Monday, October 25, 2010

The Lives of Others


The extent of the reforms in New Zealand was so great that it is difficult to describe them in short compass.
(Don Brash)

The situation could not be clearer: either we stop them or they finish us off.
(Richard Seymour)


In June of 1996, Don Brash travelled to London to deliver the fifth annual Hayek Memorial Lecture at the right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs. It was a tribute to the decade of radical economic reforms of which Brash had been one of the principal architects and, while it conceded that the reforms remained bafflingly unpopular, it blamed the successive governments that had promoted them for not adequately communicating their benefits. Brash concluded his speech with another statement that is often found in the speeches of fellow champions of the New Zealand experiment, namely that
[t]he best security against the reversal of recent reforms is to continue with reform in order to encourage growth and employment.

Therefore: if the reforms are unpopular, it is because they haven’t been explained well enough, and not because they have actually failed to raise living standards; and if they haven’t raised living standards, it’s because they haven’t been pushed hard enough, or are not entrenched enough, because politicians have been too fearful to do what is necessary. So it comes back again to an issue of consensus. But in fact, that the governor of the national Reserve Bank could deliver such a politically charged speech is due to the extraordinary bipartisan support that those reforms enjoyed, which effectively made the New Zealand public unable to vote their proponents out of office in election after election. (The speech by Phil Goff covered last week may in fact be the first actual disavowal of the neoliberal turn by either of the major parties.)

Brash’s speech was published with a very upbeat title, New Zealand’s Remarkable Reforms, and a rather wonderful cover in which the country surged upwards, as if via a massive tectonic shift, lifted out of the very ocean by all that remarkableness. Of course if one had to plot our relative growth compared to that of Australia, or the stagnation of the median incomes against those of comparable countries, it might have been more of a sinking. But who can argue with the evidence of a pretty picture, even when it’s a graph unsupported by actual data?


Much as I am impressed with the semiotic audacity of the cover, there is another reason why I’m rather fond of this book, and it’s the handiwork of an unknown reader on the frontispiece of the copy held at my local library.


I know many people whose lives were destroyed by the ‘remarkable reforms’. It intrigues me that the withering comment is written in pencil, respectfully, perhaps to give the librarians the option to delete it and restore the integrity of the book and its message. Nonetheless, I think it’s a significant gesture. I wish I could date it, in order to evaluate better the climate in which it was made, how monolithic the neoliberal consensus was at the time. Since the book was published in December of that year, I know for a fact that it post-dated David Lange’s reference to the ‘people whose lives were wrecked by us’ in his valedictory speech, of which the pencilled comment is a most interesting echo.

Lives were wrecked, but whose exactly? In the UK, the debate rages: on one side, the coalition government and its apologists are touting the massive public expenditure cuts announced last week as progressive; on the other, economic analysts, community advocates and social and political critics are showing whom the worst hit will be: those on lower incomes, welfare recipients, disabled people . The political success of this round of cuts, which doesn’t equate to the structural reforms of Thatcher and Douglas but is rather the latest plunge of the dagger that they unsheathed, will be played again on the background of a discursive struggle for who can best document and communicate these outcomes. From the point of view of the Left, this translates into making those regressive effects visible, shining a light on the lives that are about to be affected. The Right will respond, as it always does, by trying to elide the concept of class altogether.

David Cameron is second from the left, top row. Image via K-Punk.

Mark Fisher justly excoriated last week the current incarnation of the ‘we’re all in this together’ rhetoric, highlighting how it represents an opportunity to be exploited:
The "we're all in this together" slogan may turn out to be a phrase that comes to haunt the Tories in the way that "Labour isn't working" dogged Labour for a generation. Classlessness might have seemed plausible for a moment when fronted by John Major, who didn't go to university, or by Tony Blair, the poster boy for (leftist) post-political administration. But that moment has long passed, and cuts of this kind being forced through by a cabinet of aristocrats and millionaires make brutally apparent a class antagonism that the New Labour government obfuscated. Whenever the ruling class tells us that "we're all on the same side", it is a sure sign that we can hurt them.

I would add to this a further qualification: neoliberal reformists will always be largely unaware of this weakness of theirs and of how it can be exploited simply because they just can’t help themselves. When last year French minister Pierre Lellouche apologised for calling the British Tories ‘autistic’ with regard to their relationship to the EU, he explained by way of justification that his own Prime Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, often gets called autistic too. While I agree with Charlotte Moore that we shouldn’t condone the use of the term, I think we can probably agree on its meaning in this context: the inability to perceive the psychological life of others which to this day is still commonly (and incorrectly) attributed to autistic people. In fact neoliberal would be a far more accurate descriptor for this systemic failure to empathise, and the total lack of self-awareness that comes with it. Consider this image.


If you didn’t know better, you might think that this is a thriller involving a heartless serial killer, rather than Roger Douglas’ impassioned defence of himself and his ideas. And for all of his protestations that the principal beneficiaries of the reforms will be the most disadvantaged, one needs only close the book and look at the cover to get the full, chilling impact of Douglas’ brand of caring, a Charles Bronson-like approach in which helping can be phrased much as one would taking revenge.

Three years later, Douglas could be seen smiling at us from behind his desk, the title of his new oeuvre softened into the less ghoulish Completing the Circle, but even that move seems forced, a crude and obvious massaging of the image. In real life, for instance in this recent BBC interview, Douglas still has the same sharp, cold edge in his voice, the same fondness for gliding over the real-life repercussions of his ideas.


And the neoliberals still protest far too much. It’s a point I made last year when covering Brash’s 2025 Taskforce Report, but it bears making again: when a politician needs to repeat to the point of obsession that they are on the side of the weakest members of society, the reality is likely to be the opposite, and this needs to be shown just as relentlessly.


It is not simply a matter of hammering home the sacrosanct notion that both the crisis and the resulting deficit are themselves the result of neoliberal policies, and that bankers are the real bludgers, but also of telling the story of the human casualties, and bringing to light the class rifts that the dominant media narratives – which are all about reducing the populace to a largely homogenised consumer class fitting the principal viewer and reader demographics – would rather conceal. The persistence of class and of race and gender discrimination, the changing face of work: if at times this blog seems to be about little else, it’s because I believe uncovering and recovering these realities to be a vital task, and central to the social and political work of memory.

Medialogically, it’s not an altogether impractical undertaking: quite often the stories of these other lives – ruined or otherwise – have what is known in the business as a human interest angle. I routinely recommend Alister Barry’s films on these pages not just for their value as social documents, but also because they make for very compelling viewing on precisely those grounds. And they exemplify quite brilliantly the further, necessary step in the process: suturing those stories into their political and social context and the history of the antagonist movements, highlighting past struggles and their languages and strategies. Much as one might at such times lapse into brief moments of nostalgia, this doesn’t have to be a backward looking move, and is especially valuable if it allows to establish useful genealogies and recreate the discursive spaces in which alternatives to the status quo could be spoken.

But mostly, these stories can sharpen and give contextual substance to the anger that is always simmering in our societies. To the extent that I share Mark Fisher’s optimism regarding the possible outcomes of the anti-capitalist struggle at this juncture, it comes from the knowledge of times in history – and more specifically, the history of my country – when such an anger found creative outlets, rapidly and with lasting effects, in experiences that haven’t been wholly submerged by what came after, the tidal wave of reaction and quiescent conformity. It looks like we might just get to have another wack at it; there may in fact soon be no alternative.







A couple of things I didn't manage to include: China Mieville's impassioned appeal to/indictment of progressive Liberal Democrats; Philip Challinor's take on Nick Clegg's charm offensive at Desert Island Discs on the Beeb. Hilary Stace has offered further details (PDF) on the ongoing assault on provisions for disabled people, and her information has led me to this petition that I offer for your consideration.

The two Brash quotations are from New Zealand's Remarkable Reforms (London: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1996), on pages 24 (the epigraph) and 47 (the quote in the post proper) respectively.


Monday, October 18, 2010

The Two New Zealands




When photographer James Siers sat down to choose the cover for his 1975 book on life in New Zealand, he could have gone for any of the images of unknowns from various walks of life featured in it, or a collage thereof to signify that any depiction of New Zealand society would have to be a composite. But he didn't do that. What he did instead was to approach Colin Meads, who agreed to be portrayed on his farm at Te Kuiti, holding two sheep. A recently retired All Blacks flanker, a pair of bamboozled livestock, and right above, the book's title: The New Zealanders.

Thirty-five years later, this is how Labour leader Phil Goff opened his speech to his party's conference yesterday:

Last week I saw two New Zealands.
The first is the one we know. This is the place where people work hard, they pay their taxes and look after their families.
This is the place where they buy good second hand cars – nothing too flash but with good Ks, and go camping every January.
This is the place where Friday night means fish and chips and a dvd, or the rugby on TV.
This is the New Zealand of many colours and languages.
This is the New Zealand I grew up in, the one I know and love. But things are getting harder here. And I don’t like that.

Goff was first elected to Parliament in 1981, aged 28. It is safe to assume that he would have stopped buying second-hand cars around that time, and his lifestyle block in Clevedon is so large he could probably go camping in it all year round and never get bored. But this is not about the New Zealand in which Phil Goff lives, but rather the one that he sees. To their credit, our parliamentarians spend a lot of time in their communities, and Mr Goff is no exception. In nearly thirty years he must have compiled quite the mental collection of snapshots of what his countrymen and women look like. But now, in this most pivotal speech at the high point of his career, he has to choose a cover. And this is it: a family at home watching the rugby while eating fish and chips, and outside, a sedan with a tent strapped to the roof. The New Zealanders.

Meanwhile, over at Tumeke!, Martyn Bradbury can scarcely contain himself:
Wow. I mean. Wow. I have not heard a left wing speech like that from a Political leader in my lifetime… There can not be any claim in this election that the two parties are cramming the middle ground what-so-ever. The weekly pain felt by the weakest members of society has engulfed the middle classes…

He's talking about Goff's first New Zealand: the good people who buy the second hand cars and the fish and chips and go camping, engulfed. Not the weakest members of society, because those have long since been discounted. There is a passage in Goff's speech that underscores this rather brilliantly:

In this New Zealand your pay doesn’t go as far as it used to because prices are going up. There’s not as much left over at the end of the week as there used to be. People are worried about their jobs. Some of their friends have lost their jobs.

Some of their friends, see? Not them. Because when you lose your job you drop out of the first New Zealand, and into a zone of darkness. And if you end up there, Phil Goff isn't prepared to talk about you except as victims of the conservatives' failed economic policies, people thrown on 'the scrap heap'. And the scrap heap is, well, a scrap heap, all jagged bits of metal and old tires and broken glass. If Labour intends to so much as throw a mattress on it, they haven't indicated it at this stage.


No, to be part of the first New Zealand you need to work, and have a family. I'd really like to know when it was exactly that the word 'families' became a substitute for 'citizens' or 'people'. At any rate, what these families aspire to is to 'achieve the Kiwi dream', which is defined as follows:

We were raised to believe that in New Zealand you could make a good life for yourself. If you worked hard you could get ahead. You helped out at the local school and sports club, met your responsibilities and expected a fair go.

This was the Kiwi dream. It offered families like ours a good education, affordable health care, a home to call your own, and security in old age.

The Kiwi dream involved a basic sense of fairness – that the rungs of ladder reached down to where everybody grew up. There were jobs you could get if you trained and worked hard. Those jobs would pay well enough for you to get some other parts of the Kiwi dream too. Homes and small businesses were within reach of those who worked and saved.

But wait, this is all in the past tense. So what happened to the Kiwi dream? Goff doesn’t provide the answer, but we all know it: the Fourth Labour government happened to it. David Lange put it best in his extraordinary valedictory speech of August 22, 1996:

I want to thank those people whose lives were wrecked by us. They had been taught for years they had the right to an endless treadmill of prosperity and assurance, and we did them.

Labour will always struggle with this history, as Lange did until the very end. A two-term Prime Minister farewelling Parliament with a declaration of pain and regret (‘It was just terrible. That is the sort of thing that happened, and I am deeply aware of that’ were his last words according to the record) is not the most common of historical occurrences. And Goff was, of course, a minister in both terms of that Government, and an unapologetic supporter of the reforms during the term he spent in the wilderness, before being re-elected to Parliament in 1993. But to the extent that I’m struck by this change of heart – to which Goff and the party are certainly entitled – is that it reads like a challenge to history itself, a rewinding of it. Not just in terms of the country’s economic policies (and here, briefly, Labour proposes to abandon strict monetarism, curb foreign land acquisitions, promote local industry and generally intervene more in the economy) but also in terms of its broader development as a society. This is not so much a critique of neoliberalism as the pretence that it never happened, and that New Zealand was still the country in which Phil Goff, born 1953, grew up. A country that still has a burly, two-sheep-wielding former All Blacks flanker on the cover.

Goff signals this in the speech not just with its opening depiction of a New Zealand that may be multi-racial (with its people ‘of many colours’) but is crushingly mono-cultural and drab, a sort of global retirement village, but also with the latest in a series of digs against the social engineering ways of the Fifth Labour Government, evoked when he tells the story of an otherwise classic Labour voter – father, in his early thirties, good engineering job that he lost due to the recession – who revealed to him of having voted National at the last election because he felt that Labour was trying to tell him how to live his life. This classic white middle class complaint – look what you made me do, I had to vote conservative!stupendously espoused not long ago by Danyl McLauchlan, is rich with varying degrees of coded and not-so-coded antipathy for the politics of the subjects who don’t fit in Goff’s first New Zealand: women, immigrants, gays, people who live in or aspire to social units other than the family, people who think that fish and chips taste a bit shit, and generally anybody who complicates that picture unnecessarily.


But we aren't allowed more than two New Zealands, and the second one is all 'dinner and cocktails at a high-class hotel,' and the rich man's welfare in the form of tax cuts. Sandwiched between them, the people on what Goff's heroically calls 'a middle income', namely individuals earning between 60 and 80 thousand dollars a year (not the actual middle income, by a long shot), whom we are told 'are not rich' and therefore must be looked after also. I have a sneaking suspicion that this New Zealand and a half wedged between the other two, of propertied professionals who used to be taxed at the top rate until National came in, will be the main beneficiary of Labour's policies, coming in comfortably under a new top tax rate (will it be neatly set at 100k?) and standing to benefit the most from the further incentivisation of savings. 'For the few, not the fewer,' if you absolutely had to coin a slogan.

While most other commentators aren't quite as sanguine as he, Mr Bradbury is not the only one who perceives these developments as a significant shift to the left and to classic pre-1984 Labour positions. John Armstrong says so (he also thinks a capital gains tax may be on the table), and so does David Farrar, and so does BUNJI at The Standard, and so no doubt will Chris Trotter, although I'm going to make a real effort to stay away from there just so my eyeballs don't bleed. And they all have a point (well, most of them). Just the same, I wonder if it behoves us to condone the rhetorical framing of this new direction from Labour. The neoliberal reforms of the last twenty-five years have hardly been the guarantors of plurality or social progress, so why should casting them off also require turning our collective backs on Māori, the idea of a multicultural society and all the political subjects that don't match Goff's very narrowly defined mainstream? And the nationalism of it, also in light of what I wrote last week, is of genuine concern. Again, not because the sale of the country's land and assets shouldn't be subject to a very stringent set of tests, but because of how this principle is worded in the context of the speech – cue Trevor Mallard's post this morning, proudly and alarmingly entitled Kiwiland. It turns out that it is a small step indeed from the first New Zealand to New Zealand First.

Tim Bowron is right to liquidate the policy as 'preferential support for Kiwi capitalists' – for where is the guarantee that domestic owners will operate in the national interest? – and it's a quip that nicely underscores how little this supposedly giant leap to the Left actually means. For all the puerile talk of Tina vs. Tara (what are we, six?), of there finally being real alternatives to neoliberalism, the two main parties will still be looking after the middle class and above, and managing the economy in ways that will look fundamentally different only to those who look really close, and in comparison to the extraordinary bipartisan convergence of the post-Lange years. Harking back to old Labour may be a progress of sorts, but the world has changed, and the challenges ahead are profoundly different from those of thirty years ago. Creating institutions that fundamentally entrench social equity is a matter of ever greater urgency, but so is promoting an open society able to deal other than in a defensive, reactionary fashion with the outside pressures that will no doubt be brought to bear upon it, the cushion of its physical remoteness notwithstanding. And when that time comes, we'd better have learned to see a lot more than just two New Zealands.






Jim Siers' photographs in this post are from The New Zealanders (Wellington: Millwood Press, 1975), a book he co-authored with Jim Henderson.
Tim Bowron's quote is from Facebook. 


Monday, October 11, 2010

I'm on a Plain



‘True freedom / your identity.’ Who you are is what sets you free. And who you are is your history, your sense of belonging: an essential core, tied to the time and place of your origins. Your history. Your beliefs. Your blood line.

Somebody drew a red line across this phrase, but it’s an odd gesture, an erasure that doesn’t erase. It almost has the opposite effect, like the mark of a highlighter pen. It calls even greater attention to the claim. Who you are is what sets you free.



The name of the city of Milan comes from the Latin Mediolanum, literally 'in the middle of the land', and the land in question is the vast alluvial plain on either side of the Po river that spans across some 650 km from the Western Alps to the Adriatic Sea. Above, a sky that is as flat as the ground, a dull, caliginous lid created by surrounding mountains that only the highest of winds can defy. Below, the compacted remnants of the eroded flanks of those mountains.

‘Alluvial’ has a nice classical ring to it. Wikipedia calls it rather more prosaically a ‘sediment-filled trough’. I was born atop this filled trough in 1971, and this is where I spent my whole childhood and early adulthood, alternating between the big city where I lived and studied (and later worked), and the occasional sojourns with my grandparents, two hundred kilometres to the South-East of Milan, in the lower and more fertile portion of the plain, the ‘Bassa’, the tract of land that Giovanni Guareschi described in his novels. He called it Mondo piccolo, 'the little world', signifying that it was a microcosm impervious to history and external influences, a universe unto itself. And who knows, he might perhaps have agreed with that stencilled statement, that your freedom is who you are, such was his attachment to those roots. But he too moved to Milan – a whole other world, vastly more outward looking and interconnected – and always remained a fervent monarchist, indicating that his identity was a complicated affair, like most people’s.


Today Milan clings on to its status as one of the world capitals of fashion. I am not as antipathetic to this idea as you might expect, for a lot of very honest work has gone into creating this reputation and, whilst they didn’t breathe the rarefied air of haut couture, I count workers with cloth on both side of the family. But it seems so strident, now, and more than a little desperate, to appeal to that tradition, as the ad above does, as if it was the implicit, automatic guarantor of present value, and to do so in a foreign language, like the African sellers of trinkets that we mockingly address by the clumsy words that they use in our tongue: vuccumprà, vuoi comprare, please buy this. We are studiously blind to such ironies.

Lately some people have begun to call this plain by a new name: no longer Po Valley but Padania, and around this name they have constructed a political separatist movement predicated entirely on local identity and the genius loci, the spirit of the land. The founder and leader of the movement, Umberto Bossi, climbs to the sources of the great river every year and bottles an ampoule of its sacred water, which is then slowly transported down to the river delta in a highly charged and quasi-pagan ritual of allegiance to the plain and its people. A ritual of belonging.


‘Do you have any blood left? Give it to us.’ Even the ads for plasma donations play on the depth of the crisis and on its psychological repercussions, especially on the class that aspires to remain working. This is the crisis that has torn the Italian social fabric for at least the past two decades, creating the conditions for the chronic insecurity that we see today, the further undermining of our political institutions, the progressive barbarisation of the public discourse. This is the new fertile plain that Umberto Bossi’s Northern League has patiently tilled.

As I write these notes, I ruminate on two excellent recent essays on European racism. The first, by Richard Seymour, focuses on the British experience and ends with the admonishment that ‘we shouldn’t expect tomorrow’s enemies to look the same as yesterday’s’. The racism of the 2010s, argues Seymour, won’t be the racism of the 1930s. The second essay, by Jacques Rancière, focuses (naturally) on the happenings in France and builds on his theory of 'cold racism', of racism constructed by the state. However, and to their credit, these are not pieces that can be easily condensed in a few words, so I urge you to set some time aside and read them both. For my (very small) part, I’ve been wanting and at the same time dreading to talk about the secessionist movements of the Italian North for some time, at least until the day I suggested at this web address that we forego the talk of a return of Italian Fascism, precisely because the new enemies aren’t likely to look the same as the old ones. They don't.



There is a school in the little town of Adro, in the province of Brescia, that is named after Gianfranco Miglio – the late ideologue and racist theorist of the Northern League – and that is literally covered with symbols of the party, chiefly in the form of the green 'sun of the Alps' you see in the picture above. If you exclude the notoriously intractable problem of how to remove crucifixes from some of our classrooms (at Adro, they bolted them into the walls for good measure), not since Fascism had a public school been such an overt instrument of propaganda. And the local populace is divided on this, but largely in favour. Don’t we have a right to our symbols, ask some? And besides it would be too expensive to remove them, explains the principal, because they are literally everywhere: on the doors, on the windows, even on the garbage bins.

We see then how this particular kind of cold racism is not predicated on a state apparatus or the suspension of democracy, but on the contrary it expresses itself locally, at the grassroots level, thanks to the alacrity of elected officials and with the majority support of their communities, by means of bylaws and council or school board deliberations. Like the time earlier in the year when several municipalities administered by the Northern League appeared to be racing to see which one would be the first to apprehend and fine a Muslim woman wearing a burqa near a post office or other public building.

All of these acts – both those that affirm local identities and those that deny certain individuals the right to theirs – have the effect of creating by accretion, that is to say, appropriately, in sedimentary fashion, the subject of the Padani, the people of the plain, and their proper attributes, defining just who it is who has a right of place. And they are cultural attributes, this point must be understood very clearly: unlike neofascists, the Northern secessionists don’t cling to notions of racial supremacy, and are unfazed about putting forward the (very) occasional black or immigrant candidate, so long as they have sworn the requisite cultural allegiance. But don't get your hopes up: when in any sort of doubt, precedence must be given to the locally born and bred, via a series of measures that discriminate (but ‘positively', you understand) in favour of the Padani when it comes to accessing services, including education.



If it is possible to integrate or, more accurately, be assimilated, and thus become Padani so long as one wishes it hard enough, what about the people who can’t, or won’t? In Italy as much as elsewhere in Europe, the Roma gypsies are a powerful symbol, the inverse of the model citizens of late stage capitalism, in that they are nomadic, but not according to the needs of the post-industrial, distributed workplace. Their existence in the impoverished margins of our cities is seen widely as a threat, but on the periodical occasions when the Right deals with them, there are both precious votes to be gained and mainstream identities to be reinforced. And even when the marginally less abusive Left is in charge, one thing remains clear: there is no place for the Roma people in the thing we call Europe, nor in the thing we call the economy. In their identity lies the opposite of
their freedom.

Send them back where they belong, goes the call of xenophobes of all hues, except, where are they even from? 


In Renzo Martinelli's Barbarossa (2009), a hagiographical biopic on Northern League hero Alberto da Giussano in which Umberto Bossi himself had a cameo, various locations in Romania stood in for the Po Valley. You may choose, especially in light of the above, to consider this exquisitely ironic, and opine that it underscores how Padania is a carefully constructed fiction, a con. The leader of the erstwhile Fascist party and current speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Gianfranco Fini, said so just last week: Padanian identity doesn't exist. This time last year the then leader of the principal party of the Left, Dario Franceschini, went up to the source of the river where the Leaguers bottles their ampoule to say the same thing: Padania doesn't exist and will never exist.

But they're both wrong. Of course Padania is a fiction, but that really is just another name for a social reality. And wasn’t l’Italia rossa, the shadow Italy that for decades aspired to and worked towards social justice under various banners of the Marxist Left, also a fiction? Did it not give people a meaningful sense of identity and belonging, colours and symbols to wear with pride? The leaders of the Left that turned their back on all that around the time when the Berlin wall was hacked down, just as the Northern League was moving its first uncertain steps on the political stage, decided that we should aspire instead to become ‘a normal country’ – call it European Nation X, if you will – a modern and efficient social democracy based on a free market economic model and a small, clear set of equitably enforced rules. That, too, was a fiction, and what's worse, a dispiritingly empty one that few people found credible or appealing. One of those leaders, Walter Veltroni, thought he could turn us all into American Democrats, as if that was something to aspire to, let alone attainable, and when the Partito Democratico was finally born, just in time for the 2008 elections, he all but forgot to put systems in place so that people could join it, and the party hobbled along with its paltry membership to a resounding defeat.

It's partly thanks to the Left's abdication of its history and movements, as well as the fundamental work of imagining a better country from within, that the Leaguers were able to invent and successfully promote the Northern nation. Secession is not their actual goal: just like the definitive expulsion of the Roma gypsies isn't desirable, for a certain quota needs to be available for periodical harassment, so too actually breaking off from the rest of the country would force a reckoning that the movement isn't equipped to face. What would life without those defining Others be like? How would the Padani understand themselves, in the absence of people who are less entrepreneurial or self-reliant, and who contribute less? For that is the myth of origin, in its entirety: that the Italian North is the 'most industrious region in Europe', and that its recent history of prosperity has everything to do with the natural disposition of its inhabitants and nothing with the toil of the migrants from the impoverished South. It is a myth that meshes quite perfectly with the logic of neoliberism, for it subordinates the process of establishing identity and the right to belong to society to the stoic acceptance of the economic model (a stoicism that has deep roots, as I've had occasion to argue.)

Berlusconism won't survive the eventual demise of its leader, and Fini's post-Fascist social Right is veering towards surprisingly centrist positions, but the Northern League offers a far more sustainable and I think dangerous model for the Far Right of tomorrow, just as its brand of racism is the most insidious. In order to defeat it, we'll have to learn again to tell a better story: about ourselves, about our history, about the plain on either side of the great river, and how it has never been the province of one people, and shouldn't, cannot aspire to be. It's a struggle I reacquaint myself with every year, painfully, always hoping to catch signs of a turning of the tide.




Richard Seymour, 'Racism and Recession Talk' and 'Racism Doesn't Cut Both Ways' (both on Lenin's Tomb).
Jacques Rancière, 'Racism: A Passion from Above', MR Zine, translated by Jonathan Collerson.
I'm also throwing in a recent piece by Alberto Toscano on Italian politics for The Guardian which is admirable for its succinctness: 'Italy's Problems Go Deeper Than Berlusconi'.


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