Sandro Mezzadra: “Immigrants are a determining element of working class” – Murat Bay

Murat Bay from Sendika.Org had an interview about immigration problem with Sandro Mezzadra, in University of Bologna, in Italy. Sandro Mezzadra works as an Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bologna, where he teaches postcolonial studies and contemporary political theory. He has published widely on the areas of migration, postcolonial theory, contemporary capitalism, Italian operaismo and autonomist Marxism. He recently completed a book with Brett Neilson, Border as method, or, the multiplication of labor (2013, Duke University Press). His writings have been translated into ten languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Finnish, Greek, Slovenian, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese. He is currently working on the FP7 European project [email protected] (Transnational Digital Networks, Migration and GenderOpens in a new window) and is a partner researcher on the ARC Discovery project, Culture in Transition: Creative Labour and Social Mobilities in the Asian Century Opens in a new window.

Immigration is one of the biggest topics in Italy, but in the Middle East or in Turkey we do not know the details so much. That’s why we want to ask whether you can explain us the migratory routes together with the reasons. For instance, does migration happen mainly due to reasons related to wars or economic reasons?

If you look at the composition of migration in Italy, you will find that some nationalities are very well represented. For instance, the Moroccan and the Romanian and nowadays at least you do not really find these nationalities in the news. Because in the news what is dominating nowadays, are pictures of people coming from the Mediterranean. People coming from the Mediterranean, are coming from Syria for instance, you are quite familiar with the situation in Syria; they are coming from the so called ‘Horn of Africa’, you know Eritrea, particularly Eritrean, nowadays… This has already couple of problems because the ‘Horn of Africa’ was basically Italian Colony before the Second World War so there is a kind of colonial heritage there. And you would find people coming from Sub-Saharan Africa, also West Africa, people coming from Mali for instance, Senegal… Many people of Sub-Saharan African origin will not arrive to Italy from their own countries but for instance from Libya. You are familiar with the situation in Libya. But this is to say that the reality of immigration in Italy does not necessarily correspond to the kind of reality that is speculated in the media.

Another couple of examples: if you walk down the streets in Bologna you will see that there are a lot of shops that are run by the Bangladeshi; in many Italian cities there are huge Latin American communities, for instance Ecuadorian communities, in Genoa, Milan and these people came to Italy following different kind of routes. And again if you just read the news, you think that most immigrants, so called ‘illegal immigrants’ come from the southern shore of the Mediterranean but this is not the case. Most illegal migrants came to Italy through other routes, usually they enter the country legally, then they became for instance over-stayer; you know when you have a visa for 90 days and then you stay in a country and you become illegal.

Also this kind of binary opposition between legal and illegal migrants that you always find in the news is very artificial. Because again if you look at what is happening on the ground, you easily see that most migrants who are now in a legal position, were in the past, that is more or less distant, in an illegal position. This means that there is the kind of production of illegality, you know, we could even say that it is a kind of legal production of illegality.

So regarding the reasons why migrants come to Italy or to Europe, because again you have to keep in mind that for instance many migrants which the Italians show that are coming the Mediterranean, conceive of Italy as a transit country because they want to go to northern Europe.

To the richer part?

Yes but also for many other reasons, for example because they have families in other countries. Look at what is happening at the Italian-French border, the migrants that were there, wanted to go to Paris basically because they have family ties, networks there.

I come back to your question regarding the reasons of migration. Many people escape, as you know, from war, from, Syria, which was mentioned, there is Afghanistan, there is Iraq… There is this great Middle East that is nowadays torn by wars. This is one of the reasons why people escape. Other people escape from dictatorships, from situations of violence that for instance produced by civil wars. Just think of Mali as one of the examples. And people come to Italy looking for better lives.

Are they finding a better life?

I would not say that they are finding a better life but there is a kind of subjective push towards a better life. For me this element is particularly important because I refuse to see migrants as victims.

I want to grasp and emphasise this subjective element. This is the reason why I have been speaking for several years now of migration as a social movement which does not mean, of course that migration is a social movement in the traditional sense, but I speak of migration in terms of social movement precisely emphasising this subjective push for a better life. And then there is a clash between the subjective push and the objective conditions of migration both in the journey and in the so called country of destination. I repeat, I emphasise this aspect of migration and I speak of migration in terms of social movement. And now I see that also Angela Davis, you know Angela Davis, kind of icon of 70s in the U.S, African-American communist, militant, she was in jail for several years, she is also speaking of migration in terms of social movement.

Further point that I should at least mention regarding reasons behind migration is the distinction between the asylum seekers and refugees on the one hand and so called economic migrants on the other hand. You know, this distinction is written in law, in international law but also in national law. But it is a very arbitrary distinction because there are many subjective positions that blur the boundary between asylum seeking and economic migration. This is one of the reasons why we are confronted with crisis of asylum nowadays. We need creative solutions because we cannot get rid of the distinction at all, because there are of course clear conditions in which one is legitimised to seek refuge and to ask for asylum. We have to be aware of the fact that the distinction itself is very arbitrary and it is becoming more and more arbitrary in front of mass migration.

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You have already given the answer to our next question but I, nevertheless, want to ask it: migrants, most of them from Libya, Eritrea or Sudan are currently waiting at the Italian-French border. What does the principle that allows the EU countries to strengthen their border controls against unexpected migration flows mean exactly? What has happened last week at the border between Italy and France? 

The point is that the Europe has specific asylum regime that is called the Dublin regime. Dublin refers to a convention for the implementation of the Schengen Agreement. So the Schengen Agreement kind of opened the internal borders of Europe, but at the same time, it created new external borders, meaning that, if you think of Gibraltar for instance it was historically border with Morocco and Spain, now it is something different and something more. It is the external border of the European Union which means that also Germany, also Finland, although they are very remote geographically, have a stake in the management of this border. So one of the consequences was the establishment of this Dublin System which basically establishes a very arbitrary rule which means that an asylum seeker is compelled to ask for asylum in the first country in which he or she arrives. It is on this basis France refuses to accept these migrant who arrived in Italy and according to the Dublin system should apply for asylum in Italy, not in France. This is the argument of the French government. And so basically they closed, once again, the border between Italy and France. And this has a lot of tricky implications. Because if I go to France through the border of Ventimiglia, I don’t think I will be controlled. I don’t think they will ask me for my passport. But if a black man, a black woman goes to Menton, the first French city beyond the border, he or she I think will be asked.

It is also racism.

This is what I am saying, you know, objectively. The French government says we are socialist, we are progressive, we are not racist at all, but in fact, if you are black you are controlled. The same happens on trains, at the other borders, not only in Ventimiglia.

Ventimiglia is now a kind of, you know, in a way an interesting situation. What I find interesting in this situation in Ventimiglia is the degree of awareness, of stubbornness, determination of migrants. I do not know if you had the chance to read some interviews with these migrants but they are totally aware of the situation and many of them articulated their claims politically.

Yes, I read about them and they were on hunger strike and they were protesting against the situation but the police did not care.

But there is a quite, I mean, impressive degree of solidarity towards these migrants. But again what strikes me is the political ways, not only forms of struggle, hunger strike for instance, but also articulation of claims. And this is for me a good instantiation of the political challenge that migration poses today. I made this point also in Padua last week, it is a political challenge to adequately rethink not only of the internal composition of the European space but also the relations between Europe and other spaces.

How do you assess the situation where EU is leaving Italy alone regarding problems of migration? What political outcome will Italy’s threat have against the rigid position of France and Austria, that involves issuing migrants with 3 months temporary visas allowing them to travel elsewhere in Europe?

It is a cause of shame you know. It is real that confronting the challenge, as I mentioned before, is possible only at the European level. And this is also because many migrants are not heading towards Italy. They want to go to Europe. May be some of them would like to remain in Italy but many of them would not. Target, lets say, of migrants is Europe, it is not Italy. From many points of view a kind of European approach is absolutely necessary.

It is clear that there are very strong resistances against what is usually called in the bureaucratic language of Brussels as ‘burden sharing’. Many northern European countries do not want to participate in a kind of ‘burden sharing’.

Most European countries are ready to participate in a war. Because the war is easily solved (laughs) in a way. And suddenly there is this idea or may be a legend of the war in Libya, of a war on human traffickers. One may notice that there are many parallels in the official rhetoric of the governments between traffickers and slave traders. So they have built a kind of new enemy of the humanity as the pirates were called. But, it is apparent that it does not make sense to stage a war against traffickers. What do you do? Do you bomb the boats? It is quite clear that you would bomb at least one boat with migrants. We know this, I mean, from the experiences of the wars in past years.

Moreover I find this analogy between traffickers and slave traders really disgusting for one main reason. Slaves were captured and transported to the Americas against their will. These migrants want to cross the Mediterranean; again the subjective element makes a difference I mean. If it was possible for a migrant to take the ferry and come to Sicily, there would be no trafficker. Of course I am not defending traffickers who are many times disgusting people themselves. But if it was possible for the migrants to take a ferry and to come to Italy, then there would be no traffickers. That is quite easy. When I want to go to Morocco, I take a ferry and I go to Morocco. I do not need no traffickers. I think we have to be very careful and attentive to what would happen in the next weeks and months in the Mediterranean.  The risk, the danger of a war is there.

Do you believe that it was possible to save the people that were drowned at the ships that sank.

You may have heard of this Italian rescue operation that was launched after the big shipwreck in 2013. That operation rescued lives. It is possible to criticise, and I think it is necessary to criticise even that operation; because it was a military operation. It was an operation in which the military logic was kind of structurally intertwined with the humanitarian logics; this says a lot about the operation.

Nevertheless this operation rescued a lot of lives and it will be possible to Europeanise such an operation. It would be at least something better than what we are confronted with nowadays. Because nowadays there are only border control operations in what is called the central Mediterranean and there is no official rescue operation.

I must say that there are several unofficial rescue operations. Many social movements and civil society organisations launch their own operation. There is this ‘alarm phone’ for instance that is quite interesting. It has been established within the framework of ‘Watch the Med’ initiative, you can look it up in the web. So there are very generous kind of initiatives and they also play a role. Alarm phone is a quite huge network. There are numbers and people in distress at sea can call this numbers and people answering even from United States, in order to have 24 hour a day cover. But there is no official rescue operation.

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Now I want to talk a bit about the lives of migrants and refugees in Europe when come. For example, when they come here, they change something in Europe, for example, we saw it a lot in Turkey: two million refugees came to Turkey and especially the border areas with Syria have changed a lot, such as demographics of several cities, even the language of shopping, speaking, culture has changed. So the fourth question is that the migrants also change the demographic composition of the countries they arrive, and this entails economic consequences as well, what are the political outcomes of this in Italy?

That is a very nice but challenging question, particularly regarding Italy. Because Italy is a country that went through a very fast migratory transition as the social scientists say meaning simply a transition from being a country of emigration to being a country of immigration. This happened very quickly in Italy.

I can put it even biographically. I grew up in Genoa and started politics in Genoa in late 80s, I was a kid. It was a white city, no doubt, I mean there was some black U.S marines and they were kind of exotic. The city was white and suddenly in the early 90s, we realised that the city was not white anymore. There had been a really drastic, dramatic change and this change was a challenge also for us as political activists. If you go to any Italian city, you will experience now a city that it that is radically different from the city of the 80s.

If I may give an example, people from Venice told that Venice was in the hands of the left wing party until the last election but in the last election the right party used the topic of immigration and refugees and now it changed. How is this change happening, what are your views? 

I don’t think this was the main reason for the defeat of the centre left in Venice. But anyway, this started already in the 90s. I mean in 90s, in Genoa to talk about my experience, we had a really violent clash in the mid-90s with the new right that took in a very aggressive way the topic of migration to open up new political spaces for the right. The main question at stake in this clash was the legitimacy of the presence of migrants which means ‘black strange bodies’, you know, in the cities.

If you look at the daily life, one could say that the migrants won this clash because nowadays it is difficult to contest the legitimacy of the presence of migrants in Italy. I mean it is very difficult because the very reproduction of the social fabric of the daily life is predicated on the presence of migrants. You may know that many female migrants work as domestic and care workers in the very domestic and very intimate spaces in which many times you can find people who are against migration. I mean just to give an idea of the entanglement that we are confronted with.

I don’t deny that migration produces conflicts, I mean conflicts that are often difficult to match: different ways of occupying the public space, also different way to conceive relations between the young and the elderly, between men and women and so on. All these produces conflicts. But the problem is how to manage these conflicts. I think it is possible to dialogue a politics of migration that takes also these problems as a fundamental field for the production of new political spaces, new political subjectivities and so on.

I mean, I could put it from another point of view. If you look at social struggles in Italy, we have social struggles such as labour struggles, struggles for housing and struggles for welfare. In the last 20 years, migrants were really the protagonists of social struggles. And not only regarding struggles for migrants’ rights, for the right to stay for instance which is very important, but also of labour struggles. I don’t know if you have heard about this really great cycle of struggles in sector of logistics in northern Europe. I mean in Veneto, the region of Venice, there were really dramatic labour struggles, I mean they were migrant struggles. If you look at struggles for housing, the occupation of buildings where people go and live, this is a sort of tradition in Italy. These kind of practices have a long history. But in the last 10, 15 years the practice has been kind of reinvented and appropriated by migrants meaning that migrants are also protagonists of important social struggles.

They are also coming here and working, sometimes illegally without permits, what are the implications of the migrant workers being employed as cheap labour regarding the vested rights of the working class. Together with this, how would you define migrant workers within the working class?

Well, they are part of the working class. If you look at the working class in Italy, nowadays, migrants are constitutive element of the composition of the working class. Particularly if you conceive the working class not in traditional and narrow sense. Look at social labour that is exploited by the capital; this is my way of conceiving the working class. So, for me the female migrants that work as domestic and care workers are important part of the working class. Also if you look at the industrial working class, especially at the small and medium sized factories that are very important in the industrial fabric in Italy, you find a lot of migrants.

And regarding low wages, illegality and so on, I would say first of all that it was capital that started an attack, a radical attack against labour movement, already in the mid-70s in Italy. Like in many other places, it was capital that took as its goal the destruction of the power of the labour movement. And then, of course, you can say that migration, as many other times in history, was instrumentalised by capital in order to reconfigure labour relations. But the attack was from the part of capital.

So, I think it is really important to criticise people who say that migrants are responsible for the worsening of the conditions of labour in Italy because this is not true. There was a capitalist attack, and the capitalist attack produced total new conditions of exploitation, but also new conditions of struggle. And we still have to collectively invent the tools of struggle against exploitation in such a situation. There are a lot of struggles of course. But the problem of inventing new tools of organisation for these kind of sceptre of social labour is still a problem that troubles us, and not only in Italy.

Can changes like Rojava revolution provide for local and durable solutions to the problem of migration?

I have been following quite closely the revolution in Rojava since the beginning. I spent a lot of time in Germany, in the 1980s and 1990s, so I really have good connections and I have close friends in the German left and you know there is an important relation between at least the part of German left and the Kurdish revolutionary movement. So a friend of mine went several times to Rojava and was informing me in a very detailed way since the beginning. So I have been participating in this revolution, though from far. I also wrote an article last year in late October when everybody was thinking that Kobanê would fall. I wrote this article named “is Kobanê alone” that was translated into several languages, circulated a lot, particularly in Italy, but also in other places in Europe. It was a modest contribution to the of support movement in Italy, but also at the European level.

So I am an enthusiastic kind of supporter of the Rojava revolution. I think, as I wrote in that article, that particularly in conditions, what I call before the great Middle East, nowadays such an experience as Rojava is really precious. I mean, it is really something, like a gift, that we need not only to support, to befriend, but also to help multiply. Of course I think that the revolution in Rojava can be a source of inspiration, also for struggles in other parts of the world, also Europe, also southern Europe. It already happens in a way, and in a very happy way. It is not the first time in history, of course.

There is the problem of reinventing internationalist solidarity gone beyond the rhetoric. Kind of new materialist foundation of internationalist solidarity is much needed nowadays in my opinion. I think many of the experiences that were made this year by the solidarity movement in Rojava are important experiences in this regard.

So is this ideology a solution for immigration from Middle East or Africa? Or can it be part of a solution?

It cannot of course be a part of a solution, meaning that if I do a kind of experiment and I figure out the Middle East reconstructed around the experiment of Rojava with this multiplication of Rojava fact, then it is clear that also migration would be something different. It is clear that a stable, radically democratic Middle East, which is nowadays a distant dream would radically change in the composition dynamics of migration from the Middle East to Europe, I mean this is apparent.

I do not think that we have to imagine, we have to struggle for the world in which people are not mobile. I think that a different kind of mobility corresponds to the fundamental need to truth and to make experiences in other parts of the wold. I mean it should be part of our own imagination of a different world. I don’t think that the ideal world, I mean there is only one world that I have in my imagination and that world is communism, I don’t think of communism as a static world where people (laughs) do not move from the place where they were born. I mean different kind of organising the world would supply different kind of organisational mobility.

And lastly, if we are to summarise, what are your suggestions for a solution?

I mentioned communism (laughs). That’s a joke of course. Well I do not think there is any solution. I am sorry but particularly in a world is so torn and crisscrossed by wars, by conflicts, by violence, I mean we have to negotiate these problems for the time to come. I cannot see an easy solution of this problem. But I am always trying to be on the part of the people who move, particularly of people who are exploited in their own experience of migration both in the journey and in the place in which they live and work. I definitely think that a ‘democratic Europe’, cannot be a Europe which is kind of fortified within its borders. Unless this question is changed, unless it is acknowledged that it is not a tolerable the situation in which I can take a ferry and go to Morocco and a kid from Casablanca cannot take a ferry and come to Europe, unless this problem is recognised as a fundamental problem of Europe and then solutions are difficult. I am aware of that.

I don’t say open borders, it is complicated. But I do say that we have to struggle against the violence of borders; the violence of borders that reproduces itself also within Europe, within European citizenship, within the European labour markets, within each factory in which you have migrant workers for instance. Also in the space of factory there is violence of the border and if we don’t struggle against the violence of the border, I mean it is also difficult to imagine kind of unity and solidarity of the working class.

Sendika.Org-Murat Bay / Italy-Bologna

Thanks to Faika Deniz Pasha and Hazal Hanzey  for   the help of the translation from English and Italian.

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