Not Him, Us

Lorenzo Zamponi
David Broder

Parts of the business press have painted the Italian Democrats’ new leader as a local Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. They’re being too kind.

Nicola Zingaretti attends the Rome Film Festival at Auditorium Parco Della Musica on November 17, 2012 in Rome, Italy. Ernesto Ruscio / Getty

Italy’s main opposition party, the Partito Democratico (PD) went to the polls on Sunday to elect its new leader. In office from 2013 to 2018, it slumped to under 19 percent in last March’s general election. Yet even as the party promises resistance to the hard-right Lega in government, today the Democrats’ continued existence is in doubt.

Based on the old Communist and Christian-Democratic parties, the PD founded in 2007 expressed the hollowing out of the Left in favor of a new centrist project. Its recent spell in government saw it unite even with Silvio Berlusconi, as the eclectic Five Star Movement (M5S) surfed the wave of revolt against the established parties.

Pushed into opposition as M5S and Lega formed a government in June 2018, some leading figures in the PD have called for the party to be replaced with a catch-all “anti-populist” and pro-European vehicle, integrating parts of the center-right. Yet there are also those who hope to rediscover the PD’s former social-democratic identity.

Sunday’s vote put this on display, as Lazio governor Nicola Zingaretti was elected as new PD secretary. Some outlets even compared him to such reformist leaders as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Yet while Zingaretti seeks a change of style, the Democrats remain mired in the neoliberal dogmas that have led the party to near-destruction.

In this article Lorenzo Zamponi, an editor of our sister publication Jacobin Italia, reflects on Zingaretti’s bid to turn the page on Blairite ex-premier Matteo Renzi’s leadership, his efforts to rally the weakened center-left in the face of Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and the meaning of the primary for the Left and social movements outside the PD itself.

A New Secretary

Nicola Zingaretti is the PD’s new secretary. The president of the Lazio region scored over 66 percent of the vote in Sunday’s primary contest, fending off both his Renzi-loyalist challengers Maurizio Martina (22 percent) and Roberto Giachetti (12 percent).

In his victory speech the new leader again emphasized his fundamental program: turning the page on Renzism, pacifying the party’s internal tensions, mounting an ethical and “humane” opposition to Salvini’s anti-migrant agenda, rebuilding the center-left, and devoting greater attention to poor and suffering Italians.

The soft-spoken Zingaretti stands far from 2014–16 prime minister Renzi’s own bluster. If Renzi attempted a “liberal populism” which gambled on the PD’s ability to sink roots among Berlusconi’s center-right electorate, Zingaretti is calling for a change of course. With this vote, the PD has reacted to the aggressive advance of Salvini’s Lega by betting that Italy can return to a more traditional political binary.

This would mean rebuilding a center-left alliance more akin to that of the 1990s and 2000s than a purely centrist coalition, and also implies the hope that it will be possible to take back support from the M5S. Zingaretti has set aside the more overbearing tones of Renzi’s cult of the free market, assuming a more inclusive attitude. Yet at the same time, he has not abandoned the Renzi-era PD’s socioeconomic fundamentals, which were, in any case, simply a continuation of the party’s previous track record.

Zingaretti proposes something like a return to the broad-left Ulivo alliance of the 2000s, which united Communists and Christian-Democrats. Yet the situation in Italian society has changed significantly (in a recession-hit country that has been pummeled by a decade of austerity) and the political landscape has also changed with the emergence of the Five Star Movement.

These instabilities, and the more active social forces’ capacity to shape them, will be decisive in determining how the contradictions in Zingaretti’s project ultimately play out.

Welcome Back?

In his victory speech Zingaretti seemed first of all concerned with taking back some of the more traditional symbols of the Italian center-left, today rediscovered after being so hurriedly scrapped in the Renzi era. Zingaretti spoke of antifascism, the fight against the mafia, feminism, the trade union demonstration of February 9, and the mythically invoked golden era of the Ulivo coalition.

The message the new PD leader wants to give — “we’re back.” Renzi had disdainfully referred to the center-left of the 1990s and 2000s as “the partisans of scoring 25 percent” or “what was going on before.” Yet after the debacle of last year’s general election (in which the PD fell below 19 percent), this recent history instead seems to have become a reassuring, comforting point of reference.

Evidently, Zingaretti’s main goal right now is to build an image of himself that distances him as much as possible from his predecessor. In his day, setting himself apart from the Left, Renzi passed up no opportunity to attack the PD and its apparatus, indeed much more vehemently than the Five Star Movement and the Right ever did.

Zingaretti has taken a quite opposite approach. He began his victory speech thanking “the Democratic Party and the extraordinary people of the center-left, who suffered a devastating defeat on March 4 [i.e., in the 2018 general election]. They had been left fearful, wounded, divided, but upon seeing the possibility of change they reacted, got back on their feet. They are alert and combative and have today [in the primary] taught our Republic a lesson in democracy.”

The new PD leader did not mention his opponents or say anything to criticize or strike back against his predecessor. For Zingaretti, party unity comes first. This attention to the PD itself jars with the myth of a single individual taking charge, and the new secretary indeed clearly rejected such a notion: “I will not be alone, and will never want to be alone,” he commented on Sunday night. This recalled the slogan that began his campaign “We go faster on our own but further together.”

These words sound rather ritualistic, and ought to be understood less in terms of their literal meaning than what they implicitly suggest in the imaginary of the Italian center-left: the myth of the meek leader, understatement as a banner unto itself, the superiority of the collective over the individual. This was, indeed, the rhetoric that helped former Christian Democrat Romano Prodi to lead the center-left to general election victories in 1996 and 2006, and Pierluigi Bersani to defeat in 2013. This model of the “anti-leader” is consciously constructed in opposition to the dazzling, carnivalesque showmanship of Berlusconi-style leadership. It is now being dusted off in order to try and banish Renzi’s pretensions to be a new JFK, as well as confront Matteo Salvini’s “tough guy” image (often expressed by appearances in police uniform).

Zingaretti promised not only the return of a “humble,” “patient” leadership model but also the return into PD ranks of the so-called ditta (the firm) of post-Communist leaders. But who are such appeals really addressed to? Is there really a “people of the center-left” that was put off more by Renzi’s style than by his policies, and which was anxiously awaiting a new Prodi or Bersani figure to take over so that it could return “home”?

When they split from Renzi’s party in 2017, former PD leading lights Bersani and Massimo d’Alema imagined that they could find these former left-wing voters “lost in the woods.” They sought to build a new force to the left of the PD, characterized precisely by nostalgia for the post-Communist center-left and softer tones. Yet judging by the 3.4 percent the alliance built around their new party scored in the 2018 general election, this quest has not gone all that well. Don’t tell Zingaretti, but it seems almost like the PD’s electoral collapse owed more to austerity policies than Renzi’s arrogant aesthetic itself.

The Return of the Center-Left Alliance

On Sunday, Zingaretti proclaimed that “many have returned, are returning, and will return to what we must now build: a new Democratic Party and a new alliance.” This means putting the party (and not the leader, as in Renzi’s day) at the center of things. All this is functional to rediscovering the PD’s roots in the 2000s Ulivo coalition and built a broad alliance on the center-left. He hopes to cohere this new center-left in opposition to a new and powerful enemy.

Indeed, it is precisely the strength of Matteo Salvini’s position that has created the very possibility of resurrecting a corpse from another political era. The language Zingaretti uses to characterize the government almost overlooks the existence of the Five Star Movement, and instead symbolically targets Interior Minister Salvini alone. Indeed, it brings to mind the language the center-left used against Berlusconi at the turn of the millennium: the current executive is deemed “illiberal and dangerous.” Here, it is liberal values, more than the material conditions of the popular classes, which are seen as endangered. But no matter: the only alternative is to build a broad alliance of the center left.

The antiracist demonstration in Milan last Saturday, which rallied some 200,000 people, had already put on show the existence of an ethical-humanitarian indignation against this government’s most violent actions. Such sentiments are common across a large swath (if probably not the majority) of the population. This was an instinctive, healthy, admirable response to the rising wave of dark reaction. But the logic of this emergency for Italian society and democracy (and humanity) also leads us straight to a natural but rather less useful conclusion: the grand alliance that brings together all people of good will to chase the monster out of the village.

Zingaretti’s goal seems to be to take advantage of the strong polarization in Italian society, generated by Salvini, in order to recreate a political binary of center-left and center-right akin to that of the 1990s and 2000s. Presenting such a two-sided situation of course also relies on the fiction that the Five Star Movement no longer exists. This move is, however, aided not only by the poor results that M5S has secured in recent regional elections in Abruzzo and Sardinia, but also the total inconsistency every day put on show by both M5S leader Di Maio and (independent but powerless) prime minister Giuseppe Conte.

In this, Zingaretti’s strategy is not so different from that set out by Renzi a year ago, when he rejected any PD-M5S alliance in favor of seeing the M5S tested in government together with the Lega. Indeed, Zingaretti’s approach is itself the child of this policy. In betting that Salvini would have the better of M5S, the PD could (together with him) carry out a pincer movement to destroy the M5S. At the same time, in opposition it could draw everything humane, upstanding, and civilized to either the left or the right of the party into its own base of support.

Between the collapse of the Christian Democrats, Communists, and Socialists in the early 1990s and the breakthrough for the Lega and M5S in 2018, Italy lived through the so-called “Second Republic,” based on vast coalitions of center-left and center-right. These coalitions were internally heterogeneous, but both were founded on neoliberal economic policies. This order collapsed at the peak of the economic crisis, under the dual pressure of the dogmas of austerity — slavishly applied by Mario Monti’s technocratic government, with the backing of both the PD and Silvio Berlusconi’s party — and the popular discontent with these same parties, expressed in street protests but above all exploited by the Five Star Movement.

If both established parties’ response to the crisis were identical, the electoral interplay between them could not continue undamaged. It necessarily brought the rise of a new actor promising to do something else. This change has not happened — as we have seen in recent months, under the M5S-Lega government. But a new divide is opening up within the neoliberal consensus, and it centers on Salvini’s racist and securitarian policy. This makes it possible to imagine that a new binary can be created on new lines.

This vintage flavor of Zingaretti’s campaign was apparent in his policy platform itself: a condensation of moderate proposals voicing progressive common sense, albeit formulated so ambiguously that one could hardly disagree with them. Yet in all this it is impossible to make out any real change of course on the big decisions made by the PD in recent years: a program of cutting public spending, privatizations, and “flexibilization” that makes Italians’ conditions ever more precarious. Zingaretti insists on his continued support for the main decisions of the Renzi era, from his bid to change the constitution to a Jobs Act rolling back job protections.

At the turn of the millennium, the center-left sought to combine democracy with the market, and social progress with economic neoliberalism. The crisis came along to show that these things stood in utter opposition to one another. And if Zingaretti hopes to put back together the pieces of the center-left at a political level, it seems rather more daunting a task to try and do this with the fragments of society itself.

An Unstable Situation

It should be said that this stabilization of a new political binary is anything but complete. In the recent regional votes in Abruzzo and Sardinia the center-left seems to have arrested its collapse but is far from having picked up again. The PD (around 20 percent in the polls, nationally) remains the third-biggest party, behind both the Lega (around 35 percent) and the Five Star Movement (around 25 percent). Hence there is a long way to go before the PD can again be considered a serious contender for national government.

One obstacle along this path is the Five Star Movement. Not by accident did M5S leader Di Maio hurry to challenge Zingaretti’s position on the introduction of a minimum wage, just as former finance minister Carlo Calenda did in the wake of the Abruzzo regional vote, in his own competing attempt to form a new liberal-centrist force. Indeed, there is today a hard-fought battle to become the real “anti-Salvini” — one which looks set to last.

This competition will probably lead both Zingaretti’s PD and the M5S to think about an option that has hitherto remained unmentionable: the prospect of an alliance between them. Almost no one in the PD is talking about what is to be done with M5S, not least because within its ranks there are such profoundly different readings of the real identity of the party (or “Movement”) founded by ex-comedian Beppe Grillo.

For some in the PD, the M5S looks like a translation of the anti-Berlusconi movement gone haywire; for others, it seems to represent an expression of the thinking middle classes, or for others a dangerous, authoritarian threat to liberal democracy. In any case, the Five Star Movement is the child of the Second Republic formed in the 1990s and its failure, and will resist any attempt to bring this order back into being.

The other obstacle the PD faces along its path back to electability is a socioeconomic situation which is no longer the same as the one that existed at the moment of the center-left victories in 1996 and 2006. Italy has become an impoverished, angered, embittered country, which does not seem open to being swept along by the rhetoric of goodwill and reconciliation. Not just the absolute numbers of those taking part [around 1.6 million] but also the demographic composition of the PD primary electorate [older and wealthier than the general population] seem very different from that taking part in general elections.

At the level of style and image Zingaretti has set himself up as an anti-Renzi. But so far there is no trace of a change of course from a policy standpoint. The enthusiasm surrounding his victory owes not so much to admiration of Zingaretti’s policies themselves as to the desperation of those who would acclaim anyone who represents an opposition to Salvini.

In fact, if Zingaretti’s model is the center-left that went before the excesses of Renzism, it ought not be forgotten that it was that center-left that ended up embracing Monti’s technocratic-austerian government in 2011, so decisive to the explosion of M5S support. Paradoxically, the only figure who really competed with the M5S at the level of populist rhetoric, at least in the early years, was Renzi himself. It does not seem that the new PD leader has any miracle recipes.

Stemming the Flow

The overall impression is that Zingaretti’s PD is designed to stop the party hemorrhaging further support and begin to rebuild an opposition. Yet any real prospect of a change of gear — at the level of either the PD’s support or its policies — seems very distant.

In all this, the Left, or what remains of it, is something of a spectator without a ticket. Naples’ left-wing mayor Luigi de Magistris had proposed to lead a list in May’s European elections, but the abandonment of this project seems to have dealt a lethal blow to the assortment of small forces to the left of the PD. As we saw already during this primary campaign, the fatal attraction of a renewed center-left alliance is already regaining strength among these latter.

Indeed, it ought to be recognized that all the varied attempts to build a left-wing alternative outside of such an alliance in recent years and decades have failed. The PD’s hegemony within the progressive camp has been shaken by ten years of crisis, but contrary even to this author’s own predictions, it still persists.

Is the Left condemned to be nothing but a radical current within the center-left — the ones who criticize while others make the decisions? Or could it still give rise to an autonomous political project of its own? It’s tough to say it, but it seems that the window of opportunity for building such an alternative is today ever less open, if not completely closed.

In such a volatile context, it would be unwise to make predictions. Zingaretti’s election seems to mark a transition in a center-left that is no longer prisoner of Renzi’s “third way.” But this is very far indeed from a decisive socialist turn akin to those led by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain or Bernie Sanders in the United States.

If we wanted to put it in international terms, Zingaretti’s modest, middling proposals, lacking any clear direction, are more similar to the path attempted by Ed Miliband in Britain and François Hollande in France, with their dismal results. Like Spain’s PSOE premier Pedro Sánchez, Zingaretti is gambling on the end of the populist moment and the stabilization of a new binary order; a difficult middle route between the liberal center-left of recent years and the new socialist alternatives.

This ambiguity cannot last for long: such credibility as it does today enjoy owes above all to the lack of alternatives. But Zingaretti’s partial success particularly relies on his ability to latch on to something that does exist already: the monstrous Salvini.

Yet 2019 is not 1996 and the fight against Berlusconi. It seems difficult indeed for the PD, in today’s Italy and today’s Europe, to pose as both the responsible force that will defend balanced budgets and the promise of change for those who have paid most for so many years of austerity and crisis.

The factors for instability we have described, and the still-open contradictions of Italian society, will be the terrain on which the outcome is decided. For the active forces of Italian society, the task is to make use of these contradictions to keep open the possibility of an alternative, and avoid Italy sinking into a binary of populist right and free market center-left like that we see in Central-Eastern Europe.

But then again, not all is lost. Lest we forget, in Britain it was precisely the failure of Ed Miliband’s ambiguous project that opened the way to Jeremy Corbyn. In Italy, that alternative remains yet to be created.