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The Political Context of Italian business

 

Italian business has flourished in a political context that would make most British or American executives tremble. Italy has the distinction of possessing the largest Communist party in western Europe, a party that could still gain 27 per cent of the vote by the end of the 1980s. One reason for the success of the Party is its moderation. The PCI was the bedrock of Eurocommunist tendencies that sought to combine Communism with democracy. By the end of the 1980s the PCI accepted continued membership in NATO, some privatisation of state-owned industries and was contemplating changing its name to demonstrate its moderation. In short, the PCI was a little to the right of the British Labour Party. It had not always been so. No matter how deep the roots of Italian Eurocommunism may be — and the Party claims its current doctrines stretch back to the thought of Gramsci before the Second World War — prior to the 1960s, the PCI could not be regarded as anything other than a threat to the continuation of capitalism, and, in the view of many Italians, of democracy.

The PCI’s move to the right has contributed greatly to the increased stability of Italian capitalism. Yet as the PCI moved towards accepting a share of responsibility for governing the present socio-economic system, new threats to business arose on the left. The most dramatic though numerically smallest of these groups were the Brigada Rosa, the terrorist Red Brigades. Unions also became much of a problem. During the period from 1945 to the late 1960s, Italian unions had been among the weakest in Europe. Divided politically during the Cold War years, organising a small proportion of a work force often new to industry because it had just left southern farms, unions at first constituted a minimal problem for business. Things changed after the year of student revolt, 1968, a revolt that in Italy spread into the factories. The turbulent 1970s witnessed as noted above the highest strike rate in advanced European countries, much higher even than Britain’s strike rate. Labour militancy was sufficiently great in Italy in the 1970s to increase real wages much more than underlying increases in productivity producing extremely high unit labour costs for Italian industry.5 In the 1980s business in Italy fought back — as it did elsewhere — but the entire period since the Second World War was a period in which it had been challenged in some way or other, electorally or industrially, from the left.

The most obvious bulwark for business against the threat from the left was the Christian Democratic Party (the CD). Yet even here there were problems. In the first place, the Christian Democratic Party was primarily a Catholic not a conservative party. The continued ability to capture working class votes has been vital to the CD, reinforcing tendencies in Catholic social thought stressing the need to ameliorate the negative consequences of capitalism for workers. Thus the Italian welfare state has expanded steadily even though the left in Italy has never been anything more than a part — usually a small part — of coalitions. Christian Democratic governments have taken a number of steps that have been most unwelcome to private-owned business, such as nationalising the electricity industry in 1962. Moreover, the CD aspires to being a `catchall’ party, embracing all interests in society. Though business is of great importance to the CD, other interest groups such as farmers are also of significance.

 

 

 

 

 

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