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.
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram