Yesterday Italy was swept by a sudden outburst of civil unrest. The so-called ‘pitchfork’ movement brought people to the streets all over the country

Italy Pitchfork Demonstrations

‘The fascist “revolution” is only the replacement of one administrative personnel by another. […] It is only revolution that which is based on a new class.’

It is thus that Antonio Gramsci bravely debunked the myth of a “fascist revolution” in a famous speech to the Italian parliament in 1925.

Since Monday, a multi-faceted and somehow murky movement has taken to the streets of many Italian towns and cities. The protesters have organized road blockages, pickets at the entrance of supermarkets and occupations of local branches of the centre-left ruling party, the Partito Democratico. The most heated demonstrations took place in Turin, where the protesters clashed with the police in front of the regional council. It is the so-called ‘rivolta dei forconi’ (‘pitchfork revolt’), a movement led by a heterogeneous group of farmers, haulers, shopkeepers and unemployed who in early 2012 paralyzed Sicily by preventing the resupply of fuel to the island. The pitchfork revolt is not a mass movement– in most towns, only a few dozens of people took part in the protest. And yet, unlike 2012 it is a national movement, which has been able to gain the attention of mainstream media and politics.

The agenda of the protesters is vague and very heterogeneous: from very specific and sectorial demands (e.g. tax breaks for self-employed workers and small entrepreneurs, the introduction of a ban on the opening of large shopping malls, measures in favour newspaper kiosks) to the exit of Italy from the European Union and the resignation of the Italian government.

The pitchfork protesters claim to be apolitical, drawing a surreptitious distinction between ‘the corrupted politicians’ and ‘the honest Italians’, without any mention of class issues. Indeed, scratching the surface of the public statements of their leaders, a disquieting reality emerges: much emphasis is on the ‘national’ character of the ‘revolt of the Italians’; one of the leaders of the protest, Danilo Calvani, asked the government to resign and said that he trusts ‘only the military’; and there is strong evidence of the role played by far right organizations such as Casapound and Forza Nuova in the protests.

Interestingly enough, the reaction of Italian police to the protest has been unusually mild; in some towns, policemen even showed solidarity with the protesters taking off their helmets, while the leader of the police union SIULP wrote a note saying that ‘the government in primis and the Minister of the Interior Alfano should better listen to our Union and the citizens of this country – because enough is enough.’

As already mentioned, from a social point of view, these protests are led by sections of the impoverished middle class and petty bourgeois: small farmers, independent shopkeepers, self-employed haulers, small entrepreneurs in general. For historical reasons, in Italy self-employed workers and small entrepreneurs make up a larger share of the workforce than in the United Kingdom. Now these (traditionally right-wing) groups feel threatened to lose their status and jobs as a result of the economic crisis and globalization processes mire in general. Their reaction is typically sectional and inward looking: anti-State, anti-public sector, anti-European Union, in favour of protectionist measures. Nothing new under the Italian sun, apparently.

The worrying aspect, however, is that this time the pitchfork revolt seems to be appealing also to other, more subaltern social groups, first and foremost the masses of the unemployed, asking for jobs and welfare measures. The appeal of the ‘apolitical’ pitchforks is due to the widespread distrust towards – on the verge of real hatred of – institutional politics among Italian people; distrust which has been encouraged not only by the high levels of corruption of the Italian political personnel, but also by the feeling that the Italian coalition governments – and their hideous pro-austerity agendas – have been imposed from outside, by the European Union.

The reaction of the Italian left to the pitchfork movement has been quite haphazard thus far. The ruling Partito Democratico (PD), since Sunday led by the hyper-Blairite Matteo Renzi and to which both the President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano and the Prime Minister Enrico Letta belong, has once again struck the pose of the ‘defender of the Republican institutions’ – and the EU, of course. Without any real answer to the economic and social crisis raging in the country, the only watchword of the PD seems to be ‘responsibility at any cost’ – which practically means embracing a neoliberal, pro-austerity policies as those ‘advised’ from Berlin.

The radical left, for its part, is in complete disarray. Its parties are mostly irrelevant; some radical social movements are quite vital (first and foremost the NO-TAV movement) but thus far have been unable to mobilize on a common anti-austerity platform. The paradoxical result is that some sections of the ‘movimentist’ wing of the radical left have participated in the pitchfork revolt – clearly deluding themselves about the possibility to turn the movement into a leftist or proto-anarchist riot.

There is not much progressive or revolutionary to be found in the pitchfork revolt; but there also is a lesson to be learnt for the left, in Italy and beyond. If the left fails to mobilize around a genuinely progressive anti-austerity platform; if the European left is unable to offer a credible alternative to the neoliberal agenda imposed by Brussels; if the left does not occupy the public space to voice the anger and discontent of the subaltern classes, other, murky forces may try to do so – potentially at least, with very dangerous outcomes.