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'.