Tag Archives: Left

Giulio Santagata, Il braccio destro. Quindici anni di politica con Romano Prodi (Bologna: Pendragon, 2010)

Perhaps, the nearly three dozens of foreign citizens–British, Canadian, American, Icelandic, German, Mexican, Taiwanese and Scandinavian–who asked me this question were simply devoid of the knowledge, the economic interests, the political background, or the spiritual attitudes that have led millions of Italians to choose Berlusconi as their national leader and international representative. On the contrary, far from being a neutral question, all of these inquisitive foreign citizens displayed invariantly their genuine astonishment at Berlusconi’s electoral success, for they were unable to perceive in his public persona anything positive or appealing.

Most commonly, their negative perception of Berlusconi was associated with sad, stereotypical notions about Italy and the Italians, such as being lecherously over-sexed, endemically corrupt, and in bed with the Mafia. Sometimes, however, their negative perception was more sophisticated. In particular, there appeared to be recurrent concerns that billionaires or media moguls à la Berlusconi could establish new parties and seize self-servingly the democratic processes of their own native countries. In this perspective, my interlocutors seemed worried that some sort of “Berlusconism” could cross Italy’s boundaries and take over the rest of Europe, analogously to the historical experience of fascism, which emerged in Italy and was later adopted in as different countries as Portugal and Germany.

Giulio Santagata’s new book offers a different answer to this frequent, value-laden question that I was put so often over the past fifteen years. It does so by recounting with great analytical skill, vivid personal participation and significant intellectual honesty his own experience as Romano Prodi’s “right hand” over the past two decades of Italian political life—Romano Prodi being the one and only left-wing candidate to ever beat, twice, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy’s general elections.

The book comprises three sections, which are devoted respectively to: the history of the political alliance called “the Olive tree” (13-46); Santagata’s organisation of numerous electoral campaigns (49-87); and Romano Prodi’s two short-lived governments (91-146). Together, these three sections reveal the inner frailty and the limited outreach of the political coalition that supported Prodi’s candidacy and governments.

The main factor at play with regard to the coalition’s inner frailty would appear to have been the sheer number and variability of the political parties that formed it. Many, short-lived, endlessly reinventing themselves in search for an invariably evanescent appeal, these parties shared a common fear and a common fault. First of all, they were all afraid of a strong leadership, whether Prodi’s or anyone else’s. Secondly, they regarded each other not much as allies, but as competitors. Eventually, the need for visibility of so many parties and party leaders worked against Romano Prodi, given that his alleged supporters were busier attacking each other than striking jointly at Berlusconi and at his right-wing agenda.

The limited outreach of the same parties was due in primis to the limited resources and media connections available to them. In this respect, Berlusconi’s being a media mogul and billionaire running for office who, more or less manifestly, told newspapers and TV broadcasters what to say, did make a difference. Still, the obstinately self-referential aims of left-wing professional politicians does strike Santagata as equally relevant, for these quarrelsome political leaders claimed incessantly to know better than their own voters, who clearly liked the notion of a unified Italian left. Inevitably, such better-knowing strategists were shown to be tragically out of touch with their potential voters’ hopes and demands.

It must be realised that some of the hopes and demands of the Italian voters were likely to be the result of cunningly induced dreams and fears, which right-wing politicians were better able to exploit. After all, these politicians had contributed decisively to give shape to them, thanks to Berlusconi’s tight grip on Italy’s mass media. Similarly, some hopes and demands were clearly the expression of the vocal plethora of small- and medium-scale interest groups that Prodi’s government was trying to overcome in the name of liberal “modernity” and ever-useful “national interest”. Others could be even the desiderata of Italy’s organised crime and endemic corruption—sad stereotypes are not necessarily off the mark all the time.

Yet, a third element should be considered as well. Santagata hints at it in the final section of the book, in which he discusses the disastrous effects of the ongoing global economic crisis. The recipes that were proposed in the fifteen years of Prodi’s political career were very much in tune with those of, say, Britain’s New Labour or Germany’s social-democrats. Prodi’s governments were eager to liberalise the economy, privatise what little was left of public banks and State-owned industrial concerns, and, to a significant extent, ride the wave of rampant financial activities. Like Blair and Schroeder, Prodi was willing to embrace globalisation as a positive force. In this economic perspective, the difference between his novel “post-communist” left and Berlusconi’s right was not so pronounced.

On the contrary, the only voices to criticise left-wing liberalisations, privatisations and the embrace of globalisation were a handful of so-called “radicals” on the left of Prodi’s left, and even fewer old-fashioned nationalists on the right. Everybody else, the “moderate” and “right-thinking” majority, had taken aboard the “univocally liberal and free-market thought” that had once characterised staunchly right-wing politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (144).

In brief, a monolithic faith in the correctness of free trade and free-market economics was established in Italy too, both left and right of the political spectrum, soon after the collapse of the USSR. Certainly, there were the few exceptions noted above, but they were marginalised as a nostalgic leftover of the Cold War era. The seventy-year-old Soviet alternative to liberal capitalism had been proven utopian by the collapse of the Eastern bloc and, with it, any serious challenge to free trade and free-market economics. As a result, liberal capitalism was glorified not solely as the only path ahead, but also as the right one, as though the failure of the Soviet remedy meant that there had never been any pathology to begin with. Yet, after twenty years of “moderate” and “right-thinking” Thatcherism, the global economy entered in 2008 such a dramatic global crisis that even Berlusconi’s own minister of financial affairs was heard calling for “more public intervention” in the economy and “the unspeakable communist word ‘nationalisation’.” (144)

Possibly, as Santagata suggests, the result of this global crisis is that the left will stop being ashamed of its traditional socialist lexicon and reformist aims, thus rediscovering “ethics, equality, welfare, labour, solidarity… capitalism, sustainability, redistribution of wealth.” (144) Whether Romani Prodi will be the most credible Italian political leader to be at the helm of this counter-counter-reformation, though, is far from clear.

Reflections on the economic crisis one year on: an interview with Huginn Freyr Þorsteinsson

What distinguishes the left from the right? Is the Icelandic government a leftist government, or is it rather a de facto compassionate right-wing government, like Tony Blair’s New Labour or Schroeder’s SPD in the early 2000s?

Rather than trying to give necessary and sufficient conditions of what defines the left and hence distinguishes the left from the right, it is more fruitful to discuss the context and core values of the current government in Iceland (the idea of a true left government is also slippery and dangerous). The Blair and Schroeder governments were formed in the height of the neo-liberal awakening in the West and arduously worked towards feeding the capitalist animal (especially Blair’s). Britain managed to transform London into a serious financial empire by relaxing regulations, embraced the superiority of the market, had no qualms with the unequal distribution of wealth and managed to appease the fat cats (Rupert Murdoch was pro-Blair and Blair was very much post-Thatcherite). The situation is very different in the West now, and hopefully there is room for change, albeit one worries that the ideological lessons that need to be learned will not be. In Iceland the current agenda of the government is defined by the collapse of a neo-liberal experiment that all of the sudden got very sour and went seriously wrong. Iceland went probably further in the wrong direction than Britain during the boom years and in many ways was more akin to Ireland in developing its form of capitalism. To oversimplify, then the task of the current government in Iceland is twofold: 1) resurrect Iceland’s economy and 2) get in line with the Nordic welfare states. Mission 1 is difficult but mission 2 is painstakingly difficult because in order to achieve it one needs to get the economy right. A modern Nordic welfare state is costly and it will take time for Iceland to get there. But already serious steps have been taken that will help towards achieving this aim.

Since at least Marx’s day, left-wing theorists and activists have argued for the nationalisation of credit, i.e. securing for the State and/or public bodies actual sovereign control over the life-blood of the capitalist enterprise. The recent crisis provided a splendid opportunity for moves in this direction, e.g. by acquiring bankrupt private banks and re-establishing (good) public banks fostering development and employment (bad public banks being those that though owned by the State behave like regular for-profit private banks). How far has Iceland progressed in this sense? Has it perhaps merely anticipated the State’s takeover of Amagerbank in Denmark? Can we expect anything more progressive?

As a starting point it is important to recognize that when Icelandic private banks and financial institutions indebted themselves heavily, under the guidance of the finance Vikings, there was a great consensus amongst the Icelandic electorate that the country was going in the right direction. The ideology behind the ventures had general support and the finance Vikings were greatly lauded for their business models (which later turned out to be more akin to pyramid schemes than sound business models). The government at the time did everything to support the ‘finance Viking framework’ and in part enjoyed general support for doing so. When the now failed Icelandic banks were privatized (only a decade ago) the move enjoyed the backing of the major political parties. Those who opposed this venture at the time, such as the Left-green Movement (one of the current two government coalition parties), were usually mocked for being old-fashioned socialists and not in tune with the new wave of successful capitalism and globalization. The aftermath, the apparent success of the Icelandic banks abroad, was then used as a further justification of their privatization and when the huge cracks began to show the financial boom peaked and a blind-eye was turned to the weaknesses of the banks. Nobody wanted to be nor listen to a party pooper, so rather than filling that role the show went on until the cracks were too many and could not be hidden anymore. The Icelandic economy collapsed under the weight of its own banks. So the expansion of private banks and there acquisition of an enormous amount of foreign credit is something that was thought of in Iceland to be clever entrepreneurship. I mean in the space of 5-7 years they managed to increase Icelandic foreign debt by thousand of billions of Icelandic Krona without any really serious questions being asked. Business communities in other countries were even mocked for being sluggish and no match for the great Icelandic finance Vikings. The story today is of course very different. After the financial crisis, State control over financial institutions has increased. When the emergency law was passed in the parliament in October 2008 the Icelandic State gained the majority of stake in the largest of the Icelandic banks, i.e. Landsbanki, large shares in Glitnir and Arion, as well as in several other smaller financial institutions. The external debt situation has also considerably improved because the old banks of the financial Viking era ended in administration. But it is difficult to see into what direction the public wants to see its banks go. Personally, I think it would be economically sensible for the State to hold its stakes in the banks and also limit the risk of any adventurous programmes being undertaken in the future.

Is there any concrete plan for the nationalisation of strategic resources (e.g. gas, fish, etc.) and/or productive structures (e.g. failed enterprises)? If there is one, are the IMF, EFTA and the EU cooperating or are they combating such a plan?

Currently, there is a large review being led by the government on how we ensure that the State of Iceland or the taxpayer receive a fair dividend from many of Iceland’s important natural resources. This work is ongoing and will have an impact on fisheries, geo-thermal heat, water, hydro-power, etc. It is too early to say anything about the outcome out of all this but there is great popular support that the country’s natural resources should remain under State control. The driving force behind that support seems to be: “Ok let’s not do the same mistakes with our resources as we did with our finances. Hence, stay away from privatization.” There has been considerable interest in Iceland’s natural resources but I think the consensus is clear – they are not up for grabs. The government is finding ways to further enhance State control and do it in a sound manner. No international body is combating such a plan and there are several other countries that are greatly protective of their natural resources. Norway is a close example of a country that has been very progressive in these matters and there are lessons we can take from them. But more would be needed to be said here because the matter is multi-layered. One thing is the question of the direct ownership of a certain resource (for example a geo-thermal pool), another is who gets the revenue (state or private parties), and yet another is a question of leasing resources (how long is it sensible, etc.) I mention this because one cannot take it as given that even though natural resources are State controlled they give sufficient revenue to the government/tax-payer. For example, critiques of the development of a large aluminium industry in Iceland have pointed out that even though the electricity sold to the aluminium companies is by State-controlled companies, then the revenue from these electricity deals have been disgracefully low. So State control does not guarantee a satisfying return on the nation’s natural resources. This is a point I find some people on the left in Iceland neglect. Indeed, even people that have fought against the State-controlled companies in selling electricity to the smelters have failed to see this.

The Icelandic government has prided itself for having pursued less austere austerity measures than other European governments: is that what is left of the left? Is there any serious chance that, say, expansionary monetary policy, public investments in schools and hospitals, and public works be utilised to foster development and employment? Or is the government aiming primarily at debt repayment?

After the crisis the Icelandic government has been facing a radical change in State finances. The pre-crisis bubble economy secured a lot of revenue for the treasury. At the time of the collapse of the Icelandic banking system it was estimated to be 10 times larger than the country’s GDP. Of course that meant considerable revenue for the treasury even though the tax on these institutions was low (corporate tax was 10%). After the crises there was a large fall in revenue and a considerable increase in expenditure (due to financing the deficit and measures needed to restore the Icelandic economy), as well as heavy interest rate payments. The expansion of debt and interest rate payments have made it necessary for the government to impose some drastic measures to make the State finance sustainable. That aim is not only pursued because it is sensible to pursue sustainability, but also to minimize the cost of interest falling on the State with the end result of allocating more finances towards the welfare state. It is however important to highlight that the government has minimized the size of cuts in the welfare system. Iceland has followed a different path in austerity measures than many other countries have done in the past, especially countries in IMF programs. This is best seen in how the government has tried to tackle the deficit by trying to reach a balance between revenue and austerity measures. Iceland’s path in this has been noted by emanate economists like Paul Krugman who has always criticized the austerity dogma; that the key to success in a crisis is to forget about the welfare of the populace and focus only on the fiscal side of life. That is why the Icelandic government tried to defend the country’s welfare state and the lowest fiscal cuts have been within the welfare system. So the path of slashing welfare and prioritizing for capital has not been taken. Actually the government can say more than that, because in terms of how much Iceland’s GDP (percentage) is allocated into public spending then there has been an increase since 2007 (the peak of the boom). Several measures have been put in place to tackle unemployment. Some of them are a joint undertakings between the government and the Icelandic pension funds, like for example the building of new National University Hospital in Reykjavík. Others, such as nursing homes and road improvements, have been initiated by the government. If one then looks at the revenue measures, then they have not only been imposed to raise revenue but have also strong and sound egalitarian and environmental principles behind them. The government has for example raised income tax on high income, raised capital gains tax, raised various environmental taxes and raised corporate tax. One of the more interesting outcomes out of this is that the tax burden of the lowest income wage earners has decreased after the crisis. Ireland, for example, has imposed higher taxes on the lowest incomes. In the boom years the tax system in Iceland was framed around the high earners and the rich, but now that it has changed, which in my mind shows the determination of the government not only to turn the State finance around, but also to import again into Iceland’s strong egalitarian principles. One of the more tragic developments in Iceland’s boom years was the huge gulf that developed between the super rich and the poor. As I say, there has been considerable progress in the unwinding of that development. Here is a case whereas missions 1 and 2 mentioned in my reply to your first question go hand-in-hand.

Do the key-members of the Icelandic cabinet believe in the ability of markets to self-regulate and of private enterprise alone to promote prosperity?

It is the dominant view of both government parties that private enterprise does not in and of itself promote prosperity. The pivotal factor in promoting prosperity in the Nordic countries is borne to the fact that the welfare system is robust and the tax system is viewed as a means to redistribute wealth. Equality is also seen as key factor in promoting prosperity. It has been underestimated for a great number of years how costly inequality is for any society. In light of Iceland’s experience I think that it has become a minority view that the markets are self-regulatory and that they are pre-programmed to find the best end result. At least the once seemingly clear boundary between public and private has become murkier. Or maybe it is correct to say that there is a strong demand for the public sphere to have something to say about the private sphere, which is a huge turnaround from the hands-off mantra; that the government should get out of the way because it interferes with the success of private enterprise.

Is there any serious attempt going on to promote endogenous development, i.e. developing the country without peonage to foreign credit, whether labelled as “FDI” or “IMF”?

The aim of the current government is to get Iceland’s debt sustainable and minimize debt, be it fiscal, government or external. Progress has been made in all of these areas and Iceland seems to be one of the first of those countries that has had a large crisis to emerge again.

The Icelandic government seems to consider its “international obligations” only in connection with the IMF, the WTO, EFTA and the EU-related discussions for accession. Yet Iceland is a long-time party to the UN’s ICESCR (International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights). Hospitals and education, in other words, are not a Christian or social-democratic form of charity, but a duty of the State to its citizens. Is the government aware of this set of obligations?

Iceland takes all its international obligations seriously.

Past, Present and Future of Social Democracy: The Debate (?) in Italy and the Nordic Experience

1. The weakness of the Social Democratic tradition in Italy

To such a question is devoted one of the rare reflections on Social Democracy published in Italy, in 2009, i.e. Giuseppe Averardi’s book The mutants. Why the post-communists have rejected the Social Democratic choice. According to the author (a journalist and former politician), during Gorbachev’s leadership in former USSR,  the belief prevailed within the PCI that both Communism and Social Democracy were to be abandoned, as both had failed[2]. However, in addition to this historical judgment, a crucial role was played by the will to keep together the traditional electorate, who used to consider Democratic Socialism as the betrayer of the working class, whilst the leadership was imbued itself with the same hostility[3]. Averardi disregards the influence played by the presence, and then by the collapse, of the Socialist Party (PSI) on the PCI leadership’s line of action. At a first time (1989-1992), the choice of a Social democratic option would have implied for the PCI-PDS to be absorbed by the rival party[4] – which had not been questioned by the fall of the Soviet system. Later, after the early 1990s trials for bribery and corruption involving the leaders of PSI, the Social Democratic wing within the PCI found itself bereft of its main external partner, coming out weakened in the power struggle within the PCI[5].

Averardi’s main thesis is that, like mutants, the Communist leaders changed, under the pressure of external events, the party form, but not the party machinery, which survived untouched, and neither their mentality, which remained Stalinist[6]. Hence the failure of the project, nourished between 1995 and 1998, by Massimo D’Alema (a key-figure in the 1990s-2000s party history, as he became Italy’s prime minister in 1998-2000). D’Alema wished to convert the Democratic Party of the Left into a Social Democratic Party[7]; but he failed, and so did his successor Walter Veltroni’s (another prominent party representative), who attempted to transform the party into a liberal-socialist organization[8]. The final point is the PD, which is a generically liberal party along an American political line. This is an outcome to which “Repubblica”, the newspaper now in the frontline against Berlusconi, has strongly contributed, with its determination to avoid a Socialist landing-place for the post-communists[9]. Averardi’s conclusions are disconsolate: once abandoned revolution, the heirs of the PCI believe no longer either in reformism, and, as good Stalinists, have entirely fallen back on the management of daily power. “This is their plague and at the same time the misfortune they have thrown the country into”[10].

2. A double crisis: Social Democracy and Capitalism as well

In the light of this poor gift for Social Democracy on the side of the Italian left, it is not unexpected that the debate on the turn that Socialism can take in the XXI Century focuses mainly on foreign countries (and makes use of foreign contributions). There is a general agreement on the crisis that Social Democracy is going through; at the same time, no one forgets to stress that the financial crisis that shook the international economy in 2008 – with lasting consequences – is a turning point too. Yet European Social Democracy seems unable to turn the lack of confidence in the free market to its own advantage.

According to the already mentioned D’Alema (founder and chairman of a foundation, “Italianieuropei”, which is among the few research-centres promoting a reasoning on Social Democracy in Italy), two are the reasons for such a débâcle. First, the managerial shift carried out by socialist parties in the second half of the 1990s has assured their permanency in power, but it has not undermined social inequalities (which, on the contrary, have increased); turning themselves more and more into neo-liberal forces, socialist parties have made themselves jointly responsible for such an outcome. Secondly, these parties have restricted themselves to national perspectives, giving up the chances implied by European integration[11]. Both these arguments are a recurring complaint in the diagnosis of the crisis from which Social Democracy is said to be suffering. Let us start with the Socialist leveling-off on Neo-Liberalism.

Massimo Salvadori, one of the most prominent Italian scholars of Socialism and Communism, focuses on the impact produced on Social Democratic policies by the changes in the production system, the fall of Socialist bloc, the neo-liberal counterattack, and the Chinese opening to the free market. Exactly when Social Democracy was celebrating the end of Communism, it came to be stricken by the attack to the State, in every respect. Globalization, for its part, compromised the power of politics over the economy, sealing the triumph of wild capitalism. In the face of such an upheaval, Social Democracy has given in, from a cultural and from a policy-making point of view, splitting up between Renewers and Traditionalists. The outcome has been a withdrawal from the two main targets of 1) defending the weakest social groups and 2) facing economic powers. By pursuing obsessively the middle electorate – giving up the task to organize what once were called “subordinate classes” – Socialist parties have betrayed their identity, to the advantage of the Right[12].

Paolo Borioni, expert of the Nordic model, points out nevertheless a kind of symmetric process, particularly clear in Scandinavian countries[13]: while Social Democracy absorbed more and more right-wing values and policies, the Right, for its part, was reducing its laissez-faire aggressiveness; today it avoids ideological confrontation, defining itself as a centre force; it is very careful not to question openly the Welfare State, which rather is slowly worn down. Clearly, the right-wing Welfare State is not a vehicle of equality; on the contrary, it turns into a kind of refuge for those who are left out of competition; but it works to some extent, at least as a populistic instrument for consensus[14].

Giuseppe Berta, economic historian and author of the only recent book (even if very short) entirely devoted to Italian Social Democracy, insists upon the convergence of the opposite fronts; while once upon a time one could talk about a “labour capitalism” (following Schumpeter), nowadays it seems to be suitable to resort to the concept of “capitalistic Social Democracy”. In the age of globalization, Social Democracy has found out to be forced to adapt itself to capitalistic requirements, giving up its original claim to transform society[15].

3. European Socialist parties’ state of health

Typically, the main culprit for the rejection of genuine Social Democracy is said to be Tony Blair. Even if New Labour has been, together with the Nordic socialist parties, the only left-wing movement able to catch the importance of changes occurring because of globalization, instead of ruling them out, it is often accused of having complied with them far too much[16]. What Blair did was to put a humanistic breath on a Thatcher-inspired politics[17]; his New Labour accepted the so-called “turbo capitalism” of the 21st century, shifting from a collectivist ethics to full-fledged individualism: in this view, emancipation becomes the outcome of a process made by: education – skills improvement – and competitiveness on the labour market[18].

The German Social Democratic Party, SPD – as one of its MP, Angelica Schwall-Düren,  points out – spent the eleven years in power (first as ruling party, later in the grosse Koalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU) engaged above all in technocratic modernization, i.e. reforms were put forward without discussion with the citizens, who therefore did not identify themselves with those policies. No participation, no consent. In the light of such a line of action,the catastrophic electoral result of the SPD in the last general elections (September 2009) should not come as a surprise: 23%, the worst result since 1949[19]. The difference between New Labour and SPD lies, in Berta’s analysis, in the greater determination of the former as to the rejection of Socialist tradition; the SPD being more hesitating, albeit its policies show no autonomous profile: the party does not distinguish itself from the others in any significant respect[20].

As to the French Socialist Party, Zaki Laïdi reminds us that it was in power for only fifteenth years (i.e. with Mitterand and Jospin) out of the last fifty. Being traditionally not a labour party, it has suffered from a deep split between the national level (ruled by an ideology with no obvious connection with social reality) and the local one (quite pragmatic).[21].

There are nevertheless in the European political landscape two (seemingly) successful cases: the Greek and the Spanish one. The journalist Panos Papoulias acknowledges yet that the victory of the Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) in the 2009 elections has been due not secondarily to the failure of the conservative government, even if it must not be neglected the cleverness of the party in exploiting the discontent aroused by the 2008 economic crisis. But now the PASOK has to face several and demanding challenges[22].

Before the widespread love affair with Barack Obama[23], the only political leader able to give the European Left some hope back, in the last decade, has been Josè Luis Zapatero. His governments have been indicated like the demonstration that even in the XXI Century the Left can successfully rule a country, without betraying its ideals. The historian of Spain Alfonso Botti, nevertheless, even if commending Zapatero’s good record (in foreign policy, civil law, Welfare State, minorities protection), warns that, because of the 2008 economic crisis, his golden age is behind him. Then Botti wonders what kind of Socialism Zapatero has represented: not a working class’ expression, but a mix of Social Democracy and political Liberalism, with its emphasis on the extension of civil rights and individual freedom; a modernization strategy, aiming to bring near to the party new social groups (mainly the youth and women). If Spain proves to be today a tolerant and hospitable country, its economy shows weak roots; Zapatero has not been able to modify substantially the labour market, the banking system, Spain’s fiscal policy. Revealingly, the Spanish success has not involved a decrease in social inequalities[24].

4. Globalization/localization: threat or opportunity?

As mentioned above, Social Democracy is often blamed, not only for its falling into line with the Right, but also because of what philosopher Antonio Negri calls its “geopolitical failure”: instead of making the EU into a political subject, in every respect (that would have been, in Negri’s analysis, the last chance to salvage whatever possible), Social Democratic parties have allowed it to become a maidservant of the USA. Furthermore, they have offered little resistance against identity-oriented and populist forces. In brief, European Socialists have not understood either the crisis in national sovereignty or the one in government, that is to say, the shift to governance, a key-word in the moderate-left debate nowadays[25].

Giuseppe Vacca, chairman of the Gramsci Foundation, reminds that, in the 1970s, Socialist parties replied to the challenges of that time by the pro-European shift, for they were aware that the so-called “social compromise” could be preserved only at a continental level, However, from the end of the 1990s they have delegated the rule of economy to the European Central Bank, which has implied the priority of monetary stability, not of growth; hence,the return to national economic policies, and of the missed chance of European integration, esulting into the worst crisis suffered by Reformism in the post-war age. Indeed, within the EU, political initiative is more and more in the hands of the European Popular Party[26].

On the other hand, Berta stresses that, compared to the golden age of Social Democracy, the territorial dimension has changed too. Nowadays, the real decision-making centres are no longer nations, but urban areas, macro-regions, as shown by localist movements in  Italy and Belgium above all. It is a “federalism with a metropolitan ground”, a “borgomasters’ Europe”[27].

Are Social Democratic politics still conceivable, in an age of globalization and localization? And furthermore: is Social Democracy going to regain credibility, thanks to the severe lesson given by the economic crisis of 2008 as regards to the alleged virtues of the free market?

That the recent collapse of international capitalism can pave the way for a Social Democratic resurrection it is not a common belief. It depends, on one hand, on the awareness of the differences between 1929 and 2008. Back in 1929, capitalism was said to be done for good; today, a Socialist economist such as Giorgio Ruffolo can sentence that “not the days are numbered, of capitalism, but the Centuries” and that, “at least in a discernible historical perspective, capitalism is essentially not irreplaceable” [28]. On the other hand, unclear are the will and capability, on the side of Social Democratic Parties, to renew their identity without wasting their traditions and achievements (first of all global thinking and Welfare State). A complicated balance; how to achieve it? Here the answers differ greatly.

If someone, like the philosopher Giuseppe Bedeschi, gets rid of the problem hastily, pressing for more Liberalism within Social Democracy[29], others  work out more concrete proposals. Negri, for example, urges Socialist parties – which are upon death’s doorsteps, in his opinion – to commit themselves to the following tasks: 1) to organize brainwork, favouring the alliance with the working class; 2) to create a Welfare-oriented income distribution (starting from a productive system that must be tailored to actual human needs); 3) to achieve a democratic control of the financial system, turning the measures introduced in order to face the peak of the crisis into permanent features, then removing unearned incomes, which must go back to the community (in Negri’s view, this is a basic point, for those who aim to improve democracy); 4) to strengthen the European Union, breaking apart the NATO alliance; finally, 5) to show courage, if necessary even bypassing the worn polarization between Left and Right[30].

D’Alema for his part believes that the best therapy for Social Democracy would be to rediscover social conflict and labour (not only blue collars, but also craftsmen and minor entrepreneurs) and to improve democracy, at every level (from the local to the global one);. Also, politics must recover its supremacy over the markets, but without falling back into an outdated centrally planned economy. D’Alema wishes as well a renewal of the struggle against social inequalities (thanks to a redistribution of wealth), which have been exacerbated by the crisis occurred in 2008; wealth must be produced not by low wages, but by innovation, both in products and in processes. Shortly, D’Alema’s thesis is that Social Democracy is over, it is an old experience, depending as it is on conditions that  no longer exist. However, its vital elements – democracy, equality, innovation – must be preserved, adjusting them to the present circumstances[31].

Different is Salvadori’s conclusion: from the 2008 crisis, Social Democratic aims come out strengthened; what is needed is a strategy free from the race to the middle of the political spectrum and the recovery of a leftist identity, with a commitment to join together the varied world of subordinate employment, to integrate immigrants, to safeguard secularism and pluralism, and to protect the environment[32].

Berta is fascinated by New Labour’s new course: under Gordon Brown and David Milliband, the party seems to take some distance from Blair’s age, reminding that the task is to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and therefore that the market cannot be left unrestrained; the language of social solidarity must be restored, even by the regulation of economic activity[33]. But what is more astonishing, in Berta’s book, is that, after 110 pages spent in repeating a sentence to death for Social Democracy – warning reformist parties that they are wrong, if aiming to go back to the past – in the final part of the work the author glorifies… Keynes’ relevance to the present; not Keynesianism or the mixed economy, dead and buried as well as Social Democracy, but Keynes’ theories (never applied, according to Berta) about the relationship between liberalism and socialism. In other words, centre-left-wing parties have to test, with a pragmatic attitude to reassembling, if Keynesian lines of action – economic efficiency, social justice and individual freedom – can turn into their own agenda[34].

The more well-constructed proposal comes from Borioni, and, consistently with his research-field, it is inspired to the Nordic model, particularly the Danish one. Yet the core of his reasoning is not flexicurity in its Italian declination (Borioni here refers to economists like Francesco Giavazzi of Bocconi University) or in the European one (Barroso), that is to say, a mainstay of current market economy. On the contrary, Borioni emphasizes the role of flexicurity as a policy intended to influence – thanks to the Welfare State – the market itself. The way out of the crisis lies, for Social Democracy, in planning the economy on the basis of three aims: (1) jobs (labour market policies and higher wages, in order to favour market expansion, abroad and at home), (2) Welfare (such as competitiveness incentives) and (3) innovation (i.e., a specialized system production): in other words, the shift from “turbo capitalism” to a “patient capitalism”, with finance coming back to its maidservant role. If most of the Italian scholars restrict their attention to the developments in the UK and Germany, Borioni turns to Norway as a success story: Social Democrats have once again won the elections thanks to a politics based on: few fiscal reliefs; public investments not in colossal projects, but instead in works achievable in a short time (such as maintenance of infrastructure); a good relationship with the trade unions; and a definite opposition to populism and xenophobia. The basic assumption, in the Norwegian Social Democrats’ strategy, is that competitiveness requires the inclusion of everybody and the latter must be ensured also by using State-owned oil revenues as a long-term fund to preserve the Welfare State[35].

5. Concluding remarks

There is no Italian way to Social Democracy: because of the historical reasons that have been recalled hereby, but also owing to intellectuals’ and politicians’ incapacity to face the challenged to Social Democratic policies and reformism as a whole, especially in connection with the Italian peculiarities. There is no reference to territorial lacks of balance, for example, and to the backwardness of the national economic system. The weak social groups who should constitute the target of centre-left-wing policies remain indistinct and secondary. Furthermore, inequalities are mentioned only with regards to their economic dimension, which obviously is fundamental, but not exhaustive. Gender equality is completely absent from the debate; and one can with good reason wonder how the issue can be avoided, in a country where the female employment rate is among the lowest ones in Europe, with the following economic, but also cultural and political, marginalization of women. Let alone the discrimination that other social groups (e.g. immigrants and homosexuals) also suffer from.

The poorness of the Italian debate is not unexpected, as already pointed out: the party which was the natural candidate to sponsor a debate on Social Democracy has instead adopted a confuse profile; in the effort to seduce the moderate electorate, it has displeased the traditional one without succeeding in gaining new votes, and now it is drowning in a sea of pornographic scandals and judicial inquiries.

The party which nowadays seems inclined to receive the Social Democratic inheritance,  i.e. the Party of the Communist Refoundation, has been deleted from parliamentary institutions in the last general elections and it is now engaged in safeguarding its survival, struggling between identity-oriented pressures (the preservation of a Communist tradition) and the search of economic and social policies suitable to XXI Century Italy and Europe.

As to leftist intellectuals, they seem to be marginal in a country where the public opinion spends more time in talking about the prime minister’s sexual life than about the ongoing economic crisis.


[1] On the shift from PCI to PDS to DS, see I. Ariemma, La casa brucia. I Democratici di Sinistra dal PCI ai nostri giorni, Venezia, Marsilio, 2000.

[2] See G. Averardi, 1989-2009 I mutanti. Perché i postcomunisti hanno rifiutato l’opzione socialdemocratica, Roma, Datanews, 2009, p. 88. Marcello Flores, historian, is however of a different opinion: during the several transformations (from PCI until PD), the party leadership, shocked by the fall of Communism, has not been able to realize that Social Democracy as well is over; such a blindness, with the consequent attempt to merge two outdated culture, i.e. the Social Democratic one and the popular-Catholic one, in the Democratic Party, has prevented the discontinuity which is required in order to give Left a new identity. See M. Flores, Una sinistra ancora in cerca di una nuova identità, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, pp. 39-42.

[3] See G. Averardi, pp. 109-111. See also A. Possieri, Il peso della storia. Memoria, identità, rimozione dal PCI al PDS (1970-1991), Bologna, Il Mulino, 2007, p. 289.

[4] See I. Ariemma, p. 58.

[5] See E. Macaluso, Al capolinea. Controstoria del Partito Democratico, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2007, pp. 50-52.

[6] See G. Averardi, p. 102.

[7] See G. Averardi, pp. 120-131.

[8] See G. Averardi, pp. 144-145.

[9] See G. Averardi, pp. 160-161.

[10] See G. Averardi, p. 227.

[11] See M. D’Alema, Editoriale, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, pp. 10-11.

[12] See M. Salvadori, Considerazioni sul passato e il presente della socialdemocrazia europea, “Italianieuropei”; 2009, 4, pp. 31-32.

[13] On Sweden, see M. Quirico, Il socialismo di fronte alla realtà. Il modello svedese (1990-2006), pp. 215-227 (Una conclusione provvisoria. Le elezioni politiche del 2006).

[14] See P. Borioni, La socialdemocrazia: perché perde, perché potrà vincere, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, p. 65.

[15] See G. Berta, Eclisse della socialdemocrazia, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2009, pp. 11-18.

[16] See A. Negri, Sul futuro delle socialdemocrazie europee, “Italianieuropei”; 2009, 4, p. 22.

[17] See P. Borioni, p. 71.

[18] See G. Berta, pp. 24-26.

[19] See A. Scwall-Düren, La SPD nella trappola della credibilità, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 22-26.

[20] See G. Berta, pp. 28-34.

[21] See Z. Laïdi, Perché il Partito socialista è in crisi?, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 36-38.

[22] See Panos Papoulias, La vittoria elettorale dei socialdemocratici greci e il suo significato per il centrosinistra europeo, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 53-57.

[23] See G. Berta, pp. 52-56.

[24] See A. Botti, Il socialismo di Zapatero nella crisi della SD europea, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 44-52.

[25] See A. Negri, pp. 20-21.

[26] See G. Vacca, Il socialismo europeo e la globalizzazione. Le radici della crisi pp. 70-73.

[27] See G. Berta, pp. 63-64.

[28] See G. Ruffolo, Crisi dell’economia e declino della socialdemocrazia, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, p. 43 e p. 44.

[29] See G. Bedeschi, La crisi della socialdemocrazia, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 4, p. 63.

[30] See Negri, pp. 23-24.

[31] See D’Alema, pp. 12-14.

[32] See Salvadori, pp. 34-35. Papoulias follows a similar line, when listing the challenges the PASOK is going to face. See Papoulias, p. 59.

[33] See Berta, pp. 75-85. On Brown and the recent developments within Labour, see R. Liddle, L’impatto della crisi economica globale sul futuro della socialdemocrazia europea, “Italianieuropei”, 2009, 5, pp. 14-21.

[34] See Berta, pp. 112-126.

[35] See Borioni, pp. 72-75.