In the past week, two unrelated incidents of self-immolation have been reported in Italy. The first case was that of a 58-year-old businessman in Bologna who set himself alight while sitting in a parked car outside of a government tax office. Police found a number of documents in the car, including a suicide note directed at the government agency that had recently accused him of evading taxes. In another letter, the man defended his innocence, and he might live to do so further, as he has now been hospitalized in Parma to receive treatment for severe burns.
The second incident bears a number of daunting similarities. Also committed in a public fashion, a 27-year-old construction worker drenched in petroleum lit himself ablaze outside of the Verona city hall. The man claimed to have not received payment for four months work and to have run out of money as a result. Like his counterpart, he is now receiving hospital care for his extensive injuries.
Both instances are indicative of wider political problems facing the Italian peninsula and the eurozone at large. In the case of the businessman, we see the effects of economic belt-tightening and government whip-cracking in a country where, for the last decade, administrative lethargy has led to a failure to diligently collect taxes and pursue evasive dodgers. In fact, Italy’s enervated revenue service agencies have ultimately cost the country 160 billion euros per year in uncollected taxes. Now responding to pressure from international organizations like the EU and the World Bank, Prime Minister Mario Monti has implemented new policies to invigorate collection and forcefully pursue those citizens who consider their taxes discretionary.
It is the case of the construction worker, however, that has drawn even more attention to the economic strife facing Italy and the psychological toll correspondingly inflicted on the struggling citizens. With the Italian government acquiescing to international demands for tax hikes, spending cuts, and pension reductions, Italian unions and workers are afraid that they will have to shoulder the lion’s share of the oncoming austerity.
Part of the labor reforms presented by the government include stipulations which would make it easier to fire workers, and therefore allow employers more leeway in and control over their daily operations. Naturally, the unions and workers organizations perceive this as a bellicose swipe at the foundation of their collective strength and have accordingly organized strikes and rallies in response. Ultimately, the entire situation seems somewhat formulaic, the discontented populace battling the somber puppets of their government who themselves are flung to and fro by EU technocrats. In fact, I suspect that not many people would think twice if the name “Italy” were substituted with “Greece” or “Spain.”
What is noteworthy about these incidents is not the fact that two citizens attempted suicide, the rates of which are known to increase as an economy takes a downturn, but the mode in which they did so. Self-immolation is not just a method of suicide but a form of martyrdom and political protest. An action often associated with monks defying brutal religious persecution, self-immolation is the ultimate remonstration, a public and simultaneous affirmation of self-possession and personal disregard. The action carries an inherent and hefty weight, it is both appalling and spectacular, and it is therefore no wonder that it is seen as the final option for many a political dissident, including Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who helped fuel the Arab Spring in December of 2010 by self-immolating outside of a local governor’s office in Tunisia.
If self-immolation is a powerful theatric by which to express the political woe of the citizen, then this begs the question of what it is these two Italian men were protesting. The businessman who was allegedly innocent of tax evasion does not seem to have called attention to the structural problem of the Italian government wrongfully accusing its citizens of evading their taxes, but instead to their newfound commitment of actually enforcing the existing revenue laws. As for the construction worker who was consistently denied payment for his work, this is perhaps indicative of some sort of corruption or cruel indifference existing in the Italian marketplace, but this, too, seems less structural and more of a moral attitude. It seems that these histrionic spectacles don’t quite match up to the gross structural injustices that one has come to expect when we hear of multiple cases of self-immolation.