April 20, 2122 hrs
It’s going down, right now, in Rome.
Seven years ago, the Berlusconi party cried wolf when Giorgio Napolitano was elected president without Berlusconi’s consent. I still remember the headline of his personal newspaper. “As from today, the hammer and the sickle are flying over the presidential palace”, in reference to Napolitano once having been a member of the Italian Communist Party.
Now, Berlusconi has been one of the architects of Napolitano’s re-election, together with Mario Monti and left wing leader Bersani. They hadn’t been able to convince their backbenchers to agree on two other candidates who would guarantee the status quo – and impunity for Berlusconi – so they settled on the 88-year old incumbent president, simply because he hasn’t made trouble for anyone during his first mandate.
The Italian gerontocrats will do everything to cling on to power, and to prevent change from happening. Because they know that when it happens, they will all be swept away into the gutters of history, like had happened to the previous generation of Andreotti/Craxi over twenty years ago.
The people’s candidate, investigative journalist Milena Gabanelli, proposed by the Five Star Movement, had previously declined the honour. So the movement proposed the next on the list, professor Stefano Rodotà, by far the cleanest of all candidates, and as such, the most dangerous for the establishment.
If the left wing party had decided to vote Rodotà, it would have been a clear signal that they were willing to commit to change. But they are not. They prefer to strike deals with a criminal like Berlusconi and a banker like Mario Monti. It leaves the Italian people no option but to rise up and make revolution.
That is what’s happening at this moment. Tens of thousands of people are converging on parliament to demand an end to twenty years of backdoor deals, corruption, impunity and a sell-out of the country to organized crime.
Beppe Grillo is descending on Rome from Friuli and inviting everyone, anywhere, to join him, in order to sweep away the dinosaurs and pave the way for a new Italy.
Of course, he is very well aware of the eery historical comparison that a ‘March on Rome’ evokes… In October 1922, in the midst of the economic and social chaos that followed World War One, Benito Mussolini led his ‘blackshirts’ to the capital, demanding to form a government. The king, afraid more of the communists than of the fascists, consented…
There are hardly any fascists now any more, only the same old class of politicians against a people that is sick and tired of business as usual. So keep an eye on Rome, and if you’re there, join it. Now is the time, finally, to dump these decrepit politicians on the junk yard of history. It’s where they belong.
Watch the livestream:
Though I am lost in the backwaters of Europe, I keep following the events in Spain wherever I can. There is no way I can report on all things happening, because it’s simply too much. Sufficeth to say that evictions are being prevented every day, and demonstrations are being held at least every week. Recently there was a big demo in Madrid against the scandal-ridden monarchy, in favour of a third republic.
I hope to return to Spain soon, but before I do, I will inform you about how the movement is attempting to take the struggle to the next level.
Out of the primordial indignant chaos of the 15-M, various issue-centered waves have evolved, each adopting its own colour. The most prominent are the Green Wave (public education), the White Wave (public health care) and the Blue Wave (public water). There are many more waves concentrating on minor issues, and then there is the PAH, Plataforma Afectados por la Hipoteca, which coordinates the struggle against foreclosures and has a very strong presence all over Spain. Finally, there are the hundreds of popular assemblies in cities, villages and neighbourhoods that were born out of the occupations in 2011.
These local and thematic groups have united into a movement called Marea Ciudadana, or “Citizens’ Wave”. They have been pressurizing government with frequent marches on parliament, but since a couple of months they have also adopted a more confrontational tactic called ‘escrache’. Escraches, instead of targeting faceless institutions, are actions that target specific people (or parties) directly and personally.
You are a politician who has been taking bribes? Right, we won’t lament ourselves outside parliament, but we’ll come to your house. We’ll make noise under your windows, we will let all your neighbours know that you are scum. It’s a tactic that was first used in Argentina in the early 2000s to denounce politicians that had been responsible for atrocities committed by the military regime. It has been used in Uruguay, Peru and other Latin American countries, and since this spring it has been adopted by the PAH to denounce those politicians who represent the interests of the banks rather than those of the citizens.
In a certain sense, escrache is the enactment of a famous meme that was adopted by the movement in the early days of the revolution: ‘If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.’
The great leap forward of the movement is supposed to happen this spring. From June 23 to June 30 the “United Citizens’ Waves” intend to exercise popular sovereignty through plebiscite. The premise is the following. According to the Spanish Constitution “National sovereignty is vested in the Spanish people, from whom all State powers emanate” (Article 1), and “Citizens have the right to participate in public affairs directly or through representatives freely elected in periodic elections by universal suffrage.” (Article 23).
Over the last 35 years people have tried to participate through representatives, but in the end it didn’t work out to their advantage. So now has come the time for citizens to participate in public affairs directly. They will drum up enough support to block privatizations, to end foreclosures by law, to reform the banking sector and to bring corrupt politicians to justice.
How this will work out in practice remains to be seen. But it’s going to be damn interesting to observe.
Of course, the skeptics will say that it can never work, direct democracy on this kind of scale. But you cannot know that until you try. And Spain is not the only place where direct democracy is being experimented. Another example is Italy.
Over the last few weeks, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement has been under heavy attack from the establishment and the press for his failure to cooperate with the gerontocracy that has been ruling Italy – in various disguises – since the age of dinosaurs. They want him to support a government of the so-called Democratic Party, but since he continues to refuse, they blame him for the current political stalemate.
On top of all this, a new president of the republic has to be elected by parliament. Usually this doesn’t happen in parliament, but in the corridors. The major parties try to find a compromise on some colourless ex-politician that will not cause them trouble in the seven years to come.
The Five Star Movement refuses to take part in these shady practices. They think the citizens ought to have a say in the election of their head of state and so they organized primaries online, open to all the members of the movement. They could propose any Italian citizen of more than fifty years of age (as the constitution requires). The winner, elected over two rounds, will be the official candidate that M5S members will propose and vote. Yesterday, the results came in. No politician, no Nobel prize winner, but an investigative journalist will be the people’s candidate for the presidency: Milena Gabanelli.
You have to know that journalism in Italy is of an embarrasingly low standard. I was reminded by that lately, when I returned to read Italian newspapers. Generally, Italian journalists seem to think that news reporting consists of quoting politicians. For example, something is going on, say a demonstration, then your average journalist won’t give you an account of what happened and why, but he or she will stuff the microphone in the face of some second-rate politicians from the left to the right and publish their sound bites. The facts don’t matter. All you get is talking heads, always the same, ad nauseam. If not, you have your intellectualoid balloons, who preach about the dire state of the nation in such hollow terms that they cannot possibly be accused of having a real opinion on the matter. In any case, a true journalist is very hard to find in Italy.
Milena Gabanelli is an exception. For fifteen years she has been digging deeply into all the dirt related to corruption, speculation, squander, inefficiency, bribery and all-out organized crime. Now, the usual tactic of the establishment to silence journalists who actually do their job in Italy, is to denounce them for diffamation. They hardly ever win, but it serves to scare the great majority into becoming faithful mercenaries of the system. Not so Milena Gabanelli. She is a courageous woman, with a profound knowledge of all of Italy’s problems. For this, justly, the members of the Five Star Movement have nominated her to become the country’s head of state.
We are entering an age in which direct participation of all the people in public affairs is becoming possible. We don’t need representatives any more. Let the skeptics say that it can’t be done, that’s it’s going to be a mess. We will try anyway. The mess can hardly be worse than the one that our so-called representatives have caused.
Budapest, March 16
I have started my 2013 Spring Campaign in the East, along the banks of the Danube. My plan is to travel South from here, see what’s cooking.
There’s not much to say about Hungary after just three days. But I can give you a mirror image by telling you about the people I met in the hostel.
One was a French woman who had flown to Budapest to go to the dentist, because in France it has become much too expensive. Another was a guy from China, who is teaching Mandarine Chinese here in central Europe. Another was an Italian porn actor. It seems Budapest is the heart of the European porn industry, but with the crisis, even this sector is suffering. He hadn’t been working in a month.
I talked to a few locals as well. Their stories are pretty much the same ones you hear from youngsters in Southern Europe. They get pretty good education, but they don’t find a job. Their only real option is to emigrate.
In other news, protesters have staged a house call at the prime minister’s mansion in Portugal to demonstrate against corruption and austerity, yesterday. In Italy, the Five Star Movement is under heavy pressure from the media and from a significant part of their own voters to strike a deal with the left wing gerontocracy and form a government.
The latest appeal to Beppe Grillo has come from a handful of Italian intellectuals. They urge him to be reasonable, to swallow his pride, and to seize the opportunity to finally reform Italian politics.
Grillo is in a difficult situation. If he makes a deal with the same people he has been rightfully bashing for the last decade, he will lose a lot of his credibility. He will be just another politician who sells out.
So he said no. He describes the intellectuals (among whom Roberto Saviano and Roberto Benigni) as ‘sirens’, and the M5S as Odysseus. He urges the representatives of the movement to close their ears with wax, and to keep following their course. On his blog he quotes the following phrases: “In Italy, a legal revolution has begun. Maybe they will succeed in stopping it, but not with the voices of the Sirens. Right now, we are at war, and if we die, we will do so on the battlefield of the next elections. It’s better to take a leap into the dark than to commit an intellectually assisted suicide.”
More news from Italy. Maybe you already heard about it. There’s a new pope, one that shamelessly dares to call himself Francis, after the man who was nearly excommunicated for denouncing the decadence of the church.
What’s next? I thought. Pope Galileo?
Anyway, I don’t really give a damn about the church, but after the press announced that mr. Bergoglio didn’t raise his voice when many of his compatriots were arrested, tortured, murdered and made to disappear by the Argentine dictatorship, I was surprised by the reaction.
The Vatican vehemently branded these insinuations as left wing anticlerical propaganda, which is definitely not the reaction of a self-confident institution. Hell, they are afraid. They are shitting their pants.
So, let’s keep reminding them of what this church thing actually is. Let’s keep reminding them of the Christians who burned the Great Library of Alexandria. Let’s keep reminding them of the Catholic pogroms against the Jews. Let’s keep reminding them of how crusaders slaughtered Muslim men, women and children after they conquered Jerusalem. Let’s keep reminding them of all the innocent women who were tortured and burned or drowned for being ‘witches’. Let’s keep reminding them of the Holy Inquisition. Let’s keep reminding them of the church’s lifelong support for dictatorships everywhere. But most of all, let’s keep reminding these freaks of the thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of children who were sexually abused in the name of the lord, and who are still being abused to this day. Maybe not so much in Europe or the U.S. any more, but you can bet that these practices are still continuing in the Third World.
So whether you consider yourself left wing or right wing, believer or not, you have every reason to be anticlerical, and proud of it.
It has been quite a week. As the revolution goes, three things in particular were worthy of note.
First, the death of Stéphane Hessel.
Hessel was a former diplomat, member of the resistance in France during WW2 and one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1948.
Two years ago, at 93 years of age, Hessel became an idol with the youth when he wrote a pamphlet called Indignez-Vous!, translated into English as ‘Time for Outrage!’
The pamphlet sold over two million copies in France alone. The Spanish translation was a major inspiration for the movement of the indignados.
As a member of the National Resistance Council, Hessel recalls the ideals that the Council adopted on 15 March 1944, and on which it wanted post-war society to be founded. These included “a comprehensive plan for Social Security, to ensure livelihoods for all citizens”, “a pension that allows old workers to finish their life in dignity”, “the return to the nation of the major means of production, common sources of energy, wealth of the subsoil, insurance companies and large banks”, “the establishment of genuine economic and social democracy which evicts large feudal economic and financial interests from the direction of our economy.” And, not in the least, a society where the press is free from corporate or foreign influences.
Over sixty years later, Hessel concludes that our society is not the one that was envisioned by the members of the National Resistance Council. Despite decades of booming economic growth, ours has turned into a society of suspicions against immigrants and expulsions, one that challenges pensions and social security, and where the media are in the hands of a few powerful people. Ours, in short, is not a society of which we, as human beings, can be proud.
Hessel denounced indifference as the worst of all attitudes, and he called for “a true and peaceful insurrection against the media that only offer our youth a horizon of mass consumption, of disdain for the weakest, of generalised amnesia, and of all-out competition of everyone against everyone else.”
He made an appeal to all youngsters. “To the men and women who will make the 21st century, we say, with affection: to create is to resist, to resist is to create.”
In 2011, his call to rise up took the world by storm. The spirit of resistance lives on.
Thank you, Stéphane Hessel. May you rest in peace.
Number two, last Saturday March 2 was another day of massive protests in Portugal. In thirty cities there were demonstrations against austerity. Over a million people took the streets, which is more than ten percent of the population. Imagine thirty million people demanding the resignation of President Obama on the same day. That’s about the scale of the protest.
The demos come a week after equally massive demonstrations of the ‘Citizen’s Tide’ in Spain. It looks like it’s going to be a hot spring on the peninsula.
Third, and most entertaining, is the elections in Italy. Without kidding, I’ve been rolling over the floor laughing. It’s a farce, but it’s all dead serious.
Immortal Berlusconi made yet another come-back. He had been declared politically dead by many commentators who don’t understand a thing about Italy. He might not have won parliament, but he did win the senate, which could give him enough political leverage to keep his ass out of prison.
But the real winner of the election is comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, a party-political version of the indignados.
In the foreign press, Grillo has been called a populist and has been compared to any other populist in Europe. This is not just bad journalism, it is intentionally misleading.
Beppe Grillo and the movement he inspires is one of a kind, at least for the moment. I remember the very beginnings of his political campaigning. It started in theaters, it went online through his daily blog, then he came to the squares to decry political corruption, in favour of participatory democracy. Grillo exposed politicians of all parties in a way that nobody ever dared to do from a pulpit. He had been banned from television, he had been ignored by the press, but thanks to the Internet his movement reached millions of Italians who are fed up with business as usual.
In 2009 he supported civil lists in local elections. His party won the mayorship of Parma and other towns. In 2012 he made a breakthrough in the Sicilian local election. Now, in the run-up to the general elections, he drew a hundred thousand people to his show in Milan, eight hundred thousand in Rome. He inspired people like only a black preacher with a gospel choir can do. The man is a phenomenon. Last week, his movement became the single biggest party in Italy.
It’s hilarious. A few years ago, when I left the Beautiful Country, Grillo was a troublemaker that politicians loved to ignore. Now they are begging him to support the formation of a government.
With enormous satisfaction, Grillo told them to fuck off. All his opponents have been in politics since the age of the dinosaurs, they have to go, and before they do, they have to account for all the income they received over the years. They created this mess, the citizens themselves will have to clean up. Grillo’s party will only support bills that reflect the movement’s principles. They will not support any government. The representatives of the M5S have been chosen through preliminary elections on the movement’s website. They are tied to a code of behaviour which obliges them to respect the electoral program they were voted to enact. They have renounced to more than half of their income, and they will refuse to use or accept the customary title of ‘honorable’. Instead, echoing the French Revolution, they will address all representatives as ‘citizen’.
On the day the M5S entered in the Italian parliament, they opened the doors to the public, saying ‘this is your house’.
The first demands of the movement have to do with the clean-up of Italian politics. Two mandates should be the maximum, parties should not receive public subsidies, and no condemned criminal should have the right to be elected.
The left wing party, if it is to form a government, will have to be supported either by Berlusconi or by Grillo. They know that Berlusconi will eat them alive, so they grudgingly prefer the other clown.
It’s going to be very risky for the new M5S representatives. The Italian parliament is the most dangerous place in the country. The crime rate at Montecitorio is much higher than the crime rate in the most lurid outskirts of Naples. The new parliamentarians and senators will be thrown into a pit full of snakes. These creepy lifeforms have been lurching in the shadows of power for ages, they know exactly how much one is worth, they know who is selling, and they know who is buying. Ethics are not an issue in Italian politics, and the worst thing that can happen is that the M5S movement is torn apart by the existing parties and massacred by the press.
With Beppe Grillo and his movement gaining notoriety, some commentators have tried to understand what is going on, some others are dismissing this movement all together. They say that Grillo is dangerous. They accuse his internet strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio of having a secret agenda. The writers collective Wu Ming published a shameless declaration in which they accuse Grillo of being ‘one of them’ politicians as usual, without presenting any credible basis at all for their accusations.
Instead of giving in to this crazy need to always have an opinion, on whatever subject, I urge people to shut up, and watch. Beppe Grillo’s movement is a first attempt to bring direct e-democracy to a real parliament. His newly elected representatives are in a position to make or break a government. Let’s enjoy this, let’s see what’s going to happen, and learn from it.