Giuliano Amato is an Italian politician with the PSI who twice served as Prime Minister of Italy, first from 1992 to 1993 and again from 2000 to 2001.
An Interview with Giuliano Amato
Maya Adereth: How would you characterize your ideology when you first joined the Socialist Party?
Giuliano Amato: I joined the Socialist Party when it broke with the Communists in 1956, after the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union. The political culture when I entered was one which stressed the protection and expansion of social rights—my early experiences were in a mountainous region of Tuscany where marble was drawn for Michelangelo and other sculptors. My constituency was formed by miners extracting this marble, and in 1962/63, when the Socialist Party first considered a coalition with the Christian Democrats, they were absolutely horrified. They couldn’t believe that the party would stand with their employer in government. When the coalition took place, I left the party and joined a leftist formation named PSIUP, the Socialist Party of Proletarian Unity. Ultimately, I came back to the Socialists. But this gives you an idea of the importance of class politics and social rights for myself and for those around me.
The moment in which I found myself actively shaping public policy was also the moment in which the cost of social rights, and the ballooning of the public debt, was threatening their future. There was a shift in the cultural paradigm, not in terms of goals, but in terms of enforcement. This took place primarily due to the transition of the Communist party away from being the party of the future; I still remember this very powerful idea that the butter in Russia was much better than we could imagine. There were propaganda posters in the 50s that promised that one day we will have that Russian butter. This did not remain effective for very long, at a certain point the party ran purely on the promise of building a Socialist society. In my view, this promise was much more effective at pacifying the Italian labor movement than the strategy of the Christian Democrats. So, paradoxically, the communist party served a conservative function in Italian society.
The big transformation took place in 1968, when popular demands shifted to the present and away from the future. The Communist Party did not want to alienate this new movement, “pas d'ennemis à gauche”, as Renoult said. But if it wanted to remain relevant in this moment, it had to begin to develop a program for today. And as the left shifted from the future to the present, the scale of demands for the present grew and grew. When I was in government, I remember proposing to increase pensions by 200. Immediately there was a communist proposal to increase them by 800. The belief among the left was that social benefits were a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution, and money was only a means to be found. Given that Italy had the most popular Communist Party in Europe, they had absolute cultural hegemony.
My party was schizophrenic. It had in it the legacy of the anarchist movement, this idea of unrestrained freedom, which in the era of civil rights made it a pillar of the struggle for abortion, divorce, and same sex marriage. The Communists were tied to the masses, and in a Catholic country, they were not so keen to advocate for divorce. Our great poet and filmmaker Pasolini was expelled from the party for being homosexual. This was astonishing to the Socialists, but this was what happened.
As Treasury minister for the Socialist party, I mainly struggled to convince other party members that what I was doing was actually necessary. There were elements of the party which were aware of the need to balance social rights with financial stability, but there were some elements of the party which were more unwavering in their advocacy for the expansion of social rights than the Communists. Frequently, members of the Communist Party would offer me support behind closed doors, which they would never publicize. The Communists were excluded from government, but as the main opposition they strongly sought to build connections with the establishment. They had excellent relationships with the Bank of Italy, for example, which was well aware that social rights have a cost and that the debt could reach a point which was unsustainable. So the Communists were also a bit schizophrenic.
In the 90s, largely due to the constraints of Europeanization, the need to limit public debt became a priority and the protection and expansion of social rights became secondary. This was so true that I remember reading an article which had to argue the point that public health does not exist to save money on health, but to protect the health of citizens. It seemed that the aim was to save money, and the constraint was people’s health. Somehow, this kind of thinking also came to dominate the leftist parties, and in part this is due to the fact that the Communists ceased to form an effective opposition.
But little by little, we’ve reduced public expenditure beyond the point which enabled the continuation of social rights, to the point where it has deteriorated them. People have begun to look for other political representatives, and that is when God invented the Five Star Movement. At the time, we could not understand the consequences of what we were doing. We could not see the moment in which the loss became greater than the benefits. And the people who lost as a result of these policies went somewhere else. And therefore, now, the word socialist doesn’t exist anymore.
Davide Ceccanti: Before we move on to discussing specific policies, I want to ask you in more detail about the transformations that the socialist party underwent between the 1960s and the 1980s. Ideologically, I’m interested to hear about the debates in Mondoperaio which were carried out by Norberto Bobbio, yourself, and other intellectuals of the period, which framed things not in terms of financial constraints, but according to a new sort of reformist socialist model. And politically, there was a transformation of the party from De Martino, champion of the ‘Alternativa’ (alliance of socialists and communists), into the system formulated by Craxi which progressively became majoritarian within the party. In the case of the Aldo Moro kidnapping, it’s the first time that there’s a deep rupture between the Communists and the Socialists over policy questions, and these conflicts grow as we shift to the 80s.
GA: There was a group of intellectuals around Mondoperaio in the 70s, of which I was a part. Bobbio was the main father, a very active father, not a father in name only. This group was challenging the underpinnings of the Communist construction, primarily by asserting that freedom and socialism are inseparable.They are the same thing. We argued that by unifying power, the communist construction destroyed the freedom it purported to bring. 1968, and the explosion of the feminist movement, allowed the Socialists to ideologically distinguish themselves from the Communist party in a way which was more appealing than those separations which occurred in 1956/57.
The electoral outcome of this separation was a disaster. While we concluded that the youth want more freedom, not more communism (and we were right!), we remained under 10% in the election of 1976, while the Communists won 35%. They were legitimate targets of our cultural battle, but the youth voted for them because they had transformed themselves from the party of the future to the party of the present. The collection of articles in Mondoperaio from those years, all the pages written by Bobbio, Galli della Loggia, Cafagna, Benzoni, and others, is beautiful. I still have it. But if you want to get votes, don’t use it because it did not work.
After the 9.7% result of the ‘76 election, De Martino had to resign. Craxi arrived, a young Northerner to replace the Southern professor. Was Craxi an anti-communist? I think so. He used to say that the Socialist coalition was unnatural. He used to say that our destiny was to form a coalition of the left, much like Mitterrand did in France, to balance the electoral influence of the Communists. What Craxi understood, but never fully accepted, is that there was a specificity to the Italian Communist party in that it was deeply and solidly Italian. It was not, like other European parties, dependent on the Soviet Union. This was because most of the original members of the party were more anti-fascist than communist in the 1930s. They entered the Communist party because it was the most efficient organization to combat fascism. If we look at the biographies of Giorgio Napolitano, Alfredo Reichlin, Giorgio Amendola -- these were generations of teenagers who realized they were living in a fascist country in the years of the racial laws. They wanted to rebel, and the Communist Party was their vehicle to do it.
Among those who were satisfied with Craxi’s leadership there were two groups: the first, which held that a coalition of the left is something we should reach for in the future, and the second, of which I was a part, who wanted to pursue the coalition immediately. Pertini and I spent hours together when he was president of the Republic, at the time I was Undersecretary to the Prime Minister’s office and every week I was supposed to inform the President what the government was doing. After five minutes we always moved to discussing other things, and one thing which he repeated and repeated to me is that while he opposed the unitary front of socialists and communists in 1948 under the image of Garibaldi (in that campaign Garibaldi’s resemblance to San Giuseppe was used to appeal the Catholic electorate), Pertini spent the rest of his life fighting to restore unity of the Left. Craxi never denied that unity was feasible, and in the last years of his leadership he began to make some moves towards it. He understood that it was necessary, and, in 91/92, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was a real possibility. But the Socialist Party died before it could ever happen. I find myself discussing this in the 20th anniversary of Craxi’s death.
Craxi certainly was a centralizer. He wanted the financial supply of the party to be under his control. So that illegal financing, which was a general phenomenon, went directly through him. And Legally that made a difference.
When I was running my first government in December 1992, I had repeated conversations with Occhetto, the last secretary general of the Communist Party, in which I told him: I’ve done all the ugly work which you don’t have to publicly support (I had already cut pensions and frozen salaries, which he agreed was necessary). I proposed to him that we open a new phase of unity. He genuinely wanted unity, but he couldn’t do it so long as Craxi was our leader.
Craxi had adopted in 1992 a position of socialist unity. But unity is a merger, not an acquisition. I still remember the March of 1991, when the corruption scandal had not yet hit and the communists were no longer communists, proposing to Craxi that we open a new chapter. He told me to go ask them, and I went. But they had just changed their symbol to a beautiful oak tree. And they didn’t want to go to elections because they thought their electorate wouldn’t yet be familiar with this new symbol. So there are many contingencies which could have changed our ability to form a coalition and change Italian politics.
MA: I’d like to get your thoughts on three specific policy reforms: the first, Il Divorzio in 1981, secondly, the wage negotiations in 1984, and finally, the abolition of the scala mobile in 1993. What were you thinking at the time?
GA: Despite the difficulties, I think of this as a happy time. Because we were still able to enact progressive reforms. We were not yet at the stage of telling people they had to suffer, that came after the turn of the century. In my period, it was a question of integrating social privileges into a general fiscal framework-- if the debt of any citizen has a cost, it couldn’t be that the debt of the Treasury had no cost. And we believed we were expanding benefits at a reduced cost because of our low interest rates. This was the idea behind the Divorce, and many people think that this policy led to the ballooning of the debt. But the catastrophe behind the debt in the 70s was unavoidable; at the time it was a progressive decision.
The wage indexation reforms of 1984/85 originated in the trade unions. When I was head of the research institute for the CIGL we studied the impact of the wage indexations on salaries of workers, and union bargaining power, in a context of high inflation. We realized that it was a threat for us, the trade union, because the indexes ate up all of the increases and diminished our ability to negotiate. So the trade unions were useless. We sought to slow the pace of indexation in order to preserve the negotiating power of trade unions in the long run. We adopted a very tiny decision in 1984, it was only 1 point of indexation, and we felt progressive against the reactionary communist party who was defending the system as it was. And it was quite extraordinary that we won the 1985 referendum against most of the Communist Party on this matter.
My reform in 1992 was also progressive. At the time, people were sometimes able to get their pension in their 30s and they were supported by the state for 60 more years. For instance, since 1973 married mothers could get a pension with less than 15 years of contributions and civil service employees with 20 years. I said no to the baby pensions; I sought to build a universal welfare system rather than one based on categorical privileges. So the balancing that I pursued between the cost of rights and their expansion was one which prioritized equality, fairness, and redistribution.