Sunday, March 11, 2018

Upside Down Italian Politics

To most outside observers and many inside the country, Italian politics have always seemed anarchic. I've often lamented the use of the terms “conservative” and “liberal” because there's little conservative about about present day conservatives, while “liberal” has economic connotations usually at odds with social issue applications of the term. “Progressive” is even more problematic in that one woman's progress may be seen as regression by another. I've tended to favor the old French idea of the left and the right, with the right looking after the interests of the rich and powerful while the left tends to the needs of the poor, the workers and the powerless.

Alas, current Italian politics has thrown all the categories into a hat, shaken them and dumped out the random bits into scarcely recognizable units. We've just had parliamentary elections and journalists continue to write in abeyance to their historic allegiances. A recent electoral law, crafted by the Partito Democratico, assigns extra seats in Parliament to the coalition of parties garnering the most votes so that the possibility that a ruling coalition can be formed is enhanced. It also enhances the possibility that the powers-that-be hold on to their power. In the recent election there were three main groups in contention.

Silvio Berlusconi
The Center-Right was formed by Forza Italia, the party created by Silvio Berlusconi prior to his first term as premier, and with which he was attempting a political comeback, and by La Lega (the League) which was formerly La Lega Nord, when its objective was secession from the decadent, parasitic south. Berlusconi is the prototype for Donald Trump, a vulgar, corrupt, misogynist, hard-driving business man, who by hook or crook, became Italy's richest man, and has parlayed his economic success and domination of the media into political power. His success in ignoring the concept of conflict of interest changed those standards throughout the western world enough to allow Trump's conduct, previously unimaginable in the United States, to go unhindered. Ineligible to run as a candidate himself due to a conviction for tax fraud, Berlusconi hoped to be the de facto head of a new government. In the recent political campaign he seemed to take scripts verbatim from Ronald Reagan's 1980 speeches promoting tax cuts to raise tax revenues, described at the time by Big George Bush as voodoo economics. In this case, Berlusconi was pushing his own proposal for a flat tax, which would net him a personal gain not unlike the gift Trump has given himself with his huge tax cuts for the very rich. Despite being as fast and loose with the truth as some of his US counterparts, Berlusconi has had some good ideas. As premier, he made an agreement with Col. Gaddafi to halt the departure of illegal migrants from Libyan shores. Now, with Gaddafi murdered and the flow of migrants swamping Italy, he proposes to repatriate the majority of them and to start what he refers to as a “Marshall Plan” for Africa to improve conditions there. It's probably the most reasonable proposal on the issue heard during the campaign but Italians have probably seen enough of Berlusconi. His party came in behind that of Salvini, a humiliation he did not really expect. La Lega will have about 3% more seats in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies than Forza Italia but the coalition will have about 31-32% of the total seats in the two houses of Parliament.

Matteo Salvini
His main partner in the center-right coalition is Matteo Salvini, the brusque forty-four-year-old leader of the Lega, whose truculent manner and anti-EU stance, along with his fierce objection to uncontrolled immigration, has convinced the foreign press to label him a neo-fascist threat. His early political career in 1998 was as a leader of the “comunisti padani” and member of the governing town council of Milan, most notably promoting the legalization of marijuana. Salvini has reversed his stance on that while moving from one end of the political spectrum to the other. The Northern League's policy of advocating secession of the north switched to advocacy of secession from the EU, necessitating a change of name, as the League moved to garner support from all parts of the country, especially the disaffected south. In light of such changes of course, his reputation for intransigence may be overstated. He has little depth but his plain-spoken advocacy seems to be in the service of the people of his region, rather than at the bidding of the international oligarchs who employ his American GOP counterparts. While Salvini and Berlusconi have pledged to get along, Berlusconi is strongly pro-Europe while Salvini has advocated leaving both the Euro and the EU. Called neo-fascist by the nervous foreign press, and by much of the Italian press, Salvini has proposed returning the illegal (i.e. undocumented in today's terminology) immigrants to where they came from, much like virtually the entire US Republican congressional contingent, but unlike Senator Marco Rubio, who very recently advocated publicly the military overthrow of the elected Venezuelan Government, he has advocated no invasions of other countries. If the NYT has labeled Senator Rubio a dangerous neo-fascist, I missed it. The actual neo-fascists available to Italian voters were in two other parties, Fratelli d'Italia, which is the latest name for the group of far right people whose grandfathers were supporters of Mussolini but who have evolved into something considerably less right-wing than any Republican in public office in Ohio or Kansas. They ran within the center-right coalition and took just over 4% of the vote. The unapologetic fascists, running independently as Casapound Italia, took a small percentage of the vote, not even close to the 4% threshold required to be assigned any seats in Parliament.

Matteo Renzi
The center-left coalition was headed up by Matteo Renzi, who served as Prime Minister until he called for a referendum to alter the Italian Constitution, replacing it with a new one drawn up by JP Morgan with the help of Tony Blair. Ostensibly, the new Constitution would have made governing easier by placing control of the country in the hands of fewer people. The Senate would be eliminated as an elective body and as a voting entity. It would live on as a figurehead institution housing elder statesmen with a nice salary and benefits. Former heads of the Partito Democratico such as Massimo D'Alema and Pier Luigi Bersani openly opposed this referendum, even publicly warning that the proposed constitution was dangerous, yet Renzi prevailed in the party, echoing the success of the right wing of the Democratic Party in the US, on which he has modeled his career. The referendum failed badly and while Renzi resigned as Prime Minister in favor of his colleague Paolo Gentiloni, he retained control of the PD. While Matteo Salvini could be faulted for his many radical shifts of program, the same could not be said about Matteo Renzi. He has been steadfast in advocating measures, including all manner of privatization, that would take political decisions out of the hands of the voting public, assigning ever greater power to bankers and corporations. Prior to his attempt to replace the constitution, he unapologetically supported the TTIP, a trade agreement designed to end the legislative sovereignty of both the EU and its member nations.

A good deal of false information comes out during political campaigns. When it is not challenged, the silence tends to serve as confirmation, but certainly not a reliable one. Throughout the campaign, it was routinely stated that 15 million Italians live in poverty. I never heard that denied or refuted. This is a country of about sixty million people! Has any other country in the world been damaged as much or more by globalization? I don't know but in 1982, Italy's GNP surpassed that of the UK and Italy became the second largest economy in Europe and the fifth, or even fourth, largest in the world. It didn't last long. Corruption, which exploded in the Mani Pulite scandals of1992, devastated the country, but globalization possibly did as much. Italians had made just about everything, often the very best goods in any number of sectors, from food to textiles, fashion, leather goods, steel, glass, ceramics, optics, high performance automobiles. Food remains an important part of the economy but much of the rest is gone. Some Italian companies have survived by moving their production to low wage countries. Italian workers have simply been dumped. Italy is widely perceived as an idyllic countryside with great food, splendid monuments and art. That's all true but many cities off the tourist path have been reduced to a rather grim state with high unemployment, especially among the young. University enrollments expanded throughout the post-WWII era but in the past few years university enrollments have declined dramatically and large numbers of recent graduates have been leaving to find more opportunities in other countries. None of this augurs well for the future of the country.

Another unchallenged statement, emanating from Silvio Berlusconi, during the campaign was that the government had acquiesced to EU pressure to take in all the refugees that washed up on the shores of Sicily. While Berlusconi may be almost as fast and loose with the truth as Donald Trump, how else does one explain the supernatural passivity of the Italian Government in maintaining its borders? In the last few months before the election, the minister of the Interior did take effective action, but it was too little, too late. I often suggest that the bombing of Libya by France, the UK and the US would be comparable to the bombing of all US border crossing points by a foreign power. Many of us in Italy wondered what was wrong with the Italian police and military? They're not stopping this invasion. I stand by my comparison. However, if this accord was reached by the Italian Government, a more accurate paragon would be the US, under pressure from a foreign power, let's say Canada, simply closing all crossing stations along its southern borders and allowing traffic to flow unhindered and uncontrolled. I realize that there are many people who would consider that a noble goal. After all, look at the borders of Holland and Belgium for example. I would urge such people to go into an induced deep sleep and wake up in a new and better era.

Yet another bit of information, this time from Bloomberg News, slipped in under the radar. The announcement that the PD government had introduced a policy allowing wealthy individuals willing to establish residency in Italy to receive a flat income tax bill of €100,000 per year. This is not without precedent. Small countries around the world give outrageous tax breaks to lure rich residents. US states bankrupt themselves through tax giveaways to big corporations in exchange for their moving factories there. Still, while Berlusconi's self-enriching flat tax is consistent with the traditional values of the right, this proposal is not a flat tax rate but a flat tax amount, i.e. a regressive variable tax rate, with the rate growing ever lower as the wealth of the newly recruited immigrant grows higher. Yes, an annual tax bill of €100,000 seems almost like science fiction to most of us but for someone with a million Euro income, that's only 10%. Even some NFL back-up quarterbacks are making $5 M per year. Policies sometimes have unintended consequences. If Donald Trump hears about this, he might resign his office and move to Florence. Even the tax policies he's enacted himself couldn't help him that much. This policy comes from the Democratic Party (PD), not the one of Andrew Jackson, but the one derived from the Partito Democratico dell Sinistra, the workers' party, which in turn was the new name taken by the old Partito Comunista Italiano after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of most of the major parties in the fallout from Mani Pulite.

Following his role models, Tony Blair and Obama/Clinton, in taking the major party of the left to the hyper-capitalist right, Matteo Renzi led the Partito Democratico to a catastrophic loss in the recent elections. From number one, the party has slipped to number two, with about 19% of the seats in Parliament, a percentage dwarfed by the combined totals of the two principal parties of the center-right coalition. That brings us to the third ingredient in the electoral pot.

Beppe Grillo
Beppe Grillo was a very successful Italian comedian who developed a large popular following but whose irreverence for the ruling class came to get him banished from Italian TV. He continued to perform for large live audiences. His comedy, sharp and bitter but engaged, was reminiscent of that of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory.. I tend to think of him as the Italian George Carlin, but he's more than that. He apparently tired of simply railing at the political establishment and decided to do something, and like Berlusconi, he founded his own party, the Five Star Movement, in 2009 He considered it a movement, not a party. Also like Berlusconi, he was ineligible to run for public office himself, having been convicted for his responsibility in a traffic accident which resulted in the death of a person. Berlusconi's crime was tax fraud, which happened after his entry into politics, although he has been indicted on a number of other charges. Grillo based his movement, and its name, on five principal themes: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable politics, the right to internet access, and environmentalism. He also insisted that anyone running under the M5S banner pledge to give back half of his or her salary to the government, based on his widely shared belief that Italian parliamentarians are over paid and too many in number (e.g. 968 vs 535 in the US Congress). Much like Bernie Sanders in the US, his campaign has attracted many young and enthusiastic people, fed up with the corrupt and inept political establishment. The M5S got the most votes in the 2013 election for the Chamber of Deputies, but not being in a coalition meant they were assigned only 109 of the 630 seats. This year they swept Italy south of Rome, where the problems of poverty and the wave of migrants have hit the hardest. The M5S is now the largest party in Italy with over 32% of the seats in Parliament but still outnumbered by the center-right coalition with 36% of the seats.
Luigi Di Maio

The Grillini, as they're often called, have been much criticized for being inexperienced in politics. The criticism is valid but their response is concentrated on their integrity. Many of their candidates have been recruited from positions in various professions, from medicine to scientific research, law, information technology and economics. While they may be good in their fields, most of them have little experience in political office. Luigi Di Maio, the new head of the party, and candidate for premier, via an on-line primary, is only thirty-one years old. While he studied engineering and law at the university, he left before obtaining a degree to join the newly formed M5S and at twenty-six became the youngest parliamentarian to become the vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies. His elevation in the party may be somewhat due to having more political experience than most of the candidates in the party, despite his youth, but he really hasn't worked at anything else. M5S internet ads have shown the faces and resumès of some of their young recruits alongside those of their direct electoral opponents, most of them right out of central casting for classic villains. They have also pointed out that among the hundreds of candidates put up by the two large coalitions, each slate has about a score of convicted felons in its ranks, while the M5S has none. Given the election results, many Italians apparently preferred to take their chances with inexperienced bright young people rather than with entrenched veterans of the political swamp.

The party proposes a minimum income for all citizens, a controversial stand but one that addresses a problem rarely talked about anywhere in the modern world. Research and technology are working madly to eliminate jobs. Artificial intelligence is thought to be the wave of the future, eliminating vast swaths of jobs, but little attention is devoted to how people will survive if work is eliminated.

The M5S has been described as anti-Europe or anti-EU but it might be more accurate to describe the EU as being anti-Europe. It was the French, English and Americans, not the EU, that attacked Libya, unleashing the flood of refugees. The EU did nothing. Just imagine the militias of Kansas and Utah joining up with the Argentine military to bomb Juarez, while the US Government did nothing about it. Would it be Mississippi, or California this time, to consider the idea of secession? Once the damage had been done, Italy asked the EU for help with the migrant problem but was told by Germany that the Italian borders and the refugees entering were Italy's problem. When the migrants started crossing from Italy into France, the French who, under Sarkozy, had precipitated the crisis, closed their borders in violation of the basic tenets of the European Union. When the EU was formed, Italy was among the most enthusiastic of all the original members. Most Italians still appreciate the convenience of the single currency, whether they are tourists or businessmen, but many are also realizing that the economic union is badly flawed and favors some of the more prosperous members at the expense of the poorer ones to the south. Another common view is that the EU is a center of smug, out-of-touch highly paid bureaucrats responsible to no one. I would add that they intervene in local rules and regulations without hesitation but barely manage a whimper in response to the most egregious examples of American imperialism. The NYT may see the winners of the election as pro-Putin but the reality that US regime media don't want to acknowledge is that sanctions imposed by the US on Russia and Iran have damaged Italy and other EU members almost as much as they have harmed the targeted countries.

What lies ahead? Renzi has said he would resign but not until a new government is formed and he's determined that the PD will not cooperate with any party outside his coalition, more or less guaranteeing that a new government cannot be formed. He sounds like a petulant child, combining the worst traits of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. That leaves it up to President Sergio Mattarella to figure out a solution. Good luck Mr. President! As I prepare to distribute this post, I've heard that the PD has told Renzi to leave, now. That may be the best news of the week.

Once, all roads led to Rome. Now, nobody knows which way is right, which way is left, which way is up? Do all paths lead downward? Stay tuned.