BRETT NEILSON INTERVIEWS SANDRO MEZZADRA
The question of migration had become a central concern for the global movement in Italy. While the issue of migration had not been a primary concern at the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, it had emerged as a fundamental question in the lead-up to the Firenze meetings, particularly in the wake of the G8 protests in Genova.
Can you describe how migration became a central issue for the global movement, giving some detail about concurrent developments in border control at the European level?
If we look at the shape the global movement has taken since the first explosion in Seattle in late 1999, we see that the central platform of the movement has been the struggle against neoliberal capitalism, and in particular against the large agencies of transnational governance such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Despite the analytical importance and mobilizing power of the concept of neoliberalism, its critics have tended to depict those who suffer the effects of globalisation in the global south as mere victims, denying them a position as protagonists or active social subjects in contemporary processes of global transformation. From this perspective, migration becomes just one in a long line of catastrophes occasioned by neoliberalism, whilst globalisation becomes something that is inevitable and thus immune to criticism from anything but a nostalgic point of view. In the first two World Social Forums held at Porto Alegre, this critique of neoliberalism took centre stage. One of the consequences was that there were no workshops devoted specifically to migration. Then, at the protests against the G8 summit in Genova in July 2001, there was a large rally organized by migrants that was a big success. In planning the workshops on migration at the European Social Forum, we insisted that it is necessary not only to build a critique of the Europe of Maastrict (that is, of the â€˜neoliberalâ€™ principles which in 1991-1992 were established by the Maastricht Treaty as foundations of the economic Europe) but also to build a critique of the Europe of Schengen (that is, of the new â€˜border regimeâ€™ whose institution was promoted in 1985 by the Schengen Agreement on the free circulation of European citizens and then fulfilled in the 1990s). We argued that to conduct a struggle against the terms of European citizenship it is also necessary to question the borders that define that citizenship and approached this very much as a matter of principle. Looking at Europe through the lens of migration yields very different results than looking at Europe through the lens of some different concept or practice--e.g., neoliberalism. Throughout the 1990s, one of the characteristics of migration politics at the European Union level was a growing harmonization of nation-state policies and technologies of border control. But this has not rendered the borders of the EU equal to those of the modern nation-state. The question of European borders (and the confines of European citizenship) is extremely complex.
An issue about the function of detention centres is maintaining and re-asserting national sovereignty in an era of increased migratory movements. In the Italian campaign against detention centres the word Lager is very prominent, whilst in Australia, the references have been to the penal colonies established by the English (the slogan â€˜We are all boat peopleâ€™ suggests a homology between convict transportees and present-day asylum seekers). Nonetheless, the thought of Giorgio Agamben, who privileges the example of the Lager, has been instructive in Australia for understanding the political structure of the camp. His concept of â€˜bare lifeâ€™ is not very present in your writing. Indeed, there are key thinkers of operaismo who have polemicized against Agambenâ€™s use of this concept, such as Luciano Ferrari Bravo in Dal fordismo alla globalizzazione (2001) or Antonio Negri in Il desiderio del mostro (2001). Is the concept of â€˜bare lifeâ€™ useful or not for understanding the political structure of the camp?
We need to be careful about the use of the term Lager in the context of the struggle against detention centres. The danger is that one might be seen to confuse current forms of global control with the forms of rule that dominated under European fascism in the early 20th-century. The term is not simply reducible to the camps that existed under European fascism or Nazism. In fact, the Lager has colonial origins in places such as Cuba and South Africa or indeed, as you point out, in Australia, which in a certain sense was one enormous Lager. So in using this term, we first want to point to the persistence of colonialism and colonial power relations within contemporary models of government and metropolitan societies. Next, we recognize that even the Nazi Lager cannot be immediately equated with the extermination camps at Auschwitz or Treblinka. Beginning in 1933, the Lager were administrative camps established throughout Germany for the internment of political opponents and of the so-called Asozialen (people like gypsies, the mentally ill, or homosexuals) and not immediately or only the Jews who would eventually be exterminated. So in identifying contemporary detention centres as Lager, we are not equating them with extermination camps. The Lager is an administrative space in which men and women who have not committed any crime are denied their right to mobility. In this sense, it is perfectly legitimate to identify present-day detention centres as Lager. It is also valid to point out that such spaces, associated with one of the blackest periods in European history, have not disappeared from our political scene, but have experienced a general diffusion throughout the so-called West (and also in other parts of the world). If one recalls Hannah Arendtâ€™s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), she recognizes the colonial origins of the Lager and traces the first appearance of such places in Europe to the concentration camps that appeared after the First World War. These were not extermination camps but places for the internment of men and women who, due to the changes to the map of Europe following the war, had no clear national citizenship (the so-called apatrides or Heimatlosen). In this sense, it is also appropriate to speak of contemporary detention centres as Lager, since they also serve to restrict the movement of people with no clear juridical connection to a particular nation-state or with the â€˜wrongâ€™ citizenship. On the question of â€˜bare life,â€™ Agambenâ€™s work provides a very powerful set of concepts with which to understand the political structure of the camp. Certainly, his arguments have proved fundamental for activists involved in protesting the existence of detention centres in Italy: especially his description of the peculiar dialectic of exclusion and inclusion which is put to work in the camps. A subject who is not at all recognized by the legal order (the â€˜illegal alienâ€™) is included in that order (through the â€˜inclusionâ€™ in the detention center) just to be excluded from the space to which the legal order itself applies! But Agamben risks emphasizing too much the exceptional character of the camp. But the logic of domination that functions in the camp also operates in other social spaces. This type of domination is really diffused throughout the comprehensive structure of society. Ferrari Bravo finds the concept of â€˜bare lifeâ€™ ambiguous because it excludes the question of labour from the sphere of theoretical observation. He asked if one should not look, besides Auschwitz, also at Ellis Island to understand the logic of the contemporary camps. Another exponent of operaismo, Paolo Virno, points out polemically that the best example of what Agamben means by â€˜bare lifeâ€™ is labour power, as defined by Marx as a form of potentiality. This approach calls to attention the fundamental relation between contemporary detention centres and the comprehensive restructuring of the labour market under global capitalism. The detention centre is a kind of decompression chamber that diffuses tensions accumulated on the labour market. These places present the other face of capitalismâ€™s new flexibility: they are concrete spaces of state oppression and a general metaphor of the despotic tendency to control labourâ€™s mobility, which is a structural character of â€˜historical capitalismâ€™. It is more important to speak of the camps in this way than in terms of â€˜bare life.â€™ Certainly, as Agamben argues, the camp performs a violent act of stripping. But this stripping should be understood in relation to the new forms of life that are produced in global capitalism. If global capitalism gives rise to new forms of flexibility, then the continuous movement of migrants shows the subjective face of this flexibility. At the same time, migratory movements are clearly exploited by global capitalism, and detention centres are crucial to this system of exploitation. This is one of things that becomes clear in the important book by Yann Moulier Boutang, De lâ€™esclavage au salariat (1998). Taking a wide historical view of the capitalist world system, Moulier Boutang argues that forms of indentured and enslaved labour have always played and continue to play a fundamental role in capitalist accumulation. Far from being archaisms or transitory adjustments destined to be wiped out by modernization, these labour regimes are constituent of capitalist development and arise precisely from the attempt to control or limit the workerâ€™s flight. In this perspective, the effort to control the migrantâ€™s mobility becomes the motor of the capitalist system and the contemporary detention centre appears as one in a long line of administrative mechanisms that function to this end.
In Diritto di fuga, you emphasize the importance of recent efforts to rethink the concept of citizenship for understanding migration in the contemporary world. In the wake of the Tampa incident of August 2001, however, some Australian thinkers began to tackle the questions of migration and detention more through the concept of sovereignty. To what extent has the issue of sovereignty been central for those involved in the struggle for migrant rights in Europe?
In Diritto di fuga I tried to offer a radical rereading of T.H. Marshallâ€™s (1949) classical text on citizenship and social class. This meant identifying two faces of citizenship: the first being citizenship in the formal institutional sense, and the second associated with social practices, that is with a combination of political and practical forces that challenge the formal institutions of citizenship. In this second sense, the question of citizenship raises that of subjectivity. And while I obviously value the Foucauldian criticism of the concept of citizenship, pointing out that this subjectivity is constructed by a number of disciplinary practices, I also stress that there is an autonomous space of subjective action that can force significant institutional transformations. For me, speaking of citizenship is above all a way of moving the question of subjectivity into political theory. Thinking about citizenship in this sense is a way of focusing the debate specifically on migrants, on people who are not recognized as formal citizens within a particular political space. Migratory movements are a practice of citizenship that, over the past ten years, has placed increasing pressure on the borders of formal citizenship. Citizenship is a concept that allows one to ask how these pressures bear upon classical political concepts such as sovereignty. The concept of citizenship also extends beyond the direct reference to migratory movements. One big theoretical challenge is to individuate the nexus that connects the specific demands for citizenship expressed through migratory movements to other social practices that donâ€™t necessary involve the demand for formal citizenship. I have tried to identify what is common to subjective social practices of migration and demands for citizenship expressed within the so-called West over the past few decades, particularly in the feminist and workersâ€™ movements. The concept of diritto di fuga allows this nexus to come into view. Iâ€™m not trying to suggest some sort of levelling homology between migrant struggles and those of feminists and workers. To the contrary, the connection is absolutely formal and not immediately communicable. But there is a link as regards labour mobility. Yann Moulier Boutangâ€™s also identifies the subjective practice of labour mobility as the connecting thread in the history of capitalism. Since the 1970s, in Italy there has been an intense discussion of the workerâ€™s escape from the factory, the refusal of work in a concrete sense. In the recent book Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Luc Boltanski and Ã‰ve Chiapello (1999) show how â€˜flexibilityâ€™, before becoming a keyword of corporate ideology, was recognized at the beginning of the 1970s as the chief problem of capitalist command, in the shape of labourâ€™s mobility. Similarly feminism involves a refusal of domestic work and the patriarchal family, a demand for control over subjective decisions regarding labour mobility. The category of diritto di fuga links these subjective practices of mobility to the migrantâ€™s demand for citizenship, to the migrantâ€™s right to assert control over his/her own movements.
Can you say something about how your emphasis on the subjective aspects of migration relates to multiculturalism as understood in the Italian or European context?
In the theoretical sense, emphasizing the subjective aspect of migration means moving away from mainstream discourses that altogether exclude this dimension, talking only of push and pull, of demography, and so forth. In Diritto di fuga, I pointed to the need to highlight this subjective dimension to understand the decision to leave unfavourable or undesirable conditions in a particular place. This is an approach that dovetails with much of the ethnographic work done with migrants in Italy by people like Alessandro dal Lago (1999) and Ruba Salih (2003). Their work has delivered a much richer and more complex understanding of migration than found in mainstream discourses: it places migration in the context of a life story in which the subjective aspect becomes very clear, and allows a move away from stereotypical narratives by which the decision to migrate involves a search for liberty or emancipation. In emphasizing the subjective aspect of migration, Iâ€™m not trying to reinstate some mythical understanding of Cartesian subjectivity. Rather Iâ€™m speaking of processes of subjectivization in the Foucauldian sense, and while these may involve pain and poverty they can also involve enjoyment. Much of the work done in the name of solidarity with migrants in Italy has treated them as victims, as people in need of assistance, care, or protection. Doubtless this work has been inspired by noble motives, but it also has a certain ambiguity. By exploring the subjective aspect of migration, one is able to move beyond this paternalistic vision and to see migrants as the central protagonists of current processes of global transformation. As regards multiculturalism, it is safe to say that there has not been much practical experience of multicultural politics in Europe. Here the discourse of multiculturalism was imported from North America, and the public debate has always been narrowly linked to migration. As in Australia and North America, the debate has largely been driven by a certain white fundamentalism that sees multiculturalism has something to be fought. But even in a left-wing context, there are ambiguities surrounding the politics of multiculturalism. For instance, if you imagine a group of activists who are working with migrants to organize a festival, there will surely be somebody who asserts that each of the cultures involved ought to have a space to express itself. Not only are different cultures shunted into different spaces, but also culture and ethnicity are collapsed. The basic lesson of whiteness studies (that whiteness is a marked identity and not a neutral or universal position) has not penetrated the European left, and ethnic particularity still tends to be identified in contrast to the white European citizen. There is also a growing tendency in Europe to oppose issues of cultural recognition to those of economic or social well-being. Axel Honneth (1996) is only the most intelligent proponent of this argument. Such a tendency is particularly worrying in a period in which the welfare state is under attack. As in other parts of the world, multiculturalism has become overwhelmingly associated with the politics of identity. Under the hegemony of multiculturalism, all the diverse aspects and problems of migration are reduced to that of identity. In Europe identity is largely understood as a question of cultural belonging, as something contained by official geographical borders, as given rather than constructed. Perhaps this is why that strain of postcolonial studies that emphasizes the idea of hybridity, which is by now relatively mainstream in the English- speaking world, is still seen as quite cutting-edge in Italy.
Could you say something about the role of civil disobedience in the struggle against the Lager and within the movement more generally?
I would say that disobedience, which involves the spectacularization of politics and the production of exemplary actions, has been extremely important in the phase of maturation and growth of the global movement. It has been crucial for creating the impression of an emergence from marginality, for winning a space on the evening news, for occupying sound-bytes. This kind of action is absolutely valid in a social context that tends ever more toward symbolization and spectacularization and, for this reason, it must not be demonized. A problem emerges, however, when such spectacularization becomes an end in itself, when disobedience ceases to be one part in a combination of political actions. There is a danger that disobedience becomes nothing so much as a kind of self-promotion. Something like a logo, one could say. But this remains an open discussion, since even those who criticize the disobbedienti find it difficult to identify forms of political action that would be as exemplary as theirs but at the same time contribute to a deep structural change. This is a big problem that relates to the motivations of people involved in the movement. There is an important difference between actions that speak the language of ethics and actions that speak the language of politics. Perhaps the importance of â€˜ethicalâ€™ motivations, not to be confused with â€˜moralism,â€™ within the composition of the movement could be interpreted as the subversive side of a mode of production which tends to value the very subjectivity of the workers
The big dilemma facing the movement is how to harness and move beyond the utopian feeling that has been created during the unexpectedly large demonstrations. For while it is true that the movement has experienced amazing growth, one is left to ask in between the protest marches that attract hundreds of thousands of people on the base of these very general (ethical?) motivations: â€˜Where is everyone, what are they doing?â€™ The challenge is to find concrete points of application for the movement. One possibility is within the universities, since despite the recent reforms, there is a new generation of student activists in Italy and real possibilities for it to emerge as a laboratory for experimenting with new political discourses and practices. There have also been some interesting experiments with connections between the movement and institutions, especially at the municipal level. I think it is important, however, to keep this experimentation with institutions at a distance from the project of winning constituted political power at the level of the nation-state.
How can we understand the current climate of risk and repression? Should we understand it as a moment of regression or reaction?
In general I try to avoid using the term reaction. What we are dealing with is more a question of reorganization. I know that Antonio Negri has referred to the current situation as a backlash. In my opinion, Hardt and Negri risk buying into a progressive, almost linear, model of historical change, when they argue that Empire makes a definite preferable advance over classical nation-state imperialism, referring back to Woodrow Wilsons project of instituting a world government of peace. One drawback of this approach is that it seems that the Empire they describe as emerging in the Clinton years is the only Empire possible. For me, their theoretical model (particularly in the seminal chapter entitled Mixed Constitution) is much more complex. It can incorporate conflict and aggression. Rather than as a backlash or reaction, I understand the present situation as one in which elements of this mixed constitution are undergoing a process of redefinition and reorganization. The current conflicts are internal to Empire and do not attest a simple movement back into the period of economic and military nationalism. We are seeing a series of displacements and adjustments within a new form of constitutionalism that is a field of tensions and can pass through different phases of equilibrium and disequilibrium. This idea of mixed constitutionalism seems to me one of the strongest aspects of Hardt and Negris book, which works in counterpoint to the more metadiscursive narrative that sees counter-Empire emerging only to the extent that Empire succeeds the older system of nation-states in an entirely linear way. Certainly the books utopianism is one of its most appealing aspects and its opening of new political vistas has been altogether positive. But the more progressive aspects of Hardt and Negris argument are at odds with some of the other theoretical excurses they make, in particular the engagement with postcolonial theory. This is why I favour a moratorium on the use of words like regression and reaction.
What is your opinion on the argument according to which Europe is the weak link within this new global constitution of Empire? This is a central theme in the volume Europa Politica edited by Heidrun Friese, Antonio Negri, and Peter Wagner to which you contributed a piece (with Alessandro dal Lago). Is there a danger that seeing Europe as the weak link obstructs the project of constructing alliances and channels of political communication with social movements outside of it?
Certainly it is fair to say that the movement must begin to think of new ways to relate to social and political institutions. This is necessary to achieve concrete changes. One of the difficulties is that today there exists a heterogeneous movement of unparalleled numbers and strength in Italy, but we have been unable to change anything. For instance, we struggled against the Bossi-Fini legislation, but now it is part of Italian law. We need to draft a model that will allow us to reach concrete goals. This is not a matter of reform. Rather it is a question of thinking about new relations with institutions, of thinking of institutions themselves in a different way. Having said this, it is clear that the best chance for realizing a new way of relating to institutions is at the European level. The institutions of the EU are already quite well established. So when we begin to think about new relations with the institutional left, we are thinking about new ways to connect to (and reorganize) the space of European governance. In this respect, what I said earlier about migratory movements is extremely important. Thinking of Europe in terms of migratory movements allows us to imagine an entirely different version of Europe than the one that is presently being constructed at the institutional level. So the first task of the movement as it begins to experiment with institutions is to keep open the criticism of the borders of EU citizenship. In this regard, it is necessary to realize that European constitutionalism implies a very different model of borders than that characteristic of the nation-state. The material constitution of EU is complex, flexible, and multi-level. It continually integrates and reorganizes spaces and functions. And this definitely opens new opportunities for social movements. At this level, there are possibilities to use the contradictions that exist with the new constitutionalism, to occupy gaps formed by these flexible operations (even if only temporarily). To argue that this is the case simply because the EU operates at a supranational level is to presuppose a conflict between this new constitutionalism and nation-state governance. While this may have been the case in the 1960s or 1970s, the integration of Europe is now something that has been done. Clearly this integration has often served to strengthen the mechanisms of global capitalist command, but there are also spaces for alternatives.