Thursday, December 30, 2010

The risks of mayhem

Last week as Parliament was about to pass the controversial university reform bill, Rome braced itself for trouble. On 14 December, the week before, street violence had once again erupted with pictures of cars in flames in the Corso and Piazza del Popolo; masked and helmeted youths and policemen beating each other. Thunderflashes and molotovs were much in evidence. Windows were smashed and ATMs broken. It took one back more than 30 years to 1977 when there were similar scenes in Rome. Or to London or Athens over the last month.
This time my own experiences were some loud bangs from the outside of the Chamber of Deputies while the no confidence vote was being counted. In the square there was a surreal quiet as police and carabinieri put a ring of vehicles and men around the sensitive areas. Walking home through empty streets, the only indication of trouble were a few gaping holes in the cobbles. Rome’s sanpietrini make an effective, abundant and easily available missile for any hostile crowd that needs one.
Most of the students had demonstrated peacefully but there was clearly some sympathy for the demonstrators who showed their mettle. There was talk of agents provocateurs or infiltrati, plainclothesmen who stirred up trouble and the temperature went up. The Minister of Defence, Ignazio La Russa walked out of a television talk show when some students refused to condemn violence while his colleague, the majority leader in the Senate, Maurizio Gasparri, seriously suggested “preventive arrests”. Both had been active in violent right wing groups when they were young so the irony was not lost on commentators. La Russa is not known for his calm nor Gasparri for his legal acumen but they did present a government which was upping the ante. On 21 December, a pipe bomb was found in the underground but it had no detonator. The right used it as proof of trouble to come, the left presented it as a tension raising plant.
So on 22 December there was nervous expectation with big demonstrations planned to coincide with the final passage of the university reform bill. Many shopkeepers in the centre decided not to open and the traffic was absurdly thin for the busiest shopping period in the year. There were police, carabinieri and finance guards everywhere in the centre.
And then… nothing happened.
The students demonstrated in various parts of the city and for a time blocked the ring road. They had decided very explicitly to avoid any provocation and succeeded. They even found some solidarity among the traffic jammed motorists. At the same time, President Napolitano invited a student delegation to the Quirinale to talk about their issues. He played the role of the firm but just grandfather who would still have to sign the bill into law but was listening to their grievances.
There was indeed violence in other parts of Italy and no one thinks that the implementation of the new law will be without hiccoughs. But for that moment before Christmas, violence was avoided and there was a lesson both for the authorities and for the discontented students.
At least since De Toqueville and in a scientific way since Ted Gurr’s Why men rebel in 1975, we have known that most revolts begin not when people are in total misery but when they feel worse off than they were before. Gurr called it “relative deprivation”. Italian (and British and Greek) students are not starving but they will have to pay much more for their education than their parents or forgo it completely and they have far fewer prospects of a steady job or a pension. An interviewer pointed out to the 37 year old Minister of Education, Mariastella Gelmini, that unlike her, many of her contemporaries still don’t have a job or prospects and her reform cuts budgets even further. Touchée.
Then just before Christmas, there were parcel bombs sent to the Chilean, Swiss and Greek embassies all claimed by a so-called Informal Anarchist Federation, a tautology and contradiction in terms in just three words. Yesterday, a couple of people threw thunderflashes at a section house of the Northern League in the village where its leader Umberto Bossi lives. There was an explosion outside a court in Athens today. All this has provoked a buzz about “global anarchism” or, for Italy, a “a return to the Seventies”. As part of that debate, along with a former US diplomat in Greece and a British security expert, I was asked about the Italian aspects on al Jazeera “Inside Story” 27 December 2010.
We all agreed that however unpleasant the recent bombs are for people close to them, they do not presage a worldwide anarchist plot. Their communication methods have changed but they aims and even their weapons are much closer to the world of Conrad’s Secret Agent at the end of the 19th century or the Russians of a generation before. They would like to start a world revolution but are unlikely to succeed.
In Italy, in particular, anarchism has always held far less appeal than more organised forms of revolt. The language of the left has nearly always been a Marxist one; it spoke with violence against fascism through the Communist partisans in the war and again in the ‘70s through the Red Brigades against the Italian Republic. The fascist right was born in violence through the ‘20s squadristi and again found expression in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Political violence is as Italian as pasta and returns every generation. Given the discontent today and the very real relative deprivation, the conditions are right for another round. There is political and economic instability and a very uncertain future so the future is not rosy.
But it is not anarchist violence from a few small groups that is the worry. And last week’s lesson from the students is that politics does not have to be violent.
So for the moment, I hope, the worst we can expect are the new year’s eve fireworks and bangers. And a happy new year to you all.

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