Monday, August 15, 2011

The Looting

They assembled in front of the warehouse in a late afternoon in early June: two hundred or so people who had arrived in one hundred or so vehicles, including large trucks of well-known local moving companies whose brand names had been concealed.

Then they got to work.

They forced their way inside the padlocked building and proceeded to strip it of everything that might have some value. First of all, the furniture – for this was a furniture warehouse – followed by the appliances and the computers and the stationery. Then they took the curtains and some of the carpets and tiles. Then they ripped out the electrical system and removed the copper wiring inside.

The reports vary a little on what happened next. It seems that residents of the nearby town, some say suspecting an unauthorised rave party, called the police, and that when they arrived they took down the names of the people who were still in the building before letting them go. But another version is that nobody left, and everyone waited patiently for their name to be recorded. Only then, at 9pm, the group left, each taking their share of the loot. The next day, the local Carabinieri posed for this picture.

Aiazzone was a northern Italian furniture company that was amongst the first, in the 1980s, to make use of television as a medium not just for advertising but for actual sales. Their ads, headlined by huckster extraordinaire Guido Angeli, he of the smirk and the weird gesticulation – his signature move was a circular motion of the right hand, palm down, and simultaneously a vigorous ‘thumb-up’ with the left – appeared on both national and local television, and it was in the latter that Angeli entertained his audiences with a series of seemingly interminable infomercials. The company’s slogan was Provare per credere, ‘try in order to believe’, and the ads warmly invited the public to come in for an obligation free chat with the company’s interior designers ‘over lunch or dinner’ and promised 'free delivery nationwide - including the islands'.

The furniture itself was said to be almost proverbially awful, and having furnished one’s house at Aiazzone’s became shorthand for having little money and less taste – due in part no doubt to the kind of class snobbery that made the bourgeois sneer at the popularity of formica tables, chairs and bench tops in post-war Italy, without a thought for the kind of value that being able to purchase easy-to-clean kitchen and dining room furniture represented for the working poor. But maybe it really was awful, I don’t know. At any rate the brand itself was tarnished to the point that its delivery vans often travelled without markings and logos. It was the closest you could get to having your furniture delivered in a brown paper bag.

However the business model remained highly successful, and it kept relying on Angeli and his boorish promotional style to craft its message to the masses. I still remember mornings spent home from school when Aiazzone infomercials would be running concurrently on three different channels – which was quite unprecedented in those days – but the original vision of company founder Giorgio Aiazzone was to control television directly. His short-lived GAT (Gruppo Aiazzone Televisivo) had been in fact one of the country’s earliest commercial networks and a rival to Berlusconi’s own neonate outfit.

Then suddenly in July of 1986 Giorgio Aiazzone died in a helicopter crash, aged 39. Angeli dedicated to his boss a one hour infomercial-cum-memorial service featuring a chair sitting empty under a spotlight, an outrageous piece of television that is sadly lost to the ages. But the front man’s theatrical genius was not enough to ensure the continuing success of the company, and Aiazzone went into a twenty-year decline which ended with the acquisition of the brand name by Renato Semeraro, Giammauro Borsano and Giuseppe Gallo in 2008.

'You neither wash, nor pay' - a 2010 Aiazzone promotion offering a free dishwasher with every kitchen purchased and 5-year interest-free payments

With the injection of capital and the opening of a new chain of stores came a new national advertising campaign and a new series of supermarket-like deals. To say that the project was short-lived may give the possibly misleading impression that it was ever alive at all: the line eventually pursued by the public prosecutors is that the venture was conceived from the start as the business equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. The new owners, it is alleged, leveraged the company that owned all of the factories, warehouses and shops now under the Aiazzone name – many of which were in crisis at the time of their rebranding – for a series of fraudulent transactions involving both material assets and legal entities, as well as cash withdrawals and the issuing of invoices for goods and services that didn’t exist to phantom, ad hoc companies. The businessmen proceeded then to transfer one by one to Bulgaria the ownership of all of the companies involved – which by now were empty shells left with no assets but substantial liabilities to their workers, their suppliers and the tax department – so as to avoid the normal liquidation process and prevent the creditors from recovering anything of value.

This is not a terribly unusual story – not in the country that oversaw the €14 billion collapse of Parmalat – but one whose consequences have been devastating nonetheless. The name in the Italian penal code for the main charge against Semeraro, Borsano and Gallo is suitably gruesome: bancarotta distruttiva, ‘destructive bankruptcy’. Its victims included Aiazzone’s 850 workers, who will never see their back pay or the severance money set aside from their salaries, and tens of thousands of its customers, some of whom were pressed to honour the scheduled payments even after the shops had been padlocked and there was no prospect of their ever receiving the furniture.

Which takes us back to this last first of June, and to the sealed warehouse in Pognano.

Some had already come in the preceding weeks, burglarising at the edges, as it were. But on this day they wanted to finish the job, and do it together. Two hundred people, including migrant families alongside the many locals. Former employees, former customers, all of them from the working class – or the laid-off class – a suitably multicultural, globalised gang, finding strength in numbers and a common purpose: to at least repossess something, pick whatever morsels of meat were left on the carcass of what was once a place of work and business.

I find it such a poignantly, pathetically emblematic story of our late, late capitalism. The manner in which these people organised is a sad echo of the brash proletarian expropriations of another era, their unlikely coming together a parody of unionism. And this wasn’t a riot, either. There was no vandalism except to profit from the salvage, no defiance. There was nothing brazen or consciously symbolic in the action, other than its taking place in the late afternoon, meaning that the sun was barely setting by the time they all left. Fast, efficient, well-organised – if the reports are to be believed – this was like work, if such efficiency were still valued in the workplace, and the workplace hadn’t become a front for the financial dealings going on elsewhere, in lawyers’ offices and banks and accounting firms.

Forget bankruptcies: it is Capital itself that has become destructive, eating away at the capacity of labour to produce value, let alone wealth. And I’m not saying this just because it so happens that since the day of the looting, less than eight weeks ago, the Italian stock exchange has lost almost a quarter of its value: the relationship between the two economies – between the all-too-real one of the furniture warehouse and the symbolic one of the stock exchange floor, itself nowadays an entirely virtual construct – obeys its own warped logic and proceeds by way of randomly scheduled moments of reckoning.

As to what happened in Pognano that day, the penal code has the perfect word for it: it was a spoliation. Consider what would make you do that, how far would you have to be pushed before deciding to join this very orderly mob, and how degrading it would feel to barter those things of little value – the used carpets and curtains, the random, mismatched bits of shoddy furniture you managed to fit in the car, the copper wiring you’re going to have to take down to the scrap metal yard – in exchange for actual work, the thing that you used to do every day and that you thought was honest, and that there might be a future – your future – in it.

No: you worked for this, and now you have to steal it. It is the final indignity visited upon a generation brought up to believe, or rather, know, that you have to be lucky to have a job at all.


che tibby said...

bravo gio.

what's happening in a world where those who wish to work, to provide, cannot. madness.

George D said...

I'm reminded of two things.

The first, a table that we owned in the 1990s. Fomica, steel legs, and a utilitarian design with modernist touches. We picked it up from a Salvation Army or similar, and then later saw the same thing in the Nelson Museum, exhibited as a symbol of 1950s living.

The second, the trashpickers in Auckland, scavenging the 'inorganic' ('huckalucka' in local dialect) for usable or resalable items. Steel, tin, electronics or furniture. When we were younger and poorer, we would go with our parents in a van around the suburbs, looking at things for their reuse. Those that were thrown out however, we saw as insufficiently valued, the result of a consumer society that valued commodity and style over usability and function. In a way, we despised those who threw things out, much as many of them must have despised us. I still see people going around, but it makes me upset to see people viewing a usable chair only for its saleable steel legs.

Productive society, as we have defined it, only works so long as it can grow sufficiently greater rate than the population itself. This of course requires the manufacture of desire, of consumer (better) items. It is only natural that those further up the ladder would engage with those desiring or using those things below them as failures or miscreants?