“We will not stop until we have a revolution!” yelled several protestors, collected in Piazza Castello in Turin, Italy. It was December 9, 2013 and the movement known as “I Forconi” (the Pitchforks) was at the peak of its strength, paralyzing many Italian freeways, commercial centers, and other strategic hotspots. With leafleting, demonstrations, and violence, individuals united in their discontent with the government rose to action all across the peninsula, from Milan and Trentino in the north to Apulia and Sicily in the south. However, despite widespread sympathy for the protestors and their cause amongst the remainder of the population, a few weeks passed and the protest ended. The state of affairs in Italy is back to normal. There has been no massive upheaval, because Italy as it is today is not fertile ground for a revolution.
Raising the Pitchforks
The Forconi movement started in the second half of 2011, born as a series of demonstrations against the government and the European Union as well as an expression of general discontent. As months passed by and the movement grew stronger, it delineated more precise goals and strategies. Through the occupation of public spaces and strategic traffic locations, protestors aimed for a social revolution to create a new state and a new government. As Mariano Ferro, national leader of the movement, told the HPR, this new revolutionary state would “shed light on the current global crisis that is being ignored in Italy, call for a referendum to exit the Eurozone, and reduce taxes to stimulate economic growth.”
Members of the Forconi movement were not standing alone in their mission against the government. The March 2013 national elections already showed a general dissatisfaction with the political situation, when the non-partisan Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) won 24 percent of the votes, disrupting the Italian two-party equilibrium. Beppe Grillo, who created the M5S as a result of continuous scandals within politics, refused any agreement with other parties, thus leaving a broad left-right coalition as the only alternative for governance. Such a coalition, incorporating members from opposite political backgrounds, was much weaker and less productive than a standard single-party executive would have been. Consequently, and not without some room for observers to notice the irony, Grillo proceeded in the following months to criticize the government’s inactivity and further increase general disenchantment.
Tripping over Success
In this atmosphere of general economic crisis, sluggish government activity, continuing political scandals, and power-hungry demagogues exacerbating and exploiting social tensions, popular discontent in Italy grew at an unprecedented rate. “At the beginning we spoke of a ‘revolution with our hands in our pockets,’” explained Ferro, “meaning that we started with peaceful demonstrations. But when the government ignores our requests and represses protests, something is bound to explode.” Therefore, the December protests by the Forconi movement came as very little surprise. In an open letter posted on his website, Grillo described the events as “the beginning of a fire or the foreshadowing of future, maybe uncontrollable riots.” Significantly, one of the main polling institutes in the nation, IPR Marketing, reported on December 11 that 69 percent of the population supported the motivations of these protests, with several other national polls echoing these findings.
However, the same polls showed general skepticism and disaffection when demonstrations escalated into violence. Soon movements of counter-protest were born and the Forconi initiatives died down. As the office of the Italian Minister of the Interior told the HPR, “Violent actions in the protests prevented the majority of the people from sympathizing with the movement.” Today, more than a month later, there is almost no trace of the movement in newspapers, and Italy is back to the relative peace it experienced before December 9. The goals of the revolution were not met, and nothing resembling a social revolution occurred at all.
Was the failure of this movement an isolated occurrence, or is a revolution in Italy simply not possible? Maybe some of the change called for by the protestors could indeed be possible, but I Forconi’s main mistake was presenting a social revolution as their ultimate goal. In fact, despite a similar vernacular use of the two terms, a revolution is a much more specific event than a political change or a series of protests. Political scientist Theda Skocpol wrote in her 1979 book States and Social Revolutions that social revolutions are “rapid, basic transformations of society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below.” Therefore, a social revolution requires the collapse of the state, which must be weak to begin with. This makes it a violent, long, and therefore very rare event, which is very unlikely to occur in today’s Italy for two main reasons.
The first is that the Italian state is strong. Despite the political instability and the social tension, institutions and state structures in Italy are robust enough to allow the state to carry out its fundamental functions. As Harvard government professor Steven Levitsky told the HPR, “A sudden economic downturn like the recent one in southern Europe can give rise to mass discontent, but there is a very long way to get from mass discontent to a social revolution. The Italian state is too strong for any revolution to occur at the moment.”
The second reason is that, despite the economic crisis, Italy is still a rich country. In terms of relative wealth, comparison with other first-world countries, or memories of their own financial state before 2011, the Italian people feel poor and unsatisfied. However, in terms of absolute wealth, Italians live in comfortable conditions and enjoy decent lifestyles. Joining a revolution would require a willingness to give up this lifestyle, putting one’s entire world at risk. It is this so-called “collective action problem” that creates a disincentive for individuals to join the revolution because its costs are too high. Therefore, in countries like Italy, relative impoverishment pushes people to protest for change, but absolute wealth prevents them from taking protests to the next level and actually pursuing a revolution.
All things considered, the situation in Italy at present is certainly not ideal. Costs of living are rising, unemployment is at record levels, people struggle to make ends meet, and the political responses to these issues come slowly and chaotically. Protests are natural and understandable, and they might have consequences. Maybe they will push some politicians to resign. Maybe they will even cause new elections. But those would only be small governmental changes. Because of the structural solidity of the Italian state, these protests cannot and will not escalate into a revolution. The state will not collapse, because it is strong and guarantees a sufficient degree of well-being to its people. The Italian democracy, at least for a while, is safe.
Image credit: www.beppegrillo.it