Bonapartism in Italy?

The edition of NRC Handelsblad of Saturday, the 15th of November, reported on a new study published in Italy on the extravagant corruption endemic to the politics of that country. The Italian President has virtually no powers and is usually an octogenarian whose main task is to rest on his laurels and appear regal (the actual Royalty in Italy is still banished, but it makes little difference), and yet the annual costs of this charade are twice that spent on the Elysée, whose powers are real and far-reaching. Italian politicians receive state pensions from their third year in office, so the sight of a perfectly healthy and vigorous member deciding to “retire” at the ripe age of 47 is not uncommon. Then there are the state-owned villas and mansions, rented to leading politicians of all parties at extremely low cost; the actual rent clearly being no more than a transparent attempt at maintaining what the Americans call “plausible deniability”.

This corrupt mess is possible because of the generally lamentable state of Italian politics. Italy is a major European power, and as such is primary among the imperialists of the world, but it is and has always been a power of the second tier, compared to its inevitable competitors Germany, France, and the UK. These latter two have about the same population Italy has, but much larger economies and much more international clout when it comes to dividing the spoils of imperial exploitation. All Italy’s past adventures in colonialism, settlerism and annexationism have ended in dramatic and embarrassing failures, from the defeat at Adowa (1896) to the stalled campaign in Greece in 1941. Of course, much of this is caused by Italy’s relatively late development and appearance on the world stage, since it was hampered for the longest time by its partitioned state and the Austrian and French interference to keep it so. Final unification was only achieved with significant French support and as a move by France against Austria, for all Garibaldi’s exploits, and Mazzini’s earlier attempts at bourgeois revolution failed for the most part.

The most characteristic of Italy’s post-unification political development are however two clear elements. The first is the strong regional division between the country’s industrialized North and its mostly rural and underdeveloped South. The second is the contrast between left and right, which is quite extreme and allows of little political weight in the center, leading to Italy’s politics being notoriously unstable.(1) There is, as one might expect, a direct connection between the two, but not a straightforward one. Italy’s industrialized north and center have the strongest left-wing presences. Part of this coming from the Italian working class, which was represented together with the progressive petty bourgeoisie in the PCI and which as a result of post-war developments and Italy achieving its own First World imperialist share became increasingly social-democratic under the guise of “Eurocommunism”, and part of this coming from the anarchist and autonomist movements in Italy, which remain strong particularly under the urban industrial workers dissatisfied with the parliamentarism and stuffy reformism of the official Communist cliques, yet never achieving any real results other than making a cultural mark on things. Italy’s vast amount of smallholders, 94.7% of which are classified as small family farms and which still employ a relatively large share of the population, were represented in the conservative Christian-Democrat parties of various stripe – particularly in the South – which were propped up by the United States as a bulwark against the feared PCI. They were joined in this by the right half of the petty bourgeoisie in the towns as well as much of the small town bourgeoisie, while the big industrialists, organized in Confindustria, supported what little liberalism existed, as well as of course being the main supporters of the fascist ‘solution’ for Italian empire.

In recent times however the situation has changed somewhat on Italy’s political scene. As mentioned above, the Italian Communists developed an increasingly reformist position as the Italian workers turned more and more from a proletariat in a recently freed country to a typical Western style labor aristocracy, especially in the union-heavy areas in the North such as Milano and Torino. This is precisely as Marxist science predicts, and is nothing remarkable; the subsequent collapse and attempts at reformation of this ‘mass party’, without this leading to the slightest sign of revolt or even interest on the part of the Italian workers, are just the demonstration of the theoretical rule. Actual reformist parties took over the torch, just like in France, no longer seeing the use in ceremonial watchwords which in practice had long ago become ever so much dead tradition.

More importantly, the Christian-Democrats imploded as a result of their infiltration by the mafia and the accompanying corruption being revealed publicly. The mafia of course is the professional organization of the traditionally large Italian lumpenproletariat, which were known even in Marx’ days, and often named the lazzaroni. Industry being underdeveloped in the South (the South’s backwardness has a long history which will be addressed at a later date) and unable to meet the competition of Northern capital, a large class of perpetually unemployed was created as the dirt-poor Italy moved to its cities, particularly Napoli. Even now unemployment in the Southern areas of Italy is often 20% or higher, and probably understated. (2) With increasing deindustrialization as a result of parasitism and resulting capital movements, there is little prospect for improvement on this front in that area.

This has important consequences for Italian politics which show themselves in recent results. The Italian labor aristocracy in the North has increasingly become a liability for the significant Italian industry that remains (cars, electronics, household appliances), and is undergoing competition from immigrants, particularly from Africa and Albania, pulling them violently towards the political right and a philistine xenophobia and racism. This of itself is nothing new either, as similar movements can be noted in the UK, the Netherlands, France, Germany, and even Greece and Denmark. However, here the peculiarities of the Italians come in. Because the Italian South mostly thrives on organized lumpenproletarian thievery and extortion, and its main source of income is support funds for underdeveloped areas sent by the European Union, it has become a parasite upon the parasites. Its modus operandi is to steal, extort and ‘legally’ embezzle as much as can be carried to the South while deftly avoiding the ire of the North, which is because of its late unification and the resulting regionalist political structure fairly impotent to do anything about it.

This has led to the remarkable development of the Lega Nord, the organized party for both Northern industrialists and Northern labor aristocrats, both of whom are being fleeced by Southern politicians and organizations and are seeking to rid themselves of this large mosquito on their neck. Indeed it is a good sign of the degeneration of the situation in Italy that the leader of the Lega Nord, Umberto Bossi, had before becoming a regional chauvinist been politically ‘raised’ by the PCI itself. The chauvinist opportunism displayed by this political tendency is further reinforced by the ease with which they supported their counterparts in Sicily, the so-called “Movement for Autonomy”. After all, it is no loss to the ‘Padanians’ and their imagined homeland if Sicily should depart the union. The only proponents of the union from conviction remain the social-democratic parties, in their various liberal, left, left-liberal, and whatnot forms, mostly relying on the workers in Rome and other parts of the country’s center, as well as on nationally minded elements of the bourgeoisie, particularly those in intellectual trades or government functions.

When such contradictions arise, the winners are always those on the side of the demagogues and plunderers, who use the internal tensions between the different interests of these groups in a deeply divided nation for their own gain. What this requires is someone who produces an aura of national strength and revitalization, while at the same time relying on those elements in all classes who have become cynical from the stalemate, as well as the lumpenproletarians and their chiefs, who seek opportunities to further enrich themselves at the expense of the state’s wealth. In France in the post-1848 situation, Napoleon Bonaparte III was precisely this person, using peasant and lumpenproletarian votes to produce a mirage of national strength on the global political scene, while freely playing each group against each other to steal from the state coffers. Such a person in Italy is Silvio Berlusconi, the master of the thieves’ guild. Where petty Southern politicians had been satisfied with buying a quantity of regional votes and so getting themselves elected to profitable positions from which they could not be ejected again without much political effort, such as Clemente Mastella’s UDEUR phenomenon, Berlusconi handily used the political vacuum created by the collapse of the Christian-Democrats to maneouvre and bribe his way to the highest office. This Italian Bonaparte’s alliances with other parties are merely for convenience, and he takes good care to cede them nothing of their demands, for he profits the more the longer all involved are dissatisfied. Much as Marx described Bonaparte’s “protection racket” in his usual brilliant style in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon Bonaparte, so now do we find this a fitting description for this shiny crook. Indeed the “embarrassment of riches” has taken on a whole new meaning for Italy.

(1) This is not a product of its proportional voting system, which merely reflects properly the existing contradictions. Italy’s plurality voting was no more stable than its current procedures.
(2) OECD, Economic Survey of Italy 2005