Interview with MIGUEL MELLINO by ANNA CURCIO
Read the interview on commonware
This conversation comes out of unease, from a condition of confusion in the face of analysis that is circulating, even within the movement, of what has happened in Paris. To focus on the defense of freedom of expression or appeals to curb Islamophobia seems to me rather weak, limiting, definitely unsatisfactory. But it is not my intention here to produce an assessment or a value judgment on the facts. Simplistically, we could say this is about an enemy attack on the path of liberation – in a war that does not see any clash of civilizations, nor the anti-imperialist opposition to imperialist interests, but rather the face of each of the different forms of oppression and exploitation within the same capitalist civilization. From this angle, instead what interests us is above all to reflect on the genealogies of this war and the repressions that accompany it. What is your perspective on this?
I quite agree. It is clear that this is a clash inside of capitalist civilization. It is not a clash of civilizations, civilization as we know is a reified entity that does not exist, and here there are two factions, one is necessarily better than the other. Both are expressions of the same thing. But I believe that we must begin to think from the facts. We do not know much but we can begin from what little we know. And the first thing I would say is that the French have accomplished this deed. People born in France and raised in the suburbs. The first question we must ask is, therefore, why French boys, born and raised in the metropolitan culture of the Parisian suburbs, which is a cross-section of major European hybrid culture, felt the need to go to Syria to enlist in a political Islamic military organization to fight against Assad and then come back to France to do what they did. It seems to me that this is the question to start with. What’s happening? Why is there this need? It is useless to do what many are doing these days by looking for the answer to the events in Paris in the Middle East or in Islamic countries. It is by starting in Europe that we must begin to pose the question. What is happening in Europe? We have to seriously question this Europe. This is not the first time that things like this have happened. Similar incidents have also occurred during the war in Iraq or after the attack on the twin towers. In England, for example, many kids who are not of English or Islamic origin have at some point felt the need to fight against England and have planned actions of different kinds. There is the famous case of Richard Reid, of British Caribbean origin, who decided to wrap himself in dynamite and blow up a plane. Eventually it was discovered, since its operation was ridiculous. But certainly I see a repetition of this situation. And the question on which to ponder is: what happens? Where does this need come from? Clearly we can start from the fact that most of the post-colonial subjects – I use this expression not because it is fashionable, but as a convenient expression to include migrants, post-migrants, in short subjects and groups that in some way refer us to migration and colonialism – that have experienced, since the post-war period, but especially in the last 30 years with the development of neoliberalism, a racism that, across Europe, has become even more of a primary structural component. And what seems structural, so to speak, is the same idea as the Republic in France. You can say that the Republic is the name of Whiteness in France. And when I speak of racism here I am talking about a regime of material exploitation. I’m not talking simply of discrimination and prejudice, as is usually done.
It is therefore to the structural racism that marked the entire history of Europe that we have to look?
I certainly would start from the fact that in Europe, and perhaps even within the movement, there is not an adequate response to the problem of racism that many groups and individuals (or communities) feel as part of their own exploitation and marginalization. A racism that is really integral, as used in Fanon’s paradoxical sense. Anyone who has been to Paris or London lately knows that it is a militarized city, where there is control and repression of all those who in some way seem Arabic, Islamic, black or about which we say that a certain colonial mainstream discourse, which became a state and culture, is intended for non-Europeans. There is very strong pressure on the part of what Althusser called “the ideological apparatuses of the state” – in this case the soldiers and the police – on a large part of the population that is considered an enemy, if you want also a class enemy considering that racism makes new forms of class division. Paris is a heavily militarized city. There are troops around at the airport and in the streets of the suburbs that continuously stop, in order to control, all those suspected to be Arab or Algerian, which refers to the old unresolved issues of the country. And this reminds us of the permanent state of exception in which a part of the metropolitan population lives. And it is quite simply humiliating to see these scenes in the midst of people who wander in the temples of consumption, the carefree tourists or passersby who go to work or to maybe grab a coffee. It made me remember how much happens in the cities of Latin America, where what we may call the guys in “barrios”, the poorest and most peripheral of the favelas, darker than the average population, are constantly being assaulted by the police. I would then try to start from here, from the fact that we have not addressed this issue well. In our theoretical and political agenda, the agenda of movements or of those engaged in some type of struggle in Europe, does racism and anti-racism really occupy a discernible place? Have we said something about all this that was meaningful? Yet in London, three years ago there were not insignificant riots, in Paris they already had happened and would happen again later. We can also think of what has happened recently in Stockholm and other situation like this. Clearly the matter of racism that marks the material and symbolic metropolitan space of Europe also has to do with a kind of colonial displacement, with the fact that Europe has never done really dealt with colonialism, understood as something constitutive of European history and European capitalism, and it is that which today return to us in a grotesque, monstrous form.
I would say that it is above all the reaction to episodes like this that clearly shows us the existence of a repression. As you said, the legacies of the colonial experience and the role of racism in the organization and reorganization of social and productive relations, in the colonies first and after in Europe up to now, are all things that we can not help but consider, but that are not always at the fore in analysis. Often, when addressing the issue of colonialism and its legacies, and there is talk of a colonial repression in Europe, it remains on the plane of abstract reference without going to the heart of the problem, that of racism and exploitation that mark the entire European narrative. And so you end up, as you said, not even being able to ask the right questions.
Speaking of colonial repression does not simply mean that colonialism is no longer spoken about or not spoken about enough, or that sins have not been atoned for. Colonial repression here means not having come to terms with the inheritance of colonialism in material and symbolic elements of the actual material space of Europe, with a phenomenon like the hierarchy of citizenship, which involves what has been called, also within the movement , differential inclusion of different subjects, and that with the development of neo-liberalism has taken a harder and more savage mode. This is what we mean when we speak of the repression of colonialism and racism; not just the fact that Europe needs to do a “mea culpa” on something that belongs to the past. The colonial heritage permeates the current European constitution, as well as its discursive order, and its mode of migrant governance is one of its main symptoms. Colonialism and racism remain current events. Capitalism, racism and colonialism have been historically intertwined in a rather deep way, creating terrible effects on a good part of the populations of the world. It is a system that creates differentiating effects, which does not fall on all the same way, since it is based on the hierarchical distribution of access, rights and privileges, and that in fact acts on a social space that is itself heterogeneous, and a path of differences, to which it lays claim. One thing that also poses additional problems to the whole process of fragmentation has been determined in the last 20 years with the neoliberalization and financialization of capital. It is with this that we have to deal. There has been much talk of fragmentation and hierarchical decomposition of work as a central device in the chain of command of global capital, but less has been said of how racism has a central role in the construction and primacy of this order. It seems to me that on this subject of the role of racism in the hierarchy and fragmentation of society, little has been discussed. It is perhaps for this reason that you cannot talk to a part of the European population that is now potentially one of the most interesting political subjects and antagonists. In the sense that maybe we cannot reach, or do not always reach those who live in the suburbs, communities, settlements, etc. I do not want to be extreme,; there are obviously also metropolitan mestizos movements. There have definitely been examples of dialogue in this regard, however, it seems to me that the problem remains the lack of any real consideration of the issue of racism / anti-racism and colonialism in our understanding of this, for developing an effective political response to social fragmentation. The popular uprising of the banlieues in 2005 is surely an example of a reversal of this racist dispositif. You saw a composition, that in a feel-good term we can define multicolor, in the sense that there were not only boys of Arab origin but also French, as indeed happened in the riot in London in 2011. There were not only post-colonial subjects putting fire to the cities, in the sense in which we defined earlier, but also many segments of what we can call a native proletariat that, as a result of a neoliberalization effort, was swallowed by this progressive racialization of society. A process of impoverishment and marginalization that ends up swallowing even subjects that are not blacks, Arabs or colonial. It is never a question of total separation as radical African-American thinking has been able to point out; we are all a little part of these processes.
The other point I would like to touch on has to do with freedom of expression, the historical pivot of liberal discourse. It’s time to put it back to the critics. How can you imagine such a freedom of expression linked to individuals and not to the collective dimensions, namely the freedom to whom and for what? Freedom of expression is always tied to the rules and balance of power in a society. What do you think?
I find it really quite ridiculous that all this is happening, especially because it happens even within certain areas of movement. As if the talk of the last 20 or 30 years didn’t do anything. What did Foucault speak of when he spoke of the order of discourse? To put it in an ironic way, if we want to measure the degree of freedom of European societies, we must start from a position of the speakability of things, from what can be said and what is left outside of the rules that organize the field of speech. The clearest effect of this is what we have in this days, that is to be able to say something worthwhile about what has happened in Paris, we must always begin with a premise and from the justifications: “we are opposed to what has happened, it is a barbaric murder, etc.” and then we can finally start talking. This gives you the idea that there is a very strong pressure, given only by the order of discourse, which then leads to taking refuge behind the freedom of expression. The way I see the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” is to say “je suis the West.” I do not want to demonize anyone, but certainly what I read in this expression is above all: I am the West. I have rights, I have the freedom of women, freedom of the press. I have so many things and we are besieged by barbarians.
A pretension of universalism …
A false universalism. It is rather the Europe that for several centuries has been bringing barbarism to all the world, and that built itself and is still building itself through barbarism. And when you bring barbarity you cannot suddenly profess immunity from these things. Sooner or later you will feel the effects, even at home. As we said before, what you can say about this kind of political-military organization is that it is at the base of what has happened in Paris, it is really a retaliation of a Frankenstein, the monster that backfires against you. And the example of Syria is very clear. There some people, also born in France or in Europe, who have been trained by the West, by the US and the CIA in the first place, to fight Assad. They were used in other countries, such as Iraq, Libya, Ethiopia, etc. under the mask of color revolutions. Then the monster became autonomous. Something of that kind, even if using other social actors, has happened in Ukraine. To return to our discussion today, we can not help but consider that much of the population of the Arab-Islamic world feels at war, because it bears aggressions of every kind since various times, it feels that along with the elite of the US and of Europe there is another part of society that has declared war for the defense of capitalist interests. And freedom of expression, within this field, it is not something aseptic. This means that doing whatever you do or say, you are siding with someone, you are making a choice of sides. And so it is perceived. It means taking sides and the consequences are inevitable. Perhaps from the center of Paris is hard to feel that much of the world is at war, and lives the war with its sides, as a daily way of life. Safeguarding the distances, as if during the Algerian war a satirical newspaper had made satire of the manners of the underclass Algerian, how could that be seen by Algerians fighting? Satire should be critical of power.
To close, taking up what has been said, I would emphasize the centrality of the fight against racism, that particularly at this time of crisis of neoliberalism appears as increasingly urgent – also the American cases in recent months and the killings of young unarmed blacks by police they are talking about this – but as you said, this is not an established practice, at least in Europe. Where do we start from?
Neoliberalism is a system of domination that is based exactly on a racist conception of humanity. As I watched what was going on in Paris I was reminded of the biography of Malcolm X, when he recounts his conversion to Islam in American prisons, which was a transition that brought him to a concept less nationalistic and more internationalist. It tells how Islam functioned as a remedy to a racist violence felt every day that denies, excludes and marginalizes, that does not consider you and make you something to be ignored at any time. So I would say that it is interesting to read the literature produced by the African-American movement in the sixties because I think that today Europe is in a logic of this kind – if that were possible to make a comparison between America then and Europe today. It is clear that since in Europe there was a heterogenization of the population, as a result of the speak out of those who came here, and it is precisely with this that in the same European territory a syndrome of insecurity began to manifest itself and was connected to the racist aggression that colonialism brought with itself. The syndrome of the enclave, the white race under siege that has to defend itself from the poor and the barbarians, it seems to be a part of the security-device. For me, the starting point remains to put the issue of anti-racism as a priority within political and theoretical movements; to begin to think seriously about the issue and not use it as a simple aggregate of other things. It is not enough to just add more anti-racist struggle with other struggles. It is from here that we must start if we do not want to remain closed and helpless between the social destruction sown by the neoliberal model of the EU and the identitarian and neofascist closures that it produces and supplies, as a specular and prerequisite other.
* Translated by Lenora Hanson