Flood and Breach of the bourgeois civilization (LXXXIII)

The floods in the Po valley and the confused debate over their causes and over the responsibility of organisations and public bodies that did not know how to carry out protection work, with all the disgusting mutual accusation of "speculating" on misfortune, puts into question one of the most widespread false opinions shared by all the contenders: that contemporary capitalist society, with the corresponding development of science, technology and production, places the human species in the best possible position to struggle against the difficulties of the natural environment. Hence the contingent fault of the government or of Party A and B, which lies in not knowing how to exploit this magnificent potential at hand, and in the erroneous and culpable administrative and political measures. Hence the no less classic: "Move over, I want to take over now!"

If it is true that the industrial and economic potential of the capitalist world is increasing and not diminishing, it is equally true that the more virulent it is, the worse the living conditions of the human mass are regarding natural and historical cataclysms. Unlike the periodic spates of rivers, the spate of frenetic capitalist accumulation knows no perspective of a "decrease", of a falling curve from the hydrometer readings, but only the catastrophe of the river banks bursting.


The relationship between the thousands of years long development of man's production technique and relations with the natural environment is very close. Primitive man, like an animal, gathered and ate wild fruit using a simple grasping action and, like an animal, fled headlong from the disruption of natural phenomena that threatened his life. As the artificial production of products for consumption and the accumulation of reserves of these products and of tools forced him to settle, so too they forced him to defend himself from such menaces as meteorites and natural dangers. Such a defence, not unlike that against other groups competing for the best site, or predators on the accumulated reserve, could only be collective. From these collective needs arose, as we have seen many times, class division and exploitation by rulers.

In Marx "the capitalist mode of production ... presupposes the domination of man over nature."(1) It also presupposes the war of nature on man. A too generous and lavish nature would not be the favourable environment from which capitalism could spring up.

"It is not the absolute fertility of the soil, but its degree of differentiation, the variety of its natural products, which form the natural basis for the social basis for the division of labour (...) It is the necessity of bringing a natural force under control of society, of economising on its energy, of appropriating or subduing it on a large scale by the work of the human hand, that plays the most decisive role in the history of industry. Thus, for example, the regulation of the flow of water in Egypt, Lombardy and Holland. Or irrigation in India, Persia and so on, where artificial canals do not only supply the soil with the water indispensable to it, but also carry down mineral fertilisers from the hills, in the shape of sediment. The secret of the flourishing state of industry in Spain and Sicily under the rule of the Arabs lay in their irrigation works."

(Footnote) "One of the material foundations of the power of the state over the small and unconnected producing organisms of India was the regulation of the water supply. Its Mohammedan rulers understood this better than their English successors. It is sufficient to recall the famine of 1866, which cost the lives of more than a million Hindus in the district of Orissa, in the Bengal Presidency."

It is well known that similar famines have raged recently, despite the tremendous potential of world capitalism... The struggle against nature generates industry; man lives on two sacred Dantesque elements, nature and art (the third is God). Capitalism generates the exploitation of man from industry. The bourgeoisie will not be revolted by violence against God, nature and art.

Very modern high capitalism shows serious cases of retreat in the struggle to defend against attacks by the forces of nature on the human species, and the reasons are strictly social and class ones, so much so as to invert the advantage derived from the progress of theoretical and applied science. Let us wait then to blame it for having increased the rainfall intensity with atomic explosions or, tomorrow, with having "messed about" with nature so much as to risk making the earth and its atmosphere uninhabitable and even to make the skeleton explode by priming "chain reactions" of all the elements in nuclear complexes. For now let us establish a social and economic law for the parallel between its greater efficiency in exploiting labour and the life of men and the ever decreasing efficiency in the rational defence against the natural environment, in the widest sense.

The earth's crust is modified by geological processes which man increasingly learns to distinguish and decreasingly attributes to mysterious wishes of angry forces and which, within certain limits, he learns to correct and control. When, in pre-history, the Po valley was a huge lagoon through which the Adriatic Sea lapped the foothills of the Alps, the first inhabitants, who evidently were not lucky enough to beg "amphibious craft" from self-interested American charity, occupied pile-dwellings rising above the water. It was a "terramara" civilisation of which Venice is a distant development; it was too simple for a "reconstruction business" to be based on it with contracts to supply timber! The pile-dwellings did not collapse during floods: modern brick houses do. However, what means exist today to build raised houses, roads and railways! They would suffice to protect the population. Utopia! The sums do not tally, while the account of 200 billion lire for repair works and reconstruction is quite in order.

In the past, the building of the first embankments dates back to the Etruscans. The natural process of mountainside degradation and the transport of material suspended in river waters from the mountains at flood time has formed a huge, fertile lowland region over the centuries, this convenience then assuring the settlement of agricultural peoples. The subsequent populations and regimes continued to raise high embankments along the banks of the large rivers, which were insufficient to stop huge cataclysms when the river shifted its course. The shift of the Po near Guastalla onto a new course, which was until then the lowest reach of the Oglio, dates from the fifth century.

In the thirteenth century, the great river abandoned the southern distributory of the huge delta, the present-day secondary "Po di Volano", in the reach near its mouth and adopted the present course from Pontelagoscuro to the sea. The frightening "shifts" have always been from south to north. A general law assumes a tendency for all the world's rivers to migrate north-wards for geophysical reasons. However, in the case of the Po, this law is evident due to the great difference between its north and south bank tributaries. The former rise in the Alps and have clear water either because they pass through large lakes, or because they do not have a maximum regime during periods of heavy rainfall, but instead during the springtime melting of glaciers. Therefore these rivers do not carry mud and sand deposits into the course of the main river when in flood. However, from the south, from the Apennines, the short and torrential right bank tributaries with their huge variations between maximum and minimum flow pour down the debris of mountain erosion, filling in the right bank section of the Po's channel, which every so often escapes this damming by turning north.

Chauvinism is not required to know that the science of river hydraulics arose from this problem: for centuries the problem has been posed of the utility and functioning of embankments, or the connection with the problem of the distribution of irrigation water via canals, and finally of fluvial navigation. After the Roman works, there is information about the first canals in the Po valley in 1037. After the victory of Legnano (2), the Milanese built the Naviglio Grande to Abbiategrasso, which was made navigable in 1271. With this arose capitalist agriculture, the first in Europe, and the great hydraulic works were undertaken by the state bodies: from the canals and basins of Leonardo, who also provided norms for the river regimes, to the Cavour Canal, begun in 1860.

The construction of embankments to contain rivers raised a major problem: that of raised rivers. While the Alpine rivers, such as the Ticino and Adda, run largely between natural banks, the right bank tributaries and the Po below Cremona are raised: this means that not only the water level, but also the bed of the water course is higher than the surrounding countryside. The embankments save it from being flooded and a collector canal runs parallel to the river to collect local water which it carries to the river downstream: these are the great reclamation works, and as they approach the sea, the transfer of water to the river is performed mechanically so as to keep dry the districts which are below not only the river, but also the sea. The entire Polesine is a huge low-lying area: Adria is 4 meters above sea level, Rovigo 5 meters: there the Po's bed is higher and the Adige's even more so. Clearly a breach in the embankments would turn the whole of Rovigo province into a huge lake.

There is a major debate among hydrologists as to whether the rise in the beds of such rivers is progressive. French hydrologists said yes a century ago while the leaders of Italian hydrology opposed them, and the matter is still discussed in congresses today. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the river load and its deposition extends the mouth out to sea, even if this does not collect in the final reaches of the river's bed. Because of this incessant process, the gradient of the bed and the water surface can only decrease and, according to hydrological law, the speed of the current equally falls: hence the need to raise embankments seemed historically endless and unavoidable. The disastrous nature of the breaches occurring is also progressive.

The availability of modern mechanical means has contributed in this field to spreading the method of exploiting great extents of the most fertile land, keeping them dry by continuous pumping. The risk to the tenants and workers worries a profit economy, but the damage caused when the works fall can be balanced against the fertilisation by the invading mud on the one hand and the economic factor on the other: carrying out works is always good capitalist business.

The classic reclamations by alluviation were widespread in the modern period along the entire Italian lowland coast: river water was alternately allowed to flood into and deposit in the great basins, the level of which rose slowly with the double advantage of not letting useful and fertile soil wash out to sea and of providing ever greater security from flooding and future danger. This rational system was found to be too slow for the requirements of capital investment, Another tendentious argument was and is drawn from the continuously rising population density which cannot permit a loss of fertile land. So almost all the old polders, carefully surveyed with precision by the hydrologists of the Austrian, Tuscan and Bourbon regimes, have been destroyed.

Clearly, if today one had to choose from the various radical solutions to these problems, not only would one clash with the incapacity of capitalism to look to the distant future as regards the handing down of installations from generation to generation, but one would also clash with the strong local interests of farmers and industrialists who have an interest in not having various zones eroded and who play on the attachment of poor people to their inhospitable homes. Since a while back, new solutions have been proposed to create "lateral channels" for the Po.

This type of study is always unpopular because the results forecast are uncertain, something which creates great annoyance in business circles. One solution, on the right, consists in a cut from Pontelagoscuro to the valleys or lagoons of Comacchio: the artificial canal would cut about one third off the length of the present river course to the sea. Such a solution clashes with the big investments in Ferrarese reclamation works and with fish farming, so it would be resisted. But the solutions with more foresight and which perhaps are more in conformity with the natural processes call for the reuniting of the Po and Adige courses between which lies the lower Polesana, creating in its Thalweg (3), presently criss-crossed by small water courses, a huge collector and, perhaps, in the final count, a side canal for one if not both rivers would encounter no less resistance.

In the bourgeois period, such a study does not lead to positive research, but to two "policies", right and left, as regards the Po, with the related conflict between speculating groups.


There is discussion as to whether the present catastrophe, in which some have already seen the natural formation of a large stable swamp and a shifting of the Po's course with the total destruction of the north bank, is due to exceptional rainfall and the complicity of natural causes, or to the inexperience and the error of men and directors. Indisputably the succession of wars and crises have caused decades of neglect in the difficult service of technical inspection and embankment maintenance, dredging of river beds where necessary and the systematisation of high mountain basins, the deforestation of which caused greater and more rapid rain water run-off during high water and greater flows of suspended material to the river courses on the plain.

With the bad trend that now prevails in science and official technical organisation, it is even difficult to collect and to compare udometric data (amount of rainfall on various dates in the basin which feeds the river) and hydrometric data (water levels at the hydrometers, maximum flow) with those of the past. Offices and scientists with self-respect now offer replies in line with political requirements and reasons of state, that is, according to the effect that they will have, the figures having been massaged in every possible way. One can also well believe the current of criticism which states that not even the observation stations destroyed during the war have been replaced, and it is also credible that our present technical bureaucracy works with old maps, passed along copy by copy, dragging along slowly over the drawing tables of the lazy technical personnel, and that it does not update the surveys with new altitude surveys, which are difficult, and with operations of geodetic precision, which allow one to collate the various data of the phenomenon. It lives in masses of maps which are in line with approvals given in circulars in terms of format and colour, but do not give a tinker's cuss for physical reality. The figures handed out here and there for the popular press don't add up, but it is easy to blame the journalists who know all about nothing.

It therefore remains to be seen – and those movements with wide support and plentiful means could well try to do this – if the intensity of rainfall really was the highest in a century of observation: it is correct to doubt it. The same goes for the hydrometer readings for the maximum levels and flows: it is easy to say that the historical maximum was recorded at Pontelagoscuro at 11,000 cubic meters per second but now has presently risen to 13,000. In 1917 and 1926 there were very large maxima of much lesser consequence, always in spring, up to 13,800 cubic meters per second passing through Piacenza.

Let us say without dwelling further on the matter that the rainfall was certainly not of unheard of proportions and the chief responsibility for the disaster lies in the long lack of necessary services and in the omission of maintenance and improvement works, which is related to the smaller public budget for such works and the way money was spent compared to the past.

It is a matter of providing a cause for these facts, which must be a social and historical cause, and it is puerile to bring up again the "bad management" of those who were or are at the helm of the Italian ship of state. Besides, this is not a uniquely Italian phenomenon, but occurs in all countries. Administrative chaos, thieving, the penetration of speculation into public decision making are now denounced by the conservatives themselves, and in America they have been related to public disasters: even there ultra-modern cities in Kansas and Missouri have fallen victim to badly regulated rivers (4).

Two mistaken ideas underlie a critique like the one we have just mentioned: one is that the struggle to return from the fascist dictatorship within the bourgeoisie (the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie has existed since it won freedom) to the external multiparty democracy had as its aim a better administration, whereas it is clear that it had to lead, and has led, to a worse administration. This is the fault common to ALL shades in the great block of the CLN (5).

The other incorrect idea is the belief that the totalitarian form of the capitalist regime (of which Italian fascism was the first great example) gave overwhelming power to the state bureaucracy against the autonomous initiatives of enterprises and private speculation. On the contrary, this form is vital for capitalism's survival and that of the bourgeois class at a certain stage, as it concentrates counter-revolutionary powers in the state machine, but renders the administrative machine weaker and more open to manipulation by speculative interests.

Here we need a historical sketch of the Italian administrative machine from the epoch of the achievement of national unity. Initially it worked well and had strong powers. All the favourable conditions contributed to this. The young bourgeoisie had to pass through the heroic phase and to make sacrifices in order to seize power and to affirm its interests. Therefore the individual elements were still prepared to offer their all and were less attracted by immediate hidden gain. Further resolute enthusiasm was needed to liquidate the resistance of the old powers and of the rusted state machines of the various parts into which the country was originally divided politically.

There was no notable division into parties as the sole party of the liberal revolution governed (virgin in 1860, old slag in 1943) with the clear acquiescence of the few republicans and with the workers' movement yet to appear. The swindles began with the bi-party transformismo of 1876 (6). The skeleton of the bureaucracy coming from Piedmont following close on the heels of the military forces of occupation enjoyed a real dictatorship over the local elements and the aristocratic, and clerical, opponents were repressed by emergency powers... as they were guilty of anti-liberalism. Under such conditions, a young, conscientious and honest administrative machine was constructed.

The bureaucracy suffered a twin attack on its uncorrupt dominance with the capitalist system's development in depth and extension. The great entrepreneurs of public works and of productive sectors aided by the state emerged in the economic field, while in the political field, the spread of corruption to parliamentary business became such that every day "the people's representatives" intervened to impinge on the decisions of the executive system and general administration, which previously had functioned with scrupulous impersonality and impartiality.

Public works, which previously had been projected by the most competent, who were naively pleased to have a regular salary as government functionaries, and who were wholly independent in their judgements and advice, began to be imposed by the executioners: we mean the classical Carrozoni (7) began to do the rounds. The machine of state expenditure became decreasingly useful for the community, but all the more financially burdensome.

This process accelerated during the Giolittian period (8), but nevertheless increasing economic prosperity made the damage less obvious. This system, as its political masterpiece, slowly entangled the emerging workers' party. Precisely because Italy has an abundance of labour power and a lack of capital, all sides call on the state to provide work, and the MP who seeks votes in an industrial or agricultural constituency does the rounds of the ministries hunting for the panacea: public works.

After the First World War, the Italian bourgeoisie, even though they came out "winners", saw the favourable wind of the heroic period change too drastically and there was fascism. The concentration of the policing strength of the state along with the concentration of the control of almost all the economic sectors simultaneously allowed it to avoid the explosion of radical revolts among the masses and to assure free speculative manoeuvring for the well-off class, on condition that the latter formed itself into a single class centre framed by government policy. Every medium or small employer was compelled to make reformist concessions, called for during the long struggle of the workers' organisations which (as usual) they destroyed, stealing their programme, so that while a high degree of capitalist concentration was favoured, the internal situation was pacified. The totalitarian form allows capital to set in motion the reformist trick of the previous decades, latching on to the class collaboration proposed by the traitors of the revolutionary party.

The steering of the state machine and abounding special laws were clearly placed in the service of business initiatives. From technical legislation – to return to our starting point, dealing with rivers – which around 1865 had produced several masterpieces, one arrived at a total hotchpotch open to all possible manoeuvres, the functionary being reduced to a puppet of the large firms. The hydrological services were precisely those clashing with the famous idea of private initiative. They require a single establishment and full powers: they had a very long tradition. Jacini wrote in 1854. The civil problem of the waters found in Giandomenico Romagnosi an immortal writer of treatises (9). All in all, bourgeois administration and technology had even then class goals, but they were serious, while today they are mere bagatelle.

This lead to the bad trend which has caused the degradation and not the improvement of the hydraulic defences in the Paduan plain, starting from a process not concerning just one party or nation, but the centuries long ups and downs of a class regime.

In short, if once the bureaucracy, independent but not omnipotent, laid out its project on the drawing board and then called in bids from public works "enterprises", compelling them, refusing even the offer of a cup of coffee, to complete them rigorously, thus at most the selection of the funded works was made according to general principles, today the relationship is inverted. The weak and servile technical bureaucracy lets the enterprises themselves draw up the plans and approves them almost unseen, and the enterprises obviously select the profitable works and drop the delicate operations which require more diligence and offer less chance of repetition in the future.

The basis of this is not morality, nor even that in general the functionary gives way before competition and large bribes. It is that if a functionary resists, not only does his workload increase ten-fold, but also the interests against whom he clashes mobilise against him with decisive party influence in the higher echelons of the ministry that employs him. Once the most capable technician gained promotion, now it is the one most able to move in such a system.

When single party fascism gave way to the multi-party system unknown even in Giolittian Italy, even in the constitutional model of perfect England, and so on (where we have never had ten parties declaredly ready to govern according to the constitution, but at most two or three), we went from bad to worse. They were supposed to restore the experts and the honest men with the Allied armies. What a silly hope so many had: the new changing of the guard has produced the worst of all guards, as on the Po embankments.

It is symptomatic enough in diagnosing the present phase of the capitalist regime that a senior official in the Ministry of Works let slip that the flood surveillance services worked well right up to the fatal moment: the only moment for which they are paid a regular salary – this is the style of modern bureaucracy (for some the new ruling class! Ruling classes arrive mouths agape, but not with a failing heart.)

No less interesting is what Alberto de Stefani wrote, entitled 'The Management of the Po' (10). After outlining the history of measures, he cited the judgement of authors in technical journals: "One can never insist too much on the need to react by the system of concentrating the activity of the offices exclusively, or nearly so, on the projection and execution of major works."

De Stefani did not see the radical implication of such a critique. He deplored the neglect of conservation and maintenance of existing works, while new works were being planned. He cited other passages: "One spends tens of billions (and tomorrow hundreds) for extensions after systematically grudging and withholding those small amounts required for the maintenance and even to close breaches."

That seems to have happened on the Reno. An economist of De Stefani's calibre scrapes by with saying: "We have too little conservative spirit due to too much uncontrolled fantasy."

Is it thus perhaps a factor of national psychology? Never: of capitalist production. Capital has become incapable of the social function of transmitting the labour of the present generation to the future ones, utilising the labour of past generations in this. It does not want maintenance contracts, but huge building deals: to enable this, huge natural cataclysms are insufficient – capital creates human ones with ineluctable necessity, and makes post-war reconstruction "the business deal of the century".

These concepts have to be applied to the critique of the base, demagogic position of the Italian so-called workers' parties. When speculation and capitalist enterprise are given the capital to invest in hydraulic works which is now committed to armaments, capitalist enterprise (except to cause a crisis among the pseudo-reds of the metallurgical centres, if the business were really to be undertaken) will use that capital in the same way: cheating and speculating at one thousand percent, raising their glasses high to the coming if not of the next war, then of the next flood.

The huge river of human history also has its irresistible and threatening swellings. When the wave rises, it washes against the two retaining embankments: on the right the conformist one, of Conservation of existing and traditional forces; along it priests chant in procession, policemen and gendarmes patrol, the teachers and cantors of official lies and state-schooling prate.

The left bank is that of the reformists, hedged with "people's" representatives, the dealers in opportunism, the parliamentarians and progressive organisers. Exchanging insults across the stream, both processions claim to have the recipe to maintain the fast-flowing river in its restrained and enforced channel.

But at great turning points, the current breaks free and leaves its course, "shifting" like the Po at Guastalla and Volano onto an unexpected course, sweeping the two sordid bands into the irresistible flood of the revolution which subverts all old forms of restraint, moulding a new face on society like on the land.

Battaglia Comunista, No. 23, 5-19 December 1951


(1) Capital Vol.; I (Harmonsworth, 1976) p. 649. The following quotation is on pages 49-50.

(2) In 1176 the Lombard Communes defeated the Emperor Barbarossa at Legnano.

(3) Line where opposite slopes meet at the bottom of a valley.

(4) Floods in June and July in Kansas and Missouri caused dozens of deaths and left many homeless.

(5) Comitato di Liberazione Nazionalea the antifascist front towards the end of the second world war, going from the Communist Party to the monarchists.

(6) On March 18th. 1876, the last "destra" government fell and the "sinistra", based on regional interests, took over. There was, however, little political difference as the two parties transformed into two almost identical schools of thought.

(7) Platonic and wasteful body or enterprise, especially public.

(8) Roughly 1901 to 1914.

(9) La proprieta fondaria e la poulazione agricola in Lombardia (Milan, 1854 -not 1857 as in the original ). Stefano Jacini (1872-91) agronomist, head of the Inchiesta Agraria e sulle condizioni della classe agricola (1884). Minister of public works under Cavour (1860) and again in 1864 and 1867. Gian Domenico Rornagnosi (1761-1835) jurist and philosopher. Considered to be the main inspiration behind the juridical and administrative system adopted by the Kingdom of Italy (1861-1946).

(10) Alberto De Stefani was the Minister of Finance and the Treasury from 1922 to 1925 when he was removed after pressure from financial and industrial groups. He remained a fascist and was tried after the war for this, being acquitted. The article quoted was published in Il Tempo (Rome) on 21 November 1951. It reiterates what he had previously written when still a minister: "As one reads on, one will see the path taken since the Kingdom's foundation to the present of the various legislative attempts, of citizens' sacrifices and their real value, of the excellence of provision and execution, of the defectiveness and deviations which the interest of the state and nation sometimes had to suffer because of the upper hand gained by political or particular or special interests." (L'azione dello Stato per le Opere Pubbliche 1862-1924, Rome 1925 p. vii)

(Italian Version)

"On the Thread of Time" Articles