It’s about the “Commons” – Witnessing Occupy Movements and Street Demonstrations in ItalyArticle written by Boliang Shen (Beijing-based curator and journalist at Artinfo China). The article has been translated from Chinese into English by Fang Liu in June 2012. The original article of this slightly edited version appeared in Artinfo China, on 25th May 2012.

The ‘Occupy’ movement is not a carnival-style entertainment”, but on May 12th, at the Piazza Verdi next to the University of Bologna, what I saw looked just like that: students wearing costumes of ancient Roman generals, medieval knights or pirates (“These where actually students from the local university’s fraternities, probably celebrating their graduation”, editor’s note) and holding placards with creative slogans addressing different social and political issues gathered at the square under the sun, they drank beer, engaged in animated talks… when dawn drew near, a truck carrying a rock band drove across the square, following behind was a long procession formed by groups of students, smoke of fireworks lighted to herald the procession gradually spread and seethed in this old, red city known for its tradition of radical resistance. The “Global Strike Day” march had just began –  “in the eyes of the Chinese, this is a spectacle, another disguise under the protection of capitalism”, said the artist Zhou Xiaohu who was with me.

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At the time, I and four other artists and curators (i.e., Ma Yongfeng, Ni Kun, You Mi and Zhouu Xiahou) were invited by European Alternatives, a European civil society organization, to participate in the art exchange in Rome and Bologna as part of the Transeuropa Festival co-hosted by the European Alternatives and the Transeuropa Network, which took place in 14 cities across Europe.

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From the eruption of the global financial crisis in ’08 and ’09 to the outbreaks of “Arab Spring” and “Occupy Wall Street”, all kinds of occupations, protests, mobilizations and radical politics have been acting like flames spreading everywhere. Nevertheless, we can only get to know one another through smoke and phantoms. “Is your art against capitalism?” “Is your art anti-modernism?” – These have been the looking-for-comrades type of questions that we often encountered. I asked about the connections between the current radical movements in Italy and the Italian communism tradition started by Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, the student and worker movements in the ’60s and late ‘70s, radical authors we are familiar with such as Pier Paolo Pasolini or Dario Fo, and even the left-wing extremist group “Red Brigades” in the ‘70s. The answers I got in general were: “There are maybe a certain loose connections, but those are not important, we were very young or not yet born then. What’s happening now is primarily influenced by global trends.”

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On the other hand, it is not like the “May Revolt” of ’68 in France, as many people have understood – “a group of young people growing up after the war revolted against a prosperous society”. Italy is experiencing a serious financial and social crisis. The young people I met showed anxiety over employment after graduation, and expressed concerns over tax hikes and high suicide rate in this city. According to a BBC report, there was a “White Widows March” in Bologna the weekend before we arrived, husbands of the women in the march killed themselves under the burden of deep recession, many were business men – that reminded me of a passage mentioned in the “Capital”, which has often been ignored: do not blame individual capitalists, they are victims of capitalism too. Reports of infectious suicides were all over the place. This March, a craftsman burned himself to death in front of the local tax court. Two days before we arrived, Maurizio Cevenini, a beloved left wing party leader and former mayoral candidate in Bologna, threw himself off a council building. His funeral was held on 12th May, the whole town was in grief. Ma Yongfeng’s “micro-resistance” event scheduled for that morning at a square near the city council was moved to the afternoon on the same day at Piazza Verdi next to the University of Bologna.

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Back in China, movements of “micro-interventions”, “micro-practices” and “micro-resistance” had been well received. Would the effect and meaning of “micro” become difficult to execute or express anything in the mighty context Bologna, where people have been so agitated? Continuing the pattern of creating graffiti on site in Bernard Controls, Ma wrote sentences on recycled cardboards, scrolls of fabrics, flags of Italy and EU, some were with indefinite indications such as “Sensibility is Under Control”, “Action is Product” and “You Can Steal ‘Now’, but Future is In Our Hands”, some were reflections on radical demonstrations – “Do Not Let the Protest Become a Pollutant-Free Ethical Gesture”, “Is It a Revolt without Revolution?” and so on. He also interacted with the students, asked them to write down their thoughts. However, in the deluge of slogans and graffiti of Bologna, could their words be noticed and understood as delicate and firm heterogeneity? After the brief exchanges, would the students deviate somewhat from the radical way of thinking they have been used to for the thoughts written down by themselves?

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Lorenzo Marsili, co-director of European Alternatives, asked what if someone from a radical group challenges him? Ma Yongfeng replied: “I’ll ask him to explain his point of view in one sentence, then I’ll write that sentence on a cardboard and give it to him in exchange of the placard he is holding.” That was an interesting idea, but, no one came forward to challenge, and each group kept to itself. There were some minorities who could hardly blend in stood by and watched. A Chinese friend who studies in University of Bologna said: “Protests and demonstrations happen here almost everyday, they have become a way for the people here to participate in public life, express opinions and positions, or legal channels for criticisms, just like us Chinese tweet our complains online…”.

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I had a long conversation about the issue with Sara Saleri, a member of European Alternatives, who has studied semiology with Umberto Eco. She thought that the student march we saw should not be deemed as a typical example of the entire “Occupy” protests and street demonstrations happening in Italy. Those young people were simply expressing themselves, they were anxious over the future, but had limited understanding of the substantial problems of the society. She admitted that street protest as a legal public means has a long tradition. However, she stressed that at about the time when the financial crisis started, street movements began to have whole new forms and claims.

“Commons”, “common goods” are terms mentioned often in the above movements, but they are relatively new concepts to Chinese readers. The easier examples are “Wikimedia Commons” and “Pirate Parties International” (PPI). The latter, first appeared in Sweden in 2006, started by opposing corporate copyright law’s restrictions on online downloads and hindrances of circulation of knowledge, and supporting legalization of online resource sharing. Later it grew bigger and expanded to many countries. Its claims have also been extended, by advocating openness and transparency of online information, government transparency and protection of civil rights, establishing a freer civilization and opposing outdated patent laws and monopoly. “Online governing” is another trait of the parties, they take advantage of online social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to allow party members exercise their rights, announce policies, collect opinions and eliminate hierarchy. Its political stance has thus been established. Last September, the Pirate Party in Germany took 9% of the vote in Berlin elections. It was allowed to enter Berlin Parliament for the first time in history. Some people consider that the inception of alternative governance model.

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It is necessary to mention that, one reason for “commons” to become a keyword is closely related to Elinor Olstrom’s brilliant research on the concept – which won her 2009 Nobel prize in economics. Her study rip the notion of the negative connotation derived from the well-known article “Tragedy of the Commons” by Garret Hardin in 1968. Also, I must mention the book “Commonwealth”, co-written by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, and “The Common in Revolt”, a collection of dialogues between Judith Revel and Antonio Negri. Both are important sources on “Commons” in Italy. This year, the Transeuropa Festival in Bologna held symposiums on issues of digital commons, co-working and co-housing, new chapter of European commons and immigration policies.

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In Rome, posters advocating water as a common good are often seen, the campaign started last year based on nationwide queries made by two legal scholars of International University College of Turin. According to the result, most Italian considered that water should be deemed as a common good and managed by the people, so they oppose privatization of water.  Shortly after, on June 14 2011, the famous theatre Teatro Valle, built in the 18th century and located along the Pantheon and the Senate, was occupied (Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” made its debut there). The theatre used to be managed by the ETI (Italian theatre association); then the ETI was closed and the theatre shot down due to high costs and decline of the industry. It was said that the theatre would be bought by a tycoon and converted into a restaurant. Therefore, workers of the arts and entertainment were mobilized through the internet to occupy the theatre, they claimed that culture is a common good, just like the water and the air, and the theatre shall be managed by the citizens. Now it has been almost one year now since the Teatro Valle was occupied, shows have been put on almost every night, performances are open to all citizens who pay as much as they wish. The occupiers and citizens ensure the quality of the performances through public assemblies – “We don’t need to vote, we listen to the reasons of those who say ‘No’.” The occupiers who accepted to be interviewed by me admitted that those were simply the first step of the occupation; they need to develop an alternative managing model of “common wealth theatre” in order to resolve financing and workers’ payment issues, and introduce the model to the government and citizens. For the time being, occupants still make their living from jobs outside of the theatre, they take turns to guard the theatre 24 hours a day, so the government wouldn’t have any chance to evict them – “the government does not even shut off the water and light, probably for fear of further intensifying the conflict…”. Similar occupations have erupted involving several other theatres in Rome and many cultural institutions across the country.

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In Rome, an audience asked about the current fever in China of building museums. Zhou Xiaohu replied frankly that “those are simply some art ‘houses’, and we do not benefit from them” – “But, I believe one day we will occupy those ‘houses’ as well.” Regarding the above-mentioned issue that whether the “alternative” art practices in China are part of the global “anti-capitalism” movement, Ma said that what is important in the world today is not movements with clear guiding ideology, but numerous “tenuous” movements that are organized voluntarily by the people.

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Afterwards I asked Sara Saleri and Gian Paolo Faella, PhD in History of Ideology at the University of Bologna, whether the movements of “commons” and “alternatives” are a direct revolt against capitalism, or just an improvement plan for the status quo. They admitted that opinions have been divided among participants, albeit those opinions derive from the desire for change. “Down with capitalism” is a political appeal belonging to a distant future. That is certainly too reserved in the eyes of a radical. Slavoj Žižek once said that if we try to improve capitalism inside the system, it would only extend the life of capital, the beast, and make modern states, “committees of administering common affairs of the entire capitalist class” even healthier. I also asked, if expanding the context of “commons” in which the backgrounds of members of co-governance and the circumstances are more complicated and diversified, will the model fail or end in disaster, like various communes or utopia in the past? Gian Paolo Faella considered it a very important question in the practice regarding “commons”, what resources could be “common wealth” shall be judged carefully – they shall be limited to resources on which the subsistence of all people rely and cultural resources shared by a community. To me, instead of establishing a country where everything is eventually a commons, the entire work regarding “commons” shall aim to the autonomy by the people on certain public resources, consequently make a government become a more idealized “limited government”.

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I am tired of asking questions that aim for “a clear direction” or “ the final goal”, which probably came from the habitual way of thinking imprinted on us by Leninism: a movement must have clear goals and plans designed by an authoritative figure or the highest commission, which would instruct the masses to strictly carry them out. Maybe we can bring up here the legacy of the German revolutionist Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin’s contemporary: contrary to Lenin’s favour of control and giving orders, Luxemburg emphasized the importance of disorder, noise and active, large-scale social events. She stressed the creativity and morale of each participant, deemed a revolution as “a complicated and organic process”, any division or intervention to the process would threaten the vitality of the organism as a whole – which are quite similar to “chaos” “complexity” and “self-organization”, concepts of modern science. Alexandra Kollontai, a Luxemburgist from the elite of the Soviet Bolshevik, also thought that to accomplish a revolution and create new forms of production is like riding on uncharted waters, therefore, action itself is superior then a blueprint or plans. She asked: “Can the smartest manager of a feudal estate invent early capitalism by himself?”. Similarly, without action, we should not expect the experts trained within the frameworks of capitalism and socialism be able to build a wonderful model for the future.

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(Special thanks to members of European Alternatives: Lorenzo Marsili, Luigi Galimberti Faussone, Sara Saleri, Gian Paolo Faella; occupiers of the Teatro Valle: Federica Giardini, Laura Verga, Emiliano Campagnola; James C. Scott, “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed”; You Mi, Ni Kun, Ma Yongfeng, Zhou Xiaohu and his wife, Zhu He and Ou Ning who have helped me with the trip and this article.)