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Student Protests Sweep Italy

The rectors of twelve Italian universities met in Bologna last March to launch Aquis, a quality-assurance association for Italy’s public universities. Their aim was that institutions should compete for funding on criteria based solely on their financial management and their position in various rankings. It looked as though the process of aziendalizzazione (the transformation of public services on business models) was complete.

But Silvio Berlusconi’s government has united the nation’s university rectors against the aziendalizzazione which Berlusconi himself favors. After he returned to power last April, he called for budget cuts just as the already weakened Italian economy was feeling the first effects of the international financial crisis. On June 25 the cabinet took “urgent measures” (since passed into law) after just nine minutes’ deliberation – 85 articles including swingeing cuts in higher education.

This “euthanasia of the universities”, as Gaetano Azzariti, professor of constitutional law at Rome university, calls it, was a political decision, sacrificing teaching and research to sectors of the economy. It means that for a university to hire a new lecturer now, two others have to leave its payroll. And it means more private sector funding in universities and higher tuition fees, leading to increased levels of debt for the poorest students. And on August 28, education minister Mariastella Gelmini presented another executive order, setting out budget cuts and plans to return to single teachers in primary schools (each class is normally taught by several different teachers), meaning a shorter school day for children (and reducing parents’ ability to go out to work). Other measures aimed to revive old practices, such as marks for behavior up to secondary level.

Such reforms are part of an ongoing campaign by some on the right against waste in the education sector, staff costs in particular, and a clear attempt to address Italians’ (often justified) resentment of the wasteful use of public funds. This campaign was a continuation of a decade-long trend which has been backed by governments of both right and left.

Ascano Celestini, a writer who sympathizes with opponents of the reforms, said: “The disappearance of 87,000 teaching posts in the next three years is on the horizon, concealed behind nostalgia for old school smocks and topped off with the unimaginative plans for the return of the single-teacher system … behind the reintroduction of the old marking system [out of 10, rather than a percentage] and marks for behavior, we’re expecting cuts in public education proportionate to the increases in aid to the private system, which since 2001 have gone up by 65 per cent”.

Unsurprisingly, tempers were running high by the start of the new school year. On  September 15, parents and teachers at Iqbal Masih school in Rome’s Centocelle district occupied the building. A nationwide movement quickly sprang up under the banner of “Non rubateci il futuro” (Don’t steal our future). Parents, teachers and children slept in schools, put up banners and demonstrated together. With the occupation of Mamiani school, the wave of protest reached the secondary schools. After the start of the new term on October 5, it also spread to the tertiary sector, beginning at Pisa university. On October 7 the administrative offices at La Sapienza university in Rome were occupied and eight days later, 10,000 students and protestors occupied Termini, Rome’s main train station.

Then on October 17 the independent, radical unions called a general strike and a huge crowd of demonstrators, including 50,000 students, marched through Rome. Universities throughout the country were occupied: Bologna, Milan, Turin, Naples, Padua, Palermo. This new movement gave itself the name onda anomala (anomalous wave). On 30 October the tide of protesters grew stronger still and the following day a student delegation called for a general strike at the annual conference of the metal workers’ union of the CGIL (Italy’s main trade union confederation), who immediately called for the day of action on  December 12.

The activists, carried along by the onda, gave it an unusual character: in meetings, on blogs and networks on the web, hundreds of texts were composed collectively, teachers gave classes in the street (and debated the crisis), and Wu Ming, a writers’ collective from Bologna, packed out an amphitheatre. A new form of collective social conscience was being created.

“What’s developing is the self-organization of university students and casual workers,” explained Aliocha, a literature student at La Sapienza university who is also a casual in a bank. “Some people combine being casual workers and students or researchers, others are just casual workers. Together with the rank and file unions, we started the October 17 strike, and organized it in workplaces where job insecurity is an everyday reality.”

Young people in Italy, where the birthrate is declining, are a source of almost as much anxiety as immigrants. In an interview which inspired many banners and placards, the economics minister in the previous government, Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, referred to young Italians as bamboccioni (big babies) who were incapable of leaving home. “This movement marks the return of a discourse of revolt and a rupture between generations,” said Francesco, a postgraduate in Florence. “It’s the first general battle against job insecurity, but it’s also the rejection of a society organized against the young in which the casualization of the workforce has never been matched with any guarantees. We say: `You’ve painted us as louts and layabouts and perpetual kids, but we’re able to question and to make our presence felt’.”

He emphasized another characteristic of the movement: “It appeared just as the far left disappeared from parliament and the reconfiguration of politics on the bipolar American model was completed. It’s a new way of doing politics. Let’s create a fresh start with all its contradictions and ambivalences.”

Riding high on enthusiasm, the onda showed great maturity when the authorities tried to provoke it into violence – not least on  October 29 when the police allowed a group of neo-fascists to drive a truck loaded with iron bars into a pedestrian zone near the Senate, and then let them make their getaway when the demonstrators turned aggressive. But the sight of terrified 13- and 14-year-olds running from the blows of skinheads did the government no favors. Berlusconi threatened to send in the police to evacuate occupied university buildings. That prompted a response of “I’m not scared”, unfurled on banners throughout Italy. (In an interview with Il Giorno, Milan, October 24, 2008, the former interior minister from the “years of lead”, Francesco Cossiga, drew on past experience to advise the prime minister that he should infiltrate the movement, provoke them into acts of violence, let them have their head for 10 days and then – with popular support – “send them all to hospital”.)

In a country still marked by memories of the “years of lead”, choosing non-violence doesn’t necessarily equate with respect for the law. Tania, a politics student at La Sapienza, explained: “The tactic of blocking stations and traffic was part-spontaneous and part result of observing the protest movement in France in 2006. It’s a way of avoiding direct confrontation with the authorities, given the reputation of the Italian police. But it’s also about getting out of the university, making ourselves visible, speaking to people, in the knowledge that we’re not just fighting for the universities but for a whole generation and several strata of society, with a discourse that’s relevant to the crisis. That way we were able to gauge how favorably our movement would be viewed.”

On November 15 and 16, the day after a huge demonstration, Italy’s universities held a meeting in Rome which came up with a plan for self-reform. The working group on social protection, in which a thousand people took part, said at the start of its report: “A growing number of people are going into higher education, but at the price of indebtedness. And the knowledge they gain access to is increasingly devalued. The process of struggle has shifted therefore to the jobs market (where knowledge creation and training have ever greater importance) and social protection.”

On the eve of the December 12 general strike, education minister Gelmini began to back-pedal: the reintroduction of the single-teacher system would be optional, schools could remain open all day and the reform of higher education was postponed until 2010. But the budget cuts were not up for discussion. In spite of torrential rain and flooding, an impressive number of people (a million according to the CGIL) from the rank and file unions and the onda anomala took part in demonstrations. Even if this year it takes new forms, it seems unlikely that the wave is going to subside.

The onda has spread its slogan, “We won’t pay for your crisis”, throughout Italy. It’s the first widespread social movement in Europe since the economic downturn, and it’s unlikely to be the last. Italian internet surfers have seen their peers in Greece organize themselves in a movement and demonstrations in solidarity with young Greeks punctuated the general strike. Alluding to Alexis Grigoropoulos, the young Greek killed by the Athens police, the onda came out with the slogan “Unarrestable, ungovernable, unrepresentable. From Greece to Italy with Alexis in our hearts.”

SERGE QUADRUPPANI is a writer and editor of the Bibliothèque italienne published by Editions Métailié, Paris.

Translated by George Miller.

This article appears in the February edition of this excellent monthly, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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