Unseat Il Cavaliere

15 January 2005

Italians face the neoliberal, increasingly tyrannical regime of Silvio Berlusconi who likes to be known as "Il Cavaliere", the Knight. No shining armour here, alas, and progressive Italians recognise that the left must unite in order to defeat him in 2007. As in many European countries, as well as in the USA, the centre-left has moved ever more rightwards in a futile attempt to beat him on his own turf. In the last elections, a range of small left parties together achieved a score of 13.5 percent. The challenge now is to unify them and simultaneously to declare their willingness to join forces with the social/Christian democrats around the candidacy of Romano Prodi, reasonably judged the only candidate able to win against Il Cavaliere, who controls the media and uses every demagogical trick in the book. To launch and set this process in motion, the left daily newspaper Il Manifesto invited all the smaller parties plus trade unions and associations to an all-day meeting on 15 January 2005 at the big hall of the Fiera di Roma which holds between 2500 and 3000 people [and proved too small to hold the whole crowd]. I was the only foreigner asked to speak, right after Gabriele Polo, director of Il Manifesto made his introductory remarks. This was a great honour and I thought I was ready to perform acceptably-I'd written my contribution ahead of time, the organisers had seen it and seemed happy, it had been translated into Italian so I could speak without an interpreter as my Italian is too weak to speak extempore. Then, in the taxi taking us to the Fiera, I learned it was much too long and needed to be cut by about half. I slashed the text savagely on the way to the venue and had nearly finished when my turn came, too early for my self-confidence. Only Italians would have the stamina to listen to some thirty speeches non-stop, from half past ten in the morning until nightfall. Here is mine, in English, as I originally intended to deliver it.
Please let me first thank Il Manifesto and especially Rossana Rossanda for the great honour of addressing this assembly. This day may well prove to be of historic importance not only for the Italian left and for Italy, but also for the whole of Europe, and I would even add, for reasons I will try to explain, for the world. As someone who has always admired the genius of the Italian people, let me say how pleased and proud I am to be with you all today. It would be hard to exaggerate the seriousness of this political moment in your country. Neo-liberalism is advancing here probably faster and more viciously than in the rest of Europe. The government is privatising your public goods, even your universities, and some of your best scientists are fleeing the country. The media, with noble exceptions like Il Manifesto, are almost entirely corporate-controlled, often by Berlusconi himself. This is perhaps the only country in the world where a person could spend a Saturday like today shopping, then reading a book or a newspaper, then watching television and finally going to a football match-all without ever leaving the kingdom of Berlusconi. You have the third largest number of troops in Iraq, after the US and Britain, participating in one of the dirtiest, most illegitimate wars ever undertaken. Outsiders find it hard to understand how people as intelligent as the Italians could put the so-called Casa delle Libertà in office, made up as it is of Forza Italia, plus fascists, racists and separatists. On the other hand, your friends in other countries will be greatly encouraged to learn that the progressive forces in Italy are confronting this dangerous moment seriously, with great political courage and maturity. I know that no one here doubts that unhorsing Il Cavaliere is what Italy needs most right now and you have come together today to begin planning a different future for your country. You have chosen three themes for today: First, the war in Iraq, the presence of Italian troops there and the need for an independent European foreign policy; Second, the fight against neo-liberalism and the privatisation of public goods; the defence of workers' rights and public services; Finally, the protection and restoration of the Italian Constitution and the rule of law. I will only touch on the national questions, at the end. First I want to argue that the anti-war and economic and social struggles are two sides of the same coin. Italy must both stop its participation in George Bush's dirty war and stop the destruction of all the hard-won economic and social gains obtained by past and present generations of Italians. As you all recognise, there is only one way both to stop your country's participation in the Iraq war and to keep and improve the Welfare State-and that is to get rid of Berlusconi. It is equally clear that you cannot get rid of him unless you are united. No matter what differences may exist among forces on the left, one could say in a negative way that you are condemned to agree. But I think we can reach a much more positive view of this state of affairs. Yes, disagreements will continue and none of the partners in the alliance will get everything they want-but all of them will get what counts most: Il Cavaliere's head on a platter. Frankly, this is no time for doctrinal purity. If some parts of the Alliance prefer their purity to defeating Berlusconi, then all I can say is that they are not truly people of the left. But I do not foresee such a case or having to make such a judgment. Naturally, such a broad alliance is a matter of debate within the Italian left. A similar, painful debate took place in the United States around the candidacy of Ralph Nader who undoubtedly contributed to Bush's victory in 2000. In 2004, the forces that had sponsored his candidacy in the previous election begged him not to run again, but he refused to listen. During the US election campaign, millions of Americans, even those only moderately to the left, found Kerry immensely disappointing. He had no plan for getting out of Iraq and his positions on many issues were nearly identical to those of Bush. There was, however, still a crucial difference between the two: Kerry respects the Constitution of the United States and the rule of law whereas Bush does not. With the so-called PATRIOT Act, Bush has already undermined Americans' basic freedoms, enshrined in the Bill of Rights since 1791. Now he intends to go much further. For example, he has announced that the prisoners suspected of terrorist sympathies, now in the camp at Guantanamo, could be imprisoned for life, without trial. With Bush, the United States has already taken the first steps on the road to tyranny. I know my Italian colleagues will have far more to say on Berlusconi's contempt for your own Constitution and democratic institutions. Let me say simply that in Berlusconi's Italy, as in Bush's United States, fundamental principles including the separation of powers are at stake and if Italians do not understand this, or if the opposition going into the next elections is divided, the results of decades of social and political struggle in Italy could be wiped out by this one man. Please learn from the failures of others. Progressive Americans did not succeed in getting rid of Bush [who probably used fraud and mafia tactics as well] because they could not, finally, mobilise broadly enough. I hope and believe that you will not allow such a failure to happen here. The need for unity in order to get rid of Berlusconi does not mean, however, that vigorous and serious political debate should stop, quite the contrary. The stronger, the more solid your progressive alliance grows, the more influence you will have in the debate with the more moderate forces in the left coalition. One can't, perhaps, expect miracles, but I still believe it should be possible to convince many of the riformisti on two major points. First, Italy has no business in Iraq and should pull its troops out, period. Second, neo-liberal policies and the destruction of the Welfare State must be stopped and reversed because they cause huge inequalities, social misery and ecological destruction. Let me elaborate on these points. First the War. What are Bush's goals in Iraq? The most obvious, one-word answer is "oil". He must both insure the supply for the United States and deny access to some countries and regions, particularly to possible rivals like China or Europe. Beyond this strategic advantage, the plan is also to make Iraq a neo-liberal outpost in the Mid-East, the model for a totally privatised society, the centre of a free-trade zone. Bush's people see Iraq as a kind of blank page; an experiment in forced conversion to their doctrine. To protect its interests throughout the Mid-East and beyond, the United States has built at least ten new military bases and is moving its offensive and defensive capacity out of Europe and forward into the region. This invasion is one of the most blatant demonstrations of imperialism in modern history. Over a thousand working-class Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis have already died because of it and it is obscene to speak of "democracy" in connection with this occupation. Even if the Iraqi elections actually take place, they will change nothing because the American occupation has already written the laws and chosen the country's future. Still, we have good reason to hope that the United States will fail in the end, partly because of the resistance of Iraqis themselves; partly, I hope, because its allies, like Italy, will defect. For all these reasons, even as a matter of national honour, you must get Italy out of Iraq which can only happen if you first evict Berlusconi from the Palazzo Chigi. The political objective must be to isolate Bush and Blair, but so long as Italy is on Bush's side, European opponents of the Iraq war like Chirac and Schroeder are the minority. The Spaniards took their troops out of Iraq, so why not you? It would have a far greater political impact. Now let me take the socio-economic aspects. Progressive forces in Europe and elsewhere also need Italy to join in the resistance to neo-liberal globalisation. You are a member of the G8, you have 58 million highly educated people and this makes you the third largest population in the EU, just a shade behind France. You have the world's sixth largest economy and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world at nearly $27.000. Il Cavaliere is slightly above that per capita level and he is determined to abolish social protection, destroy public services and privatise the entire country. This latest incarnation of global capitalism is possibly the most brutal the world has ever known, to the point that nation-States, particularly in Europe, face entirely new challenges. If we allow the market to make our political decisions for us, which is exactly what Berlusconi and others like him propose, it will destroy both society and the environment. Europeans must further deal with the new context defined by the re-election of George Bush and by the crisis of the nation-State. For at least four more years and probably well beyond, we know that the United States will not join any positive social, environmental, political or even humanitarian initiatives. Even worse, the US will try to block the positive initiatives of others, if it considers they limit US influence or policy options. We have just witnessed such a reaction in the case of the tsunami disaster in Asia. Consequently, if that strange animal called the "international community" wants to shift the balance of world politics towards peace, environmental protection and economic policies serving human needs; then other countries besides the US will have to take the lead. It is hard to see any such shift taking place without Europe, and, inside Europe, Italy will have to be a vital part of the equation. If progressive Europeans hope to oppose the power of the United States and the market forces which are tearing down our societies, we have only one option. We must build coalitions of like-minded citizens, organisations, unions and governments-coalitions strong enough to proceed on their own, with no American participation, in order to move towards worldwide environmental and social progress. The US will, again, attempt to destroy any such coalitions. It is using Berlusconi right now for such a purpose and it is already at war with Europe-just look at its aggressive monetary and trade policies. I am not here to make promises. Perhaps we will lose anyway; perhaps the US will put its deadly programme in place, perhaps none of our dreams will come true, but if Italy has a different government, we will at least have a measurably better chance of winning. What is our present situation with regard to the phenomenon called "globalisation"? The "Westphalian" system of independent nation-States, dating from the mid-seventeenth century, is in deep crisis, because no nation-State today can, by itself, control the forces of economic and financial globalisation. For example, the World Trade Organisation will have more influence over Italy's future unemployment rate than the government, just as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have more influence over any African country than the country's own government. The State's role, whatever its geographic situation, is more and more confined to trying to cope with the human and environmental disasters created by market forces and globalisation. Under these circumstances, a national government has three choices. At its worst, it can embrace globalisation with enthusiasm, like Berlusconi, who believes that no matter what the economic conditions, people get what they deserve; that the State owes them nothing. This is one reason he loves America. Most European States today remain more moderate. They try to maintain some public services and draw some advantages from globalisation, but basically they accept that they can no longer continue to exercise many powers as before. A third solution exists, but has scarcely been imagined, much less tried. It would be the model where the State could make variable cooperative alliances with other, like-minded States, in order to devise policies more favourable to human beings and to the earth. Any country trying to do this alone today would face the hostility both of the United States and of the forces of economic globalisation. It would fail. Coalitions, however, could tackle many issues, from international health problems and epidemics and mass migrations to criminal financial transactions and money-laundering, ecological disasters, international taxation of transnational corporations and the like. Political parties and non-governmental organisation, or "civil society", both have a role to play in helping to build such coalitions. Up to now, however, outside of NATO and other institutions in which the United States remains a dominant presence, European governments have little experience with coalition building. NGOs, however, have a lot. On many fronts, NGOs can also provide a valuable complement to political parties as they have generally worked much more than parties on issues like North-South relations, development policy, environmental questions; even on social services. Here is an example, which might turn out to be a kind of embryonic model for the government/political party/civil society cooperation we need. Although I may not be President Chirac's greatest fan, I do admire his determination to keep France out of Iraq and his decision to propose international taxation and genuine debt relief in order to increase development aid to poor countries. Last September, along with President Lula of Brazil, and Prime Ministers Zapatero of Spain and Lagos of Chile, Chirac proposed at the UN to impose a tax on international financial transactions and other similar instruments. This idea originated with my organisation, ATTAC. An ATTAC expert was a member of the Commission established by the French presidency to work on development finance questions. The resulting proposal has now been countersigned by 110 heads of government. Italy could be an extremely important component of such alliances, particularly in helping to change the way Europe relates to 80 percent of humanity. I understand that Romano Prodi is open to the idea of greater governmental cooperation with civil society, including trade unions and NGOs. If you put the idea of working closely with civil society in your political programme, it would also be one way to help revive Italians' interest in politics. This is going to be a major and difficult task for your alliance. According to an ISPO opinion poll taken in 2001, 50 percent of Italians expressed "disgust, mistrust or anger" with politicians, while 25 percent expressed "indifference or boredom" with politics. People must believe that politicians on the left are serious; they must be convinced that a different politics is genuinely possible, they must be assured that cooperation with citizens' organisations they trust is on the agenda. On the other hand, if all or part of the left is divided; if it is seen to be quarrelling and interested only in questions of influence or prestige; people will be tempted to give up and leave the field open to the Berlusconi alliance of neo-liberals, fascists, racists and separatists. And in that case, they will win again. That is the worst-case scenario. Let us work towards another. I can well understand how distasteful it is for many of you to contemplate making a political alliance with certain political forces in the opposition that have themselves contributed to supporting various wars, to dismantling the Welfare State and to privatising public goods. Still, I beg you to overcome such reactions; I beg you to think of Italy's role in the world and of its image abroad, where your many friends admire your historic struggles, your political culture, your civilisation. We must all think in terms of power, of the balance of forces, the rapport de forces, and of the future. Whatever the political setbacks and disappointments of the past, today we must bring all the anti-Berlusconi forces together because frankly, one fascist regime in this country in one century is more than enough for anyone. I hope that whatever the obstacles, you will spend the next year and a half devising the most practical, credible, realistic yet visionary political programme of government you are capable of putting together; calling on all the forces of the left: the NGOs, the sindicati, the other components of civil society. It will be difficult but also innovative and exciting work and you have many brilliant people who can help. To conclude, let me say that the best way to persuade the moderate left to move towards your positions; the surest way to reinforce your political influence and thereby accomplish your historic destiny, is first to unite the forces of the progressive left. Those forces are represented by the people present here today and together with the NGOs and the sindicati, you can become a permanent workshop for the development and expression of new ideas. I am sure you will find the strength and the confidence needed to debate constructively among yourselves, to convince the Italian people that change is urgent, and, above all, to win. Thank you.