Hydrarchist analyses the death of the Italian extra-parliamentary political network, Disobbedienti (Disobedients), and reports on the rise of social precarity as a focus of political action in Italy
No formal announcement certified the end of the Disobedients (Disobbedienti) in Italy but the once dominant extraparliamentary network’s demise seems scarcely in dispute. What originated as the ‘White Overalls’ (WO) alliance between groups in the Veneto, Rome and Milan in 1998, encompassing satellite groups in other cities, is now in full decomposition as its constitutent elements abandon the logo and reassume identities related to their everyday territorial reality. The consequences are manifested both in a reshuffling of the relationships between the movements and the political parties, and a plurality of campaigns as the focus of struggle. But first some background and explanation.
The widespread riots and fierce police repression that accompanied the G8 in Genoa dealt a mortal blow to the model of controlled conflict and hybridisation with other political forces that had constituted the WO project since 1998. A language of heightened confrontation was adopted prior to the G8, but the scale of state reprisals found them unprepared. Afterwards there was a failure to assess what had really happened, as each group attempted to distance itself from responsibility. But repression can also produce unity and trans-regional ties were galvanised between some of the fractious inheritors of Autonomia Operaia (where a strong Rome – Padua axis can be traced to the late ’60s), the youth section of Rifondazione Communista (RC – an offshoot of the old Communist Party and still a major force on the reformist left) and the Greens around a platform of ‘social disobedience’. Thus occurred an apparently seamless transition from White Overalls to Disobedients, presented as a laboratory for experimentation with new political forms rather than a proposition for any type of unitary organisation. Nonetheless the new network suffered numerous defections due to exhaustion, unhappiness with the way in which Genoa had been managed, and from a sense that the open and experimental spirit which fuelled the WO had now disappeared. From this point onwards the Disobedients would be perceived as a force threatening to hegemonise and erode the autonomy of other groups. Their national nature, media-presence and involvement with political parties made them easy to cast as imperialist and overbearing.
Apart from a shared hostility to the suffocating and disciplinary pressures of the Communist Party there have always been radical differences in the autonomist left as to the attitude to assume towards elections. From 1976 some ‘extraparliamentary’ groups ran candidates on the list of Democrazia Proletaria (absorbed by RC in 1992). Participation was justified as a means to construct counter-power and extend the dynamic of conflictuality to these institutions. Others assumed an abstentionist position, rejected mediation and advocated social autonomy – the daily unfolding of material conflict in perpetual antagonism to politics, understood as an institutionalised management of social conflict.
Relations with the parties vary according to local factors, which in Italy can never be underestimated. In the Veneto (Padua, Venice) acute hostility towards the Communist Party tradition combined with the evisceration of concentrations of labour in the factories – the Veneto’s restructured economic form based on small-scale networked production has made it a textbook example of post-fordism – and the importance of environmentalism have made the Greens the post-autonomists’ political vehicle of choice. Being a ‘salon’ party with neither tradition or a consolidated grassroots, the Greens are less resistant to new ideas, more malleable to internal reconfiguration. The relationship has allowed the translation of the autonomists’ strong territorial presence into an increased political visibility and thus provided a greater margin for action. There are concrete benefits as well: the stability of occupied spaces; the ability to create structures with which its militants can survive materially; and legitimation through a role in local government.
Meanwhile in Rome the chaotic urgency of the metropolis produces self-organised reappropriation for the resolution of basic needs, especially housing. RC remains an important force in the city and contains significant pro-movement elements. Here the Disobedients have reformed around ACTION (Agency for Social Rights), driven by activists from the social centre Corto Circuito, which has won accomodation for more than a thousand people through occupations and earned considerable respect. Since 1997 they have also elected city and district councillors as independents on the list of RC, a relationship which extends their capacity to negotiate over housing and provides protection from otherwise certain police prosecution. In both Rome and the Veneto work with migrants for housing and papers has been central in recent years – and this extends to libertarians and activists of all stripes – and has been an area where intervention at an institutional level is both useful and inevitable.
Tensions over the relationship with the political parties came to a head in the Disobedients during the European elections in June. Whilst the Veneto section supported the candidacy of the Greens’ Bettin, the Romans ran a popular candidate on the list of RC, Nunzio D’Erme, famous for having dumped several bags of manure in front of Berlusconi’s Roman residence. Polling better than expected, he was their fifth highest vote-winner nationally. RC’s share of the vote gave them five seats to distribute but D’Erme was passed over in favour of Niki Vendola, from the South where the RC are currently enjoying considerable growth. Given that a candidate from the North-East was given a seat with a far smaller number of votes, this was understandably viewed as betrayal, and evidence of a cynicism towards the movements to which it had professed an openness since the mid-’90s. This crisis polarised existing divisions within the Disobedients and political bloodletting on a local level lead to a reversion to local identities and a retreat from hybridisation. RC are now openly in cahoots with the government-in-waiting of Romano Prodi, whose Grand Democratic Alliance will challenge and probably defeat Berlusconi at the next election. Consequently the radical left needs to reposition itself with respect to the future power structure, both to get what they need and retain a clear oppositional profile.
Nonetheless some type of relationship with the political system remains unavoidable, even if unformalised or unwitting. How one conceives the purpose of representation will fashion the terms on which it occurs. One vision explicitly legitimises local politics as a space to establish a counterweight to the deterritorialising tendency of globalised production, and a stage for practical demonstrations of counter-government. Here parallels are made with Zapatista autonomous communities, which, transposed to Italy, has meant involvement at a municipal level and the election of councillors. Elsewhere Antonio Negri recently set out criteria for the relationship with party politics in general, insisting on the absolute primacy of the social movement over political parties, whose legitimation resides solely in their capacity to serve, resource and open up political space for extra-political activity. Accordingly, party alliances are justified provided that the relationship is not one of subalternity (whereby parties exploit social movements so as to rebuild their diminishing base) but ‘navigational’ authority, where party direction derives from demands expressed externally. Handily enough this both functions as a justification for the past as well as a programme for the future, and an argument for keeping RC at arms length.
In the meantime the rapid rise to prominence of social precarity as a political flash-point has seen an influx of former Disobedients (now rebranded as ‘Invisibles’ and ‘Global’) into the organisation of the Mayday parade in Milan. A derivative network named PreCog – precarious and cognitive workers – has taken shape in the last year, popularising the cult of San Precario, mythopoetical patron saint of dispossessed but combative subjects, with the intention of rejuvenating the popular imagination of a fight for new social rights. As a network PreCog contains many sensibilities external to the former Disobedients including a ‘Neurogreen’ tendency (environmentalist and libertarian with a focus on imposing pressure at local and European level) which sees in the Green Party a vehicle for more flexible political opposition and a global environmentalist sensibility proper to the problems of advanced capitalism. Meanwhile the social autonomy perspective within PreCog and the the ‘National Network for a Guaranteed Income’, which continues to prioritise the diffuse conflictuality of the ‘precariat’ and its ability to configure the social balance of forces, is also in a process of growth and recomposition. In spite of these heterogeneous approaches the outline of a shared trajectory emerged around the question of income, encompassing the national demonstration for a guaranteed income on 6 November 2004 and next year’s Mayday Parades.
THE PRECARIAT STRIKES BACK!
The simmering tension between parties and movements came to a head during the November demonstration. Under the playful acronym GAP – Grand Alliance of the Precarious, a parody of Prodi’s Grand Democratic Alliance – workplace committees from Alitalia to care-workers, grassroots trade unions, and social centres of every hue converged for direct actions of reappropriation to protest the increasing cost of living and demand access to wealth and a street parade through the city centre. ‘Autoreduction’ is an Italian term for imposing a discount ‘from below’ and it was planned to perform one in a suburban supermarket. Having neutralised police attention through cunning use of the subway system, the protestors arrived eventually in Pietralata, immortalised in Pasolini’s films Theorem and Accatone, where a shopping centre owned by Berlusconi is handily located by the train station. Once inside 700 participants filled their trolleys with goods, and blocked the cash registers chanting ‘everything costs too much!’ Negotiation began with management for a discount of 70 percent for everyone in the store, but in the meantime many people simply walked out with their trolleys and began distributing goods to families and pensioners, drinking wine and sharing sweets. This gesture was initially met with incredulity, but soon the party was in full swing. Meanwhile the electronics and clothing departments upstairs were by now in the grip of frenzy: computers, phones, DVD players and flat-screen monitors made their way out the door. At this point many ‘ordinary shoppers’ had succumbed to repressed desire and started to help themselves. Faced with a plainly uncontrollable situation the small number of police present were powerless. Later that day it had been planned to distribute copied DVDs inside the Feltrinelli book and entertainment chain as a symbolic rejection of copyright laws that limit access to culture and knowledge. Echoes of the morning however were too strong; as the demonstration passed by 200 people entered, filled their arms with books and charged back out into the street into the street parade of 25,000 people: workers committees, migrants, grassroots trade unions, house occupants and students, and a hundred other shades of precarity.
Predictably the media and political class have embarked on a hysterical condemnation of these actions, and have attempted to impute responsibility to the Disobedients, who as recounted above scarcely exist. Arrests and a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy have been promised. Notwithstanding the brouhaha, commentators have had to acknowledge both a widespread sympathy for what happened and the emergence of the precariat as a problem henceforth at the centre rather than the margins of society. Individual MPs from both the Greens and RC have even expressed support, but the parties have officially distanced themselves from the acts, widening the schism between movement and orthodox forms of representation. RC’s current fixation with consensus and terror at any taint of illegality that could be depicted as being violent makes constructive cooperation nigh impossible. Here no violence was involved and the action was performed without any attempt to conceal participants’ identities, a fact for which participants will pay a heavy legal price.
Amidst all this however, GAP has maintained a tortured silence, torn between the need to respond whilst under the public eye and the distrust of collective utterance and representation which remain unresolved. Journalists have filled this void by nominating former Disobedients as the voice of the precarious. This unhelpful personalisation derives from their use of ‘spokespeople’ – in fact leaders – that monopolised media coverage of the ‘no-global’ period. Such distorted representations allow the action to be pigeonholed as belonging to pre-fabricated media constructions – ‘autonomists’, ‘Disobedients’, ‘inheritors of ‘77’ – cast as alien to people’s everyday experience of contradiction with their living conditions, and so inhibiting any broader social identification with the practice.
A renewed realism as to the acute difficulties faced in everyday life underlies the emphasis on precarity. Spiralling rents, an increased cost of living, and poor social/labour mobility – not to mention the apocalyptic turmoil worldwide – are generating a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future. In the absence of a substantial social welfare buffer, this focus enables a narration of needs and desires in the first-person and facilitates a rupture with discourses of the ‘no-global’ period which often lapsed into a jaded third-worldism, where the ‘serious’ problems were often exoticised or abstracted as somebody else’s, somewhere else.
Social movements in Italy function best when external factors oblige cooperation and marginalise intra-movement rivalry, yet an inability to coldly appraise the efficiency of discarded strategies threatens to nullify the benefits of experience. The Gordian knots of representation, relations with the institutions, and internal and network democracy are not going away. With a centre-left government on the horizon, and the fertile ground for reactionary demagogy that promises, the challenge will be to maintain abrasive contestation, autonomous from the party system, without being relegated to the margins, where the only dividend is unceasing police attention.
 Antonio Negri, ‘Contro il pensiero molle dell'organizzazione’, Posse, Nuovoi Animali Politici, Manifesto Libri, April 2004
Hydrarchist is a researcher and contrarian