Radical media, politics and culture.

Mayday in Milano

[please do not circulate]

Introducing Mayday

The Milanese Mayday was launched for the first time in 2000 by a collection of groups coming from grassroots trade-unions, social centres, workplaces. Much of the original impetus emanated from a small (but perfectly formed!) collective named Chainworkers, established for the purposes of agitating at the sites of labour in the consumerist metropolis such as shopping centres, fast food restaurants, franchises. From the beginning emphasis was placed on establishing direct contact with those working there and the use of communications techniques borrowed from the world of subvertising and the creation of a carnevalesque atmosphere inspired by Reclaim the Streets. Whilst grassroots trade unions such as the CUB and COBAS have been vital to its construction, this should not lead us to believe that Mayday is a simply a rerun of the the rituals of the workers movement as historically understood. Focusing on the concept of the 'precarity' of life under contemporary state capitalism contains an implicit rejection of the proposition that the workplace is the unique or privileged site for the development of personal subjectivity, identity or tension with the current social order. The mobilization was an immediate success, attracting the participation of 5000 people.


Participation in the Milan event has grown massively each year and in 2004 for the first time it was complemented by a kindred mobilization in Barcelona that attracted up to 10,000 precarious revelers. This success, combined with both the failing energy behind summit protests and the proliferation of fights in the new work-places, prepared the ground for further multiplication on a european level. Apart from such contingent elements, there was also a recognition that the imposition of new rights from below necessitated coordination and action at the same political level as the emerging European super state, otherwise national struggles would be left to perish in their singularity or in the best of cases be undermined through the race to the bottom between the individual social states (known elsewhere as the theory of comparative advantage). Solid contacts already existed between movements in Italy and Spain and these were soon complemented by the working relationship developed with the French Intermittents (creative workers and technicians in the entertainment sector) who began a struggle against the disassembly of their social guarantees in the summer of 2003. They took their actions outside of french territory with an occupation of a french cultural institution in Rome around New year 2004 and had their own contingent and float on the 2004 Mayday four months later. London was the location for the third European Social Forum last october and the parallel autonomous space "Beyond the ESF" served as host for the first europe-wide assembly for the construction of Mayday 2005, attended by individuals or representatives from 20 countries as well as people involved in migrant-work/no border campaigns (notably the Frassanito group). Subsequent meetings took place in Berlin (January 2005) and Paris (March) and it was decided to call for a day of action around freedom of movement on April 2nd.

Through these meetings the skeletal form for a european network has been assembled, but it remains in embryonic form. Work-related legislation, social welfare systems and individual entitlements -- just for starters -- vary wildly from country to country and complicate the process of agreeing to common demands. Predictably some of the stiffest disagreements unfold between groups from the same national territory. Emblematic in this respect is Italy, torn between the demand for the unconditional income uncoupled from the obligation to work (reddito incondizionato) -- a vision inspired by a refusal of work -- and the call for the creation of a welfare system, flexicurity, capable of providing continuity of income whether one is employed or not. Italy has no basic system of social welfare akin to that in Ireland, UK and many north european states, where such entitlements are under a massive assault by the state (Germany being the most dramatic example). Precisely for this reason it is difficult to enthuse people in the north around an idea of flexicurity, which seems like a cosmetically enhanced version of what we already have. On the other hand, the demand for unconditional income implicitly requires absolute rupture with the existing social organization, which pragmatically seems unlikely in the immediate term. On the ground such theoretical oppositions matter little in the fights actually occurring, where the important thing is to win concrete gains thus constructing momentum and vindicating the need for collective organization.

Such divergences at the level of ideas are further complicated by differences in political culture and the social location of critical cultures within their own societies. In the mediterranean a history of mass mobilization coexists with a youth counter-culture, in some parts of central and northern europe 'alternative' movements have distanced themselves from the everyday social conditions experienced by most people, and in still others there is little counter-cultural influence and orientation towards popular organizing.

Milan 2005

The sun blazed on the square as we arrived near Porta Ticinese early on sunday afternoon, and even though the official departure time was still an hour away there were already thousands of people milling about. Milan's Mayday is a parade that this comprised more than forty trucks, some of them up to fifteen metres long, bedecked in banners, graphics and especially sound systems. Indeed if the carneval didn't attract so many participants the audioscape would quickly descend into an unbearable cacophony, but fortunately this isn't the case. Conceived as an event organized by the precarious for the precarious, as opposed to a mobilization of strictly ideological character In the order of the trucks priority is given to those representing workplaces or organizing around other sites of social life, for example several floats were themed around the socialization of the city, the politics of food, sexuality.... The result is an extraordinary and beautiful mozaic that reflects the enormous concentration of creativity, and makes the whole thing refreshingly attractive and ludic for both participants and onlookers, many of whom are enchanted into following this collective pied piper of Hamlyn...

People cluster through affinity, occupation, musical preference and social sensibility, and most of the floats are also mobile bars, which is pretty handy (and economically advantageous for both organizers and revelers), such that a distance of twenty metres or so is established between each truck. This opening block is followed by the floats from the grassroots unions, then come the other 'national' structures and finally those belonging to parties (Greens, Commnunist Refoundation) and unannounced arrivals. This order was decided prior to the parade specifically so as to preempt jostling for position motivated by perceptions that the order reflects a symbolic order based on political weight/importance, and lay at the root of ugly scenes that nonetheless irrupted later on.

The Unbeatables

Several groups in Milan have excelled in the implementation of ingenious communicative innovations which have given the process a unique character, many of them clustered around Chainworkers and Reload, both of which are based in the social space Pergola. The particular magic of their approach lies in the conception of icons and self-representative forms which leave space to reinterpretation such that they have been enthusiastically embraced by other singularities. Last year was the moment for the unveiling of San Precario (Saint Precarious) which hitched a lift on the back of Italian pop catholicism so as to create a totem that could be used diffusely to give visibility to the precarious state, and generated innumerable processions, cerimonies and acts of reappropriation. A second stage was the development of a series of advice centres and spaces for complicity and conspiracy in diverse social environments -- San Precario Points -- united by a common branding campaign such that each could benefit from the national profile while retaining their specificities. This year the focus moved to the enhancement of social proatgonism on a mythopoetic level: bring on the Unbeatables.....

Each of the twenty two Imbattibili were conceived by the groups in the opening block of the carnival. They represent different characteristics of 'superheroism' rather than superheroes. Whilst the creation of a superhero -- along the lines of Superbarrio in Mexico? -- maintains the myth of the individual who can rescue you from adversity, the Unbeatables are about bring out the extraordinary powers each of us contain when we assume control over our own destines and decide to fight for our rights: don't delegate, act for yourself.

Every character has a sticker, and a small book was distributed to collect them in. Underneath each sticker is both a description of the field of activity in which our everyday heroes exert themselves, and rating of their levels of (a) precarity (b) combattivity (c) flexibility and (d) imagination. Wonder Bra, for example is a: "Switchboard operator during the day, sex worker by night, housewife in what's left of her time. The technologies of wash and dry, smooth and admire, orgasm and thanks are not enough to liberate her time. The goddess of fireflies gives her succour, giving her the power to whip out two arms at the same time. With some colleagues she opens a hardcore telephone sex line (more fun and better paid). Thanks to the ability to rework time and skills she is given another super power: 4 bracelets shoot lasers that turn bad luck into virtue."

Super Flex on the other hand: "Has experimented with every type of contract, co.co.co., co.co.pro, part time, fulltime, vertical part time, horizontal, transversal and oblique, intern, apprentice, in work training, The stress provokes a pleasurable mutation of their very molecules, developing the innermost ability of their minds: they actually manage to communicate mentally with all the other Superflex, giving life to the universal precarious conspiracy"

Quit is the revolutionary inside the nerd: "A programmer and system operator who works on project-based contract who is putting together a revolutionary man-machine data-communications system. During testing a blackout wipes out their minds with a rush of Mb creating the prototype for artificial intelligence: Quit is born. From that day onwards he alters the contracts in the databases of temporary employment agencies. He invades corporate networks revealing shared knowledge and free software to the young precarious computer programmers.

The Unbearables functioned on many levels within Mayday. Firstly it provided a comfortable space to develop informal cooperation with groups of workers in different sectors in a playful way which left the power of representation in the hands of those directly involved. Even very recent contacts such as those in the Feltrinelli chain of bookstores (Robin Book!) were thus able to make a direct contribution. Secondly the book itself works as a very effective form of polyphonic representation, where the specificities of different groups are kept intact whilst at the same time they have an amplified power for being beside one another. Each float had thousands of stickers to distribute, obliging collectors to move throughout the parade and come in contact with the different realities so as to assemble a full set. And perhaps most importantly, people loved it. Children were enthralled, their parents seduced, the fetichist in everyone was drawn out: people wandered around asking one another if they had extra stickers, or to swap doubles. movement and communication was generated within the parade and drew onlookers into active participation. I smile now thinking of the little girl at home reading about Wonder Bra.....

The complexity that permeates today's world suggests to me that it will be impossible to find a single characterization into which all tendencies towards social insubordination can fit. Many leftists squander incredible amounts of time gazing into a crystal ball seeking a simple formula which they can use to propose a new unified social subject, a colossus capable of being built into a single uniform social body capable of fighting 'capital'; amidst all this abstraction the richness of a million micro-rebellions, always subjective, often partial, are marginalized. The sticker album allowed one to visualize the network from which it emanated, and didn't have to mention network once.

Composition A notable virtue of the Milan parade was its diversity. There were droves of women where normally they compose a clear minority (a survey on social centres performed during the 90s in Milan put the figure at just over 30%). This gender division could still be seen as one moved back through the trucks into the more traditionally political blocks. Needless to say there was an exceptional concentration of femininity around Serpica Naro (the fashion stylist created as a media hoax to detourn Milan's fashion week) but also near the floats focused on social work, hardly surprising considering the continuing gendered division of labour.

Secondly there were big contingents of migrant workers who are at the cutting edge of exploitation, often in the lowest waged sectors and more often than not employed under the counter. In recent years it has been they who have been protagonists of huge struggles particularly in the north where labour demand means they can work but continue to be treated as untouchables. That a process of convergence has at least begun can be attributed both to work done by some of the unions and the recognition of their specific difficulties deriving from the constant gauntlet of being illegal, or dangled on the thread of temporary work permits etc.

Whilst predominantly young, including a huge number of teenagers, there were also a lot of families and a fair number of middle-aged people, something likely to grow given the ongoing erosion of labour guarantees and the further permeation of casualization into age groups once believed to be spared this destiny due tot he strength of the Unions etc. Interesting in this regard was presence -- in uniform -- of a large group of firefighters and unionized workers from the combattive/syndicalist unions that reject partnership models (CUB/RdB, COBAS, USI)

Final estimations of the number present hover around 120,000, but it's difficult to say with any accuracy and of course there is an inevitable tendency to inflate the figures so as to provide the sense of a gathering dynamic. Last year they said there was 100,000 so this year there had to be more! In any case, it was massive, the streets were packed and as river of bodies snaked its way through the streets it was impossible to see the full crow until it flowed into Piazza Cadorna at the end, filling the square.

Past nightmares weighing on the living Whilst the day was incredibly inspiring and joyful it was also marred by a violence that seemed tom emerge from a history book. Until the early 1990s it was common for different groups on the Italy extra-parliamentary left to attack one another on demonstrations. Violence with the police was a commonplace and this led to the development of what were know as "servizio d'ordine" which are something like stewards groups. Originally conceived to protect demos from the police/fascists, they soon took on a life of their own and became instruments also for the "sorting out" of political problems between different factions. This subsided during the 1990s without ever entirely disappearing.

At the beginning of the parade those managing the truck belonging to Global Project, from their Milan section centred around a social space called Le Cantiere, decided that they had been unjustly placed too far back and that they were going to 'jump the queue'. Seeing as the order is determined in advance to avoid such tensions the outcome was predictable. At a certain point they began to row with the Unionists from the Cobas and the Romans from social spaces Acrobax and Vittorio. A fight ensued during which people from Le Cantiere produced pieces of wood and batoned people. Three romans were hospitalised and several others injured. This incident inflamed existing tensions within the Milanese movement and for many of those involved the parade became coloured by bitterness and paranoia. Later several more people were beaten by the same faction after one of them had thrown an empty can at their truck in anger at what had happened earlier. The two incidents combined to detonate rage against the Global truck which was damaged whilst people from le Cantiere were literally chased away from the square. On tuesday night all the other milanese groups involved in the Mayday issued a collective communique effectively isolating the Cantiere, stating that there would be no more collaboration with them, and offering solidarity to those attacked.

This ugly footnote i have deliberately left till last because frankly it appeared so surreal. 95% of those present had no idea that this was unfolding and would have been bamboozled to hear about it. What type of thought process can drive a group to baton another over whether they come 25th or 30th in the order of the procession? This squaddism seemed like a strange visitation by a spectre alien to the present. Whereas elsewhere in the parade we remarked on the extraordinary fact that Mayday had such a pulsating and joyful an atmosphere, that it has succeeded so hugely in tapping the subjectivity of a generation which has rejected traditional models of political organization, that it is of its time rather than a mere rehashing of the past, here we saw also the worst of politics, a zombie culture emerging from grave, whose grip we must slip.