We engage in a process of asking comrades how they organise locally, both in a material and practical sense within the local working class, but also as political groups. You can find a few short reports on our blog. Below you can read about experiences of comrades in Bologna.
What’s the history of your group?
Hobo was a political collective founded in 2013 by students and precarious workers based at the University of Bologna, which later expanded beyond the university. Our militancy was based on the theory of Italian workerism, not for academic or dogmatic reasons, but for its’ practical uses today. In recent years, we have advanced a criticism of the politics of social centres – dominant on the Italian left – as spaces which have become dominated by the progressive middle class, and where the left isolates itself from the broader class composition. Refusal of middle class “citizen politics” and “lesser-evilism” have also been central to our political practice.
A year ago, we founded Il Padrone di Merda (PDM, loosely translated as The Shit Boss), as an experimental form of organisation among precarious workers in the service sector. Workers can report their shit boss to our social media pages, after which we meet them and together we raid the workplace wearing white masks and read their testimony out. We receive a regular influx of reports and messages of support from workers, and have won victories such as the back payment of wages. In addition to PDM, we carry out inquiry and root ourselves in local processes of self-organisation, such as neighbourhood committees against construction plans. We also run a self-managed social space in the University for students, as well as a bookshop/infoshop in which we host militant education courses on a wide number of topics. These courses are being published in a series of short, accessible books. Finally, we run a more theoretical website called Commonware and participate in a national network for militants called Zero.
Not all of us take part in every articulation we have. We don’t believe every person has the same qualities or interests as well as the possibility to dedicate the same amount of time to different kinds of projects. Furthermore we experienced that having a strict and rigid type of organization in which people feel forced to agree on everything both theoretically and practically can lead to the flattening of ideas and of people and become unproductive. In this sense we believe that experimenting with new and different forms of organization is the challenge of the period we are living in. It is important not to become attached to the group itself but to the aim and reason for which it was created. For this reason the “we” that we use is understood as identifying a way of thinking and doing, a lens through which to analyse the world based on the will to change what surrounds us. We are aware that we are fighting against a system of power with multiple declinations and that we need to tailor our way of acting and thinking to the different subjects we are trying to reach and involve.
In addition to this, just a few weeks ago we decide to dissolve Hobo because we felt that as a “container” it was too restrictive. In order to give the right amount of space to every project and articulation we have we decided that we had to change our organisational form. We thus decided to experiment with a new type of meeting in which we are gathered not around a common identity, which was becoming a limit on our capacity to grow, but around a common objective: trying to start a revolutionary project in all its different declinations. We decided to take our critique of the Italian movement even further, turning it against ourselves. We noticed that often being a “political militant” here is related to being a university student, after which you start your “real life”. Politics becomes a hobby rather than a decision to live your life in a certain way. This critique is also linked to practices that claim to be revolutionary but have become simply about performing and creating spaces that are marginalised and don’t relate to the social composition anymore. We believe that being a political militant is a way of thinking and acting that has “no age” and hope that this new way of organising will increase our capability to involve more people beyond the same old circles of the so-called movement.
How do you see the relation between solidarity network-type of work and your political trajectory?
Our attempt to create a different type of organization like PDM was strictly linked to the idea that our previous political collective was marginal and isolated, unable to actually involve the subjects we need to look for if we want to contribute to creating a genuine political movement. Trying to imagine new ways of interacting with people has been necessary in order to try to change what surrounds us. Creating a solidarity network, a place (virtual initially) where people could share experiences anonymously but feel listened to and more importantly able to fight these experiences together.
Was PDM able to overcome the usual limits of solidarity network, e.g. the dead-end of individual case work?
This is the challenge. We are trying, but it is also clear that given that most of these workers are in precarious conditions, many of them have already left the city or at least can’t take part in the project with continuity. Others are taking part in struggles that don’t involve them directly because, from their initial personal case they then connected with the aims of PDM. We are trying to strengthen this worker involvement, by rethinking the form and tactics of PDM. Even for example by deciding to have meeting in bars rather than in our social space in the university. The most important and common aim of the workers is basically revenge against their bosses and the desire to damage their business.
The other important thing to say is that we didn’t have a rigid programme or even an idea of what to specifically do other than to go to the work place, tell people (customers, passers by) about the working conditions and try to get workers’ money back. The organization then developed: we found a lawyer in order to help workers; we started more than one struggle at the same time with different characteristics based on what the workers are fighting for and what they can actually obtain. In the last weeks we were able to bring workers from these different struggles together so they could share their experiences and some of them now have taken on specific roles inside the PDM organisation, like organising the Facebook page etc. But there is still a lot of work to do and steps to take in order to build a strong solidarity network between workers.
Where do you see interesting general tendencies of struggle at the moment?
There is a big segment of self employed people or people with small business that are paying the consequences of the crisis that will follow the lockdown. We believe that some small business people/entrepreneurs that have banks as their “shit bosses” could come together in the future and start to claim money from the banks to save their businesses. There are already some signs of this.
Another big segment is represented by workers in the service sector especially here in Emilia Romagna. They work for cooperatives that claim to be on the workers’ side but actually use this type of industrial organization to further exploit workers without legal consequences, because the workers are legally considered “partners” in the business rather than employees.
Last but not least there is a segment characterized not only by age but also by their way of living. (lots of people living in the same house due to high living costs, precarious jobs, ….) .
How do you see the (current) situation of logistics workers in your area?
In Italy the logistics sector has been an important field of intervention, in which we were involved. In the beginning (I’d say 6 years ago) many workers struggled in this sector, especially migrants who were both very determined and original in their tactics. They first united between themselves and started fighting independently and then sought the help of a rank and file union which supported them. At the beginning it was workers who decided the forms and the pace of the struggle not wanting to mediate with bosses but always pushing their demands further. Together with the union and political collectives they were able to generalize their struggle, identify a political enemy not only in the company itself but in the system guided by the ruling left wing party in Bologna. After a while though negotiations between the unions and companies became the objective and not a tool for calling into question the logistics system in a wider sense, and so it became predictable.
Also seeing the struggles of agricultural workers in the south: do these struggles remain confined to ‘migrant workers’, or do they break the boundaries?
The condition of the cities in which agricultural workers mostly concentrate is very difficult and complex, and very different from university cities such as Bologna so I’m not able to say much from my point of view. Some of my friends took part in political projects around the places in southern Italy where agricultural work happens and they told me that basically the fact that there are a lot of workers for few jobs and the fragile legal status of migrants who work there means you can always be blackmailed in relation to your residence status, which doesn’t help the development of struggles. The fact that most migrant agricultural workers want to leave Italy, and particularly the conditions they find in the south, and head to northern Europe also means people don’t want to commit to struggles there. There have been moments in which struggles arose but they were quickly recuperated. Lots of charitable type organisations there blame the problems on the “gang masters” who illegally hire workers to farmers (being usually other migrants doing the hiring and negotiating with the farmer) rather than seeing these conditions as integral to the system.
How rooted is the anti-EU feeling in the local working class?
There is an anti-EU feeling among the working class particularly in relation to austerity measures taken since the 2008 crisis broke, as well as the increasing of a nationalist feeling. In the last month with the coronavirus crisis we saw the development of this feeling, historically encouraged by right wing parties or extra parliamentary organisations, and a series of demonstrations about this. We believe that instead of criticizing it ideologically we need to understand those expressions of rage and disillusion towards the Italian and European political class and try to push it in a different direction. As we saw in France with the gilets jaunes the flag is not always an expression of fascist type sentiments but can also become a reason to start struggles and to unite under a common identity and condition: the fact that people don’t trust in and don’t believe in institutions anymore. We obviously still don’t know the outcome of these demonstrations but we think that trying to relate to this composition is important knowing that ideas and beliefs are not “pure” but can change due to processes of subjectivity that develop through struggle and can’t be taught.
How do you try to intervene in the wider debate of the left?
The city we come from – Bologna – has always been ruled by the left wing (that means for about 80 years), first by the PCI (Communist Party) and then by PD (Democratic Party), so the «left» has always been regarded as strictly institutional. So, the so-called “movimento” – namely the network of extra-parliamentary left formations – has always tried to stay out or, even better, against the «left». This element has changed radically during the last few years, as the movement’s gradual loss of credibility and attractiveness towards the social composition – connected to its inability to deal with new political issues and new subjectivities, emerging especially among the Italian middle class – has led many comrades themselves to gradually shift towards institutional language, confusing the two different levels of “conflict” and “consent”. So in our opinion, the wider left has to be considered an enemy, against which the potential of social conflict can be directed. Keep in mind that during the ten-year-long crisis, started in 2008, countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece (the Southern part of Europe) have been subjected to devastating austerity policies, mainly carried out by the «left», that is now identified by many people as responsible for the worsening of living conditions and the deepening of the economic crisis.
What are your plans for after the lockdown?
After the lockdown we are sure we will be facing a period of deep economic crisis, that will be highly likely to aggravate in autumn (layoffs have been blocked until the end of August: after that, it’s likely Italy will face the worst crisis ever, with about 35% of companies being shut down and around 3.6 million people losing their jobs). Our objective will then be that of widening the contradictions that will emerge in different fields. First of all, that of precarious workers (see PDM), but also returning to the university, which can be considered under all circumstances the biggest and most productive company in Bologna. In this case, it will be likely that the university will change, shifting towards an online management that has been successfully experimented with during the lockdown. We believe that this will raise many issues but also ambiguities, related to the cost of living and families’ capacity to sustain their children at university. In this sense, online education might cause an exodus from Bologna (which would at that point lose its biggest source of income: students) or open up new struggles.