News from nowhere… or maybe Sardinia

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By ANSELM JAPPE*

A land in Europe that could offer the conditions to repeat, with all the necessary differences, the Zapatista experience

If there is one land in Italy that could experiment with new and utopian forms of autonomous life, free from both State and Capital oppression, it is Sardinia. Where the lack of employment and savage commodification oppress people's lives, but where resources, including historical ones, past social experiments, as well as natural and human ones, allow the imagination to be used so as not to resign oneself to the humiliations of existence.

A work fiasco

At the beginning of summer, for a large part of Sardinia's population, the “season” begins: the hope of finding a job in tourism, in bars, restaurants and hotels, on beaches and resorts, on the boats of Russian oligarchs and in the mansions of Russian oligarchs. very macho Italians. Often illegally, and if it is “regularized”, with the implicit obligation to add many hours of unpaid work. Three months of working seventy hours a week in terrible conditions constitute, for many students, the price of being able to continue, for better or worse, their studies for the rest of the year. When the season promises to be weak, or even almost non-existent, as during the Covid pandemic, or when the richest customers no longer show up, it is a catastrophe for the entire island. It is then necessary to wait to be recruited into a call center and receive a few bucks to be told to go to hell all day by people exasperated by unwanted calls.

But you still need to work! Running for fourteen hours straight, from one table to another, among dissatisfied customers because they were not served relatively quickly, cleaning the bathrooms on yachts, entertaining the children of rich people, even when you don't feel like laughing, rounding up your salary by showing being “nice” with old men, or spending the summer under the neon lights in front of a supermarket cashier, and all this hoping to actually get paid at the end... It's always better than not working, that is, running out of money !

Sardinians say they are proud, with pleasure. But what is more humiliating than this kind of “service”? Is it necessary, then, to regret the times of industrialization? When was there “real” work in Sardinia, the kind in factories, with the right to unions and a national contract? Not even the craziest or most “progressive” people could, today, regret Sardinia’s attempts at industrialization in Ottana or Porto Torres. In few parts of Europe has heavy industry reared its Gorgon head in such a brutal and visible way: jobs (and what jobs!) for a few people for a few years in exchange for environmental destruction for centuries (and not even technically possible recoveries). were carried out because they are “very expensive”) and an irreparable deterioration of the social fabric (which was, in fact, among the declared objectives of opening the factories: a Sardinian on the assembly line will no longer be a criminal, but a card-carrying trade unionist, it was said in the ministries). And isn't being on the assembly line, after prison, the most serious condition to which a human being can be sentenced?

Is it, then, better to work in services, to be an employee, especially in the public sector, with a permanent job – for life – that makes it so easy to obtain financing to buy a house? It may seem less bad compared to the alternatives mentioned above. But is a life spent behind a desk in front of a monitor a happy life? How many times do people strive to do absolutely useless things? How many jobs could disappear without anyone noticing?

How did we arrive at this alternative, work at any cost or die? How can a civilization that proclaims itself the richest that has ever existed – the contemporary one – put human beings faced with the choice between “starving immediately” and “dying of cancer in twenty years”, as happens with the Ilva workers in Taranto? However, how strong is this constant blackmail, this incessant attack on human dignity, especially in Sardinia, where employment is such a rare animal and where anyone who has just one “job fiasco” is considered lucky, then this is not the time to be demanding!

Of course, it's not the individual's fault. As long as things continue as they are, the obligation to do anything to obtain the money necessary to survive applies to everyone. No one can offer an immediate solution. But the individual's short-term situations are one thing, it's another to know what to focus on in the political and social sphere.

Above all, we need to stop demanding “economic growth”, “development” and “jobs”. Let's forget about these goals! If it is still necessary to look for work immediately, just as the prisoner can only claim food, however repugnant it may be, in collective, projectual, “political” terms, he must focus on very different objectives.

The difference between activity and work

Okay, but which ones?

Demand the possibility of living by carrying out sensible activities instead of asking for a job. There is a fundamental difference between activity and work. This is rarely taken into consideration, however, it is easy to explain.

What is called “work” is an activity carried out – whether secondary, whether remunerated and dependent, or (pseudo-)independently – with the sole objective of obtaining an amount. One can be exploited or exploitative, do more or less hard work, and perhaps, sometimes, even pleasant work, but the meaning of the work is never primary. The only thing that matters is success in the market. There may be individuals with more or less good or bad intentions in this dispute, but, in the final analysis, it is not the will of the individual that matters, but rather the automatic functioning of a gigantic machine, at once social and technological, that advances accordingly. with your rules. Work is indifferent to its content and, therefore, also to working conditions and consequences for the environment and humans. At the same time, much of the work carried out is useless, or even harmful: it only serves to maintain the great social machine and repair the damage it causes. Everyone knows this, but it is advisable to talk about it as little as possible.

The opposite would be to start from needs and desires, collectively deciding which of them are worth satisfying and at what cost. In this case, the arduous and unpleasant nature of certain activities would not disappear completely, but, in general, they would be reduced to what is really necessary for people to have a good life. And the sum of these activities, one can be sure, would be much smaller than the work that needs to be carried out today.

Autonomy, which is not autarky

A way of life and production that starts from true needs and limits activities to those that are necessary will, evidently, be much more compatible with the demands of preserving the natural bases of life. It also requires a reduction in complexity, a relocation of production and consumption circuits, strong recycling, an appreciation of traditional and understandable know-how instead of complex procedures that only “experts” can manage. It would therefore be much more democratic and egalitarian than current conditions.

It would, in the same way, be a form of “autonomy”. Not that other form of servitude that today is called “self-employment”, nor the measly institutional “autonomy” of a region of the State. This would be material autonomy: each territorial unit produces and consumes, as far as possible, on a local scale, taking from outside only what it cannot produce locally. This would mean, in particular, a great gain in terms of real, daily and material freedom and independence: not having to feel cold because a distant warlord turns off the gas tap, not having to feel hungry because the bags of food have doubled the price of wheat, not being able to pay the financing because a stock market on the other side of the world collapsed, not finding yourself unable to have your daily bread because your “employer” decided to transfer activities to a country where slaves are cheaper.

This is not “autarky”. These units would not be closed to each other, they would not be self-sufficient. They will exchange, with their immediate neighbor or with a very distant country, what cannot be produced locally and which can still be aspirated in a certain way. But these exchanges would be minimal compared to the current ones, which are dictated only by economic reasons (“compared advantages”, lambs sent from New Zealand to Sardinia, t-shirts made in Bangladesh, books printed in the Balkans, etc., all just to always save money some change).

This does not necessarily mean living solely from agriculture and crafts, although these activities will undoubtedly recover much of their former importance. And, above all, they would not be specialized activities developed as the only horizon of life, but would instead constitute a contribution to common activities and, in part, also a pleasant exercise of one's own skills.

It would also involve a rebalance between city and countryside. Only the need to find “work” explains the enormous influx into cities, and especially into the suburbs. Thus, the serious problem of depopulation of the interior and small towns of Sardinia would be solved.

The independence trap

Does this program imply political independence? This statement is a false question. The important thing is what is done in a given territory. Independence can be useful for a territory more advanced on the path to material autonomy, to avoid interference from other States. But then it would just be, rightly so, a means to an end. Political independence as an end is a trap. We must transcend the existence of States as such and not increase their number, nor regroup them into superstates (European Union, etc.). If the same things happened to Sardinia as an independent state as today, what would be the advantage? Being attacked by a police officer, or by a husband, who speaks the same language does not represent much progress. Having the same institutions, the same political class, the same social and economic relations as now, just with the “independent” label, would only make things worse. The objective is certainly not to promote the governor to head of state.

It is not, therefore, about loving Sardinia for what it is today, but for what it could be. The statement should not be confused with discussions about origins, identity, roots. One can be a Sardinian for twenty generations and descend directly from the builders of nuraghe and, however, urbanize coasts, and one can come from the other side of the world, just get out of a boat and fully participate in the construction of autonomy.

If there is a continuity of historical memory, it is more negative than positive: it is the memory of abuses suffered in the past and present. And if Sardinia could be a land of autonomy, it is not because Sardinia is Sardinia, or because people dance there. ballu tundu or bread is made in a certain way, but because it is part of those areas of the world where, perhaps, there are still some bases – such as the memory or practice of communal lands – for a future reconstruction of humanity. If certain traditions, mentalities, historical elements can contribute to the construction of autonomy in Sardinia, they are by no means a guarantee and much less are they automatically found in each Sardinian.

William Morris

In recent times, there has been a renewed interest in the work of William Morris (1834-1896) in several countries. He was not only the inventor of the Arts and Crafts movement, and therefore indirectly of design, and a prolific writer, but also a vigorous critic of industrial and capitalist society. In numerous conferences and writings, Morris denounced, with an insight unprecedented in his time, the destruction of life by industrial production. He was also one of the first to criticize capitalism (but not only) from an aesthetic point of view, insisting, moreover, (which at the time was almost unique) on ecological damage. He was also a well-known socialist and anarchist activist. In your romance News from Nowhere (1890), Morris imagines a future society without the State, market, money or large cities, where agriculture and crafts, practiced for pleasure, constitute the main activity of the inhabitants. The production of artisanal pieces replaced mass production carried out solely for profit; Technologies are in use, but only to avoid the most repetitive jobs. Wars and pollution, political power and poverty have disappeared. The result is a frugal but joyful society. Beauty plays a central role in this, as do social freedom and equality.

With the sinking of many left-wing ideas, from social democratic reformism to Leninism, and with the spread of ecological and “degrowth” ideas, William Morris became current again.

But what does Morris have to do with Sardinia (where he has never set foot)?

Could this “backward” land not be at the forefront when it comes to going beyond the “megamachine”, that is, the perverse intertwining between the logic of money and work, on the one hand, and, on the other, a technology who became crazy?

In the face of ecological and social catastrophe, drastic changes will occur throughout the world; depending on whether they are controlled or wild and eventually apocalyptic, we will know which direction they will take. Could there be initiatives in Sardinia that go in the direction of overcoming capitalist and industrial society to replace it with a way of life that bears some resemblance to that described by Morris?

The Zapatistas in Chiapas

In 1969, the editor, billionaire and aspiring guerrilla Giangiacomo Feltrinelli briefly visited Sardinia, where he tried – in vain, it seems – to find the leaders of Sardinian banditry: his project was to create a guerrilla on the island in order to establish a communist state there. , on the Cuban model, as a platform for future struggles against “American imperialism”. It was the time of the third world. Ten years earlier, Fidel Castro had taken power in Cuba, after beginning the armed struggle in the Sierra Maestra with a nucleus of just 19 guerrillas. Feltrinelli's idea was absurd and clearly did not come to fruition, and the would-be Castro quickly returned to Milan to fulfill his destiny.

But a very different inspiration could come from the same region of the world, Latin America. For almost thirty years there has been a political-social experience that deserves to be taken as a source of inspiration: the Zapatista movement in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Everyone has heard about it. If its continued existence is a miracle, it is equally miraculous to see that it knew, in essence, to avoid the authoritarian regression that had until then characterized almost all “national liberation movements” in the world. Continuously renewing itself, it knew how to integrate feminist, ecologist, youth, etc. elements. without which no form of emancipation can be conceived today. All of this is based on a permanent effort – undoubtedly difficult and uncertain – to guarantee everyone's participation in common decisions. But this is not about going into the details of this experience, which is certainly unique, nor about praising it unconditionally. For now, it is a matter of holding firm to what the Zapatistas themselves consider their essential point: the construction of autonomy. Not only political autonomy, but as a permanent construction of a new form of collective life that owes as little as possible to the State and Capital while they still exist, and that wants to contribute, by setting an example, to their overcoming everywhere.

If there is a land in Europe that could offer the conditions to repeat, with all the necessary differences, the Zapatista experience, if there is also a corner in Europe forgotten by “development” and, precisely for that reason, full of human reserves, it could be the Sardinia. A process of separation from the old world, but not necessarily in institutional and territorial terms, which rescues pre-capitalist traditions, but also includes a transformation of traditional society. A utopia? Better to strive for a positive utopia than to contribute to devastating the world.

*Anselm Jappe He is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, Italy. Author, among other books, of Credit to death: The decomposition of capitalism and its criticisms (Hedra). [https://amzn.to/496jjzf]

Translated by Juliana Haas.


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