Sunday, March 11, 2018

Italy and populist politics

Italy's election of March 4 left three parties that in one form or another are seen as populist parties. In Europe, notably Austria and Germany, "populist" is often used as more-or-less-synonymous with rightwing politics and demagoguery. It's too narrow a definition, which would exclude some of the most significant populist movements in history, including the Populist Party itself once led by William Jennings Bryan. That spin on what "populist" means is worth keeping in mind when reading commentaries on Italian politics of the moment.

The leading vote getter in March was the left populist Five Star Movement. Although they have in the past talked about anti-austerity economic policies in line with his own, Yanis Varoufakis is very cautious about finding hopeful results in their first place win. (LA STAMPA interview on the Italian election result (the original answers in English) 03/09/2018). Varoufakis describes himself and the DIEM25 group of which he is a leader as progressive Europeanist, i.e., pro-EU but anti-austerity.

"The Italian election yielded a sad impasse," he writes. "The only real beneficiaries are those who invested in xenophobia and fear." And he emphasizes the role of bad economic policies in the result: "Like every other European country in which the establishment pressed on with failed, austerity-based policies, pretending that they were the solution to our continent’s systemic crisis, the ballot box reinforced the forces of European disintegration."

He doesn't present Five Star in a very appealing light:
What’s your view of the Five Star? Do you categorise them as a populist movement or as a new left?

No party that invests in fear of the migrant, of the ‘other’, the refugee can pose as left-wing. The term ‘populist’, in my mind, has been widely abused of recent. In terms of domestic economic policies, Five Star is clearly trying to re-position itself as a centrist party that can be trusted by the establishment. It tries to maintain its perceived radicalism by targeting the old political class and it corrupt ways while refraining from challenging the ‘system’ itself. Of course, when a system is failing as obviously as Europe’s and Italy’s, the attempt to embrace the system while criticising its functionaries seems to me ill-fated.

What do you think of M5S’s proposal for a basic income? Is it radical? Is it progressive?

M5S are proposing a Guaranteed Minimum Income. This must not be confused with the Universal Basic Income, which would be paid to every citizen with no conditions attached. M5S’s proposal is for a minimum means-tested payment that is conditional also on registering at a job centre, demonstrating that you are looking for work, and not turning down job offers – even if they are low grade and demeaning. In essence, M5S is proposing a welfare net that is standard in most central and northern European countries. Many Italians need this payment and see it as a glimpse of hope – so we should not be quick to criticize it. Whether it will, in the end, be good for poorer Italians or not will depend on the implementation, and in particular what other benefits (e.g. disability or child benefits) are cut.
Angela Giuffrida in The Guardian describes also describes how the current Five Star position on immigration is on the same wavelength with reactionaries (From rebels to Italy's biggest single party: can the Five Star Movement govern? 03/05/2018):
The big question is with whom would the party ally in order to reach the 40% share of the vote required to govern Italy. Experts speculate that it could exploit the dismal performance of the Democratic party and attempt to split that party, or try to team up with the small leftwing group Free and Equal. Another scenario is a tie-up with the League, formerly known as the Northern League, a far-right party with whom it is more closely allied on issues such as immigration and Russia.

Di Maio has said he would stop sending the rescue boats that save migrants in the Mediterranean, which he has called a “sea taxi service”, while Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, has pledged to deport thousands of illegal immigrants.
Maurizio Cotta looks at some of the "macro" factors at work in the Italian election (Italy: First European Country In The Hand Of Populists? Social Europe 03/09/2018):
According to the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s 2017 Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) on Italy the economic recovery started to take off under the Democratic Party-based governments of Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni, but people’s perceptions didn’t change much and are still dominated by the effects of the deep recession of the past years – fear of unemployment, experiences of business failures, and the tightening of living conditions. Naturally, the main governing parties suffer under such conditions, whereas opposition parties that are perceived as being far distant from the government enjoy voters’ goodwill. Thus, first and foremost the Five Star Movement and the League grew rather than Forza Italia which had headed the government three times between 1994 and 2008.

A second reason for the success of these two parties is the growing resentment in large strata of the population against the policies of the EU. Many people feel damaged by economic austerity on the one hand and resent the scant solidarity shown to Italy’s problems with immigration on the other. The Five Star Movement and the League have both shown very critical attitudes towards the EU – to the point of even suggesting a referendum on the Euro.
John Weeks thinks the centrist parties are ignoring Biblical signs of skeptical and critical attitudes toward the real existing EU (EU Takes Beating In Italian Elections: When Will They Ever Learn*? Social Europe 03/07/2018):
The centrist parties in the European Parliament treated the growth of the far right as a fringe phenomenon requiring no amendment to their “ever closer union” agenda. The British vote to leave brought no more than a momentary shock. Shrugging off Brexit as a uniquely British phenomenon and no threat to the continent, the centre-right (European Peoples’ Party) and centre-left (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) pursued their top-down strategy of deepening through compromise.
Mario Pianta in Loathing And Poverty: Italy After The 2018 Elections Social Europe 03/06/2018 stresses economic issues in looking at the Italian election:
Ten years of severe economic and social crisis are the background to all these developments. Italy’s per capita income is now back to the levels of twenty years ago; behind this average there is a collapse – of about 30% – of the income of the 25% poorest Italians, living in the South or in the declining peripheries of the Center-North. Twenty years of stagnation and decline mean a generation with ever-lower expectations in terms of income, work and life. Impoverishment has become a reality for a very large swathe of Italians. The Five Star vote reflects the poverty of the South – their call for a general minimum income has been attractive in this regard. The vote for the League expresses the fear of impoverishment in the North. Only in the centres of major cities – where the richest and the highly educated live, and the economy is better – has the vote taken different directions, going to Forza Italia and the Democratic Party.
The particulars are different from country to country, of course. But people trying to understand this moment in politics in EU countries have to wrestle with the complex overlaps between economic situations and xeophobic sentiment:
Poverty is coupled with fear. The fear of worsening economic conditions and social status; the fear of having immigrants next door, other poor people competing for fewer low-skilled jobs and scarcer public services. In the elections the most prevalent fear was that of immigrants – the landings in Lampedusa, the inability to integrate them, the killing and shootings in Macerata. Salvini turned anti-immigration attitudes into his most effective political tool; Five Star expressed the same hostility – calling NGOs saving immigrants in the Mediterranean ‘water taxis’ for illegal aliens and refusing to vote for a bill granting citizenship to second generation Italians with migrant origins. [my emphasis]
So the left-leaning populist in Five Star did embrace the anti-immigrant rhetoric that rightly disgusts Yanis Varoufakis.

All over Europe, the phenomenon of the center-right Social Democratic parties collapsing after years of embracing Angela Merkel-style neoliberal economics is a major factor in the political picture.

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