Marching with donkeys. Protest tactics and industrial conflict in twentieth-century Italy

Outside the fascist period, Italy had one of the highest rates of industrial conflict in twentieth-century Europe. Though there is no shortage of books on the subject, most of the scholarship has primarily focussed on reasons and on the role of organised parties/trade unions. Very little attention has been paid to forms, symbols, meanings and rituals, and cultures of contention. Drawing on anthropology, social movement studies and cultural history, my project rethinks the history of factory protest in twentieth-century Italy and fills an important gap in the study of collective action by concentrating on protest tactics, practices and mentalities. 

In the book, which I am planning to complete during the Leverhulme Research Fellowship, I explore the range of forms of protest that workers utilised, how they changed and why, their underpinning rituals, meanings, strategic and symbolic functions. I explore mechanisms of cultural transmission, i.e. how workers knew and ‘learnt’ how to protest, for example when protests resumed after Fascism. I also analyse the role played by Catholic and Communist subcultures in shaping protest routines; the impact of television and the growing ‘spectacularisation’ of demonstrations after the mid-1960s; the influence of other protest groups, such as the student movement of the late-1960s. The influence of peasant struggles is particularly important in light of the internal migration that brought millions of workers from the countryside to the cities both at the turn of the century and in the 1950–1960s. Finally, I examine the role of folk traditions such as Carnival, May customs, popular religious imagery and elements of magic, and analyse analogies (and differences) between twentieth-century forms of protest and earlier cultures and practices of popular contention. My book innovatively challenges social movement literature’s oft- and over-stated distinction between early modern and post-1789 repertoires of contention and demonstrates the remarkable continuity between industrial and pre-industrial forms of protest. For example, as my research shows, the donkeys that protesters took on demonstrations throughout the 1960s – completely ignored in the scholarship – symbolised a powerful act of contention because they echoed similar practices in pre-modern charivari rituals of popular justice. Workers saw donkeys as means of shaming opponents and denouncing wrongdoings. 

Pirelli Workers on strike at the exit of the factory in Milan, autumn 1969.

This will be the first cultural history of twentieth-century Italian industrial protest; it will cast new light on key aspects of workers’ activism, protest cultures and practices, and will have significant interest for scholars working on labour history, social and cultural history, and the too-often separate area of social movement studies. The book will generate innovative questions on protest repertoires and their transmission, and produce a model allowing for comparison with other national cases. Finally, it will offer new analytical tools to comprehend old forms of contention that are marking today’s protests (think of the carnivalesque in the global justice movement or the effigy executions in anti-austerity protests).

Dr Ilaria Favretto
Kingston University
Research Fellowship