European Citizenship and the Place of Migrants’ Struggles in a New Radical Europe. An interview with Sandro Mezzadra.


 Interviewers: Raia Apostolova and Mathias Fiedler


On June 22 a group of migrants declared a hunger strike in Munich, Germany. The strike struck at the heart of the European Empire which in the last decades has been the source of the migration policies responsible for the production and further reinforcement of the European Apartheid and flexibilization of labor and class hierarchies. Stripped of all political rights, migrants throughout Europe often resort to hunger striking as their only weapon against the imposition of violence through practices such as deportations and detentions. After more than a year of fierce resistance to which the German authorities responded with only false promises, migrants from all over Bavaria occupied one of the major squares in Munich. Three days passed without any attention being paid to their demands, prompting the declaration of a dry strike first by 70 migrants, who were then joined by 12 citizens. Just eight days after the start of the hunger strike, the camp was evicted by the police with the commitment of special forces. In the midst of the hunger strike we talked to Sandro Mezzadra, associate professor in political theory at the University of Bologna, who has been writing about the issues of migration and borders for a long time. In his new book, Border as a Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor, co-authored with Brett Neilson, the authors explore the proliferation of borders under capitalist transformations and what these transformations entail regarding the political.

Int: Can you tell us how did you arrive at the topic of migration and borders in your own political and also academic life?

S.M.: I came to the topic through political experiences. In the early ‘90s I was living in Genoa and there were some anti-immigrant riots in the summer of 1993 so I started to be involved in the attempts to build an anti-racist network in those weeks and very quickly we realized that our antiracist imagination was very limited. This happened when we started to work with migrants basically coming from Senegal and Morocco and when we built an association with them. That was really important for me and in the years after ‘93 my political activism has really changed and I started to be involved in this kind of migrants’ struggles. That was really an experience that changed my all way of conceiving of activism. At the time I just finished my PhD and was working on totally different topics but since, migration was so important for me as an activist I also started to do some research, to elaborate some theoretical reflections on migration and this also changed the direction of my academic work.

Int: During your lecture at the Central European University in Budapest you mentioned that we live in the midst of an “explosion of European citizenship.” Can you perhaps elaborate further on what you mean by explosion?

S.M.: Yes, but maybe I can say something more about my political experiences regarding migration because since the beginning I was involved in transnational political debates regarding migration. In the 90s I was very much connected with people in Germany who started to mobilize against, what they called, Fortress Europe at the time. I am thinking of the FMM (Forschungsgesellschaft Flucht und Migration) in Berlin and then there was the No Border network that was formed and played an important role. So since the beginning we tried to frame our understanding of the challenges of migration within a wider transnational European framework. Then there was the great mobilization against the G8 in Genoa in 2001. Maybe you remember that it was the first time in the development of the alter-globalization movement that migration was really one of the main topics in the mobilization. The mobilization in Genoa was held for migrants’ rights. It was an important moment of transnational networking. We had months of meetings in different parts of Europe and so on. And then there was the European Social Forum in Florence in 2002 and again migration was an important topic. There was the idea of organizing a transnational day of action on the topic of migration and we organized a No Border camp for the following year 2003, to be held in the south of Italy, in Frassanito, which was a very important, very peculiar kind of No Border camp. There was militant investigation done in the region, especially about migrants’ labor in agriculture. There were some really successful actions, maybe the most famous one is the one at the detention center in Bari Palese, where we succeeded to go into the detention center and create the conditions for the escape of a couple of dozens of migrants. So it was really empowering experience and out of that particular No Border camp a new network was formed, the Frassanito network that played quite a role in the following years in shaping the transnational discussion of migration within activists’ circles in Europe. The reason why I am pointing this political background is that at the time we were trying to work within and against what we perceived to be the emerging framework of European citizenship. We really had the idea that there was a chance to denounce the border regime, the exclusion linked with the emergence of a new citizenship regime but at the same time to consider it as an opportunity for an expansion of migrants’ struggles and migrants’ claims. Today the situation is quite different and I think we have to take stock of this change. On the one hand, if you look at European citizenship from the point of view of migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, it is quite clear that nowadays the European citizenship has nothing to offer to them. On the other hand, there is a need to keep in mind the fact that the global economic crisis has really disrupted what used to be called the European social model that was in many ways the kind of social model, underlying European citizenship. So, both from the point of view of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees and from the point of view of European citizens, European citizenship is quite empty today. And I say this while at the same time I think that in Europe there is no possibility to go back to the age of nation-states. I think that this is also one of the main lessons of the struggles against the crisis especially in southern Europe in the last couple of years. There is really no way back to the nation-state. So we are in a kind of paradoxical situation. No way back to the nation-state but at the same time the European framework is an empty framework from the point of view of democracy, of citizenship rights, of social contents. This is why I really think that we live in a historical moment in which we are challenged to invent a transnational space: as a space of struggles of course but also as a space within which a deepening of freedom and equality, to put it in a very simple way, can become possible.

Int: The question of integration is perhaps prevailing in mainstream accounts when it comes to the inclusion of migrants in our so-called “cultural container.” Can you comment on the question of inclusion?

S.M.: Again, this is a very important question and it is linked to the question to European citizenship. Because also from this point of view we are living, I would say, a kind of paradoxical situation. Because the rhetorical emphasis on integration in mainstream public discourses in Europe runs parallel to a process of emptying the very kind of container as you were saying, within which migrants, foreigners should integrate. If you look at the whole discussion about multiculturalism and its supposed crisis in the last couple of years, just think about Sarkozy, and then Merkel, and then Cameron. They were all saying the same thing although the situation in France, in Germany, and in the U.K. is totally different both from a historical and from a contemporary point of view. What they were saying was that multiculturalism is over, there was never multiculturalism in France for instance, and that migrants have to integrate. And this happened precisely in the moment in which the very container of citizenship, because this is what is at stake in discourses on integration, was perceived as more and more empty by vast majorities of the populations. So this is the reason why the only possible kind of reply to these discourses is really the invention of something new; of a new modality of being and living together. Of course this is very general but it gives an idea about what is at stake in contemporary social conflict and struggles in Europe nowadays.

Int: You have developed the concept of differential inclusion, which we think is an important concept to be kept in mind. Can you say a few words about it?

S.M.: The concept of differential inclusion that I have been developing in the last years, especially in the work I do with my friend and comrade Brett Neilson, is meant to grasp some of the deep transformations that are reshaping citizenship and labor markets including Europe. What we tried to grasp through the concept of differential inclusion is what I was calling before a kind of explosion of citizenship. This is of course a metaphor but it has very concrete references. For a long time, especially in postwar Western Europe, there was this kind of dyadic figure: the citizen worker. You were a citizen insofar as you were a worker. This kind of conjunction was at the origin of citizenship rights and especially of social rights of citizenship in the framework of the so-called welfare states. It is quite clear that nowadays this kind of dyadic figure is not anymore capable of working as a unitary point of reference for the development of citizenship. It is quite clear that citizenship itself hosts within its framework a space, a proliferation of subject positions, a proliferation of hierarchies, and proliferation of processes of differentiation of rights. Through the concept of differential inclusion we try also to make sense of the whole discussions surrounding the issue of precarity, of flexibilization of labor markets and citizenship. But at the same time the concept of differential inclusion also points to the fact that violence is not only associated with exclusion. It points to the fact that also the production of regimes of social and political inclusion is crisscrossed by violence. So from this point of view it is quite clear that we are at unease with the kind of binary between exclusion and inclusion, citizens and non-citizens that has also shaped many debates and many practices among activists over the last decade. We are trying to go beyond this kind of binary because we think that this binary is not politically productive. It tends to reproduce divides within societies at large that must be contested.

Int: It is good that you mention this because the hunger strikers in Munich define themselves as non-citizens and they are very strong in their rhetoric about it. What do you think are the potentials of such articulation on the one hand, but also the underlying dangers of keeping this dichotomy of citizen/non-citizen intact?

S.M.: First of all I must say that I will not criticize what the hunger strikers in Munich are saying these days. This is an important principle for me. I never criticize people who are struggling, people who are putting their life at play so I only respect them. I am thankful to them for what they are doing. I think it is important to keep in mind that this particular hunger strike is part of a kind of cycle of struggles over the last few years in Europe. There were hunger strikes and other forms of struggles in many European countries including for instance Greece, Italy, and Austria. It is very interesting to see this kind of circulation of struggles on European level, this kind of circulation of practices, languages, and so on. I think this is really a kind of important chance for everybody who is interested in radically rethinking the European space as a space of freedom and equality, as I was saying before. At the same time I have to say that in my own work and the kind of collective debates I have been participating over the last years, there has been a growing awareness of let’s say the dangers but also kind of tricky implications of an emphasis on the status of non-citizens and more generally the excluded. I think it could be interesting to go a bit to the details of the history of this, rethinking of the sans papiers movement in France in 1996 and the kind of reproduction of that particular movement in many European countries in the following years. While I participated of course in these movements and struggles, and I think that they were really crucial in order to open up a new space for mobilization of migrants in Europe, I also think that this kind of exclusive emphasis on the status on the one hand, the movements and struggles on the other hand of the so-called “illegal” migrants is a bit dangerous because it paradoxically reproduces one of the main aspects of migration regimes: this division between “illegal” and “legal” migrants. While we know very well through our research that there is a continuum of subjective positions that crosses and continuously reworks the divide between “legality” and “illegality.” So I think that both from the point of view of research and from the point of view of political action what would be crucially important is precisely to work on and against this continuum, this process of production at the same time of “legality” and “illegality.” To challenge not simply a particular kind of position produced by that system but the “rationality” of the system itself.

Int: We are obviously in the midst of a very deep economic and socio-political crisis in Europe and this can be seen in the numerous clashes in Greece, in Portugal, Bulgaria, Turkey, to name a few. How would you situate the ongoing asylum-seekers’ hunger, dry strike within the context of this wider European unrest?

S.M.: Well, as I was saying before for me migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees, we should of course problematize these very definitions, these very terms, are crucially important from the point of view of social and political struggles in Europe for a new Europe. I cannot imagine a new European space without taking into account practices of mobility as constitutive moments of the European space. We have practices of mobility within Europe that are really very important because they are kind of reshuffling the very social and demographic composition of some of the most important metropolitan areas in Europe and then we have mobility from the outside of Europe that opens up, at least in principle, the borders of Europe towards the world, to put it a bit rhetorically. Any kind of radical imagination of a new European space has to be rooted in the material fabric of these practices of mobility. This is the reason why I think that such struggles, as the hunger strike that is going on in Munich these days, are, as I was saying before, kind of great chance for anybody interested in this production of a new radical Europe. At the same time you were mentioning this kind of continues unrest, you were also making some examples. What I would add to your representation of this ongoing social unrest is that until now it has been quite fragmented on national basis and I would say that the most important political task in the next months would be to work towards the production of a common language; of common claims; of a common space within which all the struggles that you mentioned and many others that could be added, will be able to find a new kind of meaning and political potency, political power. Again, I do not think this is possible at the national level for many, many reasons. There is really this need of building up a kind of transnational, European political framework in order to create the conditions of possibility for these struggles to get more power.

Int: Would you say that the hunger strike that is ongoing in Munich is somewhat of a turning point. Because of course as you mentioned we have had many hunger strikers, many migrants’ struggles; however it seems to me that this time people are very determined in their demands which are pretty much for citizenship rights. Would you consider this maybe a turning point in terms of what would happen from now on in the movement, maybe in Germany or even transnationally?

S.M.: It is always difficult to say. Also because the fact of being a turning point of such a struggle depends on the kind of echoes the struggle itself is able to produce within the wider society and on the kind of social and political coalitions that build up around particular struggle. It is definitely possible to say that there is something new in the kind of determination of the hunger strikers, the people involved in this particular struggle. Although this determination was already present in Greece two years ago, it was present in the occupation in Vienna last winter so there is a kind of accumulation of struggles that produces a kind of a new, let’s say anthropological kind of attitude. I see in this determination that you are mentioning also the result of an accumulation of struggles. And the accumulation of struggles does not necessarily pass through formal organizations, formal exchanges and so on. There is really kind of mysterious process of accumulation that we need to investigate; we need to understand because it is an important weapon of struggle. More generally what is in the contemporary situation, this kind of profound heterogenization of positions, conditions, such active experiences that characterizes what I would call contemporary composition of a living labor, it is always difficult to predict a turning point because the production of a turning point always depends on the multiplicity of factors that are very difficult to anticipate. Just take the two crucial experiences of the last weeks – Turkey and Brazil. How was this turning point produced? This is a very important and crucial political question but this question points to a set of problems which is not particularly easy to solve in anticipation. This why I am not able to say if the hunger strike in Munich is a turning point as I hope.

MezzadraSandro Mezzadra works as an Associate Professor of “History of Political Thought” at the Department of Politics, Institutions, History of the University of Bologna. His research work has focused on the classical modern European political philosophy (especially on Hobbes, Spinoza and Marx), on the history of political, social, and legal sciences in Germany between the Nineteenth and the Twentieth centuries (especially on the constitutional debates in the years of the Weimar Republic) and on several issues at stake in the development of contemporary political theory. He has published extensively on migration, European citizenship, and has, together with Brett Neilson, developed a new methodological paradigm of exploring borders as method.