The “demolishers” of October 15 and the future of the movement

La gazzetta di “Occupy Wall Street” ha pubblicato un ampio spezzone di una intervista apparsa su Micromega il 17 ottobre scorso, rilasciata a Emilio Carnevali a seguito della manifestazione del 15 ottobre a Roma. Un ringraziamento va a Nikil Saval per avere curato la traduzione e la pubblicazione.

Interview with Emiliano Brancaccio
by Emilio Carnevali

From the plazas of Madrid, where everything began May 15, the protest has extended to the rest of the world. On Saturday, October 15 the indignados marched through the streets of 950 cities—from Hong Kong to Boston, São Paolo to Kuala Lumpur, Sidney to Tokyo—denouncing the dramatic social effects of the economic crisis that exploded in 2007–08, and the failure of the political classes to respond to a situation of the highest gravity. There wasn’t a single march that wasn’t composed mostly of youth—the ones most hurt by mass unemployment tied to the brutal contraction of production and revenues when the real economy registered the impact of the financial crisis. In Rome, however, a huge protest of over 100,000 people degenerated into violent fighting. The early estimate is seventy injured (three critically), twelve arrested, a city ravaged for many hours and the usual, inevitable flurry of polemics.


Once again these arguments have obscured the reasons for a protest that, as Guido Rossi wrote in Il Sole 24 Ore, was “born of thousands living in poverty and which deserves to be explored in an analytic spirit.” We spoke with Emiliano Brancaccio, economist at the University of Sannio, a harsh critic of the politics of austerity launched by the European countries which, together with the European Central Bank and the world of finance, were the privileged target of the demonstrations on Saturday. Brancaccio has been following the movement for years and in 2002 he proposed a popular referendum, promoted by ATTAC, for the institution of a Tobin Tax.

Emilio Carnevali: Let’s start with Saturday. What’s your opinion of what happened in Rome?

Emiliano Brancaccio: To be totally frank, I don’t intend to enter the usual ethico-normative discussion about “violence” and “nonviolence.” It’s happened plenty in the past, and I don’t think it’s ever been important in the real course of events. I prefer to analyze the dynamics of the historic process, of which the conflicts in Rome, like those in Athens, undoubtedly are a part, whether we like it or not. With the “demolishers” in Piazza San Giovanni I find a superficial quality, a limited depth. This quality lies in their speed. The wave of a destructive revolt in Europe grows every day, with sudden accelerations. It’s interesting to note that, on a strictly visible level, these “riots” [in English in the original—trans.], these rebellious actions, appear to be the only ones positioned to strike with the velocity of those notorious financial markets. In purely symbolic terms, the rapid actions of the urban guerillas give them illusion of being the only ones capable of keeping their heads at the mad rhythm of financial speculation, which batters share prices, raises interest rates, and offers an alibi to the governments that destroy welfare and labor. We might say, in short, that at first glance the “demolishers” appear to be the only ones positioned to “strike quickly,” as the speculators do.

EC: But also aside from considerations of an “ethico-normative” character (as you’ve defined it), it doesn’t seem that these actions have any political efficacy beyond the outburst of an afternoon . . .

EB: In fact the quality that I’ve described is totally illusory, purely choreographic. Still, we also need to recognize that it stands out from the anxiety of traditional mass movements and even more so that of political institutions. When the “demolishers” declare: “they wanted to do the usual, a useless rally, and instead they got a lovely surprise [una bella sorpresa],” it’s clear that they intend to challenge a traditional politics that hobbles along frightened, which always arrives late to the burning political crime scenes of our time. And it’s this appalling lateness that explains the sympathy, more or less hidden, that a not negligible number of people, and of workers, express today with the confrontations of the “demolishers” in Piazza San Giovanni.

EC: And what would be the limit of the “demolishers”?

EB: The limit is gigantic. They are clearly incapable of grasping the deep meaning of the dynamics under way, and they are for this reason totally deprived of a political platform. Even on the best hypothesis, without even being aware of it the “demolishers” are drawing from a mix of old watchwords of the most naive Proudhonism, and from an apologia for action in itself which has many spiritual fathers, for example in Dadaism but also in the earliest forms of fascism. To call them “anarchists” is already to flatter them a bit. The problem is that History’s verdict on these types of movements is unequivocal. The naïve forms of rebellion can lead to the destruction of machines and symbols—religious and otherwise—they can send some unlucky police officer to the hospital, and they can also get people killed in the street. Thus they succeed easily at conquering the scenes of a mediatized world. But, staying with the ephemeral confines of choreography, even though bloodied, the results are politically insane. Mere revolt, the so-called “riot” [in English in original—trans.], if it remains as such, de facto classifiable as a harmless event, which occurs more often than one imagines and which never scratch power. On the contrary, in general such events create the typical conditions for the easiest reactions on the part of the repressive state apparatus, and provide the occasion for a more or less surreptitiously authoritarian turn.

EC: And it’s that very authoritarian turn that we’re helping at this moment. Moreover, the polemics over the conflicts have completely obscured everything else, including the debate over the political platform of the movement in its entirety. But is it possible at least to define the politics coming from the “peaceful faction” of the movement?

EB: We need to admit that, on the level of analysis and political proposals, even the so-called “peaceful” faction of the movement appears to be in enormous difficulties. Let’s consider for example the declaimed category of the “commons,” which might be characterized as the ability to be managed collectively without mediation from either the market or the state. In the original social scientific definition the concept describes a precise form of organization of economic relations, but with decisively limited applicability. On the other hand, in the sense in which it has come to be adopted within the movement, the expression “commons” is an equivocal expression, which means everything and nothing. Its ambiguity, mind you, isn’t casual. It derives from the fact that some leading thinkers of the movement are deluded into believing they can promote the birth of a general mode of social production that is immediately “other” with respect to the state and the market. Read through this lens, “the “commons” risks assuming the traits of a useless and misleading chimera. It’s not the case that the Marxists and the true protagonists of the 20th-century labor movement ever let themselves be seduced by similar illusions: for them, the primary problem always consisted in the capture—gradual or revolutionary—of state power, in the use of the levers of the state for the socialization of production and in the progressive democratization of economic decisions. And even today, the capture of the “bunkers” [casematte] of the state remains the key question. The rest is mere fluff [fuffa].

EC: The movement however also calls for “debt cancellation.”

EB: Here the question is a little different. Contrary to what one thinks, this isn’t a utopian proposal: the history of capitalism itself is filled with the collapse of sovereign states. The problem is that one then would need to bear in mind the consequences of a similar act.

EC: In fact the most common objection is that “debt cancellation” would entail a collapse of the entire financial system with worse social repercussions than one can yet imagine.

EB: In reality the preliminary question is different. To refuse unilaterally to pay the debt implies the capacity, on the part of a country or an aggregate of countries, to reduce dependence on foreign loans for a long time. It’s clear in fact that if one cancels the debt with one hand and then asks for a new loan with the other, one will submit logically to the reprisal of a ferocious rise in interest rates and a fatal rationing of funds on the part of foreign creditors. To reduce loans, then, one would need to lay out a political-economic strategy that consents to diminish the importance, and more generally, which seeks the objective of reducing the dependence of the country on the international movement of capital and goods. One is dealing clearly with a position that would entrust a new, stronger role to the state, or to a community of states, which points to a more autonomous political economy with respect to the impersonal laws of so-called “capitalist globalization.” In this scenario even financial instability that follows a default could be managed, subjecting the monetary policy of the central bank to the power of elected organs, and at least nationalizing part of the banking system. These are the solutions which in general have typically followed a sovereign default.

EC: It doesn’t seem to me that this is the horizon in which the callers for “debt cancellation” move.

EB: Some promoters of “debt cancellation” are embarrassed when facing the logical consequences of their slogan. The reason is that they have proclaimed for years the death of the state; they had even proclaimed it with more vehemence than the so-called “free traders” [liberisti]. For this reason representatives of the movement today are not in position to deduce from the slogan of unilateral debt repudiation a precise consequence on the political level: reestablishing the idea of the sovereignty of the state, or of a cohesive group of states, with respect to global market mechanisms. It might seem as if I’m speaking in too high of a discourse, but I’m not: people sense it in the air, they understand immediately if a proposal is logical and means something, or if it is intrinsically contradictory and leads down a blind alley. With these uncertainties too—because of this inherent fragility in the slogans of the so-called “peaceful” faction of the movement—the “demolishers” easily take the upper hand.

EC: Beyond the “technical” actionability of the course you’ve just outlined, there’s still another political point one can’t neglect: who would be the allies of such a project? Debt cancellation is at present only a slogan of few marginal fringe groups on the extreme left. And in order to do something like “subject central bank monetary policy to the power of elected organs” one would need to create a “continental revolutionary government.” This does not seem to be a realistic proposition.

EB: Frankly, I wouldn’t bother with the word “revolution,” which seems to be a bit abused these days. As for the rest: first the notorious “divorce” of the Treasury, even the Bank of Italy was subjected to this type of control, and we didn’t witness the horses of the Cossacks drinking at St. Peter’s. Besides, here we need to understand a fact: the current political agenda with which European institutions, governments, and the opposition is concerned, is self-contradictory. If in Europe we continue to persist with the so-called politics of “austerity,” the demand for goods, production, employment, income and revenues will decrease even further, making it increasingly more difficult to pay back the debt. Thus, rather than opposing financial speculation, one will come to feed on it. We have a situation where, thanks to such policies, Greece is already technically bankrupt. Continuing along this path Italy, Portugal and Spain will also end in an inexorable default. But that’s not all: repudiating the debt as such could even reveal itself as insufficient. In fact the countries in default could see themselves constrained to exit the Eurozone and their currencies devalued, in order to attempt to increase competition against foreign goods and to break the fall in demand and production. In short, events could at a certain point move faster than both the program of institutional politics and the slogans of the movement itself. It wouldn’t be the first time.

—Translated from the Italian by Nikil Saval