February 5th, 2021

The Italian Left After Keynesianism

From stagflation to the transformation of Italian left parties

In 1977, Eric Hobsbawm published a book of interviews with Giorgio Napolitano, a leading figure in the Italian Communist Party (PCI)’s gradualist wing, the miglioristi. Hobsbawm proclaimed himself a “spiritual member” of the PCI and intended this book to depict the path it was beating in between Leninism and social democracy. Yet his efforts appeared rather frustrated by Napolitano’s vocabulary. Though calling for the “reconstruction and renewal” of Italian society and insisting on the PCI’s “democratic commitment,” Napolitano did little to convey any clear socialist worldview. As he extolled the “perspective of the continuous, organic, balanced development of the Italian economy” and the “retailoring of [Italian] production for the foreign market,” Hobsbawm interrupted him, as if to draw him back on topic:

Hobsbawm: All this is very useful and positive…
Napolitano: But what does it have to do with the advancement of socialism?
Hobsbawm: That’s exactly what I wanted to ask you.
Napolitano: That’s a question whose answer is less simple than it may seem.

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February 4th, 2021

Democracy or the Market

Third wayism and the problem of representation

The problem of democratic representation has always turned on the question of the “have-nots”—that is, not only those without wealth and property, but also those marginalized on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, origin, religion and education. Even in a world of full-fledged democratic rights, the democratic game tends to break in favor of the “haves.” They enjoy an easy affinity with political elites who are not so different from them, and they experience democratic politics as a hospitable and responsive place. When in doubt, they can back-channel, mobilize proxies and networks, and exchange cultural influence and economic power for political voice, cloaked in the comfort that what’s in their interest is in everyone’s interest. None of this means the powerful always get their way. But it means they operate on the assumption that their way is likely to prevail.

Before democratization, which in both Europe and the United States did not reach its full expression until the turn of the twentieth century, those without power were politically excluded by fiat. Even when some “have-nots” overcame formal exclusion, they had to further overcome efforts, both brazen and subtle, to impede the exercise of their political rights; if they managed to bridge the distance between rights-in-name and rights-in-fact, they still had to muster meaningful representation in a game that was not built for them. The achievement of both rights and representation for the powerless is difficult, rare and fragile—not least because formal rights, once achieved, can be used as a pretense for rendering representation practically meaningless. In this case, democracy becomes form without substance.

Three kinds of institutions were crucial drivers of the fitful, contested, imperfect construction of democratic rights and representation of the powerless between the 1850s and the 1920s: socialist and social democratic culture, mass political parties, and labor movements. Where the three converged, the result was a unique historical organization—the labor-allied mass party of the socialist and social democratic left.

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February 4th, 2021

Creative Destruction

An interview with Claudio Petruccioli

Claudio Petruccioli is an Italian politician who was president of the Italian national broadcast network RAI from 2005–2009.

I joined the Communist Party when I enrolled in university, in 1959. I didn’t belong to a leftist family, but it was a working class family. My grandfather was a worker, my father was a technician. The first in my family to attend university, I was born in a tradition of work but was drawn towards intellectual labor. If I think of the day in which I decided to be a communist, it was probably when I was fifteen and I went to the library in Umbria. I found a small book titled “Wage Labor and Capital” sitting on the table. They were lectures Marx had given to a worker’s club in London. I read the book in one sitting, and when I finished I felt like I had just understood precisely how the world works.

I was born in 1941, the immediate postwar years. They were difficult years, but my family never went hungry. So my shift to the left was not born of my immediate conditions. Why did I join the communists and not the socialists? It was because the socialists were forming a government with the Christian Democrats. It wasn’t because I was hostile to religion; the Christian Democrats repulsed me because they were the ruling party, and they imposed strict cultural limits (Machiavelli's Mandragola was considered a theatrical text that could not be publicly performed). So the only leftist opposition for me was the Communist Party.

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February 4th, 2021

Changing Bases

An interview with Emanuele Macaluso

Emanuele Macaluso was an Italian trade unionist and politician with the Italian Communist Party (PCI).

I clandestinely joined the party in 1941, when the country was under fascist rule. I was 17 years old and had almost finished my studies. At the time, I was studying at the Mining Institute of Caltanissetta, in Sicily. There was a strong underground organization in town led by a worker called Calogero Boccadutri, who ended up becoming our cell chief. I formed a small anti-fascist group and was convinced to join the PCI by a friend of mine, Giannone, who came to visit me at the hospital when I had tuberculosis. He gave me the address of Calogero Boccadutri, and when I left the hospital, I contacted him and joined. My relationship with the PCI began like this, in hiding. I was responsible for political education, for our newspaper, and for our library. These were so important that, when Caltanissetta was bombed, my friend Michele Cala, died trying to save them. This is how I started my political life as a clandestine communist militant.

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February 4th, 2021

Party of the Future?

An interview with Giuliano Amato

Giuliano Amato was a member of the Italian Socialist Party and Italian Prime Minister from 1992–93 and 2000–2001, Treasury Minister in 1999–2000, and Minister of the Interior, 2006–2008.

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 1963, when the Socialist Party first considered a coalition with the Christian Democrats, the miners 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. This gives you an idea of the importance of class politics and social rights for myself and for those around me.

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January 28th, 2021

Revolution, Reform, and Resignation

In the 1980s, the left abandoned its language of transformation. Can it be regained?

Some time in 1991 I was invited to give a talk to the Andalusian Confederation of the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). Afterwards, the secretary of the confederation walked me back to my hotel. I asked him why there was a widespread atmosphere of demoralization within the party. He answered “Nos hicieron hablar un idioma que no era el nuestro”: “They made us speak a language that was not ours.”

Note that the secretary did not evoke the industrial restructuring of the 1980s, which significantly reduced the Party’s industrial working class base. He did not refer to the emergence of television, which reduced the importance of the party machine in mobilizing that base. He did not point to cultural transformations in Spanish society, which rendered new ideological dimensions politically salient. Instead, he identified the root of the party’s transformation in the language by which party leaders were expected to address their supporters, publicly interpret the world, and justify their policies. What was this language that was not “ours”?

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January 22nd, 2021

Inflation, Specific and General

The many causes and effects of inflation

Concerns over a generalized “inflation” loom in the recovery. Yet the prices that most heavily factor into the cost of living for US workers—housing, health, and education—have already been rising for decades. The question we should be asking is whether the extension of the welfare state is the cure for, rather than the cause of, these trends.

Until 1980, the annual rate of change of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the weighted measure of the cost of a basket of core consumer goods, increased at an accelerating pace in every business-cycle expansion, reaching double digits during the 1940s and 1970s. Inflation—its causes and consequences—was at the heart of economic debates throughout this period, when the discipline of macroeconomics took its current form. While we understand individual industry price changes in terms of supply, demand, and market power, our conceptual tools for understanding inflation remain weak.

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January 16th, 2021

Supercomputer

The Control Data Corporation and global value chains

In March 1976, Deputy Secretary of the Department of Defense (DOD), William “Bill” Clements invited William “Bill” C. Norris, CEO and Chairman of the supercomputer producer Control Data Corporation (CDC) to a closed-door meeting at the Pentagon. Secretaries and undersecretaries from the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force were to attend, as well as a selection of spokespersons from the public university system and private sector. Clements requested Norris come prepared with “any important aspect of Defense management or posture that… warrants perspective” and to be candid in his comments.

Preparing for the meeting, Norris wrote a note. The subject was “East-West trade.” The DOD was not giving enough “attention” to export administration, Norris penned. The fact that the Department was “inconsistent” in reviewing export applications for computer technology to Central and Eastern European countries created an “unhealthy,” “adversarial” relationship between industry and the military, he continued.

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January 9th, 2021

The Deflationary Bloc

Living in Hyman Minsky's world

“An effective way to write the history of the last thirty years of the twentieth century,” economist Albert Hirschman wrote in 1985, “may well be to focus on the distinctive reactions of various countries to the identical issue of worldwide inflation.” Writing just as the global “great inflation” of the 1970s was abating, Hirschman could not have understood how right he was. As Claudia Sahm has recently written in the New York Times, the fear of the great inflation of the 1970s still dominates the thinking of the Federal Reserve, even as its recent messages indicate some acceptance of higher inflation.

Economists lack a good understanding of what causes inflation—and its inverse, deflation. In introductory macroeconomics curricula, Milton Friedman’s mantra “inflation is always a monetary phenomenon” remains central. By this, Friedman meant that excessive price growth happens when a state loosens the supply of money, thus over-expanding the monetary base. However, recent research

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December 3rd, 2020

Transition Theory

On Jairus Banaji’s A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism

Capitalism is either eternal or it isn’t. There are people who defend the first view, or something close to it—the multivolume 2014 Cambridge History of Capitalism opens in Babylonia, circa 1000 BCE—but it is much more plausible that capitalism, like most other social phenomena, has its origins in specific historical developments. The trouble is that, once you’ve got everyone to agree that capitalism has a history, you have to define what capitalism is and then explain when, where, why, and how it emerged.

Of course, no one thinks you can date the transition the way you can specify when a battle took place or a patent was filed. But even after abandoning false precision, those who’ve grappled with the problem of defining and explaining capitalism’s emergence have been unable to agree even on which centuries and continents were involved.

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