Italy: Capitalist Dilemma over Citizens' Income

... Or How to "Persuade" the Proletariat to Passively Submit

In the same way that the workers must be protected against starving to death, so they should receive nothing that is worth saving ... Those who earn their living through daily labour have nothing to motivate them to work apart from their needs which it is wise to alleviate, but which would be folly to cure. The only thing that can make the labouring man industrious is a moderate wage. A wage that is too small makes him, according to his temperament, either pusillanimous or desperate, a wage that is too high makes him insolent and lazy.(1)

At the beginning of last summer, as the holiday season began to open and “leisure industry” bosses pretended that the contagion was fading as they struggled to re-open everything that had been shut down or slowed down by the pandemic, the debate over the Citizens' Income was also resurrected. This old Five Star (5 Stelle) idea was introduced by the first Conte government (known as Conte 1) and intended, according to the then militant challengers of parliamentary "preconceptions”, to abolish nothing less than poverty, since it would give a secure income to those who received it (at least on paper) and, at the same time, would stimulate the creation/search for new jobs, through the conditions associated with its implementation. One of these conditions was that Citizens' Income earners would not be allowed to refuse the third job offer presented by the Job Centre, assisted by internet search engines, even if this involved moving to a place far away from home. This is a classic facet of so-called workfare, i.e. the disbursement of a state subsidy on condition of the obligation to accept a job, if it is offered.

The other supporter of Conte 1, the League (la Lega), was (as we know) very fond of taking up the anti-poverty magic wand, but accepted it as a bargaining chip in return for another supposedly miraculous measure: “Quota 100”, which, we were told, would mitigate the ferocity of the Fornero law and, once again, create jobs. Even if we doubt that the two parties, charlatans as they are, really believed in the extraordinary properties of the recipes they passed off as elixirs of life, they certainly thought that they would be two excellent pieces of bait to catch millions of voters, exhausted and angered (rightly) by poverty, job insecurity, low pay, no prospect for the future except to work until psycho-physical exhaustion sets in ... before being able to retire. Of course, the magnificent results promised by the two laws remain limited to paper, especially in terms of employment growth. This is regardless of the pandemic which, as in other respects, has accelerated and aggravated a trend that has been going on for some time. Basically, the health crisis occurred just a year after the Citizens' Income and "Quota 100" had come into force, but it was then already clear that not many new jobs had been created. Quite the the contrary.

After the non-consensual separation by which the League broke up the marriage with Conte 1, the two ex-spouses now find themselves alongside Salvini under the same roof as the Draghi government. Salvini, with typical political guile, fires head-on at the "flag" of the Five Stars and presents himself as the avenger of the above-mentioned ‘industry’ who see the Citizens' Income as the main obstacle to the resumption of business. This is in line with his well-deserved image as a fisherman in troubled waters, with one foot in the government and the other wherever he believes the electoral rake-off can be increased – as long as the "cause" has an unequivocal anti-proletarian and, more generally, anti-humanitarian content. So, there was no doubt that he would take the side of restaurateurs, hoteliers, beach managers and various companies, who at the beginning of summer railed against the recipients of the Citizens' Income who were accused of jeopardising the upcoming season because of the government’s too generous (i.e. undeserved) subsidy. According to these aforementioned gentlemen, instead of rolling up their sleeves, these citizens now preferred to spend their days lying on the sofa, enjoying a secure income – if not astronomical, still a free ride – rather than earning a fair living by washing pots, cleaning floors, clearing beaches, etc. In reality, as became obvious, the summer season passed regularly; we did not witness the economic collapse of tourism and, indeed, the television networks spent pointless time broadcasting how well hoteliers and the like were enjoying the good, if not excellent, course of business. In sum, the shortage of manpower turned out to be an unfounded fear. If anything, that fear revealed the guilty conscience of this sector of the bourgeoisie, since, if it feared — and still says it fears — that around €580 (the average monthly allowance of the Citizens' Income) could compete with wage rates in the tourism and catering sector, it only means that those wages are in reality under-payments, both in absolute terms and, even more so, in relation to the number and intensity of hours worked. A variety of surveys and testimonies have been published relating to the ‘leisure’ sector, and usually in a reformist key. There is an extensive amount of ​​black and "grey" work, interminable days, bosses’ arrogance which often also includes molestation and a vulgar, disgusting sexist attitude towards the female workforce, who are told to display their “physical attributes” and “sexiness”. From this point of view too, there is nothing new under the sun of the bourgeoisie, including the moral reproach of representatives of the bourgeois political class — some of the most squalid — who attack recipients of the "couch citizenship" (the Citizens' Income), who supposedly prefer to spend their days just lazing on the sofa, rather than grappling with the healthy fatigue of honest work. We can almost hear Malthus, who two hundred years ago thundered against welfare measures which ‘favoured’ the poor, because they made them — he said — become unaccustomed to work and pushed them to reproduce in a reckless way, parasitically getting hold of resources that should have gone to others in society: thus compromising both the economic structure of society and the balance of the planet’s ecosystem (we would say today), which was being upset by too many inappropriate consumers (more precisely, the idle poor). Thus, the correct solution should be not to alleviate poverty in any way and allow starvation and deprivation to maintain the right balance between available resources and acceptance of wage labour. Nowadays these ideas, imbued with hatred and contempt for the poor, are adopted by the likes of Renzi and Salvini who, as is well known, drag out their own wretched existence between hardship and privation: one who has his finger in some pie of board of directors involving Russia and Saudi Arabia; the other, who has never done a day’s work in his life, is obliged to survive with difficulty on a salary, based on the work of others, that he draws at the end of the month as a European parliamentarian or as a senator of the republic. Faithful to themselves and to their illustrious British ancestor, they propose to eliminate the exorbitant and immoral Citizens' Income, to redirect the resources thus saved to businesses, which would then have an additional financial dowry to invest in creating new jobs.

No less vulgar and shameless is the "duchess" from the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia), the right honourable Meloni, who has no qualms about defining the miserable monthly allowance as "state methadone" and a very fragile shelter from poverty. Like her cronies, she proposes to transfer it to the employers, confident that she will be able to make good use of it to multiply the loaves and fishes into new jobs.

If we were not armed with Marxism’s theoretical-political weapons we would surely be disconcerted by the support representatives of the bourgeois political spectrum – and, often, in its most vulgar variant – garner among some layers of the proletariat. Clearly, such a consensus indicates the generally low level of political consciousness of the proletarian class. This in itself, however, is a product of both the process of decomposition/recomposition that has gone on for decades, and of the incalculable damage that almost a century of Stalinist counter-revolution has produced in the class, of which the absence of an authentically communist political reference point is the most dramatic fact.

In itself, the political-ideological subjugation of more or less large sectors of the proletariat to bourgeois parties is not new, especially if they present themselves as "popular" (as the Christian Democrats did in Italy), and in the extreme right variant called ‘sovereignists’. What is new is the absence of even reformist political bodies relating to wage labour rooted in the class. Let’s be clear, we have no nostalgia for those organisations who lined up on the counter-revolutionary barricades of the old and new social democracy. They are the ones primarily responsible for the confusion and loss of hope in an alternative to bourgeois society into which part of the proletariat has fallen, and who are now exposed without any protection to the most reactionary views of the bourgeoisie.

Thus the Citizens' Income angers business owners – perhaps the smallest ones most of all – as well as those politicians who pass themselves off as the most sincere defenders of ‘the people’, as long as they are white and are convinced, or allow themselves to be convinced, that the root of all evils are those who are even lower down the ladder, on the last step of poverty, of underemployment, in short, social desperation. But what does this latest measure that is so disliked by a significant part of the bourgeoisie consist of? All in all, as already mentioned, it amounts to very little, not least when compared to the river of money that governments have put into the pockets of the bosses and the banks over these two years of the pandemic and in the subprime crisis of 2008.

To enjoy the Citizens' Income, which came into force in March 2019, a series of conditions must be met, the first of which is that the claimant must not have an income above €9,360 per year, which can be increased (slightly) if there are children or disabled people to support. There are other clauses, but the most important is this one. The figure is calculated on the basis of the family, not the individual, and this already says that the aspiring "couch potatoes" must belong to the economically lowest segments of the proletariat to be able to enjoy such bourgeois generosity. But although absolute poverty in 2020 has grown by one million people, involving 5.6% of families, it affects only 44% of potential recipients (according to Caritas), because, as Salvini demands, many immigrants are excluded (amongst whom absolute poverty is five or six percent higher than for Italians) because they have not been resident in Italy for at least ten years.

Not surprisingly, a large part of the absolute poor who are excluded from the Citizens' Income reside in the North, because this is where the majority of migrants are concentrated, even if, of course, it is not only the immigrant proletariat that is considered too rich to qualify for the subsidy. Salvini used to declare for the League that any poverty cheque should go "first to the Italians", now he should change the slogan to "not even to the Italians", because this is what the sovereignist camp is aiming for, alongside the open neoliberals who go from Berlusca(2) to the ex-child prodigy of the centre-left, Renzi. This is the wing of the bourgeoisie who, to paraphrase Reagan, thinks that the best welfare state is an efficient police force able to send strikers back to work without fuss, that raw hunger is the most effective incentive to accepting a job, no matter what it is. This is the position held by republican governors in various US states, who revoked the "Covid bonus" a few months in advance for the unemployed and for those who had lost their jobs more or less temporarily due to the pandemic, convinced that the the prospect of "standing on their own feet” would prompt the "slackers" to fill the gaps in the workforce which restaurant owners as well as schools and other service sectors were complaining about. However, it seems that this is not the case, and those jobs are still waiting to be filled. So, if the reason for this cannot be put down to wages that are too low to survive on (at least, not without accumulating two or three jobs at the same time), or in the extreme precariousness and even sub-human conditions of employment, then, in a Malthusian way, it is identified in the existence of soup kitchens, or the modest subsidies for dependent children and in the almost intangible health care programmes, which vary from state to state. These political circles not only fear and hate the proletariat and what they consider to be outrageous demands, they also share a deep uneasiness with the wider capitalist class, an uneasiness that stems from their awareness that in this historical period nothing other than unlimited exploitation of "one's own" working class can allow the economic process to continue and ensure the profitability of business. So, if Biden, in order to remedy the shortage of workers, invites entrepreneurs to pay a higher price for labour power, it is only, of course, to play the role of (fake) friend of the working class. He knows very well that only a few large monopoly, or near-monopoly companies can afford to increase wages (see Amazon, McDonald's, WalMart, for example), an increase which is compensated for in advance by intensified exploitation (more surplus value, either absolute or relative) and by inflation which is moving faster than wage increases. In fact, the "wage inflation" feared by the bourgeoisie remains only a (false) fear and it cannot be otherwise, because a multi-decade trend(3) is not reversed by disturbances in the labour market which, at the moment, are expected to be temporary despite the possibility of the pandemic lasting beyond the more pessimistic forecasts. Of course, a mass resumption of the working class struggle might force capital to temporarily concede something on the wage/working conditions front, but this would only aggravate the difficulties of the accumulation process, forcing the bourgeoisie to resort to open repression, assuming that it had not already done so by crushing the class revival in the bud. A class which, to date, on both sides of the Atlantic (not to say everywhere), continues to suffer from impoverishment, precariousness, worsening of working conditions – not least safety – despite any meagre income supplements, selectively bestowed, is not succeeding very well, if we can say so, in recovering from the most serious situations.

As we said before, the Citizens' Income affects only 44% of the poor, that is just over 1.6 million families, or in the two-month period June-July 2021, about 3.7 million people who received "an average amount – per month – of €579”.(4) It is a depressing fact, but it is not surprising: we have repeatedly analysed the transformations for the worse in the composition and condition of the class. It only remains here to report a few more numbers, to reinforce those already mentioned, on the expansion of the “working poor”. According to the Di Vittorio Foundation (CGIL), which draws on INPS data,

[from the data] of 2019 relating to the gross annual wages of non-agricultural private sector workers (excluding domestic workers), an average wage is recorded of approximately €22,000 gross per year. Over 5 million of these workers have a very low average gross salary, that is between €5,586 and €9,814 per year, determined above all by discontinuity in employment.(5)

It is in this pool, as well as in that of the unemployed, that the Citizens' Income bureaucracy "fishes”, to re-propose jobs of the same type, if not worse; and when and if it manages to create them, new jobs. Of the three million and more people who "enjoy" the state allowance, at least two thirds are not employable, because they are too young or too old, disabled, single mothers who cannot accept a job because they do not have anyone to trust their children with: as we said, the poorest and most oppressed layers of the proletariat. For the remaining third, when they do find a job, it is low-skilled, temporary and, it goes without saying, low-wage. If recent research is true,(6) even those who work in manufacturing (where the percentage of permanent employees is higher, but not even half of the total employed) have an income very far from the maximum allowed.

The so-called ‘greater employability’ that it should promote is therefore an illusion, at best. Nevertheless, it is an aim tenaciously pursued by the "liberal" wing of the bourgeoisie, which, in order to correct the supposed errors that prevent the law from being fully effective, proposes making some clauses more stringent(7) or lowering the level of maximum income. Thus, the proposals of the economists Boeri and Perotti, who calculate that the €9,360 exceeds the poverty threshold fixed for the South by 30%, and thus would discourage the poor from accepting jobs that are evidently unattractive in many ways, first and foremost from the economic point of view. Essentially, these are the same recommendations as the OECD proposed at the end of the summer. While suggesting that the number of those entitled to it be widened, the OECD advised lowering the amount of Citizens' Income, to encourage the idle poor not to be so picky. And in fact this is also the meaning of Draghi's statements at the end of October. While he pronounces himself in favour of the Citizens' Income idea, he believes that the existing subsidy is "a clear disincentive to accept an ‘above-board’ job" [and an incentive] to accept a "black" job."(8) Ever since the capitalist mode of production came into the world, the bourgeoisie has always oscillated between two "visions" on how to manage the workforce and get it to submit to working for a wage, in other words, that of Malthus or De Mandeville. Either by the threat of starvation, but with the risk of sudden outbursts of anger, controllable with open violence, or through a "compassionate" management of hunger, which convinces, so to speak, workers to suffer exploitation and domination by the employers. Naturally, the two systems are not clearly separable: the use of one does not exclude the use of the other. Moreover, they are linked to the state of health of the accumulation process, and of the various economic sectors. And, certainly not finally, they are linked to the class struggle. The more the room for manoeuvre shrinks, the longer the working class struggle is latent, the more the bourgeoisie is pushed to clamp down on the workforce. By contrast, during ascending periods of the accumulation cycle, if the class struggles with determination, if only on the basis of demands outside of the unions, there is room for improvement, even if strictly within the confines of what is possible within the phase of accumulation. However, in our age, characterised by a historical crisis in the cycle of accumulation, there is little margin for reformists to manoeuvre and the little that is given with one hand – to try to manage the profound social malaise and defuse its explosive potential – is taken back by the other. They want to widen the pool of possible beneficiaries of the Citizens' Income, refinanced with an extra billion euros (apparently), but at the same time they are thinking of limiting the entitlement criteria as well as the monthly pay-out: worse work, but jobs for ‘all’, with lower wages. They crush the crumbs in order to distribute them to more people ...

And "our" reformists? As usual, it is better to spread a merciful veil over them. Unable to understand how the world of capital works, they are relentless in claiming things that the bourgeoisie would never dream of conceding even if they sailed in much easier waters than those they are sailing in today. They criticise the Citizens' Income because it is not a universal protection against poverty, but a miserable measure aimed at alleviating in a botched way some situations of great social hardship (as it is fashionable to say today). True, but to believe that the bourgeoisie can grant the poor, the unemployed, the underemployed a “decent” monthly allowance, independent of the production of surplus value, is like believing in Santa Claus. Without the constraint of being unable to survive, who would ever accept waged work? Not to mention that every assistance measure, depending on which way you look at it, can turn out to be not so much a meagre wage supplement, but above all a loan to the employers who, thanks to state intervention, can keep wages low because they are supplemented by public assistance. State financing then means fiscal imposition (taxes), which wage workers cannot escape, unlike the bourgeoisie: thus, you could say it is proletarian financing.(9)

Some reformists maintain that the Citizens' Income serves to protect against the most brutal forms of exploitation, that having their backs covered by a guaranteed income makes it possible to face the blackmail of the bosses from a position of lesser weakness. This may be so, in some cases, but €580 amounts to a very short blanket, one which leaves most of the shoulders or legs uncovered. What seems more likely is that Draghi will attempt to "fix" the Citizens' Income which currently acts as a financier of the bourgeoisie that exploits workers (in the black economy) illegally, but who, by putting the two incomes together, can survive somehow with their anger diluted thanks to the subsidy of the state. Yet, if the restrictions on the Citizens' Income were enacted there is a risk that the forms of exploitation and low wages typical of both illegal and legal workplaces which have to pay a few more taxes to the state, will expand even further. In fact, if the beneficiary of the Citizens' Income cannot refuse "congruous" job offers, which respect the legal conditions, in particular the one which stipulates that the salary of the new job must be at least 10% higher than the Citizens' Income,(10) what "charitable" boss will not be tempted to pay a salary roughly equivalent to that amount? Moreover, as already mentioned, the vast majority of those who have found a job and who have signed the Labour Pact associated with the Citizens' Income, have found it in one of those low-qualification sectors where competition between the unemployed is sharper and therefore the employer has greater blackmail power. Today – mid-November – nothing definitive has been decided on the Citizens' Income, but it will probably suffer a crackdown (along with other social safety nets, such as NASPI), especially as the class is being very passive, leaving the bourgeoisie even greater room for manoeuvre than before. In these dark times, the absence of the conscious action of the proletariat, and therefore of the communist party, is no less dramatic than the climate catastrophe which is in progress. Indeed, it is the heart of the problems that afflict the exploited and dispossessed of the whole world, namely the overwhelming majority of humanity.

As far as we are concerned, we will not stop working to forge the tool by which the working class can open the door to a different and better world: the international organisation of the revolutionary proletariat.

Battaglia Comunista
November 2021

Glossary for English Readers:

As the article shows, the Citizens' Income now in play in Italy has numerous strings attached and should not be confused with the mythical system of unconditional income that would provide enough to live on for everyone, as the proponents of Universal Basic Income (UBI) propose.

Cinque Stelle, or the Five Star Movement, is a populist party founded over a decade ago, appropriately by a comedian – Beppe Grillo. Despite it’s original ‘progressive left’ image, from the start the Five Stars has been a reactionary party, against immigration, without a clear political platform and ready to seize on any vote-catching bandwagon that crops up, it won the most seats in the last general election. Currently led by Giuseppe Conte who was Prime Minister before Draghi took over after leaving his post at the European Central Bank.

La Lega, originally the Northern League, was founded in 1989 during the political turmoil associated with the impending collapse of the USSR that shook up the post-war Italian political scene. Originally an agglomeration of parties from five of the richest provinces in Italy (of course from the North), the League began as a breakaway movement to secure the wealth of these northern areas (so-called ‘Padania’) but has since adapted to become a reactionary, far-right ‘little’ Italy movement with its power-base still mainly in the North. Led by Matteo Salvini.

"Quota 100", an early retirement scheme allowing someone who had reached the age of at least 62 [and 38 years of ‘contributions’, i.e. of regular work] to retire on a reduced pension.

Fornero law (2011), legislation passed after the 2007/8 financial crash, increasing the retirement age in public and private sectors.

Fratelli d'Italia, or Brothers of Italy, yet another right-wing populist party that melded together a motley crew of reactionary organisations in the period following the financial crash. It is the direct descendant of the old fascist party (MSI – Movimento Sociale Italiano, founded out of the remains of the so-called Republic of Salò 1943-45 the Nazi puppet-regime to which Mussolini was obliged to retreat after the fall of Rome to the US and the Allies). Currently led by Giorgia Meloni, it gained about 6% of votes in the last general election (2019), while the latest polls show it has made further gains at the expense of the League.

CGIL, the Italian General Confederation of Labour, the biggest trade union confederation.

INPS, the Italian National Institute of Social Security, equivalent to the DHSS.

NASPI, bureaucratic legal conditions attached to entitlement for unemployment benefits.


Photo from:

(1) Bernard De Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees 1728, quoted in Karl Marx, Capital, Book I, vol. 1, chap. XXV. In English, Penguin Classics, p. 765.

(2) Towards the end of November, Berlusconi, as a consummate stand-up comedian, suddenly came out in favour of the Citizens' Income, reversing the position that his party has always had, but there is no doubt that his declaration is tactical, part of the usual political games: who knows, perhaps also in relation to the presidential elections.

(3) Loss of purchasing power of wages and salaries. This is true not only for the United States, on the contrary. For Italy, it is worth reporting the results of a research conducted on behalf of the INPS, which gives some data on the subject: "... we observe a growing trend in the rate of work-related poverty: from 26% in 1990 to 32.4% in 2017 in the case of relative poverty calculated on annual wages, with a similar trend when using the absolute threshold. Furthermore, the intensity of poverty – or how far one is from the threshold – has increased over time; the poverty gap index, referring to relative poverty, increased from 13.8% in 1990 to 17.9% in 2017 [...] On the wage front, the change in the employment structure that took place in the last thirty years had an impact, with the growth of low-skilled sectors, such as services for families and tourism, in which remuneration is not enough to get out of the spiral of poverty." Michele Bavaro, The working poor between low wages and intermittent work, in Il Menabò di Etica Economia, n. 157/2021. Naturally, the researcher does not take into consideration the fundamental contribution of the unions with their decades-long connivance in the employer's attack on wage workers, which in turn is the result of difficulties due to an unsatisfactory rate of profit.

(4) Pier Giorgio Ardeni, Il Manifesto, 8 September 2021. Campania is the region with the highest average amount, around €640.

(5) F. Fammoni, Precarious Employment and Wage Problems in Italy, Giuseppe Di Vittorio Foundation, May 2021.

(6) AA.VV, Citizens' Income: whoever receives it has a “poor” contributory record, Menabò n. 155/2021.

(7) For example, to decrease the allowance after the first refusal of a job or to withdraw it after two refusals.

(8) See R. Ciccarelli, Il Manifesto, 29 October 2021.

(9) Regarding public support for wages, which ends up being a support for bosses, see what Marx says about the Speenhamland law (1795) in chapter XXIII of Capital, book I Einaudi, pp. 739, 830, 831.

(10) M. Minenna, Seasonal work and citizenship income: a possible coexistence, Il Sole 24 ore, 12 July 2021.

Sunday, January 30, 2022