Shock & Solidarity: Lessons From Bologna

By Isabel Martin

Bologna, Italy – The day after the election, I walked into my class on Italian radical feminism feeling deflated. Expecting everyone in the class – especially this class – to feel more or less the same way, I was surprised and confused to find some of the Italian students in the class slightly amused and a little bit nonchalant at the distress of the American students. It felt like the end of the world, so where was the horror?

Beppe Severgnini, an Italian journalist, explained the Italian sentiment in a New York Times op-ed a week after the election. “On one level, I can’t help but feel like the turnabout is fair play. During the Berlusconi years, Italy was Europe’s laughingstock, and the Americans, among others, took us to task with comments that ranged from patronizing to outraged. Now it’s our turn. The United States and others explained to us that they’d never ever elect a man who treated women like sex toys. A 70-year-old who worried more about his hair than about world issues. A politician who confused his private business with affairs of state. A person who treated the truth as optional. And let’s be honest: Next to Mr. Trump, our former prime minister, Mr. Berlusconi, looks like Winston Churchill. At least he didn’t insult his neighbors, mock foreign powers, snub NATO or plan to build a wall to keep out immigrants. I won’t say we told you so, but we told you so.” 

“Not whores, Not Madonnas, We Are Women.” Photo by Isabel Martin.

Severgnini is speaking about Silvio Berlusconi, billionaire media magnate and three-times the Prime Minister of Italy, who held political power in Italy during a period that spanned nine years (1994-2011) and included multiple criminal convictions – paying for sex with an underage woman and tax fraud related to his media company among them. Berlusconi rose to power on a sales pitch. Using his media empire and tv charisma, Berlusconi sold the possibility of becoming as rich as he was, using anti-establishment and anti-political language to blame social tension on political correctness, immigrants, and the leniency of the current government. He promised to be an anti-Communist, law-and-order PM, while also marketing an individualistic, hedonistic, “dolce vita” lifestyle in which being anti-political was a good thing and rules were tiresome. In his many years in office, Berlusconi decried the judiciary, passed legislation that served his business interests, and befriended Putin. He repeatedly used “tanned” as an epithet for Obama, made himself a victim of the court’s investigations, cited beautiful secretaries as a reason to invest in Italy, and dismissed accusations of employing prostitutes as taking the “pleasure of conquest” out of sex. Sound familiar?

In a post-U.S. election interview with the Corriere Della Sera, Berlusconi himself confirms these parallels. “Some similarities are obvious, even if my story as a businessman is very different from that of Trump, who I’ve never met. He is also a businessman who at a certain point of his life decided to dedicate his abilities and energies to his country. And he was voted [in] by all the Americans tired of old politics, closed in on itself, becoming unable to listen and to understand. A politics that has committed a typical error of the left around the world, of thinking that “political correctness” is a way to stay near to the needs of the people. Without understanding that the true powerless ones are the citizens who are harassed by the State, by taxes, by bureaucracy, by uncontrolled immigration, by unemployment, by the danger of terrorism.”

Italians strongly feel that they have seen Trump before, in the form of Berlusconi. While the parallel between Trump and Berlusconi presents itself quite easily, it is important to remember the very different social, cultural, and historical backgrounds between the United States and Italy. The orientation of resistance movements themselves speak to different values and different priorities for a different country and context. Resistance to Berlusconi centered around precarietà – or precarity – in its opposition, responding to a youth unemployment rate that reached a high of 40.1% during the last year Berlusconi held office as the Prime Minister of Italy. In doing so, the movement recalled a collectivist tradition of postwar Italy as a source of power for their politics, and used a common condition of precariousness to forge a coalition between traditionally powerful labor unions, student movements, feminists, and immigrants, critiquing the ways in which precarity operated along race, class, social, and geographic lines. In working with a specific economic situation and precise cultural and collectivist tradition with attention to the geographic divide present in the country, Italian resistance movements used their economic condition to the aim of achieving security in a radical cultural resistance that included, but was not limited to, opposition of Berlusconi. More specifically, Sexyshock, a group of media and gender activists based in Bologna, fought back against the media power of Berlusconi and his regressive social politics using irony, “shock,” and an “open laboratory” of communication and politics regarding gender and sexual identity. Opening the first sex shop in Italy run by women for women, the group condemned Berlusconi’s characterization of women as constantly sexually available while destabilizing the definition of sex itself. In the birthplace and epicenter of Catholicism, where religion still pervades politics, their work takes on added significance and subversive potential.

Despite contextual differences – and moreso because of them – perhaps the parallel between the two alarming leaders can be empowering as well as arresting. From precarietà we can take lessons in coalitional politics, finding an aim for our opposition, and the power of resistance that is based in an individual reality and felt collectively. Sexyshock shows us how denying categorization can be useful even in our goals of recognizing individual specificities and differences, and demonstrates the expediency of irony in resisting regressive social politics and unimaginable political realities. Meanwhile, the different national context of resistance groups like Sexyshock can reorient us in a vision of international solidarity and coalition that learns from and supports its global parts.

 In an age of global feminism and activism – evident in the March 8th International Women’s Strike and the Argentina based international movement Ni Una Menos/Non Una Di Meno/ Not One Less – it may be possible to draw inspiration, solidarity, and support from each other as activists, and deconstruct the normative, oppressive structures of international exchanges of power. The American populist trajectory is not unique. All over the world, countries are struggling with anti-liberal backlash and isolationist, anti-immigrant sentiment, in which normative (read – oppressive) social structures are seen as the remedy to economic and social tension. While Berlusconi is not a crystal ball into the potential politics of Trump, perhaps by putting the Italian resistance to Berlusconi in dialogue with our current American movement, we can learn from Italian social justice and resistance activists and work on a grassroots political movement that draws power from its international sustainability and global, intersectional context.


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