It is well known that in recent years racist discrimination and violence have increasingly disturbed the Italian social fabric. The recent “Report on Italian racism” contains an “inventory of aggressions” of around 100 pages describing the daily rise, between January 2007 and July 2009, of racist behaviors and practices. However, despite some worthy (though sporadic) attempts like this to make explicit and public an accurate list of racist episodes racism as a challenging and ghostly “Italian subject matter” – symptomatically enough – is still absent from national intellectual debate and the public sphere.
This paradoxical situation could be used as the starting point of our argument. What happens when racism or racist behaviors are reduced to the logic of other kinds of social actions and phenomena? More precisely, what happens when explicit racist practices (including racist attacks or murders) are dismantled and translated by social agents and media and political mainstream discourses as simply problems of labor, housing, migration, identity, economic or crime? As is well known, nowadays in Italy there is a great deal of intolerance at work on a daily basis, against any kind and class of migrant people (but mainly against Muslims, ‘Gypsies’ and Romanians), shaping a large range of conflicts and which is almost never recognized on the public sphere as racist behavior or popular racism. During the summer 2009 when the Italian residents of Pignetto, a working class neighborhood in Rome violently attacked some phone centers and small shops run by Bangladeshi migrants who had lived there for decades, the general Italian feeling was that the cause of this “white riot” had more to do with “internal neighborhood tensions”, closely connected to the territorial management of local “bad” businesses, than with racism as such. Everyone knows, we were told, that Romans of this historically Left wing neighborhood could not be at all racist. Besides, explicit racist local and national policies faithfully promoted by the Lega Nord Party are usually described by mainstream broadcasters or opinion makers as normal symptoms of “natural, human xenophobia” against others. And recently, neither pogroms of migrant workers and Italian Gypsies (in Naples and Padova) nor the brutal killing of six African people near Naples by the camorra, nor the coward intimidatory shots at African agricultural workers by local employers in Rosarno in Calabria, an incident at the core of one the most important “black riots” in Italy (as shown by the insuTV video published in this Special Issue), were not recognized on mainstream media and political discourses as racist attacks.
We want to argue that this is one of the most obvious symptoms of the increasing racialization of Italian society, since it is not difficult to assume that this ceaseless removal is telling us quite the opposite: nowadays in Italy most of the main social conflicts, and especially with the deepening of the global economic crisis, are expressing themselves only in racial terms. In other words, we suggest that this foreclusion of race in the current Italian public sphere – intricately tied up with the historical Italian post-fascist inability to mourn, as Renate Siebert’s essay effectively shows – is nothing but the necessary supplement to the increasing racialization of the Italian formation, that is to a complex of interpellations “by which racial meanings are attached to particular issues” – often treated as social problems – or in which “race appears to be a, or often, the key factor in the ways they are defined and understood”. What we want to stress here is that given the particular historical configurations of the modern nation building process (clearly exposed by Sandro Mezzadra’s essay), the more evident the racial material constitution of Italian society becomes the more violent will be its discursive foreclosure, both within and outside the institutional domain. On the Italian scene, then, race could emerge as a fundamental signifier, that is as an “operator” of social meaning, practice and subjectivity, only through: (a) the “implosive violence” generated by episodes of “ethnic punitive anxiety” like those described above, driven by what can be defined (following the Lacanian concept of foreclusion) as “racial collective deliriums and hallucinations”; or, alternatively, (b) by the political pressure or enunciations of outsider subjects. We think this is a key feature of contemporary Italian racism.
Challenging Contemporary Italian Racism
It is not by chance then that we propose the terms “race” and “racialization” to challenge contemporary Italian racist interpellations. These terms are almost absent from the Italian lexicon of social, historical, cultural and political studies. Indeed, they are strongly resisted by the many different voices of the whole Italian anti-racist movement. But – we think- it is time for the anti-racist debate in Italy to enrich and complicate itself by introducing the notions of “race” and “racialization” onto its agenda. It is precisely from this perspective that this darkmatter Special Issue may appear highly significant. Most of the main ongoing racialization processes at work in Italy may come out very clearly from all of its essays, albeit from different theoretical perspectives and, at least in some of them, in a rather ambivalent way.
Chiara Bonfiglioli shows how, in the context of what she calls contemporary post-patriarchal Italy, dominant sexist stereotypes and representations of women are closely tied-up with colonial and post-colonial discourses of race. Contesting and complicating a mainstream (white/liberal/middle-class) Italian feminist critique of current processes of commodification of women’s bodies, particularly in Italian media and advertising discourses, Bonfiglioli requires us to approach these gendered representations as key signifiers in the production of contemporary Italian racist discourses.
Alessandra Sciurba’s essay highlights the ongoing racialization of migration through its ceaseless criminalization, both by institutional and media discourses. Sciurba analyzes this process from a specific terrain: the institutional manipulation of the right to asylum. She concludes that current media discourses on migration (saturated with metaphors of war, piety, and hydraulics) have a key role in the constitution of that “racial imagery” indispensable to policing the permanent crisis inherent in the current neoliberal capitalist system of accumulation.
Costanza Margiotta, analyzing a recent discrimination decision made by the Italian Supreme Court of Appeal, offers a significant example of how this process of racialization is even taking place within the domain of the law itself. Margiotta urges Italian and European Critical Legal Studies to face the question of legal racial subordination produced by current migration laws and, especially, by the present form of European citizenship.
Luca Palmas brings into focus the racialization processes affecting Italian second generations migration. By analyzing the discursive production of second generations as “public enemies” or “moral panics”, but also the counter-production of “alternative hybrid public spheres” as a strategy of youth resistance to racialization from above, Palmas effectively shows how in contemporary Italy “cultural borders” are not solely connected to fixed geographical-national boundaries.
Giorgio Grappi’s essay maintains that Italian racialization processes cannot be correctly understood without taking into account the present configuration of the labor market. From his point of view, it is precisely the strong segmentation of the Italian labor market which fuels the increasing racialization of Italian society and culture. This point is elaborated and refined by Sandro Mezzadra.
Mezzadra argues that new Italian and European racist interpellations are the result of a new regime of borders, of a new management of mobility and difference aimed at the hierarchization of the labor force and hence at the selective inclusion of migrants into the labor market. He concludes that current racist violence in Italy must be understood against the background of this process of ceaseless disruption and decomposition of national-modern citizenship, but mainly against the wider neo-liberal capitalist development of new “global post-national assemblages”.
Finally, for Renate Siebert current Italian racism has one of its main roots in the almost complete removal of the Italian colonial and fascist experience from second post-war generations: both from the public sphere and common structures of feeling. For Siebert this removal was mainly nourished by a caricaturization or banalization of fascist culture, but especially by a sanitization of the historical national involvement with questions of race, racism, colonialism and anti-Semitism. Yet, at the same time, Siebert is quite suspicious of the introduction of terms like race and racialization into the Italian anti-racist debate.
So if the specters of race and racialization clearly emerge from these essays it is also true that their discursive materialization as historical structuring structures (to use here Pierre Bourdieu’s notorious definition of habitus) in Italian society and culture is still – at least through some of them – very precarious and ambivalent. Again, this under-theorization, even in the most radical anti-racist debate, is extremely indicative of the complexity that the question of race still carries with it in the Italian scenario. In fact, throughout Italian intellectual history it is very difficult to find any significant theoretical debate on racism: needless to say of its constitutive role in the formation of the modern Italian nation. It seems as if racism, even within Marxist or left-wing positions, goes always considered as nothing more than a transitory or contingent effect of other social phenomena. In sum, racism has no significant place in Italian self-reflection about its own history. And this too could be read as a symptom of foreclosure of race on the national public sphere.
Metamorphosis of Italian racism
Even within the anti-racist movement, the rise of an Italian racism is frequently conceptualized as a recent xenophobic response to the development of current international migration. This assumption is clearly misleading, since it misses out a significant part of Italian history, which is a constituent feature of the historical nation building process: namely, institutional and popular racism against southern people (known also as “la questione meridionale”). Occurring until the 1980s, and one of the main war-horses of the Lega Nord Party political discourse at that time, anti-southern racism appears nowadays at a more latent level than a manifest one. Conversely, we want to argue that racism has fractured the Italian national space right from the birth of the modern nation in 1861 and, consequently, the terrain has been prepared for the contemporary racialization of international migration. In fact, it is not possible to understand the contemporary postcolonial migrant as the key representative of race without taking into account the cultural, political and economic construction – and hence their role within historical Italian capitalism – of its main ancestors: the southerner and the colonial other (during the first liberal and fascist moment), the Jew (in the later fascist period), the southern migrant (second Post-war Republic).
Having said this, we don’t want to suggest any simplistic linear continuity of racist and racial patterns throughout these different historical phases. Our point is quite the opposite: as racial discriminations in Italy have historically targeted different kinds of people and social groups, in describing this changeable and historically mutable scenario, we are suggesting that Italian racism should be approached not as a fixed phenomenon, intricately related to permanent ideological-cultural-ontological-psychological needs nor to a kind of “ancestral sin”, but rather as strongly connected to the relations of production and their transformations, drawing its main “necropolitical lymph”, retrieving here Mbembe’s famous expression, from changes, ruptures and crisis in social and political organization. However, focusing on the necessary connection between racialization processes and relations of production does not require a deterministic, objectivistic or economistic point of view. Conversely, our perspective might allow us to rethink the concept of relations of production starting from the racialization process and to stress their unavoidable “articulation” or “ever complex imbrication” in capitalistic social formations. Following Marx, it could be argued that it means analyzing capital as a “social relation”.
As we said before, the whole Italian modern history shows how race and racialization worked as powerful tools to produce social and cultural hierarchies, specific forms of discrimination and exploitation anchored to a specific humanistic-bourgeois-colonial “narration of the nation”. Since the Unification in 1861, the material inscription of this specific national building process gave way to the segmentation and hierarchization of the new Italian society, that is of the first labor market on a national scale. The anthropological studies of Alfredo Niceforo between the XIX and XX century can be taken as emblematic of the national “structures of feeling” during this historical period. Niceforo asserted the presence of two distinct “races” in the Italian territory: the Arian and Caucasian in the North, the Negroid (with a high degree of African heritage) in the South. Significantly, the book was called “Le due Italie”- “The Two Italy”- and it exerted a strong influence on the American management of Southern European migration to the US at the beginning of the XX century. According to Niceforo, Southern people, typified as lazy and sluggish, due to the presence of ‘Negro blood’ in their bodies, can only be located in the lower ranks of the labor market, in the most unsafe, arduous and unskilled jobs, subject to severe exploitation, subordination and wage discrimination. Niceforo’s racial construction was deeply intertwined with one of the main demands of the Italian bourgeois elites at that time: the new Italian labor market must be able to supply a cheap labor force for the heaviest and harshest jobs, to secure the economic development of the emergent country.
From this point of view, the development of early Italian capitalism could certainly be approached as a local material translation of modern racial capitalism. In fact, a broader view can reveal how the working of capitalism as a global system runs exactly along this pattern, that is through the politics of what David Roediger, explicitly connecting the race experience to the capitalist transition, has called a “racial management”. In the USA, as David Roediger asserts, Frederick Taylor’s analysis of time and movements of US workers could itself be taken as an effective example of how the idea of race already at that time permeated the process through which labor was chosen and managed. The “unconscious” race logic informing Taylor’s analysis, mainly in his German typification of Schmidt as the prototypical industrial worker, proves that scientific labor management and race management coexisted as complementary strategies to increase labor productivity. As we know, in the US labor market, Southern and Eastern European workers were located in lower levels of the labor hierarchy, while Chinese workers were at the bottom and, obviously, white Anglos at the top. Similarly, in the Australian mines, for instance, Chinese, Italians and other Southern European workers were destined, according to scientific and popular taxonomies of race well disseminated throughout the national space, for the more dangerous and unhealthy jobs: the cost of their life was so cheap that in case of death compensations would be easily affordable. During an international congress of engineers held in London in 1902, Herbert Hoover, later president of the United States, asserted, by virtue of his long entrepreneurial experience of “bringing managerial efficiency to Africa, China and isolated areas of Australia”, that employment of this kind of workers is extremely profitable since it would allow money to be saved “on timbers supporting mines because the resulting tragedies only have to be compensated at $30 per death”. And it could be argued, taking as a point of departure the classical economic studies of dependency and world system theorists, that the same process of racialization of the labor force occurred in Latin America, Africa and Asia during the modern imperial capitalistic expansion (albeit from very different form and logics).
Returning to the Italian scenario, with the deep social and economic transformations which occurred in the first decades of the Twentieth Century, racism took a new shape. The race issue crossed colonial experience and addressed colonized, mainly black people from Ethiopia: as a violent discriminatory internal rhetoric emerged together with the fascist colonial expansion in Africa. During the 1930s, the colonial project, which included the expansion into Ethiopia at first (1936) and into Albania later (1939), was mainly oriented, on the one hand, towards the hegemonic consolidation of fascist power, and on the other to managing the earthquake which disturbed to the core the international division of labor in the wake of the great 1929 economic crisis. In this scenario, the racialized Ethiopian and Albanian territories and populations became the main colonial other: through their racialization it was possible, at one and the same time, to provide the imperial need of “vital space” for cheap labor and land, emigration-settlement and uneven commercial exchange to the Italian economy and to forge a new “imperial” and national identity.
In 1938, with the so-called “fascist racial laws” against the Jews, the “racial-colonial turn” was eventually completed and put it to work from within the national space itself – as a juridically and hierarchically acknowledged fracture of the internal population. Its principal political aims were to strengthen the “totalitarian and disciplinarian turn” over the Italian population, its ulterior subjective mobilization in the wake of the imminent Second World war, and the nationalist translation of internal and international class struggle, that is to break up any kind of horizontal solidarity among workers after the great depression of 1929 by interpellating their vertical faithfulness towards the corporative and imperial state.
After the Second World war, and with the final defeat of fascism and Italian colonial ambitions, racism once again targeted southern people. This time, as an effect of the specific political and economic management of what can be called “the geographically uneven transition” to a Fordist model of mass production, that is of the “Italian miracle” and the huge internal migration on which it was based, racism was mainly aimed against a relatively new social subject: “southern migrants” in Northern cities. In fact, from the 1950s onwards hundreds of thousands of young people moved from the South to the new industrial centers of the North to work in the factories which were expanding in the wake of post-war reconstruction. Southern migrants were mainly employed in unskilled jobs and with lower than average wages. Many of them made their way doing piecework or within the informal economy, working without benefits. Needless to say, traditional factory workers were strongly hostile towards the newcomers, scared that these young southerners might take their role, now made central by the new social and economic transformation. Inside and outside the factories the hostility took the form of old discourses and images of the southerner as the “ultimate other” constructed in the XIX century. As Enrica Capussotti shows the media played a very influential role in the discursive construction of this specific landscape, interpellating the public sphere with an aggressive, discriminatory and racial language. In the big industrial cities of Northwest Italy, racism against southern people targeted almost every single aspect of their social life: from housing, to work, from leisure to gender relations. We want to stress here that these young southerners were the main political subjects of the most radical workers struggles of the 1960s and the 1970s. From this perspective, they can certainly be represented as a kind of ideal-type of the so-called mass-worker (operaio-massa) of that time. And most important, their struggles, which had a decisive impact in the post-Fordist reconfiguration of labor relations and hence of the whole social and political organization in Italy, could be now interrogated as a spectacular race experience of subjectivation.
Despite thus the current debate racism in Italy is not at all a new phenomenon. As we said before, it has its main roots in modern global racial capitalism, but also in the humanistic Renaissance cultural heritage that shaped the nation building process and its hegemonic narrations, in historical colonial North-South relationships, in the colonial legacy as well as in the fascist imperial and racial weltanschauung. What we are facing today then might be considered as a new declination of an older and repressed issue. In the present context, contemporary Italian racialization must be interrogated as a constitutive part of a broader local kind of post-colonial governance aimed at the management of the main political and economic transformations (the so-called transition from a Fordist to a post-Fordist society) of the last twenty years, that is at the reorganization of the whole social fabric in the wake of economic globalization processes, the by now irreducible migration and mobility of labor as well as the long run effects of anti-colonial and feminist enunciations that reshaped the labor market and general social relations from the 1970s onwards.
Racialization and the (counter)politics of memory
In conclusion, we have to clarify what we understand concretely by racialization and why we are proposing race as a key term to challenge contemporary racist violence in Italy. Very schematically, by racialization we mean the effect on the social fabric of a multiplicity of institutional and non institutional practices and discourses oriented towards a hierarchically connoted representation of physical and cultural, real and imaginary differences and hence to the disciplining of their material and inter-subjective relationships. Oversimplifying, we think that the concept of racialization, since it is highly saturated with the disturbing colonial and imperial legacy of race, is more suitable than others connoted with more neutral meanings (such as ethnicization or multiculturalism, for instance) to describe in an effective way the economic and cultural processes of essentialization, discrimination, inferiorization and segregation, that is of symbolic and material violence, to which certain groups in the Italian and European social space are nowadays submitted. Moreover, within the specific Italian scenario, given the foreclosure in the public sphere of historical national involvement in the making of Western modern racial thinking (for instance as the well-celebrated “cradle of Renaissance and humanistic European culture”), racialization may work as a powerful signifier in recalling the colonial heritage of the nation building process and its hegemonic cultural narrations and self-identifications. More precisely, in Lacanian terms, naming contemporary Italian racist interpellations (through political struggles as well as theoretical practices) by the signifiers of race and racialization unavoidably entails an extremely disruptive “counter-politics of memory” against what can be called the alleged natural organization of the meaning “operators” and their rules. In sum, it is only by assuming race as a master-discourse and hence as an open and changeable political signifier, as a kind of political “surplus” or “gap”, that it becomes possible to recognize both the present class-composition of contemporary Italian capitalism and its main forms of political recomposition – that is practices and movements of anti-institutional subjectivation of the last few years (migrant, students, knowledge and precarious workers’ struggles) aimed not merely at the achievement of whatever kind of “identity politics” but at the production of the common.
At this point, with all this historical background in mind, it does not seem difficult to understand why in the present Italian context racist interpellations – and the development of the contemporary populist securitarian state and society – must be interrogated as a response to the increasing disorder driven by the neoliberal deregulation and cultural transformation of Italian society in the last twenty years and, more recently, by the deepening of the global economic crisis. Following Michel Foucault’s main argument in Society Must Be defended, by racism (and racialization) we do not mean here merely “a simple product of an ideological operation by which the state or dominant classes are seeking to concentrate on a mythical enemy the social animosity and virulence that otherwise might be directed towards them or can afflict in an uncontrollable way the social body”. From our point of view, it seems self-evident that contemporary Italian racism cannot be considered as the effect of “trivial political fabrication” or as a result of “a mere ideological deceit”; racism, we could say in Fanon’s words, is always about “material violence and domination”, or turning back again to David Roediger and Michel Foucault’s work, it stands for a “specific technology of government” which has its political roots in the rising of capitalism as a world (colonial) system and hence in the configuration of “modern bio-power devices”.
It goes without saying that contemporary Italian racist interpellations have as their aim not only the strengthening of that state of permanent exception (of bare life, in Agamben’s popular definition) always essential to the violent self-definition of the national political community (as many disciples of Giorgio Agamben within the field of Migration Studies claim), but even the “differential inclusion or incorporation” of migrant labor in the national labor market. It is clear that this labor market segmentation supports and reinforces racialization of social and urban spaces as well as “government practices” fully permeated by populist and securitization discourses, that is it involves a “racial and security management” of migration, national population and citizenship aimed at the mobilization of cultural, gender and race difference only to further capitalist valorization. However, it bears repetition, in order to not conflate racialization with labor market segmentation, that what makes possible the material constitution of “racial management” as a political response to capitalist crisis is precisely the “politics of memory”: the cultural codification and stratification of colonialism, slavery and imperialism, as well as of the anti-colonial struggles against racial hierarchization, in the technologies of the “national self”. In fact, it could be argued that the national “politics of memory” works always as the (main) “habit of hegemony”.
2. Mitscherlich, Alexander & Mitscherlich, Margarete, The inability to Mourn. Principles of Collective Behavior, Grove Press, 1984.; see also Mellino, M. Italy and Postcolonial Studies: A Difficult Encounter, in Interventions: Journal of Postcolonial Studies Vol. 8 (3), 461-471, 2006. [↑]
9. Rattansi, A.; Racism, Sexuality and Political Economy: Marxism/Foucault/Postmodernism, in Fenton, S. & Bradley, H. (eds), Ethnicity and Economy: Race and Class Revisited, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. [↑]