Tuscany, December 21
A quick update on Italy. The Pitchforks were much hyped, but fizzled fast. During the first few days, populist leaders tried to hop on the train. Beppe Grillo, the comedian opposition leader even called for a coup d’etat by the armed forces. Old lion Berlusconi was set to meet representatives of the pitchfork mob, but backed down just in time.
The uprising against a vote of confidence for the government was to be a pitchfork ‘march on rome’. The historical echo of Mussolini’s takeover of power in 1922 was one of the many issues that divided the spirits. Identity crisis hit fast. A photo in the papers of a presumed pitchfork leader driving off in a second hand Jaguar only helped to aggravate the crisis. Some people went to Rome anyway, not for a march, but for a sit-in. It was a major flop.
“Sure they have all reasons of the world to protest, but come on, I have to go to work, pick up the kids, do groceries, etc.” (Woman at a pitchfork roadblock).
Tuscany, December 10.
This time it took me by surprise. While all eyes are on the ‘eurorevolution’ in Ukraine, yesterday Italy was swept by a sudden outburst of civil unrest. The so-called ‘pitchfork’ movement brought people to the streets all over the country. There were heavy clashes with police in Turin.
So what is this movement? Who is behind it? What do they want? It’s hard to tell, because it seems to be very heterogeneous.
The movement was started by Sicilian farmers two years ago, it gained support by truck drivers, and lately by the impoverished middle class. In general, there is a growing feeling of discontent with the government, with austerity measures, with high taxes, the euro, and with unfair competition from chain stores and cheap Chinese products. Yesterday, many small shop owners closed in solidarity with the protest. Others who didn’t adhere were picketed and forced to close.
There doesn’t seem to be a clear leadership or any plans. A major impulse of the street protest comes from the far right and from neofascist groups. At the same time there was also an unlikely presence of fringes from the extreme left. I have never seen anything like that before, here in Italy.
Motorways were blocked by truckers all througout the country. Railway traffic was disrupted by protesters in Turin and Genoa. In Turin, clashes with police occurred in the central Piazza del Castello as demonstrators tried to storm the regional government building. Police responded with charges and tear gas. From the side of the protesters, the resistance was spearheaded by football supporters from Juventus and Torino. Again, an unlikely brotherhood.
In the early afternoon, something curious happened. After the clashes, demonstrators in Turin challenged the police officers to take off their helmets and lay down their shields. ‘You are underpaid. You are with us!’ someone shouted through a megaphone.
The commander in the field was the first to comply. After that, the others followed suit. The crowd reacted with a wave of cheers. A similar gesture of solidarity from the side of police occurred in Genoa and Bolzano. Spontaneous acts of fraternization with police were recorded in other parts of the country as well.
Today, peaceful actions and road blocks of the Pitchfork movement continue. Some protesters have already threatened that all hell will break loose if the grand coalition of Enrico Letta will survive tomorrow’s vote of confidence.
Rome, November 4
The Agora 99 has finished yesterday afternoon with a General Assembly. Today it’s time for a brief analysis.
First, the name ‘Agora 99’ as a reference to the meme of ‘we are the 99%’ is ridiculous. This was an encounter of a small and often self-referent revolutionary elite which had nothing to do with the 99% of the population.
In the opening assembly on Friday there was some talk about the necessity to create a new terminology. It echoed Slavoj Žižek’s message to the occupiers in Wall Street: “What one should always bear in mind is that any debate here and now necessarily remains a debate on the enemy’s turf; time is needed to deploy the new content.”
In reality, a lot of the terminology used during the workshops was either purely academic, or intentionally vague, or completely meaningless. The most popular terms of the weekend were ‘transnational’, ‘metropolitan context’, ‘technopolitics’ and ‘constituent process’.
What it all means in practice is not really clear. Many people had the sensation that we have been reinventing the same wheel we had already reinvented in Madrid last year.
Another issue was about geographic space. Officially, Agora 99 was a ‘European’ meeting about debt, rights and democracy. It caused a discussion about what ‘Europe’ exactly means and why this meeting should or shouldn’t extend its reach beyond the old continent, given the fact that ‘resistance, like capital, is global’.
One result of the Agora was an agenda for upcoming encounters online or in the square, none of them ambitious. The best that could come out of that would be some stand alone action, somewhere, on some topic. No serious efforts have been made to get the Joneses involved. On the contrary, within this so-called ‘99 percent movement’ you often sense a paradoxic adversity towards everything ‘main stream’. Yet the only way to make a real difference is to tap into the main stream on as many different levels as possible, and get people to become politically active themselves.
On the positive side, the Agora has served to consolidate and expand the existing network of international activists. Many participants already knew each other from the web, and this last weekend has been an occasion for them to meet face to face. And admittedly, it’s not fair to expect great things from an encounter like this. Nobody can foresee or plan an uprising. What you can do, however, is prepare a framework of international collaboration, to help spread an uprising whenever it occurs. That is what Agora 99 – and the continuous online activism throughout the year – is all about.
Also, the setting for the Agora was awesome. From an occupied theatre in Rome’s San Lorenzo district to an enormous occupied maintenance yard of the Italian railways. It was hard core industrial romance.
Most of the workshops were held in the large sheds of the railway depot on Saturday. They were fifteen in total, divided in three time slots on five locations. Despite many workshops being tedious, pedantic and unproductive they were usually very well attended until the end. The only people who tried a less theoretic approach were the Greeks. Their presentation about the occupied Embros theater in Athens was charged with emotion. It ended in song and dance.
Afterwards, the dancing would continue on a large scale when one of the sheds was filled with swinging 1960s surfing music. As if to illustrate a point that I have been making for a long time, and which I will continue to repeat.
“The revolution is rock ‘n’ roll.”
Rome, November 2
Whenever I am in The Hague I take a stroll past our parliament to look at the ‘State of the Constitution’. In the little square next to the entrance, the first article is sculpted in stone on the basis of a long bench. It has been there for twenty years, it was meant to remain for the ages, but every time I pass by, I notice that the text is fading. Already, the word ‘Constitution’ is illegible.
It leaves me concerned and wondering. Am I the only one who notices this? Can the people still see what remains of the text? Don’t they get the irony? Don’t they remember old Thorbecke’s prophecy?
They probably don’t. It’s an old story, like the famous myth of the crows and the Tower of London. Whenever the crows leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall. Likewise, our great liberal statesman Thorbecke, father of Holland’s modern democracy, reportedly foretold on his deathbed that the constitution would one day be captured in stone. And that if ever the text would fade, Holland would descend into chaos and ultimately be swept away by the sea.
Now the text is fading. It says: “All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in equal circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race, or sex or on any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.”
While I was determining our Constitution’s irreversible decay, white people painted black were demonstrating on the Malieveld in defence of Black Pete, Santa’s Little Helper. It was an embarrassing spectacle and fortunately only few people were there. On the whole, it was an even bigger flop than Troelstra’s mythical attempt at socialist revolution in 1918.
A week later. This time I’m in Rome, fully backpacked. When I approach parliament, I notice riot police in full gear blocking the street, and I immediately feel at home. What happened? It was a ‘Siege on Parliament’ by the movement for affordable homes. The parliament square was packed, and notably there was a large participation by blacks and latinos. I start to check what happened, and this is the story.
Around one o’ clock, police vans blocked a demo heading towards parliament. A warning was issued to vacate the area. When it went unanswered, pepperspray was employed and a charge ensued. Now, the curious thing is that the warning, the charge, and the pepperspray didn’t come from police. They came from the protesters. People with clubs wearing Guy Fawkes masks climbed on the police vehicles to smash them up while covering the cops with pepperspray. It was an epic moment. Pepperspray is an excellent offensive measure. It hurts like hell for hours.
Police responded with tear gas and a counter charge. Nine people were arrested. For the rest of the day, people blocked parliament and created traffic chaos all around until those who had been detained were released.
It was fun, but it’s not why I’m here. I’m in Rome for the Agora 99, international meeting on debt, rights and democracy. It’s the second edition after last year’s meeting in Madrid. Yesterday was the official opening. The people from the Roman social centres did an great job organising working spaces, accommodation and food. The workshops are held by participants themselves.
Aside from the locals, there are over a hundred people here from all over Europe, in particular Spain, Britain, Germany and Greece. Some of them I remember from the previous edition and other occasions. And I must say I have the same feeling that I had last year. The energy is right. This meeting is another excellent occasion for the exchange of experiences and the preparation of future actions. The Agora is already a success. The workshops are of secondary importance.
As you might know, I don’t have the patience to sit through workshops and assemblies, simply because I can’t stand bullshit. This is not to say they aren’t interesting. It’s just that it’s very hard to engage listeners with the spoken word, and only very few people are capable of doing so. Most others suffer from ‘verbal obesity’. Some of them try to show off with a grand academic analysis of Occupy and related movements by stacking one complicated concept onto another. It takes about five minutes for the audience to get restless. Some people start to leave. some people fall asleep, most people put on a serious face out of politeness, and only a small minority actually listens.
In my personal opinion, attempts at profound analysis are best left for print. If you want people to listen, don’t speak to the mind. Speak to the soul.
Today is the big day featuring most of the workshops. Tomorrow there will be a General Assembly in conclusion of the Agora. In the meantime, I move through the corridors, which is always where the most interesting and productive encounters take place.
At sea, August 17
Years ago I was returning to Italy from Paris. On the train I met a couple from a village on the plains near Milan. Farmers. They must have been in their fifties, and this was the first time they had travelled outside of Italy. For them, it had been a revelation.
With shiny eyes they told me about their experiences. “Have you seen how young people can actually find a job in France? Have you seen how they can afford their own place to live? Have you noticed how public services really seem to work?”
Now France is not the best place in the world by far, but for someone who only knows Italy, it’s paradise. Then when you return, you finally start to notice all the shit. You realize that this is not normal, this is just Italy. And Italy is not the pinnacle of civilization.
I had a similar experience in the last few days. I know this country pretty well, I admire it in some respects, but plunging into it on an empty stomach after some time in the real world makes you realize it’s a farce, and it’s not even funny. Here, the same old politicanti keep playing their same old games, and the same old apathic public keep shrugging its shoulders. I decided to move on West. Back home to Spain.
Still, for a moment I was tempted to go either to the far North, or to the far South of the country. Not just for old time’s sake, but because this image of general apathy is only the surface, and under the surface there is always something happening in Italy.
In northwest, for more than a decade now, the No-Tav partisans keep resisting in the valleys of the Alps against the high speed rail connection between Turin and Lyon. They have reasons enough to protest. Environmental, economical, logical and infrastructural. Rail traffic between France and Italy has been decreasing for years. There is simply no need for a new rail line. Plus, the time that will be saved with a high speed connection compared to the current one is almost none. I was passing by there when the Italian family told me about the miracles of the outside world, and I can tell you, there’s nothing wrong with that piece of rail.
Creating dozens of kilometres of new tunnels also has a negative impact on public health. It turns out there are traces of asbestos and uranium in the rocks, which could harm both the construction workers and the inhabitants of the valleys.
But the Italian government, any Italian government, whether they are classified as ‘left’ or ‘right’, vows to continue this project. It will have to be completed in some faraway future because there is too much money tied to it and too many people who want a piece of that money. Also the Italian government has certain obligations, not towards their citizens, but towards Europe. The Turin-Lyon connection is part of a greater scheme of redesigning European infrastructure that was originally drawn up by captains of industry in the 1980s, and which has to be implemented whatever the cost.
Opponents of the plan also point at the dire state of the Italian railroads in the rest of the country. From North to South, there are trains and tracks that have been lacking improvement and maintenance for years. Many local connections have been cut for lack of funds, forcing travellers to pay two to three times as much for high speed trains and intercities that hardly ever arrive on time.
So while governments everywhere are forced to cut back their expenses, it is pure folly to continue with an infrastructure project that makes no real sense at all. And so it’s for sense, for common sense, that today’s partisans keep fighting on in the mountains and blocking the construction yards, year after year, for as long as it takes.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of Italy, in the inlands of Sicily, a local uprising broke out against the MUOS radar installation that is used by the U.S. Air Force to control drones. These radars cause very strong electromagnetic interference in the surrounding areas, which can be damaging to public health. For this reason, the radars are usually built in deserted areas. Only in Sicily, they have been erected right next to the town of Niscemi.
For a few months now, activists of ‘No-Muos’, have been protesting against the radar installations, together with sympathizers from all over the country. Some ten days ago they entered the base, climbed up the radars and attached banners. They also occupied the town hall of Niscemi and turned it into a headquarters of the movement. The struggle is ongoing.
Italy, they say, is not a real country. Italy is a thousand different towns and regions, each with their own local cultures, cuisines and rivalries. Likewise, Italy probably won’t rise up for one single reason. It will continue its thousand little struggles. In the villages, in the neighbourhoods, in the social centres, in the valleys, and in the mountains.
Thessaloniki, April 26
After a sudden burst of anger following the reelection of the 88-year old president of the republic, the Italian Revolution fizzled out. The two major parties have embraced each other and will soon form a government that has three major priorities. One, protect the economic and legal interests of Silvio Berlusconi. Two, prevent the other political force from disintegrating as a result of a multi billion dollar scandal involving Italy’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena. And three, make sure that the Five Star Movement is neutralised in any way necessary. The establishment knows they will have to succeed. If they don’t, then sooner or later, they will all go down together.
In the meantime, I made my way down to Greece. I didn’t plan on visiting this country again, but here I am. It has been a year since we marched to Athens. Back then, we came from Italy, and from the looks of it, Greece was definitely in a bad shape. Now, I come from Bulgaria, and things are different. All things are relative, and Greece is doing great.
Circumstances, and custom, make me put my convictions to the test quite often. I try to keep questioning the things that many of us have been taking for granted. And this time, in Thessaloniki, I have come to the conclusion that there is no crisis. At all. You people have been fooled by corporate media and left wing propaganda. Come take a walk through Thessaloniki and marvel at all the tantalizing windows of the luxury shops. See the flashy cars drive by over the boulevards. Observe the dense crowd of fashionable youngsters shooting pictures with their latest model iPhone. Try to find a place on one of the many terraces of the expensive cafes: you will have a hard time, they are full, everywhere. This crisis is a myth, a Greek one.
Or is it? Some people say that the crisis is real. Those people haven’t been to Bulgaria, or to most other parts of the world. They say things used to be so much better in Greece a few years ago. For me, after witnessing the exuberant hedonism of Thessaloniki, it’s hard to imagine.
But let’s hypothesise that it’s true. There is a crisis. Greece is really suffering. And there is a reason for that. Over the last few decades, the Greeks have lived a lifestyle that they couldn’t afford. They have destroyed all their towns and villages and rebuilt them with cheap concrete. They have joined a currency that they never should have joined. And now that it’s payback time, they blame the powerful international institutions and/or the defenceless immigrants. Some of them blame the Germans. Undoubtedly there are some who blame the Turks. Only a few of them, the most courageous ones – and we have met these people, they are the best – acknowledge that the Greeks have only themselves to blame.
Or have they? Let’s hypothesise that this isn’t true either, that the Greeks themselves are not to blame. Let’s drop the guilt question all together, and ask ourselves what the Greeks are doing to solve the problem.
They resist. My god, they resist. And I have to give them credit for it. Many other peoples just abandon themselves to self pity, but the Greeks are always on the barricades. The trouble is that they are all fighting a different war.
Your average Greek is mad because he is not as rich as he was. He feels that the government (or whoever, the corporations, the Germans, the immigrants, the Turks) is looting his wallet, and he just wants to go back to the times when he lived a life that he couldn’t afford. Your nationalist Greek is usually a fascist. He thinks this crisis thing is about more than just money. He is convinced the Greeks are the greatest people on earth because of all the invaluable things that Greece has left the western world. He wants a national awakening, he wants the immigrants out, he wants to pick a fight with the Turks and he dreams of a renaissance of the great Byzantine empire.
Then you have the believers. They say there is only one god, his name is Karl Marx, and Lenin is his prophet. Others believe in the same god, but they say that his prophet is Trotzky, or Mao. Some even say that his prophet is Jozef Stalin. These churches don’t get along. And what’s more, they are split into numerous different sects, who all claim that their own interpretation of the words of the prophet is the only real one. The thing they share is their firm conviction that one day, god will come again to reward his faithful. The true believers will live in the earthly paradise of the workers and the peasants, and the sinners will be sent off to spend eternity in the gulags of Siberia.
Then you have your anarchists. They only believe in freedom. Some of them build a kind of theory around it, but most of them are nihilists. They go rioting whenever the opportunity arises, because it’s the only thing that gives any sense to their existence.
Finally, there are also people who are content with the situation as it is. These are mostly civil servants. Compared to the total population, there are a lot of them, many more than you would need. They have a job with a fixed salary and hardly a chance of ever losing it. They support the government, any government, because they know that a real change, for them, can only be a change for the worse.
All these spirits add up to different forces, pulling the country in opposite directions, with the result that everything is immobile. Maybe the only way to speak about it, the only way to understand it, is to turn it into a myth. A story in which the communists and the fascists and the anarchists and the politicians and the banks and the international institutions are all mythological monsters. A story in which common sense is the true hero. A hero destined to succumb, but nevertheless unyielding, to the bitter end.
There was one thing I saw here in Thessaloniki, which lifted up my spirits. A protest concert at the White Tower square on the seaside. Against the rising prices of utilities. People had photocopied their bills and hung them up as a kind of decoration. There was no big crowd, there was no police, but also, there were no signs of any political party. These were unaffiliated citizens, rocking for a better world.