Does Italy want Berlusconi back?

Prime Minister Mario Monti leaves little possibility of dialogue with political parties, unions or civil society.

Mario Monti vote
Mario Monti replaced Silvio Berlusconi carrying a reputation of being an apolitical technocrat [AFP]

Naples, Italy – It may seem impossible, but many progressive leftist voters in Italy want former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi back. They do not miss the embarrassment he created through his lifestyle and inappropriate jokes at institutional meetings (which, as many know, were simply ways to distract our attention from his ongoing legal issues). Rather, they miss the state of political impasse that persisted under his rule considering the ongoing reforms that his successor has imposed.

Mario Monti was presented by the President of the Republic as a gentleman, but he also owes his appointment to being seen as an apolitical technocrat capable of solving the gridlock in the country. As it turns out, Monti has actually begun to solve these issues. However, it is not out of interest for the Italian citizens but rather for the European Union and its austerity measures.

If most Italian newspapers have overlooked this fact, it isn’t because they are all in favour of the neoliberal EU policies; rather, it is because of Italy’s history with his predecessor.

No dialogue

But who is Monti, and why does he leave little or no possibility of dialogue with political parties, unions or civil society? Before been appointed prime minister by the president of Italy last November, Monti served as a European Commissioner, an international adviser to Goldman Sachs, and the rector of Italy’s most exclusive private university, the Bocconi.

If Monti today is also endorsed by the international establishment (from the Financial Times all the way to US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner), it isn’t because he hasn’t been charged in underage-prostitute scandals but because of his determination to execute the rules of the international system regardless of the vital demands of his country.

There are two features worth pointing out, given their violent consequences: Imposed labour reform and repression of “No-TAV” (high-speed train) protesters in the Piedmont region near the Italian-French border.

Monti’s few months of reform have turned out to be much more harmful than Berlusconi’s fourteen years in power, during which he was never able to touch article 18 of the labour statute, which the new prime minister has demolished. This article stipulated a basic principle of workers’ rights – that firms must reinstate workers who have been wrongly dismissed – which is vital, considering Italy’s fragile social security net.

Self-inflicted depression

Monti’s plan is simple: The new flexibility will create new jobs, since companies will finally be able to dismiss and hire new workers when and as often as they wish. There is nothing new in this; he is simply following the demands of the “Troika” (composed of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the IMF) for the well-being of the markets, that is, of the self-inflicted depression forced on Europe.

What is alarming are not Monti’s plans, which we could all foresee considering his previous appointments, but rather the way he is executing them. The first thing he did after walking away from negotiations with the trade unions was to threaten to dissolve his (unelected) government if the parties (the Democratic Party, the People of Liberty Party, and the Third Way alliance) that sustain him in the parliament did not approve the “reform”.

 Profile: Italian PM, Mario Monti

In the same spirit he also discredited, on national television, everyone who aspires for permanently protected jobs, calling the institution “ideological”, of the “past”, and “monotonous“. This lack of dialogue and concern for the well-being of Italians is creating great distress among the population, which has erupted in a number of strikes and riots that are not being covered by most of the Italian press.

The second feature that characterises Monti’s pragmatic violence in contrast to Berlusconi’s rhetorical deadlock is the recent militarisation of the Val di Susa (an Alpine valley between northern Italy and central Europe) and violence against its citizens. In the 1990s, the Italian government and the EU began the construction of a high speed railway line (TAV) in order to link Turin and Lyon to increase the traffic of goods. The problem with this project is not only the predictable environmental consequences but also that it is unjustifiable given the minimal amount of goods transported by railway nowadays.

Neoliberation obsessions

Against this neoliberal obsession for unfettered development, the “No-TAV” protest movement grew, in order to inform the public of this project – declared unnecessary also by many academics and scientific researchers. Today they can count thousands of members and supporters throughout Italy, including Gianni Vattimo, Italy’s most prominent philosopher and an EU deputy, who declared, after the violent police repression of the protest in January, that Monti had to be “fired since the only solution is political, not military“.

Monti reacted as any other technocratic politician would and has decided to move along (“it’s time for this work“) with the construction, regardless of the protesters who blocked roads, railway stations and motorways nationwide early in March. But that is not all. Recently, a secret agreement between Italy and France was unveiled that confirmed both countries’ interest in implementing the project, despite the fact that it must first be ratified by both national parliaments.

While Berlusconi threatened to cancel article 18, and move along with the TAV construction for more than a decade, Monti has actually executed both plans after only six months in office. Italy has become a country where the left has almost disappeared from the political scene, and we are left to prefer paradoxically a worthless populist billionaire over a technocratic neoliberal executioner. Imagine it: At the very end, Berlusconi seems to be better than Monti.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press. You can visit his site here.