Recent Italian elections saw a shift to the right and a collapse of support for the left in an election campaign characterised by racism and anti-migrant campaigning. Martin Leen caught up with Giuliano Granato and Bethan Bowett-Jones of the new left radical party Potere Al Popolo to talk about rebuilding the left.
You are a very new party just under a year old. What was the reason for forming it?
Our decision to form Potere al Popolo owed to our understanding of the current political situation. The political landscape in Italy is particularly grim. The entire mainstream has moved significantly to the right, and we were essentially faced with an absence of any real Left alternative. Our aim is to create a new political praxis adapted to our current reality. We named our party “power to the people” because it is a movement for radical democracy, aimed at creating forms of community self-government. This is what we have been doing here in the OPG, the social centre which founded PaP.
You say that Potero Al Populo “was born in elections but was not born for the elections”. What do you mean by this?
We chose to stand in these elections because we felt we could not stand back and watch an election campaign play out that was dominated by right-wing discourse. We always knew it would be very difficult to get a good result. However our priority has never been the result in itself. We aimed to use the electoral campaign as a spring board, or a catalyst, to create a lasting movement. The Italian left needs to break out of the cycle of constant fragmentation and re-composition that has characterized it over the last few decades.
Traditionally the Italian left was one of the strongest in Europe.It is not so long ago that the Italian Communist Party was the main opposition party. In your opinion what are the reasons for their decline of the Italian left?
To answer that question would require going far back into Italy’s history; there are many reasons and no simple answer. We can say, however, that the dissolution of the Italian Communist Party represented the fragmentation that the Italian Left has never really recovered from. After its dissolution, what had been the Communist Party went in many directions. The largest part of it set off on a course that would eventually lead it to become the current Democratic Party (Renzi’s party), a party which is arguably more right-wing than Blair’s Labour, and which currently has Macron as its main ideological reference point. The failure, then, of this strand of the Left is that it allowed itself to fully succumb to the process that has elsewhere been termed “Pasokification” whereby the old social democratic parties were sucked in by the ascent of Neoliberalism, moving significantly rightwards and thus abandoning their traditional working-class base. The experience of the Italian Communist Party has much to teach us, and we are of course very proud of that heritage, dating back to the resistance, but at the same time our world is now very different, and we must find our own responses to the problems of today.
These are troubling times in Italy, a rise in racism and attacks on migrants, some of them fatal. What do you think are the reason for this?
It has much to do with political manipulation and is a product of a political crisis created by the fact that none of the existing political forces have a vision that can offer real solutions to the more generalised crisis facing Italy. These elections represented the resounding rejection of the neo-liberal politics that Renzi represented, if nothing else.
Still nothing has yet been able to fill the void left in terms of providing the Italian electorate with a vision for the future. If the 5 Star Movement has made huge inroads in the working-class vote (its success should not be underestimated), it has by no means been able to provide that electorate with a coherent forward-looking program, and so they resort to stirring up racism as a means of distracting from their failings. The Northern League, on the other hand, is a different phenomenon in that it has racism basically as its raison d’etre. It also needs to be said that despite the fact the Democratic Party may not use the same overtly racist discourse it has been the author of a series of racist laws.
Anti-migrant sentiment was stirred up by most of the parties in the recent election, with each one saying they would deport more than the other. Are migrants really causing problems for normal Italians in their day to day life?
Migrants are in no way causing problems for Italians in their day to day life. It might be useful to point out here that the anti-migrant discourse that has come to dominate Italian public life is different in some ways to the type involved in the Brexit campaign. Italy is in fact a country of emigration rather than immigration. The main cause of this is unemployment, which in the South is among the highest in Europe.
Mostly the migrants that do work in Italy work in appalling conditions. In the agricultural sector it is akin to slavery. There is actually very little talk of migrants stealing jobs from Italians, or draining benefits, as Italy essentially does not have a welfare system. There is talk of the money that gets spent on the reception system for refugees, and of the fact that Italy has been left to deal with the bulk of the burden without enough aid from the EU or Northern European states. There is certainly some truth to this last sentiment.
However much of the anti-migrant discourse is based on an attempt to dismantle the moral argument for providing protection to refugees and for saving lives in the Mediterranean. There is talk of an “invasion” of black and brown skinned migrants, of the innate criminality of black and brown migrants, of the men representing a threat to white Italian women.
There have essentially been a series of moral panics around “security” and “public order” which are used even by mainstream press and politicians to construct an image of black and brown migrants as a threat, not an economic threat but a truly existential threat; a threat to Italian society and to the white Italian race.
Xenophobia and nationalism are being stirred up by opportunistic politicians all over Europe. How do parties on the left counteract this and how important is it that parties on the left have a strongly organised anti-racist arm?
The use of racism as a means of distraction shifts debate away from economics and from the real problems facing the population. The fact is that no-one from the political mainstream has a feasible economic plan for the country. If a progressive political force can present a radical economic programme it would fill this void and would be an important step towards tackling racism because it would shift the focus away from the illusion of migration.
This is not to say that we do not also need to fight battles on a moral terrain. This is our duty. It has been a focus of our political activity here in Naples since the beginning. So, yes, we do believe that parties on the Left need to have an organised anti-racist arm.
There are many different aspects to this, there is the terrain of public debate, ensuring that anti-racism is visible in the public sphere. There is the terrain of action, which works at meeting the material needs of the people and communities.
Also you have the terrain of strategy or political ambition, which means providing a positive and credible vision of the future, capable of allaying the fears stoked up by years of anti-social government.