Italy in 1977
(A personal memory... .and the link between intensifying cultural commodification, increasing state repression and the spectre of terrorism)
What happened in Italy from the mid to late 1970s was perhaps the most pronounced experience regarding the future of social revolution since the apocalyptic year of 1968. Despite the worldwide horror story between then and now it still remains so although serious reflection on what took place is sorely lacking everywhere. Recently when putting together a long text on Latin America (see elsewhere on this web :Freewheeling Reflections on Latin America in Relation to the UK (2006) ) it became clearer what an effect those tumultuous years in Italy still palpably have throughout that continent. In a way its pulse is greater than ever despite being restricted and viewed somewhat through the distorted lens of Autonomia Operaia though behind AO lay something a lot more authentic. It therefore seemed to make sense finally to piece together a little of what happened in and around 1977.
Our experience of what took place in Italy way back then was also a direct one as we spent time in the country constantly discussing and reflecting on what was unfolding before our eyes as we journeyed (and dallied) in city after city. It meant perspectives and interpretations were changing somewhat from day to day. Sometimes they were dramatic. Inevitably we picked up a considerable number of texts, magazines and books and although our Italian was far from perfect we were quickly able to get the gist of what was going down. Leftist posturing was everywhere so a fair amount of the written stuff was risible though occasionally some of it was brilliant.
The texts translated On The Revolt Against Plenty web are anonymous reflecting a disposition towards theoretical anonymity that was becoming commendably widespread in the Italy of the late 1970s. We never knew, never even had an inkling, of just who were responsible for them though obviously they were pretty profound individuals. Later you couldn't help periodically wondering what became of them. For sure anonymity was becoming a worked-out strategy reflecting the widespread opposition to the legions of cop-out intellectuals ever ready to play the system who were appearing in every nook and cranny. For sure it didn't imply cowardice, a fear of naming yourself because of possible nasty consequences. Put simply it was a refusal to engage with the system on every level, a refusal to leave the sharp end, a refusal to self-capitalise within the orbit and role of alternative celebrity. Hadn't something of that impulse been there in the birth of revolutionary romanticism some 200 years previously? Hadn't Wordsworth and Coleridge consciously refused to put their names initially to the first imprint of Lyrical Ballads in the 1790s? This levelling muse when taken to such raw extremes implied there was little distinction between say, The Ancient Mariner and those anonymous and often incredible opium dreams penned by the new factory proletariat of those times.
Having said that it was by no means an easy-going, contemplative journey and it certainly had nothing of the culturally classical, long gone, Grand Tour about it. We had little money and resorted to some of the down-home survival tactics the indigenous rebellion practised. Stealing food from supermarkets was pretty easy and the same went for free rides from here to there etc. Nonetheless, all that was surprisingly hassle free in contrast to the actual unfolding Italian situation, which was beginning to assume frightening proportions. Many of the protagonists and their opponents were armed and the P. 38 pistol was everywhere. On one memorable occasion in the streets at the back of Rome Termini station in one of the so-called "disputed" areas between the ultra left, the Communist party, and fascist right, we accidentally got embroiled - as the daylight was fading fast - in a three-way gun battle between fascists, young Italian Communist Party militants and presumably, the autonomists of Autonomia Operaia, the disintegrating, mass party, sub-Leninist outfit led, more or less, by Toni Negri, whose profile seemed to be everywhere at the time. On reflection much of the shooting was more for effect than seriously aiming at opponents because crouching behind low walls, bullets seemed to be haphazardly and randomly whizzing everywhere. All the same we were shitting bricks! One thing was certain in this melee; fascist thugs - looking even perhaps consciously - like over-stereotypical brutes - had picked us out as 'un-Italian' elements and that was really scary. In the enveloping dusk a guy, an especially shaven-headed and ghoul-like guy, was advancing towards us and on the spur of the moment, we suddenly realised we were being characterised, most likely because of heavy-build and size, as German, Baader/Meinhof terrorist sympathisers who were periodically grabbing press headlines at the time in Europe. Fortunately, we were quickly able to make a break for it and legged it as fast as we could. Ever after that, we were a lot warier though that initial quick connection remained whenever tension on the streets began to take a nose-dive especially sometime later on Turin's Corso Triano around the giant car factories where contemporary wall slogans made few bones about how certain insurgents would solve present conflicts: "Non-Vota: Spara" ("Don't Vote: Shoot").
Returning to the UK's quieter shores we started to put together what rapidly began to assume the proportions of a reasonably sized book on this Italian crucible. It was though a subject fraught with massive difficulties especially seeing we didn't accept the lefty cliches on Italy doing the rounds at the time. The problem was how could we clearly sort it out, well, more clearly at any rate than we had, and then present our efforts in writing, photographs, conversations and cartoons, etc., without it being an incoherent mess? Translations mounted up of some of the best texts and we also unearthed a lot of really telling photographs. But then there was the perennial problem; who would publish it in Britain? We knew from bitter experience that dumb-fuck anarcho-leftist set-ups wouldn't be able to grasp what we were trying to do so there's was no point in even beginning the wearisome dead-end process of approaching them. Moreover, personal savings were really low, thus the only possible way was, for the moment at least, denied us. Stymied on all sides the familiar situation had kicked-in yet again so alas the flawed project ground to a halt. We were only able to console ourselves with the thought that if, against all the odds, we had found the ways and means to publish, the result would have been something of at best a splendid failure, though nonetheless far better than the limited success of the Red Notes publication on Italy that was prominent in London's left wing bookshops at the time which, apart from a good piece of writing by Sergio Bologna, never really got beyond the muddle that was Autonomia Operaia.
Then well over three years later there was a pleasant surprise waiting. After the publication of A Summer with a Thousand Julys, which contained some passing, relatively clued-in comments on Italy 1977, some anarchists from the English midlands contacted us at BM Blob asking if we could provide information on Italy from that time as they were intent, very intent, on making an informative publication, indeed they'd already started. Delighted, immediately all relevant information was forwarded, photos, translations, original texts, the whole caboodle. Impatient to see the thing out and giving them maximum encouragement we made few photocopies of anything, as publication seemed certain. In retrospect it was a stupid thing to do as it was the last we heard of the project. There was no further contact and the original material was never returned. Flummoxed by the silence we could only speculate what was the problem. It wasn't of course, simplistic anarchist stuff that had been sent them so maybe they couldn't grasp the profundity of some of the cultural critique or perhaps other analysis related to the more theoretical texts. Maybe too, they didn't like the (at times) admittedly somewhat irritating high-handed style deployed in typical 'situationist' language which, perhaps they couldn't understand anyway? In any case that was that!
Interest in particularly the revolt of the Metropolitan Indians did not die down just like that but kept surfacing periodically. In the mid 1990s we again put together a very regurgitated though by now unfortunately shorn photocopy job for the perusal of AK Press in the hope something might happen. Nothing again had changed; they weren't interested and as per usual, carried on, as before, no doubt preferring the third to sixth rate that AK usually publish.
Thankfully the web, despite our general dislike of computers and technolatry in general, has finally provided the means whereby we can publish what's left of those first attempts so many moons ago. Unfortunately because the original Italian texts were lost in transit to the anarchists we have been unable to improve on the original translation. In the more theoretical texts especially there are at times worrying inconsistencies and lamentable passages of wooden translatese but we finally think when all is said done, that better this is out in cyberspace containing as it does insights which no English publication has ever brought out having the unmistakable, "I was there" imprint. Nonetheless, we make apologies for this!
One final point perhaps worth making here: When occasionally asked if there were any other books worth translating we would always suggest the writings of the Italian, Georgio Ceasarano. The response was always quizzical followed by something like, "Who's he". Well, only one of the most interesting guys to have come through the early and mid 1970s especially his two books, "Apocalisse e Rivoluzione" and "Critica dell Utopia Capitale" which, among other riches contains excellent critical material on the musical spectacle, despite a certain florid, diaphanous tendency, disdainful of concrete facts. True, the guy was known somewhat in France especially in the circles around Jacques Camatte, the ultra leftist cum hippy apologist strongly influenced by Bordiga. Then as the Italian events were further unfolding though beginning to lose their cutting edge, Ceasarano committed suicide. It was a quite devastating loss only for us to be completely bewildered by Camatte and the magazine Invariance's appraisal of this final desperate act interpreting it not as a consequence of mental torture, agony, absence, loss, or whatever, but a veritable "victory" (their word) for the revolution!! The iconoclastic quirkiness of such a ridiculous conclusion did though fall in line with other pronouncements Invariance made around the same time suggesting art had already been transcended even in the present day reality of the social relations of capital. It seemed like one step on from the situationist thesis whereas it was nothing more than eye-catching phraseology, when all that was unfolding was an avant-garde art more and more press-ganged in the service of commodity reproduction; a process that has nothing to do with the realisation of art.
The Movement of '77 was essentially around the activities of the "non-guaranteed", those young people generally in poorly paid service sector jobs with no financial security whatsoever. It overlapped with a student revolt of the sons and daughters of the better off whose social space - that of the university - was more or less pushed aside by the sheer presence of the non-guaranteed with their often splendidly utopian hopes sprayed on the walls for all to see. (Again all our photos of these slogans were lost by the anarchists).
The fully employed, more essentially those protected somewhat by trade unions, hardly joined in though many were disturbed by what they experienced and some on an individual basis slowly began to participate though by then, the glory days were on the wane, as Memories of a Metropolitan Indian very tellingly and succinctly puts it:
"... It was not a matter of weakness or incapacity but sprang from the fact that the demands put forward by the movement as immediately realisable were regarded by the employed working class as utopian and unrealisable. Translated into practise, the refusal of work became unemployment rendering survival impossible as a consequence. In the class more directly involved in the productive process there was not, in short, that apocalyptic sense of the end of time which pervaded the movement, becoming the dominant spirit... ..."
In a way too, the exhortations of Communist Party union bureaucrats since the "Hot Autumn" of 1969 were bit-by-bit getting through to those at the production line sharp end who worked in large-scale industry. In hopes of gaining governmental power, the bureaucrats had to appear as the good guys & gals asking people to work harder and make sacrifices and it was this spirit of sacrifice, which was to be heavily lampooned by the '77 movement. Those not too far off days when the workers festively wrecked the factories and, with zest, destroyed the commodities they were forced to make were drawing to a close (see the "Violenza" comix strip on the PUZZ web page). The backdrop to all of this was the "historic compromise" between the Italian Communist Party and the Christian Democrats though it was also a sad change reflected the world over where these particular Italian tensions did not exist. Even new concerns like ecological ones were opportunistically enlisted into the service of self-sacrifice demanding a "belt-tightening by the proletariat" though in reality it rapidly turned into a ploy to further enrich the rich - finally by one of those frequent ruses of history - which, years later, ended up freeing productive forces and paving the way for the real ecological nightmare and "the society of intensive consumerism" whose effects are everywhere for us to experience today. Three years later by the early 1980s it began to be commented upon everywhere throughout Italy, how come the workers were no longer wrecking the cars on the production lines, how come they were learning to love big brother consumption? It was the dawn of neoliberalism... ...
What began to occupy the space left by the destructive potlatch of the workers was the rise and rise of terrorism in Italy particularly fomented by groupuscules in and around the northern cities as these texts intimate whilst also somewhat skirting the phenomena, which in any case, was hardly their brief. The failure of '77 also hardened this trajectory. As one of the texts on another webpage here says: "Above all the so-called proletarian and/or workerist parties who drew a vanguardist, militarist conclusion from this experience [1977 - TN], preparing the terrain for the spectacle of terror... ." And, "The loudest voices were those of the militarists and the one fact emphasised by the bourgeois press as solidarity with terrorism voiced by some sectors of organised autonomy from northern Italy". At first many of their actions particularly those of the Red Brigades, like kneecapping foremen, or burning managers' cars, were virtually indistinguishable from many, fairly common acts of daily vandalism regularly practised by insurgent workers, though it was only after the latter insurgency declined that terrorism really acquired its contemporary profile.Yet it is precisely this latter trajectory that still plays such a part in our world today, and the very first of its kind - the bomb in Milan's Piazza Fontana in1969 - was planted by the Italian state. It was a bomb "exploded against the proletariat" inagurating the "strategy of tension" the critique of which was first elaborated by Ceasarano and "Ludd" and put more precisely, though simultaneously by Guy Debord and later by Gianfranco Sanguinetti in the book, On Terrorism and the State (published in English by BM Piranha). Then terrorism crudely deployed an ideology related to the strong Stalinist legacies in Italy with memories of the armed anti-fascist struggle against Mussolini reaching its height during the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. Even in the 1970s those memories were still to the forefront and a commentator at the time mused on the strange intermingling of old men from anti-fascist days running (or hobbling) around the streets with impressionable young women and men.
Essentially though - and it cannot be emphasised too much - much of this terrorism, at least its most spectacular acts, were sets-up by the Italian state. However, and most importantly, the strategy was so brilliantly successful it has subsequently been exported to the rest of the world, except of course; the ideology has considerably morphed with various Islamic injections now playing the major role. The broad effect though remains the same in keeping the subjugated mass of the people in a state of perpetual fear and paranoia. Above all, more than ever terrorism serves as the policeman of our own desires, keeping us within acceptable behaviour paradigms, taking out all hopes we ever may have had regarding joy and fulfilment in our daily lives. It has allowed the state everywhere to enact raft upon raft of repressive measures especially as deployed by Anglo-American neoliberalism. Although this is not really the place to go into any great detail surrounding this hideous outcome it would certainly be an excellent idea for someone to write a fresh introduction to Sanguinetti's profound book bringing out all the essential connections between then and now. Suffice to say, state-manipulated or even directly created terrorism hasn't by any means played its final card. Watch out for the next dire contribution!
Having baldly stated the obvious is the easier part of this multi-pronged counter-attack. Few have even begun to elaborate on the massive part cultural commodification has had on this repressive counter-revolutionary onslaught, an onslaught that is ever-intensifying as an aesthetic economy more or less imposes itself throughout Europe and America. As the "Additional Note On the Use of Culture and the Spectacle in the Acceleration of Decomposition" presciently points out in its analysis of the debacle of the Italian movement:
"For every I0 people who perish in armed struggle, I, 000 flounder in the everyday. This is a far more insidious weapon destroying people, striking down revolutionary passions and the will to negate the dominance of the economy and the spectacle. Above all because it has remained uncriticised... .... at the moment they are reduced to the state of mere naked consumers of the show business commodity and devourers of the music spectacle's ideology/commodity.... .it is essential power controls them through the programmed colonisation of life making them consume spectacularised stocks and cultural goods of every kind... "
When journeying around Italy in the late 1970s as well as delighting in the profundities of the movement we were equally disturbed, not to say really shocked at the way the movement could almost disappear overnight leaving - even it seemed in an instance - merely a pale shadow of its former self. How could this happen with something like a flick of the finger?????? Yet this was to be the pattern, the shape of things to come everywhere. Subversion to acceptance in the space of a day! Having cynically somewhat laughed at Punk in Britain (Michel Prigent had sprayed on the walls "Punk equals pound notes") in comparison to the imaginative contestation of the Metropolitan Indians and others at the same time in Italy, it was quite devastating to observe how genuine insurgents immediately switched, whole-heartedly embracing the more or less staged Punk phenomenon. It was if they had no confidence in what they'd done in the streets themselves, of their own organic integrity. Moreover, there was literally no critique of Punk around in any general sense especially where it should have been, in Bologna. What comment there subsequently was and well over a year later was so sidelined it had no widespread impact. "Additional Note On the Use of Culture and the Spectacle in the Acceleration of Decomposition" says:
"They recuperated Punk which - after its initial beginning - had already been recuperated by recording multinationals injecting a deadening aesthetic of cynical impotence and self-immolation".
Yet worse was to follow immediately on its heels. Again, from Additional Note:
"The summer of '80 was a massive bombardment of "culture" that became ever more lightweight and affected a ritual of inert passive spectators. Beethoven as John Travolta."
For sure you can hardly believe it! Nonetheless, adoration of Travolta went hand in hand with worship of New York and California and as the self-same text explains: "Thus the USA is mindful of its unenviable luck at being elected the leftists country of choice" now that Maoism and Castroism, etc., had bitten the ideological dust. Yet it was only to fall into an even worse ideology - of almost unbelievable dimensions - seeing reflux was taking such a heavy toll in America. 1978 was for certain not 1968 and in New York there wasn't even one Motherfucker in sight as the darkening storm of neoliberal reversal was more than gathering ominously on the horizon. Money was becoming everything which, in its own way demonstrates how niave Italy in 1979-80 had become. Those 'movement' Italians who could afford it went to the USA almost in droves and the Mao-Dadaist, Bifo Beradi was to settle there joining hi-tech mania where he was heavily hurt in the dot com crash of the late 1990s. He was in fact to write an interesting vignette on the matter though the "Eulogising Madness" web here is rightly sarcastic of Bifo's previous shenanigans.
It's perhaps worth adding the Metropolitan Indians were also the delayed southern European response to the hippy/yippie revolt of the late 1960s (no wonder in a way they had such 'American' illusions) though generally of a more clued-in persuasion. Nonetheless, they also played out yet again some of the same themes from Beat poetry & madness, to rock music and hadn't the Motherfucker/King Mob milieu ten years previously emphasised Geronimo too? The aware texts published here obviously comment well on all of this though they also go that necessary step further placing the outcome in a more general context emphasising ominous future signs, aware for instance that eulogising madness was leading to the hideous pandemic of therapism which now so colonises and massively inhibits all of us. Take heed well of the following timely comments written so long ago:
"... ..the repressive strangulation of passions, the impossibility of attaining genuine pleasure, love and is beyond the order of things)...The death of the family having been decreed for sometime the family of death - the therapeutic society - opens its arms to all."
Everyone renounces standard reason and standard reasons for the lucidity of a coherent conflict, faithful to oneself, with power and for a superior sensibility which passion can equip it - anyone then can always be their own therapist. Who pushes for the renunciation - to valorise the spectacle of a feigned letting loose - can always hope to take up a position as a therapist or guru or, at least, as a social worker. But they cannot deceive revolutionaries as to what they are - cops of the counter-cultural neo-vanguardist 'movement'."
The last sentence, "cops of the counter-cultural neo-vanguardist movement" can also be applied to the rest of the fall-out, the bottom line being how directly lived subversion got thrown back in your face as representation. What then was the reflux?
"Any ideology, which abandons the explosive terrain of '77 progressively ditching its supercession. This time it no longer proceeds through leftist stereotypes and mannerisms (that still draws on the arsenal and traditions of the defunct, reformist, workers' movement) but absorbs and directly propagandises the prompting's of need saturating the appetites of rebels with the show biz of musical commodities, cultural commodities, and spectacular commodities."
Sure enough everything got turned into carnival. Following on from the situationist critique of art as it rippled out over in the following years, it became common enough parlance to declaim the death of poetry at the same time as music had truly got you by the short and curlies and that is finally what was deployed most succinctly in bringing the Italian movement to heel: "Sensing the times - very ripe for the art business and the spectacle... " quickly recuperating ... ... "the most ideological aspects of the '77 carnival and is able to mount ever larger carnivals which are ever more disturbing. It's enough to be simply good and pay up."
An ever-deepening spectacularisation finally wrung the life out of all that had previously been there even as late as 1975 from the alternative music festivals where, "the enthusiasm of youth looking for new experiences had not yet been extinguished". It was though merely a minute before midnight as truly everything exhibiting traces of life was slowly killed-off. Despair, freak out and real breakdown took over in Italy. Previously ecstatic cries: "We don't want media blow-out but to blow-out the media" seemed sadly no longer a viable option as critique morphed into its opposite - on, on, ever onwards - until today where nothing is left but unbearable emptiness where "culture the one commodity which sells all the others" becomes truer than ever.
More than that by 1980 the dye had been well and truly cast as all the cultural crap adorning the atomised nomad was rapidly, very rapidly cloned everywhere. Marginality died replaced by fuckhead. Subversive history vanquished and the kingdom of the utterly dumb was stillborn. It is the disgusting truth of the age we now inhabit no more eloquently put than in the following:
"In the 80s, with the onset of crises, a resumption was proposed to prevent a possible supercession and avert a potential radicalisation. They therefore constructed an empty individual whose principal activity was the simulation and initiation of anybody. For this person catastrophe was already a fait accompli.
It is a ghost which having lost everything of substance advances in its citywide wanderings obsessed by every flashing light and device. It is totally impotent because the desert lies within. When the curtain rises on moments of euphoria - patently a mad fit- it recites something that does not come from within but has been put there.
It is a crushed, brittle, brainless individual, thirsting for falsehoods and a weakling when confronted with the truth."
If this was fair comment in 1980 imagine what we have to add-on today dealing with a subject without substance, where a generalised autism has invaded into every nook and cranny genuflecting to every given media image yet, unlike 1980, a dislocated thing no longer even knowing who or where they are at. How do you subvert and bring back into focus individuals no longer having an iota about intensifying alienation yet experience its essence as an almost unbearable agony. Just how do you subvert those for whom catastrophe is a fait accompli, yet because of their absence, usher in the end of human kind?
(Dave Wise. January 2007 and 30 years later.....)
(For further articles on Italy see the following)