“They are pissing on us, but the government tells us it’s raining”. These words on a banner in Rome on 18 October say it all: the five-month post-electoral honeymoon between the right-wing racist government and large sections of the Italian masses is unravelling.
It was carried by a transport worker from the Confederazione Italiana di Base (Cobas, Italian rank and file confederation) whose one-day strike brought 300,000 marchers to the capital, and large parts of the educational and transport systems to a stop. The demonstration was the largest ever mobilised by the “Base”, graphically underlining how this militant and politically combative group of unions is increasingly becoming the focus for protests sweeping through the educational and University system in Italy.
An even bigger demonstration of 2.5 million took place in Rome on 25 October, with many demonstrations in other Italian cities.
The victory of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberties party in last April’s general election marked a systematic shift to the right in Italian politics. The dire conditions of the Italian economy — more or less in structural decline for 15 years — meant the government would launch an all-out widespread offensive against Italian workers and their families, to bring about the root and branch changes desired by the bankers, financiers and industrialists of Italy.
Fuelled by his electoral success and increase in support for the two openly racist parties of the Northern League and National Alliance, Berlusconi launched a poisonous tide of racist hatred against the Roma population, Romanians, Northern Africans and foreigners in general. Xenophobia became the lingua franca in a national political discourse around “security”. A campaign of virulent racist abuse and ignorance, whipped up by the hired, well-trained liars of Berlusconi’s media empire, Mediaset, aided and abetted by the so-called “state” sector media, reached an obscene Mussolini-like racist crescendo in a decision by the minister of Interior — the similarly gifted pugilistic pint-sized thug Roberto Maroni of the Northern League — to fingerprint the Roma population in Italy.
It owes little credit to the Italian left and the Italian trade unions that Maroni and the former young fascist leader, now mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanni were forced to back down on humiliating Roma children. The measures have been implemented, if on a reduced scale, in other parts of Italy. Indeed the right in power has up to now had almost free rein in Parliament and in the country. A draconian budget with huge numbers of cuts was passed after seven minutes of debate!
The “new” bourgeois Democratic Party of Walter Veltroni (in essence the forces of the former Prodi administration, minus the radical left) proved hopelessly compromised on almost every front of the government’s attack and policies. And the forces of the ex-Rainbow Coalition, turfed out summarily from the Parliament where so many of these “revolutionaries” had convinced themselves they had a comfortable home for life, had neither the will nor capacity to mount any principled resistance.
Only the “Base” unions and especially their leaders like teacher Piero Bernocchi and the minuscule forces of Italian Trotskyism can hold up their heads. Whatever the weaknesses — the syndicalism and sectarianism of the unions and the predictable kitsch Trotskyism of the latter — they had been at least consistent opponents of the Prodi government, its miserable left wing and the collaboration of the main trade union confederations CGIL, CISL and UIL. Equally consistent has been the “Base” union opposition to the Berlusconi regime and the criminal inactivity of the same trade union bureaucrats in the face of widespread attacks on the living standards of their members.
However, it needed the effects and depth of the government attacks, in the context of the world financial and economic crisis, to bring home the extensive impoverishment, destitution and suffering of workers. The rapidity with which the school and university protests have spread show this.
attacks on education
An education bill soon to be voted on is a comprehensive and ruthless cut back in all sectors of the Italian educational system. At the same time, it is a reactionary reform of the public university system in favour of the ingress of private foundations into the higher education system, destined to further hollow critical teaching and research.
Tens of thousands of jobs will be lost as vacancies will be left unfilled. Salaries and working conditions, already derisory, will be worsened as the Gelmini Law intends to impose on Italian teachers, children and young people the moral atmosphere of the Board school. The Italian educational system drastically needs reform, but in an altogether other direction — to correct the bureaucratic and byzantine features that disfigure it, Its public character should be deepened with a democratic and rational refoundation in content and form.
Teachers from the Cobas union began the serious work of argument and propaganda among their fellow teachers, parents and families and initiated the first of now many parent-teacher anti-Gelmini committees. An initial protest at the beginning of the new term quickly spread to the middle and upper schools system, sparking off occupations of schools, mass assemblies, marches and widespread public debate. When university students returned at the end of September, the pace and scale of things began to change dramatically. Occupation after occupation, from north to south and east to west. Supported by university teachers, researchers and other university personnel, the Italian educational system and society as a whole is experiencing a revolt not seen since 1968. The left has been reinvigorated on a significant scale, with a massive demonstration against the government on 11 October.
A one-day strike planned timidly in midsummer by the main confederation unions for 30 October now assumes an entirely different character, for undoubtedly along with the anger against the Berlusconi government there will be much feeling against the procrastinating trade union bosses.
Berlusconi is desperately relying on his lying propaganda machine continuing to show a majority of support for him in the opinion polls. He is hoping that when the Education Bill is passed the protests will run out of steam. Having initially threatened to invade any occupied establishment with the police, he was forced to back down, fearful that this might precipitate an even wider mobilisation and a deeper confrontatio. At the moment, the protests, whilst extensive and growing, have not reached all-out strike actions that would bring the educational system completely to a halt — lessons and lectures are still taking place.
If the balance of forces is to be brought more favourably onto the side of the workers and students, such a perspective has to be fought for, and united committees of all the representatives of the unions and families involved, established to organise, defend and fight for the mass support of the Italian trade union and working class movement.
The majority of university students, who are the driving force of most of the activity in these actions, are understandably skeptical of politicians and politics whether of the left or right. Despite the fact that many of their fellow students are conscious left-wing activists, much of their rhetoric of the left has fallen on deaf ears. The students abjure even their own actions as anything to do with politics, yet the dominant slogan of every march, assembly, protest remains:
We are not paying for your crisis.
Unconsciously they are declaring war on the whole system, which has so far offered them little and promises them even less in the future. They have take the first giant steps to realising that if what they say is true they have a world to destroy and a new one to create – social revolution. And nothing could be more political than that.