Point Counterpoint in the Italian Campaign

Let’s forget about the Pope’s retirement, OK? Not that it doesn’t have huge implications for the theology of the Church and the role of future tenants of St. Peter’s see, but none of that is an electoral matter. And please, let’s pay no further attention to the antics of Silvio Berlusconi, that bad little boy who wants all our attention, all the time. Just ignore him. Let’s notice instead where the Italian electoral campaign is really happening, where it has always been happening, and where in the aftermath of next Sunday’s vote all the political action will be concentrated. Let’s look at the wonderful triangulation between Pier Luigi Bersani, Nichi Vendola, and Mario Monti.

For background, recall that Bersani and Vendola both came of age in the old Italian Communist Party, both participated in the Rifondazione movement in the ’90s, and both retain a fondness for working people and the venerable culture of the Left that comes with that territory. When Bersani was consolidating his hold on the big-tent Democratic Party a half-decade ago, Vendola still held on to his Left purism, enough so, some say, that he helped bring down Romano Prodi’s center-leaning government in 2008. Since then his SEL (Left Ecologist Freedom) Party has governed Puglia with a red/green slant, but has embraced as well the business growth and market logic that have made Puglia a rare success story in Italy’s Mezzogiorno.

What does any of this have to do with the technocratic Monti, the former EU Commissioner, professor at an elite business school, unelected premier in the ‘government of the professors’ that made Italy take its austerity medicine for the last year? Well, all parties declare a grudging mutual respect, and indeed Bersani’s PD was a solid if reluctant pillar of Monti’s reformist government until Berlusconi chose to kick out the props and make it fall. More to the point right now, though Bersani still polls well ahead in the race for the lower house, and thus the premiership, his alliance seems unlikely to pick up enough seats in the regionally skewed Senate to control it. He can’t govern without it. SEL’s seats won’t do it–he’ll need the centrist senators controlled by Monti. Which may explain that grudging but persistent respect.

Meanwhile day after day Vendola and Monti go at each other, like rival siblings competing for the attentions of a fond but slightly absent-minded father. Except of course for a few things: Bersani’s aloofness is anything but accidental, Monti HATES being bracketed with a leftist politican, and the differences they are flourishing are the essential policy questions that will determine Italy’s future. Such as:

  • On Monday Monti declared he could sit in the same government with Vendola as long as it was ‘reformist’; Vendola quickly noted that for Monti ‘reform’ means rolling back workers’ rights, while for his part those rights are the cornerstone of any reform.
  • Vendola has consistently deplored the benefit reductions Monti has imposed at the behest of the ECB, referring yesterday to his austerity measures as the “same old conservative ideology.” Bersani meanwhile lamented Monti’s “lack of gratitude” for the support his government received from Bersani’s Democrats.
And so forth. What is playing out is a classic competition between management strategies, as Vendola advocates for activist stimulus and Monti calls on Italians to tighten their belts for one more round. Bersani meanwhile tries to walk a fine line he calls “austerity with justice,” whatever that turns out to mean. But as Hollande waffles along the same line, and Merkel prepares to defend her mercantilist fundamentalism this fall, Italy–for all its woes, still the Eurozone’s 3rd biggest economy–will be helping to arbitrate the larger EU’s path through this intractable crisis. And it is Vendola and Monti who are waging that struggle day by day.
Sadly, American readers are at risk to miss the whole show. Rachel Donadio, the Times’s estimable Rome correspondent, managed to write a whole story about the election last Friday without mentioning Vendola’s name. But that’s OK–as I noted at the time she wrote a similar article a month ago that lovingly catalogued Berlusconi’s clown acts but failed to even mention Bersani, the clear front-runner. With the EU leadership openly campaigning for Monti, along with David Axelrod (hired by Monti’s campaign) and maybe President Obama himself (Gianluca Luzi in today’s Repubblica calls the President’s support for continued reform “a sort of endorsement for Monti”), one might almost suspect an aversion to the ex-Communists of the center-left. But like ’em or not, they are poised to take over Italy’s government, though on what terms is precisely the contested terrain of this election.


There is no pony.

Leaving aside scepticism about the Euro for a moment, and turning to the European Union, Nosemonkey argues that the idea of “auditing the costs of EU law” is silly. Well, it’s a Cameron policy proposal…but enough snark.

British Eurosceptics tend to like estimates of the “costs of regulation” a lot. But there is a big problem with this argument. Specifically, if the British public love economic libertarianism so much, why don’t they vote for it?

Getting rid of the costs of regulation by leaving the EU only makes sense if, as well as completely re-orienting foreign and trade policy, we also completely revolutionise our internal policies in a whole range of fields. The libertarian claim for Euroscepticism is that we’d have the utopia, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids, or rather, foreigners. But there is no evidence that the UK electorate would vote for this implied, but never stated, political programme. The Libertarian Alliance is not a big force in British politics, to say the least.

Further, where’s the evidence that the UK has become a more regulated economy since 1973? Europe didn’t seem to slow down Thatcher much. Big Bang, privatisation, the campaign against the unions, various macroeconomic nostrums, we got them all.

Eurosceptics should be honest, and say that they intend to leave and then pass a massive program of economic Texanisation. Or else, they should sit down and shut up – at least as far as bignum forecasts of regulatory savings go. They can’t deliver them, because the British won’t vote for them.

Meanwhile, perhaps the Euro has too many friends and the European Union too few.

Can This Really Be Europe We Are Talking About?

In recent days I have been think a lot, and reading a lot, about the implications of Greece’s recent election results.

At the end of the day the only difference this whole process makes to the ultimate outcome may turn out to be one of timing. If  Alexis Tsipras of the anti bailout, anti Troika, party Syriza won and started to form a government then the second bailout money would undoubtedly be immediately stopped. On the other hand if the centre right New Democracy wins and is able to form a government, as the latest polls tend to suggest, then the country would quite possibly try to conform to the bailout conditions, but in trying it would almost certainly fail, and then the money would be stopped. Before the last election results, it will be remembered, this was the main scenario prevailing. Continue reading

Catherine Ashton

Is it time for AFOE to declare victory on this post about Catherine Ashton’s appointment as EU foreign minister (but we don’t call it that)? Laura Rozen writes that the Iran nuclear talks are making progress for the first time in ages.

The Russians are being constructive. The head of the Israeli military thinks that there has been no decision to build the Bomb, and that the talks are going the right way. David Ignatius sketches some details of a possible agreement, which would combine a halt to uranium enrichment with a promise of regular supplies of 20% enriched uranium and explicit recognition of the right to own the fuel cycle. And it’s been suggested that the Iranian government is trying to prepare public opinion for a deal.

In this context, Laura Rozen profiles the three women at the core of the Western negotiating team, Catherine Ashton from the EU, Helga Schmid from the German Foreign Ministry, and Wendy Sherman of the US State Department. Quote of note:

“She is totally working class,” the European diplomat said. “The criticism from the British press if anything is that she is from northern England, and speaks with a northern accent…

Yeah, well, if you think international understanding is difficult…

sapiens to be homo

Transport for London have intervened to block advertisements promoting ‘gay conversions’ that were due to run on the side of London’s buses next week.

The adverts were part of a campaign by fundamentalist Christians to promote ‘reparative therapy’ which they believe can ‘cure’ people of homosexuality.

One thing about the gay gene conjecture I don’t like is that it makes for weedy politics. The essential proposition is ‘don’t blame me, I can’t help it’. It is, I suppose, suitable for a movement which now aspires to nothing more radical than the right to get married like everyone else.

There’s clearly no obligation on anyone to be any more radical than they actually are just because they ride the other bus, and, if female, get off at Hebden Bridge. On the other hand, this is one of those occasions when a bit of radical vim and vigour might do some good because it’s one of those issues where more speech could be the answer. Let the evangelicals put their ads on buses. And let the gays go unto the lamaseries of the evangelicals and proseletize under the slogan ‘we’re gay because we want to be and it’s fucking great’ or something equally suave, and perhaps hand out illustrated leaflets. By the time the dust settled I bet you’d have far more transfers from the Jesus column to Sodom than vice versa.


So, it's parenting that's responsible for last year's riots. Speaking in that capacity, there's a pretty good chance I'd have been proud of a kid of mine who took part in the 1981 riots. Last year's riots, not so much. But then I don't really know. Maybe the political aspect of 1981 seems good to me now because I'm missing my youth, and maybe the greed and  violence shown last year seems that way as a function of my middle age. Such is the condition of being a parent.

Having said that, after seeing the justice on offer after last year's riots there is absolutely no way I'd give my kid up to the cops if I knew he was involved last year, provided his involvement was limited to potential property crime. You have a responsibility to make your kids face justice, but also a responsibility to protect them from revenge. It is, in fact, the same responsibility.

worse than a blunder

I’ve said before here that Crumpsall, where I live, has a relatively low rate of unemployment for Manchester but the highest rate of underemployment in the city: lots of families with two part time jobs or one low paid full time and one part time. I mentioned this in connection to the payday loan storefronts that have proliferated locally since 2010 and the sense they gave of a neighbourhood circling the plughole.

One thing that hasn’t been much mentioned in budget coverage are the cuts in working family tax credits announced in 2010 but due to take effect this April. It’s these in particular which are really going to get the drain gurgling round here, especially since the raising of the tax threshold will dump more people into an income level where far more money will be taken from them because they’ve gone over the trigger limit. Being a cynic, I wonder if that wonderful measure was done partly in the expectation that this would happen. Well, the local Peacock’s clothing store shut down a few weeks back, so there’s another storefront available for our lovable local vulture lenders.

 It’s different from living in Hulme: that was a neighbourhood that had already hit bottom, and there was a kind of resilience, even the occasional bout of optimism, available from knowing things couldn’t actually get any worse. We’ve gone to the dogs. And here they are: the dogs. Nice doggie. Woof. Of course those were the days when it was believed that jobs were created through the concentration of capital in the organisation of the firm or through state agency. In the absence of those things, you got the dole. These days, it’s fashionable to believe that jobs are created by goading the jobless into spectacular acts of willpower and performative humility: so I guess the folk down in M15 are being shovelled wholesale into the maw of A4E these days.

But it’s something else living in a working neighbourhood, which in normal times flails along with its collective head just above the water, being gradually and through the systematic application of government policy suffering a kind of collective punishment; and the organic commerce which had evolved to serve it beginning to go down with it. The top end of Cheetham Hill Road was always low-margin.  Shops would come and go, but there always seemed to be somebody else ready to have a try. These days it’s looking more than a bit gap toothed.  It’s an odd feeling watching financial repression happen around you; like living in the middle of a crime in progress.

i never noticed them before they became infrastructure

“As you wonder (sic) between locations murmuring to your coworker about how your connection sucks and you can’t download/stream/tweet/instagram/check-in, you’ll notice strategically positioned individuals wearing “Homeless Hotspot” T-shirts. These are homeless individuals in the Case Management program at Front Steps Shelter. They’re carrying MiFi [short-range mobile wireless hotspots] devices…We’re believers that providing a digital service will earn these individuals more money than a print commodity,” wrote Saneel Radia, BBH Labs director of innovation.

The BBH is Bartle Bogle Hegarty, by the way: actually, Bartle Bogle Hegarty ‘Labs’. This ‘Lab’ employs people who can’t spell ‘wander’ to dream up the idea of using the homeless as human plug ins, paid a suggested eight dollars an hour pro-rata. I can just see some semi -autist saying ‘I only used 13 and a half minutes’ and calculating the exact sum owed. ‘I can’t give you any more. That would violate the terms of service’.

Aside from the specific humiliations involved in this for both transactors, it does point to a huge structural economic dysfunction: Chronic homelessness. Semi-illiterates employed in ‘Labs’ producing reams of bullshit. The second feeding off the first.

Perhaps relatedly, sandwich men still thrive, if that’s the term. These days they’re known as human directionals.

Trotsky on workfare

The very principle of compulsory labor service is for the Communist quite unquestionable. “He who works not, neither shall he eat.” And as all must eat, all are obliged to work. Compulsory labor service is sketched in our Constitution and in our Labor Code. But hitherto it has always remained a mere principle. Its application has always had an accidental, impartial, episodic character. Only now, when along the whole line we have reached the question of the economic re-birth of the country, have problems of compulsory labor service arisen before us in the most concrete way possible. The only solution of economic difficulties that is correct from the point of view both of principle and of practice is to treat the population of the whole country as the reservoir of the necessary labor power – an almost inexhaustible reservoir – and to introduce strict order into the work of its registration, mobilization, and utilization.

You'll note that this is much more systematic than Chris 'Lev Davidovich' Grayling's current plan to help out his Party's business mates by giving them free labour underwritten by the taxpayer. On the other hand, Leon and friends did pay his conscripts, at least nominally.

annals of deviationism

Obviously, Daily Mail stories online are designed as clickbait. But this one is a dead straight exposition of contemporary government psychosis. Spineless capitalists are giving in to tightly knit groups of sinister leftists. The BBC is actually asking government ministers if they can’t see why people might object to mandatory labour for no money. Mimsy old mumsnet has been driven along in the radical frenzy. The police are being ordered to stop demonstrations before they actually happen.

Yes, indeed. Wreckers and saboteurs are at work. False consciousness stalks the land. The relevant economic organs are resistant to co-ordination. Media is failing to follow the line set by the Centre. The plan is in danger of being underfulfilled. The people’s security forces must act without delay. Maybe this is why the government is so fixated on the SWP. If you’re doing parody Stalinism, everybody looks like a comedy Trotskyist.