Posts Tagged ‘italy’

Mythological Crisis

In Greece on 26 April 2013 at 16:03
Perseus arming for his quest, photo Wikipedia

Perseus arming for his quest, photo Wikipedia

Thessaloniki, April 26

Dear people,

After a sudden burst of anger following the reelection of the 88-year old president of the republic, the Italian Revolution fizzled out. The two major parties have embraced each other and will soon form a government that has three major priorities. One, protect the economic and legal interests of Silvio Berlusconi. Two, prevent the other political force from disintegrating as a result of a multi billion dollar scandal involving Italy’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena. And three, make sure that the Five Star Movement is neutralised in any way necessary. The establishment knows they will have to succeed. If they don’t, then sooner or later, they will all go down together.

In the meantime, I made my way down to Greece. I didn’t plan on visiting this country again, but here I am. It has been a year since we marched to Athens. Back then, we came from Italy, and from the looks of it, Greece was definitely in a bad shape. Now, I come from Bulgaria, and things are different. All things are relative, and Greece is doing great.

Circumstances, and custom, make me put my convictions to the test quite often. I try to keep questioning the things that many of us have been taking for granted. And this time, in Thessaloniki, I have come to the conclusion that there is no crisis. At all. You people have been fooled by corporate media and left wing propaganda. Come take a walk through Thessaloniki and marvel at all the tantalizing windows of the luxury shops. See the flashy cars drive by over the boulevards. Observe the dense crowd of fashionable youngsters shooting pictures with their latest model iPhone. Try to find a place on one of the many terraces of the expensive cafes: you will have a hard time, they are full, everywhere. This crisis is a myth, a Greek one.

Or is it? Some people say that the crisis is real. Those people haven’t been to Bulgaria, or to most other parts of the world. They say things used to be so much better in Greece a few years ago. For me, after witnessing the exuberant hedonism of Thessaloniki, it’s hard to imagine.

But let’s hypothesise that it’s true. There is a crisis. Greece is really suffering. And there is a reason for that. Over the last few decades, the Greeks have lived a lifestyle that they couldn’t afford. They have destroyed all their towns and villages and rebuilt them with cheap concrete. They have joined a currency that they never should have joined. And now that it’s payback time, they blame the powerful international institutions and/or the defenceless immigrants. Some of them blame the Germans. Undoubtedly there are some who blame the Turks. Only a few of them, the most courageous ones – and we have met these people, they are the best – acknowledge that the Greeks have only themselves to blame.

Or have they? Let’s hypothesise that this isn’t true either, that the Greeks themselves are not to blame. Let’s drop the guilt question all together, and ask ourselves what the Greeks are doing to solve the problem.

They resist. My god, they resist. And I have to give them credit for it. Many other peoples just abandon themselves to self pity, but the Greeks are always on the barricades. The trouble is that they are all fighting a different war.

Your average Greek is mad because he is not as rich as he was. He feels that the government (or whoever, the corporations, the Germans, the immigrants, the Turks) is looting his wallet, and he just wants to go back to the times when he lived a life that he couldn’t afford. Your nationalist Greek is usually a fascist. He thinks this crisis thing is about more than just money. He is convinced the Greeks are the greatest people on earth because of all the invaluable things that Greece has left the western world. He wants a national awakening, he wants the immigrants out, he wants to pick a fight with the Turks and he dreams of a renaissance of the great Byzantine empire.

Then you have the believers. They say there is only one god, his name is Karl Marx, and Lenin is his prophet. Others believe in the same god, but they say that his prophet is Trotzky, or Mao. Some even say that his prophet is Jozef Stalin. These churches don’t get along. And what’s more, they are split into numerous different sects, who all claim that their own interpretation of the words of the prophet is the only real one. The thing they share is their firm conviction that one day, god will come again to reward his faithful. The true believers will live in the earthly paradise of the workers and the peasants, and the sinners will be sent off to spend eternity in the gulags of Siberia.

Then you have your anarchists. They only believe in freedom. Some of them build a kind of theory around it, but most of them are nihilists. They go rioting whenever the opportunity arises, because it’s the only thing that gives any sense to their existence.

Finally, there are also people who are content with the situation as it is. These are mostly civil servants. Compared to the total population, there are a lot of them, many more than you would need. They have a job with a fixed salary and hardly a chance of ever losing it. They support the government, any government, because they know that a real change, for them, can only be a change for the worse.

All these spirits add up to different forces, pulling the country in opposite directions, with the result that everything is immobile. Maybe the only way to speak about it, the only way to understand it, is to turn it into a myth. A story in which the communists and the fascists and the anarchists and the politicians and the banks and the international institutions are all mythological monsters. A story in which common sense is the true hero. A hero destined to succumb, but nevertheless unyielding, to the bitter end.

There was one thing I saw here in Thessaloniki, which lifted up my spirits. A protest concert at the White Tower square on the seaside. Against the rising prices of utilities. People had photocopied their bills and hung them up as a kind of decoration. There was no big crowd, there was no police, but also, there were no signs of any political party. These were unaffiliated citizens, rocking for a better world.



In Italy on 21 April 2013 at 12:43
Sandro Pertini, president of Italy (1978-1985): "If a government doesn't do what the people want, it has to be brought down, with clubs and stones if necessary."

Sandro Pertini, president of Italy (1978-1985): “If a government doesn’t do what the people want, it has to be brought down, with clubs and stones if necessary.”

April 21, 1440 hrs

Dear people,

Imagine, in the UK, 2013, John Major returning to be prime minister. It sounds a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it? Especially if you hypothesise him leading a government of the Conservatives and Labour combined. But in Italy, something like this is likely to happen. After striking a deal with Berlusconi over the presidency of the republic the Italian ‘Labour’ party is about to jump in bed with the media tycoon’s private political party and nominate Giovanni Amato as prime minister. Amato has already been prime minister of Italy in the 1990s.

This is one of the reasons why many Italians are exasperated. The faces never change. In other civilized countries, politics may be just as crappy, but at least your average politician leaves the scene after five or eight years, so you always have someone new to complain about. In Italy, governments come and go, parties change their names, but the people behind them, creating the problems, are always the same people who propose themselves to clean up the mess. They are not even elected. They are nominated by the party hierarchies.

Italy has known roughly two political generations since World War 2. The first one lasted for forty years, and is linked to the name Giulio Andreotti. The second one has been going on for  about twenty years, and is linked to the name Berlusconi. It’s doubtful whether the Italians will ever get rid of them. Berlusconi’s private doctor, the ex-mayor of Catania, has publicly declared to have made Berlusconi immortal. Andreotti as well, the 94-year old senator for life, is rumoured to be immortal because he has supposedly sold his soul to the devil.

These people are running Italy as their private property, in the interest of shady individuals and unincorporated organizations. They will not gladly allow new people into the club. Politicians in their fifties are considered babies, not to be taken seriously. Everyone else has to accept a society that is based on patriarchal clientelism, in which it doesn’t matter what you are capable of, but whom you are connected to. For educated youngsters there are only two options. Either you bow your head and you adapt, or you emigrate.

The re-election of an 88-year president is symbolic for a political class that is desperate to keep clinging onto power whatever it takes. For the establishment, the Five Star Movement is an enemy that needs to be neutralised, because it’s people powered, it could lift up the rocks of Italian politics and expose all the creepy life forms going about their dirty business undisturbed.

To make change in Italy, a few things need to happen. First, all these nauseating figures who have been recycling themselves for ages need to be prohibited to run for office again. Second, an independent and apolitical commission will need to look into their conduct to ascertain criminal responsibilities. But before this, the entire Italian political and judicial system will need to be trashed.

They say Italy has about as many laws as all other countries combined. It’s a jungle, which makes it particularly easy for anyone who is able to afford a good lawyer to remain out of prison. And indeed, the only people who actually go to prison are the immigrants and the drug addicts. The fat cats never will. Let me give you a comparison. Italy is like a computer with some old proprietary operating system installed, say Windows 3.1, and thousands upon thousands of patches to make it somewhat up to date. On top of that, you have thousands more of generally useless proprietary programs whose files are dispersed over completely arbirtrary folders. It results in the computer being unbearably slow and opaque.

Many politicians have promised to solve this problem. Berlusconi has, but never did. Monti has, but never did. All they did was add some more patches and programs. Of course there is only one real solution. A complete format of the hard drive – a revolution – followed by the installation of the latest version of an open source operating system that allows everybody to creatively participate. The processor speed, the country’s creative potential, is amazing. If it weren’t for all the crap that weighs it down, it would be the best.

A quote that went viral on Twitter last night, was a message by Italy’s most beloved president, Sandro Pertini: “If a government doesn’t do what the people want, then it has to be brought down, with clubs and stones if necessary.”

Today, the #ItalianRevolution continues. There is no other choice. The political class has to be swept away one way or another. The country’s hard drive needs to be formatted if Italy wants to live another renaissance.

Follow the livestream:

The Next Level

In #GlobalRevolution, Italy on 17 April 2013 at 11:19


Dear people,

Though I am lost in the backwaters of Europe, I keep following the events in Spain wherever I can. There is no way I can report on all things happening, because it’s simply too much. Sufficeth to say that evictions are being prevented every day, and demonstrations are being held at least every week. Recently there was a big demo in Madrid against the scandal-ridden monarchy, in favour of a third republic.

I hope to return to Spain soon, but before I do, I will inform you about how the movement is attempting to take the struggle to the next level.

Out of the primordial indignant chaos of the 15-M, various issue-centered waves have evolved, each adopting its own colour. The most prominent are the Green Wave (public education), the White Wave (public health care) and the Blue Wave (public water). There are many more waves concentrating on minor issues, and then there is the PAH, Plataforma Afectados por la Hipoteca, which coordinates the struggle against foreclosures and has a very strong presence all over Spain. Finally, there are the hundreds of popular assemblies in cities, villages and neighbourhoods that were born out of the occupations in 2011.

These local and thematic groups have united into a movement called Marea Ciudadana, or “Citizens’ Wave”. They have been pressurizing government with frequent marches on parliament, but since a couple of months they have also adopted a more confrontational tactic called ‘escrache’. Escraches, instead of targeting faceless institutions, are actions that target specific people (or parties) directly and personally.

You are a politician who has been taking bribes? Right, we won’t lament ourselves outside parliament, but we’ll come to your house. We’ll make noise under your windows, we will let all your neighbours know that you are scum. It’s a tactic that was first used in Argentina in the early 2000s to denounce politicians that had been responsible for atrocities committed by the military regime. It has been used in Uruguay, Peru and other Latin American countries, and since this spring it has been adopted by the PAH to denounce those politicians who represent the interests of the banks rather than those of the citizens.

In a certain sense, escrache is the enactment of a famous meme that was adopted by the movement in the early days of the revolution: ‘If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.’

The great leap forward of the movement is supposed to happen this spring. From June 23 to June 30 the “United Citizens’ Waves” intend to exercise popular sovereignty through plebiscite. The premise is the following. According to the Spanish Constitution “National sovereignty is vested in the Spanish people, from whom all State powers emanate” (Article 1), and “Citizens have the right to participate in public affairs directly or through representatives freely elected in periodic elections by universal suffrage.” (Article 23).

Over the last 35 years people have tried to participate through representatives, but in the end it didn’t work out to their advantage. So now has come the time for citizens to participate in public affairs directly. They will drum up enough support to block privatizations, to end foreclosures by law, to reform the banking sector and to bring corrupt politicians to justice.

How this will work out in practice remains to be seen. But it’s going to be damn interesting to observe.

Of course, the skeptics will say that it can never work, direct democracy on this kind of scale. But you cannot know that until you try. And Spain is not the only place where direct democracy is being experimented. Another example is Italy.

Over the last few weeks, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement has been under heavy attack from the establishment and the press for his failure to cooperate with the gerontocracy that has been ruling Italy – in various disguises – since the age of dinosaurs. They want him to support a government of the so-called Democratic Party, but since he continues to refuse, they blame him for the current political stalemate.

On top of all this, a new president of the republic has to be elected by parliament. Usually this doesn’t happen in parliament, but in the corridors. The major parties try to find a compromise on some colourless ex-politician that will not cause them trouble in the seven years to come.

The Five Star Movement refuses to take part in these shady practices. They think the citizens ought to have a say in the election of their head of state and so they organized primaries online, open to all the members of the movement. They could propose any Italian citizen of more than fifty years of age (as the constitution requires). The winner, elected over two rounds, will be the official candidate that M5S members will propose and vote. Yesterday, the results came in. No politician, no Nobel prize winner, but an investigative journalist will be the people’s candidate for the presidency: Milena Gabanelli.

You have to know that journalism in Italy is of an embarrasingly low standard. I was reminded by that lately, when I returned to read Italian newspapers. Generally, Italian journalists seem to think that news reporting consists of quoting politicians. For example, something is going on, say a demonstration, then your average journalist won’t give you an account of what happened and why, but he or she will stuff the microphone in the face of some second-rate politicians from the left to the right and publish their sound bites. The facts don’t matter. All you get is talking heads, always the same, ad nauseam. If not, you have your intellectualoid balloons, who preach about the dire state of the nation in such hollow terms that they cannot possibly be accused of having a real opinion on the matter. In any case, a true journalist is very hard to find in Italy.

Milena Gabanelli is an exception. For fifteen years she has been digging deeply into all the dirt related to corruption, speculation, squander, inefficiency, bribery and all-out organized crime. Now, the usual tactic of the establishment to silence journalists who actually do their job in Italy, is to denounce them for diffamation. They hardly ever win, but it serves to scare the great majority into becoming faithful mercenaries of the system. Not so Milena Gabanelli. She is a courageous woman, with a profound knowledge of all of Italy’s problems. For this, justly, the members of the Five Star Movement have nominated her to become the country’s head of state.

We are entering an age in which direct participation of all the people in public affairs is becoming possible. We don’t need representatives any more. Let the skeptics say that it can’t be done, that’s it’s going to be a mess. We will try anyway. The mess can hardly be worse than the one that our so-called representatives have caused.

Keep Reminding Them…

In #GlobalRevolution on 16 March 2013 at 15:23
St. Francis renounces to all worldly possessions, by Giotto. Assisi, Basilica superiore.

St. Francis renounces all worldly possessions, by Giotto. Assisi, Basilica superiore

Budapest, March 16

Dear people,

I have started my 2013 Spring Campaign in the East, along the banks of the Danube. My plan is to travel South from here, see what’s cooking.

There’s not much to say about Hungary after just three days. But I can give you a mirror image by telling you about the people I met in the hostel.

One was a French woman who had flown to Budapest to go to the dentist, because in France it has become much too expensive. Another was a guy from China, who is teaching Mandarine Chinese here in central Europe. Another was an Italian porn actor. It seems Budapest is the heart of the European porn industry, but with the crisis, even this sector is suffering. He hadn’t been working in a month.

I talked to a few locals as well. Their stories are pretty much the same ones you hear from youngsters in Southern Europe. They get pretty good education, but they don’t find a job. Their only real option is to emigrate.

In other news, protesters have staged a house call at the prime minister’s mansion in Portugal to demonstrate against corruption and austerity, yesterday. In Italy, the Five Star Movement is under heavy pressure from the media and from a significant part of their own voters to strike a deal with the left wing gerontocracy and form a government.

The latest appeal to Beppe Grillo has come from a handful of Italian intellectuals. They urge him to be reasonable, to swallow his pride, and to seize the opportunity to finally reform Italian politics.

Grillo is in a difficult situation. If he makes a deal with the same people he has been rightfully bashing for the last decade, he will lose a lot of his credibility. He will be just another politician who sells out.

So he said no. He describes the intellectuals (among whom Roberto Saviano and Roberto Benigni) as ‘sirens’, and the M5S as Odysseus. He urges the representatives of the movement to close their ears with wax, and to keep following their course. On his blog he quotes the following phrases: “In Italy, a legal revolution has begun. Maybe they will succeed in stopping it, but not with the voices of the Sirens. Right now, we are at war, and if we die, we will do so on the battlefield of the next elections. It’s better to take a leap into the dark than to commit an intellectually assisted suicide.”

More news from Italy. Maybe you already heard about it. There’s a new pope, one that shamelessly dares to call himself Francis, after the man who was nearly excommunicated for denouncing the decadence of the church.

What’s next? I thought. Pope Galileo?

Anyway, I don’t really give a damn about the church, but after the press announced that mr. Bergoglio didn’t raise his voice when many of his compatriots were arrested, tortured, murdered and made to disappear by the Argentine dictatorship, I was surprised by the reaction.

The Vatican vehemently branded these insinuations as left wing anticlerical propaganda, which is definitely not the reaction of a self-confident institution. Hell, they are afraid. They are shitting their pants.

So, let’s keep reminding them of what this church thing actually is. Let’s keep reminding them of the Christians who burned the Great Library of Alexandria. Let’s keep reminding them of the Catholic pogroms against the Jews. Let’s keep reminding them of how crusaders slaughtered Muslim men, women and children after they conquered Jerusalem. Let’s keep reminding them of all the innocent women who were tortured and burned or drowned for being ‘witches’. Let’s keep reminding them of the Holy Inquisition. Let’s keep reminding them of the church’s lifelong support for dictatorships everywhere. But most of all, let’s keep reminding these freaks of the thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of children who were sexually abused in the name of the lord, and who are still being abused to this day. Maybe not so much in Europe or the U.S. any more, but you can bet that these practices are still continuing in the Third World.

So whether you consider yourself left wing or right wing, believer or not, you have every reason to be anticlerical, and proud of it.

Photo via

Photo via

Review of a Revolutionary Week

In #GlobalRevolution, Italy, Portugal on 5 March 2013 at 12:42
Demonstration against austerity in Portugal. Photo via @OCongres

Demonstration against austerity in Portugal. Photo via @OCongres

Dear people,

It has been quite a week. As the revolution goes, three things in particular were worthy of note.

First, the death of Stéphane Hessel.

Hessel was a former diplomat, member of the resistance in France during WW2 and one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1948.

Two years ago, at 93 years of age, Hessel became an idol with the youth when he wrote a pamphlet called Indignez-Vous!, translated into English as ‘Time for Outrage!’

The pamphlet sold over two million copies in France alone. The Spanish translation was a major inspiration for the movement of the indignados.

As a member of the National Resistance Council, Hessel recalls the ideals that the Council adopted on 15 March 1944, and on which it wanted post-war society to be founded. These included “a comprehensive plan for Social Security, to ensure livelihoods for all citizens”, “a pension that allows old workers to finish their life in dignity”, “the return to the nation of the major means of production, common sources of energy, wealth of the subsoil, insurance companies and large banks”, “the establishment of genuine economic and social democracy which evicts large feudal economic and financial interests from the direction of our economy.” And, not in the least, a society where the press is free from corporate or foreign influences.

Over sixty years later, Hessel concludes that our society is not the one that was envisioned by the members of the National Resistance Council. Despite decades of booming economic growth, ours has turned into a society of suspicions against immigrants and expulsions, one that challenges pensions and social security, and where the media are in the hands of a few powerful people. Ours, in short, is not a society of which we, as human beings, can be proud.

Hessel denounced indifference as the worst of all attitudes, and he called for “a true and peaceful insurrection against the media that only offer our youth a horizon of mass consumption, of disdain for the weakest, of generalised amnesia, and of all-out competition of everyone against everyone else.”

He made an appeal to all youngsters. “To the men and women who will make the 21st century, we say, with affection: to create is to resist, to resist is to create.”

In 2011, his call to rise up took the world by storm. The spirit of resistance lives on.

Thank you, Stéphane Hessel. May you rest in peace.

Photo Wikipedia

Photo Wikipedia

Number two, last Saturday March 2 was another day of massive protests in Portugal. In thirty cities there were demonstrations against austerity. Over a million people took the streets, which is more than ten percent of the population. Imagine thirty million people demanding the resignation of President Obama on the same day. That’s about the scale of the protest.

The demos come a week after equally massive demonstrations of the ‘Citizen’s Tide’ in Spain. It looks like it’s going to be a hot spring on the peninsula.

Third, and most entertaining, is the elections in Italy. Without kidding, I’ve been rolling over the floor laughing. It’s a farce, but it’s all dead serious.

Immortal Berlusconi made yet another come-back. He had been declared politically dead by many commentators who don’t understand a thing about Italy. He might not have won parliament, but he did win the senate, which could give him enough political leverage to keep his ass out of prison.

But the real winner of the election is comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of the Five Star Movement, a party-political version of the indignados.

In the foreign press, Grillo has been called a populist and has been compared to any other populist in Europe. This is not just bad journalism, it is intentionally misleading.

Beppe Grillo and the movement he inspires is one of a kind, at least for the moment. I remember the very beginnings of his political campaigning. It started in theaters, it went online through his daily blog, then he came to the squares to decry political corruption, in favour of participatory democracy. Grillo exposed politicians of all parties in a way that nobody ever dared to do from a pulpit. He had been banned from television, he had been ignored by the press, but thanks to the Internet his movement reached millions of Italians who are fed up with business as usual.

In 2009 he supported civil lists in local elections. His party won the mayorship of Parma and other towns. In 2012 he made a breakthrough in the Sicilian local election. Now, in the run-up to the general elections, he drew a hundred thousand people to his show in Milan, eight hundred thousand in Rome. He inspired people like only a black preacher with a gospel choir can do. The man is a phenomenon. Last week, his movement became the single biggest party in Italy.

It’s hilarious. A few years ago, when I left the Beautiful Country, Grillo was a troublemaker that politicians loved to ignore. Now they are begging him to support the formation of a government.

With enormous satisfaction, Grillo told them to fuck off. All his opponents have been in politics since the age of the dinosaurs, they have to go, and before they do, they have to account for all the income they received over the years. They created this mess, the citizens themselves will have to clean up. Grillo’s party will only support bills that reflect the movement’s principles. They will not support any government. The representatives of the M5S have been chosen through preliminary elections on the movement’s website. They are tied to a code of behaviour which obliges them to respect the electoral program they were voted to enact. They have renounced to more than half of their income, and they will refuse to use or accept the customary title of ‘honorable’. Instead, echoing the French Revolution, they will address all representatives as ‘citizen’.

On the day the M5S entered in the Italian parliament, they opened the doors to the public, saying ‘this is your house’.

The first demands of the movement have to do with the clean-up of Italian politics. Two mandates should be the maximum, parties should not receive public subsidies, and no condemned criminal should have the right to be elected.

The left wing party, if it is to form a government, will have to be supported either by Berlusconi or by Grillo. They know that Berlusconi will eat them alive, so they grudgingly prefer the other clown.

It’s going to be very risky for the new M5S representatives. The Italian parliament is the most dangerous place in the country. The crime rate at Montecitorio is much higher than the crime rate in the most lurid outskirts of Naples. The new parliamentarians and senators will be thrown into a pit full of snakes. These creepy lifeforms have been lurching in the shadows of power for ages, they know exactly how much one is worth, they know who is selling, and they know who is buying. Ethics are not an issue in Italian politics, and the worst thing that can happen is that the M5S movement is torn apart by the existing parties and massacred by the press.

With Beppe Grillo and his movement gaining notoriety, some commentators have tried to understand what is going on, some others are dismissing this movement all together. They say that Grillo is dangerous. They accuse his internet strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio of having a secret agenda. The writers collective Wu Ming published a shameless declaration in which they accuse Grillo of being ‘one of them’ politicians as usual, without presenting any credible basis at all for their accusations.

Instead of giving in to this crazy need to always have an opinion, on whatever subject, I urge people to shut up, and watch. Beppe Grillo’s movement is a first attempt to bring direct e-democracy to a real parliament. His newly elected representatives are in a position to make or break a government. Let’s enjoy this, let’s see what’s going to happen, and learn from it.

Grillo riding the wave.

Grillo riding the wave.

Riot Cops and Sopranos

In Madrid, Spain on 6 October 2012 at 20:25

October 6

Dear people,

In Portugal, Spain and Greece, people are out on the streets to protest against austerity measures. Only the Italians were still lacking.

This is no coincidence. Italy is not the kind of country where people go protesting with the idea that it can really change anything. They go protesting – or striking – to have the day off. Afterwards they return home and they do what they do best. They adapt. To the system, to their family, to the local clan, or to any other of the powers that be. They know that some people command, and that others obey. They know it has always been that way – at least in Italy – and that there is no hope that things are ever going to change.

Yesterday, however, high school students all over the country took the streets to protest against cuts in education. They are still too young to know. They haven’t yet learned the way things work in Italy. Once they get to university, they will.

But at least for now, they made themselves heard. In Rome, Turin and Milan, the demonstrations were charged by police. So next day in the papers, nobody spoke about the students and their demands, only about the violence. ‘Da copione’, the Italians would say: suffocation by the book.

Please forgive my cynicism. I’ve lived in Italy for ten years. I can tell you, it’s a cynical place.



In Madrid today there was a demonstration against the privatisation of public services. It wasn’t well publicised at all, so it was no wonder that only a thousand people or so participated. Many of them were carrying red and black anarchist flags.

The demo went from Neptuno over Cibeles to Sol. They were received with revolutionary songs by the Solfonica, the 15M symphonic orchestra.


In #GlobalRevolution, Italy on 12 July 2012 at 12:25

Dordrecht, July 12

Dear people,

From Florence I kept traveling northward by local train. Every time it’s harder to find them. Local trains are growing scarce.

Because of European legislation, the Italian state railways have been dismembered in various layers of subsidiary companies, all of which are still controlled by the state. There is one for the management of the tracks, one for the operation of the trains, one for the exploitation of the big stations, one for the mediums stations, and various for maintenance, security etc.

Private capital has taken over forty percent of the companies running the stations. In the last few decades a lot of money has been invested to give all the major railway terminals a complete overhaul, so as to turn them into shopping malls.

All the Italian stations used to have drinking fountains. What the overhaul practically came down to is that they closed the water as an incentive for you to buy it in a plastic bottle from one of the vendor machines. It makes me incredibly sad.

In recent years the railroads have started to cut local trains to ‘convince’ people to travel by freccia – ‘arrow’- the high speed trains that connect all of Italy from Milan to Naples. It’s three times as fast and more than three times as expensive. There are high speed trains departing from all the big cities all day long, but just two local trains connecting Rome to Florence.

Many of the high speed trains only carry a few dozen passengers. The remaining local trains are generally cramped.

I was lucky this time. It was the hour of siesta and not many people were traveling on board the regional train to Milan. I was snoozing a bit after a short night on the docks in Venice, content to have caught the slow train. I’m not in a hurry. Then from Lake Garda onward the carnival started. In six, seven, eight, they invaded the coach and planted themselves all around me. Political activists. Loud political activists.

I pretended to sleep. “How can you sleep with all this noise? Har! Har! Har!”

“I can’t. I’m pretending.” I opened an eye to spy around for clues about their political colour.

They couldn’t have been members of the Lega Nord, the xenofobe regionalists, because their supporters have been forced to lower their voices lately. For twenty years the Lega has accused the government of being a big bloodsucking thief, and now it has turned out that the governing Lega has been as corrupt as any other political party before them.

The loud people on the train don’t look like old fashioned lefties either. They lack seriousness. They are having fun, making jokes. A button worn by one of them betrays them. They are grillini, members of the Five Star Movement.

We had already encountered them on the march, in Terracina. They are friends. I ask where they are going.

To Milan. There is a protest against the ‘satrap’ of Lombardy, who has been running the region for twenty years. A few years ago he changed the law so that he could stay in office, and every year the Five Star Movement stages a protest to say that he should pack his bags and leave.

During the march I described the grillini as a type of ‘proto-indignados’. They had started to reclaim their democracy over a year before the Arab spring began, inspired through the web by comedian Beppe Grillo.

Grillo is something like a guru who acts like a clown. He doesn’t enter in discussion with politicians. He makes fun of them. He exposes them for what they are. Petty little crooks, in most cases.

His idea is that we don’t need politicians at all. We don’t need a caste of incompetent parasites. We can do politics ourselves, starting at home, in our neighbourhood, our towns, all united into a movement through the internet.

The homebase of the movement is Grillo’s daily weblog. They say it’s 6th most visited blog in the world, with about 2,5 million hits daily. That would be about as much as all the copies of Italy’s three largest newspapers put together.

Grillo’s virtual pulpit and his daily comic sermons are a point of reference, but the movement itself is built up of locally organised branches. When the train stops at the next station, the comrades from Brescia are welcomed into the family with laughs and embraces.

What the local branches have in common are the five stars (public water, connectivity, development, transport and environment), plus certain rules on political representation, like ‘No convicted fellon should run for office’ and ‘No-one should be allowed to stay in office for more than two terms.’

This means that Grillo himself cannot run for office. He has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter after causing a traffic accident years ago.

In recent local elections the movement keeps growing fast. Apart from supplying numerous city councilor’s all over the country, they have also conquered one of the big cities, Parma.

The policy of each branch of the movement is decided by the members. Any elected councilor or mayor is tied to this policy. He cannot take decisions on his own. Elected members only accept a reasonable retribution, which amounts to a fraction of the salaries that Italian politicians normally grant themselves. All the rest goes into community development.

“So, you are trying to change things the institutional way?” I ask.

“We don’t know yet. Our movement is only two and a half years old. We still have to learn how we can change society. We will see.”

According to many activists, the core of the problem is not politics, it’s the economy. In many places in Italy the people of the Five Star Movement are thinking about an alternative economy based on local products and barter. Some people even want to facilitate this local economy by introducing their own currency, free of interest. Now that sounds pretty revolutionary to me.

“It doesn’t really matter how we make a change, as long as we do, and as long we do it peacefully.”

The train arrives in Milan. The grillini move to the city center. What I noticed is that they have copied Beppe Grillo’s satiric way of talking about politicians. They don’t take them seriously any more. They don’t want anything from them, except that they go home. Politicians are dinosaurs, remnants of an old style of politics. The members of the Five Star Movement have already evolved to another level. With childlike enthusiasm they have started to shape a new way of politics together.


In #GlobalRevolution, Italy on 4 July 2012 at 10:14

Tuscany, July 4

Dear people,

So I did make it out of Athens in the end. In choosing between the four cardinal directions, I opted for West. Back to Italy. Because great is the pleasure to discover new lands, but equally great is the pleasure to return to certain places and visit people you have known, for Auld Lang Syne.

The connections in Greece are not optimal, and deteriorating fast. To get from Athens to the country’s third largest city Patras I had to take two trains and one bus. But still, it took less time than walking.

As we drove along the Gulf of Corinth I recognised the shores on the other side. The Gulf of Itea, Eratini, Marathias, Nafpaktos… Two weeks of marching in a couple of hours. I could have taken an aeroplane and be in Holland by now. But I had discarded that possibility from the start. After having spent months to cross the continent it seemed ridiculous to return almost instantaneously.

In Patras I met up with two friends who had received us when we entered the town nearly three months ago. It was only now that I realised the impact we have made. All along the way, people have opened their hearts. And they haven’t forgotten us. Some of us, and many locals, will argue that our march didn’t make any sense. But it did. It has been more than worth it, because it has given us the opportunity to meet these extraordinary persons. If there is still hope for Greece, it’s thanks to them.

At sunset I sailed. And yet again, I recognised every single hill, every single cape on the other side. Antirio, Ano Vassiliki, the lagoon of Mesolonghi. Then darkness.

In Bari, one of the first things I thought, was: ‘Wow, Italy isn’t doing so bad.’ Bars were full, and hardly any of the shops had gone bankrupt. No visual signs of crisis at all.

Sure, the crisis exists. I had a long chat with a lady from Salerno, belonging to the ‘upper middle class’. Her family possesses various houses and pieces of land, but as a result of recent austerity measures by the Monti government they are being choked by the taxes. ‘The middle class is disappearing’, she said. ‘Everything we have built up over the years, to leave to our children, is at risk.’

During the march I realised that you don’t need much to thrive and survive. All the rest is luxury. For now, the crisis is cutting into those luxuries. The basic necessities of existence are not at risk yet, not in Italy. Maybe in Greece.

By now I have reached Tuscany, one of those places that I have good reason to consider ‘home’. I’m here to visit friends, ‘anarchist’ friends. After one and a half months in Exarchia, it was about time that I met some real anarchists.

In Exarchia people live in the same appartment blocks as elsewhere, they use the same currency, they drink the same instant coffee in plastic cups as the rest of Greeks. And as far as I have been able to ascertain, only one of the bars serves fair-trade coffee from Chapas. All the rest goes to enrich the multinationals.

“Stupid is as stupid does,” is what Forrest Gump’s mamma always says. And you can apply that to almost anything. “Anarchist is as anarchist does,” I would say. And change surely won’t come from Exarchia. To some of the people there the only solution is to ‘bomb Greece back to the stone age’.

One of my friends here in Tuscany has retreated from modern society over twenty-five years ago. When the Berlin Wall came down, he didn’t even notice. He was much too busy working the land, raising a family and creating an almost completely self-sufficient farm in a distant river valley. He has worked every day of the week, every week of the year, ever since. And he was happy to do so. Only recently, now that his children have grown up, he has granted himself the luxury of a holiday. Two months, on foot, to Sicily and back.

But even without such radical measures, it’s possible to start a change. And you don’t need bombs to succeed. Another friend of mine is slowly evolving away from society. He used to work for General Electric. When he got to know the company and realised that he was actively upholding a system which he despised, he changed life and opened a biological restaurant. When it turned out that he didn’t have any time for himself anymore he sold the restaurant and changed life again. Now he lives in the country side and works as a gardener.

In practice, all of Tuscany is one big garden, so there is no lack of work. He grows his own vegetables. He makes his own furniture. He doesn’t need much, and most of what he does need is available through a short supply chain of local organic products. In this, Tuscany is at the cutting edge of change.

My anarchist friends here are not the only ones. It’s starting to become fashionable, not only among rich Germans, Dutch and English to go live in the beautiful countryside, but also among Italians. They want to have their own vegetable garden, they want to have silence around. They have had it with city life.

Within the movement there has been a discussion from the start about whether we want a ‘revolution’, or an ‘evolution’. As for me, it sounds a lot cooler to call myself a ‘revolutionary’ than an ‘evolutionary’. People might think the discussion is about darwinism. But then again, “stupid is as stupid does”…

The Story of Santa Claus

In #GlobalRevolution, Italy, March to Athens on 14 March 2012 at 13:42
March to Athens

Day 128-LIV, Bari.

St. Nicholas of Bari

Bari, March 14

Dear people,

The old town of Bari protrudes like a horn into the sea. It’s a place of mystery, a tale of 1001 Nights. The small white alleys wind around and lead you astray in unexpected directions. There are no straight intersecting roads like you find them in the cities of the West, built by either the Romans or the Greeks or the Americans. This old city belongs to the East. Wherever you find yourself within its ancient walls you can never see where you are going.

Suddenly a space opens up in front of you, a holy space adorned by an immaculate basilica. Here, people from all over the known world flog together in pilgrimage.

Bari is indeed a most venerable city, no less than Rome, or Jerusalem, or Mecca. For Bari is the posthumous home of Santa Claus.

It might seem a bit strange to associate Santa Claus with a sunny Mediterranean city like Bari, but they say it’s true, the man who is at the root of the legend, is buried right here in this basilica.

To the faithful, he is known as Saint Nicholas. He is venerated in the East and the West, by catholics and protestants, by believers and atheists. And they say he performed some mighty miraculous deeds during his lifetime.

Now, the facts don’t matter. The truth doesn’t matter. The only thing that really matters is the story.

Saint Nicholas lived in the Greco-Roman province of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, during the twilight years of the empire. He was bishop of Myra. His deeds are remembered with spectacular celebrations, twice a year, on the day of his death, the 6th of December, and on the day his remains arrived in Bari, the 9th of May.

On one of my previous travels I was fortunate enough to be in Bari to see the procession which narrated his miraculous acts.

In those closing years of antiquity, during a horrible famine, a ferocious butcher had slaughtered three children and turned them into ham. Saint Nicholas was invited to taste, but he knew. He revealed himself, he punished the butcher and he brought the children back to life.

The Saint was also famous for saving the honour of three adolescent sisters. They were so poor that they couldn’t afford a dowry, and without a husband they would probably have been forced to live their lives as prostitutes. But Saint Nicholas wouldn’t let it happen. At night, he filled the young girls’ stockings with riches, enough to guarantee them a happy marriage.

When famine struck again on another occasion, the Saint showed his mercy to a crew of sailors by multiplying their cargo of wheat, over and over again. It was enough to make bread and sweet spiced biscuits for many starving cities all over the East.

After Saint Nicholas passed away he was buried in his home ground where he was revered for many centuries by the faithful. But at a certain point, the faithful were conquered by an alien religion.

With the advance of Islam in the middle ages, many of the old centres of orthodox Christianity entered the vast domains of the caliphs and the sultans of the East.

At that time, the West was profoundly christian. The various cities competed with each other in piousness and status by collecting every type of holy memorabilia. Splinters of the cross, thorns of the crown, robes, bones, teeth and skulls. As a city you didn’t count if you didn’t own at least a piece of saint.

The most glorious cities of the age wouldn’t limit themselves to mere fingertips or toe nails. They wanted the entire skeletons. The sailors of Venice subtracted the remains of the evangelist St. Mark from the muslims in Egypt. And with another memorable secret operation, the sailors from Bari raided the muslim city of Myra, dug up Saint Nicholas, carried him off to the harbour, and took him home.

Thus, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of Bari.

In the centuries that followed Bari would become part of the kingdom of Naples, and as such it came to be dominated by Spain.

This might explain why people in another pious seafaring nation – Holland – thought that Saint Nicholas came from the Iberian peninsula. In another version, the ‘Spanish connection’ comes from the oranges. These usually arrived in Holland from Spain during the beginning of December, when the Saint came to the Low Lands to give sweets to the children who had been good, and whip lashes to those who had been bad.

Holland is especially devoted to Saint Nicholas. Up to today, the Saint is celebrated every year on the evening of December 5 with songs, surprises and sweets. The people call him Sinterklaas.

When the Dutch founded the city of New Amsterdam in 1625, they brought their Sinterklaas tradition to America. Together with other Dutch characteristics and morals, it remained a part of the American culture also after the city was taken over by the English and renamed New York in 1664.

During colonial times, the figure of Saint Nicholas merged with the British character of Father Christmas, and his feast was integrated with Christmas celebrations. The Americans called him Santa Claus. His place on the calendar was taken over by the local holiday of Thanksgiving

However many times the veneration for the original Byzantine saint had changed, he had always been regarded as a moral figure. A judge of good and evil. A benevolent father who rewards his faithful, but who isn’t afraid to punish them in case they deserve it.

The last and most radical change of image, both in style and content, would come in the 20th century, when Santa Claus was adopted by the Coca-Cola Company.

Under the influence of the beverage brewer, Santa changed his bishop’s robe for a bright red polar outfit. He became a jolly old man, with a smile for all. He wouldn’t judge you. He would reward you not on the base of your conduct, but on the base of you purchasing power. He would deliver all the presents you could afford on Christmas eve, on board his flying raindeer sleigh.

Old Saint Nick means different things to different people all over the world. For some he is the original Byzantine saint, for others he is the jolly old man with a sexy bottle in his hand, and for others yet he is everything in between.

One way or another, Santa means something to all of us. Also to the March to Athens.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of Bari, he is the patron saint of sailors, he is the patron saint of all Greece. And as it turns out, ‘Nikolaus’ means ‘victory of the people’.

Santa is the 99%. He is our man.

Food Sovereignty

In #GlobalRevolution, Italy, March to Athens on 13 March 2012 at 19:29
March to Athens
Day 127-LIII, Bari.

Popular Assembly in Bari

Bari, March 13

Dear people,

One of the greatest Dutch narrators of the 20th century is Marten Toonder. His life work, the Oliver B. Bumble epic, is a monument of Dutch literature in text and drawing, a brilliant and sometimes prophetic mirror of contemporary society. Just to give an example, the ‘Big Brother’ reality show is one of Holland’s most succesful export products. But it wasn’t invented by Endemol Corporation. The idea comes from a 1960s Oliver B. Bumble story.

In another episode from those years, Toonder explains his readers the basis of economics so that everyone can understand.

“If you have little, you will lose it to someone who has a lot. If you have a lot, you will only gain more.”

On top of the pyramid there are the Bovenbazen or ‘Upper Bosses’, the ten tycoons that own Everything.

The upper bosses live together in the Golden Mountains, and they lead a sad and boring life. They don’t do anything else but exchange their possessions between themselves every day of the year.

When the hero of the story accidently becomes part of this most exclusive club, his colleagues explain him some of the basic rules of business.

“Remember. Nature is our most important enemy. Because nature reproduces itself. I hope you understand what I mean…”

Yesterday evening’s popular assembly was about food sovereignty. It was organised together with various small scale farmers from the zone. And what I heard made me think of this basic rule of business.

Today’s agricultural business has taken the shape of a global Leviathan. The seed multinationals control the greater part of the crop market and impose their seeds on local farmers. They only sell the most productive types, to the detriment of biodiversity. Often these seeds are patented and genetically modified in such a way that they become steril.

Big business has succeeded in impeding nature to reproduce. The farmers are forced to buy new seeds every year.

But the seeds are only a part of the story. In industrial agriculture the soil erodes and because of monoculture the crops are very susceptible to diseases. You won’t be able to grow them without making use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides which are supplied by the same seed company.

Things get even worse. In France there is said to be a law that forbids farmers to replant the seeds of their crops…

Very silently big business is destroying ten thousand years of human agricultural heritage, for profit. In the face of this, seed banks are being set up by governments and farmers to preserve or control the original seeds, uncontaminated by cross breeding with genetically modified ones.

The subject of food sovereignty is one of many fronts in the battle against the impending control society. Many people in organical farms are already active in this battle, trying to save local crops, trying to encourage diversity and the consumption of sustainably grown products.

The upper bosses are in control the financial markets, the production and distribution system, the pharmaceutical industry, the national banks and governments, shielding themselves with patents on all sides. They are about to control the building blocks of life, and they are taking away control over our drinking water and our food supply.

The revolution is not just a romantic’s dream. It’s a bloody necessity.