I'm my personal revolution: the Purple Movement in Italy

What has allowed Italy's 'purple movement', growing out of a relatively small number of web users, to mobilise dissatisfaction across the country from north to south? The answer holds up a cruel mirror to the old collective forms of resistance, as well as sending a warning to Italy's governing class

After December 5th – the date that will be remembered in Italy’s history as ‘No Berlusconi Day’ - the colour purple gained sufficient media attention to guarantee it significance beyond any momentary trend. It’s the symbolic colour of a battle for the affirmation of democracy, for the respect of our Constitutional Charter as the foundation of civilised living, for the defense of a free and plural information system, for the construction – in short – of that cultural and political renovation process that has been far too long delayed in this country.

The “purple” movement was born on the day after the failure to pass the Lodo Alfano law in the Constitutional Court, at the beginning of October 2009. An anonymous citizen – hiding behind the pseudonym of San Precario – sensing the rising wave of popular indignation against the arrogant reaction of the Prime Minister when the law was declared unconstitutional (a law that would have protected the four bigger leadership positions of the State – President of the Republic, President of the Senate, President of the House of Commons, Prime Minister - from being prosecuted for any charge), decided to organise a big demonstration calling for the dismissal of Silvio Berlusconi. The contacts on the Facebook page (the social network created by a young American university student in 2004 that now connects more than 400 million registered users all over the world) set up to organize the demonstration grew and grew. Local groups sprung up all over, where people shared their skills and time to design flyers, to feed information into the demonstration, and grouping to share travel arrangements with people coming by car or to fill the coaches that would head towards Rome on the day of the demonstration.

This was how the first internet auto-promoted demonstration managed to bring at least one million people to Rome, without the mediation of political parties, trade unions or associations. Ordinary citizens met in San Giovanni square, the square traditionally used for protest by big trade unions and political parties, for ease of access in organizing transport, and the logistics of speech-making from the stage. A “connective intelligence”, to quote the sociologist de Kerckhove, running through the web, affirmed the rights “from below”, above all by those who feel themselves more and more marginalised. The first of these rights is to live in a country where the principles sanctioned by the Constitution are respected by their political representatives in government. 

December 5 was just the first in a long series of public initiatives organised by the purple movement. All these demonstrations, both local and national, have followed the same scheme of the NBD: they were auto-organized through the web; no politician was allowed to make speeches from the stage; and the focus is on our Constitutional principles.

It’s worth asking oneself why such a self-initiated movement, born and reared on the web, transversal from a social and cultural point of view, albeit with a huge, fresh influx of young participants, could mobilise and inspire hundreds of thousands of people around the issue of the defense of the Constitutional principles and what they have to say about how we live together as civilians and democrats. In fact, in Italy, the Internet is used by just 20 million people, only 7 million of whom use it regularly and actively (according to Osservatorio Permanente data on digital contents).

The answer to that question is to be found in one excerpt of the records of the Constituent Assembly - namely, a dialogue between Aldo Moro and Palmiro Togliatti about the opportunity, subsequently rejected, to insert an article that would sanction the individual right to resistance in our Constitution: that is, resistance against a State aiming to use its sovereignty to threaten those principles.

This is the thread that unites this new “public opinion 2.0.” born on the net through social networks.The “purples” are the expression of this sense that it is the right of individuals, even if not sanctioned by the Constitution, to resist the State, not to subvert the established order, but to protect it, and to protect democracy.

A movement such as this, expressing a wide dissatisfaction that spreads across the country from south to north, cannot be described as representing an “antipolitical” sentiment (an accusation often visited on it by shallow critics, including those politicians who have found themselves its target).  The purple movement, just like any free form of aggregation and expression – gathers together the excellence and virtuosity of individual intelligences, just as Pierre Levy emphasises, but it can also attract the lower forms of fanaticism. Up till now, the “purple” movement has succeeded in keeping its different souls together, as a unique, pooled energy - not just one of many political subjects in a crowded arena – forging individual and collective experiences in the common battle in defence of the Constitution, for free expression and information and for individual citizenship rights.

This emerging of the purple movement definitely confirms and highlights the crisis of representation that’s been hitting political parties and trade unions over the last decades. These public entities look, by contrast, completely unable to respond to the challenges caused by the complex political, social and cultural changes brought about by the third millennium. The crisis of representation manifests itself in the way this movement was born: through the Internet. The net is – with all the limitations connected to this definition – an open, fluid, space, where the rules are self-determined by the community willing to represent itself (i.e. the global community feeding Wikipedia, the free and opened encyclopedia). The net is a natural incubator of dissent, connected to the scarcity of trust in the political class which is, with just a few exceptions, more and more distant from its electorate - a political class which is disconnected from civil society and perceived as administering rules and norms that it doesn’t itself respect.

This latent mistrust, often translated into opened hostility, is protected by the movement from the risk of being instrumentalized by traditional political forces, which in the past did contaminate them. It has challenged them to criticize their own actions, denouncing their inadequacy.

Instead, the purple movement has been working on the creation of a common front, fuelled by opposition to the “Berlusconian” cultural model and the aim to stop the authoritarian trend practised by the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi; an opposition that could be the starting point for fundamental renewal of a country that has been weakened by the economic crisis, brutalized by the dominant TV culture and mortified by reactionary legislation.

The strength of the purple movement lies in its capacity to use the web as a tool to both spread information and as a source of socialized forms of communication. These forms of communication allow people to express individual dissent through what Manuel Castells calls “mass-self communication”: a type of communication that is both autonomous and interconnected in its production of content, in its way of spreading and receiving communication, inside a “many to many” frame.

This allows an expression of dissent and opposition to dominion that can be autonomous from that of constraining collectivities – political parties, trade unions, associations – once the only protagonists of political, social and individual dissent. This kind of action in which the social actors lost their individual drive in the collective goal has now been replaced by one where the construction of dissent derives first and foremost from an individual drive and its need to express itself. This individual drive is connected to hundreds of thousands of people through the web.

Certainly, the purple movement is an experiment in the delicate phase of its development; and indeed these new forms of expression are already suffering to a degree from what we might call a 'strained horizontality', which prevents the emergence of leadership and a construction of consent as responsive as it can be on the web.

The future of the purple movement relies on its capacity to keep alive the dynamism that has characterized it, its ability in creating “biodegradable nets”, able to be born and die according to the logic of the single events that provoke them, to be born again in new forms, over and over again.

If the movement maintains its fluidity and its ability to create connections between different realities without any prejudice, then it will keep on being a remarkable “box” for all the cultural, social and political subjectivities fighting for renovation.

About the author

Emanuele Toscano is a researcher at “Sapienza” University in Rome and associate fellow at Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations (CRER) at the University of Warwick, UK. He teaches Sociology at University l’Aquila and is editor of New Cultural Frontiers