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Italian Election

Just one month before Italy’s national elections on 4 March, Luca Miniero’s satirical movie ‘Sono Tornato’ (‘I’m Back’) hit the screens all over the country. It imagined the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini returning to the Italy of 2018, and its timing was perfect.

“”The Italians, unlike the Germans, never dealt with their dictator, they have never removed him,” said Miniero. “Watching what is happening today in our country, I am convinced that if Mussolini came back he would win the election.” But of course, Mussolini isn’t coming back. It’s only Silvio Berlusconi again.

The Italian counterpart of Donald Trump has already been prime minister four times, and he has been banned from political office for six years because of a conviction for tax fraud. He is also 81 years old. But they forgot to put a stake through his heart, and Berlusconi is back in business as the man behind the right-wing coalition that may form the next government in Italy.

It certainly won’t be the populist Five-Star Movement, which refuses to enter coalitions with other parties. According to the last opinion poll, it will emerge as the largest single party, with around 28 percent of the vote, but that’s not nearly enough.

The governing centre-left coalition, whose parties are running separately because of their many disagreements, will end up in about the same place. Its biggest member, the Democratic Party, will get around 23 percent, but with various smaller allies it might make it up to 30 percent. Again, not enough.

Whereas Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (‘Let’s Go, Italy’), running in tandem with the hard-right, anti-immigrant Northern League, could get as much as 40 percent of the vote. If they then make deals with a few small parties that verge on fascism, they could form a majority government. Berlusconi’s great wealth, derived from his huge media holdings, would give him a dominant role behind the scenes in such a coalition, but he is legally barred from even running for parliament, let alone becoming prime minister. So who would it be?

The dark-horse candidate is Giorgia Meloni, the Trump-lite leader of one of the smaller parties, Brothers of Italy, but it would probably the Northern League’s leader, Matteo Salvini. You might call Salvini Trump-heavy: he hailed The Donald’s election as “the revenge of the people, of courage, of pride…and one in the eye for the bankers, the speculators and the journalists.”

Italians are quite justifiably fed up with the way their country has been run in recent years. Unemployment is 11 percent, but among the under-25s it is close to 40 percent, and over 100,000 young people left the country last year in search of work elsewhere. Average family incomes, which fell dramatically after the 2008 financial crisis, have still not recovered to the 2007 level.

But the biggest issue is immigration: in the past four years Italy has received 600,000 illegal migrants, mostly from African countries, and all the major parties are promising to do something about it. Berlusconi talks bluntly about mass deportations, and his prospective coalition partners in the Northern League actually put a number on it: 100,000 forced ‘repatriations’ a year, presumably until they are all gone.

The outgoing coalition government has actually managed to cut the numbers arriving by making a deal with Libya, the point of departure for most of the migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. In return for subsidies for the Libyan Coast Guard and various other considerations, the Libyans have been persuaded to try to stop the migrants from setting sail in the first place.

As a result, migrant arrivals dropped by a third in 2017. That ought to have won the centre-left coalition some credit with the electorate, but since the number of migrants who made it ashore last year was still 119,000, gratitude for the government’s efforts was notably sparse. The centre-left coalition is the only major political grouping in Italy that has not fallen into the hands of populists – but that is why it is trailing both the others in the polls.

The Berlusconi-Salvini coalition’s highly implausible commitment to send all the migrants home resonates strongly with an electorate that has had enough of politics-as-usual. The Italian constitution makes it very hard to form a majority government without an even broader coalition, so the result next Sunday may well be a hung parliament and another election soon, but anger and despair could still give the two men victory.

Since Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, three Western European countries – the Netherlands, France and Germany – have had elections in which nationalist, anti-immigrant parties that are hostile to the European Union, or at least to the euro common currency, have done better than ever before, but have not won power. In Italy, they may actually win.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The outgoing…polls”)

The Great October Revolution

China Miéville, a novelist I much admire, has published a history of the ‘October Revolution’ to mark its hundredth anniversary (which is actually on 7 November, since the Russians were still using the Julian calendar in 1917). It had an unusual effect on me. It made me question whether I was right about the utter futility of that revolution.

We all know it ended horribly: first civil war and famine, then three decades of lies, oppression and mass murder – Stalin, the Great Purge, the gulag – followed after Stalin’s death by the ‘era of stagnation’, a dying fall of three and a half decades of petty tyranny and economic failure. I got to know the Soviet Union well as a journalist in the last decade of its existence, and I don’t miss it a bit.

Miéville doesn’t have any illusions about how early and how badly the revolution went wrong; what he questions is the inevitability of all that. In an article in The Guardian last May, he quoted the lifelong revolutionary Victor Serge, born in Belgium to an exiled Russian revolutionary couple, who traveled to Russia to serve the Bolshevik revolution and was later persecuted and jailed by the Stalinists.

“It is often said that ‘the germ of Stalinism was in Bolshevism from its beginning’,” Serge wrote in 1937. “Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it.

“To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?” Serge was insisting that it could have come out differently and better, and Miéville is agreeing with him.

Well, I dunno. I can remember sitting in the old Akademicheskaya Hotel in Moscow in the mid-1980s, flicking paper-clips at the cockroaches and writing an angry piece about how much better off the Russians would be if the Bolsheviks had not seized power in late 1917.

After all, Russia had a rapidly developing economy at the start of the 20th century, about on a par with Italy’s. If the ‘bourgeois’ democratic revolution of early 1917 had survived and normal capitalist development had resumed in Russia after the First World War ended, Russians might be as free and as prosperous as Italians today.

Instead, Russian GDP per capita is only $10,000 a year, even a quarter-century after the Communists finally quit. Italian GDP per capita is $30,000. Italy is also a democracy, whereas Russia is run by an oligarchy of gangster capitalists. And to achieve this splendid success, at least ten million Russians died at the hands of their own fellow-citizens.

Even Vladimir Putin, the oligarch-in-chief, was moved to ask two weeks ago: “Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood and ruthlessly fracturing millions of human lives?”

You can imagine an alternate history in which the “February Revolution” survived and the Bolshevik coup never happened, but that’s not what Miéville is asking. He wants to know if the real, radical revolution could have had a different, better outcome, and he has made me think all that through again.

Let’s put all this in context. For several hundred thousand years all human beings lived in circumstances of absolute equality. All our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands, rarely more than a hundred people, and made all their decisions by consensus: there were literally no leaders, and powerful social customs blocked any take-over bids by ambitious men.

Then we invented agriculture, developed into the mass civilisations – and every one of them turned into a brutal hierarchy of power and privilege. It probably had to be like that, because these were complex societies where somebody had to make the decisions and enforce them. A million people cannot make those decisions by consensus, especially if they are almost all illiterate.

And finally, about two-and-a-half centuries ago, it became theoretically possible for mass societies to make their decisions democratically: they were literate, they had the printing press, and so they could all talk to one another. We immediately began to reclaim our old heritage of equality through revolutions, beginning in the United States and then France – and the Bolshevik revolution does belong to that sequence.

It was extreme, of course, but that’s because it aimed at full equality, not the halfway houses of democracies with ‘equal opportunity’ but huge practical differences of income and privilege that most of us live in today. This was not some petty economic argument between the followers of Hayek and Keynes. It was about the big issue: equality.

And most of us have concluded, partly on the evidence of the Russian revolution, that modern mass societies have to settle for what you might call managed inequality. The social, political and human cost of trying to make old-style absolute equality work is just too high. But you can see why Miéville rages against that fact.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Instead…again”)

Italy: “I Say No”

“Today saying No is the most beautiful and glorious form of politics….Whoever doesn’t understand that can go screw themselves.” It could have been Donald Trump before the US election two weeks ago, or Boris Johnson during the Brext campaign in Britain last June, but it was actually Beppe Grillo, founder and leader of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement.

Grillo unhesitatingly compares his movement to “Trumpismo” in the United States, and the Five Star Movement (M5S) is currently running neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party in the opinion polls. Moreover, if Renzi loses the referendum on changing the Italian constitution that takes place this Sunday, there may be an election in Italy quite soon.

Matteo Renzi wanted to replace the elected Senate with a smaller appointed body and make other changes to streamline the process of passing laws in Italy. He got his proposal through both houses of parliament last April – but with such a slim majority that the results had to be confirmed by a referendum. At the time Renzi was confident that he would win it easily.

But that was before the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the irresistible rise of Donald Trump in the United States put wind in the sails of the Five Star Movement. Now the M5S’s “Io Dico No” (I Say No) campaign is drawing huge crowds as it tours Italian cities, and the final opinion polls before the vote on 4 December gave the “No” a five-point lead in the referendum.

As the polls began to turn against his constitutional reforms, Renzi warned that he would resign if the vote went against them. But all that did was to turn it into a referendum on his own popularity, which is turning out to be considerably less than he imagined. And if M5S comes to power, it is pledged to hold another referendum – this time on pulling Italy out of the euro “single currency”.

At the moment a large majority of Italians still want to keep the euro, but that could change. Italian cities don’t look as devastated as the US Rust Belt, but the same processes that brought Donald Trump to the presidency have been at work in Italy. Average family income is still less that it was before the 2008 crash, and unemployment among the young is close to 40 percent.

An estimated quarter of Italian industry has closed down in the past decade, and the country is staggering under the burden of a public debt that amounts to 132 percent of GDP. If uncertainty about the euro crashes Italy’s economy (the third-largest economy in the Eurozone), then all 19 countries that use the euro, some 340 million people, are in deep trouble.

And the Italian economy could go belly up, because Italian banks are now as vulnerable as American banks were before 2008. They are stuffed with “non-performing loans” that have not been written off, but stay on the banks’ books at around 45-50 percent of their original value. But they are really only worth about 20 percent of the original price.

If Italian banks marked these loans down to their true market value, it would wipe out their capital and they would all go bankrupt overnight. It is an accident waiting to happen – and a “No” victory in the referendum could be that accident, because it might open the Five Star Movement’s road to power.

In theory, it’s a long road from a “No” in Sunday’s constitutional referendum to an M5S government and a referendum on the euro. If Renzi resigns, and if no other combination of parties in parliament can form a government (probably not), there would be an election. But then M5S would have to win a majority, which is a long way from its current 30 percent support.

In practice, it might be quite a short road. A lot of Italians are so angry that they just want to punish “the elites”. If both M5S and the right-wing Lega Nord (which also wants to quit the euro) did well in the election, they might be able to form a coalition government, and then the fat would be in the fire.

Technically, only the single currency would be at risk, but in the current febrile atmosphere in Western politics, with support for populist parties surging everywhere, things can change very rapidly.

It is no longer inconceivable that the National Front, which wants to leave not just the euro but the European Union, could win the French presidential election in April. With Britain on its way out, a French government that wants to follow suit, and an Italian government that
at least wants to leave the euro, the entire 60-year-old project of European unity could crumble by the end of next year.

That’s a lot of ifs, and the likelihood of such a calamity is still very small. But we do live in interesting times.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“And the…power”)

Europe’s Refugee Crisis: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Refugees from the wars of the Middle East are pouring into the European Union at an unprecedented rate. So are economic migrants from Africa and non-EU countries in the Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, etc.), and some of them claim to be refugees too. They are coming at the rate of about 3,000 a day, mostly through Turkey into Greece or across the Mediterranean to Italy, and the EU doesn’t know what to do about it.

It’s not really that big a refugee crisis: one million people at most this year, or one-fifth of one percent of the European Union’s 500 million people. Little Lebanon (population 4.5 million) has already taken in a million refugees, as has Jordan (pop. 6.5 million). But while a few of the EU’s 28 countries are behaving well, many more have descended into a gibbering panic about being “overrun”.

It really is a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the best of the Good is Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel put it bluntly: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees…it will not be the Europe we imagined.” She has put her money where her mouth is: two weeks ago she predicted that Germany would accept asylum claims from 800,000 refugees this year.

She also said that Germany is suspending the “Dublin regulation”, an internal EU rule that says refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they reach. This is manifestly unfair to Greece and Italy, so Berlin will now allow all Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany regardless of where they entered the EU. Moreover, it will regard Syrian citizenship as adequate evidence that people are genuine refugees.

France, Italy and the Netherlands have also been fairly generous about granting refugees asylum, and quiet, gallant Sweden is accepting more refugees per capita than anybody else in the EU. But the good news stops here. Most other EU countries are refusing to take a fair share of the refugees, or even any at all.

Let us define the Bad as those governments that really know they should be doing more, but are shirking their responsibility for domestic political reasons. The most prominent are the United Kingdom and Spain, which played a key role in sabotaging an EU meeting last June that was trying to agree on a formula for sharing the refugee burden fairly among EU members.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s problem is that overall immigration into Britain is high (330,000 last year), which has infuriated the right-wing media. In fact, more than half the newcomers were citizens of other EU countries (who have the right to cross borders in search of jobs), and only 25,000 were refugees – but such fine distinctions have little place in the public debate. And in Spain, there’s an election coming up.

Then there are the Ugly: the countries that simply don’t want to take in refugees because they are different from the local people. Like Slovakia, which said that it might take a few hundred refugees, but only Christians, or Hungary and the Czech Republic, which are both talking about deploying armed forces on their borders to keep refugees out.

All these countries lived under Soviet rule for two generations, which was almost like living in a cave. They have almost no experience of immigration, and it’s commonplace to hear people make racist or anti-Semitic remarks without the slightest sense of shame. In a way, they are still living in the 1950s. It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

So how, in these circumstances, is the European Union to agree on a common policy for sharing the burden of caring for the refugees? “We must push through uniform European asylum policies,” Angela Merkel says, but the EU operates on a consensus basis, and there is little chance that that will be accepted. In practice, therefore, the burden will continue to be borne by the willing.

In an attempt to lessen the burden, the German chancellor has proposed a list of “safe” countries (like the Balkan ones, which account for 40 percent of asylum claims in Germany), where it may be presumed that most claimants are really economic migrants. Arrivals from “unsafe” countries like Syria, Libya and Afganistan, where real wars are underway, would be treated as genuine refugees. But even then, each case must be investigated individually.

“Germany is a strong country and the motto must be: ‘we’ve managed so much, we can manage this’,” Merkel said, and no doubt she can get through this year without changing course. But there is every reason to believe that there will be another million people risking everything to make it across the EU’s borders next year, and probably for many years thereafter. It may even get worse.

In the long run it is almost certain to get worse, even if the current wars in the Middle East all miraculously end. Coming up behind the current crisis is the inexorable advance of climate change, which will hit the Middle East and Africa very hard indeed. Nobody has the slightest idea how many refugees that will generate, but it is likely to be many times the current flow.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“She…refugees”; and “In an…individually”)