by Michael Hardt, Sandro Mezzadra, - January 2020
translation by Arianna Bove
Michael Hardt and Sandro Mezzadra: How did the project of Mediterranea come about?
Alessandro Metz: Mediterranea was born early last summer, when the criminalization of NGOs made it impossible for there to be support boats in the Mediterranean Sea. While the government celebrated the desertification of the sea, eight people a day were dying trying to cross the most dangerous border in the world. Mediterranea emerged from this situation. We thought it was the right time to be there: we could no longer turn the other way. So, we started looking for a boat and economic resources, pulling together different political, economic, and social subjects, to bring the project to life.
MH and SM: What made you put this plan into action?
AM: Shame. The shame of looking the other way. The shame of having become used to the normality of death at sea; deaths that only made it to the news and provoked some indignation when the number of casualties reached shocking levels. It was all too unbearable; something had to be done, we did the most natural and “easy” thing to do, we bought a boat.
Undoubtedly, my political and cultural background influenced this decision. I am a social worker, born in Trieste, the town where Franco Basaglia really and truly revolutionized the world of psychiatry and psychiatric institutions. No doubt this affected my way of being a social worker and my political and social engagement.
In 1978 in Italy, after the passing of Law 180 that led to the closure of mental asylums, Franco Basaglia said: “Maybe they will open them again, but for now, we’ve shut them down. We showed it can be done.” It’s the same for us today, showing that it can be done, choosing to respond to barbarism with dignity and humanity. What we did seemed impossible, buying a ship and inventing a collective operation. It can be done.
MH and SM: What is your role in the project?
AM: I am officially the “armatore sociale” (the social ship owner), but that title requires some explanation. To buy a boat, we needed someone to play that role, to manage the bureaucratic and administrative side of things, but also to take on the legal responsibility for the boat and for what happened on it during its operations. This is my current role: “armatore,” ship owner. As a social worker, I am used to working in environments full of human difficulties and discomfort;
now, in a strange turn of life, I find myself being owner of a boat that operates in the Mediterranean Sea. It might look like a paradox, but it is not. As far as I’m concerned, a social worker’s role is to be right there, where contradictions come most to the fore. Today, the greatest of all contradictions is right there, in the Mediterranean, the most dangerous border in the world considering the number of casualties of those trying to cross it.
From this particular role, a social worker being a ship owner, we coined the expression “social ship owner,” a contradiction in terms that nonetheless befits the role I am trying to play in the huge adventure we have embarked upon.
One of the extraordinary aspects of this initiative is that all one of us found ourselves doing something distant light-years from our original training or past experience; yet, we all learned new skills and took on responsibilities they never had before. After all, this collective enterprise has made it possible for us to try and be better than ourselves.
MH and SM: You mentioned Franco Basaglia: could you say more about how his work has influenced your way of being a social worker, and also your way of understanding activism?
AM: Basaglia’s “fieldwork” begins with a No. On the morning of November 16, 1961, his first day as Director of the mental asylum of Gorizia in Northeastern Italy, he chose to say “no” to a request to sign the register of the restraint orders the doctors had arranged the day before. “The moment we got in, we said no, no to psychiatry, but especially, no to misery.” Starting
from his No, it would be reductive to limit Basaglia’s contribution to the field of mental health “alone.” This would make the import of that question banal.
The practice of Basaglia brings about breakthrough political and cultural values that face up to society and the power dynamics underlying the relations between classes, and between the Institution and the community of citizens. It engages these contradictions, but averts the risk that “technicians who have promoted change hide under and entrap the contradictions they
contributed to open up in new scientific ideologies and specialist knowledge.”
This, for me, has always meant trying to lay bare contradictions in my role as social worker as well as in my political activism. What stayed with me, much more so than the “techniques of change”, is really the “logic of change.” Basaglia starts with the “crazy” person, the mentally ill, as a point of observation and measure to judge society. The weakest subject, the most stigmatized, repressed, and incarcerated, was a unit of measure of the inequality that society was suffering from during those years. A parameter that today is perfectly suited to the migrant, against
whom decrees are produced, from the 2017 Minniti-Orlando Decree to various security decrees signed by the Interior Minister Matteo Salvini: these are all repressive laws aimed at exclusion and social control.
According to Basaglia, psychiatrists experience the contradiction of their two-fold mandate: dedicated to the State, on one hand, as a guardian of order, and, on the other, driven by ethics and devoted to science. Guardians of order must protect and defend those who are not ill, the community, and thus must lock up the dangerous, for their own sake and that of others’. Ethical
scientists, on the other hand, must protect and cure the sick, so free those in a state of need. This contradiction is confronted, according to Basaglia, by “going straight to the heart of the social fabric, to create the presuppositions for a consensus that allows communities not so much to express greater tolerance, but to assume responsibility and take on the burden
of problems that belong to them.” He was well-aware of the fact that this contradiction would never be solved, that it changes as social conditions change.
As a social worker, I experience this contradiction daily, and like me, tens of thousands of colleagues. Social workers engage with people who are temporarily in a state of need—it is important to keep constantly in mind that it is temporary, because otherwise this leads to a paternalistic dependency culture that infantilizes patients. Therefore, their function must be to
provide the means of emancipation from this state of need, and thus, from the institution and the social worker as well.
Similarly to what Basaglia said of the psychiatrist, the social worker experiences the same contradiction of this two-fold mandate: from the State, to be a social controller, from ethics, to operate in society for the emancipation of the person. As Basaglia used to say, the social worker must live in the community.
Those in need must be received and welcomed not by social workers, or a social cooperative or an association, but by the community, the territory. Like mental asylums back then, today migrants’ reception is a “macroscope” that makes it possible for us to see the model of social control and violence society enacts against the weakest and poorest. As Basaglia said, “the
social system always creates new operators to confront the question of control, and that goes well beyond psychiatry.” This is a role we must refuse. Basaglia often discussed this danger, sharing his concerns and fears with Jean Paul Sartre, regarded him as a “master.” Basaglia treasured Sartre’s response: “The only thing to do is to keep fighting . . . because in this
society, to cure and integrate people means to adapt them to objectives they refuse, it means teaching them to stop challenging, to stop protesting.”
I also try to keep this advice in mind, every day.
MH and SM: Mediterranea plays a crucial role, with its missions in the central Mediterranean. However, it is very important for the project to intervene on land too, and this takes many forms. You play an important role in the organization of this project. Could you explain how it happens, and what are, for Mediterranea, the connections between interventions at sea and in land?
AM: In the months preceding the initial departure of the Mare Jonio, we concentrated on the sea front: finding the boat and the crew, providing the necessary training, and learning maritime procedures. This was the main focus, probably because it was the most complex aspect of it, which we felt we needed to be fully prepared for.
What we had not taken into account and sort of positively “exploded” in our hands once we left was what happened on land. Immediately, we began receiving requests from all over Italy for events in support of the project.
There have been over five hundred so far: bookshops, theatres, social centers, churches, academic conferences, debates, dinners, aperitifs to raise funds, readings, concerts, and theatre performances. Many people have used Mediterranea as an opportunity to meet again, to rebuild local networks, and speak about migrant reception and rights. In many cities in Italy and beyond, local support groups have sprung up.
For example, Michela Murgia, a prize-winning novelist, was the force behind a series of meetings in different Italian theatres, where dozens of writers, actors, and directors decided to take part, bringing along texts for readings on the sea and migration; these were well-attended and extremely moving events.
In Palermo, dozens of musicians decided to organize a twelve-hour concert in support for Mediterranea, which brought thousands of people together in a moment of collective sharing.
We were glad to name this side of the operations the “Land Crew,” because, really, thousands of people today feel like and really are part of Mediterranea, contributing to promote and sustain it. This fundamental cultural and political role was also decisive, obviously, to support the project and operations at sea financially. An onerous kind of activity, as you can easily
imagine. We don’t have large donors backing us. We started with a bank loan and continue thanks to crowdfunding and initiatives that take place in Italy and other countries.
MH and SM: In recent months, in Italy, the government has embarked on a veritable offensive against migrants, at sea with its constant attacks on NGOs, and on land with its hastily-approved special security measures. Can you briefly describe the significance of these measures and the way Mediterranea helps organize resistance against reactionary migration policies?
AM: As I said, thousands of people mobilized to sustain Mediterranea. This was never expected, nor was it easy. Just a year ago we were feeling annihilated, pushed to a corner, defensive, it seemed to us that the xenophobic and racist narrative was the only one possible, hegemonic in this country and the rest of Europe. After the Five-Star Movement formed a government with the Northern League, the success of the criminalization of NGOs was being celebrated:
it had eliminated all civilian monitoring and rescue boats from the Mediterranean. There were people actually celebrating deaths at sea.
Mediterranea was a concrete, pragmatic, and material answer to all of this. A boat, the first flying an Italian flag, was purchased and sailed in the Mediterranean at the hardest of times. This is why we got such great support.
It is a radical, material, and concrete practice, pushing forward on the terrain of law and rights.
This is what we did, and this is what we have to keep doing. Obviously, over recent months, the government and the Interior Minister Salvini in particular, who adopted the “shut down our ports” as an effective and winning slogan of a permanent political campaign, intervened and sought countermeasures.
The two security decrees issued by the Italian government share the same root and a two-pronged vision. What concerns us directly and receives the most media coverage is the “containment” of civilian boats in the Mediterranean Sea. This is indeed happening. But it goes hand in hand with the deployment of repressive measures against dissent and public demonstrations.
Simply blocking a road, which in Italy is part of the standard repertoire at demonstrations by unions, social movements, and neighborhood groups, is transformed by the first decree from a civil to a criminal offence, and the second decree threatens various practices that demonstrators normally use o protect themselves.
The bottom line is that political leaders, especially the Interior Minister, are taking on a greater “burden of responsibility” to control and discipline those expressing dissent. In some cases, this has also meant that other government offices such as Transportation or Defense have been divested of responsibilities when it comes to questions related to navigation or the defense of sea borders. Migrants are the problem, and those expressing solidarity with them are their accomplices. Since mobilizations and expressions of dissent are questions of public order, the Interior Ministry, invested with greater decision-making powers, is the solution to the question.
We must oppose this in practice. Mediterranea obviously plays its main role at sea, but also on land we must put in place practices of reception and welcoming. Many social networks, families and other subjects, are receiving migrants into their homes and starting local practices of solidarity.
We must find a way not only to resist, but also to exist, building new ways of sharing urban spaces, without leaving any place for fascism or racism. A year ago, it seemed impossible to stop the rising black tide that was threatening to drown us. Today, probably also thanks to a boat, that tide is much less frightening, we are facing up to it, and many have decided to
Again, we’ve shown that it can be done.
Original article from: The South Atlantic Quarterly 119:1, January 2020
Michael Hardt is an American political philosopher and literarry theorist. Hardt is best known for his book Empire, which was co-written with Antonio Negri. It has been praised by Slavoj Žižek as the "Communist Manifesto of the 21st Century". Michael Hardt's writings explore the new forms of domination in the contemporary world as well as the social movements and other forces of liberation that resist them. In the Empire trilogy -- Empire (2000), Multitude (2004), and Commonwealth(2009) -- he and Negri investigate the political, legal, economic, and social aspects of globalization. They also study the political and economic alternatives that could lead to a more democratic world. Their pamphlet Declaration (2012) attempts to articulate the significance of the encampments and occupations that began in 2011, from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park, and to recognize the primary challenges faced by emerging democratic social movements today.
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. His work has centered on borders, contemporary capitalism and globalization. With Brett Neilson he is the author of Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Duke University Press, 2013) and of The Politics of Operations. Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (Duke University Press, 2019) As an activist he is currently engaged in the "Mediterranea Saving Humans" project.