Italy: On the Sardines Movement

What emerges, even among its younger representatives who are less involved in roles of responsibility, is the fact that politically speaking the Left has "abandoned" the poorest social strata and in every respect embraces the economic logic of the world in which we live.

Submitted by Internationali… on January 14, 2020

The Sardines movement1 appeared on the scene in mid-November during the regional electoral campaign in Emilia-Romagna with the explicit intention of preventing the League candidate from winning. Thus it sided with the other main contender: Bonaccini, the current regional President and leading member of the Democratic Party. Following the Bolognese example, the Sardines spread like lightening and within a few months they have managed to bring tens of thousands of people out into the squares of many Italian cities. It is a movement that is still extremely immature, making vague and contradictory demands, often characterised by disarming political naivety. What is immediately apparent, if for no other reason than the absence of any reference to the world of work, is its character as a pressure group, a political expression of the middle class, just like the Merry-Go-Round movement2 and the Purple People3 a few years ago. The demands in their programme mainly relate to a sort of "etiquette" for politics and communication which everyone should follow in order to guarantee the rules of the democratic game. The only request in their programme, which is significantly not preceded by the verb "we demand" but by the verb "we ask", is for a revision of Salvini's security decrees, which are presented as an error from a humanitarian standpoint.

What emerges, even among its younger representatives who are less involved in roles of responsibility, is the fact that politically speaking the Left has "abandoned" the poorest social strata and in every respect embraces the economic logic of the world in which we live. Thus the Right now calls the Left a supporter of the elites, in a clever and opportunistic representation of things, not because it is not true, but because the Right itself also lines up alongside the elites. Left and Right are now, in different ways, both proponents of the agenda dictated by economic power. The difference is that populists and right-wing people are still making instrumental use of social themes that were once left-wing issues: pension law reform, criticism of the bailout of the banks, support for citizens basic income, at the same time as exploiting anger and social brutalisation to forge a political weapon against their opponents. On the other hand, the Left now speaks almost exclusively as a representative of the institutions of the ruling class, making it a priority to formally defend the rules (the existing bourgeois ones), of the Constitution, of democracy, but keeping silent about the fact that these rules have been progressively emptied of meaning and no longer mean anything when the material, concrete relationships of social reality reflect – in an increasingly open and ruthless form – exclusion, exploitation, increasing concentration of wealth and therefore social injustice. Obviously, this results in frustration and anger by those who are at the bottom of the pile experiencing this imbalance. Just as on the balances of a scale, the more one side goes down the more it helps the other side to rise: so there are those who are working for free or almost, while those above amass abnormal wealth by exploiting the work of others and evading taxes.

The whole picture is made more difficult to see with the naked eye now that the world has become a "global village" linked by financial and commercial mechanisms that are partially closed to us. Yet the logic is still the same even if the weighing machines are different. Mobile phones and computers manufactured by Chinese workers at ludicrous costs, clothing produced by Burmese or Bengali workers and marketed at previously unheard of prices, goods delivered to any address with impressive speed by delivery workers of every "race" and origin ... and we could go on much longer. In contrast to the alleged "end of work”, all these are processes which occupy the extraordinary creative force that is human labour power – yet human nature, the thing we have in common, is instead being increasingly reduced to the rank of a beast, or little more. To a certain extent it is also true that these goods and services also go towards meeting workers' needs, but only on condition that they have a wage and a social position that allows them to draw on part of what they themselves have produced. Moreover, given that the process of reproduction and realisation of capital is increasingly difficult with each cycle, the share of the social product that goes towards wages and the satisfaction of workers' needs is destined to become less and less, if profits are to be safeguarded. Paraphrasing the first article of the constitution we could say that "Italy has become an even more democratic republic founded on the exploitation of labour", that is, so long as work remains because it produces new profit, otherwise layoffs and subsidies are the maximum that can be expected.

In this situation the Sardines convey the uneasiness of those who are in the middle between the two sides of the scales. Sometimes their perspective allows them to grasp authentic aspects of the process; for example, as regards what has become of communication on social media: dominated by strategies to sell material or ideological products to a population of individual users within an artfully-built social reality offered up as "The Real World”. Today’s social networks are also used more and more to silence dissent through verbal violence and methodical annihilation of the opponent, who must be silenced. In response, the Sardines naively declare that they want to bring their "bodies" out into the streets. They do not realise how much their anti-populist protest is in keeping with the logic of the system in which they swim, as evidenced by the rapturous welcome they have received in all the media, for example when they say, through the mouth of one of the founders: "The truth is that the kettle was ready to boil over, it could have done so and left everyone scalded. Fortunately the Sardines have allowed it to simply whistle." Apart from the obvious and hilarious contradiction between not wanting flags and party symbols paraded in the squares and then leading the electoral sprint to the Democratic Party, it is not the first time that such movements have declared themselves an outlet to vent social tension. This also happened with Beppe Grillo who said that without the Five Stars there would have been a social revolt, implicitly demanding gratitude from the ruling class. In Italy this role of subduing dissent has traditionally been played by the unions, which generally call harmless general strikes or large demonstrations where slogans are waved that don’t run any risk of obtaining concrete results. At the moment it seems that the union leaders believe that even just calling workers to promenade round the town squares has become inadvisable, you never know when they might take it into their heads to get rid of the leash. Even Landini, a trade union leader considered to be very radical, is saying that it is time to "reach a new agreement between workers and bosses", and now the middle class is thinking about the channelling of discontent.

As yet, the working class has been unable to act independently and put forward its own demands. We are not envisaging a revolution, because that does not appear on the horizon at the moment, but something along the lines of what is happening in France these days (not to speak of the rest of the world): i.e. a working class that demands better living conditions for itself.

  • 1Apparently the term ‘Sardines movement’ was chosen by the organisers to signal their aim to pack their supporters into the main square in Bologna in the manner of sardines in a tin. (Thus demonstrating that they could attract more support than Salvini’s League candidate.) On 14 November 2019 around 14,000 ‘sardines’ filled the Piazza Maggiore and the movement went on from there to protest in other cities, including Rome.
  • 2The ‘girotondi’, or merry-go-rounders, was a grassroots, vaguely ‘left’ citizens’ protest movement which began in Milan in January 2002 during a demonstration outside of the Palace of Justice and then spread to major Italian cities under various local names. Their common aim was to defend ‘democracy’ and ‘legality’, mainly against the various combinations of Silvio Berlusconi’s government but they were also critical of the left parties, for being too soft towards Berlusconi.
  • 3The Purple People, arose in October 2009, again in opposition to Berlusconi. So-called because its adherents wore purple – a colour not associated with any of the established political parties – at rallies and demonstrations. Another movement, this time of mainly young people, expressing disaffection with mainstream politics, the high level of unemployment and their increasingly precarious lives and who organised via the internet, around the anonymous trope of ‘San Precario’. (Their call for a ‘National Demonstration for Berlusconi’s Resignation’ in Rome on December 5th 2009 attracted between 90,000 and 350,000.) The movement’s decline echoed that of Berlusconi himself.