Last November a new protest movement spread, quite unexpectedly, across Italy. At first glance its participants seemed rather silly. The ‘sardines’, as they called themselves, occupied to overflowing Bologna’s famous Piazza Grande, bearing images and placards of the eponymous fish, a symbol which, according to the organisers was to represent togetherness, non-violence and freedom on a massive scale.
Over the next few weeks the demonstrators – mainly young, mainly from the service sector of the middle classes, high on education qualifications but low on jobs, repeated in an extraordinary fashion the Bologna feat. 90 piazzas were briefly occupied, the overall numbers involved in spontaneous protest being the greatest since the Second World War. The pre-eminent objective of the sardines was a simple one – to prevent the racist and fascist League of Matteo Salvini (running at around 33% in the national polls), from taking over the prosperous and leftist region of Emilia-Romagna in the upcoming regional elections. Their target, though, is not just the Lega, but the deeper corruptions of present-day political discourse and action, both on Right and Left. As the participants prepare for a new year of mobilisations Jamie Mackay spoke with the historian Paul Ginsborg about the history of civil society movements in Italy, and the challenges ahead.
Jamie Mackay (JM): The sardines appeared in huge numbers at the end of last year, apparently from nowhere. Who are they, and how long can they last?
Paul Ginsborg (PG): That is a much more difficult question than first appears. By the time the sardines came into the picture Italy had been virtually written off in terms of popular movements. It seemed as if much of the rest of Europe was on the move but from Italy and from ‘Red’ Bologna, as it came to be called in the 1960s and 1970s on account of the strong left-wing political culture… just a long silence. There had been important middle-class mobilisations in the early 1990s; the Girotondi were a significant part of the anti-Berlusconi coalition of that time. But these were essentially defensive battles which never lasted long. The Popolo Viola, for example, which boasted seventy thousand young demonstrators at its first showing, dissolved within a month. And yet the Sardines are there, and that is in a sense extraordinary.
Waves like these either pick people up – all of us – or else you have to wait ten years to try again. Why this movement in particular has been picked up I don’t know. They’ve certainly used social media to the maximum. But if we are uncertain about causes, there can be no doubt about effects. They’ve interrupted the polls. They’ve already made Salvini dip a whole percentage point, which is big. Clearly, they’re serving some purpose.Print