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Impossible Landings: Precarity, Populism and Walling in a ‘European’ Refugee Crisis



Impossible Landings: Precarity, Populism and Walling in a ‘European’ Refugee Crisis


Alessandro Tiberio

Doctor of Philosophy in Geography

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Michael Watts, Co-Chair

Professor Jon Kosek, Co-Chair

The rise of populist movements that gathered momentum in 2016 across Europe and the European settler-colonial world has seriously challenged the US-led neoliberal order as much as the discourse around ‘globalization’ that such order promoted and defended. Such crisis has been most striking in countries like the UK and the US, with the votes for Brexit and Trump, given that for the last 30 years successive government administrations of both center-right and center-left political alignments there have been championing neoliberal reforms domestically and internationally, but the rise of populist movements has been years in the making in the folds of ordinary life across the ‘European’ world, and can arguably be best understood through an ethnographic research of the everyday space-making and border-renegotiating social processes that made a rightward shift possible in individual and collective consciences and that also allowed it to gather momentum at a wider scale.

I have focused my research on the borderlands of what I call ‘Mediterranean Central Europe’ in and around the now mostly white-Italian border-town of Trieste, formerly the main port of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and today sitting at the Italian border to Slovenia. Dominant discourses on a local level have traditionally idealized the city and its inhabitants as quintessentially ‘European’ even more than ‘Italian’, and in its borderlands at the edge of the Balkans the renegotiation of borders with non-European ‘Eastern’ and Muslim othered subjects and spaces has historically been particularly explicit. At the same time, Trieste has also represented a model of border un-making or un-walling thanks to the local anti-psychiatric movement led by Doctor Basaglia, that in the 1970s successfully advocated for the closure of asylums and for the transformation of wider society by multiplying spaces of encounter between formerly interned patients and the general population at large. The current model of asylum seekers’ reception in the city promoted by ICS (the Italian Consortium of Solidarity) inherited and followed the same decentralizing logic, and since the 1990s has been promoting the transformation of the ‘European’ space of the city though everyday practices of border renegotiation. Over the course of a multi-year ethnographic fieldwork since 2013, I have looked at the longer history of experiments with walling and un-walling in the city, and finally focused on the 2015/16 moment, when I have explored the remaking of ‘European’ borders in Trieste’s borderlands during the boom of the ‘Balkan migration route(s)’. At that time, I have investigated different forms of border renegotiation practices from a neo-liberal standpoint, by far-right groups and by radical-left activists, and attempted to understand their different politics on an individual, collective and regional level.

In the midst of a strong reactionary wave on a wider scale, 2016 also saw the election of a far-right city administration in Trieste at the conjuncture of lingering economic stagnation and of a boom in the arrivals of asylum-seeking migrants traveling across the Balkans and hailing especially from Pakistan and Afghanistan. In an attempt to understand the reactionary closure of European borders in the conjuncture of 2015/16, in the context of both the post-2008 ‘economic crisis’ and of what has been commonly referred to as the ‘European refugee crisis’ of 2015, in my work I show the ways in which the two processes have articulated with one another though the lived and perceived experience of what Italians call ‘precarietà’ or precarity, referring to the widespread sense of insecurity resulting from the introduction of sweeping neoliberal reforms in Italy and Europe at large, and in particular from the ‘flexibilization’ of the job market and life conditions in general. I further show how in Trieste and elsewhere the articulation of these two processes has engendered a third crisis, namely an ‘identity crisis’, a crisis of ‘Europe’ and of what may be called ‘European’, and has led to the new desires for border closure or walling and to the rise of far-right populist movements possibly heralding a post-neoliberal moment.

In particular, I argue that current reactionary tendencies in Trieste and in many parts of the ‘European’ world in the current conjuncture are the result of the widespread perception of a deep crisis in the gendered and racialized commonsensical idea of ‘Europe’, and particularly of ‘European’ privilege and exceptionalism, and have emerged in the attempt to defend it. Further, I argue that the perception of such crisis and the related desires for border closure among many white-Europeans stem from the widespread idealization of ‘precarity’ or insecurity as a European problem, in their eyes justifying wall-building of a ‘natural’ reaction. Finally, in my study I also question the naturalized necessity of such a reactionary logic in the contemporary conjuncture and present the possibility for radical alternatives.

In this sense, I argue that the different politics of far right and radical left ‘anti-globalization’ movements, both opposing the ‘free movement’ of capital, are produced through alternative forms of space-making and border-renegotiation in everyday life on a ‘local’ level, understanding their sense of belonging as tied to a bounded homeland or to a shared space of encounter respectively. In order to understand these different politics, I looked at the production of ‘local’ communities in collective gardening projects where highly precarized Italians renegotiated their relationship with both land and homeland in everyday life. I have then also carried out participant observation in mixed collective gardens shared by Italians and Afghan or Pakistani asylum seekers, and in other mixed spaces that offered interesting opportunities to understand ordinary border renegotiation practices in relationship to one’s sense of precarity or insecurity. Finally, in order to understand border renegotiation both on a communal and on an individual level, during long interview sessions with both Italians and Central Asian migrants I have used individual ‘mad map’ drawing exercises to encourage the representation of one’s condition of precarity and ways to renegotiate any perceived need for security, as a form of mental mapping method adopted and adapted from the American anti-psychiatric movement Icarus, of which I have been part of for years in California. In this context, my work finally also argues that in places like Trieste it is alternative readings of ‘precarity’, questioning exclusivists senses of belonging and based on appreciating relational forms of insecurity between differently-precarious ‘European’ and ‘non-European’ subjects, that may make a different politics of border renegotiation possible. In particular, the production of common spaces enabling the acceptance of mutual vulnerability between such differently-precarious subjects may allow not only for the renegotiation but also for the actual questioning and un-walling of the borders of ‘Europe’ themselves.

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