The local section of the newspaper that I picked up before boarding my flight back to New Zealand includes a full four pages of mortgagee sales published by order of the tribunals of the court of appeal of Milan. Each of those adverts – about the two-bedroom apartment in via San Giovanni Bosco complete with cellar and garage, or the basement workshop in via Francesco Brioschi – tells a story that clashes with the image of Milan as the industrious and prosperous capital of a region that is firmly coupled to the locomotive of Europe; a region that combines the creativity and capacity to innovate associated to Italy-the-brand with the efficiency and raw GDP power of Germany.
Perhaps Milan has been all of those things, but it is also, and altogether more transparently, a city that banks on its past and continues to build as if it was booming in the hope that the people will come and vindicate (that is to say, rescue) that narrative.
The streets near my mother's house have been disembowelled to extend the storm-water drains and the sewers needed by CityLife, the vast new development next door, on the grounds of the old trade exhibition complex to which the suburb still owes its name, Milano Fiera. With a typically Lombard entrepreneurial haste, at the end of Mum's road they're building the fifth line of the underground while the fourth still languishes in its planning stages. Whereas the word factory survives mostly in its metaphorical sense, the city is a construction site literally as well as figuratively: and not just the place where we plan for the Expo of 2015 or erect ever steeper walls against outsiders.
Lega Nord is one of the key forces in government, both nationally and locally. The poster above, whose slogan I'm sure I don't need to translate for you, is the only piece of electoral advertising that they have put out for the mayoral election scheduled (at the time of my writing this) for today and tomorrow. Nothing about the business of governing; nothing about the party's views on economic development or social policy. Two words are the summation of an entire worldview: we want to keep being us, without them.
It is not just the wilful ignorance of history that staggers – the Milan of the economic miracle, of Rocco and His Brothers, was a city whose wealth largely rested on integrating and exploiting immigrants and their labour – but also that this message is not only tolerated by the community, but can be reliably expected to translate into votes. Just how many, and for just how long, are both pertinent questions, but there can be little doubt that the strategy will work this time too, and provide the Right-wing coalition with the votes it needs to retain power (probably) or lose but still split the vote right near the middle. Meaning that even in the most optimistic of scenarios, Milan will remain the capital of intolerance that I discussed here and reviled here.
Nothing that I have seen on this last trip persuades me that the city has earned the right to reject that title quite yet. But the experience of witnessing the last two weeks of a crucial campaign fought concurrently on the national stage was captivating nonetheless. And since I happened to do a lot of walking – which is something I still enjoy a great deal in the old hometown – I ended up with a rather large collection of images, some of which I want to share with you.
The theme of immigration and multiculturalism ploughed into by the Lega Nord poster was but one of the dominant threads, which also found expression in the occasionally puzzling offerings of prominent journalist and reformed Arab person Magdi Allam, for whom the aim of making the city once again a capital of integration
means that we should never see again images like this one:
While the Democratic Party's campaign for the candidate of the Left-wing coalition hang the slogan Long live the Milan that is not afraid above the head of the great late-18th century reformer Cesare Beccaria, author of On Crimes and Punishment.
However I was struck most of all by what I'm tempted to call the material semiotics of advertising, meaning not just the political messages themselves but also their physical layering and how they were interfered with.
It was not infrequent for a single one of the special hoardings scattered in their hundreds around the city to carry as many as a dozen posters, one covering the other and producing the millefeuille effect pictured above. Elsewhere the posters were not as neatly superimposed but overlapped one another, mixing faces and slogans and parties to the various coalitions.
Other times, angered vandalism broke down the messages beyond recognition,
or created a Russian doll-like arrangement of Berlusconi heads, featured on posters for and against,
or regaled the passer-by with a wryly nihilistic commentary on the state of the political conversation.
Yet other interventions played more subtly with the candidates' image, as in the case of this poster for Giulio Gallera, council group leader for Berlusconi's party (and who is one day going to be remembered for having gone to school with me), on which some witty soul placed a sticker declining the first person singular of the verb 'to mafia'. I'm not going to lie to you: I rather enjoyed this.
But the single most emblematic aspect of this material semiotics was to me the occasional surfacing, stuck to the metal of the hoardings themselves, of fragments of posters form other elections, glued so well as to be impervious to ripping either by vandals or the election officials who retire the displays at the end of each campaign. It's chiefly in that form that the old symbol of the communist party, whose gradual disappearance I touched upon here and especially here, makes an understated, (sub)liminal reappearance, as if to remind us of the language of another politics, not all that far removed in chronological time yet officially consigned to the status of archaeological detritus and simultaneously of ghost to be evoked whenever it behooves one to demonise the least pusillanimous factions of the Left.
It is because I am convinced that progressivism in Italy needs to connect with that erstwhile mass movement and its aspirations that I was pleased when Giuliano Pisapia won the nomination as mayoral candidate for a broad coalition of the Left against the incumbent Mayor, and looked forward to hearing Nichi Vendola, leader of Sinistra, Ecologia e Libertà – the party that more than any other lays claim to that lineage – speak at the Arco della Pace a week ago in support of Pisapia.
That the supposedly conservative electorate of the city chose a candidate from the supposedly unelectable leftmost fringes of our party system was pleasing enough. That the coalition centred around that candidacy has forced Letizia Moratti, the incumbent, to spend 12 million euros on a re-election campaign that she ought to have barely needed to show up for – thus disproving those ideas about who is and isn't electable on the left of centre – doubly so. But I was especially impressed with how Vendola spoke in that historic venue, where I had heard Sardinian communist leader Berlinguer address a much larger crowd just shy of thirty years ago, when I was a child. Another man from the south who had come to Milan, the city that already fancied itself back then as 'Mittel-European', as well as the guarantor and custodian of the country's modernity itself, to speak of an alternative and in some respects antithetical notion of progress.
Vendola spoke of a Mediterranean that is not just a watery graveyard but also a political laboratory, and articulated a reformist project based on integration and environmentalism, on equality and the fundamental interrogation of the wealth of our nation and the value of our work. It was the most lucid speech I have personally heard an acting politician deliver in years. This man from the south, this openly gay man from the supposedly retrograde, close-minded south, currently serving his second term as governor of Puglia – one of the regions where the war that we wage against those poorer than us is at its most visible – came to the capital of Berlusconismo, with its mix of miserly self-interest and rampant xenophobia, and gave us a lesson on how solidarity is central to the notion of what it means to have an economy, and on how culture and even ideas about beauty intersect with the political in fundamental ways. All rhetorical flourish aside (not that I had a problem with that either), it was enormously pleasing to hear a national politician unafraid to tackle sexism or rape culture, or to come out in favour of general strikes. We have been told for a very long time, and not just in Italy, that those are third rails and therein lies political death.
I don't think that Milan will fall, not quite yet, but if it does, it will be a turning of the tide, a moment to be seized. With all my well-documented anguish for the present and pessimism for the immediate political future of my country of birth, I have never completely lost faith in our capacity to be some day that political laboratory, and fashion workable alternatives to what Vendola calls the 'feral globalisation' that is the unassailable paradigm of this stage of capitalism. We have a history of asking the right questions – a history whose signs can sometimes be recovered by scratching away at those hoardings.
PS I wrote this on a plane back to New Zealand via Singapore, at the same time as Francesca at Buchi nella sabbia was writing this lovely and absurdly flattering piece about this blog - to which, as I am currently in transit, I cannot muster a response other than linking gratefully to it. I was rather moved, not least by seeing one of my posts translated into my own language. Wonderful stuff.
An update is also in order: the results are in and they are looking very good - the Left is within sight of a victory that could be quite decisive.