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2011: l'anno dei movimenti


There is some likelihood that the year about to end will be recorded in history as a “year of people on the move”.When people move, two questions are in order. The first is: where from are they moving? The second is: where to? There has been no shortage of answers to the first question; indeed, there was a surfeit of answers – thoughtful and thoughtless, serious and fanciful, credible and chimerical. Thus far, though, we are looking for an answer to the second question in vain. All of us – including, most importantly, people on the move.

This is not at all surprising. This is what was to be expected in times dubbed in advance by Antonio Gramsci as “interregnum” (the term unduly and for much too long sunk into oblivion, but fortunately excavated recently and dusted-off thanks to Professor Keith Tester): times at which the evidence piles up almost daily that the old, familiar and tested ways of doing things work no longer, while their more efficient replacements are nowhere in sight – or too precocious, volatile and inchoate to be noticed or to be taken seriously when (if) noted.

The growing, and ever more likely to be incurable, weakness of the extant executive powers have long been noted. It is too blatantly displayed to be overlooked. Heads of the most powerful governments meet on Friday to debate and draw the right line of action to take, only to wait, trembling, till the Monday stock-exchange reopening to find out whether their decisions have a leg to stand on. Indeed, the present state of interregnum is not of a recent birth, not very recent at any rate. Its ever more obtrusive presence has not just been signalled, but recognised and reflected, years ago by the growing deficit of trust in the established vehicles of collective action, by falling interest in institutionalised politics and by the relentlessly spreading and already widespread, indeed ambient sentiment that salvation, were it at all conceivable, would not and/or could not arrive from on high. We may add that the drivers and conductors of the above mentioned vehicles, whether acting singly or severally, have for a long time been doing everything imaginable to set that trust afloat by denying and discrediting merits of acting-in-common, and to keep trust un-anchored – by admonishing, nagging and nudging men and women far and wide that even if suffered in common, their shared problems have nevertheless thoroughly individual causes, and therefore can and should be individually faced and tackled and individually, through the use of individual means, resolved.

We may safely assume that people know, or short of knowing for sure have enough opportunity to guess or suspect, where from they are running. They know for sure, or at least they have good reasons to believe that they know, what they would not like to go on being done. What they don’t know, though, is what needs to be done instead? More importantly yet, they have no inkling who could prove to be potent and willing enough to do whatever they believe to be the right step to take. Twitter and Facebook messages summon them and send them to public squares to protest against “what is” – the message-senders keep however mum on the moot question of with what kind of “ought” that “is” shall be replaced; or they portray an “ought” in sufficiently broad, sketchy, vague and above all “flexible” outlines to pre-empt any part of it ossifying into a bone of contention. They keep also prudently silent about the thorny issue of the compatibility or incompatibility of their demands. Twitter and Facebook message-senders can neglect such caution only at the peril of the cause they promote. Were they to disregard the iron rules of all effective digital calling-to-arms, and all successful from-online-to-offline strategy – they would risk their messages being stillborn or dying without issue: few if any tents would be pitched on public squares in response to their calls, and very few would be holding their initial residents in for long.

Building sites, it seems, are nowadays in the process of being collectively cleared in anticipation of a different management of space. People on the move do that job or at least earnestly try. But the future buildings bound to replace the vacated and/or dismantled ones are scattered over a multitude of private drawing boards, none of them having reached as yet the planning permission stage; as a matter of fact, no foundations have been laid as yet under a planning office entitled and trusted to issue such permissions. The site-cleaning powers seem to have grown considerably; the building industry however lags far behind – and the distance between its capacities and the grandiosity of the unattended construction work keeps expanding.

It is the all-too-visible impotence and ineptitude of the extant political machinery that is thus far the principal power that prompts people to be, in a steadily growing numbers, to go and to stay on the move. The integrating capacity of that power is however confined to the ground-clearing operation. It does not extend to the designers, architects and builders of the polis to be erected instead. Our “interregnum” is marked by the dismantling and discrediting of the institutions servicing heretofore the processes of formation and integration of public visions, programmes and projects. Having been subjected, together with the rest of the social fabric of human cohabitation, to the processes of thorough deregulation, fragmentation and privatisation, such institutions remain stripped of a large part of its executive capacity and most of its authority and trustworthiness with but a vague chance of their recovery.

Any creation is all but unthinkable unless preceded by, or coterminous with, an act of destruction. Destruction however does not by itself determine the nature of a constructive sequel or even makes its imminence a foregone conclusion. As far as the institutional network of society is concerned, and in particular the vehicles of collective, integrated undertakings, it feels as if 2011 contributed considerably to the volume and capacity of available bulldozers, whereas the production of construction cranes together with the rest of building equipment plunged in that year yet deeper into the already protracted recession, while their existing supplies have been kept idle – put into mothballs in expectation of times more propitious, though alas stubbornly reluctant to arrive.

The widening hiatus between the public awareness of what needs (read: is wished) to be stopped, abandoned or removed, and public awareness of what needs (read: is wished) to be put in its place has been one of the most conspicuous features of the passing year. Another prominent feature was the growth of a unifying, social-integrative power of protest having been set against the divisive, socially disintegrating impact or of the absence of holding power of available political programmes. The more pronounced and lasting the effects of the “year of people on the move” will prove to be, the more likely it is that the coming year will go down in history as the year of renewed prominence of social conflicts and of redrawing of their frontlines and interfaces. The “ground-clearing” phase owed whatever success it had managed to score to stifling or at least putting on a side burner the articulation of variegated, all too often sharply conflicting interests and programs of people called to join the protest. The protest could be as massive as it was only on condition of a temporary cover-up of sorts, and so apparent mitigation, of the dense and twisted tangle of social contradictions – and so, effectively, to the suspension or an interim deferment of their crystallisation, articulation and manifestation. Once (or if) the direct objectives of the protest that drew people on the move has been reached, the admittedly thin veneer of unity will be in all likelihood torn apart, uncovering and exposing the reality of divisiveness and (for reasons indicated above) catching the actors of the event unprepared and dangerously short of a clear idea of their own identities and interests (as we could recently see in the sequel to the Egyptian Spring and are likely yet to see in Libya or Tunisia).

The coming year may prove to be the critical moment in the story of the present interregnum. With ever-more-evident social divisions seeking a political structure in which they could reflect themselves, as well as political tools capable of servicing that reflection, the paramount, well-nigh defining trait of the state of “interregnum” (namely, its allowing almost anything to happen yet nothing to be accomplished with any degree of self-assurance and certainty of results), may well manifest itself with a yet unprecedented force and magnitude of the consequences. Alliances collated in the phase of ground-clearing (rainbow-like coalitions of otherwise incompatible interests, notoriously inclined to dissipate shortly after the outpour that put them in place comes to a halt) may well fall promptly apart or even explode, uncovering – for everybody to see – the truth of their ad-hoc, marriage-of-convenience nature. The ground-clearing phase has no need for strong leaders: quite on the contrary, strong leaders with strong vision and strong conviction may only bring such rainbow-like coalitions to collapse well before the ground-clearing tasks have been completed. Spokesmen for the people on the move may declare being satisfied (though not necessarily for the right reasons) of neither needing nor having leaders – indeed viewing the leader-less condition of people on the move as a sign of political progress and one of their foremost achievements. Vladimir Putin, when declaring (in all likelihood prematurely) the defeat of massive public protest against the derision with which the Russian powers that be treat their electorate, hit the nail on its head when imputing that alleged failure of the opposition to the absence of a leader capable to put together a programme which the protesters would be willing to accept and able to support.

Leaders of ad-hoc coalitions can only be ad-hoc leaders. Not an attractive job for people with genuine leadership quality, equipped with more than personal photogenic charm and wheeling-dealing skills, and appetite for instant, if fragile, notoriety. Each set of external circumstances creates its own set of realistic options for individual choices, but each option appeals to its own category of potential takers. The manifestly impotent politics concerned mainly with keeping their subjects at a safe distance, increasingly run by spin doctors and stage-managers of photo-opportunities, and ever more remote from the grass-roots daily concerns and worries – is hardly a magnet for individuals with visions and a project reaching beyond the next election date – individuals with qualities indispensable for political leaders as distinct from political machine-operators. Potential political leaders have not stopped being born; it is the deteriorating and increasingly decadent and powerless political structures that prevent them from coming of age.

A few days ago hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million people took to the streets and public squares of Prague to bid farewell to Vaclav Havel, according to many observes the last great political-cum-spiritual leader (spiritual, in great measure, thanks to his political greatness – and political, in great measure, thanks to his spiritual greatness), the likes of whom we are unlikely to witness again in our life-time. What we are unlikely to witness either are comparable numbers of people prompted to take to the streets by their gratitude and respect to a statesman rather than by their wholesale indignation, resentment and derision for people in power and the politics “as we know it”. The departure of Havel was seen by the mourners as an event adding power to the powerless, but making the powerless yet more abandoned, confused and disunited. That departure – in stark opposition to the departures demanded by the movimientos los indignados – was bewailed for the reason of making people weaker, not stronger.

But perhaps “our life-time” is an unduly and uncharacteristically extended time-perspective to be of any use under our fluid and fast changing condition. One of the probable effects of the passage from “dismantling” to the “composing” phase of interregnum may be – just may – render our condition more inviting and hospitable for the half-forgotten art of political and spiritual leadership, while more resentful of, and off-putting for, the masters of stage-managing and fact-massaging, marriage-and-divorce brokerage and make-believe games.