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Anti-Racist Research and Practice in Italy

by Sandro Mezzadra
10 Oct 2010 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Challenging Italian Racism [6] | Article

(a) The topic of my paper is the relation between anti-racism research and practice in Italy, from the point of view of the kind of knowledge this relation has produced and is producing on the emerging of new forms of racism in Italy – and in Europe. The European framework – the framework of a new European citizenship in the making – is indeed from my point of view crucial in order to understand the new configurations of racism that are emerging in single European countries. An electoral poster of the post-fascist party Alleanza nazionale during the 2006 electoral term said: “we were few to call Italy our motherland. Now we are the majority”. In a way, this electoral slogan contains – as every effective ideological statement – a grain of truth. We are indeed facing a new kind of nationalism in Italy, particularly aggressive in front of the social consequences of the global economic crisis in the country, and this is not something limited to the political right. But it is precisely the articulation of this new nationalism with the post-national assemblage that is in the making within the framework of the European integration that needs to be addressed and understood. On the one hand the new nationalism is a symptom of the limits (of the pathologies) of this very process of integration; on the other hand the articulation of nationalism and post-national assemblages of power points to a context within which a new, post-national and “post-modern”, form of racism is emerging.

(b) There are of course many viewpoints from which racism can be analyzed. And there are many forms of racism. The kind of racism theory I’m interested in is a political theory of racism, that – along the line that has been traced among others by Michel Foucault[1] and Etienne Balibar[2] – considers it in its relation with evolving configurations of State, sovereignty and citizenship in modern history. Nationalism plays of course a crucial role here. It was Balibar himself who defined racism as an ‘internal supplement to nationalism’, always in excess but indispensable to its constitution. Nation as the juncture between State, sovereignty and citizenship has established itself as the political norm in Western political development. And racism has been the irreducible rest of the production of this norm. But the “nation” as a social form is not a fixed and static form: its transformations correspond to specific transformations in the configuration of racism itself. There are once again many viewpoints from which these transformations can be analyzed. I think that one of the most important is the kind of relation of domination that the nation develops with its space, making it its own territory. I use the concept of territory in a twofold meaning. On the one hand I employ it in its legal sense, as the territorial field of validity of a constitution.[3] On the other hand, I refer to territory as it has been defined by Michel de Certeau, who stressed that, while a ’place’ is an instantaneous configuration of positions, a territory is an intersection of moving bodies.[4] A territory is defined by the set of movements that take place within it. The establishment of a national territory and its borders, as legally defined by the ‘material constitution’ of a State, has always had to do with the regulation of this intersection of moving bodies, with the management of mobility. And the management of mobility itself, as we know from a number of new scholarly works on historical capitalism, is key to the production of labour power as a commodity, that is to the historical constitution of the labour market. It is a peculiar mix of mobility and immobility of bodies (of labour) that has made it possible. And also this mix is a changing one: the national territory established itself in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries as the space within which labour power as a commodity was produced and the labour market could work. Racism was also the internal supplement to this process of constitution of the labour market, particularly virulent in the moments of its crisis and transformations.

(c) If you look at the history of racism in modern Italy from this point of view, you can clearly distinguish three moments, all corresponding to particular moments in the European history of racism. To put it very briefly and schematically: the constitution of the liberal State, when the very existence of a national Italian labour market and its position within the European and the world space of capitalism was at stake, was marked by a powerful development of anti-Semitism and colonial racism (its internal dimension toward the South of the country being an Italian peculiarity, that nonetheless has parallels in other European experiences). One of the ironies of the Italian case is that within this framework a preoccupation for the quality of the Italian “race stock” emerged, that among other things led to the publication of such works as the one by the influential anthropologist Alfredo Niceforo, Italiani del Nord e del Sud (1899). His thesis, according to which two “races” existed in Italy (an “Arian” and “Caucasian” one in the North, a “Negroid” one in the South), has been widely used by US-American census officers to deny – or at least to put into question – the “Whiteness” of Italian migrants from the South in the early decades of the 20th century. Culminating in the extermination war in Ethiopia (1935-1936) and in the anti-Jews laws (1938) during the Fascist age, colonial racism and anti-Semitism marked an epoch in the history of Italian racism, and it is worth analyzing them jointly, as a new generation of scholars has began to do in recent years. They are still lively as rich “archives” on which the stigmatization of migrants in contemporary public discourse can rely, as it has been shown by a number of scholars. But the kind of general articulation of national state, sovereignty, and citizenship they supplemented was successfully disrupted by the resistance war against Fascism and the birth of the Italian republic. A new constellation of racism emerged in the process of the material development of the democratic constitution in the contested form of the Welfare state, that we can call with Balibar the “social national state”.[5] This development was made possible by a dramatic process of (Fordist) mass industrialization, accompanied (and itself made possible) by unprecedented movements of internal migration from the South to the North beginning in the late 1950s (and especially to the so called “Industrial triangle”, consisting of the three North-Western cities of Genoa, Milan, and Turin). Processes of racist discrimination and stigmatization were essential to “taming” this disruptive experience of mobility, that dramatically changed not only the composition of the Italian working class, but also the social and cultural landscape of the country, and you can find parallels to these processes all around Europe in the Fordist age. It was the spectacular wave of workers’ struggles that developed in the late 1960s that disrupted this configuration of racism (once again: in Italy as in Europe), calling into question the general assemblage of national state, sovereignty, and citizenship – as well as the complex articulation of social and economic relations – that we are accustomed to call Fordism.

(d) The increasing presence of migrants in Italy has been one of the key features of the social and economic transformations linked to the crisis of Fordism and to the capitalistic and State attempts to cope with it. During the 1980s Italy ceased to be an emigration country and increasingly became an immigration country. On the one hand, this was due to an increasing migrants’ pressure from the global South and East; on the other hand, the new flexible mode of accumulation that was developing (starting already in the late 1970s from the “industrial districts” of the so called “Third Italy”) laid the basis for an increasing use of migrant labour in crucial economic sectors. It is in this situation that also in Italy the word migration became in the last two decades the new name of the “race”. To borrow a point made by Jacques Rancière, we should further add that to be “racialized” and racially stigmatized were the migrants (or the immigrants) as such.[6] While in the “Fordist” age discrimination addressed the migrants as migrant workers, this very definition implying at least a subordinate acknowledgment of the legitimacy of their existence (of their having a “place” in the legitimate order of things), the void and floating signifier “migrants” as object of racist rhetoric is indeed a symptom of the fact that the legitimate order of things (what I call citizenship from a political and sociological point of view) was itself becoming floating and void. New practices of mobility – among them the movements of migration – were making it profoundly unstable, while the start of “neoliberal” attacks on the very form of the Welfare state was opening up a crisis of legitimacy. The borders of the labour market itself were being blurred, in Italy as well as in other European countries: the production of labour power as a commodity did not take place in the established and regulated national framework in a satisfying way any more, and a new mix of mobility and immobility of bodies had to be produced. Migration policies and laws have attempted to address this problem in the last twenty years in Italy. Linking the residence permit for migrants to the holding of a “regular” labour contract (the same “regular” labour contract that was increasingly deemed obsolete for the autochthonous youth), and establishing administrative detention (practices of “ethnic caging”, to borrow a phrase from Ghassan Hage[7]) as key devices of migration management, these policies and laws (both in their centre-left and in their centre-right shape) have tried to manage a process of increasing “hybridization” of the Italian society (and, not to be forgot, of the Italian labour market) fostering a process of hierarchization of the social characters inhabiting it. For the first time in its history, Italian society appears to be internally crisscrossed and divided by the colour-line: new fantasies of whiteness are emerging in the Italian public discourse, revolving – of course with a new virulence after 9/11, after Madrid, after London – around the issue of Christianity as well as around the issue of Enlightenment. So we experienced in the last years a former minister talking about the risk of “bingo bongos” (a pejorative and insulting definition for black people, with a long career in the history of colonial racism) voting to elect the Italian parliament. And when a Pakistani man killed his daughter to punish her for dating with an Italian boy, in Italy – in a country where sheik Hilaly would have great support from Italian men if only he didn’t speak about the hijab but merely about sober dressing – the “public opinion” was shocked by the danger posited to “our” “traditional” respect for women’s freedom… We are used to handle young women as “little strawberries”, warned an influential commentator in the liberal daily “La Repubblica”. What do you do with little strawberries? Of course it depends on your taste, but I’d suggest that most people just eat them.[8] Since its development, racism must be understood against the background of a disrupted citizenship, to struggle against it increasingly means to struggle for a re-invention of citizenship.

(e)  Let’s hear an other influential voice from Italy. Marcello Pera, right-wing President of the Italian Senate between 2001 and 2006, was participating in a meeting of the Catholic youth organization “Comunione e liberazione” in August 2005. In his talk he thundered against the risk of “hybridism” disrupting the Italian and European roots of civilization due to the increasing presence of non-Christian background migrants. One is tempted to answer Mr. Pera with the irony of Antonio Gramsci. Writing to a friend in 1927 from the prison of Milan, he commented the recently released book by Henri Massis, Défense de l’Occident, “Defence of the West”, one of the many books warning about the decline of Europe in the 1920s: “I find laughable”, he wrote,

“that this honourable Mr. Massis, who is afraid of the Asiatic ideology of Gandhi and Tagore destroying French Catholic rationalism, doesn’t notice that Paris has become a semi-colony of the Senegalese intelligentsia, while the rate of ‘metissage’ increases everyday in France. Yes, we could joke and make the point that France is the beginning of dark Africa while the jazz-band is the first molecule of a new African-European civilization”.

A wonderful piece of postcolonial cultural criticism by Gramsci, indeed… But the point is that people like Pera are perfectly aware of that! They are perfectly aware of the fact that no European metropolis could exist, produce, even be “competitive” on the world market outside of the “hybrid” composition of its population, of its culture, of its styles of life, and of course of its labour market! This is the crucial point in my opinion: current configurations of racism in Italy and in Europe do not aim at assigning different populations to different territories, they rather aim to regulate, to “manage” as European rhetoric wants it, the intersection of their bodies (to go back to Michel de Certeau’s definition of territory) within a single territory. But what is this territory, the European territory, looking like? This is the point where the Italian nationalism I was talking about at the beginning of my speech needs to be placed within a new, post-national “assemblage”. I use the word assemblage suggested by Saskia Sassen[9] because I agree with her principal argument: that is, with her emphasis on the role that States themselves play in the transition to new global assemblages of power. The European Union, as it has been stressed by legal and political scholarship, is a perfect case study for this process: rather than focussing on the linear overcoming of the nation-states within the framework of the integration process, scholars increasingly focus on their becoming fundamental articulations of a new polity. This polity is developing an original relation with its territory, very different from the one that has been characteristic of the modern state. To put it briefly: the European territory is deeply heterogeneous and is above all marked by the structural mobility of its borders. While the mobility of borders (which, once again, doesn’t mean at all that they are bound to disappear) is increasingly described as a key characteristic of space in an age of globalization (I’m thinking for instance of the works by Aihwa Ong[10] on South-East Asia or of the works by Achille Mbembe[11] on Africa), the European case has its peculiarity. Two elements of this peculiarity are crucial for the understanding of the new articulations of racism: on the one hand, the structural character of the European enlargement, that posits the question of the borders of European identity itself (the case of Turkey being of course crucial); on the other hand, the new border regime in the making, that can be best described as a new model of migration and mobility management model.

(f) Let me conclude with a few remarks on this border regime. Its being “in the making” refers to the fact that a new European citizenship is itself in the making: and since borders are crucial devices of inclusion and exclusion that regulate the actual working of citizenship, the transformation of borders that we are experiencing nowadays in Europe have something to say also about the transformations of citizenship. To summarize a great deal of research that has been done on the subject in Europe, I’d say that European external borders are witnessing a tendency towards a “deterritorialization” of the institution of the border itself, that can be best studied from the point of view of migration management. To sum up, this process can be described as a movement of the undoing and reinscribing of the border: on the one hand, the border projects its shadow well beyond the territorial limit of the European Union, involving other countries in its “management”. On the other hand, it tends to “reinscribe” itself within the territory of the European polis. Rather than aiming at keeping migrants simply “out”, the new border regime that is emerging in Europe seems to foster a process of selective inclusion of migrants within the space of the European citizenship. The multiplicity of statuses and social figures that correspond to this process of selective inclusion (according to the impossible phantasy of a “just-in-time” migration) finds its limit in the structural presence of so called illegal migrants in Europe, while its ghost are the thousands of men, women and children that lose their lives every year in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean sea (and increasingly the Atlantic Ocean, since the European border was displaced from Morocco to Mauritania after migrants’ uprisings in Ceuta and Melilla in 2005). Since the last Berlusconi Government was elected in 2008 Italy took the lead in a process of hardening the new European border regime: during the summer of 2009 the Italian government has particularly undertook new “collective refoulments” toward Lybia that were internationally criticized for being against the international law of asylum. This “hard line” has been nevertheless supported and followed by many European governments in the wake of the global economic crisis. The new border regime continues however to transform the European citizenship in the making, to borrow a phrase from Engin Isin,[12] in a difference machine, producing at the same time its citizens, its strangers, its outsiders, its aliens – and of course its enemies. It is this (fully “postnational”) institutional device that, not necessarily contradictory with the European Union’s stress on civility, tolerance, and integration, sustains the new constellations of racism in Italy and in Europe. What is anti-racism against this background? On a conceptual level, we can say that anti-racism is fighting to discover (to construct) this very ground of the new European citizenship in the making as a contested field. While the functioning of borders itself tends to blur the difference between inside and outside, displacing the discourse of integration that laid at the heart of the discourse of democracy, anti-racist practices are aiming at inventing new modes of being political, capable of re-signifying democracy beyond the rhetoric of integration. On a political level, anti-racist practices are increasingly linked with movements and struggles of migration in Europe. These movements and these struggles are displacing and de-centering Europe on the level of everyday life. They are provincializing it, to put it with Dipesh Chakrabarty.[13] A new political, social, and cultural landscape opens up before our eyes: while the new configurations of racism are pointing to inscribe this landscape under the sign of domination and exploitation, anti-racism only can mean something today if it is able to articulate it politically in terms of new configurations of freedom and equality.



1.  M. Foucault, Society must be defended: Lecture at the Collège de France, 1975 -76, trad. engl. New York: Picador, 2003.  [↑]

2.  E. Balibar,  in E. Balibar, I. Wollerstain, Race, Nation, Class. Ambiguous Identities, London, New York: Verso, 1991.  [↑]

3.  See H. Kelsen, 1932, On International Law, trad. Engl. 1952.  [↑]

4.  M. De Certau, 1980, The Practice of Everyday Life, trad. Engl, Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1984.  [↑]

5.  E. Balibar, L’Europe, l’Amérique, la guerre, Paris: La Décuverte, 2003.  [↑]

6.  J. Rancière, Disagreement. Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.  [↑]

7.  G. Hage, White Nation. Fantasy of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Annandale (Australia): Pluto Press, 1998.  [↑]

8.  This is the new racism we are confronted with in Italy, and while I gave you a couple of examples from the political field, there are of course plenty of examples that could be derived from the fields of popular culture and everyday life, while racist violence itself dramatically increased (a simple list of everyday examples of occurrences of racist discrimination and violence from January 2007 to July 2009, each with a couple of lines of comment, get up around 100 pages – from page 153 to page 241 – of a recent book edited by Grazia Naletto (ed.), Rapporto sul razzismo in Italia, Roma: manifestoibri, 2009. In a similar list, collecting examples of everyday racist discrimination between 2000 and 2003, Annamaria Rivera and Paola Andrisani “Inventario dell’intolleranza in A. Rivera, Estranei e Nemici. Discriminazioni e violenza razzista in Italia, Roma, Deriveapprodi, 2003, have assembled around 60 pages (starting from page 95 to page 241). [↑]

9.  S. Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights. From Medioeval to Global Assemblage, Princeton-Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.  [↑]

10.  A. Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception. Mutation in Citizenship and Sovereignty, Durham, NC – London, Duke Univeristy Press  2006 [↑]

11.  A. Mbembe, On the Postcolony, Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2001.  [↑]

12.  E. Isin, Being Political: Genealogy of Citizenship, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.  [↑]

13.  D. Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historicla Difference, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2000.  [↑]

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Sandro Mezzadra is Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bologna. His research has been focusing on the issue of borders politics, citizenship and migration. He is involved in various forms of borders and migration related antic-racist activism in Italy and in Europe.
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