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Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 2

Croton-on-Hudson, NY

Well, Rodriguez has made it into my daily routine. I remember his lyrics, his riffs, his pauses. It’s time to post a review of his second and last album so far, “Coming From Reality”.

There is little doubt that if “Cold Fact” didn’t make it into the US charts, there would be no game for “Coming From Reality“, which came out only one year later in 1971. Rodriguez was playing around in Midwestern bars while Jimi Hendrix was already a legend and the Beatles had already disbanded. Johnny Cash was The Man In Black and Bob Dylan was living his fame. Rodriguez was to become only a musician by night: his new album sold only few copies in the US and his record label dropped him… two weeks before Christmas, as he mentions in “Cause”, although the song was recorded months before the release and the sacking. He would move on to work in factories in pre-crisis Detroit.

“Coming From Reality” is a dark album. There are almost no cheerful lines in Rodriguez’s poetry here. Climb Up on My Music seems a call to the listener, it’s about trust, Rodriguez says: there was a girl named Christmas, / Did I tell ya she drank gold?. Not much sense, just blind trust is what Rodriguez needs from his audience. At least at a first glance. His guitar laments his way into the next track A Most Disgusting Song, which is perhaps the cleverest, reflecting on the craft and the stress of being a musician. The simplicity with which he treats his audience is reflected in the casual name-dropping (Jimmy “Bad Luck” Butts, old playboy Ralph, Mr. Flood, Linda, Tim, Tom, Martha…). The message targets the routine, the dullness, the literally disgusting never-ending present: everyone’s drinking the detergents / that cannot remove their hurts … every night it’s the same old thing / Getting high, getting drunk, getting horny. Then, oh, a sweet love song… about a lost love; I Think Of You is not a song about the break up, but tracks the nostalgic feeling that comes months, years after the end of a relationship. A psychedelic trip starts suddenly thereafter with Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour, a crazy ride, with verses that chase each other in a hectic and messy manner: Rodriguez warns to look out for the cops and the itchy trigger fingers, but no-one disagrees that happiness is free on Heikki’s suburbia bus tour ride. A lullaby-like love song turns the mood back to sad-mode: Silver Words? is about the odd feeling of having a chance with the person that made you fall in love. The violin gets introduced by the end of the song and comes back in the next track Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyle, back to the real blues, but with string instruments resounding like an orchestra. “America gains another pound / Only time will bring some people around / Idols and flags are slowly melting” – it’s always winter in Rodriguez’s calendar. To Whom It May Concern is actually addressed pretty accurately, despite the title, to those who are waiting for love. The song would thematically fit perfectly in between “Silver Words” and “I Think Of You”. Then It Started Out So Nice throws you into a magic world… of sorrow and melancholy, of course, but still magic. Again some name-dropping, this time mythical: Genji, the Ixea mountains, Orion, etc. From the sea to the skies, it was a great love, remembered with the words of somebody who knows, that love is lost. Coming from fantasy, back to reality, Halfway Up The Stairs is another song about missed opportunities, half-baked ideas, unfinished tasks. Here comes the masterpiece of the album: Cause. From his oft-cited inner city to the local factory, the working class seems to cry through Rodriguez’s voice: Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them. The album ended here with an Estonian Archangel, Molly McDonald, Willy Thompson, and Annie Johnson, the common names of common people, exceptional figures of the constant, flat present.

Three more songs were added in later editions of the album, particularly in the bootleg version distributed in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a constant feature on the radio (the few allowed tracks) and in basements. I’ll Slip Away, Can’t Get Away and Street Boy are about journeys, of course. In the first track, Rodriguez communicates the uneasiness of conformity and the inability to continue a relationship, be it a sentimental or a political one: Now I’m tired of lying and I’m sick of trying / Cause I’m losing who I really am / And I’m not choosing to be like them. In the second song, Rodriguez explains his origins with a touch of color: Born in the troubled city / In Rock and Roll, USA / In the shadow of the tallest building / I vowed I would break away, but he can’t. Then, my personal favorite, Street Boy, which speaks of a nomadic and innocent life, perhaps naive. The singer gives some grown-up advice to the boy, but acknowledges his need to get away and find himself. The last word is a warning though: you’ll never find or ever meet / Any street boy who’s ever beat the streets.

This concludes my two-part praise of my new favorite musician and songwriter. Click here for the first part and here for more guesses on the meanings of his lyrics.


Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 1

Croton-On-Hudson, NY

I met Rodriguez only three weeks ago, on a lazy post-graduation morning. It shattered my views on American ballads and protest songs in one, jaw-dropping experience. I wanted to watch the documentary Searching for Sugarman for a year, since I saw the poster and the mysterious aura around it in the streets of Tallinn. Only three months ago, I was concentrating on Viktor Tsoy’s Russian lyrics, which are bare-boned and melancholic. Then Rodriguez blew my mind.

Rodriguez, Sixto, Jesus, whatever his name, is better than Bob Dylan, better than Johnny Cash. Who’s Neil Young? Why is Paul Simon not showing up, overshadowing this little known songwriter? How does a blue-collar working man-turned musician (and/or the other way around) get to #1 in someone’s 2014 ranking by releasing only two albums in 1970 and 1971?

The quick answer is: I have no idea, but it did.

I saw the documentary, almost in tears for both the story and the depth of the lyrics in his songs, masterpieces of songwriting. I’m of course not a musician or a songwriter, but my brain and my ears keep exchanging high-fives. Every word is spelled out as if it was the last one coming out of Rodriguez’s mouth. Every song has a rhythm that fits the verses, which are built carefully, like a domino structure: once you hit play, something beautiful unravels. Here’s my take on “Cold Fact“, released by Sussex in March 1970 in the United States, which sold only a few thousand copies until success hit back in the 90s and after the release of the documentary. Thirty minutes of awesomeness buried deep in radio station archives, until better PR got it to the masses.

The repetitiveness of Sugar Man closely resembles the addict hailing the pusher for more. This song is the formal entrance by Rodriguez into your veins. Only Good For Conversation brings you to a harsher sound of protest towards some customary behaviors, more to come, undoubtedly. Crucify Your Mind is the masterpiece: Was it a huntsman or a player / That made you pay the cost / That now assumes relaxed positions / And prostitutes your loss? Again, the entrance punches you at each pause. Then a long title that would never make it through radios, charts, or memories This Is Not A Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues, a protest song that reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Only Living Boy In New York only because it has a better weather-related verse: Public gets irate but forget the vote date / Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining […] I opened the window to listen to the news / But all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues – try to get more contemporary than that. Hate Street Dialogue is against the state’s monopoly on the use of violence against its own citizens: A dime, a dollar they’re all the same / When a man comes to bust your game. / The turnkey comes, his face a grin / Locks the cell I’m in again. There’s one or two things Johnny Cash could learn from Rodriguez’s crude images here. Thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine, that’s the first verse of Forget It, about love that has worn out. No begging, like to the local sugar man, just forget it. Inner City Blues is another angry song which repeats the album title Cold Fact over and over, while building clever braids with lyrics that could make sense even if you listened only to one every two verses. Will it ever all be straight / I doubt it, says Rodriguez, while making again Christian references. Then comes the bass. The supporting band for his first concert in South Africa played the riff for minutes, while the crowd was cheering  their idol, before he could finally open the song with the now-famous verse I WonderI wonder about the love you can’t find / And I wonder about the loneliness that’s mine – an uneasy song, less lyric-focused but an incredibly catchy tune. Like Janis is again a great ballad with snappy and clever verses that are better served with the music. A bit more disturbing to the ear is Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme) is a surprising blues track with an actual nursery rhyme within. Help your kids to dream with a Biblical tale about hate, says Rodriguez. Once more, a protest song follows. Rich Folks’ Hoax has an ironic take on the class-system: Rich folks have the same jokes / And they park in basic places. Jane S. Piddy is a weird song that will be repeated in its concept in the second album. Among incredibly poetic lyrics, random name-dropping happens. Who are all these people, nobody knows and nobody cares, I guess that’s the message.

I saw my reflection in my father’s final tears
The wind was slowly melting, San Francisco disappears
Acid heads, unmade beds, and you Woodward world queers

If this has not been enough for you, then don’t bother to wait for the next post, which will take on Rodriguez’s second and last (so far) studio album.

Capitalist Anti-Semitism

Oakland, CA

Jean-Paul Sartre tickles my mind. So, when I come across one of his books that I haven’t already read, I grab it and I  take it home. There it sits for a while, until the time is ripe (and my mind is free). This time I didn’t go for either a novel or a theatrical piece. I approached a libellum titled “Anti-Semite and Jew” written in France in 1944 (date and place are important in this respect). Knowing that Sartre is not Jewish and that he is politically a Marxist, I couldn’t answer the riddle that the title created until I read the first pages. In line with much existentialist literature of the time, JPS chose an issue of current socio-political relevance in order to abstract the fundamental question further up to a more general level. Just like Sartre in his narrative, here I would like to express my pleasure for reading the book and my take-home lesson with a very simple language.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (here I include free versions: html and pdf) was written in 1944, after the Nazi occupation was over in France, but well before the war ended and the crimes against the Jews were fully disclosed and accounted. The title in French is more elusive: Réflexions sur la question juive is less provocative and more to the point. In this book, JPS deconstructs anti-Semitism and portrays the customs of (French) society for what these really are. Jewness is harder to spot in a person than skin color. For this reason, the reading that I filtered through from the book is more far-reaching than what one can imagine at the beginning. At one point, especially if you’re just starting to understand race in a more systemic way like I am, you can read beyond the characters on the pages and play more with the crude words of the French philosopher.

Sartre, apparently using Instagram

Sartre starts by making everybody in France who carried the book – or read part of it in Les Temps Modernes – feel anti-Semite. There aren’t anti-Semite opinions. There are just anti-Semites. People who buy into stereotypes of street culture (and fascist propaganda),  people who turn a blind eye on the issue, people that cannot shake off from their mindset the prejudices against a race-less, nation-less (at the time) community. JPS also marks the distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic Jew. The latter being someone who denies himself, his roots, his personality, in order to appear less of a Jew to his fellow compatriots, who in addition advocate for the universal man, the Frenchman, devoid of any characterization besides his nationalism. [note: here I use the same gender courtesy that the translator used in the version that I read. Both the anti-Semite and the Jew are male types – French is a romance language and the masculine is commonly used as a neuter gender.] Crooked noses and curly hair are simply not enough to define a Jew, but are chatacteristics that can be singled out in a Jewish person. The path of the deconstruction of anti-Semitism is very long for JPS, who winds to all sides of human behavior and psychology.

He argues that anti-Semitism is driven by passion. One not justified by a direct provocation, causing anger not through logic. But, as he notes, one must “consent to anger before it can manifest itself.” So the anti-Semite has chosen to hate. In opposition to a concept, not something real. The anti-Semite’s Jewish friends are never a direct target of his anger. But when the crowd shouts: “I hate the Jews”, he joins. Sartre also discusses the reason for Jews’ attachment to money and possession, as the only legal, tangible means to emancipation that an outcast of society can seek for. Here’s the twist: JPS portrays the anti-Semite as member of the middle-class, angry at the Jew, member of the nonproducer, burgeois class. But “The Jew is free to do evil, not good” and therefore he is also a ruthless Bolshevik ready to destroy France in the name of Socialism. The anti-Semite’s arguments are very hard to sort out: he believes in Good and Evil and is certain of his position and of the position of the Jew in this configuration. JPS’s Marxist soul appears here to throw light on the essence of the class struggle is between two world orders, alternative in their administration of humanity and nature, both far from the perfection typically associated with the archetypal symbols of Good and Evil. Sartre pulls also the existentialist card by noting that the anti-Semite is afraid of himself, his consciousness, and his liberty, not of the Jew. The anti-Semite is a coward who would rather be a stone than a man.

One-third of the book is already gone and JPS has just acknowledged what the XXI century reader has already figured out: the anti-Semite only needs the Jew as a pretext; his counterpart elsewhere “will make use of the Negro or of the man of yellow skin”. The second chapter is dedicated to spiting the democrat, the universalist, the enlightened, etc. who only recognizes man, “man always the same in all times and places”. The democrat’s acceptance of the Jew as a man leads to the denial of the latter as a Jew. What follows is the creation of the inauthentic Jew as a way of mini-salvation for the Jew. Sartre aptly describes this condition in Part III as a conscious choice and dwells philosophically and pragmatically on it (the term is of course devoid of any moral blame, as the philosopher clearly states). There, he also rejects the definition of race as “that indefinable complex into which are tossed pell-mell both somatic characteristics, and intellectual and moral traits.” At the same time, JPS slashes those who “can’t see race,” but only individuals. Then he goes on against the defenders of the true France and the purity of the Frenchman. As usual, Sartre takes everybody to court. Interestingly, the theme of the judgement comes in the book with the assimilation of the condition of the Jew to that of the hero of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

For JPS, however, there is a clear culprit: “It is our eyes that reflect to him [the Jew] the unacceptable image that he wishes to dissimulate. It is our words and our gestures – all of our words and all of our gestures – our anti-Semitism, but equally our condescending liberalism that have poisoned him. […] It is we who force him into the dilemma of Jewish authenticity or inauthenticity”. The choice of inauthenticity stands before the Jew who is “haunted by the spectre of violence”, and chooses to deny himself in order to be left alone.

One of the chief problems with Sartre’s argument is the treatment of Zionism just as a byproduct of all this hatred. It becomes harmful for the authentic Jew and an additional weapon in the anti-Semite arsenal. JPS only lightly touches upon the issue of the colonization of Palestine under Zionist principles. But our dear philosopher could not imagine that the course of the events would have taken such inflexible path.

The fourth, and last part sums up the argument and deals with solutions. The “regressive social force” of anti-Semitism is to be countered by propaganda and education, which alas will not prove effective enough. Let’s not forget that the anti-Semite is the champion of legality in France. Anti-Semitism is the product of the burgeois division of society in classes, communities, and sections. The Jew cannot accept assimilation in such a world – he must fight for a society without anti-Semitism. “What is there to say except that the socialist revolution is necessary to and sufficient for the suppression of anti-Semitism? It is for the Jew also that we shall make the revolution.”

The revolution indeed. What struck me the most about this book is the possibility to cross out and substitute the words anti-Semite and Jew with analogous oppressor-oppressed dynamics (white-all other colors/types; even rich-poor, although most of his reasonings remain relevant through racial arguments). Only a change in the type of society we live in may bring about the obliteration of such dynamic. White oppression is synonymous with capitalist oppression. It’s about time that we realize it.

In the words of Richard Wright: “There is no Negro problem in the United States, there is only a White problem”. There’s no poverty, racism, inequality, exploitation, pollution… there’s just their root-cause: capitalism – the Evil we should fight against.

Ain’t No Monti High Enough

Giarre, Italy

This article is about the crisis. Addressed from a non-expert perspective, because I don’t think anyone who hasn’t survived an earthquake or a shipwreck should have a say in this as an “expert in crisis management”. We’re all newbies, especially when old academics tell us this is comparable to the 1929 economic meltdown. None of us was there then, at least in managerial positions. If some superman is out there to prove me wrong, he’s probably too old and senile to understand what goes on today. We’re all guessing. Sarà presto tradotto in italiano.

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell insisted that love would overcome every kind of obstacle. At least for the three minutes they sang “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough“. Tammi died prematurely and her friend Marvin had to face the rough truth of the unsurmountable barrier of death. Styx and Acheron are indeed “rivers wide enough”. The “too-big-to-fail” economic paradigm of the last few years has displayed the same gay optimism of Gaye&Terrell. The only difference is that it gave false hopes to investors, small portfolio owners, and passer-by citizens. Not to teenagers at a concert. The new millennium’s ubercapitalism is trying new ways of dealing with its contradictions, no longer retorting to welfare and keynesian policies, which, together with nationalism first and the ideological divide of the Cold War later, have kept the system alive.

With no social-democratic parties left at the governments throughout Europe, there’s little chance that the reforms needed for the survival of capitalism will be carried forward. Social-democracy, in fact, has held high the banner of capitalism through expansive policies that shrank the gap between classes, although never standing for equality – when they did, they needed votes from the left – and progressively abandoning the idea of proletarian struggle – they also needed votes from the center. The conservative wave of the early-to-mid 2000s has been followed by a harsh economic crisis and by more conservative rounds of elections. The lower and lower turnout shows that those who disagree tend to abandon the electoral circus as well. Social-democracy, however, is in crisis: it cannot manage to recover from the defeat and present itself as the alternative. In my opinion, this happens because of the loss of memory that the social movements experience cyclically. There is no solution to this. One must not hope that a Democratic Party or a Social-democratic Party would come in and solve problems in a way that escapes capitalist dynamics.

Monti "The Savior"

States have overlooked the financial bonanza that was rampaging under their noses, when banks gained high revenues on the fictitious money they lent out. All that virtual money inflated the bubble that exploded a few years ago with an irregular and blind domino effect. In fewer words, states failed to regulate a market that was overtaking their sovereignty. When a financial institution owns private debt, public debt, and finances campaigns, there is little chance for statesmen to avoid bowing and nodding to every de-regulation request by banks. Meanwhile, another kind of financial organization stepped in and played dirtier capitalism, rating agencies. Based either in London or in New York and composed by formations of MBA graduates and STATA-thirsty economists, rating agencies have graded states’ debt for decades. However, due to the crisis, they started to selectively downgrade states’ ratings and putting their economy in jeopardy. With crumbling economies, European, American, and selected countries east of the Urals suffered the worst social and political crisis of the past 50 years.

Banks overriding states, financial derivatives circumventing the law, and the uncertain behavior of former powers towards the rise of new ones led to a blatant democratic deficit in the Western world. And, while I do not think that “democracy” is something standard and invented by the West, in this case, I consider a lack of democracy “Western style”. Electoral politics have lost their importance and appeal to the public. Only in 2011 we saw all sorts of anti activities, from indignados in Spain to the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement in the US to riots in Greece. Millions of people mobilized by the feeling that there’s something wrong with the way society is run and that are not willing to pose in yet another electoral snapshot. Those who campaigned for a party last year, now are unwilling to do it again (cfr. the Forconi in Sicily) and see “all politicians and powerful men as the same“. This is the deepest democratic crisis the Western world has undergone since its creation – yes, the concept of “West” is man-made, therefore susceptible of change – and it seems that the ruling class is not aware of the danger it faces.

The solution that the West is proposing is austerity: “Tighten your belts, folks, we have to keep capitalism alive and this time the 99% of you is going to pay for it in cash.” As if it was the normality to think about capitalism as the solution of all problems. Sure, when it works, when measures are taken to fight highs that are too high and lows that are too low, capitalism is nice to most of people. But it’s in time of crisis that people start putting it into question, or even talk about its existence, as is now happening in the US. I say that there could be another way. There is little need to sell out Greece, Sicily, and Spain to solve Europe’s financial ratings. After all, every state is sovereign. Yet, there seems to be no alternative to the natural discourse of the capitalist ruling class and Monti’s provisions for Italy – just like the other “technical” government in power in Greece – are seen as a necessary evil. The spirit of self-subsistence of capitalism has subtly pervaded the souls of the ordinary people and has become their mission. There’s much need for people to stand up and show that things can be done out of the capitalist box, which for many has become a cage. For this reason, I stand against Social Democratic and so-called Socialist parties that bow to the almighty god of money and finance instead of pursuing the ideals that originated them.

Al Capolinea – Seconda Parte

Ragusa-Giarre, Italia

Ho recentemente perso l’abitudine e l’interesse per l’esercizio del mio diritto-dovere di voto. Uno dei motivi è che spesso mi trovo temporaneamente all’estero e il nostro Paese non rende agevole l’esercizio di voto al di fuori del proprio comune di residenza. Infatti, anche durante la mia esperienza domiciliare in Romagna mi sentivo all’estero, dato che per votare avrei dovuto stare in treno per 36 ore in 3 giorni e vedermi rimborsato solo la metà del biglietto. Un altro motivo è la reale corrispondenza tra la meccanica azione di mano e matita e l’effetto sperato. Specialmente le elezioni nazionali funzionano in maniera poco influenzabile dal voto, dato che le liste sono ordinate secondo liste decise dai segretari di partito e anche la selezione post-elettorale è un’azione concertata all’interno delle sezioni partitiche. Assicurato “il posto” ai pezzi grossi del partito, si procede a scegliere dove questi debbano rifiutare in favore di altri che non sarebbero rientrati tra gli eletti se i capilista non si fossero candidati ovunque. Il procedimento a percolato (parola familiare agli italiani grazie alla copertura mediatica del disastro dei rifiuti campani – credo che come metafora sia anche pertinente) ha impedito agli italiani per ben due volte di avere un senso forte di controllo sulle proprie scelte.

Ma la ragione che mi ha portato a smettere di temperare la matita e di collezionare timbri elettorali sul mio personalissimo album è di principio. L’eccitazione giovanile è andata perduta, i partiti che ho appoggiato non sono mai riusciti a ottenere seggi (né al Parlamento italiano, né a quello europeo, né a quello siciliano). Ho “sprecato il mio voto” – come avrebbe detto Veltroni nel 2008. L’unica volta che il mio voto ha avuto successo, ho dovuto scrivere il mio cognome a lettere maiuscole per far sì che mio padre fosse eletto al Consiglio comunale. Dopo aver perso la sua prima elezione del nuovo millennio per uno scherzo anagrafico (avevo 17 anni e 348 giorni), non potevo mancare alla seconda. Ma da allora ho maturato una forte apprensione verso i sistemi elettorali, le loro distorsioni e i loro effetti politici. E infine ho compreso che il cambiamento che tanto auspico non può essere ottenuto attraverso le riforme socialdemocratiche.

Come descritto in precedenza, il PD non rappresenta una forza socialdemocratica e quindi non dovrebbe essere un problema per me. Invece lo è a livello nazionale perché “ruba la scena” e non permette la formazione contrapposta di un partito socialdemocratico da una parte e di uno conservator-popolare dall’altro, fingendo di incarnarli entrambi.

A livello siciliano, invece, le cose vanno peggio. Il PD ha stra-perso le ultime elezioni regionali, dove l’on. Anna Finocchiaro ha fatto peggio contro Lombardo rispetto alla grande prestazione della Borsellino contro la macchina del vasa-vasa Totò Cuffaro, ora al fresco. La Finocchiaro e tutto il suo partito sono stati ridicolizzati dal mero ricordo del tentativo di Rita di emancipare la Sicilia dal suo stato di minorità feudal-mafioso. Ebbene, ricaduti in questo stato di meschinità, con un governo regionale criminale, il PD ha deciso di non sfruttare l’onda che disgregò il centrodestra, con la secessione del PdL dal Movimento per l’Autonomia (MpA) prima, e con lo smembramento del PdL dopo. Invece, in combutta col potere, ha aderito al progetto Lombardo assicurandogli la maggioranza all’Assemblea Regionale (Ars) in cambio di due assessori “tecnici”, che in realtà sono quadri di partito. Alcuni di essi mirano inoltre a guidare il partito alle prossime elezioni comunali di Palermo, in preparazione per le prossime regionali.

Negli anni 90, il vocabolario della lingua italiana si è arricchito della parola inciucio. In questo caso ritengo adeguato che si parli nuovamente di inciucio. Questo è un esempio di “accordo sottobanco, un compromesso riservato tra fazioni formalmente avversarie, ma che in realtà attuano, anche con mezzi ed intenti poco leciti, una logica di spartizione del potere”. E l’inciucio, noi di sinistra ce lo aspettavamo dagli altri, forse non in Sicilia, ma in Italia sì. Ma non si è mossa una critica dai coordinatori nazionali del PD verso gli strani comportamenti dei colleghi siciliani. Neanche da quelli che prima della caduta del muro erano i difensori delle masse, i rappresentanti del quarto stato e i sostenitori dell’uguaglianza sociale e dell’integrità politica.

La grande verità è che i tempi di Gramsci e Togliatti sono finiti. Il riformismo di Napolitano e Macaluso è lontano quanto i loro discorsi alle fumose assemblee di sezione. Il comunismo italiano si è adagiato nel mondo ovattato della conservazione fin dalla fine degli anni 60. Impossibile cambiare? Allora adeguiamoci! Questo motto ha rovinato la vis rivoluzionaria e ha sopito i sogni di evoluzione sociale. In parallelo ai partiti – pure il PSI ha colpe imperdonabili -, anche i sindacati si sono arroccati nella loro posizione di stampatori di tessere e difensori dello status quo. E purtroppo non è rimasto nessuno a rappresentare i giovani, i disoccupati, i nuovi poveri e tutte le vittime dell’ineguale sistema capitalista. Ci si stupisce poco quando gli indignati si lanciano “contro la politica” – anziché contro i partiti – e i Forconi agiscono, ricordando le camicie nere, per rivalsa contro il potere che hanno contribuito a installare. La Sicilia, in questo momento mi preoccupa.

Mi preoccupo della verità effettuale del sistema politico perché credo che solo grazie all’analisi accurata dei “colli di bottiglia” (da cui il nome del blog), i nodi fondamentali, si possa riuscire a comprendere che alcune falle intaccano la struttura fondamentale del principio di rappresentanza democratica e lo affondano. Queste sono falle sistemiche che non possono essere curate da qualche pezzo di legno o da una toppa di plastica. È necessario – e possibile – cambiare completamente la coscienza di coloro che si sentono “cittadini” di uno “Stato che non li rappresenta”. Bisogna aprire gli occhi e gridare con forza quando si vedono le incongruenze di un sistema politico autoreferenziale che si finanzia con soldi pubblici e privati e fa solo gli interessi privati di coloro che vanno a ricoprire incarichi pubblici (dibattito corrente). Bisogna sconfessare chi tradisce gli ideali che pubblicizza sui suoi manifesti. Bisogna educare alla democrazia con nuove e illuminate idee, che non si concretizzino necessariamente alla luce fioca di una cabina elettorale o del salotto da dibattito televisivo.

La Rivoluzione Siciliana

Oakland, California. È necessario parlarne. Dei Forconi nessuno ha parlato per una settimana. Adesso “ci si sposta a Roma”. Credo che sia pericoloso per la democrazia e che manchi totalmente la presenza delle forze di sinistra. Ho scritto questo articolo il 19 gennaio e l’ho proposto a un paio di pubblicazioni, ma evidentemente il disinteresse è tale che non rispondono neanche alle e-mail (dopo 5 giorni qualcuno ha poi risposto, in realtà).

Una settimana prima dell’inizio dello sciopero, il leader del movimento, Mariano Ferro, aveva avvertito: “Ricorderete questo giorno come l’inizio di una rivoluzione pacifica. La rivoluzione dei siciliani”. Il 16 gennaio, come annunciato, è cominciato lo sciopero: ai mezzi commerciali non è stato permesso di percorrere indisturbati le proprie rotte e i porti principali sono stati obiettivo di occupazione. L’isola è “bloccata” come dicono le principali testate nei trafiletti di quarta pagina che dedicano all’evento. I capi del “Movimento dei Forconi” o di “Forza d’Urto” – qualunque sia il nome che decidano di dare all’organizzazione della protesta – usano termini grandiosi e parlano di cambiamento epocale, mentre i mass media additano il prezzo della benzina come unica causa del malcontento.

È logico che la posizione dei promotori dell’evento sia così distante da quella della stampa. E cercare di capire i meccanismi editoriali che ne dettano le priorità non è lo scopo di questo scritto. Capire invece perché questo movimento è nato, come sia riuscito a ottenere successo e quali siano le forze che lo sostengono e lo dirigono è fondamentale per prendere una posizione in merito. Già, perché chiudere gli occhi davanti alla vicenda non fa altro che dare ragione alla protesta dei siciliani, che si sentono abbandonati dai palazzi di Palermo, ma soprattutto tagliati fuori dalle dinamiche nazionali ed europee.

Quando la parola “rivoluzione” echeggia nell’aria, chi conosce la storia drizza le orecchie. Il povero vocabolario corrente pone di fronte agli occhi dei lettori espressioni vuote che, messe in fila, recitano: “gli indignados dei forconi” “contro la crisi” e “apartitici” “bloccano l’isola”. Tuttavia, sappiamo che ciò non basta per generare la protesta di più di centomila siciliani. Molti di questi, infatti, sono stati costretti a scioperare dai picchetti formati dall’unica sigla sindacale degli autotrasportatori che ha diretto il blocco: l’Aias di Giuseppe Richichi. Non sono mancati scontri, anche fisici, con chi ha provato a forzare il blocco. Le tre principali richieste del movimento sono: la defiscalizzazione del tributo regionale sui carburanti, l’azzeramento del governo palermitano e l’attivazione di canali di negoziazione con l’Unione Europea al fine di emendare la legislazione esistente in termini più favorevoli all’agricoltura siciliana.

Vedere le lacrime correre dagli occhi di anziani agricoltori la cui terra ha iperbolicamente perso di valore negli ultimi anni e pertanto è rimasta incolta è un’esperienza che capita a chiunque abbia voglia di girare per le campagne siciliane. Non è quindi mai accaduto alla classe dirigente siciliana, che preferisce i salotti dell’Assemblea Regionale Siciliana (Ars) ai fondi dell’ennese o alle chiuse ragusane. Non è mai accaduto neanche alla classe dirigente nazionale, pur essendo essa composta in parte più che proporzionale da isolani. Ma essi ricordano dei loro fratelli e sorelle solo quando è tempo di raccogliere i loro consensi, trasformando le tornate elettorali in vendemmie stagionali, delle quali i siciliani subiscono solamente la fase della pigiatura.

È così che Anna Finocchiaro, senatrice PD eletta tra le liste emiliano-romagnole ma originaria dei “salotti buoni” di Catania, licenzia con poche e brevi parole lo sciopero, un “diritto democratico” che sta “mettendo in ginocchio l’Isola” – non siamo sicuri che la lettera maisucola l’abbia scelta lei – ed è necessario che si ritorni a “una situazione di normalità”. Ivan Lo Bello, presidente di Confindustria Sicilia, si occupa degli affari e si preoccupa del blocco, aggredendo il movimento e bollando le sue azioni come inefficaci. Non ci deve stupire che la protesta, benché acefala, non piaccia alle forze della conservazione.

Il cosiddetto “Movimento dei Forconi” è nato come segno di protesta durante la visita del Ministro dell’Agricoltura Saverio Romano, palermitano, la cui permanenza al dicastero di via XX Settembre fu breve e inconsistente nel 2011. Da lì, il caro benzina e la manovra rapace del governo “tecnico” che non risponde alle dinamiche parlamentari, ma le detta, hanno fomentato il movimento e lo hanno trasformato in “Forza d’Urto”, che racchiude i Forconi e altri gruppi e sigle simpatizzanti. Ciò che fa specie a chi conosce l’ambiente politico dell’isola, è che coloro che pochi mesi fa sgomitavano per essere immortalati sorridenti insieme ai governanti locali, coloro che li fecero eleggere, coloro che spesso illecitamente dettano le regole del gioco economico dell’isola o le applicano, sono lì, forconi alla mano a bloccare i caselli autostradali.

I siti web che si sono occupati della vicenda hanno sottolineato quasi immediatamente che l’apartiticità del movimento è poco trasparente, visto che le bandiere di partito non sono ammesse, ma sono benvenuti personaggi la cui biografia reazionaria – e spesso anche fascista – è ben conosciuta. Essi sono coloro che il movimento lo hanno acceso fin dall’inizio, con la retorica ben oliata contro il Presidente della Regione Raffaele Lombardo e i suoi cinque fallimentari governi in una sola amministrazione. Ma prima che definire i centomila siciliani che hanno contribuito al blocco dell’isola “fascisti” o “rivoluzionari”, credo che serva un passo indietro.

Quello che si è visto e si è letto, nei simboli, nei comportamenti, nelle cantilene che i promotori e gli astanti sciorinano ai microfoni è segno pericoloso della direzione che le energie siciliane hanno preso. Il fiume che ha levigato gli oppressori, i borboni, i fascisti e i mafiosi quando c’era la piena, oggi si rivolge contro il potere costituito procurando più rumore che altro. Sembrano prove tecniche di una marcia su Palermo. Riecheggiano le baionette di Bixio e quelle di Portella della Ginestra, non le grida di libertà di Caltavaturo o di Calatafimi. Sembra che stavolta i siciliani abbiano scelto di scommettere sul cavallo sbagliato, quello del qualunquismo e dell’azione di rottura, ma senza una visione di progresso.

Abbiamo già sbagliato in passato proprio perché abbiamo agito d’istinto, senza ragionare. Come uomini d’onore d’antan, ci sorprendiamo, ci angustiamo e ci lasciamo ribollire il sangue, quando ci troviamo di fronte a un torto subito. Tuttavia, oggi non dobbiamo lasciare il campo alla cieca ignoranza e tuffarci tra le braccia del primo che si autoproclamipater patriae. Questo dei Forconi è un movimento che deve destare le forze politiche che hanno dimenticato la forza della Sicilia e che deve stuzzicare la passione dei siciliani verso l’alternativa. Un’alternativa egalitaria, civile, legalitaria e di liberta. E antifascista.

Revolution in Sicily

Oakland, California

It could seem pretentious to write about Sicily from an apartment on the border between Oakland and Emeryville. And in certain ways, it is. However, contrary to all the others that are writing from Rome, Milan, or even Catania and Palermo, I dug far deep in the news and the online content to understand the problems in Sicily. This simple effort that lasted hours allowed me to be better informed than many other Sicilians. Thank you notes still echoing on Facebook, I decided to tell in English the story of the events that shook the Mediterranean island in the past five days.

It all began when the leaders of the movement began talking about “revolution”. Such a word tickles the mind of those who know history. Born in Sicily twenty-something years ago and with a special addiction to democratic ideals, I threw myself into the issue and tried to fill  the gap left by the national press that cared more about a sinking boat than a social uprising. I sent my story to a couple of publications, but they were lacking the basic courtesy that is needed to push “Reply” buttons. The world is hectic, if we cared about everything, we wouldn’t have time to sleep, apparently. I would rather not sleep than surrender to ignorance.

English-speaking friends have to cross the Godfather’s line before being able to understand the dynamics that today’s Sicily is faced with. That the Mafia has her tentacles spread around businesses and local governments is a stuctural fact. Therefore one must not be surprised when hearing allegation about criminal infiltrates in the protest. However, the protest was organized by fascist-lenient characters who had recently raided the countryside and the suburbs collecting votes for the currently ruling party in exchange for promises and favors. The vote-for-patronage mechanism has been the foundational engine of liberal democracy. In late Nineteenth century Britain, candidates would give a ride on their flaming two-cilinder automobile to potential voters in exchange for their consent. While many political realities have emancipated from this fictitious behavior, Sicily has not.

The current government has risen to power with and against the main conservative and progressive forces that sheepishly govern Italy. The third-partyism of this force (MPA) is charged with separatist rhetoric, demagogic parlance, and shady practices. With the economic crisis strangling people living across-the-boot-and-on-the-islands, the local government has done little to speak up in defense of the overwhelming majority of Sicilians that voted them in office. Seizing this opportunity, those who backed the candidacy of the Movement for Autonomy (MPA) now turn around and utter their disappointment taking the streets.

The main organizers were former MPA supporters, one union of truck-drivers, and fascist movements. Whoever is in the movement would surely ask me to prove my allegations. I answer with the advice of looking through the biographies of those chaps. The protest is led by the same male partiarchic herd that has carried the political and social life of Sicilians through the barrel of a gun. Now they call themselves “The Pitchforks” though they’ve never seen hay. Sicilian countrymen wipe their tears when they talk about their land, abandoned and fruitless. Sicilian moms scream and thump their breasts because they lack the bare minimum to feed their children. Young Sicilians are forced to leave the island to seek higher education and job opportunities. These experienced are not shared by the governing forces nor by the protesting mob.

The Pitchforks want the regional fee on gasoline to be scrapped, the EU regulations to be lighter and more permissive both on agriculture and fishing, and the same-old-faces that rule the region to step down. All this stands on the claim that “people are fed up and won’t take it anymore”. Void words apparently garner more approval than lengthy articles or years of activism. In an interview to a national channel, the spokesman of the anti-mafia association Libera sadly admitted that organized crime is a sheer reality that one cannot just rule out and it grows amidst popular discontent. And, I add, it fosters its position through playing void words on the tense strings of the man next door’s guts. A similar strategy is carried forward by extreme right organization that seek to fuel turmoil with violence and threats.

Fascist practices on one side are mirrored by anti-sistemic behavior on the other. Anarchist and communist groups have jumped on the bandwagon sending their younger troops (high-schooler and college students) to the streets. The media emphasized the burning of an Italian flag (to which many fascists responded: “See? There’s no infiltration, no fascist would have done that!”). It hurts to see that the anti-fascist and social principles with which that flag was sowed were now turning to ashes. Ironically, the callow kid that lit the flag on fire could probably trace back in his family tree a few relatives that had fought Mussolini and his black shirts or the Burbon army, thus giving significance to the symbol he was so easily stepping over.

What is missing in the picture? Moderates are on vacation, extremists are in the streets… Politics! A high-level debate on the role of the Sicilian government in combination with the national and European one. A dialogue on the role of traditional economic sectors (agriculture, fishing, and heavy industry) in Sicily and on their sustainability in the new millennium. Why is nobody educating the masses in what are the real problems of our – Sicilian – society? While the 5-day strike was taking place, the last judicial settlement allowed former workers of a bathroom fittings company to purchase the foreclosed factory and continue the production through a renewed business plan. Workers that consciously re-gain the property of the means of production. This is a lesson to follow and admire. Against the crisis there’s more to do than burn flags or beat up those who try to cross picket lines.

A footnote is necessary here: I tried to contact a couple of publications presenting them the Italian version of this article (a slightly different version) but I received no response. So I posted it on Facebook and I received a whole bunch of warm replies, many of which engendered constructive dialogues, even with the most active and stubborn characters. I will be going to Sicily at the beginning of February. I want to know more, I want to see if the time is ripe for some serious discussion about our future there. One can get most of the information from the web, but to change the status quo, fieldwork is needed.

Acephalous Violence is Beheaded again in Kazakhstan

I have been writing this article over the course of a week. Partially because of my phisical move from San Francisco (my last activity at the Java Café on Ocean Avenue) to Oakland (the first effort in a house that keeps getting busier with much needed stuff). But also because the unraveling of the events shows how illusive is the first set of news that pops up from the papers. I guess Gutenberg was not happy of the first sheet that came out of his press. And he didn’t even write the Bible! Nowadays, instead, we read freshly-puked articles from mainstream media as if they were the Bible. Why not getting a new perspective, or just imagine there is another one?

San Francisco and Oakland (on the move), California

(a) The Logo for the Celebrations

Kazakhstan has been independent from the late Soviet Union for 20 years now. It has become the friendliest post-Soviet economy for the West and has actively participated in many international organizations. In the past couple of years, it has diversified its hydrocarbon export routes and has developed a great international reputation in the energy sector (including nuclear). Power is firmly in the hands of Nursultan Nazarbayev and his extended family since 1987 and nobody questions it. There is a caste system that dates back to the pre-Imperial Russia period and only thanks to a presidential push, the Kazakh language is spreading within all sectors of society – although the diplomatic community speaks Russian. From the West, the view of this immense country  is filtered through dollar-shaped lenses and dazed by the smell of oil. Only the facility of filing taxes, just a touch away from your mobile phone [1], and the convenient investment environment for foreign firms have drawn attention.

Welcome to the Nineties

Kazakhstan is the country where Chevron could lead a consortium of firms for the exploitation of the “giant” oilfield in Tengiz (see green pin on the map below), the contract being signed i 1993, just over a year after independence, with negotiations starting already in 1988. Later in the Nineties, TengizChevrOil was the leading force pushing for th first privately-owned pipeline project in the post-Soviet space, the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, which saw the light in 2001, linking Tengiz with the Russian port of Novorossiisk. The OECD was fast in labeling Kazakhstan among the fastest transitioning countries, allowing presence of western firms and holding seemingly “contested” elections. However, Nazarbayev knew that a full-fledged laissez faire approach would have pleased the West and risen tension among its neighbors, chiefly Russia, headed by Nazarbayev’s personal adversary, Boris Yeltsin.

(b) December 16, 2011 – An Arc de triomphe replica is unveiled in Astana.

When Kozyrev the “Westernizer” left Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make room for Primakov, Nazarbayev understood that the time was ripe for a clear sign of detachment from the giant neighbor. When Moscow unveiled that the presence of many Russian citizens – who were provided passports during the first half of the Nineties – could become an anchor for revanchist programs, [2] Nazarbayev acted decidedly and in 1997 moved the capital city from Almaty (Alma Ata) to Aqmola, in the Aqmolinsk province [3], renamed Astana, “capital”, for the occasion. The northbound move was a clear sign of Kazakhstan’s unwillingness for any attempt of annexation, not just an emulation of Ataturk’s abandonment of Istanbul and its spiritual charge, in favor of the more secular Ankara.

The 1998 crisis that hit the Russian Federation mitigated the revanchist threat on Kazakhstan. Western development programs were at pace and easily shaped the institutional friendliness of a country in much need for customers to buy its immense energy endowment.

2000s: The Party is Over and Mixed Emotions Arise

Around the turn of the century, while Putin was rising to power in Russia, an exploration off the Kazakh Caspian coasts prospected the existence of a relevant oil basin. Kashagan became the new Tengiz and foreign firms jumped on their boats and poured money in for winning the bid to administer the project. The western excitement, however, was to be countered by a novel strong stance by Kazakh authorities in terms of natural resources ownership. In 2002, the various state-owned agencies that were assigned with energy-related tasks fused into a single body, KazMunaiGaz, chaired by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev [for a recent update, see below]. This move created an energy ogre that became the main interlocutor for foreign firms to secure contracts in the Kazakh territory. Moreover, in 2005 Kazakhstan scrapped the Production Sharing Agreement legislation and became more hostile to foreign intervention, especially in the energy realm.

Meanwhile, the Parliament put forward the proposition to grant Nazarbayev lifetime presidency. Nursultan Abishevich’s NUR-OTAN party was in control of the national assembly, of the polls, of every election, and it had already suggested that the capital were renamed Nursultan, but the president himself called for a de-personalization of Kazakh politics, to counterbalance the Turkmen example. As though it wasn’t plain and clear that there was only a few, related individuals in charge of the fate of the country.

OSCE finally admitted that electoral results with 90% or more of all casted votes in favor of just one party or one person were not to be labeled “free and fair”. However, its retaliation was to defer by two years its gift to Astana: the Vienna-based organization honored Nazarbayev with the first post-Soviet chairmanship in 2010.

Oil Workers: When Were We Socialist?

(c) The Coat-of-Arms of the Kazakh SSR

Socialism was superimposed in the lands of post-Tsarist Russia as a natural consequence of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. However, a few countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia had seized the opportunity of the fall of the Romanov dinasty and created their own independent sovereign states. These were “taken back” by St. Petersburg shortly after and to their administration, the Politburo often assigned native Russian cadres. Without attachment to the population and in direct contact with the central organization of the USSR, the local secretaries were in charge of administering the division of labor within the Union, which became stricter and faster-paced with Stalin’s plans, especially around the period of the Second World War. While Khrushschyov was rising to power, Leonid Brezhnev, the future Party Secretary, was assigned the highest post in Kazakhstan. The Khrushchevian “Virgin Land policy” accompanied by Brezhnev’s corrupt practices initiated a whirlwind mechanism that brought in a strong re-personalization of local politics in Central Asia and a rigid and corruption-ridden economic structure. Dinmukhamed Kunayev became the uncontested leader of the Kazakh Communist Party for decades upon Brezhnev’s departure to Moscow.

The fundamental question here is where to find Socialism, with capital “S”, within the experience of Soviet Kazakhstan. How and when did Kazakh workers emancipate themselves from the alienation typical of industrial economic relations?

To such a question posed by my Socialist imaginary interlocutor, I would respond in historical terms. Kazakhstan has been dominated by “hordes”, nomad dinasties descending from Mongol tribes that were charged, throughout history of different degrees of prestige. Upon annexation to the Russian Empire, tribal politics faded away, given the little of emphasis posed on it by Russian governors. Tribal politics however, managed to survive the neutral “Soviet” and “Kazakhstani” periods when the law did not treat citizens differently according to the horde they belonged to. In fact, today, even without a formal legal framework, a much stronger caste system permeates the Kazakh society.

Kazakh has also been the “storage compartment” for chemical, spatial, and nuclear industries, which constantly called for skilled Soviet labor, – besides Russians, many Ukranians and Germans settled in the northern regions, especially near the Baikonur cosmodrome – and for dissidents from the Caucasus, who, shortsightedly, hailed as liberators the Nazi army during the battle in Stalingrad and were sent to labor camps in the Kazakh steppes. St. Petersburg and Moscow have in turn operated as the deus ex-machina of the fate of the land of the Kazakhs, especially in terms of the working class.

When Marx was writing about his solution of the contradictions of capitalism, he had in mind English factory workers, not nomad peasants and foreign skilled workers installed in a man-made industrial complex. Lenin could not have forseen this either, notwithstanding his comprehensive study of the peasant question, because he came from a very European environment. What is here to be argued about what came to be “the Kazakh working class” is that it has never seen an original institution and the atomization of the country has led to a very stable country united under the flag of the main party NUR-OTAN and the figure of Nazarbayev, who was able to build a widespread cult for his persona and to become the dear leader of Kazakhstan.

(d) NUR-OTAN – Nazarbayev’s Party

The workers have had little chances to organize and to grow an understanding of their condition, especially in the oilfields. There, skilled workers earn from three to four times as much as the national average wage and are often protected by the immense structure of multinational corporations, who act as benevolent giants, as long as they can extract oil without hassle. The difficulties in building a class conscience has brought to a imperceptible movement against the violation of human rights and liberties that this one-man regime carries out every day, not least the very right to protest. One fact is certain: there has never been any hint of Socialism in Kazakhstan.

To draw a similitude, independent Kazakhstan at 15-20 can be compared to the People’s Republic of China at 50-60. There, dissent with the established power framework is causing riots and protests that are unknown to the media and of which there probably is no record. However, the protest is acephalous: a political direction of the struggle is lacking, and what is hailed as “democratic opposition” in the West is generally driven by wealthy businessmen that only maintain the objective of overthrowing the established power to replace the political figures with more friendly allies. [4] Meanwhile, there are widespread corruption and nepotism tackling workers’ rights with a clear distinction between local manpower and foreign skilled contractors – which has enhanced social unrest within the working class (see below).

In the Press and in Academia

On the day that marked Kazakhstan’s 20 year anniversary of the independence from the Soviet Union, clashes between workers and the police erupted in Zhanaozen, an oil town on the eastern shore of the Caspian sea (see yellow pin on the map below). At least 14 people are reported killed in the incidents, many more were injured and over 70 were arrested. The official source of information in Kazakhstan, KazInform has also pointed out that 46 sites were “looted and burned” during the mass protests, including one house pertaining to the director of the operating company UzhenMunaiGaz.

(e) – An Image from the Protest

One of the President’s Aides told the press that “All citizens of Kazakhstan condemn the events in Zhanaozen”, seizing the role of people’s spokesman. The Federation of Trade Unions, in cahoots with the structure of power, released a declaration condemning the incidents and assuring that none of their affiliates took part in “inconstitutional and illegal actions”. Kazakh authorities labeled protesters with the much worn Russian term хулиган, “hooligan”, often used to address naughty children, and established a three-week long state of emergency in the town. It must be noted that, during the clashes, state authorities acted with with an extraordinary firm fist against the spread of violence. Notably, “Kazakh telecommunications firm Kazakhtelecom turned off social media site Twitter, while phone service in Zhanaozen was reported to be unpredictable.”

(f) The Riot in Tengiz

Protests had arised in 2004 in the Caspian oilfield of Tengiz, and later in 2006, when oil workers from Kazakh origin came to clash with Turkish workers, all employed by the TengizChevroil consortium. This ethno-international confrontation was not a single case in Kazakh-Turkish relations [5]. Hardly just a personal quarrel, it is a sign of the careless approach to labor issues when multinational ventures are assigned energy projects in countries with lax legislation on workers’ rights. It is unsurprising then that in Nazarbayev’s latest condemnation of the Zhanaozen protests, he referenced the oralmany, ethnic Kazakhs from other countries, and asked them to “be grateful to the state.” [6] It is clear that more than an Arab Spring- or terrorist-inspired uprising, the government is trying to play the card of Kazakh authenticity in order to placate the spirits in the country.

Western and the Russian-based media, for different reasons, aim at the same objective. Kazakhstan is a good partner only when it is 100% stable. The first sign of instability triggers very harsh language, acrobatic comparisons, and evergreen allegations. The US Department of State did not hurry, but resolved to condemn the violence three days after, although with much more caution than the OSCE. RIA Novosti titled that the clashes could be a product of the Arab Spring, however fortunately the article itself was a much more clever read. European and American newspapers throw the “terrorism” buzzword in order to make up for their lack of understanding of such a remote region in their readers’ minds.

Thanks to a native scholar, Adil Nurmakov, we learn who financed the organization of the protest from behind the scenes. Mukhtar Ablyazov is a businessman that co-founded an opposition party in 2001, the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and was then arrested in 2002 and sat through a very political trial. Authorities released him after three months of prison upon the promise-obligation that Ablyazov would not be involved in politics anymore (the DCK was dissolved in 2005). The newspaper Respublika and the TV station K+ are directly linked to him and were the only source of information for the Zhanaozen events. How impartial this source could be is for the reader to judge. Be it possible to draw a middle line between governmental news agencies and not-so-democratic opposition, we would live in a logical, almost mathematical world. Alas, we cannot and our judgement must remain devoid of any quick resolution.

[UPDATE] To further blur the picture that many consider perfectly clear in the past few days Nazarbayev has decidedly beheaded the giant holding Samruk-Kazyna, which controls KazMunaiGaz and was chaired by his son-in-law Kulibayev. Dinara Nazarbayeva (or Kulibayeva, depending to the occasion), one of the most influential Central Asian women according to RFE-RL, must be very disappointed seeing her husband and future leader of the country being sacked just like two KMG board members after the Zhanaozen riots. The president perhaps thought that by giving a clear signal of holding the bridle, the raged horses rampaging the streets of western Kazakhstan would be hindered from more action.

The Headless Chicken Keeps on Running

Something holds true however. There is increasing unrest in many countries where capitalism has failed to concede enough protections to those that are being exploited. Capitalism has learned the lesson of crisis management and, due to the apt use of Cold War rhetorics, it has survived the most dire crises throughout the XX century. Nonetheless, debates within business, academic, and political circles seem to prove that capitalism has forgotten the lesson. The hurriedly defined “Arab Spring” [7], the “OccupyWallSt” movement, the white collar protests in Moscow illuminated by the LED light of twittering smartphones, and the Zhanaozen clashes are all offsprings of the same uneasy sentiment. An unconscious class is rising up against the financial system, the great protagonist of the post-Berlin wall era. An economy alienated by itself, where money is generated by money, has provoked a mass discontent vis-a-vis political structures that are unable to sustain themselves through election and welfare.

Where will this bring us to? A graphic similitude can be individuated between the protests and chickens that keep scurrying even after having had their heads cut off. This everlasting period of crisis hinders our ability to stop and think, gather together and design a better world. When you are striving for your daily share of bread or rice, it becomes very hard to reason on of the best way to end inequalities and reach a happy life among happy people. And, what’s worse, there is no room for confrontation and discussion in the highest form. It becomes very hard to share ideas on what to do and how to organize in order to transform will into action. Therefore, we witness confused and disconnected protests that the media is trying to tie back together but in fact have each a peculiar root. Should we finally realize that it is not the single issue but the whole system that is rotten and needs a revolution – in the scientific definition of the term – then we could finally understand that the path to follow has always been in front of our, shortsighted eyes.


[1] From a private conversation with a Kazakh diplomatic officer in Washington DC, March 2011.

[2] See  writings by Aleksandr Solzhenitsin (! – yes, the one known and praised in the West for writing “Gulag Archipelago”), Sergei Karaganov, Andranik Migranian, and Igor Ivanov.

[3] Interestingly, Aqmola means “white tombstone” in Kazakh and was renamed Tselinograd during the Soviet occupation. After regaining the original Kazakh name, Nazarbayev thought it would be nicer to change the name of the prospective capital in something more pleasant than marble-for-graves. This is where the name Astana, directly translating into “capital”, was drawn from. Too bad that, as it always happens in such complex, bureaucracy-ridden states, the name of the province could not be changed. Just like today’s St. Petersburg, Russia’s western jewel mounted in the Leningrad region, Astana lies in the Aqmolinsk province. The permanence of old jurisdiction names led to an awkward consequence for the “capital” of Kazakhstan, which sits in the “white tombstone”.

[4] See the cases of Khodorkovsky in Russia and Tymoshenko in Ukraine.

[5] See Saulesh Yessenova, her article on Central Asia – Caucasus Analyst “Worker Riot at the Tengiz Oilfield: Who Is To Blame?”, February 21, 2007 and her chapter “Tengiz Crude: A View from Below” in Boris Najman, Richard Pomfret, and Gael Raballand (Eds.), The Economics and Politics of Oil in the Caspian Basin: The Redistribution of Oil Revenues in Azarbaijan and Central Asia, Routledge, London, 2008.

[6] Source: Twitter account of Nate Schenkkan, @nateschenkkan

[7] Don’t read this article, please. It is a juvenile ethnocentric attempt at individuating an “Arab Spring” offspring in such undefined and incoherent protests in Kazakhstan.

Photo Credits:

(a) (d) KazInform

(b) kjfnjy album on

(c) Wikipedia




Ragusa, Italy

Il 15 giugno del 2003 avevo compiuto 18 anni da meno di una settimana. Reggevo in mano una nuovissima tessera elettorale che avevo appena guadagnato arrivando alla maggiore età. Ricordo la felicità che provai quando il Ministero dell’Interno indicò la metà di giugno per il referendum. La mia unica felicità per essere arrivato a diciott’anni era appunto poter votare. Finalmente, prendere in mano una matita e porre un segno incancellabile che indicasse la mia volontà di cittadino, nella piena libertà della cabina elettorale. Come regalo di compleanno, la Repubblica Italiana mi consegnò due quesiti referendari. Una brutta abitudine italiana induce i politici a chiedere ai cittadini di “andare al mare” invece di recarsi alle urne, in modo da non far raggiungere il quorum per i quesiti meno convenienti ai poteri forti.

Io non avevo nessuna intenzione di dare priorità al mare. La scuola era finita, potevo andarci prima e dopo aver votato, e per tutti i giorni a seguire fino a settembre. In bicicletta, in motorino… a mare sarei andato comunque. A votare, invece, quando mi sarebbe capitato di nuovo? Berlusconi era saldamente al potere e le più vicine elezioni sarebbero state le Europee del 2004! Come riuscire ad aspettare così tanto?

Nei giorni precedenti al voto mi informo, leggo, ascolto, provo a capire qualcosa. A scuola, ci sorbiamo ore di assemblee di istituto sul valore dello statuto dei lavoratori, oggetto del referendum. Infatti, il primo quesito chiede l’abrogazione dell’art. 18 dello statuto, il che avrebbe significato l’equiparazione ai dipendenti delle aziende con meno di 15 dipendenti a tutti gli altri. Voluto dai sindacati di sinistra, questo referendum mirava ad uniformare la legislazione sul licenziamento dei lavoratori nelle piccole aziende, che erano esclusi dalla protezione dell’art. 18, che consisteva nella dimostrazione da parte del datore di lavoro che il licenziamento era avvenuto per “giusta causa o giustificato motivo”. Il quesito referendario, come da ordinamento italiano, era posto con sintassi negativa e chi volesse allargare la protezione della “giusta causa” avrebbe dovuto apporre un segno sul quadrato che circondava la parola “Sì” sulla scheda.

L’altro quesito, molto meno rilevante a livello mediatico, chiedeva l’abolizione del decreto regio (sì, si trattava di una legge mussoliniana ancora in vigore) che dava facoltà allo Stato di sottrarre degli appezzamenti di terra privati per l’installazione di condotti elettrici o tralicci. In barba a qualsiasi principio di Stato liberale, in cui credevamo di risiedere, la volontà statuale superava il principio della proprietà privata e procedeva a obbligare il passaggio di condutture elettriche ove ritenesse opportuno. L’inquinamento elettromagnetico causato da tralicci e cavi aveva spinto i Verdi a proporre il quesito.

“Giovanni, ti passo a prendere in motorino e andiamo a votare!”. Rimetto il cellulare in tasca, prendo le chiavi e via. Avrei dovuto essere bravo a distinguere i colori delle schede quel giorno. Perché avevo deciso di votare non secondo le mie inclinazioni politiche e rivoluzionarie. Era il primo segnale di resa verso il realismo tipico degli “uomini vissuti”? No. Ma credevo di comprendere quali meccaniche fossero create da diversi rapporti di lavoro, essendo figlio di un proprietario di un piccolo negozio con “meno di 15 dipendenti”. Nello sconfinato mondo delle piccole imprese italiane, che stavano lentamente estinguendosi in favore di franchising, grandi marche e centri commerciali, irrigidire il licenziamento avrebbe impantanato ogni possibilità di ripresa. Tanto più che le piccole imprese sfruttavano poco il lavoro “atipico” e avevano ricevuto incentivi a regolarizzare la posizione lavorativa dei propri dipendenti (N.B.: quelli in nero, si potevano continuare a licenziare con o senza art. 18). Consegnai carta di identità e tessera elettorale convinto, mi recai dietro la tenda di plastica della cabina e, alla luce fioca della lampadina incandescente che pendeva sul leggio, con la mano tremante per l’emozione, ma ferma nell’intenzione, votai NO al quesito per l’estensione dell’art.18 (per la cronaca, votai Sì a quello per l’abolizione della “Servitù coattiva di elettrodotto”).

No? Ma non eri di sinistra, Paolo? Non hai un briciolo di considerazione verso i diritti dei lavoratori? Non vuoi estenderli a chi non li possiede? E tutti i discorsi sull’uguaglianza, le teorie marxiane sullo sfruttamento del lavoratore dove sono finiti? Minoranza nella minoranza, a quorum non raggiunto, sono parte del 13% dei pochi italiani che hanno votato NO (per un’analisi più accurata, i NO al secondo quesito sono stati più numerosi – circa 150.000 in più – cosa che porta a pensare che ci sia stato una bassissima percentuale di voto disgiunto; cioè, chi ha votato NO da “conservatore” per un quesito, ha rispettato la propria “conservazione” anche nell’altro).

La politica italiana ha la memoria corta, ultimamente. Dopo il referendum che aveva portato all’archiviazione di ogni piano per lo sviluppo dell’energia nucleare nel 1987, un decreto del 2010 aveva riproposto il piano nucleare in maniera subdola, ma non abbastanza da non essere notata. Il governo agiva in contraddizione rispetto alla volontà popolare espressa. E la nuova espressione popolare del giugno del 2011 ha definitivamente sancito che in Italia, preferiamo non affidarci all’atomo (altra nota: da debole patriota, questa volta ero talmente sicuro della vittoria dei “Sì” che non mi sono neanche preoccupato di farmi arrivare una scheda per votare mentre ero in California). Allo stesso modo, ricevuta una missiva da Francoforte, il governo italiano sta subdolamente provando a stralciare l’art.18 tout court per ottemperare al suggerimento di rendere i licenziamenti più facili venuto dalla Banca Centrale Europea (altra nota/bis: fermo restando che la BCE è “la più indipendente delle banche centrali”, anche i governi sono indipendenti dalle banche centrali e non vedo perché si debbano trasformare in buoi acefali che attingono alla fonte della verità, invece che cercare soluzioni sulla base dei suggerimenti ricevuti). Il subdolo uso della comunicazione con i cittadini tanto di moda non ci piace, d’accordo. Ma l’art.18 ci piace?

Lo Statuto dei Lavoratori è stato scritto decenni fa, quando non esisteva il lavoro “atipico” (se non in nero), il sogno del piccolo borghese era che il figlio ottenesse “un-posto-alla-posta” e non si conosceva il termine flessibilità. Oggi il mondo è cambiato. I “protetti” da leggi, sindacati e tribunali sono coloro che il lavoro lo hanno già. Chi lo perde, non lo trova, o è costretto a snaturarsi per rientrare in categorie atipiche improponibili non ha alcun tipo di protezione e non vede la luce alla fine del tunnel. Proteggere chi è già dentro rende il mondo del lavoro meno fluido e più rigido. Bisogna allora, con un tratto di penna eliminare la “giusta causa” dalle motivazioni per il licenziamento dei lavoratori? No, certo. Fare solo questo sarebbe da irresponsabili. Tuttavia, aprire un dibattito per il rinnovamento dello Statuto faciliterebbe la fine di pratiche barbare quali l’uscita di FIAT da Confindustria, gli scioperi preventivi delle CGIL, l’uso forzato e improprio delle partite IVA, la coltivazione di “bonsai” nello sterminato campo degli stage.

Prima di fare scelte scellerate da giustificare con i suggerimenti di Trichet e Draghi, spero che il governo dia spazio al dibattito. E spero che questo non sia rovinato dal pensiero Novecentesco di partiti e corpi intermedi, che stanno ostruendo la porta del futuro ai giovani.

The Age of Reason

Giarre, Italy

What to do when lazy afternoons develop into pensive and long hours? Today I decided to “read away”. There might be a common expression in English that describes it, but I made up “to read away” as in reading something outside either studying or procrastinating. It’s the well-deserved time one should allocate to the activity of reading. Just like running, working out, eating or sleeping, reading is necessary.

I wanted to avoid myself and my thought of what’s to be done in many of my life’s facets… and here I fall again. Reading Jean-Paul Sartre could have lead to this. I knew it, but I took the risk. While my eyes were jumping on the slightly depressing environment JPS describes in his book “The Age of Reason” (1947), I stumbled upon a sentence that very well describes myself and my current feelings. I should set the scene before quoting it: the sentence is directed from a French lawyer to his brother, Mathieu, who is in trouble. Mathieu praises freedom. Living free makes life worthwile to him. The trouble he is caught in renders him “not free”. The solutions that the others (another dear theme for JPS) offer is to finally surrender to living “not free” like everybody else. My life doesn’t fit in the above description, fortunately. But here are the words that made me jump up from bed with the need to type my thoughts:

… your life is an incessant compromise between an ultimately slight inclination towards revolt and anarchy and your deeper impulses that direct you towards order, moral health, and I might almost say routine. The result is that you are still, at your age, an irresponsible student…

Reading these lines had me realize that this is the twist that our society makes appetible. In a “free country” you can say anything you want, therefore, there’s no need for a struggle for free speech. This doesn’t mean that saying things makes them happen. The status quo remains immutable, but the fact that one can say “it’s unjust” makes us free to say so, therefore it all falls in the comfortable side of our conscience.

As I write these lines, I recall what day is today. Nineteen years ago, the news didn’t allow for the usual lunch at home and I remember debris and ashes being shown on the TV in the kitchen. Silverware stopped moving as the reporters gave us more details on the event. During the peak of the brutal season, the mafia had killed another man. A special man, a judge, a man of the state. Paolo Borsellino, with whom I share all the letters in first and last name, had been and was going to be a hero for us, the non-mafia society.

As of today, thanks to my childhood experiences like the one that is remembered today and thanks to how I developed my vision of the world in general, I should fight for equality and the end of injustices every day. But I don’t do it. Routine comes very handy sometimes. I can’t start a revolution today, because tomorrow I’ll have a book delivered in the mail (or “I should shave first”…)

I wonder what it takes to be courageous enough to be useful to the world. It’s not oneself’s freedom that is worth defending. It’s a struggle for giving everybody a chance to live better and peacefully. Hopefully somebody will send me a message on Facebook about it when it starts. Because now I have to go eat dinner.

Thank you Paolo Borsellino, because you showed us the way to be useful.