Thursday, June 5, 2008

Identity Matters: Italy

Anyone taking a passing glance at European political trends in the past few months might be prompted to ask, along with Alex Harrowell, 'what's going on in Italy?' Harrowell amplifies the considerable angst expressed by the Guardian's Martin Jacques over some of the cultural touchstones that accompanied recent Italian elections. Rome, which has not had a conservative mayor since Italian fascism collapsed in 1943, has elected Gianni Alemanno, a Berlusconi ally who ran on a vociferously anti-immigrant platform, to lead the city's government. At Alemanno's victory rally, his supporters gave the Roman salute while evoking Mussolini, shouting, "Duce! Duce! Duce!" The shift to the nationalist - detractors would say xenophobic - right played out nationally as well, putting Berlusconi in power at the head of a coalition that includes the regionalist and virulently anti-immigrant Northern League, as well as the National Alliance, which descends directly from the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement.

The new government wasted no time fulfilling its promises to crack down on immigrant communities, initiating a massive, high-profile police sweep of migrant shanty-towns and arresting hundreds on various charges. Perhaps more unsettling to those whose political sympathies don't lie with the Italian right, though, were the concurrent vigilante attacks against immigrant communities. The New York Times reports:

On Saturday, [May 10,] several hundred Italians attacked a camp of Roma, or Gypsies, on the eastern outskirts of Naples brandishing sticks and throwing homemade incendiary devices, after a 16-year-old Roma girl was accused of trying to steal a baby. The police were called to restore order and no one was injured, but the episode led national news programs.

This got a paragraph in the Times, but to me this is the real story. Based on accusations of baby stealing (sounds a bit like 'well poisoning' to me, though evidently it's more than just an unattributed rumor), a crowd of Italians rampaged through an immigrant community with clubs and molotov cocktails. That's not just letting off a bit of political steam. That's an ethnic riot - a pogrom if you like - in Western Europe, in the twenty-first century. That the government responded not with outrage that such a dispicable event had blackened Italy's good name, but rather with a police sweep through immigrant shanty-towns, suggests that anti-immigrant violence now has the tacit backing of the Italian state (if you can read Italian, check out some of the charming responses that local school children gave to the violence).

That statement might seem a bit harsh, but the patterns of ethnic violence that we begin to see exhibited in Italy have parallels in other areas of the World. I have referred before to the work of Paul Brass on "institutional riot systems" and the way in which they fuel and direct anti-Muslim violence in India. Based on my (admittedly superficial) reading of the current state of events in Italy, it appears that there are formal elements within the Italian political system that both fuel and feed off of violence against and hatred toward perceived outsiders.

Please understand, I'm not suggesting that Italy is on the verge of breaking out into the kind of orgiastic ethnic violence that has been seen in areas of India and other parts of the World. I have too much faith in the Italian people and in Italian - and European - legal and governmental institutions (however comically dysfunctional they may appear at times) to think that such atrocities would be tolerated there. Still, given the recent virulence of some on the Italian right, given the fact that unabashedly anti-immigrant parties now have a very prominent place in the Italian government, and given the fact that other European countries are or will soon be facing similar political and demographic dilemmas, it is worth analyzing what brought things to this point, and thinking about holistic steps that European elites can take to keep their integrative project from backsliding into poisonous ethnic chauvinism.

Italian Identity

It is worth noting that immigration is relatively new as a national issue in Italy when compared with the experience 0f other European countries. Indeed, until the 1970s, more people emigrated from Italy than immigrated to it (a professor of mine once pointed out that a famous scene in Antonioni's film La Notte had to be understood in the context of an Italy in which black people were virtually non-existent). Before then, the principal cleavage of Italian national identity was regional; in particular, the cultural and economic divide between the industrialized north and the rural, largely impoverished south. Kowalczyk and Popkewitz, in a paper from a few years ago, write that the immigration issue has re-mapped Italian identity, submerging (if incompletely) the north-south divide by introducing a new group to be confined to "otherness." The attitude of many Italians is perfectly encapsulated by an anonymous quote in the paper: "An Italian thief is a thief, a Moroccan thief is a Moroccan."

Channeling Frustrations

There is another element that I think may be at work here, albiet as only part of the story. The Italian political system, it would seem, is in rather severe straits. Italy's economy is anemic, its government inefficient, and its elites corrupt. I bring this up cautiously, because I am generally skeptical of arguments that rest on "false consciousness," whereby people filter the problems and insecurities in some aspects of their lives through an unrelated ideological construct in order to make sense of them. I think this is too often used as an intellectually lazy crutch by (particularly left wing) academics who don't want to admit that not everyone is a socialist who just doesn't know it yet. Still, I think that it is true that, with organization and foresight, political elites can construct narratives that channel and focus generalized frustration in particular directions, at least in certain circumstances.

Italy's political-economic stagnation is serious, and the usual stopgap measures that governments have used in the past to mollify the Italian populace (economic protectionism, currency devaluation) are now off limits due to the constraints of the E.U. In such an environment, the creation of a narrative of immigrants as a cancer on Italian society (never mind that, with Italy's pathetic birthrate, they are in fact an urgent economic necessity), fits logically into a larger picture of national malaise and an uncertain future. Some of the Northern League's iconic posters (one reading "Further from Rome, Closer to You," another calling for "Fewer Taxes to Rome, More Money to Pensioners," and another provocative one that pictures an American Indian and reads "They Allowed Immigration, Now They Live on Reservations") support this link between frustration with Italy's political institutions and virulent animus towards immigration from abroad. Certain Italian elites have managed - at least among some constituencies - to link immigration to the widely shared sense that something is rotten in the state of Italy. The fact that some on the radical right, who are now in positions of real power, have openly advocated state violence against immigrants, as well as made reference to the mobilization of extra-legal mobs to support their cause, adds up to an environment that is conducive to the kind of ethnic violence that Italy witnessed in May.

What is to be Done?

As I noted when opening this series, the multi-level reconstruction of the notion of citizenship that is now taking place in Europe - wherein citizenship is at once local, national and European - is almost certain to produce a certain amount of dislocation. Sensible immigration policies that seek to integrate immigrants into Italian society through schools, job and language training, and social support are critical to reversing the kind of ethnic balkanization that can prime a population for violence and regressive politics. Likewise, extensive government reforms that restore popular faith in civic institutions may be able to blunt the appeal of purosangue narratives of Italian identity.

It is finally worth noting that Italy's shift to the nationalist right - though notable for its extremity - is not unique within Europe. Problems of identity will need to be confronted at every step of Europe's integrative project. Europeans need to find a better way of navigating their perils.