Rebuilding the Left That We Need for Our Time

We all expected that the 4th March elections would not go well for the left. But, nobody expected it to take such a hit.

Not even those who, like me, travelling the length and breadth of Italy, had the opportunity to see first-hand that this would be the most difficult electoral campaign to date. Because, this time, it was harder to even find the words to communicate with those we approached by chance. And, it was also very challenging to convince those who we already had some kind of link with us and who had always been on our side.

A crisis of democracy

I’m saying this to explain that what happened is the result of general disorientation in terms of all the reference points that have traditionally characterised our country’s political framework, to the point of confusing opinions, orientation and values. This shows that what we are experiencing is not just a crisis of the left, but, much more generally, of democracy. Indeed, if we have arrived at this result, it is also because the political and social fabric that the large mass parties used to offer as spaces for discussion – and thus for analysing the present and collectively constructing a project –no longer exists. Without all this, the vote alone is not enough to allow democracy to live. In its absence, the vote alone produces an agora made up of individual cries of discontent or or sudden approval.

This is how millions of former left-wing voters could be fooled into thinking that renewal would come from voting for the Five Star Movement and sending a plethora of unknown deputies into parliament whose capacities and moral qualities no one has been able to verify, given that they are merely self-represented, through their CVs, on the website of the mysterious association of the dark real leader of the movement, Mr Casaleggio. Even from the first days of the new legislative term, the unreliability of their programme commitments could be seen.

I’m not talking about a crisis of democracy to evade the problem of a crisis of the left, which is more serious in Italy than elsewhere. Nor am I doing it to avoid an indispensable self-criticism. I am saying it to highlight the fact that we have a much more difficult task ahead, and not just in Italy.

The PD and the alternatives

Here in Italy, we have suffered the devastating effects of misinterpretation, represented by a party, the PD (Democratic Party), considered to be left wing, and still defined as such by the media. Instead, for years now, it has been making decisions that have led to clashes with those it represented in the past: the poorest. It happened with the Jobs Act that removed rights that had been won through arduous struggles, first and foremost the Workers Statute; with reform of the pension system; with the further subordination of schools to the needs of corporations; and with an ever less progressive tax system. The resulting head-on collision with CGIL (the Italian General Confederation of Labour) is unprecedented.

And the ‘policing’ approach adopted by the Ministry of the Interior of the PD government, in the hope of attracting easy votes, in the end fomented fear and selfishness, favouring the electorate’s shift to the right. Indeed, it was the Lega (Northern League), an openly racist formation, that has benefitted from numerous votes that once went to the left in the north.

We need to ask why the discontent with all that the PD-led government had done did not bring votes to a left that even signalled – as in the case of Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal) – something significantly new: the abandonment of the PD by a substantial and experienced part of its leadership – by almost all of those coming from the Italian Communist Party (PCI), one might say. It is true that this leadership had endorsed some of the worst choices made by the PD government in the recent past. But, what is most significant was that, alongside their emphatic desertion of the party and their adhesion to a programme intended to undo the main damage done by the Renzi government, the PD was finally and resoundingly delegitimised as the ‘historic’ party of the left.

Sinistra Italiana (Italian Left) maintained that this delegitimation, whose extent however could not be predicted, would have shaken the old base which, although no longer in the old PCI, had grown up with the PCI and is still under the influence of its culture and tradition.

We were wrong. It was already too late. That base, although having been through many sham reincarnations (PDS, DS, PD) and remaining faithful to what many had continued to call ‘the party’, had by now grown weary. It did not even want to hear talk of the left, of whatever kind. It sought refuge in the protest vote against whoever had occupied the political scene – even in the opposition – over the course of recent years.

I am still convinced that, for all of its weaknesses, there was no alternative to LeU (Liberi e Uguali). This was also demonstrated by the attempt made by Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Reformation Party), after having distanced itself from a hypothetical but possible united front, to ally with a group of social centres, to launch the Potere al Popolo (Power to the People) list. That this was no alternative to LeU was confirmed by the election: the votes obtained were slightly higher than half of those won by the wretched electoral experience of 2013 with Rivoluzione civile (Civil Revolution) headed by Judge Ingroia.

We should know that multiplying the acronyms on the left does not serve to clarify difference in politics but only irritates the electorate. Let’s hope that we don’t repeat the experience for the umpteenth time in the next European elections – even if these will be no easier, given that attitudes towards the EU are even more sharply divided.

Starting from the very beginning again – with optimism

But now we need to start from scratch, thinking about what we should do together.

It is not easy because the left has been strong when it has been able to represent certain social interests, giving them the ability to create conflict and communicate a project. To recover this capacity for social representation – which is the premise for any left reconstruction – we must be aware that the decomposition of the workforce that has emerged is much more serious than inequality. One more protest or denunciation – or the tired repetition of old Keynesian recipes – is not an adequate response. The repeatedly invoked admonition to ‘recover our relationship to the districts’ is not enough on its own either. We need to understand what we want to do with the population in the districts, whether we want to cater to the given consensus or reconstruct the active subjectivity necessary to rebuild a collective protagonism amongst divided workers and give them ‘logistical’ power – in the face of the endless subcontracting to which companies have recourse and of ‘riders’ and ‘uber’ – which can only arise from a recovered common identity.

To start again, there needs to be a party that is capable of drawing up a project through which it can enable the necessary mediation to unite individuals who are so socially and culturally diverse. Or is this now an outdated form that is no longer acceptable? And, if not, must there be a new party or is it possible to start with from what we put together in LeU? These are the problems that we are facing, and we will need time to undo the tangled knots. In the short term, we know – at least those of us from Sinistra Italiana – that the centre left cannot be rebuilt and that the PD, even without Renzi, now represents a different social bloc. We also know that, today, there is no government alternative. At most, we could approve individual proposals potentially made by the 5 Star Movement in the unlikely event that there is a 5 Star minority government but certainly not give them our trust, among other reasons because they have already ‘evolved’ into a perfect centrist party combining anti-tax positions with more public spending, (perhaps we’ll get the DC – the former Christian Democrats – back after all!).

The only thing we know for certain is that for a long time to come we have to deal with rebuilding, alongside other Europeans, the kind of left that is needed for our time.

But all this has to be done with optimism – which comes from knowing that humanity cannot stand living so badly and will, therefore, react at a certain point. But it also comes to us especially from those who have already reacted and with extraordinary vigour: the women’s movement, the only movement that is growing and seems to be winning, is demonstrating a great capacity for mobilisation. In analyses of the vote and, more generally, of the current state of affairs, it is never mentioned. And yet, its new mass protagonism is an enormous element and an invaluable resource (if the left learns to grasp it).