The People’s Carnival that took place in the town of Pomigliano (Southern Italy) in 1977 was an exemplary moment in the history of the Italian Left. Combining folk music, art performance and a radical language, thousands automobile workers and their families gathered up against austerity.
The event was depicted in a documentary that I screened (in an edited version) during the event New Politics of Autonomy, at Bluestockings Bookstore, New York, on October 27, 2013, together with Ben Morea (founder of the Black Mask group). This is an excerpt from the talk.
The video of the documentary (with English subs) can be found here.
I’ve been working in this factory
For nigh on fifteen years
All this time I watched my woman
Drowning in a pool of tears
And I’ve seen a lot of good folks die
That had a lot of bills to pay
I’d give the shirt right off my back
If I had the guts to say
David Allan Coe – Take This Job And Shove It
At the end of the 1970s, Italy was going through a traumatic yet extremely creative phase of its history. Those were the heydays of the Autonomia movement: radical extra-parliamentary groups (composed by students, unionists, workers, unemployed) were fiercely confronting the austerity politics imposed by the bigot, mafia ridden Christian-Democrats (DC) with the complicity of the Communist Party (PCI). While society was increasingly subjected to militarization, corruption was rampant; the decaying political establishment was more arrogant than ever. The party founded by Antonio Gramsci was seen as a Stalinist oppressor by the movement, the big unions as its partners in crime. Not a single day passed without a major demonstration or a few Molotov bombs thrown at the police.
In the streets there was no room for chivalry. Government forces shot dead over 400 people between 1969 and 1988: a number four times higher than those murdered by leftist armed groups, such as the Red Brigades, who would kidnap and assassinate Christian-democrat leader Aldo Moro. After his body was retrieved in the trunk of a red Renault in April 1978, a huge crackdown was in order. And it came, harder than ever. Many Autonomia theorists were either arrested or forced into exile. Many militants, activists and guerrilla leaders were imprisoned and tortured. Police interrogators, as revealed by recent documents, made systematic use of water-boarding. The Italian state, knelt before the Church in public ceremonies, in its prison would often resort to punitive rape. And yet mainstream media would still call those years the “years of Lead”, encompassing with a standoffish label a multi-colored spectrum of political experiences.
Within this frame, the 1977 People’s Carnival that took place in the little town of Pomigliano D’Arco occupies an exemplary position in the development of the Autonomia movement. Located just a few miles north of Naples, in Southern Italy, in a territory traditionally plagued by poverty and high unemployment, Pomigliano had long been a tiny, peasant village far from any political interest. That is, until in 1972 the center-right government inaugurated a titanic automobile factory, the Alfasud, entirely dedicated to production of midsize, middle class cars. The intent was on the one hand to stop mass migration to the North, and on the other hand to create a vast network of cronyism.
The cultural and social consequences of this strategy were enormous: farmers had to reconvert their activities and send their children to the assembly lines. Most women, when not busy as homemakers or still unemployed, started working from home for small fashion brands contractors, having their lungs devastated by chemical agents, their hands deformed like those of the figures portrayed by Van Gogh or Daumier. Inside the Alfasud plant, countless workers developed physical and mental exhaustion early in their twenties; isolated and estranged within their own community, forced to transform themselves into something halfway between a beast and a machine, like Lulu in Elio Petri’s movie The Working Class Goes to Heaven. Not surprisingly, radical affiliations inside the Alfasud were not tolerated: those who sympathized with national union struggles were quickly dismissed. Urban legends claim that, on the first day of operation, 20 employees ran away from the factory before the end of their shift, terrified by the working conditions.
But a culture of resistance persisted. Walkouts were more frequent than ever: between 1972 and 1975, work days lost to strikes in Pomigliano outnumbered those of the entire region of Naples. In the plans of the company the site had to settle, when fully operational, on a production of 572 cars per day, occupying 15,000 employees. These figures were never reached.
At the root of this conflict there was something which was also happening also in the United States: a breakdown in class relations. After three decades of apparently endless growth, the inflation was now raising without limit on both sides of the Atlantic; stock markets were weak, almost frozen; in the Italian South many youths were out of work, but unemployment rate was still below 8% – today is almost twice as much; entrepreneurs and executive editors of important newspapers were kneecapped or abducted on a daily basis. But more compellingly, workers had developed a highly disruptive behavior: slacking off, striking, naming and shaming the scabs. They no longer feared the bosses, and it showed.
Those were, after all, years of experimentation in all fields, from performance art to music, from journalism to theater, as testified by the joyous anarchism of Radio Alice in Bologna (which was shut down, on air, by the police in March 1977), or the Festival of the Proletarian Youth in Lambro Park, Milan, or the many radical magazines such as Rosso, Controinformazione, Anarchismo, Vogliamo Tutto (“We Want It All”), whose output covered a myriad of subjects: from labor protests to poetry, graphic novels, street guerrilla instruction kits, love declarations and cooking recipes. While many were reluctantly obeying the precepts of the Communist Party and big unions, others refused to co-opt, and suggested a different way to fight back.
In the winter of 1976-77, automobile workers in Pomigliano started to organize themselves. They were inspired by thinkers like Toni Negri and Oreste Scalzone, and connected with political groups like Potere Operaio or Autonomia Operaia, as well as with the pre-existing cultural tissue of their community. Combining assembly workers, local artists, anarchist, the unemployed, elderly people and feminists, the self-proclaimed Central Committee for the Carnival of Pomigliano was born.
The streets of the tiny, peasant town were suddenly filled with an exceptional display of humanity. Parades and masks were alternating with large assemblies addressing the unfairness of labor conditions. As the people of Pomigliano celebrated earthly delights such as wine, food, and the local dialect, many oppressed were given the space, and the chance, to enact their disillusionment with unions.
In a climate of political submission to local mafiosi and religious institutions, blue collar workers improvised readings and mise-en-scenes in public piazzas. A group of unemployed staged the ritual of begging politicians and paying them a bribe in order to get a job.
If nowadays there’s no carnival without drunken zombies crawling around town, several Alfasud employees choose to disguise themselves as living dead to signify the dehumanization of workers at the time of austerity. The Living Theatre, instead of Soviet choreography, was their source of inspiration, while the dull officers of party communism were relegated to a secondary role. The traditional festivity revamped, through the merging of immutable customs with the urgency of class struggle.
Mixing southern folk music with art performance and spoken word, a dozen assembly workers founded a collective group, called the Zezi – which, in the local dialect, means “unfashionable men”. They sung about alienation, solitude, and greed, in a straight-forward, confrontational language far from the sensibilities of mainstream intellectuals. In their songs, automobile tycoons were mocked ruthlessly, their punishment evoked in imaginative and malicious ways. One of their most popular hits, ‘A Flobert, talked about the death of 13 workers in a huge blast that had destroyed the eponymous factory, a few years earlier.
It wasn’t easy to balance life and music: most members of the Zezi were working at the Alfasud assembly line from early in the morning until evening; as they were getting off work they headed to rehearsals; on weekends they were on a bus, touring around Italy. And they had, for a while, success in Europe too: in the summer of ’78 they were guest stars at the International Folk Festival of Rennes, France – something which would seem utterly impossible today. “As we were aboard a plane for the first time in our life, some of us mistook wet hand towels for condensed sugar”, said Daniele Sepe, who played the flute in the Zezi. “At the airport we waited for someone to open the automatic door. We had never seen those things before.”
Pasquale Terracciano, one of the founders of the Zezi, was a central figure in the People’s Carnival. He impersonated the Pazzariello, “the little nut”, who appeared in the main parade of the event. The Pazzariello had an ancient popularity in the Italian South: dressed with the uniform of an “official auctioneer” (a figure who traditionally trumped, on behalf of the King or the government, edicts and roll-outs) he was actually the ironic reversal of that role – he was the voice of the people, a living newspaper, joyful and frilly; a call for attention and an invitation to gather; an embodiment of anti-official and anti-governmental storytelling.
The appearance of Marcusalemme – an old man wearing blacks pants, a wide mantle covered with snow flakes and a spiral stick decorated with colorful ribbons in his hands, introduced the march of the “Dodici Mesi” (“Twelve months”), which was another example of street theater related to propitiatory rituals: farmers were riding on donkeys, with costumes representing the different months of the year, roaming the streets of Pomigliano reciting prayers and collecting offerings.
Not far away, in the narrow, decaying streets of the old town, young educated women were engaged in door-to-door community organizing. They were trying to persuade other housewives and mothers to unlearn, and reject, the patriarchal culture in which they were sunk since time immemorial. The defense of identity was tied together with the need for social justice. There was no much theory about minority rights, yet transvestites, prostitutes and queers were de facto integrated as part of the carnival, and celebrated all along the event.
In the Middle Ages, the particular perception of space and time during the carnival allowed all individuals to feel somehow part of a collective body. Wearing costumes and masks, they stopped being themselves, at least for one day. Their territory was re-occupied and transformed, without the mediation of authorities. Through a temporary mutation, individuals were renewed.
But what really lead to a higher material, sensual and corporeal unity with their society was the rooted belief of being part an immutable entity: something unthinkable at the tormented time of Pomigliano. In April 1979, in the first of many mass raids that would shake down the Left, Toni Negri and numerous Autonomist thinkers were imprisoned. Three years after the Carnival, during the last important strike that tried to block all FIAT’s production (FIAT was the owner of Alfasud), automobile tycoons were able to organize a march of 40,000 scabs who broke the picket lines. This would set the stage for decades of union busting to follow, in line with Reagan and Thatcher politics. The PCI tried to resist for a few years, but then was engulfed in its own decline. The working class was to be effectively disarmed.
In his seminal work Rebelais and His World, Mikhail Bakhtin explains how the collective body needs a kind of clock to realize its own eternity. The concept of carnival is thus closely linked to the “grotesque”, whereas it indicates the time marked by bodily changes: nutrition, defecation and sex, ever-present and ever-represented during the festivity, were used a measuring device.
The grotesque adopted by the workers of Pomigliano had a unique function indeed: in portraying themselves in all their fierce misery and desperation, disguised as zombies or re-enacting scenes of exploitation, they choose not to cover their rugs with riches, but instead to throw the rugs before their masters. Anticipating by more than two decades the post-modern, electric generation of the May Day parades, the body-clock of Pomigliano indicated a time of precariousness and the irreconcilability with socialist abstractions.
Those workers who historically had a terrible ‘attitude problem’ – the Spanish, the Italian, the French and the Russian – belonged to a transient class, the multitude of decomposing peasantry, hit hard by industrialization. They didn’t revolt because of party communism, but because their experience had always been different: it was the experience of an agrarian community. The reflective anarchy staged in Pomigliano, which depicted the hell of industrial labor and all the messy contradictions of workers’ struggles, was a better meaning-maker than many essays on the subject.
While in many Autonomist circles working class culture was idealized and romanticized, the People’s Carnival instructed clearly on the inadequacies of labor’s mythology. How could the assembly line, an authentic brainchild of bourgeois rationality, a cathedral of discipline and dehumanization, be the place to start a revolution?