Yves here. We had taken note of the whimsical-seeming but savvy “populist” Sardines last month. We pinged reader DJG, who is politically savvy and follows Italy. The openDemocracy post below, while describing the importance of the upcoming election in Bologna and how Sardines figure in, may not unpack how they fit into the very complex Italian political landscape well enough for an American audience. Via e-mail from DJG exactly a month ago:
Yes, I have been following the protests since they started—and there have been many in the past few weeks. Also, you should note that demonstrations in support of Sen. Liliana Segre, who is a survivor of Auschwitz and was receiving death threats through social media (ahhhhh. social media). The recent demonstration of 600 mayors in Milan was a big deal: But Italian mayors have more powers than U.S. mayors, so Americans may not understand the significance.
The Sardines started in Bologna because the Lega (and the Fratelli d’Italia, who are boggy crypto-fascists) want to win the upcoming elections in Emilia-Romagna, Italy’s reddest region. Bologna is more or less Italy’s reddest city. The Sardines were started as a “flash mob” (yes, Italians still use the term). Four people in their 30s called for a demonstration and spontaneously ended up with some 15K people crowded in the main piazza of Bologna. Hence, the “sardines.” (Italians have no great need for personal space, so sardines is an apt metaphor. Imagine trying that in the U S of A.)
The young man, 32 y o, who has emerged is spokesperson is named Mattia Santori, a bolognese. Like most Italians of that age group, and Bologna being a major center for education and research, he is articulate, witty, and mediagenic.
I read an essay, maybe Italian Huntington Post, pointing out that the Sardines are just one more manifestation of Italians taking to the street to tell the Left to behave like the Left. (Matteo Renzi, the Bill Clinton of Italy, is currently under a major cloud. But the new secretary of the Partito Democratico, Zingaretti, is not a complete dolt.)
The Sardines claim to be nonpartisan, and they don’t allow party banners. Hence all of the little and big fish made out of cartapesta (papier máché). Yet they sing Bella Ciao, which is a partisan song that is associated with the left, at each Sardine manifestation. Yet they also sing the Hymn of Mameli, which is the Italian national anthem. The joke in Italy is that no one knows the words.
So you have a manifestation of a Left that is also “nationalist.” Or at least distinctly Italian. Both of you will have to consider if this phenomenon is “too Italian.” Unlike the gilets jaunes, they aren’t a movement of the dispossessed, and they haven’t been as physically aggressive. (That’s the French style and was ever thus.)
So the danger is that they are well meaning and nonpolitical and will soon be irrelevant. Yet don’t forget that this is the same way that the Five Stars arose. And the Five Stars may be a tad nutty, but their political program is somewhere between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Think of the Sardines as being Warren / Sanders and farther Left. And yesterday’s La Stampa and Repubblica reported that the Sardines are now going to hammer out a political program… Stay tuned.
Note that each demonstration insists on being antifascist. Antifascism in Italy has real roots and real consequences. (Unlike U.S. antifascism, which has devolved into name-calllng and weird esthetic concerns, like the color of one’s anti-Trump hat.)
The demo in Rome that you refer to has been the largest so far. Per capita, the biggest probably has been in Turin, which is a center of skeptical leftism and “notorious” antifascism. Some 30,000 in the Piazza Madama. Mussolini did not like the Turinese.
Note the “black sardines.” So much for the Italians-are-wildly-racist line.
The genesis of this was a series of demonstrations against Salvini during the summer in the South when he made his Papeete Beach Tour (yes, he’s a groovy Trumpista). When he got to Sicily, after some spectacular demonstrations in Calabria, the Sicilians were throwing plastic bottles across the piazza at his car. I’d never seen anything quite like it, but Catania, in particular, is in a state of ferment. And now the Lega wants to battle for Emilia-Romagna.
That’s a lot of info.
To sum up: Think of it this way. Yes, this is major event in the Italian context. It is a reassertion of civil society. These are true antifascist demonstrations. Do they have “resonance” in the U S o A? I don’t know. Italy is much more different from the Anglo-American echo chamber than the echo chamber is capable of seeing.
By Alice Figes, a writer, MA student and history graduate from the University of Oxford. Currently she is based in Bologna, where she is focusing on modern political thought and the rise of right-wing populism in Italy and Europe. Twitter: @AliceFiges. Originally published at openDemocracy
January 26 could mark the first time, since Mussolini’s regime, that the far-right score a victory in Italy’s left-wing stronghold of Emilia-Romagna. Its capital city, Bologna, has a proud, anti-fascist history. Yet Matteo Salvini’s far-right party, The Northern League, is currently polling only 2% behind the region’s incumbent Democratic Party (PD) president. A win for the League would be a remarkable shift, tantamount to the UK Conservatives winning a majority in Hackney. Italy, like the US and UK, is seeing tectonic transformations in its electoral landscape and consequently the emergence of a new political playing-field.
Who Are the Sardines?
In November 2019, four Bologna flatmates in their early 30s urgently set up a Facebook event called ‘6,000 sardines against Salvini’. The far-right leader was due to host a rally in the Red City and Mattia Santori, a 32-year old political science graduate, ‘couldn’t sleep’ at the thought. He started organising. The aim was to encourage the reticent centre-left – ‘Italy’s other half’ – to turn up on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore on November 14 to outnumber the attendance of Salvini’s election rally taking place just a ten minute walk-away in the city’s Paladozza Stadium. The organisers encouraged people to arrive with their own cardboard costumes as part of a creative, non-violent ‘flash mob’. The metaphor of the fish, packed together like ‘jumping sardines in a shoal’, sought to promote peaceful unity against Salvini’s divisive anti-migrant rhetoric.