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The Genoa G8 Was the Beginning of the Italian Left’s Long Defeat

Twenty years ago, protests at the Genoa G8 summit proclaimed that “Another World is Possible.” But today, Italy’s weak and divided left lacks a vision for a real alternative to capitalism.

Riots during the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001, when Italian police met anti-globalization demonstrators with violence. (Alberto Pizzoli/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, as the G8 summit began in Genoa, the Italian left thought that the future was only just beginning. The slogan “Another world is possible” was taken up by young political novices and older militants who had fought a thousand lost battles; it heralded a radical transformation, finally within reach.

Already in 1999, protests at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle had challenged the global order of neoliberal governance in the heart of the Western empire. There was a further explosion at the G7 summit in Washington in 2000, and in January 2001, the first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

In Italy, as the Genoa summit approached, the radical left was already rather divided, but it still enjoyed about 10 percent support and seemed to be growing. Its demands were sometimes able to influence the center-left, and its component forces helped to shape public debate on labor, the environment, and social rights.

At the core of this Left was Rifondazione Comunista. This somewhat eclectic party proposed to renew the Italian (euro)communist tradition, combining it with new demands for social and environmental justice. In previous years it had been brave enough to leave the neoliberalized center-left coalition; it paid a high price for this through its demonization in the media, but this also allowed it to connect with the suffering and demands for change among broad social layers hit by the contradictions of capitalist globalization. It embraced the older working class, overwhelmed by outsourcing and downward pressure on wages; younger workers made precarious by various counterreforms; and discriminated minorities seeking long-overdue recognition.

Rifondazione’s leader, Fausto Bertinotti — a man of unquestionable charisma, but perhaps more questionable analytical insight — had no doubts what possibilities the so-called movement of movements was creating. As he told Rifondazione’s political committee two months before the summit:

Globalization is experiencing strategic uncertainty. The long wave of “single thought” [unchallenged neoliberal hegemony] is breaking, also in cultural terms. Economically, there are important elements of crisis . . . [and] there has been a real growth of movements of all kinds . . . since Seattle. . . . There is a resumption everywhere of workers’ struggles . . . with new forms of struggle among precarious workers. These are not isolated episodes but a new trend . . . [everywhere] the movements are spreading and deepening. . . . [We should see] Genoa not only as an occasion for struggle but as a political laboratory for all leftists. . . . the lifeblood for the rebirth of the Left.

Rebirth?

Bertinotti did not pull these arguments out of thin air — they were the result of a far-reaching theoretical debate. These were years in which Toni Negri and Michael Hardt’s highly successful Empire had theorized a general critique of the new ontopolitical world order. It heralded a stage of ultra-imperialistic transnational capitalism and a reconfiguration of the antagonistic subject in the form of the “multitude.”

For Hardt and Negri, new “nomadic subjectivities” — exploited at the level of their “cognitive productivity,” even before the extraction of surplus value — had the “constituent power” through which they could subvert the given order at any moment. They could do so along multiple avenues, from “exodus” and the construction of islands of autonomy to the new figures of “social workers” beginning — even unconsciously — to practice a communism centered less on Marxian or still less Leninist doctrine than a Franciscan message of authenticity, brotherhood, and universal love. In different forms, intellectuals from Serge Latouche to Naomi Klein, via Noam Chomsky and Vandana Shiva, saw, in the upheavals across the West (and beyond), the seeds of a multifaceted, creative world order based on peoples and the universalization of rights.

In these nascent movements, with all their enthusiasm, there were inevitably elements of confusion. For instance: was this about opposing globalization per se, in the name of resistance by local communities to transnational logics — as the name “No Global” and territorial movements like No TAV suggested? Or was it about building an alternative model of globalization centered on popular autonomy rather than capitalist oligarchies, their hyperproductivist development paradigm, and their antidemocratic governance model?

Despite these ambiguities, the revolutionary wave seemed unstoppable: Not by chance, Rifondazione’s program was entitled Change the Wind. Counting on the disruptive force of this process, it thought that it could overturn the center-left’s soft neoliberal policies. It even launched a primary challenge within the moderate left and agreed to return to governmental participation, certain that it could mold government policies in a social and progressive sense, in the name of building “an alternative society.”

Dead

Twenty years later, there is literally nothing left of this framework, the enthusiasm of the time, and the gamble Rifondazione took. Today, Italy’s organized left achieves no more than 2 percent electoral support. It is divided and quarrelsome, self-referential and ineffectual, incapable of outlining a program and of either understanding society or being understood by it.

Bertinotti has retired, but hasn’t stopped pontificating — and today, as since the 1960s, Negri is still reflecting on the appropriate forms of organization to give to the movements. Conservatives and reactionaries of every stripe, who were meant to have been swept away by the wave of change, are still firmly in command, although in highly varied forms — the dramatic rightward shift of the political landscape has dragged everything along with it. The situation is little different across almost all of Europe.

In the meantime, globalization has continued apace, changing even more than the face of the globe. It has done so also through digital communication and social networks, which have not only added to the circulation of goods and finance but also remolded the forms of consciousness and the structural bases of politics. But globalization has also played out in forms very different from what Clintonian optimism appeared to promise.

Yes, globalization has confirmed the persistence of Western domination — especially since 9/11 offered the United States the opportunity for a new wave of military aggression around the globe. But, even amid a thousand pressures and counterpressures, it has also fueled an unexpected shift: the rise of certain former colonial areas and the start of a Great Convergence, inverting the Pomeranz cycle and bringing a massive global redistribution of wealth and power.

This has progressively reduced the resources and space available to a West that had been beginning to come to terms with new players on the international scene — post-Deng China first among them. This brought a chain of restructuring that rapidly affected all capitalist countries — and an updating of the relations of production, as the Western ruling classes tried to offset the damage caused by the new scenario by offloading the costs onto the subaltern and even middle classes.

This gigantic, planetary revolution, triggering an equally planetary class reaction, has transformed the critique of globalization — decisively passing from the Left’s hands to the Right’s. The downfall of the middle classes, proletarianized by capitalist concentration, has provided the basis of the “populist revolt” — a phenomenon that consists not of an improbable awakening of the “people” (who?) but in the denunciation of the “betrayals” by traditional established elites. If these latter have protected themselves, they have become incapable of shoring up the weaker part of their base with the crumbs of neocolonialism.

This became even clearer after 2008, when even the most optimistic liberals saw that capitalism had no interest in redistributive reformist policies, in the face of not just narrowing profit margins but also a balance of forces extremely unfavorable to the working class. This marked a clear regression compared to the previous phase of capitalism. But it was helped along by ideological forms — meritocracy, epistocracy, technocracy, exasperated competitive individualism, and new digitalized subjectivities, not to mention the general ideological context of the “Clash of Civilizations” and the “War on Terror” — which proved highly effective.

From this stemmed the “populist revolt” against the so-called Castes, which had to be punished. These ranged from what was called the political “Caste” — i.e., the traditional mass parties, confronted by direct digital democracy and the spontaneous mobilization of free citizens — to the economic Caste of global financial elites, confronted by a mythologized “national,” territorially rooted, productive entrepreneurship; and the cultural Caste of academic and scientific discourse, now confronted by a distorted version of anarchic 1970s counterculture and the freethinking online autodidact.

This should be understood primarily as a break in the liberal-conservative system of alliances and as a dissolution of the disappointed liberal-progressive camp, creating a split by “have-nots” which were intercepted by populist outsiders like Trump. This has, certainly, failed in the objective of building a credible alternative to the establishment “haves,” and, today, post-Trump liberalism — in the guise of either Biden-Harris or a “restored” GOP — is preparing to reabsorb it. But, in the meantime, this split has completely changed the political debate and the key points of hegemony. It has favored the rise of a new wave of criticism of globalization, now reconfigured as “sovereignism,” far from the spirit of Genoa.

This means a protectionist closure — on a national, regional, or civilizational scale — which rides the rhetoric of defense against aggression, invasion, or unfair competition from the “noncivilized” world. It prefigures not the end of globalization (of “globalism,” as some right-wingers said even in the 1970s) but rather a new, particularist model of globalization, in which the underlying imperialistic drive can give up on the luxury of hegemony and universal consensus. This allows it to express itself in openly authoritarian forms of direct Western command and a recolonization totally opposed to the Great Convergence. The only condition for the ruling class of all orientations to reabsorb the middle-class revolt is that they promise a new Western prosperity for (almost) all, at the expense of the rest of the world, which is to be reduced once again to a protectorate or semicolony.

Great Regression

Twenty years after a summer that was supposed to represent the beginning of a new world, it has instead turned out to be the beginning of the end — a gigantic regression that has changed the environmental conditions of politics in capitalist countries for the worse.

This catastrophic outcome certainly owes in part — especially in the Italian case — to the militarized repression of movements by state forces which, facing a crisis of legitimacy, could not tolerate any disturbance of the dominant narrative. This revealed the hypocrisies of liberal claims to represent universal human rights: those who daily berate illiberal countries for trampling on the individual themselves exercised the most brutal authoritarianism and cruelty when bourgeois order was challenged. The state violence in Genoa under Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing government (anticipated a few months earlier in Naples under the center-left government), with the murder of Carlo Giuliani, the violent charges at peaceful marches, and mass torture at the Bolzaneto barracks and the Diaz school, had a powerful effect in achieving its repressive ends.

In the short term, it did not prevent the movement’s development: the wave spilled over into the multiple Social Forums and the global peace movement that soon challenged the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq — in 2003 holding the biggest mass demonstrations of the postwar period. In the longer term, however, this show of strength was indicative of a model of treating political and social contradictions as a problem of public order, criminalizing all manner of conflicts.

But it would be too self-consolatory to attribute the crisis of the No Global and alter-globalization movements, or of the Left itself, to repression alone. This major repression, striking at one or two thousand militants in order to educate many millions, certainly was disturbing, especially given that it is linked to the continuity of a fascist habitus so rooted in certain parts of the Italian state and bureaucracy as to be considered structural. However, alongside the brutality of the enemy — doing its job as an enemy — there are other factors, weaknesses on our side, which also need to be made explicit.

First of these was the evaluation of the adversary’s strength. Neoliberalism was not at the end of its tether, as many optimistically believed. Its crisis was real, as it is now. But this crisis was and still is also neoliberalism’s strength, driving it to embrace its own ability to flexibly adapt to any context: to be universalist today, particularist tomorrow, syncretic the day after; to be ready to satisfy all real needs and even to criticize itself in order to regenerate. If necessary, it will even present itself as globalization’s foremost opponent.

A turning point was, indeed, imminent — but for the West, at least, this meant a sharp turn to the Right. This underestimation, expressing also a certain utopian indifference toward analyzing the relations of force, had the effect of irresponsibly sending thousands of young people toward destruction, with neither organization nor protection.

But the errors of analysis did not end there. The protests and even revolts in those years were, certainly, prompted by the transformations which were underway and contradictions that were opening up. But this was less the beginning of a new world — or, more realistically, of a new cycle of struggles based on new and mature antagonistic subjects — than the result of the residual mobilizing capacity of the twentieth-century left. It was the swansong of the old world, of the old antagonistic subjects, of the old traditions and political forces organized according to the twentieth-century model; a model repudiated by the likes of Negri and Bertinotti in the name of the new multitudinous spontaneity. They sought to dismiss these forces in the very moment in which, paradoxically, they were most relied on.

This was, in short, the ghost of the Fordist world that still languished amid the post-Fordist restructuring — the ghost of the old political identities linked to the international civil war of the twentieth century and modern democracy, with the ideologies and symbolisms that went with it. An old world of parties, unions, and associations, now largely out of sync with the new phase. But this latter also took such a decisive defeat from the repression in Genoa that it lost any possibility of renewing itself, adapting to the times, and connecting to the younger generations, transmitting tradition and experience to them. The result was that from that moment, every thread of historical and ideal continuity in the Italian left was broken. The new generations had only the arduous task of starting from scratch, having to face a reality much stronger than them in conditions of extreme political confusion.

Not So Global

But the weakest point of the subjects of that period was their mistaken overall analysis of capitalist globalization as a phenomenon.

I have mentioned the confusion that connected the name “No Global” to a movement that, while including various localist and particularist phenomena (many of them dragged toward social chauvinism by the subsequent populist-sovereignist wave), was mostly composed of young polyglots, travelers, and the hyperconnected.

Even the other, more consciously alter-globalist face of the movement, wasn’t on much stronger ground. For it imagined the desired alternative to globalization in deeply populist and anarchic forms — a process of spontaneous rebellion and the likewise spontaneous flowering of a new order, in which organic agriculture would easily supplant large-scale production and power would harmoniously dissolve.

It did not see the processes that really were changing globalization: while No Global or alter-global activists denounced the perversion of progress and modernity, the former colonial world stood up on its own and — entering into that modernity and taking possession of that progress — changed the planet. Through its growth, it imposed an entirely new arrangement of global power, even if amid a thousand contradictions and compromises.

The inability to read this process was combined with a Foucauldian-inspired hostility toward all manifestations of power and subalternity to liberal ideology. So the pressures of the community and the state on the individual were recognized — but not the emancipation of billions of people. This prevented the formation of a political front that would link West and East, social justice and national self-determination, combining the necessary critique of capitalist globalization with a balanced evaluation of modernization processes and the building of a new, democratic international order that could even contain elements of socialism.

Thus, the myriad movements at Genoa in 2001 remained separate and distant from the gigantic and much more effective movements in Asia and in parts of Latin America, which were working concretely for another, real (and not only possible) world. Telling of this were Bertinotti’s comments this month dismissing the Cuban Revolution as a failure, enthusiastically carried by the liberal Atlanticist daily La Repubblica.

This was a missed opportunity — and another unfortunate legacy of what Domenico Losurdo called “Western Marxism,” detached from processes in the Global South. Those who continue to be interested in a concrete form of universalism and internationalism — shunning imperial “human rights” ideology as well as all chauvinistic and xenophobic impulses — must now try to remedy this divide.