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'.


Iguana Jo said...

Grazie per questo sguardo impietoso sul nostro presente. Come hai ben evidenziato, noi qui siamo nella cacca, e non si vede una via d'uscita.

Concordo con te quando scrivi che senza la capacità di creare una narrazione migliore, un'identità ideale altrettanto forte e positiva, non c'è nessuna speranza che i tempi migliorino.
Ma la sinistra sembra aver perso ogni capacità immaginifica. E la speranza che le cose migliorino è sempre più tenue.

In questi momenti non sai quanto invidio la tua possibilità di vederci da lontano.

George D said...

There's a lot in this beautifully illustrated piece. I defer to you on anything to do with your northern land, because I know nothing.

I think one of the most awful experiences for me politically was seeing the 'vision' of the Labour-Alliance Goverment, buttressed by the Greens, of a new and confident NZ with a clear and defined future, slip quickly into a hollow bed of third-way conservative centre right politics. Even as they accomodated identities in ways they considered safe - while expelling the "haters and wreckers" whose vision was incompatable with "real New Zealander[s]". I thought this was just me, but then I asked others, and they seemed to think that there was indeed such a hope and vision at the turn of the century and that it had vanished by mid-decade.

As we discussed elsewhere, in New Zealand, goverments past and present have been (relatively) inclusive and multicultural, comfortable with identities that fit within a framework of colourblind capitalism. Even as the present and historical distribution of that capitalism means its impacts are far from even.

Interestingly, and tellingly, Maori unemployment increased in the period 2004-2008, despite the lowest unemployment rate in decades. I think that this apparent anomaly isn't.

Giovanni Tiso said...

It was surreal to begin writing this in Italy whilst following NZ media (both mainstream and social) obsessing over the Paul Henry controversy – the sideshow to a sideshow – without so much as touching upon the widening gaps and the structural racism that afflict the country. Just like the clean and green image of New Zealand ought to be viewed critically in light of its sparse population density, then so too its shall we say racist deficit needs to be put in context. We don’t have boat people at our shores, or porous borders, yet when we that took some of the Tampa refugees, we did so without increasing our quota for that year – could we really not afford to?

Giovanni Tiso said...


Concordo con te quando scrivi che senza la capacità di creare una narrazione migliore, un'identità ideale altrettanto forte e positiva, non c'è nessuna speranza che i tempi migliorino.

(Ti rispondo in inglese, ma tu continua tranquillamente a scrivere in italiano). I like what Nichi Vendola is doing in Puglia; and I like his language a lot. In a previous instalment of this occasional series on Italian racism I have also expressed a little hope concerning the capacity of the centri sociali to not just resist but offer the image of another possible Italy, as well as regarding the increasingly mixed ethnicity of our schools. I think a new Left project could develop and develop surprisingly quickly. It's easier for me to be hopeful when I write from here in New Zealand than when I visit, however.

Giovanni Tiso said...

The forcible removal of the Lega symbols from the school in Adro has begun. To my surprise, the Ministry is also going to change the name to those of two of our default Risorgimento patriots, the Dandolo brothers.

The Mayor will take the authorities to court.

maps said...

Padania sounds a bit like the New Munster of xenophobic South Island nationalists, though of course it actually resonates with a mass audience. Isn't there a secessionist village in the far north of Italy which has been making its case for decades, or even longer? Does the existence of micronations like San Marino embolden separatists? I wonder if you've ever looked at the sinister trajectory of Telos magazine, which was quite an important leftist publication in the '70s and then drifted into an infatuation with the League...

George D said...

We don’t have boat people at our shores, or porous borders, yet when we that took some of the Tampa refugees, we did so without increasing our quota for that year – could we really not afford to?

It shocks Australians when I explain this - that NZ's gesture was not one of generosity, but realpolitik. Still members of both countries prefer to pretend otherwise.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Isn't there a secessionist village in the far north of Italy which has been making its case for decades, or even longer?

I'm not aware of any single one, although we do have historical secessionist pockets in the North, especially in South Tirol. And some of our border regions have special statutes that make them partially autonomous, although now with the introduction of federalism it's becoming in fact the norm.

Does the existence of micronations like San Marino embolden separatists?

San Marino is interesting in that it's a classic city state, and whilst I don't know if anybody is thinking of it as a model I saw ads in Milan for a referendum on making the city autonomous. Of course one of the things that San Marino and the Vatican are regularly suspected of is using the extranational character of their financial institutions to recycle money on behalf of crime syndicates - I think San Marino may in fact currently be black listed. But I would be surprised if there wasn't somebody somewhere salivating at the prospect of more insulating layers around local banks. Because what secession also means is a greater capacity to hide one's money.

I wonder if you've ever looked at the sinister trajectory of Telos magazine, which was quite an important leftist publication in the '70s and then drifted into an infatuation with the League...

I didn't but having just glanced at it now I'm a bit shocked to find Timothy Luke – a former teacher of mine – involved. I'll need to do some serious reading before forming an opinion however.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Interesting development: it appears that the Partito Democratico (the aforesaid main party of Italian parliamentary Left) has introduced a document at its congress proposing the iontroduction of a points scheme for immigration, modelled on what happens here and elsewhere (New Zealand is in fact mentioned in the first line of the document), and a commentator has called it "una proposta leghista", ie something that you'd expect the Northern League to come up with. Neat convergence of some of the things we've been talking about.

Iguana Jo said...

Sì, Nichi Vendola al momento sembra essere l'unica persona del centro-sinistra in grado di parlare un linguaggio nuovo a un pubblico più ampio di quello del suo ristretto bacino politico d'appartenenza.

Temo che però sia troppo poco per rovesciare un'inerzia politica che vede le cose precipitare - con l'apparente consenso della stragrande maggioranza della popolazione - di male in peggio.

Sarebbe bello riuscire a provare la stessa tua speranza nella multietnicità delle nostre scuole.
In effetti per i ragazzi - ma ricordati che io sto a Modena - il problema razziale pare essere superato.
Ma questo ormai è un paese di vecchi. I ragazzi e la scuola e i genitori con loro, non contano nulla.

claus said...

@maps: The "secessionist village in the far north of Italy" may be Seborga in Liguria, but its independence claims were more a PR stunt, not a serious political challenge.

As a sidenote to the Adro case, conservative commentators and politicians (including Minister Gelmini herself) have had some success in uncovering a similar leftist scandal, namely Communist banners and plaques outside a Livorno school. It almost goes without saying that both cases do not have much in common: the Livorno flag has a commemorative purpose rather than a political one (the school is opposite the building where the PCI was founded), and it's hardly visible from the school itself, which had nothing to do with its installation anyway. But, you know, Keep Politics Out Of School etc.