of course, the policy of the left itself--especially the decision of Rifondazione Comunista to join the coalition government with the center-left and Prodi.

The policies of the center-left government didn't answer the real social issues in Italy, especially the problem of salaries, which are low relative to inflation, and the problem of public services. The coalition government didn't offer solutions on these issues. It carried on a policy that favored the Italian bourgeoisie.

All the governments of the center-left or the center-right in these last 20 years have carried on the same economic policies in favor of the Italian bourgeoisie. This is, in my opinion, the reason why we didn't have a real shift to the left, and why Berlusconi wasn't really defeated.

He is carrying on these social and economic policies, but at the same time, he managed to propose an ideological framework that shifts the conflict from the social and class struggle to the ethnic and racial conflict. This is the way in which they managed to keep public opinion on the right.

GIANNI ALEMANNO is the new mayor of Rome. Who is he and what does he represent?

GIANNI ALEMANNO is from the National Alliance, and he comes from the rightist current in the party, the Social Right. He has a lot of relationships with small neo-fascist groups, especially in Rome.

He managed to win the election because of the incapacity of the center-left. Its candidate in Rome was Francesco Rutelli, who had been the mayor during the 1990s for almost 10 years. He was a very weak candidate.

Living conditions have been getting worse for the working class of the city. The policy carried on by the center-left during all these years was, on the one hand, creating a sort of Disney World for the tourists in the center of the town, and on the other, favoring the bourgeoisie in Rome, which is especially concentrated in real-estate speculation. Thus, one of the big problems in Rome is the issue of rents, which are incredibly high in comparison with salaries.

Alemanno presented himself as the man who would carry out policies in favor of the working class--who would, for example, stop financing cultural events like film festivals that were for the middle class. And he insisted he would resolve the issue of public safety and immigrants in Rome, which was one of the big issues of his campaign.

The result of Alemanno's victory is that the neo-fascist organizations in Rome have, in the mayor, real support in terms of money and political legitimacy and so on. For example, several neo-fascist organizations in Rome live as squatters in some buildings, where they organize meetings and debates and so on--in other words, a movement of rightist, neo-fascist squatters.

This is creating a very difficult situation for the left. For example, in May, there was a physical attack by New Force, which is a neo-fascist organization, using iron bars against left-wing students at Sapienza University in Rome. The media presented the attack as a fight among extremists of opposite sides. But in fact, it was really a neo-fascist attack against the students.

There have also been neo-fascist attacks on the shops of immigrants in a part of Rome where immigrants are concentrated. Again, in this case, the media and the right parties defended the attacks, claiming that the immigrants in these shops were dealing drugs and so on.

So the worst result of the victory of Gianni Alemanno is a strengthening of the neo-fascist movement in Rome, which was already strong.

WHAT ABOUT the Northern League? Is it true that the Northern League won significant working class support in the last election?

THE ELECTORAL result for the Northern League was good, though not as good as in the 1990s, when the movement was getting started. In comparison with recent years, though, the Northern League managed to have a real success.

A part of the working class voted for the Northern League, especially workers in medium or smaller factories--in other words, not the big factories, but smaller ones, especially in the northeast.

But that doesn't mean that the Northern League has real implantation. For example, the attempt to create a union for the Northern League, called SinPa (Sindacato Padano), was, in fact, a failure. It's very weak and doesn't have real roots.

So the Northern League won some working class support, but that doesn't mean it is organizing the working class as the working class. The social roots of the Northern League are in communities, not in workplaces.

What the Northern League has managed to do is build roots in smaller communities in the north, and create a community identity that didn't exist before--of Padania, which is meant to be a name for northern Italy.

This identity didn't exist before, but the Northern League managed to create it as an answer to the social crisis, especially among the smaller factories and the poorer levels of society. Of course, these community identities are fundamentally racist identities. So xenophobia is one of the strong points of the Northern League.

HAS THE left been able to mobilize a response to the attacks of the far right and the election victories of the conservatives?

THE LEFT, especially the radical left, was completely disoriented by the election result, and that's caused difficulties in building an answer to these racist and rightist attacks.

We've tried to do this. For example, in Rome, we organized a demonstration of some thousands of people against the right's attacks in the immigrant quarter of the city. There was also an antiracist demonstration organized in Verona, and there's been an attempt to reorganize a movement among local groups of immigrants. We'll have a national meeting in early September to launch a national anti-racist campaign.

But in this area, we have the same problems that we have around other political and social demands in Italy--stemming from the fragmentation of the radical left and the demoralization caused by the experience of Rifondazione's participation in the center-left government.

What we need now is to reconstruct a network of organizations, unions and groups on the radical left to attempt to launch a social and political campaign against Berlusconi. We need a strong anti-racist and anti-fascist campaign, but also a campaign on salaries and social issues.

But it's not easy. The two years of Prodi's government created a situation of passivity on the radical left, and we have yet to have an open debate and draw up a balance sheet of the experience of these past few years.

From the point of view of rebuilding social resistance against the right, another issue is reconstructing an anti-capitalist left in Italy. Building a social and political network against the right isn't enough to recreate an anti-capitalist left that needs, for example, a clear and open debate about the relationship with center-left parties--the Third Way parties. The relationship with the Third Way parties was, in fact, a big mistake of the radical left in Italy, and we need to be clear about this.

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