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The Italy to Come

If Italian voters reject Sunday's constitutional referendum, the country could see a left revival in the name of popular democracy.

Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi in Venice, Italy in October 2015.Università Ca' Foscari Venezia / Flickr

On Sunday, Italians will vote on proposed reforms to the country’s constitution. The ruling Democratic Party and its prime minister, Matteo Renzi, drew up the bill, and it outlines changes to some forty-seven constitutional articles. If passed, it would represent the biggest revision of Italy’s constitution since it came into force in 1948.

The reforms aim to significantly alter the legislative process, calling for major changes to both parliamentary houses’ functions, which will surely limit the effectiveness of popular sovereignty. It also aims to redistribute power between the central state and the regional governments, undermining local autonomy. Finally, it would grant more power to the executive branch, particularly to the president of the republic and the Constitutional Court. These reforms work against the constitutional framers’ plan to avoid an excessive concentration of power.

Renzi and the Democratic Party have presented the bill as a necessary step for Italy to “climb out of the morass,” as the prime minister likes to say. In order to convince the Italian people to vote “yes,” they have integrated some popular demands. For example, they promise it will cut the costs of politics. According to the state accounting office, the Senate reform — which would reduce the number of senators, change the house’s composition, and alter election procedures — would save €57 million a year; enough to buy one espresso for each and every Italian!

Meanwhile, Italy devotes €64 million a day to military spending, and parliamentarians have repeatedly refused to take any salary and benefit cuts. This clearly shows that reducing costs of “the caste” — Beppe Grillo’s moniker for the political class — is just so much smoke and mirrors.

In reality, Renzi and his government are trying to concretize J. P. Morgan’s recommendations. The “Euro area adjustment” complained that southern European countries — the so-called PIGS — are characterized by “weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labor rights; . . . and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo.” Renzi’s proposal strikes against each of these.

While the government and ruling party are pushing a Yes vote, most of the rest of Italy has coalesced around No. Left forces must not cede a No victory to other forces, but instead build on the massive popular mobilization to promote democratic revival.

Competing Motives

The polls indicate that No is leading. But as Americans and Brits now know, anything can happen, and Renzi and his comrades are pulling out all the stops to win. A recent recording caught Campania regional governor Vincenzo de Luca telling three hundred mayors to get Yes votes at all costs, describing “organized, scientific, rational patronage, like Christ commands.” The ruling class has spent a fortune on communications experts to reach the public. They will work until the last moment, and we cannot let our guard down. Rather, we must intensify our efforts.

Many political forces have been working toward a No result: Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement, the hard-right Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and even technocratic ex-prime minister Mario Monti and a minority of the Democratic Party. Each formation is playing its own game, hoping to increase its standing at Renzi’s expense.

Some want to take the prime minister’s place so they can do basically the same things he is trying to do. Some simply want to cut him down to size so they can extract some little government job for themselves. Regardless of their real objectives, these forces do little more than encourage people to vote — to once again delegate their power and then applaud the newest party leader.

We must go past this. The left-led No movement has worked to develop the most effective practices for stimulating popular leadership. It would be a great irony if, after ensuring victory, we gifted the win to Northern League leader Matteo Salvini or to Grillo. Whatever the results, we must make our own voices heard as we demand the redistribution of wealth and attack the elite who enact policies that make our lives more difficult.

The Game Being Played

The 2008 crisis continues to produce devastating and surprising political effects. The peripheral nations — like Greece and Spain — experienced it first. Now countries in the heart of imperialism — namely the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, where far-right forces are gaining strength — are caught up too.

Italy is entirely part of this political, social, and economic upheaval: it has suffered two recessions, and only in 2014 did GDP begin to rise, albeit by less than half a percentage point. This minimal recovery, of course, did not benefit the population as a whole. Unemployment remains very high, poverty is increasing, and quality of life is falling, especially in the South and in deindustrialized areas.

While the level of mass mobilization in Italy has not been comparable to Greece or Spain — perhaps because family savings and hidden assets are keeping Italians afloat — an unthinkable political crisis has nevertheless developed. All establishment forces are in disarray, the media and institutional actors have lost credibility, and serious conflicts over jobs, education, and local territories divide the country. The rise of the populist Five Star Movement — which leapt to a 25 percent vote share just a few years after it began — epitomizes the disorder in Italian politics.

From a certain point of view, Renzi himself is the product of this situation. The ruling classes chose him to win back popular support after a series of disasters: the discredited Berlusconi, the terrible Monti–Fornero technocratic government, and the insubstantial Enrico Letta, an unelected prime minister who served for only ten months. Renzi was their best option, and for this reason he has enjoyed unprecedented support.

The austerity parties’ measures, however, have worsened the situation. Reforms like the Jobs Act have taken away our rights, reduced salaries, and cut public services. This allowed for the birth of the so-called populisms, which have fed on the anger and discontent of the petty bourgeoisie, workers, and unemployed. The ruling elite must now prevent these insurgent parties from reaching power and removing the few who benefit from this situation.

From an economic standpoint, 2017 is shaping up to be a difficult year. Quantitative easing — the purchase of state bonds by the European Central Bank — is predicted to end. For several years, this practice quelled financial speculation and kept down the disparity between German and Italian bond yields. The fact that the economy still hasn’t recovered demands more drastic “reforms,” attacking family savings and workers’ living standards. We face further impoverishment and a fall in life expectancy.

This brief history shows what the constitutional reform is really about: the ruling classes need to block any representation from below and get rid of anyone who disobeys the imperialist bourgeoisie, the technocrats, or the international associations of capitalists. They need to lock in the currently-existing balance of forces to prevent the oppressed getting their say on the treacherous avenues that governments will be heading down in the near future.

Given this situation, we can understand why the Renzi government has decided to commit itself to this pitched battle over the constitution even though it is wholly extraneous to the popular classes’ needs. The Left must fight this battle with all available forces, since losing it would open the door for future authoritarian turns and make it even more difficult for our voices to be heard.

A Popular Campaign

Millions of people already understand the arguments we have set out here. Many did not wait for the constitutional scholars’ pronouncements: they instinctively wanted to say “no” to the ruling classes. The Confindustria, the bosses’ association, and the financial sector, including J. P. Morgan and Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, support the reform.

Indeed, this referendum’s first novelty is that the masses have gained a substantial understanding of what game is being played. Despite political heavyweights who would direct this sentiment against immigrants (as the Northern League has done) or generically against “the caste” (as the Five Star Movement has), it comes from a popular rejection of austerity.

Recent elections have reflected this. For example: the 2013 general election, with the Five Star Movement’s boom and Berlusconi’s eleventh-hour recovery, the 2014 European elections (where Renzi capitalized on the eighty-euro monthly bonus for workers, in certain senses an anti-austerity measure), and the local election results that have seen systematic losses for the ruling Democratic Party.

This awareness has transformed into an explosion of popular action. Before, even referendum campaigns lived off “locked down” national coordinating bodies carved up by the parties, and it was they who invented slogans and practices. The unraveling of the institutional left and the national organizations’ weak hegemony, however, have created openings at the local level. Thousands of citizens have experimented with and invented their own ways of communicating about the proposed reforms.

Perhaps for the first time in many years we now see a true popular campaign, picking up on some of the traditional practices of the socialist and communist movements. Activists have combined door-to-door canvassing with media savvy, leafleting, tagging, and banner drops, planning marches, protests, and flash mobs, spreading video messages and emails across social media, and writing open letters to other citizens that are then distributed in postboxes. Vans fitted with speakers have played No messaging in the streets. Young people have invaded public transit to pass out flyers, sing songs, and talk to other riders. Some transport workers in Florence even sabotaged Yes publicity by tampering with the bus ads.

This whole process has tried to overcome two obstacles: first, national structures are slow and inefficient (saying “if you don’t get moving no one can help you”); second, the media lockdown.

Renzi’s omnipresence in the media has functioned as a preview of what would happen if the constitutional reform passes: the leader alone in command, speaking to a passive audience. (It also demonstrates the ruling classes’ weakness: they can only send Renzi out to campaign because all the others lack credibility.) At the same time, the campaign has shown us myriad groups and committees animated by a sincere will to fight, breaking through many of the binds of the institutional left — and also those of the ghettos of “antagonistic” counterculture — and finally becoming protagonists.

Despite their differences, these practices have all put the Left back in touch with the popular classes, not to convince them to delegate their power to our movement, but to listen, understand, and become a unifying force. The November 27 Rome demonstration, which broke through the media blackout, resulted from these efforts. We need to promote these practices in the campaign’s final days and in the battles yet to come.

A Popular Front

Developing the campaign, circulating arguments, exciting the masses’ enthusiasm that we can win — while at the same time not spreading any illusions that a No vote will alone be enough to produce a change of course — are all fundamental steps. If carried out well, then in the wake of the referendum we will be able to count on greater strength than before, win or lose, because we will have found a way to come together, to recognize one another and build links. There are indeed historical cases where the victors have found themselves more disunited than before, and others in which despite the defeat a powerful force has been cemented that has been able to achieve advances in successive phases.

We obviously want to win and think we can. But even if Yes wins, we must remember that the government remains fragile. It will have to enact burdensome measures that will increase social conflict. We must support and redirect those conflicts in the run-up to the 2018 election.

If No wins, the percentage by which it does so will become important. A strong rejection will show how far the people have stripped the government of its legitimacy. This would likely force Renzi to resign rather than work for another year and a half in government without support, subject to political blackmail, and in the midst of a new economic meltdown. He would also be likely to resign soon since if we go to the polls in spring 2017 (i.e., if the elections were brought forward) the forces opposed to Renzi would still find themselves in a difficult situation, with the center-right divided, the Five Star Movement not ready to govern — still caught up in its disastrous management of Rome — and the Left at Year Zero.

Of course, there are other plausible outcomes. Renzi may depart from the scene while the Democratic Party bridges the time before the next election through technocratic rule or a government of national unity. The establishment has tried these tactics before, and the political system cannot go on without at least formal consent from the citizenry. Further, the economic situation and the risk of speculation do not allow for treading water.

In any case, we think that the point that this campaign has put on the agenda, and the point that thousands of people we have met in these months have put to us, is the construction of an alternative. That is to say, building a subject on the Left, a movement, a platform, an organization able at least to pick up the demand for change (an end to austerity, social justice) and at the same time to represent stability, credibility, security, and messaging not based on hatred or simple “fuck yous” (as in the manner of Grillo’s favored slogan).

The passage to that alternative is a narrow one, but it is possible. In the meantime let us build our efforts in these last days of the referendum, staying on the field till the last minute. That means defending the constitution born of the Resistance and the practices of popular democracy, making the ruling class understand that they do not have our support, bringing down the government, destabilizing the bourgeoisie and placing conditions on the future governments to come.

They will have to settle accounts with us and a real people’s front, which will make our needs and demands felt for the first time in many long years.