It is being cast as the mother of all political battles: against the taxi drivers, chemists, notaries, shopkeepers and bakers and their restrictive practices and cosy ‘exclusive’ arrangements, against workers pampered by ‘over protective’ employment laws, and against local public service ‘monopolies’. The aim, Italians are told, is to free up market forces, boost efficiency and give Italy back that its lost economic dynamism.
In Mario Monti’s ‘liberalising’ war, though, there one’s monopoly, the most monstrously dangerous for Italian society and without parallel around the world, that the new prime minister is strangely complacent about. It’s the empire presided over by Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s richest man.
Berlusconi controls (the biggest) three of the four private terrestrial TV stations, and by virtue of his political power also holds sway over the main competition, state broadcaster RAI . He and his family also own Il Foglio and Il Giornale, significant national daily newspapers, Publitalia, the no. 1 advertiser, Mondadori, the no.1 book publisher and Medusa, the no.1 film distributer. And that’s just his media interests.
Talking of cosy arrangements, Berlusconi built this multi-billion-euro media empire through his close relationship with prime minister and embezzler Bettino Craxi in the early 1980s. And after the disgrace and exile of his political sponsor, Berlusconi stepped in personally to protect and coddle his empire as parliamentarian, leader of the largest party and three times premier (the last term in office ending December 2011) with over 100 ‘ad personam’ laws.
Still, Monti, a former EU commissioner famed for being a tough anti-trust enforcer with beasts like Microsoft, is relaxed about Berlusconi’s unbridled power, his hegemony over the minds of Italians and the political system to boot. So relaxed he doesn’t even mention it.
Monti is much more concerned to ensure new areas of economic activity are opened up to private profit, hence his enthusiasm for the privatisation of local public services. This, even though this change of allegiance of the owners of services from electorates (the users) to shareholders will likely be accompanied by more expensive bills or slimmed down services or both, as there’s no evidence in Italy or elsewhere that privateers are actually more efficient. And they will need to pay out dividends and inflated salaries and bonuses for directors. The majority of Italians – 28 million – who voted against water privatisation in a referendum last June, know this.
And Monti’s much more anxious to have salaried workers’ employment rights removed – necessary, Monti argues, quite perversely, in order to create jobs, although all his proposals will do is to make it easier for employers to destroy them. And even though, rather than any supposed inflexibility in the labour market, employment and growth have gone into free fall because of a deficit in demand, caused by compressing living standards as well as inappropriate and inflexible fiscal and monetary policies decided in Frankfurt and Brussels.
As for the “closed’ professions and traders engaged in “restrictive” practices , they stand to lose the little extra control over their working lives and price of their labour than the majority. Some enforced competition (for example plans to lift the number of taxi licences) might offer job opportunities in a country in dire need of them, it might cut prices, it might even offer more choice to users of their services. But only for a while, because in the end the logic of a ‘free’ market is that eventually giants like Tescos or Walmart will come along and hoover everything up, kill competition and ensure nobody but a tiny elite owning and running them benefit.
This is the American-style deregulated future for everyone in Italy except the real powers that be: billionaire Berlusconi and his super-rich peers in the banking and corporate world who talk the talk of markets but who invariably find ways to avoid them when it doesn’t suit. Monti’s ‘reforms’ will ensure they are better positioned to exploit labour for profit, as the constant threat of the sack produces a compliant workforce. And they will do very well out of muscling in on areas once preserved for the country’s petit bourgeois and by the guaranteed returns typical of privatised utilities.
Il Cavaliere and other knights of big capital are the ones who made zillions in the good times, who helped themselves to generous public handouts then and have accepted yet more handouts now that the times are bad, whose exploitative culture and speculation yesterday and investment strike today is the reason why Italy and the rest of Europe is on its knees.
It is they, not the taxi drivers, the bakers, the chemists or the workers, whose relationships with politics are exclusive and far too cosy, whose practises are restrictive in terms of growth. And it is they, Italy’s monopoly capitalists, who must be cut down to size.