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Single Issue Protests In Europe Highlight The New Shape Of Popular Politics

On 15th February hospital workers from around the Veneto region of northern Italy protested in Campo San Toma, Venice, in opposition to the effects of the Italian government’s austerity programme on the country’s healthcare system. One protester, Kenan Smailagic, a physiotherapist, said that public sector cuts proposed by the Prime Minister, Mario Monti, mean that “people will lose care, workers will lose jobs”.

Urged by the IMF, Monti’s austerity plan targets public expenditure reductions of 10.5 billion euros in 2013 and 11 billion euros in 2014, to compliment 4.5 euros worth of cuts for 2012. Echoing voices from the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, Smailagic asserts that, in times of economic trouble, it is “poor people that suffer”. He points out that the effect of Monti’s cuts on the health system will “leave me at home with no money”. Furthermore Smailagic predicts that the cuts will lead to a dangerous reduction in the capacity of the Italian healthcare system to provide basic care, saying that “people with MS, Parkinson’s, quadriplegics and paraplegics will go without assistance… this is no good –Italy was one of the best country for sanitization, [as of November Italy’s health system was ranked as the world’s second best] now Italy is losing that status”. As in the UK, sick and disabled people are being made the victims of the pro-austerity dogma of the ruling elites.

The division between the politically powerless, who are poor, and the holders of political power, who are rich, are stark in Italy, as in other capitalist economies. While the established elites continue to fail in the provision of equality and economic security, political expressions that seek to bypass their authority will proliferate. Re-enfranchisement of normal people through extra parliamentary measures is evinced by single-issue campaign groups such as the CCRSV, (the Crisis Committee for Regional Health in Veneta), the organiser of Friday’s protest. Such groups occupy the vital role of defending the imperilled members of an embattled society.

Larger scale anti-establishment movements such as the Five Star Movement, offer popular policies for the generation of direct democracy and fairer economy – aspirations totally ignored by the pro-austerity, centralising governments of recent years. However, the political space engendered by the failure of the traditional system has seen an increase in popularity for the Lega Nord – which seeks a federalised arrangement of Italian regions with a focus on North Italian cultural independence – and the neo-fascist Forza Nuova (albeit on a much smaller scale). In different ways these movements offer further divisions as solutions to the problem of Italy’s future.

Italy goes to the polls in a general election on the 24th February. The result will give some indication as to the vision of the country’s future favoured by its people. But it won’t give us the whole picture. Before I left him, Smailagic, who was going to return back to work after the protest, told me that Italian society’s safety net was being attacked by the cuts, and that soon “if you don’t have money they will leave you to die”.

In light of Monti’s warning last year that the universality of Italy’s health system may not be guaranteed forever you can’t fail to agree. In so many countries across the world this moment in time is absolutely pivotal in the construction of future society. Smailagic realises this, but he won’t vote in the election. Like his fellow protesters he has chosen to express himself outside of an institutional framework. As in the rest of Europe, popular politics is beginning to root itself on an extra-parliamentary level.

Dylan Williams

Editor’s Note: Dylan Williams is blogging from Venice, where he is now an Erasmus student.

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