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Against Veltrusconi: the challenges facing Italy’s ‘territorial’ social movements

Italy has seen a recent wave of 'territorial' social movements, brought together by a crisis of political representation. In the face of an increasingly insecure society, and the appeal of more authoritarian demands, these movements still need to develop a mass base, argues Tommaso Fattori

April 13, 2008
5 min read

Social Movements

In recent years, Italian social movements have lived through two distinct phases. The first was characterised by strong political support, evident in the massive demonstrations that took place in Genova in 2001, or through widespread participation in the European Social Forum in Florence in 2002. Unfortunately, these colossal movements had their own weaknesses, particularly, that they were not yet solidly rooted within society and local communities.

The second phase saw social movements finally connecting with people and local areas, thanks to focused campaigns against the privatisation of water and other public goods. Numerous territorial campaigns have sprung up ever since, capable of mobilising entire communities. These include campaigns against the Vicenza military base, the development of high velocity trains (TAV) and incinerators, to mention a few. However, what brings most of these movements together is a mutual recognition that traditional tools of political representation have failed. Who decides the future of communities and their territories? Where are decisions made? These are the issues that truly concern new territorial movements, which are constantly looking for new models of participation.

Nowadays, we must also recognise that movements are severely fragmented. Although there is a mutual understanding that they will come to each other’s aid if necessary, this remains a defensive mechanism rather than one that encourages innovation. The fact that movements are under-represented within the media worsens this state of affairs, in a society where anything that exists outside the media isn’t even deemed real or taken into consideration. However, movements are not only lacking coordination and a constant exchange of ideas (on the topic of water, for example, a National Forum was organised to bring together all movements concerned with this issue) – what is really missing now, is the capacity to mobilise the masses, which, starting with Genova, had characterised the first phase.

The ‘Grillo’ Storm

Beppe Grillo seems to attract astonishingly vast audiences nowadays, particularly through his Internet blog. He and his massive following should be seen as an example of classical social movements. It resembles what Venezuelans call a ‘turba’, a swarm of people that suddenly aggregate around one topic, which, in this case, is the crisis of political representation. To a large extent, Grillo should be credited with building a widespread sense of unification around this particular issue as well as others, such as the relevance of environmental concerns in contemporary society.

The political elite in Italy imitates the mechanisms of large financial corporations: they might change name, but fundamentally they remain the same. The newly established PD and PDL (as well as La Sinistra – L’Arcobaleno) are exact replicas of the structures defining last year’s political elite. I believe that soon this is likely to instigate a reaction from Grillo.

Unfortunately, Grillo proposes rather traditional solutions to the problems he identifies: he suggests we amend “classical” forms of representation instead of building channels that don’t yet exist or innovative political institutions that have yet to be discovered. We shouldn’t forget, however, that he does heavily criticise the ‘Veltrusconi’ phenomenon, an important problem facing Italian society. The latter, in simple terms, refers to a general trend towards hegemonic political thought. After all, don’t we already know who will win the Italian elections? Clearly it will either be Berlusconi’s ‘Veltronian’ programme or Veltroni’s ‘Berlusconian’ one.

La Sinistra – L’Arcobaleno

For a long time we have continued to believe that a new political project for the left was possible, capable of being unified and radical, while still being vast. Unfortunately, the ways in which this project is currently taking shape are outdated and disappointing, meaning we are losing out on a great opportunity. As a result, it will also make the alliance of La Sinistra – L’Arcobaleno very fragile after the April elections. Perhaps, the plans of La Sinistra – L’Arcobaleno will be short lived, but I see no alternatives. I see no point in either abstaining or in giving a strategic vote to the PD. Instead, I will vote Arcobaleno, not so much for what it is today, but for what it might become in the future. Leaving the doors open for an alternative, somewhere down the line, is the least we can do.

A broken society: fear and longing for quick decisions

At the moment, I see Italian society as being split right down the middle. On one hand, there is a small minority who still yearns for new forms of democratic representation. On the other, however, an overwhelming portion of society has reacted to the rising political insecurity by demanding order, discipline and a tough leadership. There is a craving for authoritarian forms of democracy that will be capable of making fast decisions. This split is increasingly evident and directly related to growing fears and insecurity.

Our society, which is becoming more individualistic and competitive (rather than ‘social’ and ‘cooperative’), has seen most people opting for the easiest path. Instead of asking for schools and hospitals, people are demanding for police and prisons. It is a scenario where people would rather see the poor being eliminated, instead of poverty itself. Unfortunately, this context will lead to more misery, insecurity and isolation, which in turn will encourage people to demand for even more safety and order, falling victim to a terrible vicious circle.

Currently, we run the dangerous risk of creating a negative mass consensus. The only way to balance out this trend is to ensure that the left acts at a social level, by proposing truly innovative, as well as inclusive practices. We must take action before people are pushed to choose order and safety over civil rights and public services.

Tommaso Fattori is Coordinator of Forum Italiano dei Movimenti per l’Acqua, against the privatisation of water and other public services.

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