This is the last letter from Italy from this six-month period. It is about two things: 1) the toilet in the Giardini Margherita, and 2) of lesser importance, the political situation in Italy.
I know how concerned my readers are about the sanitary facilities in Margie's Park, as they do not call it here. When last we discussed this, the toilet was working. That, however, was merely to catch one off guard. Of late (that is, for 2–3 weeks now), it has been kaput: adjusted for Euros, but not for customers. The door is stuck half open (or, if you are of a mind, half closed). As I have written earlier, my concern with the toilet is not for #1, or, as they put it here — no joke — pee pee, but for #2, or, po po. The door being half open means that one (many "ones" in fact) can enter and do, as they say here, their affari. And, I confess, once under duress, I did so. But the next time, many others having done so — in a non-flushed toilet — my good taste in all things held me back — way back.
Nor have I re-entered. Two-three weeks add up. Consequently, I now suffer from what may be called bloatissimo egregio, and I have asked my avvocato (which is not a fruit here, but a lawyer) to prepare papers taking Bologna to court. Such matters take time — if not as much time, evidently, as the U. of Modena's paying me which, it appears I shall receive when I return October next — but one has to stick to one's principles, if one has such. And one has.
Now to the trivia. My faithful readers will know that in the Feb. 2 Letter from Italy I took account of both toilet and politics, also. And promised a sequel in re: politics. And that the sequel turned out to become an Article entitled "Fascism with a happy face," now on our web site. (And being considered by Monthly Review mag, which is why its first paragraph mentions "MR"). Well, since writing that essay, even in a week much has been happening, and much more will happen as time goes on. To put it in a phrase, Italy appears now to be edging toward a substantial political crisis. And it is that which concerns me in what follows.
Most who read this will know that in the last part of my fascism article I noted that things had begun to heat up in Italy, taking the form of many protests all over the country — major and minor, and girotondo ("rolling thunder") — the protests covering many grounds, most but not all directed against the Berlusconi administration's policies — anti-labor, anti-pension, anti-health care, anti-immigrant, anti-, in short, people. And the biggest protest of all was scheduled for March 23, optimistically expected to bring a million people, but which to everyone's amazement, brought 3 million! By everyone's agreement it was the largest demo in all of Italian history — with all the unions, with no-global, with pro-immigrant, with pro-education/pensions/health care/ free speech/democracy/ women/ gays — did I leave anyone or anything out? Yes: anti-terrorism and the Biagi murder. But Cofferati, the leader of CGIL, despite the efforts of the Berlusconi people to blame the left — as distinct from the Red Brigade, which calls itself left but is not — turned those charges around successfully.
And, to start things off from the Berlusconi side: 1) they said there were 500,000, then upped it to 700,000 people, even though there were six different areas where people could be, and where there were screens and TV so they could hear/see what's what.
But in just one of those places, the field called Circo Massimo, which barely holds a maximum 1 million people, it was so crowded that — literally — people could not sit down, could not walk carrying anything, etc. Almost all the major newspapers and TV put the figure at 3 million, with the "government" papers going along with 700,000. But, as the publisher-chief editorialist of the largest circulation paper (La Repubblica) put it, if our police/carabinieri, those we trust to take care of us, cannot count any better than that, we are in trouble. Finally it came out — although some of the rightwing newsies still won't admit it — that the 700,000 figure came from the cops having expected that amount as a maximum and provided sufficient cop bodies for such a turnout, and didn't want to admit their error, etc, etc. But that's just the numbers game.
More important is this:
There are 4 major union confederations in Italy (CGIL, CISL, UIL, and UGL, in descending order of strength, and, also, from left to right). The CGIL called the demo, intitially as a protest vs. Berlusconi for wanting to get rid of "Article 18," which forbids firing workers for any but "just cause." It's been in effect for decades.
All four confederations were officially there. But the leader of the CISL, who was personally not there, said on that day, "It's a bad day for unions." He'll have to explain that to his many thousands of members who were at the demo. (And even the UGL, whose political group is the ex-fascist AN, was there — in force.)
Berlusconi said it was all a political sham, just trying to stir up trouble, and he would not back down. And his Minister of the Interior said something of the same. And Bossi, his vital coalition partner, with fascism in his genes, said that the left was responsible for the murder of Biagi a few days earlier, and they were cunningly trying to make believe they were sorry, and on and on...(This after Bossi himself having proclaimed a few days before that ships carrying immigrants should be sunk by the Navy.) And so it went, and so it goes.
The CGIL and others are now planning even more demos and in early April (probably April 11) a general strike — in which probably 10 million-plus workers will strike: CGIL plus CISL and UIL, and perhaps UGL.
It seems, in that Berlusconi has drawn a line in the sand, won't change his mind about anything, ever, what seems to be in the offing is what here they call a referendum: that is, in effect, a national vote which either gives Berlusconi the go-ahead or kicks him out. Pretty dangerous stuff for both sides. But in my opinion (and I am very conscious of being an outsider) what Cofferati and the CGIL are doing is dangerous but essential, because with someone like Berlusconi in charge, each month that passes weakens labor and the left and democracy.
On the other hand, the extraordinary and surprising success of March 23 indicates that there are a lot of people out there who — put to sleep by the recent "leaders" of the left — have just been waiting to be nudged into action. That 3 million figure, it now seems, was if anything an undercount: because of all those trying to get to Rome from outside, by bus, train, and auto, there were so many jams of one kind or another that many (including friends of ours) never managed to get there. (Some feel for it all, despite the words being in Italian, can be had at http://www.repubblica.it, which has photos and video.)
There is now a high tingle in the political air for those left of center. This man Cofferati — who used to work in Pirelli's tire factory as a technician — is, according to all accounts from people I respect and according to my own impressions — an extraordinarily honest and sane man. He is well-informed, a good speaker (with no horseshit, no tricks, no showmanship), with an appealing and quiet personality, but not at all boring, and evidently trusted by all who know him (which includes some people I know well). He's called "the Chinese" because he has slightly slanting eyes — which also give him a soft and almost sweet face. And he's got guts, a rare element amongst politicians these days, whether here there or elsewhere. But he's no politician, and seems disinclined to become one, although the pressure on him to become so is now very strong.
As I wrote in the fascism piece, Berlusconi is someone who takes advice from nobody, who seeks to rule Italy as he has ruled his companies, and quite clearly doesn't see any difference between the two jobs. He does not seem to understand that although his employees could be fired by him and wouldn't dare say no to him, that voters are not his employees. He really doesn't seem to get it. However, he is surrounded by some astute conservative advisers from the old and much-experienced Christian Democrats, who must be at least trying to rein him in a bit. I think they will fail. I hope they will fail. For I think for those left of center — or more broadly, for those who believe in democracy and decency — the only chance we have is to move when it seems we have an opportunity. Which is now; and it may well be the last opportunity.
What all this means for the USA is — not much. We don't have a sleeping left, at best we have a confused lib-left, all too many of whom are currently wearing (of all things) American flags. We have a history of an always-fragmented left, none of whose pieces was ever very large at its most robust. At our best, we have had some strong business unions with some representation in Congress (and the states); and it's that which got us the reforms of the years after W.W. II and up through the 1960s.
We can make progress, but it won't come rapidly, and it won't come after an extraordinary demo such as March 23 here. If the Italian numbers were to be translated for our population (which is more than five times theirs), then we would have a demo with about 15 million people in it — led by workers, accompanied by very large numbers of no-globals, pro-women, pro-people of color, pro-gay, pro-education, pro-health care, pro-peace — pro-a-decent-world.
We have a long way to go to get there.
And we can do it. But only by hard and persistent work, and with genuine attitudes and feelings of solidarity with others — not with the competitive drive that makes fools of us all.