“Generally they are short and dark-skinned. Many stink because they wear the same clothes for weeks. They construct shacks to live in on the outskirts. When they aspire to live in the city centre they rent ugly, run-down apartments; they appear at first, two of them looking for a room and a kitchen, and soon after a few days there are four of them, then six, eight, 10 and what have you.
They speak a language unintelligible, perhaps ancient dialects. Their children they use to beg with, while in front of the churches women and the old ask for pity in whimpering and irritating tones. They produce lots of children, struggling to keep them, while remaining strongly united among themselves.
It is said they are dedicated to thieving and, if confronted, violent. Our women ignore them because they are savage and repellent and it’s common knowledge that rape is widespread among [them].
The authorities have opened the frontiers of the country too easily and at the same time they have failed to identify those who come to work from those who intend to live either by expedients or crime.”
Report of the Inspector for Italian Immigration to the American Congress, 1912
It is a bitter and painful irony of history that millions of modern Italians, descendants of those same vilified and excoriated victims of the racist American establishment of 1912, now append the same vile stereotypes to the three and half million or so “dark-skinned” foreigners living and working in Italy.
The recent European, provincial and regional elections here have confirmed, in an ever more violent and paranoiac atmosphere of racist hate, what has been the major feature of Silvio Berlusconi’s Freedom Party government since the elections that brought it to power more than a year ago. In fact, its demagogic pre-electoral campaign of scaremongering and scapegoating the immigrant population had played a major part in Berlusconi’s initial electoral triumph, driving millions of workers into the arms of his coalition partner, the xenophobic and racist Northern League of Umberto Bossi.
As the effects of the economic and financial crisis began to expose Berlusconi’s lying refrain that everything in the garden of Italy is sunny and rosy — it is one of the worst affected countries! — the artillery of Berlusconi’s media empire, private and public, reached a crescendo of chauvinistic phobia not seen in Italy since the fascist era. Every incident, even the most banal and trivial, where an immigrant is involved, has become “evidence” of a “threat” to the “security” of the native population.
In such a climate of suspicion — on a visit to Milan Berlusconi stated disapprovingly that it seemed more like an “African city” — the Northern League’s Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni exceeded even his own capacity for inhumanity when he announced, to the joy of his supporters in parliament, that two boatloads of 600 or so famished and ill men, women and children from sub-Saharan Africa had been turned back to their point of departure in Libya, in breach of national and international law and every instinct of common humanity and natural justice.
The odious Maroni knew only too well that death, rape and family dispersion awaited the occupants of the two ships in the camps of the Libyan dictator, with whom a week later Berlusconi concluded a lucrative investment deal in Libya’s mineral resources in return for acknowledging fascist Italy’s crimes there.
Buoyed up by opinion polls, Maroni completed his anti-immigrant measures by passing into law a racist bill which designates as criminals those found without a residency permit. Fined up to 5,000 euros and detained for six months, the victim is then expelled. Nothing could more graphically reveal the police mentality of the Italian bureaucracy, a legacy of the fascist penal code that remained operative until the 1970s, and is, in spirit, evident everywhere.
More than any other major European state Italy restricts the issuing of residency permits, swelling the numbers of “irregulars”, easy prey to the sweatshops of the north and north east, the majority of whose proprietors support Maroni’s Northern League!
This legislation fuels petit-bourgeois fantasies about hunting down the “irregulars” across the north — teams of “vigilantes, guardians of the people”, official and unofficial, have sprung into life blessed by not only the populist and neo-fascist councils like Verona and Treviso, but also where the centre-left occupy the local state, eg, in Florence. It also hits those in regular employment who if they lose their job lose their permits and are thus “criminal”, despite having lived in Italy for years.
None of this was inevitable! The surge of mass support here for the actions of Berlusconi and Bossi, especially among sections of workers traditionally on the left underlines is the demoralisation and disorientation at the heart of the Italian working class movement and in the lives of millions, especially among the young, students and women.
And while it is just to point to the debacle of the last centre-left government of Romano Prodi and the clique of “communists” and “radicals” within it who criminally contributed to its reactionary and shameful existence and ignominious end, that debacle was the consummation of a decade and a half of raised expectations and hopes dashed by setbacks and defeat on almost every front of struggle.
The statistics spell it out: the economy has been stagnant for 15 years, wages in Italy are among the lowest in Europe, and millions have seen their quality of life deteriorate, especially after the arrival of the euro and the end of the state’s time-honoured competitive devaluations.
The pace, intensity and duration of work has reached murderous proportions, literally, as the numbers dying and maimed at work are among the highest in the world. The percentage of women at work, especially in the south, is the lowest in Europe, while at the same time mechanisms of social mobility are blocked by the underfunded, inefficient and corrupt university system.
Is it any wonder that legions of teenage women, even those in higher education, indicate that their principal ambition is to be a “veline”, a half-naked dancing girl on one of Berlusconi’s private or state TV shows? Can one wonder that there is profound despair among millions when no matter who governed in the last 15 years the income of the richest one third grew enormously while that of the the rest stagnated or declined?