Last week the Italian Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, on the grounds of the new law bearing his name, decreed the closure of the reception center for newly arrived migrants at Castelnuovo di Porto, a small town close to Rome. As a result, about 100 residents have already been expelled from the facility, and the others will follow by the end of January.
What is significant about this event is not the decision in itself – the closure of the center was also advocated by independent observers, due to its degraded condition and in the hope of a better solution – but the way it was carried out. The eviction took place without notice, residents were simply loaded onto buses heading for unknown destinations, to one of the other refugee centers in the country. Refugees attending local schools, those that have been able to find a job, those being treated at local health facilities, even a promising young soccer player involved in the local team, saw their attempts to build a new life cancelled out at the stroke of a pen. As the mayor of Castelnuovo di Porto said, “years of work on integration have been destroyed in a single day”.
What is particularly striking about what happened at Castelnuovo di Porto is the fact that it was an act of unnecessary humiliation towards refugees that represent a positive experience of integration. The fact that people were treated like objects can hardly be seen as an accidental side-effect of incompetence; rather, it is hard not to see it as a deliberate choice, though devoid of any functional purpose. Indeed, the decision to close down the center in the way it was done, clearly has negative economic and social effects that are glaringly obvious both to the decision makers and to the general public. On the one hand, those that work in the center will lose their jobs and, on the other hand, a large proportion of the refugees expelled are destined to join the pockets of illegal immigration, which means more insecurity, more black-market economy, more exploitation, more crime as well as more public resources needed to counteract these trends. Therefore, Salvini’s statement that the money saved (several million Euro each year) by closing the refugee center will be used for the benefit of Italians can only be considered mere propaganda.
After careful consideration we note that Castelnuovo is the marker of a subtle but highly significant leap in the political and symbolic use of the refugee issue, before this Salvini’s hardline refugee policy had found its sharpest concrete expression in the closure of the Italian ports to NGO boats engaged in the rescue of migrants risking their lives in the desperate effort to cross the Mediterranean to get to the European coast. Although one may find such an approach odious and illegal (international nautical law states that the nearest safe port has to welcome people that are in peril at sea), one has to recognize that it reflects a defensive rhetoric aimed at foregrounding the identity and wealth of the in-group as opposed to the out-group. In terms of this approach, the innovation of Castelnuovo lies in the fact that migrants are no longer an external force from which Salvini has to defend Italians; migrants are the “other-than-us to” to be attacked, humiliated, and destroyed in order to make Italian people’s lives better. In other words, the refugees are no longer a threat, they have become a scapegoat to sacrifice in order to provide the community with a future. In short, Castelnuovo shows that the de-humanization of refugees has shifted from being simply a means to being an end in itself in the Italian government’s policies.
Such an escalation in symbolic refugee politics follows the same path taken by the Nazi approach towards minorities. Indeed, in the early years of the Nazi regime, the aim was to differentiate Jews and other minorities from the supposedly pure Aryan population in order to defend the latter from the former. This paved the way for the second stage, where Jews were subjected to systematic aggression and persecution, deliberately aimed at destroying them. In this perspective, it must not be seen as an exaggeration that several commentators – among them Camilleri, the well-known Italian writer – have referred to the Nazi deportations to give the sense of what is happening at Castelnuovo.
The transformation of the refugee issue into a politics of scapegoating is arousing indignation, deep concern and protest in at least part of the country. Yet one cannot deny that Salvini’s strategy is in concert with the deep feelings of a broad segment of Italian society. The approval rating of his ultraright party, the “Lega”, is steadily rising. The polls estimate that more than one third of Italians intend to vote for it at the next election. In addition, this is happening in tandem with the fact that the 5-Star Movement, the other populist force allied with the Lega in government, is losing its appeal among Italians in spite of the fact that its flagship proposal, the minimum income, is now law and will be operative in a couple of months. The fact that the identity-based populism wins not only against mainstream parties, but also in the competition with the social-oriented populism represented by the 5-Star movement reveals that what Italian society demands is neither populism in itself, nor functional decisions– like the minimum income– designed to respond to concrete needs. Instead, society wants the form of populism that provides a symbolic response that can satisfy the “hunger for sense” that is gripping the people.
So if this is the case, then one has to understand what enables Salvini’s rhetoric – and with it the unnecessary cruelty of Castelnuovo – to satisfy the “hunger for sense” of a broad segment of Italian society. One possible answer is the following. Sacrificing the scapegoat is not felt by the killers to be cruelty, but the way of restoring/reaching an ideal state of purity and wealth. Accordingly, the shift in symbolic politics from defending to persecuting constitutes the entry into a new sphere of discourse and practice, aimed at generating and reproducing the magic belief that the destruction of the other (seen as the enemy) is in and of itself valuable for the in-group: things go better for us if they are made to go worse for the enemy.
One need not be an expert in psychology to grasp the ultimate meaning of this symbolic leap, it is a desperate yet very efficacious way of keeping alive the hope for the future, namely, the belief that a future is possible. In the final analysis, Salvini’s symbolic politics fuels people’s hope for hope, in short, the feeling that things may change and the world can be made a better place to live. The more people perceive that they are at the mercy of a completely ungraspable, overwhelming, inhospitable world, the more a focus on evil and its destruction becomes the ultimate way of saving one’s sense of agency and of escaping from the radical feeling of impotence. To put it briefly, despising the human dignity and basic needs/rights of vulnerable refugees is not designed as a solution to any actual problem (rather, as we have seen, it adds new problems to old ones), but provides people with the affect-laden perception that they are able to act upon the world and are doing so in order to salvage a better life– namely to escape from the present and move on to the future.
This leads to further fundamental questions. Will the mainstream parties and liberal democracies be able to challenge the symbolic politics of identity-based populism in its capacity to fulfill the demand for a future? Will they able to find a way of satisfying this demand, yet in ways that are more respectful of human dignity as well as of the constraints of reality – i.e. of the global dynamics characterizing the contemporary socio-political scenario? In the final analysis the challenge is to provide a vision of the future which is both appealing for people and sustainable – that is, able to generate suitable and humanizing solutions.