Italian students are rising up against exploitation
ROAR feed | ROAR Magazine
Andreas Petrossiants, Giulia Sbaffi
2022 03 27
Students protesting in Naples, Italy during a national student demonstration against the alternanza scuola-lavoro program. Feburary 28, 2022. Photo: M. Cantile / Shutterstock
On January 21, 18-year-old Italian high school student Lorenzo Parelli died after being hit by a heavy metal beam while working at a factory in Lauzacco, a small town in northern Italy. The accident happened on the last day of Lorenzo’s alternanza scuola-lavoro (“school-work alternation”) internship as part of a mandatory work-placement program for high school students.
In an attempt to individualize the responsibility for this tragedy, investigators are now wasting time and resources to determine who is to blame for Lorenzo’s death. Meanwhile, they are letting the neoliberal capitalist death machine that legitimized a program that forces young students into dangerous factory work off the hook. However, for the students who have been organizing throughout the country since his death, the real culprit of this tragedy is clear: “Lorenzo did not die. He was killed by the state through the alternanza scuola-lavoro,” as Niccolò De Luca, a member of the recently formed student movement La Lupa (“The Wolf”) put it.
The alternanza scuola-lavoro was first instituted in 2015 as part of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s neoliberal reforms that accelerated the privatization of the education sector. Under this program, students are obligated to work between 90 and 150 hours in unpaid work placements during their high school years. Higher-ranked — and funded — schools in central areas offer white-collar internships in liberal institutions and corporations; those at the urban peripheries or in the south of the country instead offer “opportunities” like serving food, manufacturing and industrial work, or, in some cases, working in the army — all unpaid. Since its institution, the program has been heavily criticized. In the words of journalist Roberto Ciccarelli, it “transforms students into performers in the labor market,” extracting free labor from students under the guise of educational experience.
Since Lorenzo’s death, students have mobilized across the country. Their current struggles are not taking place in a historical vacuum, but can be understood as the continuation of the storied — and at times overburdened — histories of Italian student movements since the 1960s. Perhaps more importantly, in discussions with high school students, we have found that students are interested in expanding their struggles to connect with those in traditionally separated fields of political contestation: particularly those of labor, women and gender struggles.
Informed by the so-called “failures” of previous student movements to establish meaningful connections with those organizing in the workplace — so trenchantly lampooned in Pietro Eli’s 1971 classic La classe operaia va in paradiso (“The working class also goes to heaven”) — today’s students are presented with an opportunity to use tactics from the past and the conditions of the present to unite labor and student struggles.
The presence of students at union marches in recent months and that of workers at the student demonstrations after Lorenzo’s death point to one possible vector of collaboration. The student coalitions also have the opportunity to move past forms of class, gender and racial subjectification produced by racial capitalism, and instead to use those typically depoliticized categories to unite beyond their own class and geographical positions.
A history of student organizing in Italy
Student movements in Italy carry with them the lessons of a long tradition of student organizing, but we should be aware of overdetermining new struggles through clumsy comparisons with past movements. The mythologization of urban guerillas from the Red Brigades to Autonomia Operaia can create strong and inspiring images, but this is not necessarily a good preparation for how best to respond to present conditions — of work, patriarchy, international migration, the climate crisis and so on.
Perhaps the most referenced moment in the history of Italian student movements is the period known as the “Long ‘68” — which includes the “Hot Autumn” of ‘69 and lasts approximately until the historical compromise between the liberals and Communist Party following the assassination of President Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. Much criticism of that era’s student movements focused on three key points: the failure to adequately respond to sexism; the inability to unite students and industrial workers; and a lack of class composition — even as this latter concept was theorized by autonomist workerists intimately related to those very movements.
Next came the Pantera student movement, active between 1989–90. During this movement — named after a panther that escaped from the Rome zoo leading to a city-wide hunt — students staged sit-ins at the University of Palermo to protest planned university reforms. The government-proposed reforms were instantly criticized by students for being too “market-oriented,” and outright violent towards schools in the south — which had already experienced more than a century of underdevelopment and extraction by the north.
The Pantera movement quickly spread throughout the country, drawing in university as well as high school students. Student activists rejected political parties and other left institutions, demonstrating that the legacy of Autonomist Marxism and (post-)workerism was still strong, even 20 years after Italy’s Hot Autumn. The movement came to an end in 1990, when the occupation of Palermo university ceased after 127 days. At the time, the mainstream media had played a central role in the movement’s national growth by spreading news about the occupations.
More recently, 2008 saw the emergence of the Onda Anomala (“Abnormal Wave”) student movement which mobilized in opposition to the administration of former president Silvio Berlusconi. The movement was characterized by the occupation of major universities and high schools across the country and lasted for almost 16 months. Students fought police in the streets, formed assemblies and resisted the neoliberalization of the national welfare system and the defunding of the state schooling system that made access to education more precarious.
Largely antifascist, the Onda movement represented the last instance of collective mobilization against austerity and precarity in Italy until today. Even though many of the concerns at the time were related to university management and financing, the movement actively sought to connect itself with a broader tradition of labor struggles. This movement exemplified horizontalist organizing: there was no hierarchy between the movements in different cities.
In many ways, this was inherited from the demonstrations and organizing efforts at the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa. There was a calculated attempt to build alternative media infrastructures using the internet — something that would become even more apparent during the Arab Uprisings, Movement of the Squares in Italy and Greece and the global Occupy movement a few years later.
Movimento La Lupa
La Lupa was born between November and December, 2021, when almost 60 high schools were autonomously occupied throughout Rome to demand safer COVID-19 measures, smaller class sizes and to carry out much-needed repairs to crumbling school infrastructure. When they first came together, publicly manifesting their numbers and militancy, the media dubbed them “Movimento La Lupa,” in reference to Rome’s founding myth. Yet again, the media named the movement and student organizers rolled with it. However, just like with the Onda movement, there has been a concerted effort to simultaneously use media coverage to their advantage while also maintaining control of their messaging through social media.
On January 22, the day after Lorenzo’s death, La Lupa staged an action holding smoke grenades as they marched through Rome to jump-start a conversation around the country about how the alternanza has served as a way to insert underage youth into the mechanisms of production. They attest that it is also a classist form of socialization: for students from elite schools or more affluent neighborhoods, it is a structure for priming them for white collar work; for the poor and those from peripheral parts of the Peninsula, it is a way of creating a broad de-proletarianized workforce. As Niccolò said to us: “I go to a specialized high school in Rome, and thus the internship placements offered to me often involved working in law firms or with journalists … But if you move out of the center to more peripheral areas, one will find students placed in other types of jobs: counting tickets at the cinema, working in oil refineries and so on.”
The next day, they descended onto the streets of Rome in an attempt to reach the Ministry of Education. The demonstration of about 300 people included, besides students, schoolteachers, workers and a representative of Non Una di Meno (“Not One Woman Less,” NUDM), a transfeminist movement that since 2016 has been organizing against transphobia and gender-based violence. They were met by 15 police vans and cops in riot gear who proceeded to violently beat them with truncheons. According to Niccolò: “Afterward, the Rome Police issued a statement declaring that there were no injuries. That was immediately contradicted by many young people posting photos online of their faces covered in blood, which we helped disseminate. For the city, this was very embarrassing.”
Protesters mobilized in grief and anger in cities across the country, including Naples, Bologna and Florence, where they were also met with police violence.
Today’s students have made it clear that they are following in the footsteps and building on the strengths of past movements, but that they are also charting their own path. As Niccolò put it:
To be honest, we have taken neither the Pantera movement nor l’Onda as direct inspirations, let’s say. Our coming together was really spontaneous and organic, which also means that we were coming from many different directions and experiences. We didn’t choose the name La Lupa; the press did — and it was also the press who referred to Pantera when talking about us. That being said, of course, in some ways we are close to the student struggles that were carried out by both those movements and many others, but we are thinking less about the past and more about what is happening right now.
The intersectionality of the student struggle
Through the critique of neoliberal labor infrastructures, these students have built a collective movement and generated solidarity with other workers protesting all across the country. For example, back in November, students in Florence marched together with the striking workers of GKN — an auto parts firm whose thousands of proposed layoffs last year sparked a series of huge strikes and demos — protesting against the firm’s union busting and illegal layoffs. The GKN has been the most effective and politically organized formation in the present worker’s struggle in Italy.
In the self-organizing, assembly-based decision making processes and the use of the worker’s inquiry by La Lupa, we see the influence from post-war, autonomist, workerist struggles. Its analysis of the alternanza is based on the collected surveys of a wide array of students from different class backgrounds and areas, in schools from the center and the periphery. The students are coordinating collectively, practicing tactics of solidarity between classes and movements, and have used occupations to create space for them to organize their own struggle against the neoliberalization of the public schooling system.
Moreover, La Lupa is also organizing in solidarity with other struggles agitating in the social sphere. Since 2016, the transfeminist movement NUDM has represented one of the fiercest and politically complex anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial expressions of militancy in Italy — which remains a very Catholic country. Calling for the dismantling of the structures and institutions that violently oppress women and queer communities, NUDM aims to destigmatize narratives about gender, race and sex as a means for transfeminist political consciousness-raising. In so doing, their gender critique of labor and welfare is tied up with the creation of alternative spaces for socialization and solidarity. NUDM is currently supporting the student movement in its struggle, as evidenced by their attendance at the January 23 demonstration in Rome.
On February 5, La Lupa called a national student assembly in Rome, welcoming over 300 participants from all over Italy to share their experiences and plan the next avenues of struggle. Their discussions focused on formulating unified demands: the complete abolition of the alternanza, comprehensive funding for public school programs, a radical transformation of the entire education sector, and greater care and investment in programs for mental health and counseling. They also discussed police repression against student groups in the past — specifically, the murder of Valerio Verbano in 1980.
Student struggles and feminist struggles are of course closely interlinked. Access to sexual health education and gender affirmation policies have always been disenfranchised in Italian schools. This must be understood within the broader context of gendered violence directed at women and queer persons, which naturally includes students as well. Similarly, students and pupils have joined NUDM in the streets to raise awareness about abortion, rape culture and sexual reproductive health. However, although they are interdependent, a transfeminist perspective has yet to be situated within the student movement. We deem this fragile-yet-growing connection important because it shows how a broader political consciousness is now mounting in Italy, involving an array of political subjects and the possibility of forming an organic anti-systemic view of revolt.
On February 3, a group of female students in Cosenza (Calabria) occupied the Valentini-Majorana Institute in protest against their ignored complaints about a series of abuses committed by members of the faculty. Students, local feminist collectives and domestic violence survivor organizations showed up in solidarity with the occupation. The action, which was preceded by a social media campaign during which students denounced abuses by sharing testimonies on Instagram shows how the intersectionality of struggles was here interpreted and acted through the resignification of practices and spaces – the Instagram page Call-Out-Valentini is not available anymore, but Call-Out-Your-School collects testimonial and shares graphic info on the different forms of gender-based violence.
It was not only protest that signaled an important development in the changing character of struggle, but also the formation of spaces and cultures of opposition within institutional spaces. Through a profoundly mutualistic politics of care work, centered on providing for the emotional and political needs of their community, students have worked together to create informative material and support on reproductive and women’s health within the school system. Tampons are now offered for free in many institutes, and workshops are often organized to not only provide informative material but also spaces for community building by canvassing, postering and assembly-based discussion in preparation for demonstrations.
Intersectional paths to anti-capitalist rebellion
In mid-March 2022, NUDM organized a series of initiatives around March 8 (8M), International Women’s Day. Calling for the right to abortion — jeopardized by the hyper-capitalist necropolitics of the past two decades — and the end of systematic oppression and gender-based violence, the movement organized actions and protests all around the country. Students joined in solidarity by organizing actions and participating in a strike that was called by NUDM.
In Rome, the night before 8M, a group of students loudly picketed the headquarters of a pro-life movement responsible for pasting anti-abortion signs in the week leading up to 8M. In Padova, a collective of mostly feminist students, decided to occupy their school on 8M; using an inclusive language which affirms their political positionality within the transfeminist struggle, the occupying collective asserts: “Our is a transfeminist occupation. We chose 8M to occupy our school as we believe that gender-based violence, sexism, gender discrimination and more broadly everything that concerns sexual and emotional education has been given little if not zero space in our school system.” Referencing the abuses in Cosenza and reports of harassment in schools across the country, they ask for education about consent, about inclusion and for affective care in schools.
Revendicating their action on social media, the students claimed the right to self-determination, demanded the end of rape culture and established transfeminism as one of the pillars of their political agency and practice. In nearly every city, high school students organized marches and gatherings which joined together with the local NUDM demonstration.
The feminist strike, as feminist scholar and activist Verónica Gago puts it, is a tool that maps new forms of the exploitation of bodies and territories, with the aim of making such an exploitation visible and insubordination to it formidable. 8M was the day of mobilization that explicitly manifested the joint insubordination of the student and transfeminist movement to capitalist exploitation. It comprised women who can strike and those who cannot (migrants, sex workers, working students), showing the imbrication of patriarchal, colonial and capitalist violence. It disseminated an anti-systemic vision of revolt that connected student assemblies to workers’ strikes and feminist practices.
It is precisely in 8M that we see the possibility of inter-class, feminist and internationalist collaboration between students and workers that can create intersectional paths to anti-capitalist rebellion. Through solidarity, bridges have been formed between struggles against legislation in the education sector that creates surplus populations from (de-)proletarianized student workers and forms of gender-based violence that are protected and perpetrated by the state. Thus, by using some tools from the past to analyze present-day conditions, we see the potential to go beyond the victories and defeats that characterized May ’68 and its many “afterlives,” in the words of Kristin Ross. Herein lie the stakes and the revolutionary potentials in 2022.
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