Can Europe Make It?

The Italian social strike is a landmark event for the precariat

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Last week the Italian precariat took a step beyond primitive rebellion and began to constitute itself as a politics. As its arguments take shape those involved must work to engage with communities outside of the activist world.

Jamie Mackay
17 November 2014

The sciopero sociale approaches Bologna’s piazza dell’Indipendenza. Photo: author

On 14 November student activists, precarious workers and migrant organizations held a daylong protest in twenty-five Italian cities. It was a triumphant moment of organization for an emerging precariat movement in the nation and a confident challenge to Matteo Renzi’s centre-left government, which has been accused by numerous groups of placing business interests over those of Italian citizens.  

The name chosen for the action was ‘sciopero sociale’, social strike. It’s a phrase that sounds a little uneasy in English – caught between the discourses of advertising and old labour rhetoric. In Italian it remains problematic, though has a more enticing rhythm and less prominent association with centralized power. As one activist put it to me: “this strike is an attempt to find new meaning in a space that has been taken away from us [the withdrawal of labour]”. In a context of high unemployment and large-scale emigration, the event is best understood as a questioning of what it means to struggle today rather than an outright solution. How might precarious workers go on strike when they have no right to strike, when they can’t strike? Why might they want to? What kinds of radical intervention might be made within and against the strike form by this new class?

The constituent assembly in Rome. Photo: sciopero sociale

The mobilisation was organized by a loose coalition of activists who met at a constituent assembly in Rome earlier this year in the occupied factory and social centre Officine Zero. While the theory underpinning the meeting owed much to the esoteric Italian school of post-operaismo, the proposed ‘social programme’ reflected many of the themes that have been taken up by other groups around Europe, most notably the new Spanish party Podemos. During the meeting an “initial list” of ten demands was drawn-up including: 1) the abolition of the nation’s 46 varieties of precarious contract 2) a pledge of €20m to fund a basic income 3) the introduction of a European minimum wage of €10 per hour 4) the constitutional redefinition Europe as a legislative entity with an explicit commitment to acting in the interests of society over those of capital.   

The conception of an experimental strike, however, was the most hotly contested topic, and it was this that came to shape the proposed event. In Italy as elsewhere there is growing discontent, particularly among young people, that conventional trade unions are unable to represent their grievances. In order to take this feeling beyond the private sphere it was decided that there should be an autonomous day of action, a strike, for those on part-time and contracts, working in ‘logistics’, call centres, journalism, advertising, and crucially those without regular employment.

Linking arms, linking struggles 

I spent November 14 in Bologna, one of Italy’s most left-wing cities with a long history of civil resistance to capitalism mediated through autonomous workers’ organisations. The demonstration assembled at 10 o clock in the central square Piazza Maggiore with a small crowd of a few hundred. A large heavily graffitied truck hovered in front of sporting banners, posters and playing ska, dubstep and hiphop.

Placard, “the invisible precarious will break the silence”. Photo: author

 

A young activist sets off a flare in Piazza Maggiore. Photo: author

Given the tone of the organizers’ rhetoric what was most astounding was the youthfulness of the demonstration. By far the largest block were the high-school students, who spent the morning dancing, shouting and setting-off flares. Their mischievous banner read: “If this is the good school, then we are the evil ones”, a tongue and cheek objection to Renzi’s proposed school reforms which have been widely recognized by teachers and students as engendering a multi-tier system and segregating the historic “public” these institutions were designed to encourage. The average age of those in the piazza must have been around 17, a fact which saw the infamously militant activists of the HOBO collective confined to the rear of the demo.

The high school block. Photo: author

The march lasted a few hours, blocking-off several key sites including the town hall, the visa office and the university, which as one demonstrator yelled down the microphone: “is a space promises to set us free with education, but has undermined the very meaning of this sentence by tying it to a system of private ownership and exchange relations”. Fiery rhetoric certainly, but this was not a millenarian or even a purely ‘emotional’ demonstration. Banners were erected along Via Zamboni, the main student thoroughfare, detailing university proposals to sell department buildings to private contractors and the crimes of regional housing monopolies. More seasoned activists pasted strike literature onto the walls ensuring that the national demands remained prominent throughout the procession.

While clashes broke out in Milan and Padova the Bologna mobilisation passed peacefully in large part due to the behavior of police who wisely kept their distance. Free from the spectacle of riot shields and the background noise of alpha male grunting the demo became a space of joy and solidarity, of jokes and tactile bodies. It was a clear-cut example of how such events can thrive when they are able to flourish without excessive surveillance and the constant threat of violence.

A Ghanaian activist steps-up to the microphone. Photo: author

The march ended in Piazza dell'Indipendenza when the police finally mobilized to form a line and prevent the demonstration from leaving the centre. As people began to disperse an elderly Ghanaian man took the microphone and performed an eloquant monologue which glued the hungry marchers to the spot. “The rights of all you young people here are linked to those of the migrants and refugees who are arriving” he boomed, “we are here also to fight for the rights of migrants to be a full part of this society, to receive documentation and not be left waiting interminably for the permesso di soggiorno”. His was the largest cheer of the day. 

From social strike to precariat struggle

The sciopero sociale was conceived as an “experiment” and there is much to be learnt from this first major event. The theoretical basis of the ‘base’ was largely successful, particularly the idea of a possible precarious movement incorporating many existing groups into a single collective. Not only does this word resonate among the young it drew visible support from a politically cynical older generation which is still bankrolling its children well into their 30s. If actions around this theme can continue to go beyond the language of victimization, precarity could be a useful ‘positive’ identity against the crisis and has the potential to develop into something with real agency.

Likewise, the tactics adopted on the day – fun direct action with an emphasis on play, music and vocal demands  – were appealing and free from Leninist-style theatrics that have held back similar attempts. In Bologna the open mic allowed the organisers to control the demo effectively while maintaining a democratic platform. In a climate of growing antagonism towards migrant workers and refugees it was beautiful to witness children being confronted directly with the experience of war and debt, and to see them ready to fight alongside these groups for a better society. At a national level, the success of mobilising in twenty-five cities at once should be recognized as a major achievement, even if these did vary considerably in size and composition. 

There is much to be celebrated, then, but the movement remains fragile. The precariat is a broad and complex group with severe internal divisions and there is no reason (yet) to believe that these will be privileged actors in mobilizing it. The first obstacle, then, and perhaps the most difficult to overcome, is that of numbers. Bologna’s turnout was less impressive than might have been expected given the city’s long history of large scale protests and while the demos in Rome and Naples saw many thousands marching there is scope for a more eclectic mobilisation around these demands. One activist boldly proclaimed: “It’s not just us here on the streets but those you can’t see, in libraries and cafes and bedrooms”. This is certainly a powerful sentiment but betrayed a vanity that was otherwise absent from the demonstration. The sciopero sociale must find ways to actually engage these bedroom workers if the experiment is to develop into the kind of movement desired by those on the demo.  

The organisers march wearily behind the students. Photo: author

Ultimately I came away puzzled by the method of the strike itself. While the tactic was effective in making the precariat visible, and particularly so in remote workplaces across the country, it still seems alien as a strategy for actual liberation. Many of those marching, for example, were not in work at all, and many of others are strongly opposed to the old left with which this kind of action is associated. The argument was a clever one - demonstrating to a new group and indeed generation of activists the erosion of workers’ rights - but its efficacy was limited by the composition of those on the streets (who ultimately have and should have the last word). For me it felt like a step backwards. It was a strange strike, not held over wages or job losses alone but for a basic income and a ‘social Europe’. The tactic of withdrawing work evolved in order to mediate the local and achievable demands of the mass worker. The desires of 14N’s deterritorialised network were more ambitious, more concerned with subjectivity and, most importantly, society. 

The success of the event, however, should be measured against the context of a growing schism in the Italian state. The main focus of pubic debate here has been the tension between CGIL, the assembled trade unions, and Matteo Renzi’s programme of reforms (in particular the controversial Jobs Act). This is a narrative of gnostic conflict: a neoliberal vaguard versus the ‘mass’ demand of re-industrialisation and economic protectionism. Both arguments are unacceptable to the precariat and, as the demands demonstrated, incompatible with the needs of those who marched on #14N. Politically, then, the day was a powerful counter-narrative to both the political class and the incumbent left, an argument less about the state of work than the conditions that must urgently be created beyond it.  

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