Lessons from Italy - James Debono

Zminijietna Harga April – Gunju 2008


Berlusconi-a clown who turned out to be a political genius-has crafted a brand of new right populism which combined moral conservatism, authoritarianism, xenophobic sentiments, economic nationalism and neo corporatism with possessive individualism and an abstract but qualified belief in the free market (especially when it comes to protecting his own interests).
He also emerges as an icon of an Italian popular culture deformed by reality TV shows in which dim wit vulgarity and vanity are glorified while intellect is scorned. As a popular movement the lega Nord even managed to communicate with the working classes by opposing the privatization of Alitalia while addressing issues like immigration and security-with the risk of fuelling tensions between different categories of the socially excluded in the popular neighborhoods in the northern peripheries.
Not only has Berlusconi won with a wide margin but the antagonistic left has been wiped out of parliament completely.

Surely many on the left wanted a say on who should govern the country and simply voted for the democrats to keep Berlusconi out. On the other hand the democrats failed to attract enough moderate votes to stop the right from winning. They could even have lost their moderate wing to Casini's Christian democrats. Surely the democrats also failed to inspire with a reformist vision as Zapatero did in Spain and thus only managed to gain a few votes by terrorising some left wing voters. Berlusconi's brand of powerful even if unsophisticated populism swayed not only the privileged classes but also the masses. Basically Berlusconi was expressing popular common sense.

On the other hand a detachment between progressive politics and the masses was more than evident in the Italian campaign. Both sides of the left might still enjoy an appeal among intellectuals but not in the factories or the peripheries.

One big problem facing the left not just in Italy but everywhere is its ability to communicate with the masses. Recovering this ability is an elusive project especially with right wing values gaining consent within the left's natural constituencies. All this raises a number of questions which apply to Italy and the rest of Europe.
1.How can the left address concerns on immigration and security while confronting racism hyped by media generalisations?
2. How can the left appeal to both the upwardly mobile and those who are socially excluded who many times also lack an education?
3. How can left wing  parties appeal to voters who want a direct say on who should govern their country especially in electoral systems which favour big parties or coalitions?
4. Should left wing parties aspire to govern with the moderate forces or should they retreat to the trenches?
5. How can the left explain global problems to people who cant makes ends meet and find it easier to identify with the antics and motifs of the populist right?

Surely the answers to these questions are not clear cut and deserve a serious analysis. What stood out in the Italian's election was Fausto Bertinotti's humility who admirably spent the night on TV-not blaming others for his bad results or offending voters but admitting defeat, blaming his own self in the process for not seeing the signs of the collapse while insisting that the
project of unity of left wing forces must continue.

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