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“Immigration Is not Leftist”. Do We Need to Choose Between Italians and Migrants?

Reflections on Federico Rampini’s last book on the crisis of the left, presented at Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan

Federico Rampini with Carlo Invernizzi (left) and Michael Frank (right).

Mr. Rampini doesn’t make concessions when it comes to immigration, the most debated issue in the last Italian election campaigns that seems to clearly mark the differences between the left and the right. The “open borders,” he states, are not "left-wing". On the contrary, the idea comes from the Christian tradition and from the liberal one. From an economic point of view, migratory flows, by lowering wages while increasing the profits, represent a real driving force for capitalism...

Well-known Italian US correspondent for “La Repubblica,” Federico Rampini’s last literary endeavor is La notte della Sinistra (The Night of the Left). Mr. Rampini called it a cry of pain and anger that well describes our contemporary world, a political landscape of difficult interpretation, his own militant past as a member of the Italian Communist Party, and his debut in the field of journalism, in 1977, working for the Communist weekly publication “Città Futura”.

The iconic Italian correspondent—speaking in a country where a single trip to the Soviet Union made by Bernie Sanders in the 1970s sparks outrage—proudly remembers his participation in several delegations to the USSR, at a time in which the left was still able to build support.

The conversation about the “good old days” and the bad new ones was punctuated by the American writer Michael Frank and the political scientist Carlo Invernizzi at the Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan, a few steps away from the Flatiron Building. It was a debate tinged with nostalgia, but no sense of surrender. What emerged was some severe criticism of a left that, today, is still incapable of self-criticism, and has lost its own identity, turning into something completely different from what it used to be.

Federico Rampini.

Mr. Rampini blames the self-justifying narrative of that political world, filled with apparent moral superiority. Nor does he believe in the left’s assumption that Italy and the world, suddenly one day, woke up as “fascists”—a term, in the author’s view, that is often used inappropriately. His point is that the left has lost its charisma, its values, its voter base, by committing itself to defending an uncontrolled globalism at the expense of the low-income working class—those who, in Italy, are voting for Matteo Salvini’s League, in France for the Front National and here, in the US, for Donald Trump.

The question becomes: How did we go from Karl Marx to the international “radical chic” new symbols of the left, such as George Clooney? The left’s loss of appeal, Mr. Rampini claims, occurred in three different phases: in the 1960s when the left indulged in narcissism and moralism; in the 1980s when it committed itself to liberalism and austerity; and in the 1990s when it became the champion of globalism and multiculturalism.

Mr. Rampini doesn’t make concessions when it comes to immigration, the most debated issue in the last Italian election campaigns that seems to clearly mark the differences between the left and the right. The “open borders,” he states, are not “left-wing”. On the contrary, the idea comes from the Christian tradition and from the liberal one. From an economic point of view, migratory flows, by lowering wages while increasing the profits, represent a real driving force for capitalism.

In the past it was Marx who promoted these ideas, today it’s the far-right Italian League, even if through slogans and propaganda—but where is the Left? According to Mr. Rampini, it is no coincidence that the “socialist” 2020 candidate Bernie Sanders does not support open borders—although, for the sake of clarity, it is worth mentioning that he is amenable to providing a legal path toward citizenship to undocumented immigrants, and proposes to restructure ICE, an agency Senator Sanders voted against creating.

The Italian journalist underlines that, at the time of Roosevelt and Kennedy, when the first model of the American welfare state was introduced, migration policies in the US were far more restrictive than today. At those times, he noted, a 70% marginal tax rate—the same that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for today—was in force.

As for Europe, Mr. Rampini affirms that he strongly believes in the EU, but not in “this one”: the one based on economic austerity, and on huge tax benefits for big corporations. Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker himself, before becoming the president of the European Commission, Rampini points out, was the Prime Minister of a real tax haven in the heart of Europe. As for Donald Trump, Mr. Rampini acknowledges that the trade war against China is a legitimate war to fight, even if, he concedes, “I do not approve of the methods chosen to do so”.

Another leftist commonplace debunked during the conversation was the “politics of fear” often attributed to the right. According to Mr. Rampini, ordinary people do legitimately have fears that should not be demonized. The idea of “fear” itself is, in his view, an emotion of the left. However, while the right is very good at representing people’s fears, the left usually acts as the mouthpiece of the establishment’s apprehensions, raising fears of an increase in the Italy-Germany 10-year bond spread, or of a downgrading of the national debt.

Among the bitter contradictions that arose during the debate, perhaps the most controversial was the apparent inconsistency between a leftist redistributive economic approach and a multicultural and diverse society. In the author’s view, this incompatibility is the “elephant in the room” that today’s Italian left refuses to recognize and address.

I would say that Wednesday’s conversation failed to overcome this stalemate. Mr. Invernizzi repeatedly questioned Mr. Rampini on this matter, stressing the need to find a middle ground between an economic model able to take care of the poorest, and a society that needs immigrants in order to stop shrinking and aging. According to Mr. Invernizzi, if that inconsistency fails to be addressed, then it will be a huge problem.

In my estimation, while the debate had the merit of pointing out several contradictions that the left has long been unable to acknowledge and address, it failed to suggest solutions that look to the future instead of the past. While it might be true that immigration is not originally a leftist issue, it is also true that, while searching for its way back to its original stances, the left still needs to take into account today’s global world. And in today’s world, migratory flows, even if they may be affecting us only marginally, are taking on remarkable dimensions on a global level, and it will be impossible to stop them without totally rethinking our national and international policies.

Indeed, in today’s world, right-wing parties have been manipulating the issue, taking advantage of the distraction and the incapacity of the left, and also reducing the political debate in a way that easily builds electoral consensus. Admitting this reality does not mean denying the responsibilities of the leftist parties, or disclaiming the demands of the victims of uncontrolled globalization and the degradation of the marginal environments. Instead it would mean seeing a larger context, all the facets of a complex problem, and finally addressing the issue of the distortions of globalization and capitalism, taking into account all the aspects involved.

Thus, when Mr. Rampini severely blames the apparent confusion in the leftist approach to immigration, when he criticizes the left for giving up on the poor Italians to take care of the poor immigrants, one may wonder if he isn’t falling into the trap of today’s right-wing propaganda.

Undoubtedly, the left needs to turn its attention back to the marginalized, to those who have suffered the negative effects of globalization; it needs to give up on its self-justifying narrative; it needs to recognize the populists’ ability of understanding people’s hardship, and to question an economic model that is ramping up inequalities. At the same time, is it really necessary to choose between “us” and “them”, between Italian citizens and migrants? Is social justice achievable only by closing the doors to people on the outside? Is there any difference between a radical “open borders” policy and a sincere effort to find inclusive and fair solutions for all?

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