The fascist assault on a union in Italy: Some thoughts

On October 9, during a demonstration against the government’s measures to limit the spread of the pandemic, right-wing nationalist forces attacked the headquarters of the major union CGIL in Rome. What lies behind that assault and how can it be framed?

October 17, 2021 by Maurizio Coppola
The office of the Italian union CGIL which was attacked by far-right demonstrators on October 9. Photo: Giuseppe Binetti/Twitter

On October 9, nearly 10,000 people – anti-vaccine protesters and critics of the government’s pandemic policies – gathered at Piazza del Popolo in Rome. They were angry at the government’s decision to make the Green Pass (with details of vaccination, negative COVID test or proof of recent recovery) mandatory at workplaces from October 15. Soon hundreds of demonstrators stormed into the headquarters of the major Italian trade union Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL) with almost no opposition from the police and ransacked the building. In the clashes that followed, 38 police officers were injured and 12 people were arrested.

What is Forza Nuova?

The demonstration was led by neo-fascist and nationalist-reactionary organizations, which have sought to channel discontent with the government’s pandemic policies in a right-wing direction. The key player behind the demonstration on October 9 was Forza Nuova (New Force), a party founded in 1997 by Roberto Fiore and led in Rome by Giuliano Castellino.

Roberto Fiore is 62 years old, one of the two founders of Forza Nuova – the other, Massimo Morsello, died in 2001 – and its national leader. He has been a militant of the nationalist far-right since his youth. In 1978, at the age of 19, he was one of the founders of the neo-fascist movement Terza Posizione, an extra-parliamentary revolutionary group which was not only anti-communist but was further to the right of the conservative, capitalist and imperialist positions of right-wing parties of that time. In the 1980s, Fiore was convicted of subversive association and membership of armed gangs, but did not serve his sentence because he fled abroad. In 1999, when the charges were time-barred, he returned to Italy. Until then he lived in England.

45-year-old Giuliano Castellino is the leader of Forza Nuova in Rome. In 2017, together with other far-right militants, he tried to prevent the allocation of an apartment  to an Eritrean family in a suburb on the outskirts of Rome, clashing with the police. He was convicted two years later of violence, injury, resisting a public official, and unauthorized demonstration. He is currently under special surveillance which is carried out by the police on persons considered “socially dangerous.” Over the past year-and-a-half, he has taken part in numerous protests against the measures introduced by the current and previous governments to deal with the pandemic.

The hypocrisy of the Italian government

The pictures of Saturday’s assault brought back memories of the attacks on trade unions that marked the beginning of Italy’s fascist era in the 1920s. Today, we are in a very different historic situation. But the passivity of the bourgeois State in front of a neo-fascist danger – as it was 100 years ago when the workers movement was on the ascendant – is clear to everyone. How is it possible that Giuliano Castellino, who was purportedly under special surveillance, can lead a 10,000-strong demonstration? How is it possible that a mob of over 100 led by Robeto Fiore can reach the headquarters of a major union without any intervention of security forces?

The hypocritical position of Italy’s government was evident by the response of prime minister Mario Draghi. Despite the very weak deployment of police to protect the union’s headquarters, Italy’s PM is now pretending to be the best friend of the union bureaucracy, guaranteeing a common axis against extremism and promising that he will take into consideration the Democratic Party’s demand for the dissolution of Forza Nuova.

After these incidents, some intellectuals and public figures are even arguing that every association and organization “practicing violence” should be banned, regardless of whether they are leftist or right-wing. These arguments stem from a theory of ‘opposing extremism’ that aims to de-legitimize not only violent far-right groups, but also militant trade unions and the alternative and the extra-parliamentary left.

It is clear that the Italian government has different standards: when the far-right takes the streets, a laissez-faire attitude prevails as fascism can always be useful for the bourgeoisie against the working class; however, when leftist or militant trade unions protest, private property has to be protected, as was the case during the general strike of October 11.

The social question

However, there is a much deeper question that needs to be asked. What explains this social discontent that can turn reactionary? There are two answers to the question: the first has to do with historical aspects while the second is more associated with recent political dynamics.

Firstly, social inequalities have been extremely exacerbated in the last 30 years. As a recent study shows, one person out of three can be defined as part of the working poor in Italy. In 1990, 10.5 million workers (26% of the working people) earned less than 60% of the Italian median wage. Today, 16 million workers earn a monthly income of less than 972 Euros, which corresponds to 33% of the workforce.

The reasons for this development are political and economic. Key labor market and social welfare reforms (Pacchetto Treu, Legge Biagi, Jobs Act) fragmented and precarized employment and contractual relations. In addition, the rise of the service sector (personal services, tourism etc.) deregulated employment and lowered wages.

In the past 20 years, leftist political parties and trade unions were not able to stop these developments. In Italy, with some rare exceptions, workers did not en mass organize in unions, embark on the road of class conflict or vote for left and progressive parties. Also, the populist option of the 5 Star Movement collapsed just as quickly as it rose. Consequently, social discontent remained unorganized and open to short-term and reactionary political approaches and solutions.

A polarized public debate

Secondly, with the appearance of the pandemic, the public debate has been polarized. Today, there seem to be only two options – a complete rejection of “general control of the state over the bodies of the people” in the name of individual freedom; and a wholehearted endorsement of the use of the Green Pass.

But the question is much more complicated. Not everyone protesting the Green Pass can be considered an anti-vaccination extremist. Certain concerns regarding the vaccine are linked to the fact that political institutions are unable to give clear answers to complicated questions around the pandemic. This fear is a consequence of a general distrust in politics that has been associated with anti-social and anti-people policies for years. In the process of neoliberal reorganization of society, public hospitals and clinics in neighborhoods were closed. By doing that, the distance between medicine and the citizens increased, which has caused such reactions rooted in false consciousness.

In addition to this, while a proper vaccination program is essential for the health of the entire community and to prevent illness, the government’s citing the safety of workers as a justification for the Green Pass has left many skeptical. This is due to the fact that every day, three-four people die at their workplaces due to the lack of safety measures and the dismantling of the public labor inspectorate that is supposed to monitor whether private companies are implementing these measures. Similarly, the sheer number of workers laid off and struggling in the absence of a safety net leading to mass impoverishment also leads to the government’s arguments seeming unconvincing. Clearly, the government lacks any kind of legitimacy.

What is to be done?

In the wake of the neofascist attack on the CGIL, some members of far-left organizations refused to express their solidarity with the major union, arguing that the union bureaucracy was also responsible for the impoverishment of the working class. This position is not only short-sighted, but also dangerous: Forza Nuova is not the working class and its supporters didn’t attack the union bureaucracy, but the idea of unionizing. Forza Nuova does not distinguish between CGIL, militant unions such as USB and Si Cobas and left-wing organizations. The attacks have a radical anti-worker character, which is why every left-wing organization and person should condemn the assault and express solidarity with all workers. From a workers’ perspective, the enemies are the bosses and their bourgeois governments.

In this particular situation of the pandemic, it is also dangerous to simply condemn the social discontent as reactionary and conservative. Unions and left-wing organizations have to take it seriously and present alternative answers to the dominant responses, aware of the fact that in the battle of ideas, there are no simple answers to complex questions. Only by doing so will the left will be able to pull the rug out from under the fascists’ feet.

There is only one way to ensure the social rights and the safety of the lives of all workers while respecting collective freedom: by strengthening a prevention-oriented, community-centric and public health care system against the private profits of the pharmaceutical industry; by supporting worker’s struggles for higher wages and job security against the hunger for more profit of private capital; and by encouraging the cooperation of the people against rotten values like individualism, egoism and the surviving of the fittest.

Maurizio Coppola is a militant with the Italian political party Potere al Popolo

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