Viva I Ribelli: How the Italians besiege the government
Ed Bauer discusses political life in Italy
I’ve been living and working in Italy for a short while. I’ve joined students from the University of Bologna in their occupations, assemblies and actions last Saturday in Rome, talking to and interviewing activists about their movements history, how it is run and what their thoughts are on the movement. This article is some thoughts on their work from my conversations with them.
This last week has seen waves of action across Italy lead by diverse groups of campaigns. One hundred thousand people took to the streets last Saturday (19th October) bringing groups together for a national demonstration in Rome dubbed “#assedio ” (besiege the government).
This confrontation led to dramatic scenes as thousands of people actually besieged the Ministry Economia and fought running battles with the police in Rome. The police were forced to resort to excessive force in attempt to curtail the demonstrators – not an uncommon strategy for the notorious Italian police. At one point I witnessed a police riot vehicle going headlong at speed into a densely packed crowd while riot police charged.
The Italian people are, in many ways, faced with a similar situation to the one we face in Britain; a complete betrayal and capitulation by the traditional organisations of the movement. Like us, they face the now familiar imposition of austerity and the assault on the welfare state.
In both Britain and Italy the traditional left organisations have proven themselves unable to respond to the crisis. Rifondazione Comunista, a party many consider to be representative of the “Old Left,” twice entered into a neoliberal coalition government led by Romano Prodi, for which they are now hated on a level that we usually reserve for the Lib Dems and, as a consequence, have essentially been wiped out. Meanwhile, the Unions have, as in the Britain, operated a strategic retreat; their leadership repeatedly capitulating and occasionally declaring so-called “victories” which, on analysis, do not stand up as more than minor concessions in the context of wider defeat. A process which has the dangerous affect of placating otherwise angry members but, which justifies the work of various bureaucrats sitting at the top.
Yet without these traditional actors, Italians are fighting back effectively. Without any institutional backing grass-roots organisations, local assemblies, well networked activists and campaigns are bringing tens of thousands onto the streets.
The week of action prior to the 19th was co-ordinated by rank and file trade unions, students, migrants, homeless campaigners, antifascists, environmentalists and the broad coalition that make up the anti high-speed rail campaign “No Tav” which has been going since the 90’s. Together they created nationwide days of action on housing, education, the environment, anti-racism and fascism, migrant rights, high-speed rail and austerity – which, taken as a whole, articulates a deep and comprehensive critique of the entire Italian system which was brought together with the national demonstration in Rome on October 19th to “bring down the government.”
There are too many individual actions across the country in the week of action preceding the demonstration on the 19th to summarise them all effectively, so a few examples will necessarily suffice. In the week before the 19th demonstrators stopped the funeral of 100 year old Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke, who managed to evade being brought to justice for his crimes during his long life; rioting migrants successfully shut down migrant detainment centres across the country, with a migrant bloc also taking the lead during the march in Rome on the 19th; workers and students organised strikes and started numerous occupations in many cities; and, in Bologna, farm workers and university porters went on strike, with students occupying a large university building which they are now using to house students struggling with rent.
The strength of this movement is clearly the diversity of groups participating within it, which deserves emphasis as such diversity is not the superficial diversity achieved in Britain by events like “March for the alternative” or “For a future that works,” in which large numbers of groups are brought together under a banner so vague it is almost meaningless. This movement has successfully built up solidarity with wide layers of the community and drawn them into a united movement with clear programmatic points.
For example, on Tuesday the 15th I marched around the city of Bologna were I am working with the University Autonomia, who run multiple occupations across the city. The march was addressed by various speakers, of whom the most moving was an African migrant who had made the journey across the Mediterranean only a few weeks ago. He spoke to the crowd thanking the University Autonomia movement for housing him and his family in their occupation, telling the crowd that they “would be homeless without such solidarity” and condemning the Italian state for its “lack of respect for human rights”. That the Italian student movement can operate so dynamically with other groups is a sharp break from UK student unionism which largely condemns active involvement in struggles not directly related to students as counterproductive.
It is not necessarily the numbers that make this movement impressive but rather the political message it has become a standard bearer of. At a moment of crisis, faced with incredibly vicious attacks on living standards in many forms, the Italian left has managed to find the capability to create joined up political critique that is deep enough to gain serious credibility – credibility that slogans like “March for the alternative” or “For a future that works” have so far failed provide back in Britain.
This serious alternative political pole of attraction is an important achievement that the left back home has failed to make manifest. While we have seen movements that made significant breaks into mainstream discourse on single issues like Workfare, Fracking, tax justice, Tuition fees & EMA, it has not yet been able to draw these threads together into a joined up critique and clear political alternative. Such a development in Britain could turn a set of disparate problems in the minds many people into a credible alternative proposition for a plan B to our current trajectory.
It is important to recognise the importance of this achievement by the Italians. The single-minded nature of many campaigns operated in Britain by social movements, NGO’s, Unions and others has been a costly mistake which has lead to a general isolation, dis-empowerment and fragmentation so severe that feminist, migrant and anti-cuts groups may not even consider approaching each other.
This is not just a mistake of NGO campaigns, but also a mistake of many radical left organisations. Their parochial focus on a narrow conception of what constitutes the working class has resulted in failure to create meaningful linkages to important social movements like feminism and environmentalism. Furthermore, the infamous divisions generated by a damaging party-sect culture has prevented broad alliances from emerging which might otherwise win credibility amongst broad layers of the British population.
The united Italian movement has managed, in face of the betrayal of its traditional leadership, to recover and retake the agenda remarkably quickly, thus providing a political pole of attraction for the disaffected. Without a clear broad program to unite around clearly many of the disaffected in the UK are drifting into apathy rather than action.
Back home groups like Ukfeminista, DPAC, Southhall Black Sisters, NCAFC, Ukuncut, Boycott Workfare, Reclaim the Power and others each offer very deep and meaningful critiques of their respective areas and each have dedicated constituency. Presented together they could put out an inspiring vision that lays ground work for a growing movement. This is essentially what has happened in Italy in contrast to simply recruiting around the corners of the action of the old left. They have taken a step together into the open, ignoring traditional institutions and taking their message directly to the wider population.
An unlikely radical alliance of such groups could pose a chance for a real break in the political discourse, even in the UK. While the TUC may have brought large numbers onto the streets, arguably all it has done is provide an outlet for general discontent and an opportunity for the radical left to recruit within the TUC. It is difficult to see what effect those marches, under illusory slogans such as “march for the alternative,” have amongst the apolitical or inactive majority of the population, who often seem to respond with the common question: “what alternative?”
Whereas groups like Ukuncut and Boycott Workfare have enabled dramatic shifts in political perceptions amongst unfamiliar audiences in the UK, the Italian left, by joining up the critiques they provide into a broader struggle, have managed to tap into a kind of combined composite credibility that has enabled them to exceed expectations. As such, this has resulted in the fact that despite organising comparatively smaller demonstrations than the more conservative unions, the radical left in Italy is growing as a serious movement.
The movement’s strength and the size of the demonstration strength on October 19th in Rome has come as a surprise to many who watched it grow out of an extremely popular call out for action by several groups over the summer. Much like Milbank in the UK, the turn-out of the Rome demonstration was predicted to be relatively small, with officials suggesting a paltry turn-out of 20, 000 people a figure that was exceeded in some style with conservative reports suggesting 50,000, 70,000 and some running figures in excess of 100,000.
I’m sure that some would put the strength of our Italian counterparts down to purely material factors affecting the Italian working class. High youth unemployment, which has made their current crisis more precarious than in Britain, has made the need to fight back more pressing. However, looking at the differing cultures and ideas which dominate our movements it is clear that the ideas of Italian Autonomist Marxism, which has come to dominate many aspects of the Italian left since the 70’s, has much more organic ability to integrate both workers struggle and social movements – an ability which even in times of great growth for the British left we never truly managed to emulate.
Compare, for instance, the open culture of Italian Autonomism to Ted Grants “outside the workers’ movement, there’s nothing” Militant Tendency, which was perhaps the largest left group in the UK during the late 70’s & 80’s, which actively denounced any “ism” other than socialism. Through to today with the SWP, which still refuses autonomous women’s organisation within the party – it is possible to see a counter productive culture in the UK which prevents groups from seeking new alliances and moving out of relative isolation.
A new left must take the chance to step out of the shadows in the UK and as the crisis deepens this need will only become more pressing. Parallel organisations outside the failing bureaucracies do exist in the UK – rank and file unions like the IWW or the IWGB and other new left organisations from NCAFC, Ukuncut, DPAC, Ukfeminista, Reclaim the power through to Left Unity. However, unlike the Italian groups, they do not yet have the capacity to fight without the leadership of the traditional left parties and unions Perhaps they could find it together.
A similar radical alignment behind an unlikely alliance in the UK movement to grassroots rank and file campaigns seems wishful thinking. The idea that these organisations would sign up to joint calls may seem a pipe dream but it is potentially conceivable in a future crisis. It is conceivable that a multiplicity of organisations are all able to become associated with a new left movement..
There is clear drift that necessitates its formation. For despite the fact that with the Tories and Liberals Labour and the Unions are essentially the de-facto opposition, working class people looking to resist are not heading to Labour. The year Ed Miliband became leader along with the start of the Tory attacks, Labour membership rose significantly in 2010, by about 37,000 people, a traditional turn back to old organisation by people who were probably looking for method of fighting back. However the Labour leadership has gone so far to the right that this growth trend has been reversed and this year 7000 people left the Labour party. It now looks like the long decline of Labour party membership from 500,000 in 1997 is set to return. The remarkable fact is that this is now happening while they are in opposition, which indicates a potential for this trend to accelerate if and when Labour become a party in government carrying through with austerity.
Currently this drift of the disaffected is largely going into apathy or potentially the far right. While individual grass-roots left groups are growing, the movement taken broadly as anti-capitalist has yet to step forth and deliver a radical anti-capitalist message on it own terms to the public. For the left to be able to accommodate the disillusioned of the old left it must be able to do this or else it will remain in the retreating shadow of failing organisations.