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Italy, where did the protest go?

Donatella Della Porta writes that despite the Eurozone crisis and harsh austerity policies, it seems as if Italy is no longer responding with protest demonstrations anymore
November 2012

Photo: Georgio Montersino/Flickr

Harsh austerity policies have been hitting broad segments of the population for a long time, but today their force has increased. One of the questions which are often posed to social movement scholars (and to activists as well) is: why, facing such a strong challenge, the mobilisation keeps being so relatively limited? Why – differently from Spain, Greece, and the USA, and Iceland before them – there seems to be so little protest?

First of all, it is necessary to observe that protest exists, grows, and is focused on demands regarding social rights and real democracy. Research that we carried out, together with Lorenzo Mosca and Louisa Parks, on the protests reported by a national daily newspaper in 2011, shows that not only is mobilisation high, but it is focused on social issues. Almost half of the reported protest events involve workers with stable employment, more than half if we add casual workers More than one fifth is student protest. Moreover, even if the unions are very present in the mobilisations, important actors are also informal social movement groups, i.e. the occupied social centres and various kinds of associations. It is not a case that the statistics on strikes signal a 25% surge in the last year.

Although anti-austerity mobilisations are numerous, it is true that, in the last months, the big demonstrations that contributed to the downfall of Berlusconi's government were not to be seen. This is also a signal that neoliberal policies could not have been effectively imposed by a libertine and in many ways delegitimised head of government. The shift from Berlusconi to Monti did not mean a change in the direction of public policies, but the buying (for quite a cheap price) of the support for them from the ex-opposition (i.e. the centre-Left Democratic Party). If the 15 October 2011 demonstration, with its great mobilisation capacity, was an exception, its evolution did not facilitate the recovery of a process of protest accumulation at all.

A first reason for the difficulty to network the existing mobilisations is to be found in the crisis itself. Social movement research has repeatedly proved that protest does not increase with deprivation (neither absolute nor relative), but when resources are available to those that want to challenge the decisions of the government. The studies on the labour movement have shown that strikes increase with full employment, not with unemployment. Insecurity discourages collective action, and the depressive effect of the crisis is aggravated by the new kind of labour market. It is certainly harder for casual workers to mobilise to defend their rights, because they can be blackmailed, have less free time, and often lack the physical spaces for aggregation that were so important for the labour movement.

If this kind of explanation, structural so to speak, has some grain of truth, it does not help us to understand why in Spain, Greece, or the US (but also in Italy in other periods) the groups most hit by the economic crisis and by the growing inequality produced by neoliberal policies (which in addition are responsible for the crisis itself) mobilised in broad and visible protest movements, from Indignados to Occupy. Moreover casual workers in Italy did produce significant protests, especially in the first half of the last decade.

Social movement research provides us with another explanation, more suitable for the Italian case. In order to grow, protest needs political opportunities. Among them, the position of potential allies like parties and unions is fundamental, they are important to broaden the mobilisation, for the logistic resources they can offer, and, even more, to increase the political influence of the protest. Mass protest was more substantial and visible when it was against centre-Right governments, when it found the support of parties and unions. This is especially true in Italy where, reciprocal critiques notwithstanding, the relationship between movements and Left parties (when they existed) has always been intense.

These allies were there against Berlusconi, but a grand coalition government like Monti's has drastically reduced the opportunities for political alliances. Parties that are supporting the neoliberal government in the parliament would not be credible allies for those who are opposing its policies. Moreover, the incumbent government has succeeded in propagating his self-depiction of a ‘technical government’.

There is little empirical evidence for this self-representation. Inter alia, it is sufficient to have a quick look at most ministers' careers within institutions that cannot be neutral about their policies, or at the measures of deregulation, privatisation, and reduction of the will and capacity of the state to intervene in reducing the inequalities produced by the market.

Clearly this self-representation as technical government has caught on with the media and beyond. Not only the main national newspapers are critically praising ‘Super Mario’. Even the academic institutions, that in the past have carefully cultivated an image of political neutrality, today often provide a political stage for a head of government that claims to be technical. This stage is then used for strictly political and ideologically neoliberal speeches.

No doubt, this Italian anomaly contributes in explaining the difficulties to network the multiple streams of protest that exist. Anyhow, this diffuse resistance could contribute to an aggregation and politicisation of the mobilisations, not just through the challenge against specific policies, but also by underlining the political and neoliberal nature of this government.

Leo 8 November 2012, 20.51

I agree with Donatella Della Porta’s analysis. An additional element is that, unlike Greece and Spain, Italy’s economy was in an evident crisis already before 2008:


I am wondering what impact this had on the Italian workforce and the labour movement in the 2000s – my feeling is that it became weaker and weaker, and casualization of labour skyrocketed already before 2008.

Furthermore, the Left (but also the Italian intellighenzia) became increasingly obsessed with Berlusconi’s persona (hence the Italian ‘anomaly’), rather than his dreadful policies (which were certainly more ‘corrupt’, but not much different from an ideological point of view, than neoliberal policies elsewehere in Europe). They wasted huge energies in describing the Berlusconi phenomenon, and lost sight of the wider (European) picture (again, the fact that Italy was in crisis already before 2008, unlike other Southern Europen countries, probably contributed to this perception that Italy was an anomalous case, and the source of all evils was simply Berlusconi). As a result, when Berlusconi was replaced by the differently-but-equally hideous Monti, they completely lacked ideas as to what to do, and were not able to see that this is is actually a systemic crisis.

I can distinctly remember that in the 2000s, one of the inspiring figures for the Italian Left was the Spanish Premier Zapatero with his Spanish economic miracle… well, we can all see how that ended…

Rupert Ferguson 19 November 2012, 23.34

One thing that Donatella Della Porta appears to have overlooked in relation to the general apathy, with regard to active participation in protest, that appears to have manifested itself in Italy of late, is the Italian Political Establishment’s well documented use of organized criminal gangs and right wing terrorists in keeping left wing activism under control. Back in the early nineteen nineties a groundbreaking ‘Newsnight’ report uncovered a secret underground network with links to right wing terrorism and organized crime generally known as ‘Gladio’. As well as high ranking military officers and key players within the Political Elite, which were to include many prominent members of the Andreotti Government, the organization also had connections with the notorious P2 masonic lodge and is believed to have been the secret hand behind the bombing of Bologna railway station on August 2nd 1980.

This atrocity is known to have had its antecedents as far back as 1969, when the military wing of the long since outlawed Far Right political movement, ‘Ordine Nuovo’, had organized the Piazza Fontana bombing and the 1970 Rome-Messina train attack. Both of these atrocities, like the 1974 Piazza della Loggia bombing in Brescia and the Italicus Express bombing of the same year, were not only the work of Right Wing Terrorists, seeking to discredit the Left, at a time when Left Wing Terrorism was itself highly active right the way across Europe, but appear to have been carried out with the direct assistance of Gladio.

The organization itself can be traced back to the end of the Second World War and a time when the Italian Communist Party was undoubtedly the strongest in Western Europe. In 1948 the Communists could count on the support of 40% of the Italian electorate. With such a strong electoral mandate the Americans became so anxious, with regard to the potentially destabilizing effect upon the whole of Western Europe that a Communist victory at the polls would have, that they even contemplated using military means to prevent such an electoral coup from taking place. Enter James Jesus Angleton, who was later to become Chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff from 1954 to 1975.

During the late nineteen forties Angleton was to be directly involved in recruiting a number of Italians, who had been linked to the German Stay Behind organizations that had been set up to subvert the Allied advance, right the way across Italy in the wake of the German withdrawal. Amongst these was Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, the former commander of the elite Naval Commando Unit, Decima MAS, itself the Italian equivalent of the British S.B.S. According to Colonel Oswald Le Winter, the one time CIA-ITAC Liason Officer responsible for co-ordinating many joint American-Italian operations during the Cold War, the intelligence unit directly responsible for recruiting many former Fascists into the ranks of the newly formed Italian Security Service was branch X2 of the OSS: the forerunner of the CIA, at that time headed by Angleton.

What Le Winter failed to tell his interviewers, however, was that Angleton’s methods had previously been utilized by Joseph Russo, the former incumbent of the OSS Security Desk at Palermo in 1943. Amongst those who Russo had himself successfully recruited, in readiness for the Post-War fight against Communism, was Don Calogero Vizzini, who had headed the local Mafia Family at nearby Villalba, and whose principal involvement with the OSS is alleged to have had its roots in New York Mafioso Lucky Luciano’s own previous recruitment by US Naval Intelligence. Vizzini’s subsequent involvement with the OSS was to lead to the notorious Portella della Ginestra Massacre on May 1st 1947. The first of many Anti-Left atrocities that were to be carried out by the criminal element that would later become associated with the clandestine workings of the Far Right.

One of the key methods that the Political Elite have used to create an environment in which the traditional ways previously utilized by the Left to organize themselves, both socially and politically, has been the direct use of the Mafia; and the various other affiliated criminal networks with which it co-operates right the way across Italy; in areas such as waste management and disposal. In March 1998 the BBC announced a city wide strike in Naples, which had been principally organized by the city’s mayor, Antonio Bassolino, in an endeavour to curb the Comorra: the Neapolitan equivalent of the Mafia.

Thirteen years on and Naples was to see itself the centre of a major Comorra linked crisis in waste management which was to come to a head in November 2010 when the government had threatened the city with the imposition of fines. Six months later, with the crisis still unabated, the army could be seen clearing the city streets of rubbish. This systematic infiltration and subversion, of those areas within the power structure that provide essential services to communities, is just one of the ways in which organized criminal gangs have been used by corrupt elements within the Political Elite to undermine the Left’s abilities to organize itself within those self same communities for decades; and has been a major factor in the nationwide political apathy that has gripped the country for years. These are just some of the areas of discussion that Donatella Della Porta’s well written and no less informed article appears to have failed to address.

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