Patrice Riemens on Fri, 9 Aug 2002 23:06:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Toni Negri: Social Struggles in Italy - Creating a new Left in Italy

Lifted from the list Multitudes-info
Translated by Ed Emery


Creating a new Left in Italy


A year ago the big Genoa demonstrations against the G8 summit were a shock
awakening for Italy. A few months previously the Left had been swept from
power and Silvio Berlusconi seemed to think that his huge electoral
majority gave him carte blanche to do what he liked. Genoa upset his
plans. The anti-globalisation movement turned out in force and mobilised
large numbers of people. New forms of struggle are now beginning to
emerge, and a working class offensive on various fronts has shown no sign
of abating. Paradoxically, by bringing people out onto the streets the
victory of the Right has raised hopes for a possibility of re-founding the
Left and rebuilding the Republic.

After Silvio Berlusconi's victory in the Italian elections of May 2001 it
was obvious to observers of the political scene that the Left had been
utterly routed. Not only had it lost seats, it had also lost confidence.
The rise of social democracy was reaching its limit, and the reformist
turn of the ex-great and glorious Communist Party of Italy (PCI) was
foundering in historic defeat. The various components of the centre Left
were quibbling among themselves under the fierce and ironic gaze of the

Then came Genoa and the events of July 2001. Wielding plastic swords and
cardboard shields the anti-globalisation movement set off to scale the
heights of the G8 summit. This was a new gathering of political and social

Politically it brought together people from the far Left autonomia
movement (the tute bianche, so named because they wear white overalls on
demonstrations) and Catholics groups with experiences of working in the
community. Both of these components - each present in large numbers and
with a history of militant activity behind them - brought in their wake a
multifarious tribe of demonstrators.

In social terms the multitude (1) represented at Genoa was the first full
representation of the new layer of precarious workers in "social" labour
produced by the revolution of post-Fordism. When they first came onto the
streets they were not fully aware of their power, but they knew that they
owed nothing to the ruling Right - and even less to this centre Left that
had been defeated because it had contributed to breaking working-class
resistance to neo-liberalism (as well as stupidly participating in the
creation of new proletarians). They were also aware that a new poverty was
being created - precisely within the area of intellectual and immaterial
labour, a key area where signs of emancipation have been beginning to

Genoa was a huge shock. For the first time in Italian history the police
acted with absolutely no restraint, with techniques of "low intensity
warfare" akin to those used by the Israelis in Palestine. Carlo Giuliani,
a young demonstrator, was killed by a bullet fired in his face by a
policeman who was the same age as him. Twenty-four hours later, in the
night, a hundred sleeping demonstrators were brutally attacked and injured
by groups of overexcited police.

The social democratic Left had been absent from the preparations for the
Genoa demonstration, and even when faced by the horror of what had
happened they were at a loss for how to react. And to its shame the
parliamentary opposition was no better. It was fearful and half paralysed,
incapable of protesting in the face of the huge perversion of democratic
process that Berlusconi's government has perpetrated.

All the above explains why we now have a new scenario in Italy. Grassroots
militants, intellectuals, teachers and women are publicly voicing their
discontent about the lack of substance in the Left leadership and its
inability to lead. This has been dubbed the movimento dei girotondi, the
"ring-a-roses" movement. It is not contesting social democracy as such but
rather the inertia and vacuity of the Left leadership. It expresses itself
through public meetings involving well-known intellectuals of the Left

This movements of dissenting intellectuals has coincided with a
development of social movements in Italy. We have seen a proliferation of
demonstrations on the streets. On 10 November 2001, as a response to the
attacks of 11 September, the Right attempted to organise a march "in
solidarity with the American flag" - in other words in support of the US
decision to initiate a programme of long-term global war. Hundreds of
thousands of counter-demonstrators took to the streets to oppose the march
and to express their desire for peace.

Trade union revival

Immigrants also staged marches - in Rome and elsewhere - against the
Bossi-Fini law (3) which proposed that the Rights of immigrants
(particularly residence permits) should be tied to their having regular
jobs. This expresses perfectly the hypocrisy of a country which is
Europe's number one in terms of illegal labour and the violence of its
government. Immigrant resistance has been so strong that this year the
first "colour strikes" were staged in key industries in Northern Italy.

Another front of resistance has been the campaign against the imposition
of Berlusconi's school reform programme: hundreds of thousands of students
and teachers protested in the streets over a period of several weeks.

In short, since the summer of 2001 we have seen a cycle of continuous
struggles against everything from war to the growing impact of
neoliberalism in Italian society. Genoa provided the foundation for this
movement and still serves as a reference point.

It was also after Genoa, and on the margins of this "multitude" of
struggles, that we again began to see action by the trade unions. The
unions too had been profoundly disorientated by Berlusconi's election
victory. While some of the fringe elements - for instance the engineering
workers of the Italian General Federation of Workers (FIOM-CGIL) and
several of the teaching unions - had supported the anti-globalisation
initiatives, the leaderships of the big unions were in the same state of
disarray as the Democratici di sinistra (DS - Democrats of the Left),
particularly since they had been accustomed to having an easy time in
exchange for their support for Italy's centre Left governments. In two
particular instances their inertia would be radically shaken.

In the first of these, the response of the social democratic Left to
electoral defeat was to try to to regroup via a shift to the Right. At the
DS congress in Pesaro in November 2001 this led to a fierce clash with the
CGIL trade union. The ex-Communist Party leadership was perceived as a
political elite with no scruples in its determination to hang on to power.
A combination of cynicism and Blairism. But this is not a choice open to
the CGIL: it knows that young workers feel far closer to the demonstrators
at Genoa than to the old-style corporatism of the Left. So the union feels
obliged to oppose the centre Left's drift to neo-liberalism.

The second instance was the arrogance of the Berlusconi government in its
push to abolish Article 18 of Italy's statuto dei lavoratori (workers'
charter) which says that people cannot be sacked without "good reason".
Although this has generally remained a dead letter it is now acquiring
increasing symbolism.

It was these two provocations that brought the trade union leadership onto
the terrain occupied by the autonomous movements, the "Genoans" and the
"girotondi" activists, and this in turn fed into the anti-war movement and
the movements against school reform and discrimination against immigrants.
On 23 March 2002 a march by 3m people capped a process that had begun in
Genoa less than a year previously. A formidable movement is in the process
of recomposing itself, contesting not only the current government but also
- and above all - the opposition parties. The aim is to rebuild a Left
worthy of the name.

This movement, now representing about 20% of the Italian electorate, is
obviously complex. It has to choose between a number of possible
scenarios. The first is the option of maintaining the present "Blairist"
leadership of the centre Left, the option supported by the media. This
would lead inevitably to a growth in trade union struggles, and probably
also to violent resistance. But it is possible - and this is the second
scenario - that despite its internal divisions the present CGIL leadership
might find ways to combine with elements of radical Catholicism to rebuild
a decent social democratic Left with a chance of electoral success in the
foreseeable future.

For a concept of "absolute democracy"?

This second scenario finds some favour on the Left. It would have the
advantage of marginalising the post-communists who since the 1970s have
been actively involved in repressing social movements, muzzling the trade
unions, bureaucratising parliamentary representation and contributing to
the present reactionary shift, thereby betraying the communist tradition.
However in my opinion we need to be very careful here. The worrying part
of this scenario is not the probity or coherence of the CGIL leadership
but its cultural deficit - a culture best described as workerist. It still
fantasises a governing project based on the old idea that the working
class can still be the bearer of "hegemonic" values, in the Gramscian

Unfortunately the world is no longer made that way. Most of the new
movements consider that any attempt to rebuild a Left has to be based on
entirely new sectors: The working class, of course - but also precarious
workers and the poor. Industrial workers but also intellectual workers.
White men but also women and immigrants. And this brings us to the third
and final scenario, the one being advanced by the anti-globalisation
movement, now the strongest component of the Left. This would involve
rebuilding the Left around a Welfare State programme, with a guaranteed
income, universal citizenship, freedom of migration, and a new definition
of common goods which would then be defended and promoted in terms of
ecology, production and what we call the "biopolitical".

This new programme - for a next and more advanced stage of the communist
revolution - is now firmly lodged in the political awareness of
substantial numbers of citizens and militants of the new Left. It is a
programme for "absolute democracy" as Spinoza would have said and as Marx
would have wished: a republic based on the broadest possible cooperation
between citizens, and on the development of common goods. These are the
terms in which we can really talk about freedom for all. The alternative
would be an abandonment of the ballot box and a negative and frustrated
exodus by the citizenry.

Therefore in Italy we now need an open and deep-rooted debate between the
components of this new movement and those of the the trade union Left.
Both sides first have to get rid of the present social democratic
leadership. They must break the dead weight of bureaucracy which still
acts to stifle the social movements. They will have to mobilise people
around a new programme of opposition to the globalised world market. They
will also have to win back to politics the 20% of voters whose abstention
is a form of passive resistance to electoral politics, and involve them in
participation and citizenship. These people could be a powerful force for

I should stress here the importance of administrative participation and,
more generally, of associationism. These involve a complete re-think of
the very concept of politics, conceived not as representative but as
expressive, and also of the concept of militancy. It is important that we
make them a reality.

After 23 March this rolling growth of movements and struggles appeared to
lose some of its political intensity. This phase of uncertainty was
apparent when, faced with a trade union call for a general strike on 16
April 2002, the anti-globalisation movement also called for a "generalised
strike", but did not identify the forms that this should take. Where
people acted on the slogan it resulted in demonstrations which were small
and which, unlike what happens when factory workers go on strike, had no
real impact on the powers that be. Precarious workers, flexible workers,
mobile workers and what we call the "social" worker were not able to hit
the bosses where it hurts. This meant a certain loss of confidence and a
temptation to return to the old methods of representation of the CGIL.

A temptation to be avoided. The problem is not leaderships but political
line and a relaunching of hope. The problem is that social democracy has
exhausted its historic mission. In all big political meetings you now hear
people saying that we must re-found the movement outside of the social
democratic tradition, by building unity between factory workers and other
workers and the excluded, and by recognising that the social "precariat"
and the intellectual forces of production are now predominant in political

But above all what is being expressed, in pockets of activity all over
Italy, is an intense and intelligent desire to discover forms of social
struggle giving organisational expression to the new unity being created
on the streets. For instance people are now thinking of ways to organise
strikes within what we call "immaterial" labour; to communicate struggles
by using the connectivity of the Internet; and to take apart capitalism's
command over the metropolis. This is the way - indeed it is the only way -
that the Left can be rebuilt.

So, to sum up: Italy is absolutely the best example in Europe of a
situation in which a failure of the social democratic Left has been
followed by an effective action of resistance. We have experienced a kind
of leap in consciousness. It is hard to define, but what it tells us is
that the multitudes no longer need social democracy in order to struggle
and change the world. The talk in Italy is of a "movement of movements", a
process of seeking out new forms of political expression both at the
theoretical level and in grassroots struggles. The project is to set in
place new systems of hegemony. The "Italian laboratory" has begun its

Translated by Ed Emery

* Co-author, with Michael Hardt, of Empire, Harvard, 2000.

1) Definitions of the political terminology used in this article can be
found in Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London 2000, and
Revolution Retrieved: Selected Writings of Toni Negri, Red Notes, London
1983. Some of the ideas are also developed in articles contained at

2) For example an impassioned outburst by film director Nanni Moretti at a
public meeting organised by the centre Left in Piazza Navona, Rome in
February 2002 served to catalyse a whole segment of the broad Left. People
went and organised human chains around public institutions under threat
from Berlusconian reform - the headquarters of RAI (the Italian
broadcasting corporation), lawcourts, etc.

3) Umberto Bossi is the leader of the xenophobic and secessionist Lega
Nord (Northern League). Gianfranco Fini heads the Alleanza Nazionale
(formerly the Italian Social Movement - MSI) which since the mid-1990s has
transformed itself into a party of the liberal Right. Bossi and Fini are
both members of the Berlusconi government.

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