Claire Fontaine | 1977: The Year That Is Never Commemorated

By Claire Fontaine

It’s not enough to denounce the lies of the power, we need to denounce and break also the truths of the power. When the power tells the truth and it pretends that it’s something natural, we must denounce what is inhuman and absurd in this order of reality, which is reproduced, reflected and consolidated by the order of speech. We must unveil the delirious aspect of the power.

Let’s pretend to be in the place of the power, let’s speak with its voice, let’s emit signals as if we were the power with its tone of voice. But they are fake signals. Let’s produce fake information that unveils what power hides, information capable of producing a revolt against the force of the speech of the power.

A/traverso, February 1976

If we have chosen to talk about the Italian movement of 1977, it’s because this event that nobody commemorates contains part of our actual present, that the desires and contradictions that emerged back then are profoundly contemporary, to the degree that the protagonists of that movement are still persecuted and can’t be forgiven: some of them are still under arrest and no amnesty has been approved in their favour.

One could even talk about the survival of 77 in a warburgian sense and observe that the images and energies from that time have partly migrated within ours and somehow haunt it.

The memory of these years is a sensible territory; having been the theater of conflicts that are still raging inside society’s body, 77 is a difficult space for deploying critical distance and trying to interpret the facts.

The particular nexus that took place between what was said and what was done, enacted and changed during 77, makes almost impossible the task of capturing the energy and force of the moment; it was a present that worked at existing as such and refused the future in the name of its unique intensity. The possibility of an aftermath was even conjured and abhorred whilst the events were taking place; we read in the introduction to the collective book entitled Bologna marzo 1977…Fatti nostri… [Bologna March 1977…Our own business…]: ‘There won’t be a historian, we will not tolerate that a historian exists, who will take a position of superiority within the language, will offer his services to the language of power, and reconstruct the facts, superimposing himself on our own silence, an uninterrupted, infinite, furiously stranger silence’. The order of the dominating discourse had to keep clear from the precious radical experimentations, because their strength was that they were and remain, for several reasons, impossible to translate into the reassuring language of the critique.

Maybe, despite everything, 77 was the manifestation of a certain form of silence. The knowledge that the future was absent for a whole generation, that the power was deaf, that no social justice had come from the struggles enacted in 1968, resulted in a generalized experience of not feeling represented and not being able to put words on one’s life. From this enormous lack of political existence, from the ‘submerged society’, arose the parties in the street, the expropriations in shops and movie theaters, the free radios and the new language supposed to conserve and include within itself the very silence it was born from. A different balance between the personal and the political was at stake for everybody and not only for the feminists, for whom it had always been the starting point of their political subjectivization. In an incredibly sophisticated document from June 77, the report of the group discussion on ‘Women and politics’ in the occupation of the University of Rome we read: ‘this movement has many fascinating and dangerous aspects. For example it proposes to us a masculine version of a series of problems that we were born from, as a feminist movement, topics like “what is personal is political”, or “let’s take our lives back”, rediscovering creativity, etc. that nevertheless are perverted when they don’t stem from the man/woman contradiction and become in the best case pure anti-authoritarianism’.[1] The male avant-garde attitude had entered a crisis simultaneous to the irruption of new types of subjectivities in the very expanded and carnival-like scene of politics; another document entitled ‘To the ex “professional militants”’ circulated in that same month of June 77: ‘Women and youth’s struggle, the new contradictions that attempt to transform the very concept of communism (…) the deep changes in the composition of the proletariat, the new needs that have emerged, the radical and destructive critique of any realist conception about the transition towards communism, and even the new form that the State takes, and so many other things are before the eyes of old “militants” (…). In our professional militancy we have run the risk to disassociate completely the struggle for the liberation of the class from our own liberation; we have run the risk of becoming instruments rather than subjects; we have glorified the proletarians’ discovery of “the richness of needs” and, because of their struggle to free themselves from needs, we have denied ourselves our own possibility of wealth; we have become members of a clan rather than militants of a class. This situation has impoverished the discussion between the comrades (…) it has stopped their collective growth, it has given to some of them paternal roles and to some others filial roles, it has hidden behind the political conflict the personal conflict (…) and (supreme irony!) it has caused power struggles’.[2]

Bureaucracy and its sick affective and psychological roots were unmasked as an intolerable evil, 77 is a revolt that contains many others, it is an attempt to transform the principle of reality in order to transform reality itself. In the document ‘With All Our weakness’ of A/traverso from May 1977 it’s written that: ‘It is the unconscious that speaks in the class struggle, as on the other hand the class struggle speaks within the unconscious. Therefore the agents of repression, once that they have turned over the political place of the repressed, of the social contract, must to act in order to bring the subject to self-destruction, to channel the desiring fluxes into self-destructive fluxes: terrorism’.[3]

Franco Piperno described the new subjects, that threw into a deep crisis all sort of militant structure and their inhabitants, as ‘social individuals’.[4] They were at the same time a new and an archaic life form, since they were sensually anchored to the animal nature of the social tie and there was something biological in the full consciousness of their destiny as a species. If for the working class movement the source of wealth was abstract work, for the movement of the autonomy it was a matter of sensual wealth produced by the general intellect, by the degree of cooperation contained in collective behaviours and social habits.

With the new life forms came a ‘sentimental transformation’[5] that resulted into a sensibility to the ‘warm and animal nature of technology’, seen as something that would finally abolish the factory worker and his living conditions. ‘These new metropolitan proletarians – wrote Primo Moroni – revealed themselves as a very hard to discipline work-force, precisely because their vital universe of reference wasn’t reducible to the categories of politics, to a platform of claims, or to representation’.[6] It was a molecular movement impossible to control and therefore easy to attack and repress, but full of a new sense of its potentiality and its present. Lea Melandri wrote back then: ‘an intelligent barbarism, an ironic sensuality, a wise ingenuity maybe don’t exist yet, but there are reasons to believe that they are possible. And for this little hope it is worth fighting the sad, the boring, the need-centred, the miserable: the red ascetics.’[7]

What happened in 77? We need to believe the stories, fragmented, various, soaked with emotion, where no impartiality can be found. The political class was sinister, gloomy, old. The communist party was getting close to the Christian democracy, its greatest enemy, in order to create a moderated government of centre called ‘the historical compromise’. The landscape was marked by State violence, the so-called strategy of tension consisted in having the secret services placing bombs in public places, causing a lot of casualties and then putting the blame and the legal responsibility onto extra-parliamentary left or right wing militants. Some of the most famous episodes were Piazza Fontana (on December 12, 1969, in Milan a bomb exploded in the Bank of Agriculture and killed 88 people), May 28, 1974 a bomb exploded in Piazza della Loggia in Brescia during a demonstration of the unions, August 4, 1974 a bomb exploded on the Italicus train that was going from Rome to Brenner. Guns would occasionally appear in demonstrations, mostly as a visual statement. The underground occult forces of the armed groups were a separate stream from the street, the university and the factory mobilizations.

Industrial restructuration decentred productivity, the chain which was source of all conflicts and theatre of all struggles, had been fragmented into a series of physically separated productive sites. It became a tangle of large, medium-sized and small factories, another sort of chain kept together by tertiary and black work. Italian unions – the strongest of the western world – entered a deep crisis and the bad shape of the extra-parliamentary forms of representation pre-announced the crisis of the party system. The press of the extreme left of the time talked about ‘diffused’ and ‘social factory’. Feminists defined family itself as a deterritorialized factory: housewives were regarded as precarious workers like the others. The feeling that productivity and production didn’t begin and didn’t stop on the threshold of the factory gates began to possess the masses, ‘class decomposition’ opposed to the operaïst concept of class composition, became the starting point of the new revolt.

Moroni wrote that Piazza Maggiore in Bologna, Campo dei Fiori in Rome, Piazza Mercanti in Milan and many other public spaces were effectively temporary autonomous zones. Eco wrote that Bologna’s arcades, entirely covered with graffiti and drawings, looked like Cy Twombly’s paintings: the walls were abandoned to the spontaneity of writing: they were an open space where no words were privileged, they attracted attention and collective participation and offered an indefinite possibility to replicate. Graffiti multiplied: ‘two of them created an epidemic’.[8] Toni Negri says that whoever would come to Milan during the summer of 1976 couldn’t avoid Parco Lambro, a park where the proletarian youth camped and the movement squatted a pacific music festival transforming it into a liberated space, assaulting the food truck on the second day, robbing supermarkets to feed that temporary Indian reservation. Cities were full of occupied houses and entire neighbourhoods refused to pay bills and rent, and not only supermarkets were pillaged but also luxury stores. The Metropolitan Indians appeared then, but according to some sources Indian behaviours could already be spotted in 1973 during a strike in Mirafiori or in 1975 in the largest parties of the underground culture. The issue of September 1975 of A/traverso published an article entitled ‘News From The Reservation’ where, with ‘Indian’ language and metaphors normally attributed to Indians in Westerns, the alienating conditions of urban youth’s lives were described as it follows: ‘they vegetate in reservations at the margins of the towns’.[9] These Indians attacked the functionality of signs, the most creative slogans and performances are attributed to them, but obviously anyone could say: we are all Metropolitan Indians as we can say today that we are all Black Blocs. ‘After Marx April, after Mao June’, ‘More nuclear plants/less social housing’, ‘Free radios are an illusion/all the power to television’, ‘Politicians are innocents/we are the real delinquents’. After the riots of March 77 the Indians were seen praying all together outside the city hall in Islamic postures repeating ‘Zangheri (the Bologna mayor of the time) our brother, forgive us!’.

On February 17, Luciano Lama, the General Secretary of the CGIL [Italian General Confederation of Labour] came to give a speech in the occupied University of Rome in order to scold the students. In a previous assembly it had been decided not to prevent Lama from talking but to stop the invasion of the Union’s political line in the occupation. When Lama started to speak the Indians along with 10.000 students were there with plastic axes and war costumes, holding a puppet of the Unionist, singing that they really wanted to make more sacrifices for the Unions. The Union’s police charged violently and the chaos became total, Lama had to leave amongst people screaming ‘Please don’t go away! We want more police’ or ‘Lamas live in Tibet’, ‘Beware of the lamas they spit’. Eco described this episode as the shock of two different perspectives: ‘Lama came onto a podium (although it was an improvised one) according to the rules of a frontal communication, typical of the unionist and working class conception of space, in front of a student mass that instead has elaborated different ways of aggregating and interacting, decentred, mobile, apparently disorganized. It is just another way to organize the space and that day in the university there has been a clash between two conceptions of the perspective: one from Brunelleschi, the other one from cubism’.[10]

February 18, the Minister of the Interior Francesco Cossiga declared on the news on TG1 ‘We will not tolerate that universities become dens of Metropolitan Indians, freaks, hippies. We are determined to use what they call the forms of repression and what I call the forms of order and democratic legality’. The Metropolitan Indians replied with the following letter to the Minister: ‘Dear Kossiga, with great satisfaction we could see from the magical box your Teutonic looking paleface, hear your forked tongue hissing and your metallic voice spitting poison on the population of mankind. As long as the grass will grow on earth, as long as the sun will warm our bodies, as long as the water will wet us and the wind will blow in our hair WE WILL NEVER BURY THE WAR AXE!!!’.

March 11, an assembly of right wing Catholics (comunione e liberazione) tried to take place in the University of Bologna, students came there to protest against them screaming ‘Free Barabbas’ and ‘Seveso Seveso’ – which was the site of a recent environmental dioxin catastrophe. The dean of the university called the police to evacuate the protesters, riots began in the neighbourhood, a young carabiniere panicked and fired six bullets into the crowd. The student Francesco Lo Russo was killed. Still today no one has been held responsible for the murder, the Minister of the Interior, Cossiga, sent the army and the tanks into Bologna. On March 12, at 11 pm the police entered the free radio Radio Alice’s studios and closed them down. The same day there had been a demonstration in Rome against the repression where violent riots exploded, the Christian Democratic Party made a public tribune to mourn the death of Francesco Lo Russo, but they forbade his brother to speak. At the beginning of April the cover of issue 17/18 of Rosso magazine shows armed demonstrators, the title says ‘You have paid but you haven’t paid for everything’, and one could say that from that point on the game changed and became a more classical binary struggle situation.

But this wasn’t the ground of that movement, as Bifo says in 77’s toll, because they had understood that political forces were no longer controlling the relationship between work and technology, official politics were a small theatre entertaining and distracting the public, whilst the forces of liberalism were shaping the world and managing to ruin the political sphere as a place of discussion and decision making. ‘There is no more will, there is no more mediation, no more government. The separation of autonomous life form from the domination of economy. The secession of nomadic colonies, the experimentation of forms of production where technology and creativity could replace economy and the repetitive discipline of the work. This was the way the movement had begun to invent’[11] and this is also the way, we could add, that global capitalism learnt to extract new value, when repression blocked any political action.

77 wasn’t a political movement and it wasn’t an aesthetic or an existential one: it was for the first time an attempt to collectively define new grounds for what politics, subjectivity, an actual movement made out of movements could be.

77 was a visual and verbal experience that became flesh, its true protagonists were the inner strangers of our cities, unnamed, we can call them the Metropolitan Indians, precarious, marginalized, but they were a new mass that looked for anonymity and joy, that changed the public space, the language, the habits and it had an enormous ethic and aesthetic impact on politics and culture, but fled identity and identification. A few names escaped the exterminating wave of repression: Radio Alice, A/traverso, il Male, L’erba voglio, Re Nudo, Autonomia, but we quickly understand that what they designate is hollow when extracted from the context; Italian 77 is a liquid year that leaks out of every classification and no label can stick to. Its sporadic written traces have to be taken for what they were back then and not for what they are today. The creative aspects of the movement were impossible to dissociate from all the others, its distinctive irreverent imagination could only be born inside a climate of playful irrationalism.

Umberto Eco wrote, right before the riots of March, a very criticized article in the Corriere della Sera about the book published by the collective A/traverse, that was entitled Alice è il diavolo, sulla strada di Majakovski: testi per una pratica di comunicazione sovversiva [Alice is the devil, On Mayakovsky’s footsteps: Texts for a new practice of subversive communication], in which he said:

‘If someone took this book without knowing what is happening in Italy, or if he read it in the library in thirty years time, he would be under a very strange impression. Seasonal workers unemployed and hippies in the waiting rooms of the train stations, naked bodies looking for new contacts wouldn’t be seen around. On the contrary he would get the idea that a new “cultural” group is speaking about these things and in order to do so it is inventing new medias and new expressive styles.’[12] Eco, who was far from a fervent admirer of the revolutionary dynamics, nevertheless understood that all the expressive concretions of 77 were to be taken as phenomena, as sequences of a moving image that no language could freeze. A simplistic ‘way to read the book – Eco continued – would be imprudent because behind the phenomenon of the free radio and the phenomenon of the book there is a reality made of young people expressed by the radio and the book’. Radio Alice wasn’t the latest avant-garde that had found new techniques to produce intensity within communication and language. Even just saying that Radio Alice got marginalized people to talk about themselves, would be inaccurate: they definitely weren’t, Eco writes, a group of aesthetes exploiting a problematic social situation for the sake of the exploration of new forms of expression. Desire had found there a voice, people were invited to think not only through metaphors but also through metamorphosis, to actively fight the power’s attempt to criminalize political creativity and liberating relationships, to privilege a transversal form of writing that frees the desire. Because – as A/traverso said – one can write also with a radio and with one’s body and the only way to destabilize politics’ dictatorship is destabilizing sense’s dictatorship and bringing out the irrationalism hidden under everybody’s skin. The Mao-Dadaist writing inversed the relationship between art and life: ‘life becomes the artwork. – they wrote – The true artwork is the infinite human body that moves in harmony through the incredible transformations of its unique existence’.

The spoken, ‘dirty’, dialectal language was the most faithful ambassador of the spirit of the time, and in order to share it and circulate it, the free radios began to grow, one of the main actors and interpreters of this phenomenon was Radio Alice based in Bologna and animated by a group of people who also published the newspaper entitled A/traverso (more or less translatable as ‘through’). They pursued a ‘poetic of transformation’ and invented a language called Mao-Dadaism, whose starting point was the idea that Mao’s declarations, if read under the right light, are pure Dadaism. This form of writing stemmed from the new living conditions in which the youth found itself: the automatic production, the solitude induced by the new technologies, unemployment, marginalization and the failure of the previous cycle of struggles. To transcribe this socio-economic and emotional climate another relationship with language was created; they talked about intelligent machines, automatic knowledge, vitreous whispering of information and electronic illiteracy. Neutrality was banned: even the news was read with emotion and personal accents. Informing wasn’t enough, information had to become creative: giving false news would create riots, street parties of clowns on bicycles and hippies with kites, spontaneous demonstrations and political actions. It was common to bring portable radio transmitters into the public space, groups of people gathering around them, listening to the free radio programs in the streets, then someone would get up and make a phone call from a public telephone and, without any filter from the studio, voices could make themselves heard on air, no matter what they said. The free radio’s aim wasn’t to perform a centralized diffusion of programs but to operate a redistribution of the possibility of speaking up. Somehow the absence of the unrepresented people was always included by any broadcasted representation.

Eco notices that the language of the divided self, the proliferation of messages organized on the basis of new codes was understood and perfectly reproduced by groups that were totally unfamiliar with high culture, who hadn’t read Céline, Apollinaire, but had reached that language through music, posters, parties, concerts; on the other hand the high culture that used to understand the language of the divided self when spoken in an aseptic laboratory didn’t understand it when it was spoken by the mass.[13] ‘In other words – Eco wrote – the cultivated man was used to make fun of the bourgeois that in the museum, in front of a woman with three eyes and graffiti without defined shape, would say “I don’t understand what it represents”. Now the same cultivated man is facing a generation that expresses itself elaborating women with three eyes and graffiti without defined shape, and he says: “I don’t understand what it means”. What seemed acceptable as an abstract utopia, a hypothesis in a laboratory, seems inacceptable when it presents itself in the flesh.’

This cubist or non-figurative subjectivity is the result of a movement of divorce from the universe that characterized the 1960s. The detachment took different forms, but its aim was to destroy the terms and the images composing then the iconography of the Stalinist collective imaginary. These subjectivities peeled off from the moral and the values of the previous generation, in a text from 1978 Carla Lonzi writes: ‘The consciousness of myself as a political subject is born from the group, from the reality that I could access in a collective non ideological experience. (…) When one says that Politics are over one means that what is over is the trust in an ideological conception of the human being, that Politics addressed and for which were conceived both the restoration and the revolution.’

What had previously been the role model for the subject of the revolt was pulverized. In his place appeared a stubborn refusal of reproducing the same images, the same gestures, the same claims, and a desire for immediate change in a life where the boundaries between personal and political had exploded.

In the outskirts of the reformist perspective two tendencies were identifiable and left us a precious legacy: one was the women’s movement that stated its exteriority to the dynamics of integration, refusing the idea of women’s rights and the emotional blackmail of democratic struggles that leads to the double militancy within the mixed and the non-mixed groups. The other one was the critique of political groups as power machines. A shared analysis of group dynamics began to circulate and its authors were blamed for creating oppression and submission under the false pretence of emancipating subjectivities. These two currents were clearly defined by a desire for immediacy, a logic of refusal of postponement and sacrifice, a position that announced what we call ‘human strike’. The term ‘human strike’ was created to name a revolt against what is reactionary even – and above all – inside the revolt. It defines a type of strike that involves the whole of life and not only its professional side, that acknowledges exploitation in all the domains and not only at work.

Even the very notion of work comes out modified if seen from the ethical prism of human strike: activities that seem to be innocent services and loving obligations to keep the family or the couple together reveal themselves as vulgar exploitation. Human strike is a movement that could potentially contaminate anyone and that attacks the foundations of life in common, its subject isn’t the proletarian or the factory worker but the whatever singularity that everyone is. This movement isn’t there to reveal the exceptionality or the superiority of a group on another but to unmask the whateverness of everybody as the open secret that social classes hide.

One definition of human strike can be found in Tiqqun no. 2: it’s a strike ‘with no claims, that deterritorializes the political space and reveals the non-political as the place of the implicit redistribution of responsibilities and unremunerated work’.[14]

It seems today that the only movement that can transform the present conditions will be the one that refuses the irrationality of financial economy as much as the one of the environmental catastrophe omnipresent but unacknowledged by the power. It seems that in this sense we have no choice but to be the children of 77, of the people that made anxiety one of their main collective problems. The people that named the solitude and the desperation of family days, the fear of the gray temporality of the factory, spotting it everywhere, including in the endless days of the unemployed, the homeless, the mentally ill. Exploitation taints the time and the weather wherever we go, whatever we do, and there is nothing we can buy nor any drug that we can take that can erase it.

77 opposed the replacement of life with value and it did so through and inside life itself.

A quote of Bifo can end this text because there isn’t really an ending for it: ‘From the point of view of its conclusion, the movement of 77 appears as such: a lucid understanding of the exhaustion of modernity, a lucid understanding of the fact that capitalism – a system of destruction of the human, of absorption and perversion of intelligence and creativity – doesn’t have any alternative left.

At that point begun the crossing of the desert which isn’t finished yet. A long march through humanity began there.’[15]



[1] Sergio Bianchi and Lanfranco Caminiti (eds), ‘“Donne e politica” nell’occupazione dell’Università di Roma, Anna, Emanuela, Paola, Rossella (Commissione femminista Donne e politica dell’Università di Roma’ in Settantasette: La rivoluzione che viene, Rome: Derive Approdi, 2007, p. 241.

[2] Emilio Costantino, ‘Agli ex “militanti di professione”’, in Bianchi and Caminiti, pp. 246−249.

[3] A/traverso, ‘Quattro Frammenti’, in Bianchi and Caminiti, p. 187.

[4] Franco Piperno, ‘La parabola del ’77: dal “lavoro astratto” al “general intellect”’, in Bianchi and Caminiti, p. 103.

[5] Ibid., p. 104.

[6] Primo Moroni, ‘Un’altra vie per le Indie. Intorno alle pratiche e alle culture del ’77’, in Bianchi and Caminiti, p. 73.

[7] Lea Melandri, ‘Una barbarie intelligente’, in Bianchi and Caminiti, p. 245.

[8] Klemens Gruber, L’avanguardia inaudita: Comunicazione e strategia nei movimenti degli anni Settanta, Milan: Costa & Nolan, 1997, p. 122. [N. E. original version, Die zerstreute Avantgarde: Strategische Kommunikation im Italien der 70er Jahre, Cologne: Bohlau, 1989.]

[9] Ibid., p. 120.

[10] Umberto Eco, ‘Una foto’, L’Espresso (Milan), 29 May, 1977.

[11] Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, ‘Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu’, in Bianchi and Caminiti, p. 180.

[12] Umberto Eco, ‘L’anno nove’, Corriere della Sera (Milan), 25 February, 1977.

[13] Umberto Eco, ‘Il laboratorio in piazza’, L’Espresso (Milan), 10 April, 1977.

[14] [accessed 28 March 2011].

[15] Settantasette: La rivoluzione che viene, Rome: Derive Approdi, 2007 previously quoted, p.180