Racism can be defined in many ways, most of which tend to justify an attitude of defence and attack against other persons who, it is thought, might damage our interests in the immediate or near future. At the root of racism, under its disguise of myths linked to various fantasies and irrationalities, there is always a precise economic cause, in defence of which the fears and fantasies we all have concerning the different are addressed or opportunely solicited.
I read a number of articles recently concerning the growth of racism in Italy, in which incredible falsehoods are stated. It seems to me therefore that it would be useful to begin these uncomfortable pieces of ‘non-news’ with a few precise remarks, bearing in mind the context in which I am writing [Bergamo prison] and the consequent impossibility of obtaining precise historical documentation.
Racism has existed throughout the history of mankind and has always been linked to a fear of the ‘different’ which has been depicted in the most incredible and fantastical ways. Without going back too far, we can see that for centuries the Catholic church was an instrument both of violent racism and destruction, well before the racist theories of the last two hundred years. It developed the racial theory of blood for the first time, applying it against the Spanish Jews and their desperate attempts to convert to Catholicism in order to survive.
In the struggle against the Church and its doctrines last century, scientific theory incongruously introduced a theoretical stream from Chamberlain to Gobineau which took up the blood theory again and used it as a weapon against the Jews. It was placed within a kind of deterministic evolutionism which the modern orthodox racist theory founded by the Nazis based itself upon.
But, from the ‘reconquest’ of Spain to our time, these theories would have remained in the locker of the historical horrors of human thought, had they not occasionally found an economic base on which to exercise themselves, common interests to protect, and fears of possible expropriation to be exorcised. The Catholic crusade against the Jews was a consequence of the fear that it would not be possible to control the the extremely wealthy Spanish provinces left by the Arabs unless they proceeded to their immediate persecution. Their ghettoisation and consequent control was due to the fact that, having been left almost completely free by the Arabs, they had the levers of the Spanish economy in hand.
The vicissitudes of the repression and genocide of the Jews by the Nazis are well known, along with the economic justifications where concrete events were mixed with mythical elements. It is in fact true that with the inflation of the mark—decided mainly under the influence of Jewish managerial groups—the German government had damaged the small savers and salaried workers following their defeat in the first world war. But there was no justification in the subsequent deduction that this was because the Jews acted as a ‘foreign nation’ en bloc, which led to their being condemned to extermination. In this way a significant number of industrialists met their deaths, and along with them, millions of poor souls whose only fault was that they were Jewish.
In the same way the problem of the Jamaicans in Great Britain is based on the fact that they have now become a burden to the State. Brought over in tens of thousands immediately after the second world war to bear the brunt of rebuilding the country, the British State would now like them to go back from whence they came, without taking into account the fact that most of the youth, those who make up the most restless element, were born in Britain and have no intention of going off to a place that is quite unknown to them, and from which they never came.
Israeli racism against the Palestinians has the same economic basis. Zionist interests can no longer tolerate a reduction in territory, or even a cohabitation which might turn out to be destructive in the long run, possibly resulting in a Palestinian State that is capable of becoming the economic cutting edge of a potentially wealthy Arab world. We should not forget that the Arab intelligentsia is nearly all Palestinian and this scares the Israelis, providing them with a far more powerful motivation to fight than the mythical symbol of the great Israel that was to extend between the two historic rivers.
Arab racism, manifested in its continual declarations of ‘holy war’, although never all that solid, also has an economic foundation and is aimed at preventing political isolation and exploitation by other nations during the favourable and limited period of petroleum extraction.
Italian racism has also known significant periods which have not limited themselves to theory. Nothing compared to the ‘Teutonic order’ of course, but it reached a considerable level all the same. During its years of publication, the Italian review Difesa della razza, (Defence of Race) edited by Almirante, included many names from the official anti-fascist democratic culture at the time. But never mind. That is trivia compared to the massacres perpetrated by the Italian army in Libya, Ethiopia and Yugoslavia. Each according to their own capabilities.
Now the ‘black man’ is making his appearance in the sacred territory of our [Italian] homeland and is starting to become ‘visible’. So long as it was a question of a few dozen ‘blacks’, things could be tolerated. In fact, it excited the superficial democratic sentiments of some, prompting heroic declarations of anti-racism. The same went for the occasional ‘gypsy’ camp and the communities of Chinese, Philippinos, Slavs, Poles, and so on. One continually hears, ‘Very well, these people, even if their skin is a different colour, eat different food, move differently, speak another language, are just like us. But only as long as they stay in their place.’ There, that sums up our anti-racism: the black man, who embodies the most extreme characteristics of racial difference, is just like us, a man, not a beast. But he must understand the ‘good’ we are doing him by giving him the chance to eat the crumbs that fall from our tables laden with every imaginable consumer product. He must learn to work long and unflaggingly and put up with the hardest of labour, be nice and polite, pretend not to understand, get accustomed to putting up with exploitation in the black economy (not because he himself is black), doing temporary work in very small enterprises, pay extortionate prices for a single bed in a rat-infested room, learn our language—given that we are all so ignorant that we do not know how to speak any language other than this useless, peripheral Italian one—and so on.
But the ten commandments of anti-racism were valid before the great, more or less rationally planned influx became as consistent as it is now, without any prospect of reduction or regulation. Now it is not just a question of economic damage, but of a real fear of the black man. Although it might sound strange, I have an idea that the real danger at the moment is not some group of Nazi-skins, but comes from a far more profound, deep-rooted feeling that is being experienced irrationally by vast social strata. It is not simply a question of shop-keepers seeing their trade damaged by illegal street sellers, but is also the middle-class white collar workers (among whom you find practically the whole police structure of every order and grade, including the professional military one) and even some salaried but insecure parts of the old factory proletariat who have been leading a trade union battle over the past few years to safeguard the few jobs that are left.
The fact that fascist action squads have been recruited in Florence is just a sign, a dangerous one, certainly, but still a sign. More serious still is the consistently racist behaviour of those who possibly consider themselves to be anti-racist. It is this behaviour that is capable of transforming itself within seconds into real conscious racism at some time in the future, and precipitating a catastrophe. The danger comes from the millions of racists who believe themselves to be democratic and anti-racist. This is the ‘non-news’ that we are proposing to comrades to reflect upon. I am from the South, so I am different, and have felt, not only at skin level, how this ‘diversity’ of mine came to be noticed by, and almost disturbed, those used to living in ‘northern’ circles therefore feel superior and even upholders of a ‘language’ they consider superior.
I perceived this latent hostility at the end of the Fifties, in the mittel-European cultural circle in Turin, where my stubbornness in continuing to underline my Sicilian accent was considered inaptitude and provincialism. I have participated in conferences and outdoor meetings both in and beyond the anarchist movement, more or less all over Italy, and most of the difficulties I encountered were in Florence and the rest of Tuscany. I am not saying that the Tuscans are worse than others. I have Tuscan friends and comrades who are among the best people in the world, but there is in them, in all of them, the conviction that they ‘speak Italian’, that they are the recipients of the mother tongue without having had to face the obstacle of getting rid of their dialect. This mistaken starting point, which makes them not only speak badly but write even worse (always with the obvious exceptions), is an element of latent racism. Knowledge is acquired by study, not from the natural gift of being born in a given place. This is a dangerous concept. Italian is an artificial language that is composed of many elements which, like all other languages, are still in the course of transformation. This goes for dialects too of course, but the lesser capacity of dialects and languages reduced to such a range, to ‘build’ their own literature and make it known, encloses them within a fairly circumscribed territorial space.
I have always refused to ‘refine’ my accent in a ‘correct’ way, precisely so as not to be colonised like most of those who breathe the so-called ‘air of the continent’. After a period in Milan they sound like pure-blooded Milanese when they return to their native Canicatti. Defence of one’s identity, along with an—intellectual and practical—consistency, always gives rise to a reaction of annoyance and fear.
This happens with the homosexual, whom our democratic antifascist culture considers ‘different’ and tolerates so long as he is recognisable, i.e. assumes the attitude of a ‘would-be woman’ that allows us to identify him and keep him at a distance, naturally with great tolerance. But the homosexual who to all appearances is ‘a man like us’ puts us in difficulty, scares us, is the one we fear most. Basically, we have all built a well-ordered world with our certainties and reassurances, and we cannot accept someone ‘different’ turning up and upsetting everything in just a few seconds. In the same way there is latent, therefore unconscious, racism in any attempt at defence that demonstrates the importance and validity of one ethnic reality without linking it to another and pointing out their intrinsic diversity as well as the profound community of interests that exists between them. When I took up the subject of the national liberation struggle many years ago, there were two reactions, both wrong in my opinion. On the one hand, there were those who said right away that such a thematic was right-wing, with goodbye to all the work of Bakunin and comrades and almost the whole of the international anarchist movement. On the other, there were those who took it up, turning it into a local affair aimed at going into its social characteristics, ethical or otherwise, without linking it to the international context as a whole.
Another undercurrent of racism, which runs through the whole of present-day anti-racism, is that of the political verbalism in favour of this or that struggle for the liberation of the South African blacks, the Palestinians, the British blacks, the Kanaks and so on. International solidarity in words alone is a form of latent racism, in fact it is even subscribed to by illuminated governments and respectable groups who spread the good word throughout the world. But when it comes to examining what could be done to support that solidarity concretely, what could be done to damage the economic interests of those responsible for the repression, then things change, and a respectable distance is taken from them immediately. It is another aspect of the anti-racism that tolerates the black man so long as he stays in his place, a different way of keeping a distance, of putting one’s conscience at rest and have racism carry on at a safe distance from one’s own doorstep.
So, here in this country, we have reached the point of believing it possible for police and carabinieri to become the paladins and defenders of the blacks, in other words the supporters of the anti-racist politics of the Italian government. But is such a thing possible? Anyone who has seen these murderers in uniform at work even once can have no illusions on the subject. These armed corps, for the most part composed of people from southern Italy, once their ‘bread and butter’ is safe, become the most ferocious jailers of other people from the south, those who dream of the possible clash that could bring about changes capable of putting the old ideals of their fathers—a piece of bread—in question once again. And if that is what they thought and continue to think as far as the South is concerned, imagine what their attitude will be concerning blacks, Philippinos, gypsies, Poles and so on. Anything but democratic tolerance. The other day, in their haste to beat up their victims (quickly and well do not go together), they did not realise that they were also beating up one of their (parliamentary) colleagues who unfortunately has a black face. Here the racism is anything but latent, but let us put it all in the same category of possible, not certain, danger.
But even workers can be convinced of a ‘black’ danger from the immigrants who have arrived to take what little work is left from them. Massive shifts in this direction find the trades unions and political representatives, who have always worked out their strategy on the element of economic and normative safeguard alone, disarmed. Any humanitarian discourse would rebound on them. In a short time they would be obliged to become the defenders of an institutionally separate working strata, underpaid and guaranteed in a different way, with lower wages and fewer protective measures, in short a kind of apartheid. Such a logic is applied in the United States regularly without half terms, and differentiated conditions have only begun to be reduced in recent years parallel to an unprecedented growth in the rage, not only of the blacks, but mainly of other immigrants such as Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and so on.
At the root of this problem, which can supposedly be resolved by power, there is one great obstacle: real, concrete anti-racism, should start from real equality between everyone, men and women, of any race whatsoever, wherever they come from, whatever their culture and religion. But no State could ever bring about, or even consider, concrete equality, so all States are destined to become hotbeds of racial conflicts that no verbal respectability will succeed in camouflaging very well. Explosions of violence, in the one and the other sense, will always be possible unless the social and economic conditions that produce class stratification and differences are eliminated. Racism is an economic problem, and like all economic problems it can only be resolved with a revolutionary break.
One concludes that it is indispensable for revolutionaries to differentiate themselves from all those—and they are numerous—who say they are anti-racist, starting from democratic governments of half the world to the so-called governments of the ex-real socialist States, where racism has also always existed, just as inequality has. It is necessary to differentiate oneself in practical terms from the scoundrels who say they are antiracist, by attacking with precise actions all the symbols of racism and its supporters as they develop and emerge. At the same time it is necessary to work out a critique of the fears and irrational impulses that lurk inside us all concerning everything that is different, in order to reduce the subsoil where the most stupid, visible, racism finds its inexhaustable fuel.
[Original title: Inattualita sul razzismo, “ProvocAzione” n. 24, June 1990. English translation by Jean Weir in collaboration with John Moore and Leigh Starcross, published in Dissonances, Elephant Editions, London]