Workers Vanguard No. 1024
17 May 2013
Austerity, Populism and Anti-Worker Attacks
Down With the Capitalist European Union!
For a Workers Europe!
The following leaflet was issued by our comrades of the Lega Trotskista d’Italia on April 30 and distributed at the traditional May Day march in Milan.
The January elections have shaken the bourgeois political landscape. The bourgeoisie expected that the elections would result in a coalition government consisting of the Democratic Party (PD) and the electoral slate headed by outgoing prime minister Mario Monti, with the liberal left in Left Ecology Freedom (SEL) tagging along. The idea was that this government, with the support of the union bureaucracies, would become a trustworthy tool to impose the brutal austerity and public spending cuts required to guarantee the profits that Italian and foreign banks expect from their investments in the Italian national debt.
Instead, the elections were a deformed expression of popular resistance to the diktats of the “market” and the European Union (EU). The slate headed by Monti received barely 10 percent of the vote. The PD, rightly seen as stalwart defenders of Monti’s austerity program, lost 3.5 million votes. Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) managed to avoid catastrophe only through an about-face, passing itself off as Monti’s bitter enemy after a year of supporting him while playing anti-tax demagogy to the hilt. The real winner of the elections was the Five Star Movement (M5S) led by Beppe Grillo, a bourgeois demagogue with a reactionary streak, which managed to garner 25 percent of the vote from both the left and right ends of the political spectrum with his “go f--k yourself” message to the political establishment.
The M5S is a bourgeois political formation that expresses the despair of the petty bourgeoisie as it confronts a deep economic crisis and the support of all the major bourgeois parties (first and foremost, the PD) for the austerity measures dictated by the EU and imposed by the Monti government and its predecessors. Its program is a mixture of ecologist prescriptions, invocations to bourgeois “legality,” rabid nationalism and protectionism. It demands that the unions be kept in line and calls for drastic cuts in pensions and wages for public-sector workers. If this plan were carried out, it could only lead to harsh attacks on the working class. Despite the fact that it garnered its votes primarily from angry unemployed youth, petty capitalists in financial ruin and large sectors of a disgruntled working class bled dry by capitalist austerity, the M5S is as much an enemy of workers, immigrants and minorities as any of the other parties. To paraphrase American writer Gore Vidal, one could say that within the grotesque circus known as the Italian parliament, there is a monster with three wings—all of them right wings.
After a month of contortions and internal strife, the PD and the PDL have managed to throw together a national unity government to continue the blood and tears policy imposed by Monti and his predecessors. The new government was blessed by the re-election of 87-year-old president Napolitano and the appointment of Democrat Enrico Letta as prime minister. (The latter is known as “the nephew of his uncle”—Gianni Letta was Berlusconi’s right-hand man and was named “Gentleman of his Holiness” by [then Pope] Ratzinger.)
In the face of the devastation wreaked by the bourgeoisie’s economic and political crisis, a powerful class-struggle response to populist demagoguery and austerity plans is urgently needed. Factory closings and layoffs must be met with a call to divide all available work among the entire available workforce with no reduction in pay. A sliding scale of wages is necessary to confront the increasing gap between the value of wages and the cost of living. Unions must take up the defense of immigrant workers, who are the first fired, and demand full citizenship rights for them.
The working class, acting as the vanguard for vast sectors of the impoverished and oppressed, has the power to defeat the capitalists’ schemes. The main obstacle faced by workers is their own union leaderships, which politically embrace the bourgeois order and support the reactionary European Union—and have thus far been successful in containing and isolating struggles. These bureaucrats spread the lie that workers and their exploiters share a common “national interest,” and thus workers have to sacrifice their share when the economy goes down the drain. But workers and capitalists have opposing class interests. The boom and bust cycles endemic to the capitalist system will be eliminated only when the proletariat comes to power and takes control of the means of production currently owned by the bourgeoisie, building a collectivized and planned economy on an international scale.
For a Socialist United States
Back in January, European Commission President Barroso declared: “We can say that the existential threat against the euro has essentially been overcome.” But in fact this is still just the beginning of the euro crisis and the euro zone continues to unravel. Unable to contain the debt crisis that erupted in 2010, the imperialist masters of the EU and their partners in the International Monetary Fund [IMF] continue to bleed working people dry. The last “rescue package” (to salvage the capitalist bloodsuckers) struck the tiny Republic of Cyprus. The Troika (the IMF, European Central Bank and EU) answered Cyprus’s request for support to their banks by demanding in return the complete destruction of the island’s economy, which had served as a tax haven in recent years.
In Italy, Mario Monti’s “technocratic” government—which came to power in November 2011 with the support of the PD and the PDL in a broad national-unity coalition—dedicated all its efforts to making sure that the state’s debt to financial and industrial capitalists was repaid to the last euro, squeezing the working class and the petty bourgeoisie to line the bankers’ pockets. His government slashed billions from pensions, public workers’ wages and health services. Contracts in both the private and public sectors have gotten worse, while unemployment continues to rise. Some 609,000 jobs were lost in 2012 alone and another 488,000 in the first two months of 2013. Eight million people live below the poverty line. Youth unemployment has reached 38.7 percent and only 23 percent of women younger than 34 years of age have jobs. A huge number of immigrant workers, already hit hard by the initial crisis in 2008, have been thrown into conditions of greater misery, facing the risk of deportation and even more exploitative working conditions.
The crisis has had greatest impact in those EU countries whose economies have been historically weaker than the German zone. In 2010, international finance, fearing a default by Greece, stopped borrowing against its debt [i.e., buying government bonds] and imposed a series of draconian “reforms” to guarantee repayments to its mainly German, French and Italian creditors. The Greek economy sank into a recessionary spiral, and the debt crisis spread to Spain, Portugal, Italy and Cyprus. The consequences for the working class in these countries were devastating. In Spain and Greece, the unemployment rate exceeds 27 percent and living conditions for the population have been thrown back decades.
The plundering of the economies of smaller and dependent countries confirms that the EU is an imperialist trade bloc, dominated by German and French capitalists, whose aim is to ratchet up the exploitation of the European working class, control the influx of immigrant labor and gain a competitive edge against their imperialist rivals in the U.S. and Japan. The devastation of the standard of living for workers in Greece, Portugal and Spain shows that, despite a lot of hot air about European “convergence,” there was never any intention to raise poorer countries to the level of the wealthier ones. On the contrary, the aim was to create a “flexible labor market,” i.e., a low-cost workforce without union protection.
In Italy, the reformist left supported the creation of the EU imperialist conglomerate. Now that their pro-capitalist politics have proven bankrupt, the reformists denounce the domination of Merkel’s Germany over smaller, poorer Italian capitalism. Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) went so far as to argue that [right-wing politicians Umberto] Bossi and [Giulio] Tremonti should be “tried for treason” for allowing Italy to become “a Bavarian Chinatown” (paoloferrero.it, 11 August 2011).
We in the International Communist League have always opposed and continue to oppose the EU on principle, just as we do any other imperialist alliance. We said from the get-go that the euro would be a tool of the imperialist EU and opposed its introduction. We also opposed the eastward expansion of the EU because it was clear that it would increase the exploitation of East European workers. At the same time, we fought against chauvinist discrimination that targeted immigrant workers from East Europe.
As Marxists, we know that imperialist blocs and alliances can only last temporarily. Since capitalism is based on nation-states, these alliances will necessarily collapse under the weight of their internal contradictions. Our opposition to these alliances stems from our fundamental opposition to capitalism and imperialism. As we wrote in Spartaco No. 75 (January 2012), the working-class answer to the capitalist crisis and the related splintering of the euro zone:
“does not lie in supporting the EU imperialist madhouse or chauvinist national protectionism, but in the proletarian internationalist perspective of constructing a Socialist United States of Europe, based on proletarian power and the overthrow of capitalism. The unification of industry and technology in Europe (and beyond), on the basis of a collectivized and planned economy that extends beyond national borders, is a vital and ineluctable necessity for further development of human civilization because it would put an end to the chaos, anarchy, trade wars and crisis of the capitalist madhouse that this continent has become. The necessary conditions to bring this about are the overthrow of the capitalist ruling class and the establishment of proletarian state power in the major countries on the continent.”
5 Star Movement: Populism, Demagogy and Reaction
The rise of the M5S movement is the result of the deep political and social crisis of European and international capitalism. Grillo was able to exploit the widespread popular discontent because all the parties that were once identified with the workers movement and social reforms supported the austerity measures imposed by Brussels, Berlin and Rome.
That large sectors of the working class are in the grip of M5S is a result of the PD’s enforcement of austerity politics and some twenty years of betrayals by reformist leaders (Rifondazione), who were implicated in increasingly grotesque class-collaborationist politics. More broadly, it’s an expression of the retrogression of consciousness stemming from the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and the “death of Communism” campaign led by the bourgeoisie and their ex-Stalinist and social-democratic tails.
The M5S gives voice to the exasperation of the petty bourgeoisie, which, secondarily to the working class, has been made to pay a heavy price for the combined consequences of the economic crisis and the national debt. It has also attracted the support of a few capitalist profiteers like Giovanni Consorte, former head of Unipol, and Leonardo del Vecchio, the billionaire owner of Luxottica. Many M5S cadres are drawn from the layer of petty-bourgeois intellectuals who have been left with no options other than short-term work contracts for the notorious wages of the “1,000 euro [per month] generation.” The petty bourgeoisie, which typically comprises the core of populist movements, is a heterogeneous social layer that includes artisans, professionals, small (and medium) entrepreneurs, etc. Given its social position, squeezed between big capitalists and the working class, the petty bourgeoisie lacks any independent political perspective and is absolutely incapable of providing an alternative to capitalism. If the working class does not mobilize independently of every faction of the bourgeoisie, pulling the impoverished sectors of the petty bourgeoisie behind it in a fight against capitalism, the large capitalists will have a field day channeling the anger and the frustration of everyone ruined by the crisis against the workers movement and the unions.
The official program of the M5S revolves around populist demagogy against corruption, abuses from “the palace” and the huge costs of politics and public administration. The petty-bourgeois ecology movement and economic support to small and medium Italian capitalists are also important components. For an economic program, M5S champions the interests of small- and medium-sized businesses against the working class and the unions. While promoting demagogic slogans such as a “citizens’ wage,” millionaire Beppe Grillo and M5S’s parliamentary leader, Roberta Lombardi, have called for the abolition of unions. Public-sector workers are portrayed as privileged parasites with large bank accounts, committed to defending the “status quo.” Using the defense of public health services as a pretext, the M5S calls for introducing fees “proportional to income for non-essential services” and for downsizing preventive medicine (screenings, early diagnosis, predictive medicine) to replace it with “self-medication,” which is entirely consistent with the cuts in public health services.
Grillo has repeatedly let loose with infamous racist tirades against Roma [Gypsy] and Chinese immigrants. He vehemently opposed the proposal to introduce “ius soli,” automatic citizenship rights for children of immigrants born in Italy. Overtures to fascism are not lacking either. In January, Grillo ostentatiously invited a leader of the Casapound fascist murderers to join MS5 in the name of “common ideas.” Roberta Lombardi quickly chimed in with a blog post in praise of early fascist ideology.
The M5S reflects the anger of the petty bourgeoisie and sectors of the working class like other populist movements that have developed in several countries over the last few years, from the Spanish and Greek Indignados to the Occupy movement in the U.S. While they have different political colorations, they all claim to represent the “99 percent” of the population against the “caste” of financiers and corrupt politicians. At the core of the liberal populist outlook is the idea that the capitalist class is divided into two sectors: those involved directly in the production and distribution of goods and services and those who get rich through financial speculation. The former are considered progressive, the latter reactionary. But this division is completely bogus in modern capitalism, which is dominated by enormous monopolies with completely intertwined financial and industrial capital. All elements of the capitalist class have a fundamental interest in common: maximizing the exploitation of the workforce while minimizing the “general” costs of social services, education and health care.
Class Struggle Against Capitalist Austerity
To avoid being thrown back decades, the working class must engage in uncompromising class struggle against austerity and the EU that transcends national borders. There have been dozens of strikes in Greece over the last few years. Spain, Portugal and other countries have seen strike waves in airports, hospitals and the private sector. Last year, Asturian miners waged an effective battle against the police to defend the coal mine jobs in the region.
In Italy, we have yet to see an adequate class-struggle response to the attacks launched by the Monti government (and, for that matter, to the attacks against public workers by the previous Berlusconi and Brunetta government). Pension reform and the Fornero [labor] reform passed without a single strike opposing them, undermining Article 18 [a section of the Italian constitution on labor rights], which thousands of workers fought to defend in the past. There were, and still are, examples of courageous workers struggles, such as those at Ilva [a steel plant] in Taranto and at Bridgestone and in transportation, logistics and health care. The union bureaucrats, however, have made a sport of restraining and isolating these struggles. This is the fruit of betrayal by union tops who are tied to a perspective of making Italian capitalism “competitive.”
The struggle at Ilva is a striking example of how two of the cornerstones of the reformist left (and the M5S)—support to the judiciary and to bourgeois environmentalism—are deeply anti-working-class. When the judiciary ordered the closure of Ilva for pollution, the left and, in part, the FIOM [Metalworkers Federation] welcomed the court order, unconcerned that thousands of workers would be thrown on the street. Never mind that Ilva workers themselves, those at the highest risk of dying from the pollution (and the horrendous working conditions), answered with strikes, rallies and occupations of the company’s headquarters, correctly recognizing that defense of their jobs is a matter of survival. The leadership of the Ilva strikes was left in the hands of the [more right-wing] CISL [Italian Confederation of Workers Unions] and UIL [Italian Labor Union] bureaucrats, who (together with those from FIOM) for decades acquiesced to the company’s crimes against the workers and the population.
In the last few years, the FIOM has emerged as a potential center of opposition to the capitalist attacks. There is no doubt that the FIOM, which includes the largest and most powerful sector of the Italian proletariat—centered on the metalworking industry—is a crucial stronghold of the working class. That’s why many workers held great hopes when FIOM fought Fiat’s campaign to destroy or tame the unions. The refusal to accept the diktats of [Fiat chief] Marchionne in the referendum at the Pomigliano plant temporarily galvanized sectors of the working class. But the FIOM tops did not organize strikes that extended to the whole auto industry and other sectors, placing faith instead in “mediation” by bourgeois politicians and the blessed intervention of the courts, which they claimed would defend FIOM’s right to organize workers at Fiat. In so doing, the FIOM leadership effectively sabotaged the workers’ will to fight, leaving the way open for the capitalists. In the meantime, the FIOM leadership tried to purge the most militant sectors, attempting to oust, e.g., Sergio Bellavita, a leader of the Rete 28 Aprile, from the secretariat and expelling PCL [Communist Workers Party] supporters. No to purging leftists from unions!
Workers struggles must be united around a program of common class defense against the bosses and the state. The unions have been heavily undermined by their treacherous leaders, who have sacrificed workers to the interests of the capitalists and their governments. To once again become effective instruments in the struggle to defend workers, the unions must regain a class-struggle perspective. The unions were built through hard class battles waged through strikes, mass pickets and solidarity strikes in defiance of anti-strike laws and of state prosecution. It will take hard class struggle to revitalize them. And this requires a struggle to oust the current leaderships—chained to the PD and its reformist tails—and replace them with a new leadership, one that understands that the workers and capitalists have no common interests. A class-struggle leadership would play a crucial role in building a workers party that fights for a workers government.
Reformist Betrayers and
Grillo, the Pied Piper
For almost 20 years, Italy has been ruled by alternating coalitions of Berlusconi on the right and popular-front coalitions around the PD and its forebears, the PDS and the DS. Rifondazione Comunista gave outside support and then participated in the capitalist governments led by the Ulivo [Olive Tree, 1996-98] and the Unione [Union, 2006-2008]. The PRC’s internal oppositionists (Falcemartello and all the previous incarnations of Critical Left, the Communist Workers Party and Communist Alternative) also supported them in the elections. These popular-front governments systematically attacked the working class, immigrants and minorities, paving the way for right-wing governments. This has particularly discredited Rifondazione, whose pretense of being a “working-class” organization was blatantly exposed by the role it played in the Prodi [Ulivo and Unione] government. Thus, since its electoral defeat in 2008, the PRC has not had any seats in parliament.
Nevertheless, the PRC has continued its politics of class betrayal. In the last elections, the PRC ran as part of Rivoluzione Civile [Civic Revolution], led by former judges Antonio Di Pietro and Antonio Ingroia. The judiciary, together with the police and the army, forms the core of the capitalist state—bodies of armed men whose “job” is defending the power of the ruling class and private ownership of the means of production. They are enemies, not allies, of the workers movement. The hallmarks of Rivoluzione Civile are defense of “the rule of law” and support for judges to bring an end to corruption in the Italian political system. The politics of this coalition were so rotten that in Sicily the slate was headed by a former leader of the fascist MSI [the historic party of Italian fascism], while number two was the former chief of the SILP “union” [Italian Police Workers Union], which opposed enacting laws against torture in the aftermath of the bloody repression in Genoa in 2001 because that would undermine the honor of the police corps! No wonder this motley crew did not win a single seat in parliament!
Defending the “rule of law” and the “fight against tax evasion” are slogans that the reformist left has raised for decades as a guarantee to the bourgeoisie that they can be trusted to respect the framework of bourgeois society. Embracing these reactionary themes as their own, the M5S found fertile ground, thanks to the illusions sowed in the workers movement by the left and reformist parties.
Several reformist groups and parts of the “left-wing” union bureaucracy, such as the Rete 28 Aprile, lined up behind MS5’s demagogic populism. Among Grillo & Co.’s most fervent supporters are Maoists such as CARC [Support Committees for Communist Resistance], who demanded:
“Vote and make others vote for the Five Star Movement...the slate that has a better chance than others that have declared their opposition to the politics of social butchery, to bring oppositionists into the Parliament of the Papal Republic and disrupt the parliamentary cover of their future government.”
After the vote, even Giorgio Cremaschi, head of the Rete 28 Aprile, celebrated MS5’s victory, saying:
“How could you not be satisfied with this disorder?... We must hope that the Five Star Movement understands that their victory does not reflect a specific choice, let alone the delegation of power, but it is a signal and part of the revolt that is growing throughout Europe and has finally really taken off here too.... The fact that Italian voters have finally started giving the finger to the Lords of the spread [between Italian and German bonds] should give us some confidence. And let’s get ready to fight.”
—rete28aprile.it, 26 February
The Rete 28 Aprile did not call for a vote to the M5S because they didn’t want to upset the bloc of union bureaucrats, some of whom supported Rivoluzione Civile and others the M5S. But the fact that even what passes for the “far left” in the unions couldn’t decide between the judges’ party and the populist charlatan Grillo is symptomatic of the political decay in which these advocates of class collaboration are mired.
For the Class Independence
of the Proletariat
Marco Ferrando’s Communist Workers Party stood out from the rest of the reformist left for its explicit hostility to M5S. After the election, the PCL declared:
“The elections saw the success of an old billionaire swindler (Berlusconi) and, especially, a millionaire comedian (Grillo). A ‘guru’ who proposes, among other things (in tune with the schemes by the guru of gurus, millionaire boss Casaleggio), the outright abolition of unions (‘19th century junk’) precisely at the moment when labor and trade-union rights are facing the greatest attacks by the bosses. In Parma, where he is in office, Grillo increased the costs of day care and prices in cafeterias to pay interest to the banks. He demands mass firings in the public sector and the reduction of all pensions to reduce the tax burden on the bosses (by abolishing the IRAP [the regional production tax]). Why did so many youth, so many workers, so many temporary workers, make the calamitous mistake and end up trusting a millionaire guru who has nothing in common with their interests? Because they had no frame of reference, no representatives, and no perspectives in the midst of the most dramatic social crisis in the postwar period.... Rebuilding an independent representative of the workers as an alternative to the dictatorship of industrialists and banks: this is the real necessity.” (emphasis in the original)
Proletarian class independence from the parties of the exploiters and their state is a precondition for effective struggle against capitalist austerity and must be the starting point for anyone intending to overthrow capitalist rule. In practice, however, the PCL has made its own not insignificant contribution to sowing defeats and confusion among the most advanced elements of the working class. They have cozied up to the ecologists, from the “No TAV” [protests against high-speed trains] to opposition to construction of the variante di valico [a highway]. They called for “workers and popular control over tax collection to root out tax evasion” (pclavoratori.it, 19 February). They have embraced the populist rhetoric against “the caste,” demanding: “Cancel all the privileges of the caste and the church!”
If workers are currently towed in the wake of the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, the PCL’s politics are also to blame. Throughout its entire existence (including its previous incarnations, such as Progetto Comunista), the PCL has been intractably committed to seeking a popular front as a goal of workers struggles. For some 15 years, Progetto Comunista pursued a policy of loyal opposition to Rifondazione, supporting it along with every capitalist coalition government that the PRC participated in. Prior to being kicked out by [PD leader] D’Alema in 2006, Marco Ferrando was a candidate on the PRC slates, which were part of Prodi’s anti-working-class coalitions. Even after they left the PRC, the PCL systematically demonstrated its attachment to their formula of critical support to capitalist popular fronts. In the second round of voting during the 2011 local elections, the PCL called for a vote to Pisapia and De Magistris, the local puppets of the PD (and “judges’ party”). Just one year ago, the PCL called for a vote to François Hollande in the second round of the French presidential elections, arguing that: “The defeat of Sarkosy [sic] and his reactionary government is a positive development and must be carried through without hesitation in the second round” (pclavoratori.it, 23 April 2012).
PCL supporters may solace themselves that these are tactical errors that one could discuss. But for us Marxists, class independence is a matter of principle. A vote for Hollande was a vote for anti-worker austerity measures and imperialist adventures that the French Socialist Party promised during the elections and carried out since it came to power. Unlike the PCL, we Trotskyists oppose, as a matter of principle, any electoral support to parties that participate in popular-front coalitions with bourgeois parties.
To break out of the long cycle of defeats and lead the working class in the inevitable struggles against capitalist austerity, we need a revolutionary party. Such a party must fight to win back the vanguard of the working class and the youth to the principles of Marxism and the fundamental understanding of the need to abolish the capitalist mode of production and replace it with a planned, socialized economy on an international scale. The first step in building this party is breaking with the tradition of class collaboration that has led to the bankruptcy of reformism and the rise of bourgeois populism. This is the perspective the Lega Trotskista d’Italia fights for.