Socialist Worker

Downfall: Crowds gather in Rome to cheer Berlusconi's departure

by Louis Bayman in Rome
Issue No. 2278

Italians have been celebrating the downfall of their hated prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who resigned in disgrace last night (Saturday).

Crowds came from every direction to gather in central Rome, filling the streets with jubilant people into the night.

They sung the old partisan song “Bella Ciao” as they reached the convergence point outside Berlusconi’s residence. People massed under his balcony and chanted “Jump! Jump! Jump!” at the man inside.

For many it was difficult to believe that Silvio Berlusconi's political career, dominant in Italian politics for the last 20 years, was finally over.

This marks the passing of history’s most ridiculous leader. Berlusconi was a bigot, a sleazeball and a racist. He called German MEPs “Nazis” and told Barack Obama that he had a “nice tan”.

Berlusconi’s was obsessed with young and possibly underage prostitutes. His defence was to say, “At least I’m not gay.” The Italian LGBT movement replied, “At least we’re not Berlusconi.”

Damage

But he caused deeper damage too, running Italy as if it were one of the dodgy construction sites through which he first made his millions.

Berlusconi’s Italy is one where short term contracts force the sick into work, where teachers plan their pregnancies for the holidays lest they lose their jobs. Wages have stagnated while prices have rocketed.

The “black economy” is stuffed with clandestine workers who have few if any rights yet suffer the blame for the crisis. There are periodic waves of racist attacks and the shadow of the Mafia is always present.

No wonder that many Italians declare 2011 to be a year falling autocrats—Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, and now Berlusconi.

And Berlusconi certainly was an autocrat. As prime minister he concentrated more power in his hands than anyone since Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator.

And then there is the stench of corruption. One of Berlusconi’s principal motivation for clinging to power was to avoid ending up in a prison cell as a result of one of the numerous legal accusations against him.

Pressure

Berlusconi has also always faced great pressure from the people he tried to grind down. His first government, formed in 1994, was brought down in the wake of a general strike that helped prise apart cracks in his coalition.

His re-election in 2001 triggered a spectacular explosion of popular movements and militant activities. These included huge demonstrations outside the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa.

For three days the city resembled a warzone as police rampaged through the 250,000 strong crowds. One protester, Carlo Giuliani, was murdered and countless others were beaten senseless.

Strike days and demonstrations counting up to millions were commonplace. The anti-capitalist movement moved seamlessly into the anti-war movement.

A million-strong march in Florence in 2002 made sure that Berlusconi could not offer any Italian combat troops to join the invasion of Iraq.

Berlusconi lost the subsequent election in 2006. But the decisive defeat that the left had expected and hoped for did not materialise. After two years he was back.

The left’s once dense and deep network of local organisation and representation withered as they abdicated from meaningful political struggle.

Their government (which included sections of the radical left) continued with neoliberal policies and backed sending extra troops to Afghanistan.

Their response to Berlusconi’s 2008 re-election was to say they should support him for the sake of national unity.

In fact it was extra-parliamentary forces that were most effective in opposing Berlusconi. Fiat car workers went on a series of strikes. A militant student movement generated a wave of opposition to university reforms.

Berlusconi received another crushing blow in June this year. Anti-privatisation and social movements across the country mobilised to defeat him in three referendums held that month.

Since then we have seen a carnival of resistance. There have been general strikes and a mass demonstration on 15 October involving an occupation at the San Giovanni cathedral. All this undermined Berlusconi’s ability to keep the country under control.

Decree

Berlusconi’s probable replacement will be Mario Monti, who owes his position by decree of the European Union and the banks.

Such “technocratic” leadership is only painted as somehow being above politics. But in truth it will be deeply committed to austerity and to ensuring the dominance of the financial institutions that caused the crisis.

The CGIL, Italy’s principal trade union federation, has been the only major civil society organisation to oppose the austerity vote that was Berlusconi's last act as premier.

Berlusconi’s ally Roberto Formigoni last night let slip the fear and contempt that the outgoing political class feel for the masses.

In front of the TV cameras he flipped his middle finger at the crowds celebrating Berlusconi’s downfall. The crowd responded by telling him where to go in no uncertain terms.

But while we celebrate the task ahead of us is pressing. Many Italians are fearful over the future and feel that they are at the edge of an abyss.

The country’s radical movement now needs to work out how to sustain its place in a rapidly emerging global struggle. With Berlusconi out the way, we must now confront the forces that put him there in the first place.


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