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Networked Politics

Looking back at Italy 1992: the sudden spring of civil society

cgil manifestazione cgil.

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

This essay is the third of a five-part series dedicated to Italy’s recent political history and how much the country has changed since the corruption scandals in 1992.

Italy is a land of many contradictions. Throughout its characteristic boot-shaped length, the beauty of its innumerable artworks coexists with the ugliness of the many architectural monstrosities. These are often the product of a complex system built on bribes and corruption. The same can be said of its political scene.

The country’s recent history, after all, has witnessed the rise and fall of a number of indigenous monstrosities.

In the first half of the 20th century it was fascism, Benito Mussolini and his two decades of dictatorship. Then, at least since the Portella della Ginestra massacre in 1947, the Mafia began wreaking havoc throughout the country, both covertly and overtly. Later, the 1970s saw the Red Brigades and their politics of terror dominate the front pages of the national newspapers. And, of course, Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power in 1994 represented, arguably, the most comical, contradictory and paradoxical aspect of Italy’s weakness for political anomalies.

However, it seems that the country always manages to produce effective antidotes against its own maladies. This is true from the Resistance that fought against fascism, to the anti-Mafia movement that in the city of Palermo, during the 80s and 90s, dared to say no to the racket of organised crime. And from the Magistrates of Clean Hands that shed light on the country’s endemic corruption system to the civil society movements of the early 2000s that publicly rejected Berlusconi’s abuse of power.

Certainly, the strengthening of civil society during the last two decades is probably one of the most unpredicted consequences of Berlusconi’s legacy.

Civil society

Civil society is one of those concepts that is not easy to explain. The Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio argued that one way to define it is through comparison, by coupling it with its antithesis: the state. The former doesn’t exist without the latter. Civil society, therefore, is always represented negatively as “the realm of social relations not regulated by the state” (where the state is defined “narrowly and nearly always polemically as the complex of apparatuses that exercise coercive power within an organised social system”).

Norberto Bobbio. Wikipedia

This negative definition is, in Bobbio’s view, a legacy of the legalistic language of the Engel/Marxist tradition that used the same term (burgerliche Gesellschaft in German) to indicate both civil and bourgeois society, thus distinguishing the sphere of civil society from the sphere of the political (the state). Civil society is therefore seen as the residual echo, or what remains “once the realm in which state power is exercised has been well defined”.

Bobbio, however, differentiates the term into three different connotations depending on whether the realm of the “non-state” is identified with “the pre-state, the anti-state or the post-state”.

In the first instance, civil society is “the pre-condition of the state”. It is made up of “various forms of association formed by individuals among themselves” to “satisfy” their interests. The state, in this case, serves as a “superstructure” that regulates the “infrastructure” without “hampering” or “preventing” the further development of these organisations.

In the anti-state realm, civil society is understood as the antithesis of or alternative to the state. It becomes the ideal place that breeds and strengthens contestations of power. The state sees it as negative, because civil society’s challenges can force the status quo to collapse.

These two distinctions remind us that civil society is also a critical breeding ground for conflict. The list of possible struggles is long. They can be economic, social, ideological or even religious. Trade unions, community based groups, charities, religious congregations, non-governmental organisations and other advocacy groups are all examples of civil society associations that either work with or against the state. To maintain social harmony, the state and its institutions must always be vigilant and aim to solve possible conflicts originating within the sphere of civil society before they reach breaking point.

However, if the emphasis of the relationship between the two antagonists is on the “post-state”, then civil society is seen as “the dissolution and end of the state”. It embodies, in fact, “the ideal of a society without a state which will spring from the dissolution of political power”. Echoing the neo-Marxist theories of Antonio Gramsci, Bobbio suggests that it is in this stage that “political society” (usually the realm of the state or of political parties) is reabsorbed “into civil society”. This process of reabsorption is not without important consequences. Society is no longer ruled by domination, but by hegemony. Gramsci’s re-interpretation of the concept of hegemony illustrates the inner and often invisible mechanisms through which, in a capitalist state, consent is manufactured and class hierarchies are not only maintained, but also strengthened, all without the use of force.

“Political society” and “civil society” are, in Gramsci’s view, the two constituent and overlapping spheres of the modern state. The first rules by domination (force) while the second exercises power through consent. Hence, Gramsci’s notion of civil society goes beyond the standard understanding that only see it as a cluster of civic organisations whose most important function is to monitor the exercise of power and its excesses. Beyond this view lies a much more complicated picture.

Gramsci’s Book Cover.

For Gramsci, civil society is also an ideal place, a public sphere where both negotiations of power with the state (in the form of concessions) and more subtly between competing classes (through the media and all other institutions that shape social life, including universities and religious congregations) are articulated in order to legitimise the cultural hegemony of one class over another (for instance, the bourgeoisie over the working class).

This is a form of power that is invisible to the naked eye. It runs through a complex and often concealed web of interconnected spheres of influence that make up society as whole. By ruling via consent rather than strength, the dominant class eliminates the risk of revolution. Thus, Gramsci argued in Prison Notebooks that a “counter-hegemonic” strategy is required to provide powerful alternative readings of society that, in turn, can reveal (or replace) the knowledge-based social hegemonic structures that continuously legitimise the status quo.

Gramsci’s re-conceptualisation of civil society makes it not only the sphere where hegemony is exercised, but also the sphere where the power of the state and the dominant class is held accountable and challenged. This role has become more important than ever in Italy in the last two decades.

A sudden spring

Traditionally a country with a much weaker inclination towards civic associations (at least when compared to other European countries), Italian civil society found new strength during the Berlusconi era. There are two intertwined reasons that help explain this relatively sudden spring: one has to do with the role of political parties, and the other with that of the state.

One of the main functions of political parties is to be the dialectical link between civil society and the state. They help transform (but also shape and influence) the demands of civil society into the politics of the state. This essential function of parties, however, is not incorruptible. In the case of Italy, the political class’ historical proclivity towards nepotistic and clientelistic practices, coupled with the widespread culture of kickbacks (as the Bribesville scandal demonstrated), made parties the exclusive delegates of either select interest groups or traditional hierarchies of power.

Indeed, after 1992, the link between political parties and civil society wore past breaking point. Later, especially after the 2001 surprise victory of Berlusconi’s coalition, the situation became worse. Not only did Berlusconi’s monopolistic seizure of the state and its media apparatuses make its government much less responsive to the demands of civil society; but the long series of controversial new policies and constitutional reforms that it proposed were clear threats to the very existence of civil society.

Paradoxically however, as a result of Berlusconi’s anti-democratic clout on Italian politics, along with the weak (and at times almost pathetically condescending) parliamentary opposition of the parties on the Left, civil society was forced to take action. Starting from 2002, civil society movements, more than ever before, became an active presence in Italy’s public sphere.

The catalyst that triggered this resurgence of civic activism was a speech delivered in February of 2002 by Francesco Saverio Borrelli, the General Prosecutor of Milan and one of the leading magistrates of the Clean Hands investigation. In his public address, which officially opened the year’s proceedings for the Court of Justice of Milan, Borelli vigorously criticised the controversial reforms of the judicial system proposed by Berlusconi’s government, which included, among other things, more power for the Ministry of Justice to interfere with court cases, as well as new assessment criteria and disciplinary measures for assessing magistrates’ performances.

The reform was part of a larger attempt to interfere with the Italian justice system. Since taking office, the government had already been very active in proposing and passing a series of laws that directly impacted (delayed or even annulled) many of the ongoing legal proceedings which saw Berlusconi as defendant.

Francesco Saverio Borelli. Web

Borelli attacked the reforms as lethal attacks on the country’s democratic foundations. He also denounced the Minister of Justice’s controversial decision to withdraw the security details assigned to two judges (who were investigating Berlusconi) as a blatant attempt to pervert the course of justice through the use of tactics that could potentially endanger the lives of the magistrates.

Borelli ended with an impassioned appeal to the people to “resist, resist, resist”. He declared the people’s resistance a collective civic duty, the last bulwark between democracy and the abyss of despotism.

Not surprisingly, the magistrate’s words attracted a series of venomous attacks from Berlusconi’s media. They called him and his colleagues a “politicised, corrupt clique” willfully attempting to distort the democratic process by investigating Berlusconi. Like many populists before him, the media tycoon’s retort repeatedly blurred the lines between politics and justice, claiming that he was only accountable to (and therefore could only be judged by) the sovereign Italian people who had elected him, not by a radical faction of “communist” magistrates. Still, Borelli’s appeal injected new vigour into the country’s civil society.

Consequently, in February, several thousand people from all walks of life marched through the city of Florence in defence of the judges. The protest gave birth to a new civil society initiative called the Laboratory for Democracy – Liberty and Justice. This wasn’t an isolated case.

Throughout the year, many more thousands of people joined the Girotondi movement. Taking its name from the Italian equivalent of the children’s game ring-around-the rosie, the movement organised a series of peaceful protests all over Italy. People would join hands in a circle and ring-around courts of justice, the senate, the house of representatives and other important institutional buildings. The idea was very simple, but the symbolism was strong and clear: democracy and its institutions are under attack, and the people must protect them.

Girotondi. Web

The hundreds of thousands who joined the movement were disappointed voters (from both the left and the right) and members of the middle class. Usually highly educated, they felt betrayed by their political representatives who seemed unwilling to defend people’ rights in Parliament and in the country’s Constitution.

The Girotondi movement culminated with roughly a million people gathering in Rome to protest Berlusconi’s controversial reforms that threatened not only the independence of the judiciary but also, among others things, the national education system and workers’ rights.

We don’t hear, they don’t see

Yet, despite the flourishing of many new initiatives, civil society seemed powerless. In most cases, the reforms proposed by Berlusconi and his government either succeeded or failed regardless of the protests. In fact, the situation revealed the actual political limits of Italian civil society. It was, on the one hand, overwhelmed by the strength of the existing hegemonic structure; and, on the other hand, its efforts were rendered invisible by the heavily politicised media.

The civil society experience in the early years of the new millennium made even clearer that girotondi, mass mobilisation and strikes, though all fine and noble “tricks of the trade”, were virtually meaningless when the parties and their representatives in parliament were not afraid to ignore them. The power of influencing the ‘political society’ remained firmly into the hands of the parties who seemed to have no fear of losing the next election. Any fear would have been unwarranted anyway, since the system offered no real alternatives. And so, unfortunately, civil society’s bite lacked any teeth.

But even more troubling was the issue of relative invisibility.

Between 2001 and 2005, civil society organisations were instrumental in occupying streets, creating movements and proposing new political platforms. Yet, these attempts never really made it to the fore. Instead, they were ignored or only partially reported by the majority of mainstream media (unless they reached “such mass proportions, as with the European Social Forum’s peace march in Florence in November 2002, that they cannot be ignored” as the historian Paul Ginsborg remarks).

But even when they made the news, information could be twisted or repackaged in line with the government’s strict guidelines. The partial reporting of the 2003 campaign against the Iraq War exemplifies the issue.

Anti-Iraq War Protest in Rome, 2003. Web

In February of that year, about 3 million people gathered in Rome to protest the war. However, reports of the march were heavily censored. According to Roberto Natale, head of the RAI Journalists Union (at the time), RAI’s journalists were instructed not to show the pacifist flag, to downplay the size of the protest and to refer to the protesters not as pacifisti (pacifists) but as the much more negative disobbedienti (disobedient people).

In the early years of the new century, the Italian civil society had finally found the courage to wake up and resist the dangerous direction that their country was being taken. Yet, sadly, thanks’ to the government’s monopoly of media, most Italians weren’t even aware of it.

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