All entries for May 2012

May 19, 2012

Aiming high: occupy in Milan

Macao - Torre Galfa skyscraperLast year, my arrival to Madrid coincided with the first demonstration of what, a few weeks later became the indignados movement. This week, my arrival to Milan, on my way to Florence, was less lucky: the clearing by the police of the occupied skyscraper Torre Galfa.

While Milan has a long history of occupying spaces, second probably to only Berlin and Copenhagen, over the last decade, under the Berlusconian version of privatisation and commodification, the occupied centri sociali have been silently disappearing, and social movements have been very shy. This Spring, finally, something fresh: at the beginning of May, the occupation of the skyscraper Torre Galfa, in the middle of the new business district. This occupation is different from those of Puerta del Sol or Wall Street. It was not of a public s[pace, and it was not primarily political. It was of a private space, and highly symbolical: skyscrapers are the architectural symbol of financial capitalism. And it was primarily creative/artistic: creating a space for ‘co-working’ of creative cultural projects in Milan, called ‘Macao’. This is itself very political, though: Milan is in many regards the cultural capital of Italy – theatres, galleries and publishers are based here -, but what was an avant-garde city decades ago has become stiff, bourgeois, conformist and very commercial. A visible cultural centre outside market logics is politically disruptive.

Macao, in its short life, received the support of leftwing mayor Pisapia and of the icon of Milanese alternative culture, Nobel Prize Dario Fo (who knows something about occupying: his occupied Villa Liberty was in the 1970s the Milanese centres of experimental theatre). However, it also received the attention of Interior Minister Annamaria Cancellieri. In a very Italian twist, her son happens to be an executive director of the developers’ company that owns the empty skyscraper, a company which has been involved in nearly all corruption scandals in Milan for the last 30 years. The very quick police intervention to clear the occupiers is therefore at least suspicious. It also raised ironic comments: the police would have got confused and cleared the wrong skyscraper – the really illegally occupied one is the adjacent Pirelli tower, seat of the regional government, which is squatting there despite a huge amount of scandals involving both ruling parties (Berlusconi’s Freedom People and the Northern League) and charges of electoral fraud.

After the evictions, the occupiers have refused Pisapia’s offer of a space in the former Ansaldo factory – a central area which should become the art and cultural district of Milan. Insisting in ‘aiming high’, they refused any compromise with the institutions, occupied the street for a while, and today moved on to occupy an empty palace, belonging to the Ministry of Culture, in the arty Brera quarter. I have taken some pictures with the occupiers under the cleared skyscrapers, but better ones had been published by... Vogue.

May 14, 2012

Brave New World under threat

Follow-up to Warsaw's Brave New World from Around Europe 2010-12

Last remains of the GhettoThe Brave New World club-cafe of leftwing group Krytyka Polityczna, an oasis of free criticism in Warsaw's downtown I frequently pop in to (and one of the most interesting cultural cafes in Europe), is again under threat. The current rent of the historic New World's cafe is due to expire, and the association has succefully bid for another space, the former Menora restaurant on Plac Grzybowski - the centre of the former Jewish Ghetto, which is now being regenerated. It is less central than the current location, a bit further away from the University, but still a great place: actually, Brave New World is exactly what is needed to bring back to life a square that has become sleepy and neglected.

In an insult to the rule of law, the local authority have declared the tender won by Brave New World void and reopened it, with the requirement that any activity should be focussed on Jewish traditions - in the previous tender, there was no mention of them. This selective rediscovery of Jewish Warsaw is nothing more than a pretext to exclude a politically and culturally fastidious presence.

Polish cultural and political personalities, from Baumann and Holland to Mazowiecki and Kwasniewski, have signed a petition in defence of Brave New World (Wspanialy Nowy Swiat). I can't find an English version, but I guess it will appear soon on the London's virtual site of Krytyka Polityczna.

May 07, 2012

Thoughts on a normal president in not–so normal times

Musée Rodin

If François Hollande wanted to remind of the François Mitterrand moment of 31 years ago, despite his best efforts and nearly exactly the same score of 51.7%, the common background only underline the striking differences. The square itself has changed, after Mitterrand himself built the immense Opéra, in my view a symbol of his ambitious, often spectacular but ultimately failed attempt to democratise French culture. The quartier Bastille has changed too, largely sanitised and gentrified. But zoom into the crowds. As huge and as conscious of the grandeur of its revolutionary tradition as in 1981, the 2012 one is different. While in 1981 it sung L‘internationale, this time a very timid attempt at it in a corner of the square was bottled by La marseillaise and the stage sound system. But while in 1981 the flags were red and tricouleurs, in 2012 a number of disaparate ones have appeared, with the Algerian ones in particular (like in the Stade de France when France plays). Whether they like it or not, the République may have become less internationalist, but it has also become quite multicultural.

The 1981 victory was a real climax, as the opinion polls were too close to call. This time, the defeat of Sarkozy has been expected for so long, that the only surprising thing was the narrowness of the gap. And Mitterrand’s charisma was so strong that he actually did not need to go to Bastille. Hollande’s best asset, instead, has been to look and act normal. In other words, Mitterrand was bigger than the stage – but yesterday the disproportion was between the grandeur of the setting, and the normalcy of the performer.normal

Indeed, his opponent was not normal. I started disliking him already in 1995, when I was in Paris during that presidential campaign, the one Jospin lost with honour (unlike 7 years later). In 1995, the young Nicolas stabbed his mentor Chirac in the back to support the other righting candidate Balladur, who was ahead in the polls – the only good thing of Chirac then winning was the subsequent punishment of Sarkozy. Who was once more opportunistic in 2005, exploiting the No referendum to the European Constitution against Balladur and, again, Chirac. And as a president he has been neurotic in acting and inconclusive in ruling: he will be probably the only V Republic president not to leave a mark. Despite this, I must say that in the last televised debate Sarkozy was more impressive than Hollande: he even managed to look convincing when saying that German success is a success of his ideas (shame that the Germans actually respect trade unions and collective bargaining).

The results of the first round add to the feeling of anticlimax. The high score of Le Pen, and the good but not as high as hoped score of leftist Mélenchon may have strong consequences for French politics. If results are similar in the parliamentary elections of June (which is far from unavoidable), the Left Party will have a very small representation and the Socialist Party may have a comfortable majority alone. This may open the doors to a very moderate government. I keep hoping in two women, Martine Aubry as prime minister and Marisol Touraine as social affairs minister, but there is the risk that, to appease the markets, more moderate socialists will get the posts. And the consequences may be deep for the Right too: for the first time, a large number of Front National candidates might reach 12.5% and qualify for the second round. This will be a disaster for Sarkozy’s party UMP, which would face a disaster in the second round... unless it comes to an agreement with the FN. It sounds absurd, and both Fillon and Raffarin seem opposed to it, but other rightwingers have started saying that Marin Le Pen is not her father, and 70% of UMP and FN voters are in favour of an alliance (Ipsos opinio poll, yesterday)... In any case, this is the historic opportunity for the French extreme right to be ‘legitimised’ – what the Italian one achieved in 1993, with Berlusconi’s compliments.

Talking of extreme Right, one mention of the worst of all, the Greek neonazi Golden Dawn, who entered parliament with 7%. Xenophobia in Greece had up top now more a funnythan scary aspect, but it is turning really nasty. The Greek election night was much more thrilling than the French one. Early results indicated a narrow seat majority for the ‘pro-bailout’ parties (PASOK and ND), but a closer look at the Ministry of Interior website’s data (every now and then, having studied ancient Greek turns useful) revealed that cities were well behind in vote counting. And in cities these two parties scored particularly badly – eventually, ND and PASOK only reached 149 seats out of 300. I expect that external pressure will force at least some MPs of the ND break-away Independent Greeks to join the government, but in any case it will not be an easy time for Greece, and for Europe, if the bailout agreement is not renegotiated soon. So-called anti-politics is ripe, as seen in Germany and Italy in this same intensive electoral week-end. The Piratenpartei has entered the Parliament of Schleswig-Holstein, and the comedian “5 Star Movement” has overtaken Berlusconi’s party (itself a comedian party, if you think about it) in many Italian large cities, while, once again, leftist candidates overtake the mainstream Democratic Party. I don’t fancy either the Piratenpartei or Beppe Grillo, but maybe these kinds of populism are a better temporary safety valve than the extreme Right. It is up to people like Hollande, now, not to waste time.

May 04, 2012

Voting in Coventry

Yesterday, I made the most of my status of European Union citizen by voting in the local elections in Coventry. Voting in local elections is something two thirds of the British population do not care about, so my act may be seen as paradoxically one of distinction from, rather than of integration in the local polity. Those who do not vote in local elections over here might have some reason: the country is strongly centralised, there are no regional elections and local councils do not have much competence, despite running substantial budgets and being responsible for something most British people complain about all the time: the council tax (a rather regressive thing, heritage of the even worse Thatcher's poll tax). But still, local elections have some relevance for national politics, although not nearly as much as they have in most of western Europe, and especially so in Germany, Italy and Spain. And they matter locally too: when Coventry fell shortly into conservative hands afew years ago, the damage was there for all to see, for instance in the cuts to libraries, including those just built.

So I did go to vote, and while in the past I occasionally voted Greens or Socialist, especially when sick of wars abroad and of traffic locally, I opted for the ‘useful vote’ that a first-past-the-post system calls for, and gone for Labour. With good satisfaction: my ward, which is a mix of two parts, old working-class Tile Hilland new middle-class Westwood, swung from Conservative to Labour and Coventry’s Labour majority was strengthened. Despite low turn-out, Labour's excellent result across the country sent a clear message to the ruling coalition and especially to the Lib-Dems, who were duly massacred in the polls.

Liberals have been an important tradition in the European polity, with serious merits, but both largest liberal parties, in Germany and in the UK, may disappear from the next Parliaments and I find it difficult to miss them. The German FDP discovered neoliberalism after its sell-by-date, and it is now reduced to something like 1%. In the UK, the Lib-Dems' affair with the Tories will go to history as one of the most stupid political decisions ever. The long history of Italian coalitions taught me that as a rule, ina government the senior patner always takes the merits, and the smaller parties take the blame: this is why the Christian Democrats could rule with smaller allied for as long as 45 years (the rule is confirmed, grosso modo, by the other proportional-voting countries). So junior partners need to demarcate very clearly something they will benefit from, which is usually simpler for regional parties (i.e. the Catalans of CiU). But in a foolish bet, Clegg gave the Tories everything, even what they had not asked for (the reform of the NHS!), in exchange of only one, terribly insecure thing: the referendum on the election system. Which he predictably lost, and now, for a further three years, he has to keep being the spare wheel of the Tories for no benefit whatsoever, playing the shameful role of the scapegoat for Cameron, without any negotiation power given that in a snap election he would disappear. No, his strategic vision will not be missed.

Yesterday we also voted on another election reform: a referendum on the direct election of mayors. Initially, I was quite in favour of the idea. In Italy, it was introduced 19 years ago and, although I had opposed it in the Italian referendum of 1993, I concede that it had a positive effect in revitalising local democracy, and all across the country there have been lively campaigns and independent, innovative mayors. And during these two years, I have seen charismatic mayors having positive influence in all corners of Europe, from Kraków to Berlin to Milan. But on reflection, this is not so much associated with direct election: in Germany and Spain, the elections are indirect. And direct election works well in Italy, because anyway the large majority of the population takes part in the vote. But in the UK, with participation at around 30%, the risk of maverick populist mayors with large marketing budgets is too high: Boris Johnson in London is only a taste of worse things that could come. Rather than revitalising democracy, direct election could undermine the associational pillar of democracy itself (so openly despised in these same days, across the Channel, by Sarkozy). So I voted no, and in this case, I have been in line with the innate conservatism of the majority of local voters.

May 2012

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