May Day 2006

I am in Milan, Italy, where yesterday I went to a bifurcated May Day, starting in the morning with the shrinking traditional march of the communist left, followed in the afternoon by the much larger and more exuberant EuroMayDay06 parade. Joining me were Eddie and Giovanni, and here we are at the start of what turned out to be a lovely spring day, relatively smog-free under sunny blue skies.

Giovanni has been attending May Day his entire life, and told us it was generally an event at which one wore your “best dress”, creating an odd (to an American sensibility) formality, a certain seriousness that I’ve never associated with anything left or working class during my life. So I wore black, and did not wear one of my many be-sloganed t-shirts. Here I am at the end standing in front of some of the Lotta Comunista militants who ringed a square not far from the Duomo for their own separate rally.

I figured there would be some odd juxtapositions to be enjoyed during the day and sure enough, as we passed a MickeyD’s and a semi-pornographic small billboard, the Lotta Comunista contingent was approaching and I had to stop and grab this photo:

Check just to the right of the main banner for the humorous, though common enough here in Europe, juxtaposition of sexual marketing and commie iconography. The anticipated “big” May Day that has dominated life in Italy and most of Europe, not to mention the ex-Soviet bloc, is clearly dying out. The Milan march was a pale version of its former self according to Giovanni. At one point he greeted an old friend with the laughing admonition to “be strong, comrade! Be strong!” There weren’t more than a two or three thousand on this, a march that routinely attracted a hundred thousand or more in decades past.

Nowadays the old commie march has been supplanted by the emergent movement of the Precariata, or precarious workers, who have organized for six years now a different kind of event in EuroMayDay. Here’s an effigy of “San Precario” (St. Precarious) that adorned the front of one of the trucks.

The EuroMayDay parade was a bit sluggish and diminished from recent years, but nevertheless a fun parade full of alcohol and loud music piped from various huge trucks that anchored the procession. Actually I had to wonder if there would have been much of a turnout at all if it weren’t for the fact that every truck sold drinks along the way, while pumping dance tunes into the street, and distributing a considerable amount of schwag along the way.

We found ourselves wondering about the politics of it all. There were dozens of flyers handed out, about half in the traditional style of the leftist text, the other half in the form of satirical “MayDay kits” and handbills, colorful posters and postcards, even some straightforward adverts for upcoming concerts and cultural events. The exhortative leafletting of the old/new left is slowly giving way to a more implied kind of viral marketing, one that speaks to a style of living, a critical sensibility that abhors overtly political rhetoric and demands as much as it rejects the marketed fantasies of capitalist happiness. Here’s the side of one of the trucks in the parade, decorated with each of the main posters for EuroMayDay going back to 2000:

For any of us coming out of the 20th century’s political styles, it’s inevitably confusing to try to find politics in a lot of what passes as political these days. Expressions are far from overt, and in the case of the notion of the “Precariat” it has been noted elsewhere that the common condition of humans in the capitalist world from early industrialization to the present has been one of precarious survival. The only exception to precariousness as a norm has been in the industrialized center where the trade union/welfare state deal developed mostly in second half of the 20th century, an historic period that seems to be definitively closing now.

EuroMayDay slowly meandered towards the big old castle in the middle of Milan. Here’s a longer view of the scene:

At one point we were invited on to the truck of the workers of the Teatro alla Scala. You can see San Precario is presiding over their float too.

Here’s the view back from the truck

Here’s a new phantom organization to join:

And at the very front of the parade was this odd cycle, advocating human-powered sustainable propulsion, unlike the massive diesel-powered trucks that came along behind them. Of course I had to give them a sign to add to their float (sometimes I feel like a dog that has to pee on everything!)…

and speaking of dogs, here’s a nice bit of wall art we came upon.

At last we made it to the castle where something like a street fair-rave-concert-shopping mall set itself up until everyone began heading home. Unfortunately the announced end of Metro service was 8 p.m. but when folks went into the station at 7:30 they were told it had stopped at 7, so many had to find their way home on foot or otherwise… still, most people seemed to agree that it had been a good day.

Later that night we went to the 30-year squat at via Morigi, a really gorgeous old building where 20 or so families still live. Free wine, cheese and salami were in abundance, while an acoustic band played traditional “struggle” songs from the south under a spectacular purple tree they call a “glicine”… our evening ended around 2 a.m. after many more bottles of wine and much conversation, in true European style.

And then we woke up to the encouraging and oddly ironic news that while we were here at a somewhat low-key May Day where usually there have been big demonstrations, over a million marched all over the U.S., including over 150,000 in the Bay Area alone, in the burgeoning immigrant rights movement. Something new is brewing! Giovanni told us over dinner that a lot of folks in Europe have been waiting (for a long time!) for an explosion in the U.S. Don’t know if this is it, but let’s hope things are approaching escape velocity!

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