Monthly Archives: April 2012

Back to the Big Apple

Italy was really great, but it’s so good to be back in NYC!

Today I walked through Union Square, which is filled with tables distributing information for Occupy May Day. There’s a very exciting series of events planned, as well as an immense amount of wonderful cultural production. The radicalism of the various booklets I picked up was so inspiring, with articles about the ecological crisis, resistance to foreclosure, the international military industrial complex, etc.

Here are some posters generated by the Occupy movement to publicize the events on May Day:

After spending time talking to Occupy activists, I went down into the subway. There I came across an amazing band called Underground Horns busking for money.

How inspiring to find so much vibrant popular culture on the streets.  Okay, the US is an extremely reaction country on a general political level, but cities like New York are filled with such redemptive popular energy.

Here’s a clip of Underground Horns’ performance:

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Socialism or Barbarism

Occupation by a fascist or imperialist power is perhaps one of the most common experiences of the last century.  This is certainly true of Italy, which endured nearly two decades of fascist rule, culminating in several years of occupation by the Nazis during the Second World War. Today Italy celebrates resistance to this oppression. Here in Europe, though, this experience of occupation and resistance is being forgotten all too quickly. As a result, Europe is witnessing the return of National Socialism.

Two days ago, in the French elections, Marie Le Pen won nearly 20% of the national vote. She ran on an explicitly racist platform, spewing demagogic vitriol about halal meat as a threat to French values and promising to clamp down on immigration. But in addition to playing on nostalgic white desires for the imaginary homogeneous France of an era before mass immigration, globalization, and financialization, Le Pen promises to leave the EU and to support a generous welfare state, early retirement, and old age pensions. On many of these positions, she is far to the left of the nominally socialist candidate François Hollande.

Extreme xenophobia and racism married to a generous socialist state for a white nation. Sound familiar? This was the formula of the Nazi – an abbreviation of National Socialist – party, although not many people remember the socialist elements of the party’s ideology.

Rabble-rousing populists of this ilk are making gains across Europe in the context of the austerity policies implemented by mainstream parties of both the Right and the Left over the last two years. The center-right government of Mark Rutte in Holland caved in on Monday after Geert Wilders, Le Pen’s Dutch equivalent, withdrew his support for the government because of resistance to austerity. In Prague, massive popular protests – the biggest since the Velvet Revolution – have brought the governing party to the brink of collapse as a result of its implementation of unpopular spending cuts.

We are living through a very dangerous moment, one in which the extreme right is set to capitalize on the lack of a strong progressive alternative to the horrendous, failed policies of austerity pursued by European elites, Sarkozy and Merkel foremost among them, since the financial crisis engulfed Europe.

In the face of this return of National Socialism, it is more urgent than ever to revive the memory of anti-fascist struggle in Europe. Salutary, then, that today was the celebration of Italy’s liberation from the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

This evening I participated in a torch-light procession of partisans – guerrilla fighters against the Nazis and Italian fascists during World War Two – and their friends and family here in Torino to celebrate the Day of National Liberation. Here are some photos of the march:

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Notice how diverse the crowd was in terms of age. For Italy, it was also fairly multi-racial, with a strong anti-racist showing.

During the march I spoke to a young medical student named Federico. He explained that the national association of Italian partisans (whose acronym is ANPI in Italian) was only open to actual fighters during the Second World War until four years ago. At that point, though, a decision was made to open the organization up to younger people in order to transmit its values to new generations. The point, in other words, is to keep the memory of the anti-fascist, anti-Nazi struggle alive while also trying to make that memory active in the present. How can the heritage of the partisans be made meaningful in today’s world, the marchers asked?

The march concluded with a series of speeches by partisans on a stage in Torino’s Piazza Reale. Like Federico, these men stressed that the legacy of anti-fascism needs to be kept alive in the present. Unfortunately, no elderly women were invited to speak, although, as Roberto Rosellini’s great film Roma, città aperta shows, women played a vital role in fighting the fascists. A young woman did, however, make a powerful argument for the need to fight the advance of the Right within Italy and throughout Europe.

With Italy and the rest of Europe moving into increasingly difficult economic straits, this message needs to be amplified in every way possible. As Rosa Luxemburg might have put it, today it’s a case of international socialism or Nazi barbarism.

I’ll give the last word in this posting to the partisans. Here’s a version of the classic partisan song Bella Ciao:

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The Unresolved Past

Yesterday I took a trip to the idyllic Castello di Rivoli to the west of Turin with my friend Andrea. We discussed the film Romanzo di una strage, which I discussed in an earlier post. Andrea filled me in on some of the amazing background details.

Here are some shots I took from the Castello and during a walk around the medieval town. I include them as a counterweight to what follows:

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As Andrea explain to me, during the Cold War, NATO established a secret organization that went by the code name Operation Gladio (Latin for sword). The idea of this parallel military organization, that existed in all the democracies of Western Europe, was to fight a guerrilla war against communist forces in the event of an invasion by the Soviet Union. In the event, though, Gladio became a clandestine force that spread discord domestically since its operatives – many of them directly related to the fascist regimes of the pre-1945 period in countries such as Italy and France – were fundamentally opposed to social democracy.

Italy was particularly susceptible to the destabilizing operations of Gladio because it was viewed as a particularly front-line state, one with a very strong Communist Party. In 1964, for example, a silent coup d’etat took place when General Giovanni Di Lorenzo forced Socialist ministers to leave the government.

When members of the political establishment such as Aldo Moro refused to go along with the push towards military dictatorship following this silent coup d’etat, Gladio operatives unleashed the so-called strategy of tension: a campaign of bombings and other massacres, which would be blamed on the Left and would destabilize the country to the point where martial law would be declared. Foremost among these bombings were the Piazza Fontana bombing (1969), the Peteano massacre (1972), and Bologna massacre (1980).

Officials at the highest levels of the Italian government knew about the existence of Operation Gladio, as the confessions of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti before the Commission on Massacres (1990) revealed. In addition, Gladio operatives circulated through a world-wide Right-wing terrorist network, carrying out assassinations in places such as Chile and taking refuge in countries such as Franco’s fascist regime in Spain.

I wonder how many Americans know about Gladio and the CIA’s involvement therein? A quick search comes up with only two books on the topic: Philip Willan’s Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy and Richard Cottrell’s Gladio: NATO’s Dagger at the Heart of Europe. Both of these book document the secret CIA-NATO-neofascist-mafia network that penetrated Europe, carrying out terrorist atrocities and sponsoring military coups in places such as Greece and Turkey. In Italy, a shadow government was formed through the P2 Masonic lodge, an organization founded by former blackshirts, to which most of the leaders of Italy’s post-war governments belonged. The facts are so shocking that they come off like something out of a spy novel.

Very few of those responsible, either directly on indirectly, for any of these massacres have been brought to justice. Small wonder, then, that this history is still alive in Italy in a way that outsiders fail to understand. There’s a dark unsettling reality beneath the surface of this beautiful country.

That reality was brought home during the protests against the G8 meeting in Genoa (2001). During these demonstrations, Italian police forces broke into a school that was being used as a communications center by journalists working with the Global Justice Movement. They beat everyone they found inside the school to a pulp, arrested them, and detained them without judicial proceedings for many days. Amnesty International called this the worst act of brutality in a western democracy since the Second World War. Again, very few of these police have been prosecuted for their crimes.

But Italy thankfully also still has a strong Left, which continues to document and militate against these atrocities. Last night I went to see Diaz, a film which deals with the police attacks during the G8 protests. It was one of the hardest to watch films I’ve ever seen, with long, brutal scenes of police violence. Although it was difficult to stomach, I think it’s very important that these events have been documented on film and are being circulated within the public realm.

Here’s a trailer for the fim:

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Welcome to the Land of Inequality

Teaching American Studies in Torino, as I am for the next two weeks, is an eye-opening experience.  I feel a bit as if I am a native informant, who has to try to undermine the inaccurate views of my students about the United States. One of the foremost of these is the myth that the U.S. is the land of opportunity.

My first class this week will focus on The Monster, Michael W. Hudson’s encyclopedic account of the depredations of the subprime mortgage industry in the U.S. over the last two decades. The industry that, in cahoots with Wall Street banks like Lehman Brothers and using arcane financial instruments like Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) invented in order to profit from the subprime mortgage market, wrecked the global economy.

The sordidness of the subprime mortgage industry is impossible to overestimate. It was run by completely unscrupulous capitalist bosses who purposely targeted working class people of color, people who had finally managed to build up a bit of equity through government-backed mortgage schemes in the decades after the New Deal and the Second World War. Equity, mind you, that was radically less than what the average white suburban family was able to build up in the same period. Here’s an excellent video that gives a sense of the unequal (racialized) landscape of housing in the U.S.:

The subprime mortgage industry targeted working class people of color, siphoning their hard-earned housing equity into an insane Ponzi scheme built on virtually impossible to penetrate financial instruments like CDOs and Credit Default Swaps. The result was a complete crash of the global economy. Here’s a video that very nicely explains how all of these arcane financial instruments worked?

Underlying this crisis of credit reminds us that, of course, the assault on working- and middle-class wages begun by global financial elites in the mid- to late-1970s, led, particularly, by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. As elites clawed back more and more of the wage gains and other social benefits win during the period since the Great Depression and the Second World War, life for the average person became more and more difficult.

What this led to was the financialization of everyday life. The 99%, in the Occupy parlance, were forced to live more and more off credit (and women had to enter the workforce in order to maintain middle class standards of living). Slowly, people came to think of life itself in financial terms, as a kind of risky investment.

One area in which this shift is particularly apparent is higher education, which went from being seen as a right that was provided to the people free of charge through public higher education systems like the City University of New York and the University of California systems, to being seen as an investment that people had to pay for through tuition charges. This was a Faustian deal, though, since it only made sense – if it ever made sense – when the economy was doing well and this “investment” could be payed down quickly after snagging a well-paying job. Now that unemployment is high for young people, high tuition rates in universities (including public ones) seems more like a scam than a just exchange.

There was a good article in the New York Times today about a couple of French economists who have shown that inequality in the US is nearly as bad as it was during the Great Depression. This is no news break to Occupy activists, but one suspects that the American Dream myth is keeping most people in the U.S. in the dark about this fact, not to mention many people around the world, who continue to think of the U.S. as the land of milk and honey. Here are some amazing charts from the article that demonstrate spiraling income inequality:

It will take tremendous push-back in order to turn this horrible situation around. We’re just at the beginning of such efforts, but the Occupy movement has already initiated some very creative and brave responses to the economic crash. Here is a video of folks from Occupy Foreclosures who block house auction proceedings with choral singing:

The pranksters at Occupy also recently produced a beautiful video that, in Situationalist terminology, “detourn”s West Side Story to cover many of the issues I’ve touched on in this post:

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Accidental Deaths

I’m in Torino, Italy for a couple of weeks to teach a course in the Masters in American Studies program. The course is on American Disasters, but while I’m here I’m trying to catch up on Italian culture. Part of that process simply involves walking around Torino soaking up the ambiance on the streets.  Here are some photos that give a sense of the city:

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I’ve also been having some pretty interesting conversations. My friend Andrea Carosso, who teaches at the university here, told me recently about how pope John Paul II funded Solidarnosc in Poland in order to bring down communism, in the process bankrupting the Vatican’s bank.  Andrea told me that it is quite well known in Italy that the Vatican turned to the Roman mafia for funds following its bankruptcy. Apparently there were numerous other suspicious dealings, including the hanging of “God’s banker” Roberto Calvi – who, as the nickname suggests, was lending the Vatican money – under the Blackfriars bridge in London in 1982 after a complex plot involving Italy’s biggest private bank, Banco Ambrosiano, and the Sicilian mafia.

Adding to the sense of skullduggery, last night I went to see the latest film by the exceptional Italian film director Marco Tullio Giordana. The film deals with a bombing that took place in a Milanese bank: the so-called Piazza Fontana bombing. The subject has been treated before, including in the great playwright Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

The story, as the film explains, hinges on the framing and then “accidental” suicide of an anarchist activist who was being held in custody in relation to the bombing. Giordana’s Romanzo di una strage demonstrates that this suicide was actually a murder carried out by interrogators who are working in cahoots with state authorities. During a time of political mobilization in the 1970s, Right wing elements within the state colluded, the movie suggests, with CIA agents to carry out the devastating Piazza Fontana bombing in order to legitimate the decree of a state of emergency in Italy and the suspension of constitutional liberties. The idea was for Italy to follow in the footsteps of Greece, where a military regime had taken power two years before the Piazza Fontan bombing (with NATO support). Giordana’s film also focuses on the role of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro in staving off the imposition of martial law, implying that this helps explain his subsequent killing (which, we are led to suppose, did not occur at the hands of the Red Brigades). Here’s a trailer for Giordana’s film:

Pretty scary stuff, particularly given the financial instability currently roiling southern Europe. The resonance of this history was underlined to me this morning, when I came across the following video about the resurgence of Greek fascism while readingThe New York Times:

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