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"Country for Old Men": On the crisis of Italian democracy


At the website of Salvage, a UK-based Marxist journal, historian and translator David Broder dissects the dire state of Italian democracy. The resounding December 2016 defeat of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s proposed anti-democratic reforms, and Renzi’s subsequent resignation, was a hopeful moment for popular rule in Italy. But since then, the Italian political landscape has devolved into a dull contest between spineless centrists and hard-line rightwingers. In the excerpt below, Broder explains why Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S)—popular among some of the country’s precarious youth—presents no meaningful alternative to the existing political parties:

While there is a certain tendency among foreign media to consider the M5S an equivalent of Syriza, Podemos and such like – not only through its invocation of ‘people’ against élites or its challenge to the old party system, but also its alleged leftish hues – the reality is far more complicated. Polls (and indeed, speaking to almost anyone) consistently show this party’s very strong support among the under-30s, the precarious and the unemployed. In its greatest electoral victory so far, the 2016 Rome mayoral contest, the map of the capital’s working-class periferia was a sea of M5S yellow, with only the very smartest central neighbourhoods opting for the Democrats.

Without doubt, the M5S has won over large sections of the electorate who might otherwise have been expected to be the Left’s social base. It embodies the kind of challenge to ossified party patronage structures that in Southern European countries is mounted by the radical Left. Yet the political perspectives of this party also reflect the deep atomisation of Italian society, and the lack of recent social movements of a type with 15-M in Spain or the years of trade union struggles and square occupations in Greece. The social centres that flowered in the early 1990s soldier on, and in Naples in particular they have established links with electoral/mass politics. Yet across Italy we see declining youth engagement and movement structures struggling to survive, not helped by precarity and mass emigration.

Where even defeated movements against austerity or local activist-welfare initiatives can spread a sense of class solidarity and impose their own lines of division on the national political context, in Italy since the early 2000s the most visible social struggles have been sectorially limited and lacking in any broad social project. Large-scale yet occasional moments of service user-worker solidarity (most notably the strikes and demos against Renzi’s school reforms) have never been the decisive forces in polarising electoral politics. The M5S is a pure reflection of the atomised mood of grievance, built up over a two-decade crisis; in its mobilisation against the ‘caste’ its disparate forces are held together only by the belief that ‘common sense’ politics can return once the corrupt personnel of the leading parties are finally ousted.

Image via Salvage.