Anything Goes

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Review of 'Not A Normal Country', Geoff Andrews, Pluto Press £15.99

If you're going to write a book about contemporary politics you need a publisher committed to getting it out quickly. Congratulations to Pluto, then, for bringing this out in less than six months rather than the norm, which can inexplicably be a year or more. This book needs such speed - it is mainly about Italy over the last five to ten years, written from the left.

What has been happening in Italy over the last few years has been very interesting. In the mid-1990s the established parties of the left and right disappeared because people were too disgusted to vote for them. New parties of both left and right then emerged. But more important, particularly since 2001, was the emergence of a mass movement for global justice, which gave birth to an equally huge anti-war movement, and all of this in a country with one of the strongest trade union movements in Europe. As Andrews puts it, 'The growth of the No Global [anti-capitalist] and workers' movements defied orthodox explanations about the decline of the organised working class, the erosion of left-right boundaries and the inevitability of neo-liberalism.'

Andrews tells his story pretty well - sometimes through a personal diary of events he witnessed, such as the Genoa protests of 2001 and the European Social Forum in 2002. His analysis of Berlusconi, the 'post-fascist' National Alliance and the racist Northern League will be broadly shared by many readers of Socialist Review, as will his rejection of the Italian 'third way' embodied by the Left Democrats party, the DS.

But there are serious problems with this book. I found it too impressionistic at times, almost like a travel book. More importantly, it contains several important factual mistakes that will confuse non-experts. For example, Berlusconi's Forza Italia party was not 'built on a network of football supporters that had emerged from AC Milan'. The Northern League is not based in Italy's north east. The site of the Mafia's most notorious massacre of workers is not a town but a mountain pass, and a new investigation of the murder of an anti-Mafia activist was not due to an excellent film, but to dogged campaigning over 20 years.

There is little to criticise in his general approval of the 'new associationism', and his desire that it conditions and comes together with traditional political structures. His specific choices of what associations to discuss is downright irritating though. The largest two - the social forum and anti-war movements - get very little coverage, whereas the beguiling Slow Food movement (the total opposite of 'fast food') gets an entire chapter. A brief movement led by film director Nanni Moretti is praised to the heavens, and it is here that Andrews's politics emerge clearly: 'Moretti's postmodern idea of politics is distinct from the third way in that it envisages an expanded sphere of politics, one that is a fluid and contested realm, open to reinvention and shaped by artists, intellectuals and movements, not solely professional politicians.'

The most informative chapter by far is one that concentrates on resistance in the much-maligned south, and particularly a successful mass movement in a small town earmarked to become Italy's nuclear waste dustbin. This was one of the clear victories of the last few years. Odd, then, that he doesn't even mention another key victory just a few miles away - at the Fiat factory in Melfi. In the 'anything goes' analysis of postmodernism, the 'grand narrative' of the industrial working class no longer exists, so individual film directors can become more important than millions of workers and protesters.