Found myself in an interesting position the other day (ok, Saturday 15 October 2011), as I went from tour guide to demonstrator by way of the liminal act of slipping through a police cordon.
Some friends were visiting from England, and I plotted out a circular walk to show them Rome, including some of the tourist faves. The only thing they adamantly wanted to see was the Colosseum. I was keen to revisit the old brute too, having recently re-watched Gladiator, for a digital taste of ancient Rome in its prime. So after a grand giro that took in the Janiculum, St Peters, some quality pizza in a slightly ratty place in the Prati, Piazza del Popolo, Villa Borghese, Spanish Steps and the Trevi (is it ever not utter carnage there?), we headed for the Colosseum.
I was unaware of the global day of demonstrations. In my defence, we’ve not got real internet, my Italian is still too poor to read an Italian daily, and I generally only read the Guardian Weekly, a superb digest of quality news stories but not exact current. I took a backstreet route, keen to avoid the traffic on via dei Fori Imperiali, and suddenly found myself faced with a crowd and a line of cops, young guys looking all bad-ass with their belts and guns and sunglasses and hair product. Still oblivious, we waited our turn to squeeze through a between van and ancient ruins, and found the via dei Fori Imperiali not full of stinky vehicles, but instead full of people – demonstrators.
Italy, like the US but less like the UK, is a place of vocal political extremes. I’m sure there is centrism, but it doesn’t make its presence felt very clearly. This march seemed full of red flags with that strikingly anachronistic symbol, the hammer and sickle, amongst others.
The protest, like those in 81 other cities around the world (I found out later) was vocalising despair at the economic collapse, which some are now suggesting is worse than the 1930s Great Depression. I may be getting on a bit, but I’ve no memories of that particular crisis. Instead, I’m living through this one – and all too painfully aware that we, the ordinary people, are dealing with the fallout of things going wrong in that odious alliance between the finance industry and the super-haves. Pretty much everyone else is a have-not, but it’s the super-haves that run the place, via corporate power and the giant casino that seems to form the heart of the global economy.
That absurd casino is particular tangible in countries like Iceland – oops – and the UK, where we’ve abdicated and abnegated most of our other, real industry. Well, guess what, gambling is no replacement for heavy industry or manufacturing or viable agriculture – you know, processes that actually produce useful, tangible stuff. that, you know, could provide products to a local market. I think that’s what the widespread and somewhat amorphous protests are actually about – it’s not about right or left, political concepts that feel outmoded and profoundly unhelpful in the face of the economic and environmental crises of our era. It’s about, frankly, getting real. About controlling the gamblers and instead regenerating industry, particularly at a local level. Unfortunately, humanity largely tends to follow a pattern of the rich ruling for the rich (read rich old white men; cf this article), and the rest be damned. More idealistic notions such as Marxism led to the monstrosity of Stalinism and the epic failed experiment that was the USSR. What replaced that? More overt kleptocratic gangsterism, much like that in the US, or here in Italy, or even in the UK, where it’s obfuscated slightly by the arrogantly polite veneer of decency projected by our ruling class of old Etonians who have no concept that there’s a real world beyond the superannuated Oxbridge debating society atmosphere of Westminster.
Anyway, so although I feel many of the same complaints as many of these demonstrators, we weren’t quite prepared to fully participate, particularly not when the truck with the giant sound-system rolled down the road, pounding bassy hip-hop and followed by a horde of the kind of punching-the-air, black-clad, hooded youths that have accompanied so many newspaper headlines recently. We retreated, found the entire road blocked by police and carabinieri vehicles, and not a single official steward type to advise the many bewildered-looking tourists. Squeezing back through our entry point, a black column of smoke filled the sky above the Colosseum, and the water-cannon trucks screamed past us. It was certainly a very different vision of crowds at the Colosseum to those watching Maximus scrap, and justifiably slaw, nasty emperor Commodus. A means of changing society that’s nice and immediate, but not really a viable option.
(Oh, and Rome is already the most graffitied city I’ve visited, but the new slogans sprouted like fungus on this particular weekend. My favourite? “Merry Crisis”.
“Oh, #2”, it’s interesting to see the mask worn the terrorist/freedom fighter, hero/antihero of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s ‘V For Vendetta’ [and its middling film adaptation] appearing at these events. That’s a tangled semiotic web if ever there was one.
“Oh #3” – I snapped the three posters today; I like that socialist realist aesthetic, and fair enough to encourage people to “buy Italian”. See the above link to the Guardian Blog for a comment on that state of affairs.)