Et tu Bertinotti?

The previously strong Italian parliamentary radical left experienced a fracture with the social movements and was then wiped out in the recent elections. Sandro Mezzadra examines the fallout, while below Keir Milburn and Ben Trott offer some background.


April 28, 2008: Supporters of the newly elected, rightwing mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, crowd outside the City Hall. He appears on the balcony and waves the Italian tricolour. The cry goes out, ‘Duce, Duce’. Supporters raise the straight-arm ‘Roman salute’. The aesthetic is decidedly Fascist.

These echoes of Italy’s past have been accompanied by a wave of anti-immigrant violence. Both come on the back of Silvio Berlusconi’s return to power at the head of a rightwing coalition which includes the ‘post-Fascist’ National Alliance and the anti-immigrant Northern League.

What is more, this shift to the right has involved what, in the following short text, Sandro Mezzadra describes as the ‘abolition’ of the parliamentary left at the last election. It also coincides with an incredibly strained moment in the complex relationship between the movements and institutions of the Italian left.

All this is in stark contrast to the previous period of Berlusconi government, between 2001 and 2006. This had been characterised by an explosion of struggle, what some had called ‘the springtime of the movements’. It had also been a period of intense and largely productive cooperation between social movements and institutions, including political parties. The 300,000 strong demonstrations against the G8, the general strikes of 2002 against a package of labour reforms and budget cuts, the proliferation of local social forums around Italy, and the protests against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were all characterised by collaboration between autonomous movements and non-autonomous others. Of particular importance were the grassroots syndicalist union, Cobas; the FIOM metal workers union; the Tute Bianche (White Overall movement)/Disobbedienti; and the youth-wing of Rifondazione, Giovani Comuniste e Comunisti (the Young Communists).

The decision by Rifondazione to seek participation in the post-Berlusconi government, ahead of the 2006 election, however, led to a rupture in its relation with social movements. The ‘area of autonomy’ in Italy, all of a sudden, became much more easy to define. With the calling of a snap election, only two years after a number of radical-left parties, including Rifondazione, entered into Romano Prodi’s coalition government, efforts to pursue change via the parliamentary route (or, for the more cynical: ‘the path of opportunism’) catastrophically collapsed. It seems likely that it is within this ‘area of autonomy’ that the left in Italy will increasingly need to concentrate their efforts over the years to come.

– Keir Milburn & Ben Trott

Three parties of the radical-left, Federazione dei Verdi (the Federation of Greens), Rifondazione comunista (the Refounded Communist Party), and Partito dei Comunisti Italiani (the Party of Italian Communists), had taken part in the post-Berlusconi governing coalition. In the election brought on by that government’s fall, they formed the Sinistra Arcobaleno (Rainbow Left) coalition, led by the former head of Rifondazione comunista, Fausto Bertinotti. The coalition suffered a crushing defeat. For the first time since the Second World War, there is no communist participation in the Italian parliament, and Italy is now one of very few European countries without Green Party representation in parliament.

The results of the recent elections in Italy were a shock. The parliamentary ‘left’ was abolished. It was a particularly crushing defeat for Rifondazione comunista and Fausto Bertinotti, the initiator of the Sinistra Arcobaleno project.

I belong to those who fundamentally criticised this project even before the elections. Arcobaleno was, from the beginning, pure ‘coalition politics’. There was no serious discussion about the two years (2006–2008) in which Rifondazione had taken part in the Prodi government. The entire Arcobaleno election campaign was characterised by a form of ‘identity politics’. Its goal was to rescue the ‘left’, which was reduced to a value in itself.

Within Rifondazione, between 1998 and 2003, there was – parallel to the development of powerful struggles and social movements – at least an attempt to take seriously the crisis of representative democracy; to conceive a new relation between social struggles and institutions; to develop this relation in the new transnational spaces of Europe; and to make full use of militant investigation into the transformation of class composition as a means of participating in social struggles. This route was interrupted when Rifondazione came to the decision to invest everything in participation in the government and to resolve the crisis of historic communism through a kind of ‘left-social democratic’ project. The elections have passed a devastating judgement over this project.

There are many comrades in Italy who celebrate this judgement. Some believe that the defeat of Bertinotti shows the necessity of a traditional communist identity. Others point towards the necessary autonomy of social struggles and movements. Whilst I find the former position to be a type of ‘identity politics’, I feel very close to the latter. But I think that it is urgently necessary to pose the problem of politics anew within social struggles and movements. Such movements and struggles are not absent in Italy. Quite the opposite! But the elections did not only lead to the defeat of Bertinotti and Arcobaleno. The victory of Berlusconi and Bossi (the leader of the Northern League) is characterised by singular traits which have not been emphasised strongly enough. In particular, the Lega ran an extremely aggressive election campaign, characteristic of the crisis of ‘neoliberal’ globalisation. We are now confronted by an occupation from the right of the critique of globalisation. In considering the consequences of the signs of an international economic crisis, the territorial and/or national community is being defensively rediscovered as the exclusive point of reference for politics. The ubiquity of the rhetoric about ‘security’ has to be interpreted within this context.

Social struggles and movements, under these conditions, run the danger of being reduced to the status of resistance. The problem to be addressed by leftwing politics, in my opinion, consists precisely in the opening of new horizons which go beyond this. The Seattle (1999) and Genoa (2001) protests brought this question forth powerfully, anticipating the crisis of ‘neoliberal’ globalisation.

There is no ‘national’ answer to this problematic: the task that we are confronted with here in Italy is similar to that which needs to take place everywhere. We are trying to interpret the situation here in the context of Europe and the globe. Beyond the traditional ‘left’ there are new spaces and possibilities for radical politics to be discovered and built.

The situation in which we set ourselves this task is very different from that which the ‘global movement’ emerged from. The world is changing. Neither Empire (the global, networked form of rule first described by Hardt and Negri) nor imperialism appear to be able to stabilise – in the capitalist sense – the ‘world order’. The discussion of this task is something I am sure we will continue to pursue together in the near future.

Translated by Ben Trott

Sandro Mezzadra is an editor of the Italian journal Posse and teaches Political Theory at the University of Bologna.

Keir Milburn and Ben Trott are editors of Turbulence.

Greek translation here. Spanish version here.

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