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Interview with Italian communists on COVID-19 impact and the working class

By staff |
April 9, 2020
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Fight Back! interviews Guido Salza, the head of the International Relations Department of the Italian communist organization Fronte Popolare.

Fight Back!: How are the working people of Italy being impacted by the pandemic?

Guido Salza: A clear picture of the dynamics of the infection are not yet apparent. However, it is likely that the working class is paying the highest price. Similar to what happened in China, COVID has spread very fast in the most industrial areas of our country. The more concentrated the production and population are (as it is in Lombardia, Piemonte, Veneto and Emilia Romagna), the more troublesome the epidemic has been.

Indeed, the virus probably reached the northwest of Italy travelling in business class. But its transmission has soon been very fast among people who every day utilize public transportations or share working places. Remote work is not feasible for manual jobs.

There are other issues that make us believe the poorest are paying the most. For instance, the Italian economic system is characterized by a very high share of informal jobs and workers without papers, who now are left without income.

Moreover, the lockdown is forcing poor people to stay inside their modest houses, where social distancing is just impossible. COVID dramatically hits workers in the health system, and more than 10% of infected people are among nurses, doctors and other jobs in hospitals.

Neoliberal policies during the last 20 years have compromised the Italian public health system. We see the collapse of hospitals even in the wealthiest part of the country. The high mortality of COVID in Italy is due to multiple factors; however, many deaths could likely have been avoided with a more reliable public health system. The removal of the public health management from local and regional authorities and privatization has jeopardized the central state's action in the emergency.

Fight Back!: Are the big factories and large workplaces still functioning? If so, how are workers resisting?

Salza: The Italian government has secured the cessation of 'unnecessary' economic activities and signed a protocol for workplaces with the main unions and the employers' organization Confindustria. The protocol regulates the safety measures to be taken in workplaces and command the closure of those firms that cannot comply. However, many workers do not think their firms' role is 'necessary', or they do not feel safe in the workplaces. We have witnessed several wildcat strikes. Although grassroot and confederal unions see with favor (or at least do not deprecate) strikes, workers mobilize mostly spontaneously. They demand the government or the employers 'protect them' from the infection but, unfortunately, the strikes lack of any political horizon.

Big firms are under the public lens, but it is crucial to realize that small firms characterize Italian capitalism. These small firms are likely to pay the highest price in terms of job losses and workers are very concerned about a prolonged lockdown.

Fight Back!: How does your organization view the government's response to the pandemic?

Salza: The actual parliament’s majority arises from an agreement between the populist Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party. After years of public attacks against the Democratic Party, the Five Star Movement has been forced to such arrangement by the defection of the far-right party Lega, when Salvini, Lega’s leader, called for general elections while Lega was leading the polls. Many Five Star Movement supporters look negatively at the new alliance with the Democratic Party, one of the main parties responsible of the neoliberal policies in the last 20 years of Italian history. Many think the Five Star Movement has gone so far only to protect their seats in Parliament. Both Democrats and the Five Star Movement are hence quite discredited in the public's eyes.

The prime minister has started to be seen as making a power play - becoming a 'man of power.' He is ruling through emergency measures. Being asked for ID by military and police in the streets is now becoming the daily routine. We are facing is a democratic emergency, in which the collective role of parliament is severely restricted, and the state leaves to military forces the control of its people.

We, of course, agree with the lockdown, as it is the most effective way, we have to stop COVID's spreading. The Italian government has been early in favour of lockdown, while many other countries were rejecting this idea, trying to gain from the situation economically. Yet, it is also likely that an even earlier economic and social lockdown would have avoided the present situation in Italy. This is particularly true for some highly industrial areas of Lombardia, in which deaths are now four or five times higher than in comparable periods of time.

That the situation was not to be underestimated in some areas of Lombardy was clear from February 23. Many hospitals were closed due to the contagion of some nurses and doctors. On March 5 the National Institute for Health recommended the establishment of a red zone in the most affected municipalities in the province of Bergamo (near Milan). The government, however, decided not to enact that course of action. Now there is a continuous finger-pointing between municipalities, regions and national government.

The government’s hesitation in imposing limits on economic activity has been even more evident in its latest intervention, which has been suddenly modified during the weekend so as to comply with large employers' requests.

Regarding the health system, the government has not been able to convincingly cope with the emergency. The provision of masks and other necessary personal protective equipment for health workers has been extremely scarce.

The hybrid nature of 'Protezione Civile,' the organism that is in charge of the emergency, characterized by fuzzy governance between state, region and local authorities, does not help.

The government now reckons we must mobilize an enormous amount of public money to cope with the actual health emergency, which soon will turn into a profound social and economic crisis. This is especially true in the most deprived areas of the country (as Southern Italy), as we start to see people forced to steal food to live.

Public spending has been a taboo for almost 30 years in Italy, and the government will find many oppositions to increasing public spending. Once more, we denounce the reactionary role of the European Union. The German-capital-led Nordic countries are the fierce adversary of any form of European solidarity. As a matter of facts, our people have received help from China and Cuba and even Russia, while our European 'partners' were calling us 'lazy,' looking for an excuse to not going to work - as one of the UK government's advisors has recently stated.

The Italian government is adopting the first emergency economic measures, which would be part of a bigger intervention plan. The aim is to establish credit channels and guarantees to shore up the economy against imminent collapse. However, the problem is not only whether or not to finance the economic and social categories affected by the crisis. With an alarming gap between rich and poor in our country, the question is who is asked for the money. In other words, it is a question of who has to pay the bill.

Fight Back!: What is your organization doing in response to this crisis?

Salza: Since day one, we have been calling our comrades to strictly comply with the social distancing measures, emphasising our individual responsibility in the collective effort to slow down the numbers of COVID’s infection.

Our National Health System, our economy and our society face unprecedented pressure from the post-war period to the present. The effort being made by the whole country to put itself in a position to cope with the emergency should not only not be underestimated, but is indeed a proof of the vitality of Italian society that we should be proud of.

As communists, we feel, now more than ever, the responsibility to play a leading role. This means first of all participating in the collective effort to face the emergency and overcome it.

Our militant community is at the forefront in helping to spread awareness of individual responsibility in making the containment measures ordered by the authorities effective and in scrupulously following the hygienic instructions necessary to avoid contagion. Each and every one of us feels the responsibility of participating in the prevention and discouragement of irrational behaviour which, by contravening the measures imposed by the moment, opens the way to irrational whose dangerousness multiplies that of infection.

But this is not stopping us from producing political campaigns to promote a democratic and socialist exit out of the present health and social crisis.

The pandemic is calling for a renewed role of the state in the management of economic life. The ideology of the invisible hand is showing itself a lie once again. It is becoming clear that the only way out is to (by far) improve the actual level of public spending. This is true also for multinational organizations as the EU, which now is slowly realising that they must relax debt policies to let countries spend, and they must also plan a continental intervention to back the economy of the eurozone.

As Fronte Popolare, we are campaigning for a full re-publicization of the Italian health system, and to drastically raise the public spending of our country.

We are working on a national and European campaign with other radical left and communist organizations to ask for a European tax. We ask for the quarantine of capital!

The principle of the free movement of capital, which allows this legalized theft against the peoples of Europe, was enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty as one of the most sacred cornerstones of the Union and then borrowed from the subsequent Lisbon Treaty. This is an absolute principle, which applies in relations between member states and between them and third countries.

We think the free movement of capital within the EU should be stopped immediately. States should tax dividends and big capital to the extent they need to finance income and living standards support for workers, small traders, owners of craft businesses and VAT numbers, pensioners, unemployed and small and medium-sized enterprises. We are proposing a real manoeuvre of expropriation in the name of responsibility and social solidarity.

But that is not enough, because a lot of capital has already moved, over decades, along the routes of European fiscal dumping. We, therefore, need to establish uniform solidarity taxation in all EU member states, whose resources must be channelled into the coffers of an ad hoc European institution (along the lines of the one proposed by the supporters of the so-called Coronabond).

The governments involved must participate with equal dignity. Resources must be fairly distributed, according to criteria of proportionality with the population and the volume of the economic damage suffered by each country. Funds' destination must be restricted to support the real economy, the income and standard of living of the working classes, and the safeguarding of productive activities and employment.

To this end, we propose that a rate of 80% should be set at which to tax annuities, capital and share dividends, modulating the taxation mechanism to safeguard the investments of small savers.

This is not, for our part, a form of recognition of the current European Union. On the contrary, it is a step towards establishing more significant margins of fairness and justice on our continent. The goal is to recover what has been taken away from the peoples of Europe. This is a necessary step to lead our continent out of the nightmare of neo-liberalism and the Maastricht logic and to establish, starting from the needs of the emergency, new forms of international cooperation and solidarity between nations.

There is another vital issue our organization Fronte Popolare is trying to raise: the workers' control of production. As Marxists, we believe all social wealth is produced by labour - both the wages and the profit of employers, as well as the budget of the state. Everything depends on the vitality of the productive factory, which in turn depends on human activity. The virtual economy, the speculative bubbles, the myth of overcoming work through automation, are fragile constructs when the fundamentals of the real economy are at stake and the unbreakable link between work and the satisfaction of social needs comes into play.

Unfortunately, even if we narrow down the list of categories that must continue to work despite the health emergency, they will always count millions of workers.

Hence, it is the only workers who can guarantee themselves, exercising a power of control to protect health and safety in the workplace. The state must legally recognize this power. No other solution is given.

To protect those who guarantee supply in the COVID emergency, we demand the workers' representatives be entitled with control powers, defined by law, which include functions of the reorganization of production activities and the possibility of sanctions against non-compliant employers on behalf of the state. This function should be coordinated at the central and local level by committees made up of representatives of the competent ministry and trade union associations and exercised under defined guidelines that guarantee an unambiguous operational framework and avoid abuse, protecting production and supply.

We say this explicitly: we put on the table an issue that has to do with real power and the very nature of production relations.