Senso Comune – To the left of what?

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We continue with a series of articles concerning the Italian general election in March 2018. Senso Comune analyses the defeat of the left and considers how it can once again become a political force in Italy.

By Marcello Gisondi is Researcher in History of political thought, University of Italian Switzerland, USI – Lugano

Senso Comune is our Italian cooperation partner.  Created in 2016 it develops new ideas and contents on democratic and left populism in both Italian and international contexts.

Cross-posted from senso comune

Translated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE



Although the Italian election result was partly expected, its sheer magnitude surprised many. It was not the biggest political upheaval in the history of the republic, but for some voters it brought an unprecedented emotional shock. As desperate cries are raised about the disappearance of the left, it has become clear, as Senso Comune has been saying for some time, that we are experiencing what Íñigo Errejón calls a populist moment. It is a situation that affects not just Italy, and it will be with us for a long time.

The total separation of the left from the national reality, as shown by the unprecedentedly poor electoral result, does not seem to be understood by its protagonists. On the one hand, neo-liberal forces (the Rencian PD and Bonino’s +Europa) continue to ignore the fundamental issues of labour and socio-economic disaster. On the other hand, those parties, which made the fight against austerity an important topic in the election campaign did not (in the case of Free and Equal) have the credibility or (in the case of Power to the People) the strength to put those issues at the centre of the national political agenda. According to many, we need to initiate a new left (Civati), a new centre-left (D’Alema), a united, pluralistic, innovative left (Fratoianni, Speranza, Grasso and Civati bis), a left that remains left (Carofalo), a radical and popular left (Acerbo). In short, the left is being exhorted to overcome the disappearance of the left.

But what is this left, this empty signifier that attracts and creates conflict between ever smaller intellectual, media, and political elites, without even provoking a yawn in the country? We are used to thinking of the categories of right and left as something stable, endowed in themselves with universal values. It is time to question this way of thinking from at least three points of view: substantive, historical, and practical.

First of all, what meaning do “left” and “right” contain, what is their substance? In his now classic book “Right and Left”, Norberto Bobbio argued that, beyond historical changes, one of the main factors that differentiates the right from the left is the different attitude towards equality (or justice), and that egalitarianism is the element that best characterises the doctrines and movements that are called left. While freedom, Bobbio observed, concerns a status of the person, equality presupposes a relationship between several individuals. As a relationship, equality is not an absolute value: it is always a question of establishing who is equal to whom, and in relation to what. A rich and a poor person, for example, have the same right to private health services, but the latter will not have any real chance of access to them, and therefore a cut in public health systems will create real inequality where there is theoretical equality. The first challenge of equality is therefore played out in the definition of its characteristics: it is a challenge that the left has lost by allowing the market to impose categories of just/unjust and equal/unequal based on ruthless competition. Moreover, in contemporary societies, which are characterised by cultural, sexual, religious, and capacity differences, the principle of economic equality/inequality is not sufficient to describe all conflicts, current or potential. A man and a woman, for example, are certainly equal in formal terms of citizenship, but in the political, labour and social spheres the former is materially in a better position than the latter. If we recognise different forms of equality/inequality, which do not always go hand in hand, there are also different types of left. Unfortunately, the Italian left, even though it has made very timid progress in the fight against inequalities in civil rights, has completely forgotten that the main inequality remains economic.

Secondly, left and right can be distinguished by their history. Their political relevance began with the French Revolution, when the parliamentarians who had the most radical positions, and were attentive to popular demands, sat on the left side of the Chamber; the most conservative and closest to the monarch sat on the right. Right and left would not exist without a regime of parliamentary, republican or democratic representation, in which at least formally the seat of legitimacy of power is citizenship or the people. When, however, parliament discontinues its representative function, left and right lose relevance and sitting on the left-hand benches does not mean serving the interests of the majority, but legitimising those of the few. Since Italy was unified in 1861, the concept of the left has assumed numerous and contrasting meanings. The historical left of the 19th century, to which we owe the first enlargements of suffrage but also the beginning of colonialism, has nothing to do with the extra-parliamentary left of the 1970s, which tried to modernise the debate within the communist universe and became fascinated by terrorism. Similarly, the first republican governments of the centre-left – which in the 1960s saw the collaboration of Democrazia Cristiana and part of the socialist world – gave a strong impulse to the welfare state and public enterprises. Yet, ironically it was the centre-left Olive Tree alliance in the 1990s which resulted in their dismantling. Categories that semantically unite such distant phenomena cannot be taken for granted, and the left has not always represented egalitarian or progressive aspirations. Moreover, for much of republican history, political forces identified themselves mainly not as right-wing or left-wing, but according to the type of social project they supported: communist, Christian Democrat, liberal, monarchist, etc… The identification of voters with their own political community was strong: they did not vote “left-wing”, they voted “communist” or “socialist”.

Thirdly, the terms left and right are distinguished by their use. In politics, words are useful if they create energy and mobilise people; otherwise they are empty shells. And “left” today, as the last elections proved, is an empty shell without the capacity for mobilisation and identification. The blame cannot be attributed to ignorant and racist voters, as many people have recently claimed, but to self-referential politicians. Since the early 1990s, in alternate cycles, the word left has taken on a redemptive meaning in Italy: in the absence of a strong project for an alternative to the advance of neo-liberal globalisation, we began to speak of uniting the left, founding it anew, awakening its allure, really finding it again out in the provinces, from at the struggling grass roots, etc… Behind those vague aspirations lay a political class with fewer and fewer ideas and an ever-increasing desire to maintain its position of relative privilege, incapable of generating consensus because it was the recipient of an effective, organisational and electoral legacy that came from the dissolved mass parties. That legacy has finally run out. No one expects D’Alema to say “something left” anymore, as Nanni Moretti implied. A divestiture of the political staff, who have lived for thirty years on the laurels of victories never won, would have been sufficient perhaps ten years ago; today it is irrelevant. But electoral projects of left-wing grassroots movements like Power to the People have no greater capacity to be effective, even if they represent courageous, passionate, generous, and honest endeavours. If we remain anchored in the language, objectives, practices, perspectives, analyses, even rituals and aesthetic canons of what is still called the left in Italy, the definition of the criteria of equality and inequality will remain in the hands of the oligarchy for a long time to come. Equality in its many forms, emancipation, and social solidarity, do not rely on the left today. The choice is between the claim to represent one’s own identity, now ultra-minority, without exception, or the attempt to redeem the country.

Abroad, although with mixed results, activists have understood this. It is worth reading an interview that Pablo Iglesias granted at a time when, after Podemos’ first successes, he was asked to ally himself with the radical left: «”There is a certain fetishism concerning the left. What you’re doing is left-wing,” they tell me. Yes, yes, everything we [Podemos] say, the left likes a lot. But to change this country it is not enough that the left approves of our programme. It is not enough for there to be symbolic identification with the left jargon and the symbols of the left. We need a social majority that identifies with our discourse and our proposals, and in this social majority there will be many sectors that will say: the left is not part of my identity. And that is something we have demonstrated during this year [2014-15]. We have shown that with proposals with which the left felt comfortable, but with a different discourse and different forms, one could win, one could challenge power. And this means doing things in contrast to what the left did». In the elections that followed that interview, Podemos presented itself alone as it is, obtaining an incredible result, which was not replicated six months later when it campaigned in alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the Spanish radical left, and won a million fewer votes. Evidently in Spain, as in Italy, there is no widespread need for the left. The strong desire for change that our societies express is not identified with the left, but it must not be demonised for that reason. The left has not improved the lives of social majorities in recent decades: it is not surprising that a huge number of people perceive it as far from the middle and grassroots classes, the expression of an identity crisis, of cultural and economic elitism. The attitudes of moral superiority of self-proclaimed noble fathers in Italy (the various Scalfari, Serra, etc.) have done the rest.

How do you escape this problem? Not with the left, but listening to ordinary people, the basis of parliament business, the subject from which the demands of representation must start and to whose common good the management of public affairs must be directed. To do this, we need humility and risk, perseverance and timing, all qualities that the Italian left lost decades ago. Of course, there is no need to aspire for purity, but overcoming right and left does not mean forgetting freedom and equality. On the contrary, it means listening to the cross-sectoral aspirations for equality that exist across different social sectors, and recognising new types of freedom. The political instruments that we have had at our disposal to date are not enough. First of all, it is necessary to understand that the main political battlefield is the media: it is up to us to learn the rules in order to compete effectively, with a radical but majority attitude. As we pursue a new hegemony, we must ask ourselves questions that the left has stopped asking itself: what sort of society do we want? In what political context can we exert influence more effectively? How can we limit the power of the oligarchy? How can we govern and put the state at the service of social majorities? How are alliances created between different sectors of society with common interests?

The moment of confusion that Italy and Europe are going through can easily slide towards reactionary tendencies worse than those we are already experiencing. The fascism that will come – if we are not able to stop it – will not have the easily recognisable characteristic of shaven heads, but the impassive face of a forced administration of ever poorer living conditions. Against a new enemy, old weapons are useless. It is up to us to put together a new army, a new people, starting with the social forces already in place.


To do so is common sense, and Senso Comune is doing it.


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