How Partially Nationalizing the Highways Turned Italy Into “Another Venezuela”

When a road bridge in Genoa collapsed in August 2018, killing 43 people, reports soon exposed the negligence of its private managers. Today, the government is part-renationalizing the road maintenance firm in question — a tiny step away from neoliberalism that has sparked wild claims of a “Venezuela-style” attack on business.

(Wikimedia Commons)

A specter is haunting Italy’s highways: the specter of Chavismo. “Highways: the Venezuelan model has won,” claimed journalist Nicola Porro in a video addressed to his 700,000 Facebook and 400,000 Twitter followers. Porro is a famous face on Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset TV stations and deputy editor of the tycoon’s newspaper Il Giornale; and within just hours, his talk of “Venezuela” had been adopted by dozens of right-wing commentators, but also a large part of the liberal establishment.

Such fury was not exactly well-grounded. Earlier in July, Giuseppe Conte’s government decided to take back a 33 percent public share in the company that manages Italy’s highways, twenty years after it was privatized. This was perhaps a rather tepid move, given the appalling — in recent years, deadly — neglect of the highways under private management. Yet comparisons with Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro abounded in national media, presenting Conte’s move as extreme and illegitimate.

His attackers drew on tropes already well-established in European and US public discourse, resorting to Cold War anti-communism even three decades since the fall of the Eastern Bloc. Faced with the slightest deviation from neoliberal orthodoxy, defenders of the status quo wheel out the classic rhetoric of economic failure, “foreign ideology,” and associations with “uncivilized” non-European countries — deploying anti-communism against even forces that stand far from any kind of Marxist politics.

Legacy of Privatization

The Italian government’s decision has its origins back in 2018, when the Ponte Morandi — a cement road bridge in the outskirts of Genoa — collapsed, killing forty-three people. This tragedy sparked sharp debates on the apparent lack of maintenance of this bridge and of Italy’s road infrastructure in general. Especially targeted was the Benetton family, owners of the clothes firm and — over the last two decades — the majority stake in highway-management firm Autostrade per l’Italia (ASPI).

Back then, Conte led a coalition uniting the populist Five Star Movement with the hard-right Lega, and the call to revoke the Benetton family’s concession began to make headway. This was a major about-turn in a public debate dominated for over a quarter-century by talk of how the “efficient” private sector should replace all direct state management, driving a wave of privatizations unrivaled outside the old Eastern Bloc.

ASPI was created in 1950 as part of the Institute for Industrial Reconstruction (IRI, the then-vast public industrial holding company) and was a key force in the economic boom of the 1960s. Its building of one of the world’s densest highway networks fully suited a development model based on steel (public, at the time), oil (also in public hands) and cars (then, like now, under FIAT’s private quasi-monopoly).

The privatization of ASPI, along with IRI and many other public firms, came in the 1990s: the now-triumphant neoliberal ideology demanded this, but so, too, the binds established by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the founding act of the European Union, which among other things compelled Italy to slash its public debt through sell-offs of public assets. ASPI was privatized in 1999, and by 2002 the Benetton family had majority control. Since then, shareholders have drawn enormous profits, as road tolls have continually risen while investment in maintenance has been close to zero.

The highways themselves remained public property: what was privatized was their management, and the Ponte Morandi tragedy raised the possibility that the concession would be withdrawn. Yet it was unclear whether it would be entrusted to some other private owner, or if the state would directly take back control.

As this was still being debated, there came an unusual change of government. In summer 2019, Matteo Salvini’s hard-right Lega split from its alliance with the Five Star Movement, which in turn formed a new coalition together with the center-left Democrats; despite this upheaval, the independent lawyer Giuseppe Conte remained prime minister.

The Democrats had particular problems in countenancing nationalization. This party is, in fact, the heir to the political forces that led the privatizations of the 1990s, fully embodying the paradigm of progressive neoliberalism; it also has very close links with financial groups like the Benettons, considered leading lights of the enlightened, progressive-minded bourgeoisie notwithstanding their environmental and social violations in Latin America.

But the Democrats’ new leader Nicola Zingaretti was elected in 2019 on a platform, if not of Corbyn-style rupture, at least of partly walking back the Blairite infatuation of previous years. It would, indeed, have been odd for the theoretically most “social-democratic” of Italy’s main parties to be the only one opposed to revoking the concession.

Faced with a popular demand to “do something” to punish the Benettons — considered indirectly responsible for the forty-three deaths — if not nationalize the highways outright, the government was also trapped by its need not to appear overly “anti-business,” in an international context where it could imagine no economic strategy other than attracting private investment. Added complication came from the jungle of norms governing these outsourcing agreements.

Whatever the myth of the “state-as-regulator” of private business, these rules consistently favor the concession-owner — stipulating billions of euros in fines for the state itself should it take the highways back from the privateer management.

Interventionist State?

The story came to a head on July 15 when the government and ASPI announced an agreement. State-owned financial holding company Cassa Depositi e Prestiti is to buy up 33 percent of the shares in ASPI (at a cost lower than any possible penalties) while another 22 percent will be ceded to institutional investors enjoying government confidence.

Then, the firm will be floated on the stock exchange and the Benettons’s share will fall under 10 percent. This is far from a forced nationalization — something the Italian constitution does, in fact, allow for — but a market operation, contracted with the current owners, which will see the state intervene as a simple shareholder (if a major one) in a private firm.

But there is a clear shift: the state is to return as an economic actor, taking back part of what was privatized twenty years ago. If in 2018 the economist Mariana Mazzucato, theorist of a new state interventionism, wrote an article for leading daily La Repubblica (together with our comrade Simone Gasperin) entitled “Highways: Nationalization Is No Taboo,” today she is herself economic advisor to Prime Minister Conte.

The operation also bears the typical traits of this government and Conte’s own leadership, a balancing act between the progressive neoliberalism of the Italian “center-left” of the last twenty-five years and the need to give a different kind of response to a socio-economic situation in which such recipes have become unsustainable.

Conte’s government is not socialist and does not have any program of nationalizations. The agreement over the highways is fully internal to the mechanisms of a market economy. But the fact that, for the first time in decades, the Italian state’s role in a sector of the economy is growing rather than falling, certainly does point to a window of opportunity. This is a crack in the monolithic neoliberal consensus — and the Left would do well to try and widen this crack further.

Venezuelan Bogeyman

The day after the agreement, the specter of Bolivarianism made its terrifying appearance on the frontpages. “Autostrade per l’Italia — a statization reminiscent of Venezuela” claimed Lucio Malan of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party in the Senate. Center-right MP Maurizio Lupi agreed, “The expropriation of the Benettons is shocking, we aren’t Venezuela.” The popular ultra-free-marketeer YouTuber Rick DuFer complained that “Venezuela is near.”

Such rhetoric also spread to the liberal press. “If Italy becomes Venezuela, who will invest?” asked former economy minister Giovanni Tria on Huffington Post Italia. Its editor Mattia Feltri added, “this isn’t the way a government resolves matters with private business — except in Venezuela.” One La Repubblica columnist found the comparison with Venezuela a little over-the-top but agreed with “stigmatizing a certain drift toward neo-statism all’italiana.” On July 20, Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri was asked by a Corriere della Sera journalist, “The government is displaying a dirigiste face, a little Venezuelan. Why would a foreign investor risk their capital in Italy?”

There is another immediate reason for this sudden interest in Venezuela. In June, a few weeks before the ASPI agreement, the conservative Spanish daily newspaper ABC reported on alleged Venezuelan financing of the Five Star Movement (M5S), which backs Conte’s government.

The accusation was groundless but gained traction in the right-wing opposition, which habitually (and falsely) presents M5S as a radical-left force in a bid to erode its support among conservative parts of the electorate. Lega leader Salvini, himself in coalition with M5S just twelve months ago, claimed in June that “the government now is a mix of the CGIL [trade union federation] and Venezuela.”

Let’s repeat: this was a part-nationalization, on market terms, carried out by a very moderate center-left government with both liberal and populist traits. The rhetorical move to associate this kind of policy with Venezuela is new to Italy, given how little there is in its politics of even vaguely socialist coloration.

Elsewhere this comparison is well-established, not least in the United States, where for years Venezuela has been presented as the archetype of the authoritarianism and economic collapse supposedly bound to result from socialist policies.

Even more so in Spain, whose media are much more assiduous in following Venezuelan events, and where Chavismo has often been at the center of public debate. Indeed, right-winger José María Aznar’s government was accused of supporting the 2002 coup attempt in Caracas by both the subsequent Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and by Chávez himself.

Still legendary in Spanish politics is a 2007 incident where, faced with Chávez’s continual interruptions of a speech by Zapatero at a summit in Chile (aiming precisely to launch attacks on Aznar), the then king of Spain Juan Carlos yelled at the Venezuelan president: “Why don’t you shut up?”

The rise of Podemos in the 2010s then fueled the Spanish right’s obsession with Venezuela, not least as party founders Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón had experience as political consultants working for Latin American left-populist governments. For years, the Right has accused Podemos of being funded by Venezuelan petrodollars, albeit without finding any evidence.

Unending Anti-Communism

But why Venezuela? If a good part of the radical left internationally condemned Juan Guaidó’s coup attempt and imperialist interference in that country, Bolivarianism hardly enjoys the appeal it did fifteen years ago, when Chávez could boast of opening the way to the “pink tide” across Latin America. The impression is that this comparison with Venezuela is so successful because it responds to a well-established canon: Cold War anti-communism.

We speak of anti-communism all too little in the West, despite the formidable role of anti-“Red” propaganda across much of the world in the second half of the twentieth century. It was one of the weapons that devastated the US left, from McCarthyism onward: it has decided elections and deeply molded public debate in multiple countries. The presence, in Italy, of the West’s biggest Communist Party from 1943 to 1991 made it a rather different context compared with countries like Britain and (West) Germany, where anti-communism has devastated anything to the left of social democracy. But it made its mark in Italy, too.

Beyond the folklore of Don Camillo and Peppone (the village priest and the local communist, at the heart of a famous set of conservative films and books after 1945) Christian Democracy’s anti-communist rhetoric across its forty-year postwar hegemony has left deep traces. It is no accident that even after the Italian Communist Party dissolved in 1991 — soon rallying behind moderate Catholic center-left leaders like Romano Prodi — in the 1990s and 2000s, Berlusconi continually labeled all his adversaries “communists,” including the likes of Prodi.

This was a theme right from the moment the billionaire tycoon spectacularly announced that he was entering politics in 1994: the second line of his televised address declared that he had “decided to enter the field and concern myself with public affairs, because I do not want to live in an illiberal country governed by immature forces and men double-bound to a politically and economically failed past.”

In the attempt to delegitimize any vaguely progressive proposal — any deviation from free-market orthodoxy — the invocation of communist “economic failure” is a powerful weapon. So, not by accident, Venezuela comes into play. The point is not that Maduro really does represent a beacon for socialists internationally, but rather that the economic crisis that has struck that country will remind many Westerners of the stereotypes about scarcity in former Eastern Bloc countries. State intervention means communism, communism means poverty.

But the rhetoric about Venezuela doesn’t only draw on the economic element of Cold War anti-communism. Also fundamental is the idea of foreign ties and even funding. The “Moscow rubles” that funded the Italian Communist Party and other Western parties are omnipresent in anti-communist stereotypes, and, behind this, the deeper idea of the communist as a traitor.

This draws on many antisemitic tropes, with which it is, indeed, often associated: communists, like Jews, are held to be more loyal to their international ties than their own country, to be at odds with the fatherland and thus a potential traitor. “This guy isn’t really one of us: he’s paid from abroad, and the point of his radical ideas is to damage us.”

In its “Venezuelan” versions, this rhetoric also draws on the anti-communist idea that communism is something unEuropean and essentially foreign — often meaning, typical of non-white, “uncivilized,” colonized peoples, from the Chinese to the Vietnamese and Cubans, all so many Cossack barbarians readying to invade our civilized Europe. And it’s easy to identify the deep link between the “pink tide” in Latin America and the continent’s indigenous movements, even just looking at the personal biographies of many leading figures on the Left.

Millstone Around Our Necks

Not by chance, on February 28 — at the peak of his primary run — Bernie Sanders was himself attacked on similar grounds, as a violent column in the New York Times accused him of having been on the wrong side in the Cold War. This article had many disturbing traits, not least where it attacked Sanders on the grounds that “The guy who was angry about the downfall of Salvador Allende’s Marxist regime in Chile in 1973 is still angry about it today.” The writer forgot to mention that this “Marxist regime” was a democratically elected government; its “downfall,” a fascist military coup.

In the Italian case, the sudden interest in “Venezuelan” matters thus seems to have very little to do with Maduro’s policies — which, indeed, no one is indicating as a model to follow or as the leadership of an international socialist movement. Rather, it seems connected to deeper traits of the dominant culture in the liberal West. An established repertoire of anti-communist attacks can be called on to smear anyone who tries to question free-market orthodoxy, even — as in the case of the Italian highways — in the most ambiguous and timid forms.

The Cold War ended in 1989, but its cultural legacy is much more overbearing than we often imagine. And it’s clear that no one on the Left can hope to win broad support, without being prepared to confront this kind of rhetoric.