22. Some conclusions: The difficulties of keywords

The decade of Italian history which runs from 1968 to 1978 has a certain unity that can allow us to call it a period. It begins with the mass mobilizations of the student movement and ends with the movement of ‘77, when protest quickly fell under the shadow of the armed struggle. The assassination of Aldo Moro in May 1978 and the defeat of the Fiat factory occupations in October 1980 signalled the end of an era in which social movements and social conflict had dominated the language and horizons of a generation as well as the political agendas of governments. The first provoked a systematic campaign of criminalization of extra-parliamentary opposition, and the second, the victory of the Fiat management, opened the way for ideological as well as economic revival of Italian capitalism.

Against this background, instant histories were written by protagonists and commentators bent on celebrating or discrediting the politics of opposition which had emerged in the wake of ‘68. At stake was Italian society’s understanding of its recent past - a past which was to haunt it. Above all it was in the court-room that the histories were not just recounted and debated but put on trial; trials which were in effect conducted as much in the press before the tribunal of public opinion as in court in front of the judges. As Nanni Balestrini wrote of the ‘7 April’ operation against a group of left-wing intellectuals: ‘It is now a common- place to say that the operation was aimed at criminalizing twelve years of struggles by social movements together with their experiences, forms of behaviour, hopes of change, refusal to passively accept the corruptness of public life.

At the height of the terrorism emergency between 1978 and 1982, such a campaign of criminalization did indeed seem to exist. Symptomatically, the Italian title of Margarethe von Trotta’s film about German terrorism, Years of Lead (English title: The German Sisters), which came out in 1982 was almost instantly used to describe the whole decade of the 1970s, not just the closing years. Terrorism was widely equated with left-wing extremism. Writings such as those of Toni Negri were cited as evidence of incitement, while one judge claimed to have uncovered the existence of a single, all-embracing terrorist organization for whose members almost every tiny episode of violence was part of a grand design. A teleology of protest suggested the existence of a logic of progression from the violence of the picket line to that of armed struggle. ‘Utopianism’, ‘extremism’, ‘extra-parliamentarism’, ‘anarchism’ and ‘terrorism’ became interchange- able terms within this discourse of repression.

The criminalization of political opposition, a recurrent feature of Italian history since the nineteenth century, has overshadowed much of the debate on the turbulent seventies, leaving its mark on popular perceptions of a decade whose protest acquired, as a consequence, connotations of violence and irrationality. However, the most effective campaign to bring discredit on the strikes and disruption of those years has undoubtedly come from those who have claimed that they simply represented outmoded and primitive forms of behaviour.

The situation at Fiat was symptomatic of a change which was both technological and ideological. The implementation of a programme of robotization went hand in hand with a strategy of imposing mass redundancies and destroying the power of the unions - a campaign of action masterminded and enacted by Cesare Romiti. It marked a crucial phase in the decline of the industrial working class in Italy, not only in terms of numbers but also of visibility, social status and political power. In the years 1980-3 alone, employment in Fiat fell from 165,000 to about 100,000. However, the industrial workers that remained were virtually ‘dead’ as far as the media and sociologists were concerned; as Gad Lerner wrote in 1988: ‘For decades, the background noise of the factory floor ‘ had created a sort of collective guilt complex in industrial societies, and it was made into a symbol of their unresolved contradictions. Today, such contradictions are cancelled simply by ignoring them.

The silence surrounding the working class in the 1980s cannot be ascribed simply to the success of campaigns launched by big business in Italy. It is indicative of the profound social and economic transformation referred to as the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial or information society. The crisis of the oppositional politics of the post-1968 movements in the 1980s can be seen, therefore, as fundamental in nature. The basic vocabulary of the Left had become problematic; it had become difficult, for instance, for people to talk about ‘the working class’, using the singular and the definite article.

It is this difficulty of language which provides the hook on which to hang some concluding observations. All words, of course, have meanings only in so far as they are socially defined through usage. Meaning is not intrinsic to words but is generated through their relation to one another within texts, and in relation to the cultural context of their users. Words are, therefore, particularly interesting to examine as indices of deeper shifts within a culture. Moments when words drop out of usage, or enter people’s vocabularies, and when the meanings of words undergo radical transformation - such moments mark significant changes. As Raymond Williams has written:

The variations and confusions of meaning are not just faults in a system, or errors of feedback, or deficiencies of education. They are in many cases . . . of historical and contemporary substance. Indeed they have often, as variations, to be insisted upon, just because they embody different experiences and readings of experience, and this will continue to be true, in active relationships and conflicts, over and above the clarifying exercises of scholars.

And if conflict and variation is a constant feature of language, it is more pronounced in periods of radical historical change. The late 1970s represented such a period; in the words of Aldo Gargani in a celebrated book on the ‘crisis of reason’:

We call the crisis of rationality the realization that the house of our knowledge is in fact uninhabited because of changing social relations - relations between men and women, parents and children, institutions and the governed, and also our knowledge of politics, music, literature and science - is transformed. That crisis is traced in the situation in which we feel an accumulation of energies that go beyond the saturated conventions and rules which at one time coincided with the extremes of our awareness.

A central and recurrent theme of this study of Italian social movements has been the struggle over identity and recognition, over how social groups define themselves, the world around them and their place in that world - struggles in which language has been an intrinsic part. In an earlier epoch, the terminology might well have been religious; in late- twentieth-century Italy, however, it is through the language of politics that most social conflict has found expression. In the post-1968 decade in particular, left-wing politics provided the means with which to make sense of society and attempt to change it. In the words of one of the leading figures in those movements:

Far from representing a passing fever, politics was the heart and soul of ‘68. That is, political passion, the conviction that there was a link that held together and demonstrated the meaning of what was happening in the four corners of the globe; the feeling that one’s own life belonged to a destiny shared with so many others in every part of the world. In the West, after the war, political generosity, love of justice, social life itself, were left-wing. Young people in the Sixties didn’t discover the Left, they grew up inside it. When the question was asked, it wasn’t whether or not to be on the left, but how and for what kind of left.

Although this testimony does not take account of the growth of a Catholic radicalism, it does represent the dominant pattern within the movements.

As has been seen, the relationship between the social movements and the use of political language was never unproblematic. When the same leader cited above writes of ‘68: ‘The eclectic, voluntaristic and populist “Marxism” measured up to the problems it was addressing, it is a judgement which can only be valid with reference to the mobilizing power of the myths that were appealed to. At the time, words such as ‘revolution’ or ‘the masses’ served a unifying purpose, and even when sharp divisions emerged, these were always within a shared framework. If attention is paid instead to their explanatory power, the story is rather different. From the mid to late 1970s, the words proved inadequate to the sorts of new identities to which expression was being given. Moreover, there was a rediscovery of individuality and personal needs which the collectivism of the Left seemed to deny. The relationship between the first person singular, ‘I’, and the first personal plural, ‘we’, was being drastically redefined.

The changes in the meanings and usage of political terms can partly be attributed to the fluctuations between periods of collective mobilization and periods of individual withdrawal, between times when relatively greater importance is attached to public duty and times when private concerns are given priority. The swing from the highly politicized language of the 1970s to the so-called hedonistic and narcissistic eighties is a case in point, and was an especially violent turnabout in Italy due to the impact of terrorism. The rise of left-wing terrorism involved a process in which Marxist terms became debased and discredited to the point of being driven out of circulation. To pursue the monetary analogy, the language of the Left had already suffered from a form of linguistic inflation, as indicated by the pejorative label sinistrese. However, the propaganda of the Red Brigades seemed a terrible caricature of all that the oppositional movements had stood for, so that calling them ‘comrades’, as in the expression ‘mistaken comrades’ (compagni che sbagliano) meant that a word which, more than any other, represented the meeting of friendship and solidarity, private and public, fell victim to mistrust.

However, the questioning and doubt surrounding keywords in the language of the Left suggest a longer term historical change in progress rather than a short term oscillation. This can be seen by looking more closely at three of these keywords: ‘class’, ‘the Left’, and ‘democracy’. It is necessary also to look at the emergence of a new keyword - ‘nature’. Finally, there is the important matter of the relationship between the language of oppositional politics and the historical reality it has purported to describe.

The word ‘class’, in its modern sense, was a product of the period that saw the formation of industrial capitalism and the emergence of new forms of social conflict. As Williams writes:

The essential history of the introduction of class, as a word which would supersede older names for social divisions, relates to the increasing conscious- ness that social position is made rather than merely inherited.

It is arguable that an equivalent social transition is currently under way in Western capitalist countries, making notions of class derived from industrial societies inadequate, just as notions of rank were at an earlier date. Alberto Melucci, for instance, has commented on the problems of analysing the new social movements in class terms:

The term ‘class’ is not able to express the novelty of the conflicts in late capitalist societies, and should eventually be replaced… we must stop considering classes as definite empirical groups with a certain culture and way of life .... But then does it still make sense to speak of ‘class’ struggles? Yes, but the conflicts must be thought of as a network of oppositions centred on the control of development .... Classes have been replaced by a multiplicity of groups which are stratified and intersect in complex ways.

Melucci’s reservations are a reflection within the field of sociology of a situation in which the models inherited from nineteenth-century political thought are in crisis.

Within Italy the proliferation of terms to describe social position and social conflict in the late 1970s was difficult to ignore. The terms included: marginals (emarginati), emergent groups (ceti emergenti), proletarian youth (giovani proletari), minorities (minoranze), the unprotected (non garantiti), the precarious (precari), and even plebians (plebe). Some commentators even found evidence for the re-emergence of patterns of city life reminiscent of the Middle Ages. It is not that the more consolidated terms, such as working class or proletariat disappeared from political discourse - the marginal or unprotected were often defined in relation to the organized workers - but the significance of being in regular employment was that it enabled fuller participation in society. Social inequalities were increasingly perceived in terms of exclusion from life opportunities rather than of economic exploitation in the workplace. While employment remained, therefore, a key question for the individual and society, its importance derived from norms and values acquired from outside the workplace, marking the end of the ‘centrality of work’.

Some political theorists on the Left have greeted the emergence of new forms of marginality and the eclipse of the mass worker with enthusiasm. Tony Negri and Andre’ Gorz, for instance, have both seen the changes as opening up new possibilities for radical social movements. In Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class, a ‘non-class of non-workers’, who neither identify with the idea of ‘the worker’ nor with ‘the unemployed’ but who fill the area of ‘probationary, contracted, casual, temporary and part-time employment’, are hailed as the new force of radical social transformation. Unlike the mass worker who is conditioned by the heteronomy of the factory, these new social subjects are said to seek autonomous ways of living in which waged work is subordinate to other forms of activity. They are seen as anticipating a society in which necessary work is kept to a minimum, enabling the development of a flourishing civil society where free association develops unfettered.

However, Massimo Paci, among others, has been more sceptical:

Up to the time when the conditions of marginality gave rise to innovative and conflictual social and cultural projects, if on the one hand they sometimes constituted a potential source of crises and ‘social disorder’, on the other, at other times they were a source of vitality and political and cultural change. In the current situation, there are clear signs that an adaptive-functional role is being assigned to marginality, which . .. no longer seems to bring people together in visible minorities, and involves the loss of its potential in encouraging cultural innovation, involvement and collective organization on the pan of excluded social groups.

He also insists that, historically, forms of marginality have been a recurrent if not constant feature of capitalist development, especially in Italy. At the same time, Paci too sees the need for political perspectives which are based on a recognition of the social and economic changes, proposing, for example, the idea of a social wage payable to all. The term ‘Left’ - or rather the Left/ Right opposition - lost its sharpness in the late 1970s, though not for the first time in Italian history. From the time of unification there had been many instances of convergence, which the word trasformismo has been used to describe; originally it referred to the process whereby the so-called ‘historic’ Left and Right parties which emerged from the Risorgimento tended to converge in terms of programme until there ceased to be any substantial differences between them. Then the career of Mussolini is a notorious (though not isolated) case of an extreme left-winger becoming an extreme right-winger. In the period studied here the whole question of who was on the Left was hotly debated, not least because of the multiplication of heresies and the emergence of a terrorism calling itself left-wing. There was also the formation of neo-fascist tendencies which claimed common ground with the extreme left, and the phenomenon of the cani sciolti, the label of those unloosed dogs who had exited from left organisations, latter day versions of Ignazio Silone’s ‘ex’. It was in this confusion that Elvio Fachinelli wrote his Proposal for not using the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’:

In the political field, in the narrow sense of the term, the polarity Left-Right is losing its clarity and is now used to identify and classify the pre-existing state of things. ‘On the Left’ is, therefore, what is done or happens within the political space occupied by the forces of the Left. The act of nominating is largely tauto- logical.

Fachinelli’s Proposal is symptomatic of a suspicion of ritualized categorization that was widespread. This was especially so among the participants of the new social movements for whom the concept of ‘difference’ had acquired crucial importance - difference meaning the ‘demand for the specific, the particular, the diverse, as opposed to the massification and levelling produced by consumer society’. Feminists in Italy had historically seen themselves as part of the Left but found themselves at odds with its traditions in the 1970s. The ecology movement also grew out of the Left but discovered that questions such as conservation were in the hands of political conservatives whereas Marxism, because of its conception of progress, was blind to environmental concems. Both therefore questioned whether their ideas could be put under the umbrella left-wing without radically redefining what that included. Furthermore, among philosophers on the Left there was a new interest in thinkers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, who were associated with the Right, and growing dissatisfaction with the rationalist tradition and Marxism.

All these developments were indicative, however, of a redefinition of terms rather than of a situation in which Fachinelli’s Proposal could realistically expect implementation. The Left-Right opposition was too well-established to be so easily dispensed with - a spatial metaphor related to human perception in the same way as high and low or near and far, that has not just biological components but the whole weight of cultural tradition from the time of the French Revolution behind it. As such, the terms are lodged within the ‘collective imaginary’ of western societies and are not restricted to the political sphere. Instead, it is possible to note a process whereby the Left in Italy, and in other countries, has ceased to be synonymous with the working-class movement or with Marxism. The new movements have continued to be egalitarian in that they have aimed to win ‘horizontal’ equalities - social dignity and real equality of opportunity - without having to renounce differences due to gender or sexual preference. Their politics can, indeed, be seen as largely consistent with the struggle to amplify, specify and realize the principles first enunciated by Liberalism and then taken up by the socialist movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, many negative features that came to be associated with the parties of the Left, both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, such as statism, centralism and productivism, were rejected by the new movements. The criticism of the historic and the new Left has changed the meanings of the term not abolished it.

Democracy and control are keywords which were redefined in the wake of 1968 and remained crucial for the movements of the 1980s. This can be seen in the critique of parliamentary democracy in the theory and practice of the movements, and in the proposals for alternative democratic forms. The vicissitudes of the idea of democracy have already been analysed in relation to anti-authoritarian and extra-parliamentary politics, to grass- roots organizations in workplaces and educational institutions, and to their critical reappraisal by feminism. Yet while the movements revived and experimented with every approach from council-communism to anarchism and Leninism, they cannot be said to have produced any new body of theory. Their significance lies more in painful trial and error. For an evaluation of this and its consequences for rethinking the question of democracy, the most useful work has come from a political philosopher close to the Italian Socialist Party, Norberto Bobbio.

Bobbio’s great strength has been his ability to make explicit the political implications implicit in the major movements and transformations of the post-war period. As Perry Anderson has written, his texts form a ‘crystalline prism’ of that history. For Bobbio the most formative period was that of his participation in the Resistance, but he was also involved, in his role as university professor and father of sons on the extra- parliamentary Left, in the conflicts of the post-1968 period. As he later recalled, his initial reaction to the events of ‘68 was to see them as a threat to democracy:

For someone who regarded the Resistance as having laid the foundations of a stable democracy and of the Republican constitution, the challenge from the Left with its accompanying delegitimization of the constitution not dissimilar, except in motivation, from that which had always come from the right, was an extremely bitter surprise.

However, Bobbio subsequently came to the conclusion that the movements, unlike Fascism, represented a force for the development and extension of democracy in Italy. Above all they appeared to spread democratic decision-making to those areas of the state and civil society where authoritarianism had previously been the rule - to schools and universities, factories and offices, and even to the army and government administration. They showed up the limits of a model of democracy that was exclusively parliamentary and relied on political parties to mediate between citizens and central government. Democracy, he wrote, could be more subversive than socialism:

Democracy is subversive in the most radical sense of the word, because, wherever it spreads, it subverts the traditional conception of power, one so traditional it has come to be considered natural, based on the assumption that power – i.e. political or economic, paternal or sacerdotal - flows downwards. By conceiving of power as flowing upwards, democracy is in some ways more subversive than socialism, if we use ‘socialism’ in the limited sense of transfer of ownership of the means of production.

The post ‘68 movements therefore forced Bobbio and others of his generation to question their own assumptions. Much of his work in the following decade can be seen as an active attempt at dialogue with the protagonists of the movements, from the student movement to the ecology movement. However, he also made sharp criticism of the alternatives to parliamentary democracy that they proposed. For Bobbio, direct democracy, in particular, was misconceived on a number of grounds. Firstly, because of its impracticability; if it was feasible in simple, small- scale societies, it was anachronistic in a complex, technological society. Secondly, because the whole system of revocable mandates and representation based on particular constituencies, like the workplace, was liable to reflect partial interests and not the general interests of the citizen, and was, moreover, exposed to manipulation by leaders, as shown by the experience of the student movement in Italy. Finally, because non-stop involvement in decision-making could easily have an over-politicizing effect which, in the longer term, would provoke withdrawal rather than greater participation. What Bobbio found especially worrying was the utopian idea that somehow politics would fade away in the future socialist society as the government of men gave way to the administration of things. He suggested, instead, that politics was a condition of human existence due not only to limited resources but to differences of opinion over moral questions.

Bobbio’s critique of direct democracy in the 1970s was rooted in the debates in the movements at the time over ‘leaderism’ and hidden forms of authoritarianism, over the crisis of militancy and so on. He also found support for his arguments in the inconsistencies in demands for the extension of rights coming from protagonists who did not recognize the legitimacy of the parliamentary institutions in the first place. What body, he asked, would establish the democratic ‘rules of the game’ if not parliament, because they could not exist without being guaranteed in law? All in all, the hopelessly ill-considered, rhetorical and sometimes opportunistic conceptions of democracy championed by the post-’68 movements were mercilessly exposed to view. The difficulties, however, did not arise simply because of confused thinking on the part of those involved in the social movements, and it was their achievement to bring them to light anyway. They derived from the very attempt to combine greater democracy and socialism within a capitalist society. There was the question of exactly how much democracy would be compatible with the maintenance of private property; in Anderson’s words, ‘the space for radical reform is closed by the very properties of the economic order that calls out for it’. Moreover, especially in Italy, the failure or incapacity of the parliamentary system to respond to demands made upon it has meant that social movements continue to face great difficulties in developing a parliamentary strategy as well as trying to extend democracy outside parliament.

Class, the Left and democracy are keywords in a language of politics which dates back to the French Revolution, if not beyond it. The concept of nature, on the other hand, has tended to be subordinate, especially in the socialist tradition, and has only emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s as a crucial term. If previously reference was made to ‘natural rights’, now it was claimed that nature and other species should themselves have rights. Given the proximity in time of these developments, it is hard to assess their implications for the future of oppositional politics - whether, for example, the ecology movement represents a movement whose historical significance can be compared with the socialist one at the turn of nineteenth century. What does seem to be the case is that the ecology movement has its immediate roots in the post-’68 movements while representing one of the most far-reaching critiques of those movements.

It is obviously not possible to analyze this movement in any depth in this context, but it is perhaps worth noting the way in which nature has become a key term in contemporary political discourse, and not just in relation to ecology. As Alberto Melucci has written:

The appeal to Nature has played an important role in the formation of new collective demands. Nature appears as what is resistant to external pressures because it is not liable to instrumental rationality. It presents itself as a ‘given’, as opposed to the enforced socialization of identity imposed by new forms of domination. But there is, in this appeal, the confused perception that the natural order is a field of action, an object to be produced, and not a ‘given’. The body, desire, biological identity, sexuality are all cultural representations . . . ‘human nature’ can be produced and transformed by social action.

The contradictions and conflicts generated by the increases in human control over or intervention in natural processes is at the heart of the political developments of the 1980s. However, whereas the reality of nature and human dependence on the natural world is at the centre of ecological approaches, there has also emerged what can be called a post-modern perspective in which the very idea of an external reality is questioned. Within an Italian context this polarization, which cuts across any earlier division of politics into Left and Right, can be seen with reference to the writings of two intellectuals, Adriano Sofri and Mario Perniola, who both identify ‘68 as a watershed in the post-war period, though for very different reasons.

The writing of Adriano Sofri, ex-leader of Lotta Continua, can be taken as an example of someone whose history is intimately bound up with social movements and who now sees the ecology movement as offering the greatest hope for political renewal. Sofri makes no bones about his attachment to his past: ‘I cannot go on without briefly doing justice to a feeling too lightly dismissed - nostalgia. The Italian political vocabulary has abused the word; first making it synonymous with Fascism, and then with reactionary ecological sentiments, as if nostalgia for a less ravaged natural world was unfounded.

Apart from evoking the positive in ‘68 (the political passion, serious- ness, flexibility, eclecticism and poetry of revolt), Sofri focuses on the negative aspects or limits of the ‘Marxism’ of ‘68. These include its uncritical attitude towards forms of violence and its exclusion of women, but, above all, its abject failure to confront the relationship between human beings and nature:

Habituated to shaping cultural history, the history that is made by men (‘nature is right-wing’, as Ramuz used to say), the Left reacted badly to this intrusion of what is slow, immutable and ‘natural’. Faith in discontinuity, in the political genetics of modern man, made the Left (especially the youth with their impatience and voluntarism) intolerant of the very idea of ‘human nature’, and made it opt for a vocabulary of manipulation and domination over Nature.

Moreover, writes Sofri, ‘far from being a critique of industrialism, Marxism is an apology for it’.

In the spirit of ‘68, Sofri lays claim to the right to learn from the experience of ‘sin’, from the ‘purgatory’ that came after the ‘inferno’ of a politics based on the sacrifice of individuality, human feeling and the present in the name of a remote future; the right, that is, to change. ‘What is needed is to find a language that confronts the point of no return reached in our shared history’, he writes. ‘68 cannot be repeated, but it can provide inspiration for exploring possibilities of transformation which were glimpsed at the time but then lost sight of. 1968 was a year when a generation ‘discovered a deep feeling of belonging to Europe both culturally and as citizens’. It failed to make use of the parallel experiences of those in Eastern Europe, and to examine itself in the mirror which they represented, as evidenced by the very deformities of the Marxism of the New Left. Yet, the impulse to break down the division of Europe into power blocs was there, and it is to this legacy that Sofri refers:

The rebellion of ‘68 had a peculiarly European character. For the first time in a century, Paris became once again the capital of a revolutionary Europe of young people, and its May spoke the language of the German Jew, Cohn- Bendit. The same marches crossed Europe, and brought the students in the West closer than ever before to those of Prague, or Cracow, or Belgrade. A common Europe was the promise of those months.

Sofri’s reflections on the meaning of ‘68 for the 1980s are frankly personal, but he also speaks for a wider constituency, notably those still committed to the politics born of social movements. It is emblematic of a generation’s need to address its predecessors and its successors, and, not least, to talk to itself. It is also symptomatic of the return, after a period of withdrawal, to politics and public life in the light of the successes of the ecology movement in Italy and in Europe as a whole.

Sofri represents one broad current of thought which is critical of the ‘68 legacy but determined to discover and establish continuities. It is admitted that perhaps something was coming to an end rather than beginning: ‘Who knows whether it won’t turn out to be the beginning of the end of a century which started so late with the revolver shots of Sarajevo and which has rushed anxiously towards its liquidation.’ Yet Sofri wants to see ‘68 as a moment of renewal, a starting-point for new projects of changing the world.

By contrast, the writers who can be called ‘post-modern announce the epochal crisis of the notions of political action, subjectivity, and the transformation of the ‘real’ which underpin the approach represented by Sofri and the ideas of the Greens. Mario Perniola, for example, writes of the dissolution of the traditional distinction between the real and the imaginary. For him, 1968 ushers in the age of the imaginary; the very aspects which others called political culs-de-sac, such as the revival of Marxist orthodoxies, are described as the highways towards the future:

On the one hand, ‘68 presented itself as radical critique of the society of social and cultural spectacle; on the other, it brings to a paroxysm society’s de- realization and culturalization. This latter aspect which has been shamefacedly hidden from sight, appears in the return of all the revolutionary theories of the past (from Marxism and Leninism to anarchism and council-communism) without there having been the slightest chance of a revolution .... But, this is exactly what gives one a measure of the degree of de-realization and social culturalization achieved . . . not even being a failed revolution, nor even a dream or illusion, it is a historical event of primary importance, the first historical event that cannot be called ‘real’ in the old sense of the word.

Perniola’s analyses deal with the death of a politics that is seen to originate in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution - a politics based in ‘a form of collective representation in which the masses or social groups identify in a way analogous to that which gave rise to the historical consciousness of the people, the nation and the class’. But, ‘it is no longer principles, ideas and representations that ensure integration between society and culture’, writes Perniola, ‘it is simulacra, images, copies without originals; whereas the former continued to presuppose the existence of subjects (if not of persons), the latter move in a space that cancels out all sign of originality, authenticity, subjectivity’.

While Mario Perniola cannot be said to speak as a representative (if anything, such a role would be eschewed by him), his writing nonetheless is part of a current of thought which has won many adherents in Italy and in Europe in the 1980s. In Italy it is especially influential among designers and architects, such as Alessandro Mendini, creator of ‘banal design’. Of this tendency Andrea Branzi has written:

The intermediate [as opposed to mass or avant garde] range of cultural forms is boundless, and banal design proposes a use for it, as the only possible adaptation to the post-industrial universe that surrounds us - a chaotic universe born out of a supranational order lacking history or destiny, a discontinuous world created out of what has turned out to be impracticable planning and a medieval culture that is the outcome of progress being turned on its head.

The philosophers of ‘weak thought’, such as Gianni Vattimo, also have much in common with this approach. The best known theorists of the post-modern, however, are French authors like Jean Baudrillard and Francois Lyotard, whose work is widely available in Italy in translation. In this context, Perniola, who owes a great deal to Baudrillard, can be said to stand for an important pole in the discussion of the meanings (or meaninglessness) of oppositional politics in the decades after 1968. Indeed, the positions occupied by Adriano Sofri and Mario Perniola can be seen to encapsulate in miniature a polarization which is found in the areas of opposition, dissent, or refusal, for which the label ‘left-wing’ appears increasingly inadequate. On the one hand, there is the reaffirmation of history and memory, a narrative that seeks meaning in collective action, a belief in the special role of the intellectual, a discovery of authenticity and irreducibility in nature. On the other, there is the elimination of subjectivity as a category, the replacement of the principle of collective action by that of indifference and neutralization, the dismissal of intellectuals as redundant, the substitution of authenticity by simulation in a world in which everything is seen as cultural. It is as if the positions were mirror opposites of one another, even in their use of language - Sofri’s dense with illustration and appealing to the readers’ own experience; Perniola’s abstract, distant, and self-reflective.

A momentary glance back to the 1960s and 70s shows the distance in time that has been travelled. The certainties, the sense of destiny, the belief in progress, the faith in the power of words: where are they now? The landscape has changed almost out of all recognition. However, this need not be a reason for disillusion and despair on the part of those who see social movements as cause for hope. If the idea of progress as demythicization which was so widespread in those movements is now seen as untenable, ‘we have to keep on dreaming while being conscious of the fact that all is a dream’.