Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The reemergence of "proletarian expropriation"

Below is a post from our Serbian member, Srdjan Cvijic. Due to technical difficulties, I agreed to post it for him:

Proletarian expropriation is a new/old form of civil disobedience in the past practiced mainly in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, and now reappearing in Italy. First, I will offer a brief account of the actions of proletarian expropriation in Italy with some examples (and for the benefit of anglo-phones, an example in English). Second, I will try to analyse the legal implications of such forms of civil disobedience.

What is proletarian expropriation? It is a form of civil disobedience intended to represent a form of protest against a disproportional raise of prices and despite stagnating or lowering personal income. It aims at emphasizing the necessity of a Welfare State or more broadly social solidarity and justice. People who practice proletarian expropriation seize commercial goods, and then declare such goods either “expropriated fully” or demand an automatic discount. In their thinking, this practice ensures that they, not the “market.” that determines the “just” price of goods.

In Italy, a political group called “Disobbedienti” has been practicing proletarian expropriation. In Rome they have expropriated some goods (mainly food) in a local shopping mall. In Bologna they demanded a 70% auto-imposed reduction of second hand book prices and a 30% reduction for new books. The manager of a bookstore agreed to such reduction. In Venice as a punishment against a restaurant owner that organized a gala-dinner for the representatives of the NATO-parliamentary assembly, the same group booked, several nights later, the whole restaurant for 50 people, they eat and drank the most expensive champaigne and then went out without paying, although leaving the waiters an extremely generous tip.

There is no elaborate plan in which the stolen goods are redistributed, these goods are taken by the people who perform proletarian expropriation personally or given to passers-by who find themselves near the shop in which the civil disobedience is exercised. In Rome the group asked the people who were waiting in cashier lines to leave the shop without paying; some cheerfully agreed, but most waited and paid.

Almost the whole of the Italian political scene has condemned such actions. Right-wing Berlusconi’s government coalition branded it as sheer vandalism or a “criminal act” and asked for politics of “zero tolerance” towards such actions. The centre-left opposition argued that “a great social problem such as raising prices and declining standard of life cannot be solved through forms of behaviour that represent violations of law.” The organizers maintain that a right to civil disobedience is sacred and that, in this sense, original forms of protest should be welcome for they might prove efficient in transmitting the message to the public opinion and political elite.

The fundamental question raised by this example is asking where civil disobedience morphs into simple criminality. The answer to this question is not merely important to understand the nature and limits of proletarian expropriation but also might prove instructive to understand the phenomenon of law more generally. In the case of Italian examples of expropriation the perpetrators were accused of committing theft and robbery. A legal representative of the accused expropriators could try to defend them for the lack of the subjective (voluntary) element necessary for the complete criminal sentence for the act of theft. Nevertheless, this attempt would probably not be accepted by the court. Robin Hood syndrome is covered by the definition of theft. Would it be different one can ask, if the expropriation of goods was to be followed by a organized distribution of stolen goods to people targeted as being in need. Expropriators could try to sell the goods and make payments to non-governmental associations that could distribute the funds to the poor. In this way the action of expropriation would be politically more convincing but it would hardly, as far as the positive law is concerned, be considered as outside of the domain of the criminal law. Maybe the court could in this case take into consideration the circumstances under which the act is committed and pronounce the lesser sentence or complete liberation of criminal responsibility of the perpetrators. The court could also go in a different direction and argue that, in any case, such violations of law present a serious disturbance of the public order and a negative example for others. In this sense within the domain of positive law the court has the liberty of what can be branded as political interpretation. In any case at least in the theoretical sense, if not in practical terms, practice of proletarian expropriation as a form of civil disobedience strikes at the very heart of the capitalist system and is explicitly asking the law to take strong, definite positions.

UPDATE: Thanks to Brian Leiter for his referrals...I encourage all new visitors to take a look at other posts on the home page to see other contributions from the Assembly's members from France, Scotland, and the U.S.!


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