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Right now, in what might be the largest coordinated actions yet, the people of Southern Europe are engaged in an international general strike against ongoing austerity measures. Action today centred on a near-total shut-down of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) along with several-hour national shut-downs in Greece and Italy. Workers in France, Belgium, Germany and others are also supporting and participating. Air travel, trains, industry and services have all been affected by actions, and massive demonstrations have taken to the streets of countless cities. Clashes with police have been reported in Spain (81 reported arrested in Madrid so far) and several Italian cities.

Guardian – Live Coverage
BBC Coverage
Democracy Now Coverage
Libcom – Live Updates

Since last year, Europe has been gripped by an enduring debt crisis. With southern nations like Spain and Greece failing to recover from the collapse of 2008, they’re requiring large bailouts to keep making their payments on national debt to wealthier (northern) nations. In exchange central bankers have demanded harsh spending cuts (“austerity”). Unfortunately, the cuts have only further devastated economies while bailout uncertainty during bargaining sessions has driven interest rates on their debt far higher, driving a cycle of more cuts, bailouts and recessions which has infuriated the continent.

In response, Europe has been witnessing some of the largest and most intense protests in a generation. Town squares were occupied, hundreds of thousands took to the streets and pitched battles were fought with riot police. There’s been several general strikes now in each of the nations afflicted by the crisis and a growing list of fallen governments. Last week’s two-day general strike in Greece, for instance, saw 80 000 in the streets of Athens and a particularly fierce battle outside the parliament, awaiting the latest austerity vote.

Today’s actions are a landmark for organizing across borders, and for the participation of large traditional labour groups like the European Trade Union Confederation who don’t usually get involved in such actions. An accurate number of participants isn’t available, but it’s likely to be in the millions. Today’s actions show a growing rejection of austerity which is beginning to connect across the continent.

This issue isn’t going away, and the protests are only getting larger.

Later this month, officials meet in Brussels to attempt (again) to sort out this mess. As the consensus grows, even in capitalist circles, that austerity has failed, Europe is starting to run out of options. Greece has been pushed the brink of total economic, social and political collapse, with Spain and Italy not far behind. More cuts, at this point, only invite disaster. Millions of people sent a message today, and unless it’s received soon, we’re going to witness a much larger, longer shut-down.

Yesterday, as an act of protest against austerity measures and the economic crisis, Dimitris Christoulas, a 77-year-old Greek pensioner, shot himself in the middle of Syntagma Square, outside the nation’s parliament. On him was found a suicide note encouraging Greeks to rise up. By the evening a crowd of thousands had grown in the park chanting “this was no suicide, it was a state-perpetrated murder”, with some battling riot cops. His action wasn’t unique, recent data shows a 18 percent increase in Greek suicides in 2010, and a 25 percent increase in Athens last year. Italy, too, has been witnessing this horrifying trend, with three high-profile suicides this week over personal financial nightmares, following two people who set themselves on fire last week.

These tragedies give a glimpse into the hellish personal conditions spawned by recent cuts, and the anger that’s brewing as a result. Youth unemployment has passed 50% in Spain and Greece, the highest numbers seen in over a decade. With welfare and other safety nets the axe, many are left with nowhere to turn.

Many have mused Mr. Christoulas’ death or one like it will have effects like that of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit-seller who set himself ablaze in front of government offices last January, sparking a revolution in Tunisia and arguably the Arab Spring itself. More protests are planned today in Syntagma Square.

Yesterday also marked a grim day of financial self-destruction as worldwide markets suffered their second-worst day this year so far, especially Europe. Since the lows of late last year most markets have been rebounding with a vengeance since then, with some gaining around 30% or more in value. This has had many analysts shaking their heads, arguing that nothing’s really changed underneath all the newly found enthusiasm and hype. Governments and central banks have been pumping the economy with printed money (“liquidity”, bailouts etc) for years now, and selloffs yesterday were sparked on both sides of the Atlantic when hints were dropped that they might not keep doing it. While it’s true that some economies (particularly on this side of the Atlantic) are seeing some signs of cautious improvement, there’s still a lot to be worried about in Europe and Asia, as well as again-rising oil prices, one of the main catalysts for the last collapse. Beneath all this are a few scary trends, like record-low volatility, a rise in insider-selling (corporate leaders selling their own stock) and the recent rapid fall of results vs. expectations (“the economic surprise index“). Of course predicting and analysing markets will always be a bit like astrology, but there are more than enough reasons to be concerned here. Another crash right now could spell disaster for many.

Austerity is only beginning, but it’s already proving to be a social and economic nightmare. It’s one thing to impose cuts on a populace which holds rallies and marches in opposition. It’s another to keep doing it when people start killing themselves in public squares as acts of protest. This is the worst crisis Southern Europe has suffered since the wake of WWII, and many elderly folks are now drawing parallels to the fascist dictatorships which they lived through in their youth. The region is a powder-keg, and if its rulers don’t change course it’s going to explode.

“The Tsolakoglou government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state. And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.”
Dimitris Christoulas’ Suicide Note

It’s budget time, and conflicts over “austerity” are continuing to rage across the western world. Canada’s budgets are out, Spain held a general strike Thursday and the situation in Italy and Portugal is continuing to worsen.

Greece and Italy
News from Europe just keeps getting more disturbing. Italy has now seen two men set themselves on fire to protest economic conditions. One did it outside a tax office, another outside the town hall over thousands in unpaid wages. Greece is taking an even scarier turn as the (unelected) government move on with plans to open 30 widely opposed “detention camps” for illegal immigrants, who they’re now attempting to scapegoat for their economic woes. This follows similar measures and proposals aimed at the Roma (“Gypsies”) in Italy and France.

These two nations are furthest along in “austerity” plans (especially Greece). They’ve both had their heads-of-state (Berlusconi and Papandreau) replaced by “technocrats”. Their economies are growing so toxic they threaten the EU itself, and austerity programs so have only worsened debt burdens by wrecking their economies. They’ve both seen enormous, riotous social unrest. Watching this from the relative security of a nation like Canada, it’s time to ask ourselves: is this is really the path we want to embark down?

Spain and Portugal
Spain yesterday saw a general strike grip the country, where (of course) some clashed with police setting tires and trash cans alight as barricades in the street. Yesterday, Spain announced their “austerity budget“, hoping to satisfy European Union creditors. It contains 27 billion in cuts, some of the worst cuts seen since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Spanish unions and protest groups are pledging to keep fighting. Neighbouring Portugal held a similar general strike last week, and business analysts are again beginning to fear that either of the above (or Italy) may become “the next Greece”. EU Ministers met today to discuss raising the “firewall” bailout fund closer to a trillion dollars, fearing another debt-crisis and bailouts which could cripple the European banking system.

Thursday, Federal Minister of Finance Flaherty announced his “austerity” budget, as expected. During the speech a group of protesters raised a ruckus in the gallery and had to be “escorted out”. The day before, McGuinty released his, and the reality of the proposed cuts is beginning to sink in. Federally, over $5 billion in cuts have been announced, expected to directly result in about 19 000 public jobs lost over the next few years, raised eligibility ages for retirement benefits and gutted environmental oversight. The subject of new taxes was avoided, with the Conservatives hoping further investments in large resource-extraction projects like the Tar Sands and related pipelines will bring in more revenue. It’s being called the “least green budget in decades“, inflaming Environmental and First-Nations groups.

In Ontario, the main cost-cutting measure is a two-year public-sector wage freeze along with cuts to pensions. Over the next three years, cuts worth $17.7 billion are planned, with a third of it coming from wages. These measures follow a somewhat watered-down model provided by the Drummond Report, released earlier this year warning of dire financial consequences if Ontario didn’t deal with our deficits.

Canada isn’t Greece, Spain or Italy – we very clearly aren’t in the midst of a “debt crisis”. We aren’t even “sorta” grappling with one like France, Britain or America. We have the lowest debt-GDP ratio in the G7, our own currency and some of the world’s largest stocks of natural resources. Our economy was largely shielded from the shocks of the last five years for these reasons, and we needed a far smaller “bailout”. Our social programs aren’t all that lavish by European standards, and our economy is in far better shape. To say that Canada “needs” an austerity program is absolutely ludicrous, but that’s never stopped our politicians before.

Austerity Everywhere
The rapid spread of austerity programs, beyond borders and regardless of party in power, shows how widespread these problems really are. As much as I’d like to place the blame on Harper or McGuinty, they are only a few in the long list of politicians participating. Our new global economy has generated a global crisis, and it’s going to take a global movement to fight back.

Wages, pensions, social programs and other benefits have always been a battleground. They’re a part of the bargain we drive in exchange for our work and compliance with laws. Most of these rights and benefits were only gained at the end of long and hard-fought struggles. This bargaining session never ends – there’s always a mediation between us and those in power (bosses, the government, etc). There will always be efforts to peel back these gains and pay us less in one way or another. When this happens, people fight back. This is the subject of a very interesting paper now making the rounds online, Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009 by Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth of the CEPR. From the ninety years they studied, they found “a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability”. These results were tested against all the usual explanations – recessions, democratic/autocratic governments and the amount of media coverage, among other variables, and none showed much effect (with the possible exception of limiting the powers of government’s executive branch…). The lesson here? If you begin to pay people less for their obedience, be prepared to expect less of it.

This fight is already underway. Big days to watch for include April 21st (Toronto), May 5th (Ottawa) and of course Mayday, May 1st (everywhere). There are already big conflicts underway in Quebec (students) and British Columbia (teachers, northerners), as well as many cities like Toronto and Halifax. With these budgets now on the table, Canada’s entry into this international conflict is now official. Austerity is everywhere and the effects are only beginning to be felt, but so is the backlash.

It sure is going to be an interesting spring.

The Prime Ministers of both Italy and Greece, Berlusconi and Papandreou are now set to resign amidst the exploding debt-crises in their countries. They were forced from office not by the hordes of protesters outside, but by pressure from the international financial community, who fear that their defaults could set off a cascading collapse of the EU’s banking system, if not the world. Markets rallied on this news, but as there’s nothing resembling a solution in place, that began to fade fast. As I write this the NASDAQ is down almost 4% from yesterday.

I can’t say that I’m sad to see either of these idiots take a step back from power. Their bungling (and Berlusconi’s “bunga”-ing) has been a universal nightmare for people of all classes, and if the bankers hadn’t fired them their populations probably would have (likely with actual fire). The precedent it sets, though, is a little frightening. Popular revolutions have overthrown the governments of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt this year – the financial elite overthrew two in the past two weeks. It remains to be seen whether something similar could happen in a wealthier country like France or the US, but discontentment on Wall Street (originally some of Obama’s biggest supporters) may soon answer that question too.

What all of this shows is how little power the state and its officials have in the overall power structure. Their role in many ways is more about regulation and enforcement than actual decision-making. We have a ruling class, not a singular ruling institution. Bankers, traders and leaders of institutions like the IMF and World Bank often hold far more practical power than state bureaucrats. Moreover, it’s usually the very same individuals, which raises some serious questions about where any of these institutions begin or end. Interest rates on Italy’s bonds are now setting new records, reflecting a startling lack of confidence on the part of the world’s investors that they’ll ever be repaid in full. Berlusconi, despite his legendary ability to hold onto power despite all sense and reason, can’t stand up to that.

The First World is now getting a first-hand view of what the Third World has been dealing with for decades. Currency market traders have devastated entire continents overnight (especially South America and Asia), and the IMF pushed harsh “structural adjustment” policies which looted their countries in exchange for refinancing their debts. Today, in developed nations, this process is known as “austerity” and it’s no less brutal. These polices didn’t create endless prosperity in Asia or Africa, and they won’t do so here either. The continuing collapse of the Greek economy in the wake of some of the harshest austerity measures yet is evidence enough of that.

The question is, who takes the chairs of Prime Minister now, and what happens to Italy and Greece. Papandreou learned his lesson when he proposed the referendum – standing up to the ECB won’t be tolerated and it looks far less likely now that anybody will be willing to risk any bold leadership. More likely the austerity will continue and more bailouts and bank recapitalizations will be required (perhaps many more). And of course, will the Greek and Italian people stand for any of this?

In the past week we’ve witnessed enormous uprisings across Southern Europe, with six-figure turnouts in nations like Spain, Italy and Greece against the crippling austerity measures now being imposed on them in the hopes of resolving the European debt crisis. In Italy over the weekend, and over the past two days in Greece, violence flared at these protests, leaving one dead (heart failure), around a hundred injured. There are reports of fighting between rioters and other protesters from both. Given the explosion in similar North American protests over the last month, many are drawing parallels to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many are asking: could it happen here?

That’s not a question I or anyone can answer – it will depend on everyone’s actions in the months ahead – police, parliament and protesters like. So far, things here have been overwhelmingly nonviolent. What I can do is put all of this in some perspective:

First of all, protests over austerity in this region are hardly new – Europe has been raging since the latter half of last year, and Greece for few years longer than that. Protests in general tend to involve 10-100 times more people in Europe (or Asia, Latin America etc…) than North America, and there’s a much stronger tradition of militancy, especially in the south. While North American protester “violence” usually involves broken windows and flying rocks, Europeans are far more likely to resort to barricades, molotov cocktails and large-scale street-fighting. Nor is this limited to “protests”, as recent riots in London and Paris have shown. In many ways European society is coming apart at the seams.

This isn’t to say the situation here is “good”, or that our history of protests has always been friendly. It is, however, a far cry from the post-war horrors of dictatorships in Spain or Greece or the chronic instability of Italian governments. Then there’s the history of radical guerillas fighting the fascists in the region during WWII (or in the case of Spain, just before it). Canadian and American and British radical guerillas, of course, also fought – though mostly in Spain.

It’s worth noting, however, that Spain’s ETA, the militant group which has been fighting for an independent, socialist Basque region for decades has just announced an end to armed part of struggle. So, of course, there are always avenues for peace, and for peaceful resistance.

Second, things are clearly worse in Europe. Economies like Spain and Greece have been characterized by 40%+ unemployment among the young, and banking sectors threatening to implode and take the world with them. In Italy, a major catalyst for the unrest was Silvio Berlusconi’s recent survival of another confidence vote. You might know Berlusconi as the legendarily corrupt Italian leader who’s run their economy into the ground while getting caught up in numerous sex scandals and attempting to pass a law granting himself and his cabinet immunity from prosecution because his many criminal prosecutions were “taking up too much of his time”. In Spain, the recent two-day general strike was a response to their latest austerity bill, which barely managed to pass inside the besieged parliament. In Greece, the cuts, privatizations and tax increases being put forward are now so bad that small businesspeople have joined workers and unemployed in the streets.

Spain, Italy and Greece are threatening to default on their loans, and that would threaten much of the world’s banking sector. This could destroy the European Union as a financial entity and Euro as a currency, as well as set off a(nother) worldwide economic collapse. Their leaders are being leaned on hard to pass nightmarish cuts, despite clear scepticism by real economists that it’ll help them meet their targets (Greece is continuing to fail). Their governments are between a rock and a hard place, and so far have opted to do the best to ignore their indignant populations. This is a clear prescription for civil unrest, and one our governments would do well to learn from.

Riots happen, for better or for worse. It’s easy to sit idly by and critique them (or revel in online riot-porn) from the relative comfort of countries like Canada, but the ugly truth is that in situations like these, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath them lie buried worlds of suffering and hardship, as well as countless examples of systemic and institutional violence. The fact that some people feel rioting is the only way to bring light to this is sad, but sadder is the fact that it’s too often true. In the absence of meaningful, peaceful means of addressing them, a more emotional and visceral reaction is bound to fill that vacuum. Constructive nonviolent protests on a large scale take extraordinary levels of discipline, organization and coordination. Riots don’t.

So far, North America’s protests have been very peaceful, even by our standards. That fact has done wonders for the ‘image’ of the movement, as well as bringing no end of shame upon police for their heavy-handed responses. This only goes to show the value of these kinds of tactics. Peaceful strategies can work, but passive strategies cannot. As Gandhi stated, “poverty is the worst form of violence”, and it doesn’t stop taking its toll for lack of attention. Every time a peaceful protest gets ignored, violence wins in one way or another.

On a slightly related subject, here’s what one member of America’s military thinks about the police response to Occupy Wall Street, as he told about thirty of them during a recent demonstration. Youtube

Ikea Gets a Regime Change
Recently, I wrote about connections between Ikea’s founder and the Sweedish Nazis during the Second World War. Just so that nobody has the illusion that there’s a nefarious ultra-right-wing conspiracy behind the company, I’ll provide another tidbit: It’s recently been revealed that Ikea used prison labour in the former East Germany during the Cold War. In fact, the new revalation show “strong links with the Communist state” and the use of political prisoners arrested by the Stasi. This might suggest that there’s a certain “fanboy” attitude toward totalitarian German regimes, but more likely it’s just another blatant example of how amoral and unprincipled their motives really are.

Berlusconi Doesn’t Give a Fuck
Today the nation of Italy celebrates another general strike against their legendarily corrupt government and it’s brutal austerity plans. Things have gotten so bad that one small village near Rome has declared independence. How does Silvio Burlusconi, their infamous President feel about them? A tape emerged from his recent blackmail scandal puts it prettly bluntly:

“I couldn’t give a f***. In a few months I’m going to go away and mind my own f****** business. I’m leaving this s*** country that makes me feel like puking.”

How the ATF is Ridding America of Guns…
First we found out that Mexco’s most notorious drug cartel, Los Zetas, were originally soldiers trained by the US government. Then we learned about the “Fast and Furious” operation which allowed smugglers to bring thousands of guns into Mexico, destined for warring drug cartels, with the full knowledge of the American Government. Another case has now come to light of a man arrested by ATF agents in Arizona for manufacturing and modifying “military style” weapons and shipping them to the cartels, against whom all charges were dropped. Jean Baptiste Kingery confessed to converting semi-automatic rifles into fully automatic versions and grenades into IEDs. Supposedly federal agents hoped to make him a source, but he disappeared weeks after his release.

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