It seems a century has gone by since the political season of the Tute Bianche (White Overalls), but it was only a little over ten years ago. Ten years in which much has happened. Despite the historical shifts that have taken place in these past ten years, rebellious students in Rome and in London last autumn endorsed the experience of conflict invented by the Tute Bianche: shields and helmets for body protection; violation of the red zones and of the headquarters of institutional political power, barricaded behind their edifices, with no democratic relationship with society.
Such practices weren’t merely an imitation of the previous experiences of conflict, but in fact gave a whole new reading to them, an absolutely original one and a very effective one: shields were replaced by the book- shields, armour displaying the point that knowledge has become the means of physical protection for those protesting against the dismantlement of the public university, against job insecurity and unemployment. There are many more differences marking this new interpretation of the conflict. Let’s continue in order.
1. Tute Bianche: the practice of conflict and communication
White overalls (typical work clothes) where used for the first time in Italy in September 1994, during a violent demonstration staged by social centre activists in Milan. Social centres concentrated their effort in Milan, opposing the evacuation of the historical social centre Leoncavallo: 10,000 militants cornered the municipal administration, the police, the power players in the city and re-conquered the self-managed area, the present site of the social centre.
But it was only years later, beginning in 1998, that the Tute Bianche became a political movement. The movement took shape in Rome, looking to the protests of the French unemployed. The choice of the garment, the white overalls, was a very precise one: compared to the blue overalls (traditionally the garment of the working class), white overalls are the symbol of the youth workforce, mostly precarious, working on short term labour contracts, without rights or guarantees, excluded from the Fordism Social Contract which includes permanent labour contracts, paid holidays and sick and maternity leave and social security payment. A workforce with average qualifications, the result of mass schooling which took place after ’68. These are the distinctive traits of the style in which the actions of the Tute Bianche were carried out and of their political agenda: blitzes with a high communication impact (the occupation of political and economical headquarters, unilateral price reduction of tickets to museums, cinemas, public transport, irruptions into live television programs), which imposed visibility on what is invisible (job insecurity), demanding social security benefits not related to job performance, the right to education and mobility. The Tute Bianche established a strong link between the practice of conflict and the practice of communication, identifying in the main stream media the battle ground for conflict, in the belief that even radical conflict must define a positive tension with consensus.
Beginning in 1999 the white overalls made their appearance in street demonstrations. Along with the use of helmets and shields, white overalls became the symbol of a broader movement, involving most of the Italian social centres. A movement which interpreted new forms of civil disobedience. The aim of the Tute Bianche movement remained the same, to give visibility to the invisible, but the focus shifted to other issues: the detention centres for migrants, the war -it was the time of the war in Kosovo. The background of the independent movement which distinguishes the social centres blended with the Anglo-Saxon theme of civil disobedience, and this mix was exemplified in the street marches: with the use of helmets and shields for protection the Tute Bianche violated the red zones, disobeying laws considered unjust, those on the detention of illegal migrants as well as on military intervention.
With the Seattle uprising of November 30, 1999 and the surfacing of alter- globalization movements, we witnessed yet another change: the practice of civil disobedience and the violation of the red zone was targeted on the international summits of the world powers, from OECD and the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund to the G8, institutional powers which are considered illegitimate, authoritarian and anti-democratic. The great financial institutions in fact imposed on national states economic policies which restricted welfare and social rights, and, on enterprises, downsizing and salary squeezes. The peak of this new phase was reached during the anti-G8 protests in Genoa: the Tute Bianche movement decided to do without the symbol of its identity, the white overalls, but nevertheless attempted to violate the red zone. The repression in response was without precedent, the Berlusconi government, backed by the arrogance of the Bush administration, declared war on the alter- globalization movement: Carlo Giuliani was killed, hundreds of protesters were tortured inside the Diaz school building and the Bolzaneto police station. The practice of civil disobedience suffered a significant setback but the movement decided to roll out the conflict in other social areas (job insecurity, migration/citizenship, the common good), other than challenging the summits of international powers: this was the beginning of the movement of the “Disobedients”.
2. From the “Onda” movement to the “Book Bloc”: the Italian student protest
The Onda (Wave) student movement broke on the scene back in September 2008, during the crucial phase of the global financial crisis. In September the historic US investment bank Lehman Brother, failed, while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the banking giants managing half of the U.S’s mortgage loans, were nationalized. The subprime mortgage crisis led to the clampdown on credit, the central banks (from the Federal Reserve to the Central European Bank) injected market liquidity, draining the public coffers. The response to the crisis meant an exorbitant increase in public debt and a huge shift of resources to the banks. It was in this grim setting that Italian students broke their silence, taking to the streets to boldly shout out: “We won’t pay for the crisis!”
The Onda however came as an answer to the Italian political crisis. In the spring of 2008 Berlusconi was again elected to lead a government. The government he formed through a vile pact with the Northern League, an Italian xenophobic political party, went to work to deal with financial collapse with these precise remedies: cuts to the welfare, and most of all, slashing financial resources for public education, schools and universities, for culture, art, and entertainment. “You can’t eat culture” was the motto of the Minister for Economy, Giulio Tremonti, while the Minister for Welfare, Maurizio Sacconi, reminded newly university graduates that that they must get used to humble and manual jobs. This was a direct attack on intelligence which distinguished the Italian answer to the systemic crisis of capitalism.
Schools took the initiative to fight back: for the first time children, alongside their teachers and parents played a leading role in over night occupations. The fight was against the abolition of full-time schooling, the re-introduction of the single teacher per class, the pious moralization -the compulsory school smock uniform. Soon after the lower schools acted, university students began their protest. Rome and the city’s University, La Sapienza, was the centre of the protest which quickly fanned out to agitation and occupations in dozens of other universities across the country. Prevailing over this more traditional form of protest, occupation, were wildcat demonstrations. Students poured out of their classrooms and campuses in oceanic waves to occupy the streets and block them, paralyzing the city and the railway traffic in massive demonstrations, invading railway stations, crowding the tracks. A generation with no future, condemned to uncertainty (in their work, their affections, their lives), began, in 2008, to break silence and to discover strength through experience on the streets. This collective voice and body defined a new form of strike action: the metropolitan strike, the strike of who have no right to strike. By paralyzing the city, in fact, silence can be broken, and dissidence is shared, it becomes general. Likewise production, which flows through the city, the people, the goods, is blocked. The slogan chanted by the students was clear: “If you block our future we’ll block the city!”. Hundreds of thousands of students -on October 30 there were one million students and teachers demonstrating in the streets and in the squares- for two months undermined Berlusconi’s popularity and threatened the stability of his government.
From the occupied universities to the city, from the city to the festive atmosphere in the occupied universities, places of cultural experimentation. During the months of the Onda movement self-training practices flourished: seminars, free universities, independent research laboratories, projects for grassroot change of the public university, the statue of disciplines and knowledge. The movement was well aware that the defence of the public university meant the invention of a new university. On the one hand public funding is essential, but at the same time, the elimination of divisions between disciplines and criticism of knowledge and driving out feudal power plays, typical of the Italian university, are just as important. Where the government attacked the movement describing it as conservative and nostalgic, the movement made clear the innovative aspects without taking a single step back in defending the public nature of education, in public schools and in the university.
The Onda movement, even though extraordinary in strength and extent, could not win. The autumn protests had no effect on the budget bill, fast tracked through parliament that summer. Students were undoubtedly afflicted by a strong sense of isolation: no matter how high the consensus tipped towards them, no other social sector was mobilized and the general strike called for by the Cgil, the main Italian trade union organization, towards the end of autumn was late and weak. Meanwhile, the Minister for Education took time to write the reform bill. Having starved the beast, as Reagan would put it, the question was its survival, even in hardship. In the autumn of 2009 Mariastella Gelmini, the Minister for Education, introduced the bill for reforming education. It wasn’t so much a reform, as much as a compendium of measures to implement the cuts: research was dealt a severe blow, governance was re-designed along authoritarian guidelines, the entry of private sector, banks and other enterprises, to the university administration boards was encouraged., the right to education was abolished, replaced by student honour loans.
In 2010, while the bill was being discussed and voted in Parliament, the student protest movement broke out again. This time, the movement was quick to establish an important link with the working class protests and with other sectors of society being strangled by the crisis, beginning with the migrants. While the government was intent on definitely destroying the public university, Fiat was trying to abolish the national work contract and the rights won by the class struggle of the 1960s and 1970s. In October the first virtuous bond was forged among students, labour workers, temporary employees in intellectual and entertainment areas as well as social centres and environmental organizations. In November the student movement took charge of the protest with unprecedented strength. At the same time as the extaordinary days of London, students made forays into the Senate chamber for the first time in the history of the Italian republic and besieged the Chamber of Deputies and both houses of parliament for days while occupying the rooftops of faculties, monuments and blocking the railways and the streets. There was an unprecedented escalation in the conflict, which reached its peak December 14 during a massive demonstration in Rome against the Berlusconi government. An estimated 100,000 protesters, students and temporary workers, besieged the headquarters of power for hours, clashing several times with the police. A generation with no future, that shouted out during the Onda movement in 2008, finally unleashed its anger. The anger over job uncertainty and unemployment and over the growth of poverty they are being subject to. From Rome to London the battle is for public education and against European austerity policies, the very policies that subsidized banks with public funds during the crisis, while slashing welfare to balance budgets.
During these exceptional days the Book Block made its appearance. The practice of holding up shiels in the demonstrations was not a fortuitous one: aimed to break the ban and challenge the government until the education reform bill was withdrawn. Each shield was a book, a classic, a literary must: Petronius, Boccaccio, Deleuze, Spinoza, Morante, Miller, Machiavelli, the Italian Constitution, and so on. Books to oppose the violence of the government and the police force, for body protection of those not willing to give up their future, for those who believe that knowledge is always an expression of freedom. With the book-shields students conquered the wider public’s attention and an unprecedented consensus. Whereas the Tute Bianche movement used shields to symbolize its identity, here the use of the shields was different: the protest tactics varied, from occupation of rooftops to railway stations, faculty buildings and streets, and the shields were brought out, serving as protection against the police when necessary. The book-shields have an extremely significant symbolic value, but do not specifically refer to any particular identity. The student protest followed in the path pioneered by the Tute Bianche movement, with special attention to the link between practices of conflict and communication, but spoke of something different: a leading player as a new social subject, the youth workforce on temporary labour contracts, totally pitted against two-dimensional politics. The fact that Book Blocks rapidly spanned across the national borders and made their appearance in London displays the transversal, polyphonic and pluralistic aspect of their nature. Everyone can choose his or her own book, everyone can make his or her own shield, everyone can recount his or her own personal rebellion.
3. Europe, the Mediterranean, the insurrection
What do London, Rome Tunis and Cairo have in common? What are the factors shared by the insurrections which were sparked last autumn and are continuing? In the first place, the social subjects involved: students, new graduates, short-term contract workers. The newly qualified workforces with no future and no rights, excluded from the social pact. The new poor, if we are able to give a material rather than a moral meaning to the concept of poverty. Poverty today is defined by the distance between the knowledge and the skills acquired and real life and work conditions: “I study hard, yet nothing lies ahead”, “Despite many years of hard work I’m poorer than my parents”, “I make do with jobs that have nothing to do with what I studied for”. These are the words echoing through the minds of millions of young Europeans, North Africans and Egyptians. A shared condition of being downgraded is what is sparking the protests unsettling Europe and the Mediterranean regions.
Secondly, the forms of protest. Insurrections and uprisings, the demand of rights and resources against the crisis and its remedies. Likewise, insurrections are imposing democracy and fighting the parasitic powers of the state and finance. The link between the claim for democracy, class demands and demands for redistribution of wealth is not accidental. We live in a time in which capitalism is radically separated from the expression of liberal democracy, we only have to turn to China to grasp this. Where manpower takes over the skills and the functions of the capital (Marx would say “fixed capital” or machinery) capital needs to limit individual freedom by maintaining uncertainty. Where capital becomes profit and finance, no mediation can suffice and politics must merely administer what is already in place and its inevitability. The uprisings that have flooded the European and Mediterranean scene can do nothing other than speak in a new language, one which is both anti-capitalist and democratic.
By Francesco Raparelli, PhD student in Political Philosophy – UniRiot.org editor