My Italian Trip

From Sept 3 to very early on Sept 10 I was in Italy on a book tour for the Italian Edition of Parecon: Life After Capitalism. I spoke in five cities, the largest being Rome and Milan, and at many venues – both alone and in panels. I also did many interviews for print newspapers and magazines, recordings and live sessions for radio, and film sessions for live and recorded TV. Some of this was mainstream, including national TV, and much was alternative.

The talks were about parecon, presenting the model in whatever time was allotted. Q/A sessions to follow were largelyl on the vision, but then also about issues in the U.S., including the elections, etc. It was striking – as it has been in Brazil, France, India, Australia, and England, how similar the questions asked are to those forthcoming in talks II have given in the U.S.

Each interview, whether it was for print, audio, or video publication, was primarily about parecon but always also branched into concerns about U.S. foreign policy and the upcoming U.S. election.

Some of the interactions were with simultaneous translation, others, however, had sequential translation which cuts into comprehension, emotional communication, and time allotment. With simultaneous the audience has headphones and hears in Italian as I speak in English. With sequential, I speak a sentence or two and the translator then repeats it. The audience hears both. In the interviews, when it is sequential, I have headphones to hear the questions while they are spoken to me in Italian, and the interviewer has headphones to hear in Italian the words I speak to him in English.

Aside from the beauty of Italy and particularly of Rome — where else am I likely to give talks in halls that are centuries old much less just off a plaza created by Michaelangelo — the incredible cuisine which Italians not only know how to prepare but also to savor, and especially the incredible kindness and support of my Italian publisher Saggitore about which I will have more to say in another blog post, my major impressions were twofold.

First, there is the disorientation of an American’s direct experience with Italian media. I don’t know how to explain this to be believable. I suspect my efforts to convey the reality to my Italian friends was considered to be courteous exaggeration. But the fact is, I did more mainstream media in about a week in Italy than I have done in thirty years in the U.S. More, the Italian interviewers from the mainstream, including TV anchors, asked insightful and informed questions of a sort that not only wouldn’t be forthcoming in the unlikely event that I was to appear on comparable U.S. media, but that couldn’t even be conceived by U.S. mainstream commentators. Our anchors and reporters simply don’t have the concepts, the knowledge, or more to the point the moral compass and openness not only to conceive much less ask such questions, but were they to hear the questions asked by others, to even register their meaning. The difference is not large, but astronomical.

On the alternative media side of the coin, things are also much different in Italy and the U.S. They have much more, particularly daily national newspapers and what they have is much better financed with more resources and means than our alternative media have. On one day, for example, long interviews about parecon with accompanying photos to create an eye catching spread appeared very prominently in three Italian left dailies. Again the total coverage about parecon done in Italian alternative media in just under a week was more than the total alternative media about parecon done in the U.S. plus in England too in nearly 18 months since the book’s release, and rally much longer than that. And again the questions were deep going and substantive and the people involved wanted to keep talking long after the engagements.

It is very disorienting to have people all in Italy who you don’t know and who have not previously known you and not had a decade to acclimate to a new set of ideas excited and energetic about exploring for their quite large audiences the nature of parecon, and to know at the same time that in the U.S. progressive periodicals like ITT, the Progressive, Mother Jones, and the Nation not only aren’t going out of their way to send people to do photos and interviews in order to be able to bring this model to their audiences, but are routinely rejecting submissions on the topic.

The second big impression is more vague and uncertain and has to do with the Italian left. I expected Italy’s left to be large, overtly and openly anti-capitalist, militant, thriving. But I got a rather different picture, that is quite hard to compare to what I am used to in the U.S.

There is a tremendous volume of self conscious leftist awareness in Italy, to be sure, not just subterranean and implicit, but right on the surface. It extends out way into the public, encompasses young activists but all kinds of other people as well, etc., and it rises even up into mainstream institutions (like among media workers) and even into government such as in Rome where city officials at quite high levels, through the mayor, were interested in parecon precisely for intimations of possible new ways of doing their own jobs.

That is, interest in finding new ways of conducting state affairs, for example, is very high among certain sectors with special interest in participatory budgeting ala Porto Alegre, among other experiments being looked at and carried into the Italian context. There is great interest in and activity around phenomena like fair trade campaigns and organizing, co-ops, and other experimental and innovative projects.

In a private conversation, turning to people’s actual beliefs, I think most of the elements that are most left leaning would exhibit anti-capitalist sentiment, as well. But what was unexpected and strange was a real hesitancy, more like an outright conscious unwillingness, to be overtly anti capitalist much less openly in favor of any alternative system in public. How do I put this? I didn’t feel much militancy. I didn’t feel much hope of winning fundamental change, nor much inclination to seek to do so. Reports suggested that most energy of that sort was dissipating with the diminution of the Disobedienti and also smaller left militant groups.

When I tried to understand why two million demonstrated militantly against the war not that long ago, and now visible militancy was almost absent entirely absent, I got two reasons offered.

First, in Italy, due to the history of civil war and generalized strife, and to the great effectivity of anti-communist sentiments, and to fear of polarizing worse outcomes and overt repression, people are trying to find non confrontational ways to improve social outcomes. My feeling was this was not a good way forward, particularly when non confrontational means implicitly accepting systemic structures as inevitable, but it was conveyed to me repeatedly, including by folks doing it but bemoaning that it was the condition.

The second reason offered, this more by folks who agreed that the situation was a real problem rather than a wise avenue forward, was absence of shared, compelling, ideology that would distinguish a militant left from old style sectarian and authoritarian variants. This, of course, is something to overcome, not to succumb to, which may explain much of the Italian interest in parecon.

I offer the above observations hesitantly. I was there a short time. I spoke with only so many folks. I will watch for mail indicating need for correction and refinement of the observations.

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