Category Archives: Human Rights

The Trajectories of Neoliberalism

How will neoliberalism change in the light of the “Pacific Pivot” and US energy independence?

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

We are all well acquainted with the narratives embedded in the ideology of neoliberalism. Its emancipatory promise of a globalized world where the free exchange of goods, ideas and cultures would lead to peace, interdependence, prosperity, and the spread of democracy are well known. On the heels of the fall of the Soviet Union, so the story went, no alternative was left other than to embrace that dynamic American mix of capitalism and democracy. Borders would increasingly blur, nations and nationalisms would be rendered irrelevant as the new world order would be benevolently guided by international institutions such as the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the United Nations. If only countries would deregulate, privatize and liberalize their economies democracy and prosperity would eventually follow. Human rights and free trade, we were told, go hand in hand.

Of course, the utopia came crashing down on 9-11, and then in Iraq and Afghanistan. It came crashing down in the financial meltdown of 2008. It came crashing down with the rise of nations such as China which demonstrated that authoritarianism can simply do capitalism better. Pundits now predict the end of the American hegemony and hail the advent of the “Asian Century”.  The future, as of today, seems pretty bleak for neoliberalism.

Two paradigm-shifting occurrences, however, might question the apparent neoliberal decline: the so called “Pacific Pivot” and the realistic possibility of US energy independence in the near future. In the light of these two issues, the global geopolitical panorama will of necessity undergo dramatic changes. Two key questions must be addressed here. Firstly, how will these changes impact the emancipatory narratives of neoliberalism? And secondly, how will they affect the military, financial and political institutions exercising neoliberalism’s global power?

The Pacific Pivot is the White House’s response to China’s growing military and economic clout. The Economist reports that China, although nowhere close to the US (yet), has upped its annual spending on defense from $30 billion in 2000 to $120 billion in 2010. In 2012 China will have spent $160 billion on modernizing its military. Analysts predict that China will outspend the US by more than half a trillion dollars by 2050 on defense related expenses.

Accordingly, as the wars in the Middle East wind down, the Obama administration has decided to revamp America’s reputation as a Pacific power. In its latest Strategic Guidance document, the White House states that “while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region”. Pacific deployments of marines are well under way, while joint military training operations have increased with the region’s pivotal allies, namely Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. In the coming years, the DoD will be spending over $10.6 billion establishing a rotational force of 8000 marines stationed in Guam, Hawaii and Australia.

EIA US Energy Production and Consumption

EIA Energy Production and Consumption. Photo Credit:

On another front, energy analysts predict near energy independence in the US around the year 2050. According to the US Energy Information Administration, bolstered by technologies allowing the tapping of previously inaccessible shale gas and petroleum reserves, the US will dramatically reduce energy imports. In the adjacent graph, the EIA predicts a decrease in the gap between US energy consumption and production, resulting in a decline of energy imports of around 10% in 2040 compared to the year 2011. Within only three years the EIA estimates that the US will become a net exporter of liquid natural gas. It is no surprise that both presidential candidates of the 2012 Presidential election have made domestic energy production a priority of their respective electoral campaigns.

So what will these future changes entail for the emancipatory promises of neoliberalism? What of the world where free exchange of ideas and products would lead to international cooperation and render petty nationalisms and conflicts a distant memory of a barbaric past? Of course, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have overwhelmingly disproved neoliberalism’s promises of spreading democracy. But the Pacific Pivot does not even try to mask its ambitions with a concern for peace and democracy. There is no apology for the Pacific deployments: it is Machiavellian Realism 101 devoid of humanitarian underpinnings and defined by the pursuit of national interest. The Pacific Pivot is not justified by the ambitious projects of exporting human rights or engaging in nation-building as past US foreign policy so often has.

Energy independence could bolster this belligerent attitude, freeing the US from dependence on a turbulent Middle East and allowing it to increasingly concentrate its influence on Asia. Energy independence might actually fuel uniltaeralism and free the US from the need to calculate energy geopolitics within its foreign policy, potentially allowing it to forgo cooperation in international fora.

Moreover, this attitude is reflected in the key political, financial and military institutions which articulate neoliberal ideology. Let us take a brief look at these. Out of the financial crisis institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF have emerged stronger than ever, with countries at the heart of Europe ceding them national sovereignty. The “too big to fail” investment banks responsible for fraudulent lending and illegal practices (LIBOR and HSBC scandals –to mention the most recent) have been bailed out and are continuously sustained by tax payer money worldwide. Multinational corporations have posted record profits and are presently sitting on enormous piles of cash, with many of them refusing to raise wages and accept higher taxes. Military operations such as drone warfare and Special Forces incursions increasingly operate unaccountable and well out of the reach of international law. Neoliberalism’s most powerful players are probably stronger today than they were in the previous decade.

The ambivalent binomials inherent in neoliberalism, namely those of globalization and prosperity, of free trade and human rights, of military interventions and free societies have unraveled. The US neoliberal project has shed its emancipatory promises and embraced the pragmatic pursuit of military and financial interests. What it has left behind is an architecture of world government devoid of the spirit of Wilsonian idealism which had incipiently conceived it; bereft of a democratic ethic and fuelled by its unsustainable hydrocarbon bonanza.

So even if neoliberalism has crashed and burned, and, as stated by Slavoj Zizek, amply demonstrated that the marriage between capitalism and democracy has effectively ended, it is nonetheless emerging stronger, leaner and meaner than ever. The Pacific Pivot along with energy independence will be the chief contributors to the rebound of a new neoliberalism which will have definitely abandoned its humanitarian and democratic justifications. Perhaps, it will be incorrect to refer to it as neoliberalism at all, for there is nothing “new” nor anything “liberal” left in it any longer.


Filed under Human Rights, Nationalism, Neo-liberalism, neoliberalism

Defining the Commons

River Gorge, by C. Krieghoff. Courtesy of Wikipedia

What exactly are “the commons”? Is water a common? Is the environment as a whole a common? Is education a common? And who exactly is in charge of governing these commons?

As the word suggests, the commons are resources which belong to everybody in common. No one has an exclusive right to them, making them by definition resources to which everybody enjoys open access. The springs, rivers and lakes whose waters we drink, the oceans in which we fish, the air we breath, the seeds we plant, and the cultures and traditions we share are all examples of commons.

However, the commons remains an elusive term, one which at times evades a precise definition. And this, sadly, is a pitfall. Without a clear definition and a coherent vocabulary with which to talk about the commons it becomes very difficult to protect them from instances of privatization, particularly when they must be defended through legislative means.

My aim here is to explore two different dimensions of the commons with hopes to provide firstly a coherent idea of what a commons actually consists of, and secondly to offer a political vocabulary with which to talk about them. By taking a look at the work of Nobel-laureate Elinor Ostrom, we will present a working definition of the commons and explore their empirical dimension. Secondly, I wish to present the recent and innovative work of Italian jurist Ugo Mattei, which examines the sociological and political dimension of the commons.

Elinor Ostrom, courtesy of Wikipedia

Elinor Ostrom’s seminal study Governing the Commons (1990) is premised on a refutation of Gareth Hardin’s basic assumption in his article The Tragedy of the Commons (1969). Hardin believed that individuals inevitably end up over-exploiting and degrading common resources. In his article, he presents an example of herders using a grazing field in common: without an external monitor the herders will increase the size of their herds unsustainably which will result in the over-grazing of the common field. Echoing a Hobbesian world-view, he states that “each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his heard without limit – in a world that is limited”[1].

Policy-makers have since interpreted the Tragedy of the Commons as a paradigmatic example of individuals destroying their own resources, thereby causing environmental degradation. As a result, some policy-makers have argued that common resources must be put under the direct control of government agencies, while others have argued for their privatization making individual owners responsible for their own property[2].

Ostrom believes that both privatization and governmental control are policies based on generalizing and totalizing presumptions. Moreover, she refutes Hardin’s assumption that individuals are incapable of self-governing their resources. Contrarily, for Ostrom “communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time”[3]. Individuals are not “trapped” in the tragedy of the commons paradigm, but are capable of creating their own institutions, rules and enforcement mechanisms which ensure the sustainable use of such resources.

By comparing case studies in which individuals were successful in overcoming the tragedy of the commons with cases in which they were not, Ostrom draws a set of variables and prerequisites which provide a general framework for self-governing and self-financed institutions. These include mutual monitoring, agreeing on rules written by the users of the common resource, establishing legitimate arbitrators, and instituting policies which incentivize collaboration and discourage free-riding[4].

Ostrom defines the subject of her book as common pool resources: resources which 1) produce a steady flow of resource units (benefits accruing from the resource), and 2) resources that are so large (an ocean for example) that excluding the individuals that use them unsustainably becomes almost impossible –hence her stress on the maximization of collaboration between users of common pool resources. The success of self-governing institutions, concludes Ostrom, proves that policies of privatization and government control are not the only alternatives open to us[5].

The second dimension of the commons I wish to talk about, can be found in the work of Ugo Mattei, an Italian jurist deeply involved in the recent and successful efforts of preventing the privatization of public water in Italy. Mattei explores the historical, sociological and political development of the commons as well as their relationship with social movements and political contention in his book “Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto” (Common Goods: a Manifesto).

For Mattei, the commons are first and foremost contextual and contingent. By this he means that they acquire meaning the moment in which they are demanded for politically. For example, water has always existed as a natural resource, and yet it does not become “a commons” until individuals find that their access to it has been restricted by instances of privatization or bureaucratization. The commons “come into existence”, if you will, the moment they become relevant or even vital for a particular social end. Their political dimension is therefore shaped by the social context in which the demand for them has originated[6].

In addition, Mattei believes that a particular commons, say a forest, cannot be divorced from the cultural, social, economic or environmental context in which it exists. In such a way, it cannot be understood as an object separate from its surrounding territory, but rather as an integral part of complex human-ecological systems[7].

However, Mattei distinguishes the political demand for the defense of the commons from a demand for a right as understood by the political theory of classical liberalism. For example, human rights are transcendental rights which one possesses in virtue of being human. The demand for the commons, contrarily, is not claiming a right which exists separately from the individual claiming it. The demand for a common is not transcendental but relational: it is the object of struggle between communities attempting to defend them and structures of authority seeking to control them (be these property rights or state sovereignty)[8]. This type of demands are essentially dynamic relations of political contention.

And yet, Mattei asserts that the commons are absolutely central to the fulfillment of the rights pertaining to the classical liberal tradition. The human rights to food, water and education, for example, cannot be fulfilled unless these are recognized as common goods or common resources which we all, in virtue of being alive, owe to each other and have the responsibility to maintain for generations to come[9].

This very brief foray into the work of Elinor Ostrom and Ugo Mattei has served firstly to provide the empirical foundations for talking about the commons, and secondly to explore their sociological and political dimensions. Today, commons such as water, education, genetic heritage or culture are increasingly privatized in the name of a financial state of exception. Governments are forced to devolve and divest themselves of what were once seen as core responsibilities towards their citizens. As the State retreats we must ask ourselves who will protect our common resources from callous economic exploitation and environmental degradation. For now, the movement in defense of the commons is laying down the empirical, sociological and political groundwork for just this task.

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi


  • Mattei, Ugo. 2011. Beni Comuni: Un Manifesto. Gius. Laterza & Figli: Bari, Italy
  • Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

[1] Hardin 1969, in Ostrom, 1990, p2

[2] Ostrom, 1990, p14

[3] Ostrom, 1990, p1

[4] Ostrom, 1990, p183

[5] Ostrom, 1990, p30

[6] Mattei, 2011, p53

[7] Mattei,2011, p, 62

[8] Mattei, 2011, p57

[9] Mattei, 2011, p59

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Filed under Commons, Environmentalism, Human Rights, liberalism, political theory, social movements

The Reverse Panopticon

By Giulio Amerigo Caperchi

Is the advent of easily available recording technology coupled with mass-distribution of content through social media platforms allowing for the democratization of the state’s surveillance apparatus?

Most of us fear the totalitarian dystopia imagined in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which citizens are controlled and stripped of private rights through the use of technologies enforcing total surveillance. It is easy to draw parallels with our world today, where the proliferation of CCTV devices and the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement eerily appear to emulate Big Brother’s tactics.

In fact, police forces worldwide are increasingly relying on overt and covert surveillance technologies. In the UK, police plan on deploying unmanned aerial vehicles to aid them in day to day surveillance operations in the light of the 2012 Olympics[1]. Similarly, on the ground, police are increasingly using Forward Intelligence Teams – officers armed with camcorders and other recording equipment used to document anti-social behavior[2]. Still, local governments continue to spend large sums of money on CCTV surveillance, despite evidence questioning its effectiveness as a deterrent[3].

However, in the past years we have witnessed the mass-consumption of relatively cheap products such as cell-phones equipped with camcorders. By now, any footage recorded by these devices is easily disseminated on the web thanks to social media platforms such as twitter and facebook. For example, the worldwide protests of 2011 have captured hours of footage in which civilians documented and “surveilled” law enforcement operations from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. We are all familiar with the grotesque images of a police officer pepper-spraying a row of seated and peaceful students at UC Davis.

Today we live in a world in which technology allows virtually anyone to easily document the actions of the same individuals whom operate the state’s surveillance apparatus. What occurs to the logics underlining mass surveillance when the “watched” are finally able to “watch the watchers”? And what implications does this have on the dynamics informing popular protest?

The French philosopher Michel Foucault studied the effects that mass surveillance has on society very carefully. For him, modern law enforcement could not possibly sustain the economic cost of maintaining social order through the threat of physical coercion alone. Modern mass democracies would enforce compliance to law through less intrusive and more subtle techniques: techniques which would push individuals to “self-police” themselves. Foucault refers to one of these techniques as “panopticism”. In his studies regarding carceral institutions he analyses the architectural plans of a new type of prison built during the 19th century. The Panopticon was the first prison constructed in such a way so that inmates were always visible to the wardens, but where the inmates could not see the wardens. Its effect was that of forcing inmates to behave as if actually being observed, even though no-one was observing them. Modern surveillance devices such as CCTVs function along the same logic, as “eyes that must see without being seen”[4].

For Foucault, this type of constant and total surveillance produced disciplined subjects; individuals whom would spontaneously conform to socially acceptable behavior thereby conspiring in their own self-regulation. Its effects were those of discouraging abnormal behavior –such as political protest- while fostering acquiescence and the internalization of the status quo. Panopticism, said Foucault, “was the most direct way…of making it possible to substitute for force or other violent constraints the gentle efficiency of total surveillance”[5].

Yet, alas, Foucault died just before the mass availability of today’s recording devices and before facebook and twitter accompanied the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements. However his ideas might still prove useful in determining the effects that these new technological innovations have on society.

On one hand, the fact that we are increasingly watched not just by law enforcement but also by the public at large might reinforce and possibly magnify the discipline-inducing effects that Foucault highlighted. Individuals might feel observed to an even greater extent and behave in an ever more docile manner -with serious implications on their willingness to publicly vent political contention. Moreover, it might render individuals fearful of their neighbors, thereby tearing at the social fabric of our communities. Finally, it would negatively impinge on one’s sacrosanct privacy.

On the other hand, the ability of any individual to surveil public officers might induce law enforcement institutions to “self-police” themselves. The footage of Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, an ex Marine, being shot in the head with a tear-gas canister at an Occupy Oakland protest created public outrage in the US and caused a serious investigation of the Oakland Police Department’s tactics[6]. Last December at an Occupy Wall Street protest the Guardian reported the use of the “occucopter”: a remote controlled helicopter equipped with a camcorder, broadcasting live on the web and documenting police repression[7]. Such devices are often the only instruments that a non-violent protest movement such as Occupy may employ against violent crackdowns.

These technological innovations have the potential to enforce accountability and to increase transparency, particularly within the murky dynamics of street protests. Being able to record and effortlessly disseminate evidence now allows any citizen to report “abnormal” behavior (as Foucault would put it) exhibited by law enforcement officials such as with the pepper-spray incident. However, this new-found ability possesses actual potential only if used to enforce compliance to law, to civil/human rights and to the norms of dignity. Moreover, it is effective solely when those caught breaking the law are held responsible for their actions or when the footage captured manages to influence public opinion.

Perhaps the apparent “democratization” of the surveillance apparatus is not a game-changer for social movements and will not tilt the game of political contention in favor of protesters. But it does serve to remind us that in any healthy democracy everyone should be held accountable for their actions, and if the evidence garnered by and spread through new technologies serves this purpose then this new phenomenon should be welcomed.

This article was originally published by The Heptagon Post on February 9th 2012


  • Foucault, M. 1991. The Foucault Reader. Ed. Rabinow, P. Penguin: London


Filed under Human Rights, Indignados, Michel Foucault, Occupy Wall Street, security, social movements, surveillance

The Image of the Immigrant in Italy


The recent immigrant revolts in southern Italy have laid bare a problem afflicting every member country of the EU. The tension between national identity and immigration has produced, especially in Italy, very serious xenophobic outbursts which once again force us to question the grand narrative of globalization. Traditional centre-left and centre-right political parties are simply unable to cope with the problems posed by increasing rates of immigration. In addition, the global financial meltdown, growing unemployment and economic insecurity have greatly exacerbated existing social issues, many of which tied to the phenomenon of immigration. Within this context, parties such as Italy’s Northern League are able to garner consensus by blaming the immigrant for social and economic woes; vowing to protect Europe from the Muslim invasion and restore the Christian roots which had made the Old Continent so powerful in antiquity.

Yet, recent expressions of Italian racism are not the direct result of financial instability, and we cannot solely blame the neo-liberal crisis for collective xenophobic outbursts. Italian racism, like all types of racism, is infinitely more subtle, and has its roots deeply embedded within popular narratives and myths. My point here is to analyse a form of latent racism ingrained in social, historical and cultural fabric, which re-emerges in times of crisis. Recent manifestations of xenophobia represent what anthropologist Annamaria Rivera calls a “regurgitation of racism”, which implies that racism has never been properly digested and expelled from the collective conscience.

To analyse the deepest roots of xenophobia we must look at the ways in which the immigrant is represented in popular culture by the media apparatus. A subtle analysis of which images the media presents of the immigrant is required. I am convinced that there are certain embedded collective myths and cultural behaviours which serve to legitimize and justify racism, preventing xenophobia from ever being properly digested. These embedded characteristics are a constituent feature of Italian identity and are omnipresent in the subtext of mass media products. Edward Said teaches us that culture and politics are never separate and independent domains; rather, they mutually reinforce a particular hegemony to which they both belong. In such a way I wish to expose certain cultural attributes as being the unconscious depositories of latent racism.

The Importance of the Media

Before delving into our discussion we must see which images are presented to the Italian public. According to a 2009 report conducted by La Sapienza University on how immigrants are represented in Italian media, 36% of news coverage depicting immigrants is related to terrorism and criminality, while 36.5% is related to illegal border crossings. In news coverage related to any kind of criminality 60% of the times the protagonist is an immigrant. When representing the broad theme of immigration 69.9% of images proposed are related to the themes of security and public order. In 78% of cases, the immigrant is represented negatively. 74.8% of images depicting immigrants are solely of young adult males.

These numbers do not reflect immigrant demographics and do not even come close to reflecting the true rates of Italian criminality. What they do represent however is the monopolization of the entire system of representation, as immigrants simply do not have the means to represent themselves. This occurs through stereotype stratification where a very narrow and precise image of the immigrant is repeatedly conveyed. In this way the image which has been arbitrarily attributed to the immigrant becomes embedded within the collective imagination.

There are three recurring general ways in which the immigrant is represented. I will banally refer to them as the “Bad Immigrant”, the “Good Immigrant” and the “Weak Immigrant” images. This might sound as if I am generalizing, yet my point is exactly to deconstruct such generalizations.

The “Bad” Immigrant

The image of the “bad immigrant” is used in contexts invoking national as well as personal security. Drug trafficking, criminality, prostitution and all sorts of heinous crimes have traditionally been attributed to the “other”. In this way, the immigrant represents the obverse: if Italy stands for cleanliness, reason, hygiene, and goodness, the immigrant is dirty, irrational, infectious and “bad”. These are ontological attributes which cannot be rubbed off from a skin colour other than white, not even in cases of second or third generation immigrants. The persistence of this form of racism, which is the most common, is inherent to a western philosophy completely permeated by Manicheanism. Examples of the “good” versus the “bad” include the Ancient Greeks and the Barbarians; the Romans and the Gaulles; the Christians and the Muslims; Liberal Democracy and Communism and so on… This way of perceiving reality as “us-good” and “them-evil” is easily taken advantage of and has historically been used to fortify essentialist claims to national and ethnic identity.

However, in the case of immigrants being accused of rape, the mythical and psychological connotations are much more profound. The image of the immigrant rapist is one of the oldest constituent features of racism: “the topos of the “other’s” body as a menace to our women, his unrestrained and bestial sexuality, challenging our right of property over our community’s women.” (Rivera, “Regole e Roghi”, 2009) The media campaign mounted in the summer of 2008 dubbed “rape emergency” betrays the hysteria of a sexist and male dominated culture which has historically exhibited complete disrespect for women rights and gender equality.

Statistics demonstrate that rape committed by Italian men is not treated as seriously as rape committed by immigrants. According to the World Health Organization 70% of violence against women occurs within the family nucleus. According to a 2007 ISTAT report, 7 out of 10 Italian women who have been victims of sexual assault have been assaulted by family members or companions. Thus, rape is not an alien phenomenon imposed on Italians from without; rather, it is endemic feature and has historically been a hidden reality of the Italian family. Italians are also the first in Europe in terms of sex tourism: it is very common for Italians to embark on colonial-esque sex adventures. These facts lead us to the conclusion that rape (and all types of misogynist behaviour including sex-tourism) committed by Italians is tacitly accepted.

The figure of the immigrant rapist not only challenges notions of national identity, but challenges an understanding of ethnicity based on descent and homeland (an understanding which corresponds to the Nazi ideology of Blood and Soil used to justify ethnic cleansing and eugenic projects). The possibility of the “other” intermingling with “our” women completely disrupts notions of racial purity and represents the symbolic truncation of male lineage. The fear of loss of male biological power and the deprivation of the power to start a family to “pass on the seed” (which equate to castration in Freudian terms), are more serious than fear of loss of cultural, national or religious identity. This is why, when the right of possession over female sexuality is challenged by the immigrant, the whole community(male and female) reacts hysterically, to the point where the mayor of Rome in the summer of 2008 encouraged the formation of lynching squads to suppress the “rape emergency”.

We can find evidence of this cultural acceptance of autochthonous rape in the legend of “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. Shortly after the founding of Rome in 753 B.C., the first generation of Roman men did not have enough women with which to begin the glorious Roman race. Thus, King Romulus and his men resorted to abducting women from the neighbouring Sabine villages while massacring their husbands. The very founding of Italy’s imperial lineage was born from a collective act of rape: an act which was justified by the glorious unfolding of Roman historical achievements. The acceptance of the Rape of the Sabine Women as a necessary event for the existence of the Roman Empire (the Empire also represents Italy’s expression of the “mission civilisatrice”) is the original precursor to today’s acceptance of Italian rape and cause of hysteria when dealing with immigrant rape.

The “Good” Immigrant

Rivera points out that amid the media campaigns mounted against immigrants, one will usually encounter a news story depicting the “good immigrant”, one in which an immigrant heroically saves an Italian despite this betraying his illegal status in the country. This was the case with Mohammed Haida, a 22 year old from Morocco who saved an Italian man from a suicide attempt in August 2009. Mohammed was treated as a hero, brought on television and was also granted the permit to legally reside and work in Italy. Rivera asserts that the construction of the image of the “good immigrant” is perfectly symmetrical to that of the “bad immigrant”: they are both part of the same narrative technique used by neo-colonialist media. The young Mohammed was paraded on TV with the same amount of nauseating Eurocentric paternalism as Robinson Crusoe civilised Friday.

Said’s analysis of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Culture and Imperialism is of great use to us here. For Said, the heart of darkness described by Conrad represents notions of bestiality, incivility and barbarism as being inherent characteristics of African culture. Only the civilising power of colonialism can shed light on the darkness permeating the very heart of Africa. Similarly, a character such as Robinson Crusoe’s Friday is the product of the process of civilising savageness. Friday renounces cannibalism and embraces Christianity. However in his most essential form he remains a savage, is prone to reverting to bestiality and is thus in need of constant tutelage. In the same way, Said points out that for Europeans, African colonies were simply incapable of independence and required constant supervision lest they give in to their barbaric ways. Thus, the “mission civilisatrice”, the “white man’s burden” and the practice of tutelage were solely attainable through benevolent and brutal deployments of power. The corresponding benevolent and brutal deployments of power today are symbolically represented by the constructs of the “good” and “bad” immigrant. Moreover, following Foucault’s notion of power-knowledge, we will notice that these representations are not symbolical but the actual violent deployments of power.

The image painted here is two-fold: on one hand we have a “civilised” savage, on the other the “barbaric” savage. There cannot exist a way in between the two extremes, for both are solely represented through European “structures of attitude and reference”, to use Said’s words, which saturate the entire system of representation. In the same way, the “good” and the “bad” immigrant images are part of the same discriminatory attitude of reference expressed through the biased mass media apparatus. The point worth making here is that the media very rarely presents images of immigrants in which they appear as normal citizens, with the same preoccupations and enthusiasms that Italians have. The portrayal of extremes where the only possibilities of immigrant existence lie in the “heroic” and in the “criminal” preclude the condition of “normality”. In this way it is easy to draw the divide between a normal and rational Italian, and an unbalanced and irrational immigrant.

The “Weak” Immigrant

The final general recurring image attributed to the immigrant is one depicting immigrants in a state of need: in conditions of physical exhaustion, as if residing in a state of chronic weakness. Most African migrants arrive in Italy on small boats departing from Libya. The physical conditions in which they arrive (if they arrive- Italy’s most recent anti-immigration law requires Italy’s coast guard to push the boats back to Libya) are horrendous, as they spend days under the scorching Mediterranean sun, usually without water and food, endlessly drifting in hope of reaching the beaches of Malta or Sicily. 36.5% of total news coverage depicting immigrants presents images of newly arrived migrants on Sicilian shores. These images depict distraught people which have lived in cramped overcrowded conditions on small boats in the middle of the sea for days.

What the media presents the Italian public with is a stereotype of an immigrant which arrives in a weak condition and is in need of help; help which will eventually take the form of tax money and public services. They need access to medical facilities and housing, and their children will be required to attend the public school system. I do not wish to insinuate that Italians are completely cold-hearted and want to refuse such services, quite the contrary. My point is that the image of the weak immigrant reinforces the embedded collective, and in Italy’s case profoundly Catholic, notion of charity. In fact, Italy’s most efficient and brilliant organization which helps newly arrived immigrants is Catholic and is called Caritas -Latin for charity. The sincere help given to immigrants by Italians (sometimes begrudgingly but always honestly) in the form of organizations such as Caritas or through public services cannot but stem from Italy’s Catholic values.

In Christian theology charity is the most important of the three theological virtues, and means literally unlimited love-kindness toward others. However, this meaning has changed, and today charity is understood more in terms of a benevolent act of giving. Charity is a gift, a donation from one who has more to one who has less (in its most consumerist articulation charity involves giving so long as it does not significantly diminish the donor’s material wealth). I am not disputing the sincere motives behind modern articulations of charity; yet, does it not set up an asymmetrical power relationship? Does charity not symbolically presuppose the figure of a magnanimous, wealthy giver and that of a poor, weak receiver? My criticism to charity is that it poses the immigrant as being a-priori weak, and in constant need of help. The “weak” immigrant stereotype is a complete construction: Italian immigrants are ranked first in Europe in terms of opening up their own businesses, demonstrating that they are able to climb the economical and social ladder through their own hard work.

Moreover, the particularly distressing issue with Italy’s expression of charity is that it is in contrast with the most basic understanding of human rights. Human rights are a-priori rights which every human possesses no matter what his status is: be him a first world citizen, a criminal, or a migrant worker. Italy’s catholic roots distort such an understanding, placing human rights within the logics of charity. In this way human rights are granted to those in need. Yet, human rights cannot be granted – they must be mutually recognized and extended from human being to fellow human being. They are no one’s to give – by definition.


The picture which emerges from this analysis is one which demonstrates how much Italian culture is attached to its two contrasting eurocentric heritages: the Enlightenment and Catholicism. There has always been a struggle between a secular, progressive, republican Italian identity, and a more Catholic conservative one. There have also been many attempts to combine the two. However, immigration throws both identities in complete disarray, as if the very presence of the “other” represents an obstacle to any identity claim.

In What is the Enlightenment? (1984) Foucault states that the Enlightenment completely permeates contemporary European thought. The Enlightenment grants the European collective conscience the feeling of being “on the right side of history”; because, after all, democracy, science and human rights were invented there. However, that very sense of progressive righteousness is xenophobia’s strongest base. We have witnessed this in the constructs of the “good” and “bad” immigrant, where the “other” simply cannot be rational, normal and balanced: these are attributes which emerge from the Enlightenment, and as such, are property of Europe and Europeans.

In this way we witness a paradoxical situation. Italy’s Catholic tradition, which has generally represented the obstacle overcome by the Enlightenment, paradoxically is much more progressive in terms of immigrant solidarity than Italy’s republican tradition. This should not come as a surprise as Catholicism has historically had a very strong  popular and, according to Joseph Ratzinger in his Without Roots, socialist wing which has always been in contrast with the Vatican’s conservatism. What should come as a surprise, and simultaneously be cause for alarm, is that what has probably been history’s greatest emancipatory movement in terms of political and social thought -the Enlightenment- has proven to be one of the greater obstacles to immigrant integration and solidarity. Where Catholicism becomes an obstacle is when it tries to articulate human rights, when rights are granted as an act of charity.

In conclusion we must resist explaining racism as being solely caused by contemporary social, economic and political conditions. It is clear that racism has much deeper roots: roots which derive directly from the ways in which Europe defines its own identity. In asking the question “what does it mean to be European”, Europe should not use its great emancipatory movement as a way to define difference and neglect rights to non-Europeans. This entails the act of enclosing the Enlightenment in a closed system. Such a system must retain its emancipatory potential by striving to remain “open”, and as such accessible to all.


Filed under Human Rights, Immigration, Racism

Redefining Environmental Conflicts in Latin America


There does not seem to be an official definition for the term environmental conflict in ecological and environmental literature. What is an environmental conflict (EC from now on)? Under what circumstances does it occur? Who does it actually involve? The vagueness of the term allows for its constant redefinition. Certain ecologists assert that ECs constitute a deliberate assault on mother nature, indigenous groups state that they entail a destruction of their ancestral livelihood, and politicians view them as an unfortunate consequence of economic structural adjustment.

Perhaps the most authoritative definition of an EC is given by the United Nations Environmental Program. According to the UNEP’s 2009 publication “From Conflict to Peacebuilding: the role of natural resources and the environment” ECs occur because of the contention of natural resources between interest groups. Thus unequal redistribution of wealth from high value extractive resources coupled with contention over the direct use of scarce natural resources are the primary causes of international and intra-national ECs. In this way, ECs are simply economically determined. The UNEP’s solution to ECs is thus to promote a sustainable form of development which addresses equal wealth redistribution and fair and correct natural resource management.

“Sustainable Development”

Throughout the 1990s the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund implemented neoliberal economic policies in many countries of Latina America. This entailed the complete liberalization of the market, deregulation and privatization among other things. Economic growth was thus seen as the basis for social development.

Not only would economic growth promote social development, but it would lead to environmental improvement as well. The 1992 World Bank Development Report popularized the theory of the Environmental Kuznets Curve. The theory states that “in the early stages of economic growth, degradation and pollution increase, but beyond some level of income per capita…the trend reverses, so that at high income levels economic growth leads to environmental improvement.” Basically, the richer a country gets, the better it improves its environment.

These strategies implied that the structural adjustments as proposed by the WB would bring economic growth, social development, and environmental improvement at the same time. In other words neoliberal economics would promote sustainable development.

It is not the aim of this paper to discuss the disastrous results of neoliberal sustainable development in Latin America. Nor to debate the fallacy of the Environmental Kuznets curve theory. Needless to say, environmental and social conflicts increased exponentially in the past two decades, often pitting campesiño and indigenous communities against giant trans-national corporations. For example, in Peru, 68% of socio-environmental conflicts are caused by mining operations entirely owned by trans-national corporations. The Chevron-Texaco oil spill in the Oriente department of Ecuador dubbed the “Amazonian Chernobyl” and the displacement of three (three!) millenary glaciers by US-Canadian trans-national mining giant Barrick Gold in Pascua Lama, Argentina are examples of a new reality of environmental conflict: one that, through the extraction of natural resources, firstly degrades the environment and secondly destroys the livelihood of small communities.

Redefining ECs

The point is that the very authoritative definition that the UNEP gives to an environmental conflict allows for the systematic violation of human rights to pass as a small but necessary consequence of an overbearing and all important economic process.

If the assumption that ECs are essentially a conflict over natural resources were true, then conflict could be easily prevented by changing the economic dynamics of natural resource distribution and management; in this way the notion of sustainable development would provide the solution. Yet, we have seen what “sustainable development” in the key of neoliberalism has done to Latin America with all its grand narratives of Environmental Kuznets Curves, trickle down theories, and social development through capital growth.

The redefinition of an environmental conflict must refute this economically determined assumption. It must shift the grounds for the outbreak of environmental conflicts away from that of a simplistic contention of natural resources.

A new proposition must point out that an environmental conflict occurs when the act of natural resource exploitation/extraction systematically violates human rights and destroys livelihoods through the degradation of the environment. Proposing new strategies of sustainable development or corporate social responsibility neglects the crude reality of the violation of human rights. It neglects the displacement of families, the loss of biodiversity, and the magnitude and damage of irreversible environmental disasters. This is not a naïve appeal to an abstract notion of human rights; rather it is a very pragmatic strategy to shift the attention back towards the destruction of the livelihoods of millions of people throughout Latin America.

If human rights are the ultimate, inalienable, and universal set of non-refutable assertions, then no version of “sustainable development”, free-market environmentalism, or revised notion of “capitalism with a human face” can logically and legally legitimize their violation. An environmental conflict is thus, a-priori, a degradation of an ecosystem which, by extension, violates human rights and destroys ancestral livelihoods. Only by linking these notions together can the true extent of socio-environmental damage be acknowledged.

This proposition could draw criticism from proponents of deep ecology. Deep ecology asserts that nature has an intrinsic value; where the environment has the inalienable right to live, evolve, and reproduce. The above mentioned re-definition of an environmental conflict does not account for this, and views nature as having an instrumental value for humans and no transcendental value in itself. Although ethically contestable, this anthropocentric point of view is necessary to shift the attention from the technocrat jargon of macroeconomic stabilization and environmental Kuznets curves to the reality of pain and suffering and towards the universality and non-refutability of human rights.

The New Constitution of Ecuador and Environmental Rights

The adoption of the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador throws this whole discussion into a new light. The Ecuadorian people have decided that the environment possesses inalienable rights. Article 1 of the environmental rights section states that “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” In this way, any citizen can sue on behalf of the ecosystem. In practical and legal terms, this could provide the ultimate form of prevention of environmental conflicts. By extending inalienable human rights to nature, and if the violation can be proven, there could be no possible legal loophole or argument that could justify such violation. Ecuador’s Constitution thus poses nature as having an intrinsic value.

However, the decision of instituting environmental rights, thus delegating intrinsic value to nature, is highly controversial: Could I be sued for picking flowers because I have prevented Pachamama’s life cycle? It is not the aim of this paper to delve into the discussion of intrinsic/instrumental value of nature, nor to debate social ecology vs. deep ecology. However we must take into account the ethical implications of extending human rights to nature.

Ecuador’s Constitution is important because it is the first constitution that recognizes the symbiotic link between indigenous livelihoods and the conservation of the environment. This bond is called the Sumak Kawsay in Quechua, the communitarian ancestral “good lifestyle.”  The modes of production and strategies of natural resource management which have ancestrally been practiced by many communities in Latin America are in fact sustainable. It is solely the callous exploitation of natural resources driven by the exaggerated quest for short-term profit that destroys the sustainable bond between man and nature.

The symbiosis between man and nature must not however be interpreted as a nostalgic return to a golden age of pre-modern agrarianism. Rather, it must embrace its emancipatory potential by providing a sustainable post-industrial alternative within a democratic logic.


If a revision of human rights and the drafting of environmental rights are the only strategies left for developing countries to protect themselves from future environmental conflicts, then such strategies must be seriously considered. They are the only (and ultimate) legal and ethical tools with which Latin America can re-appropriate its ancestral livelihoods and protect its environment. If the focus is not shifted from economic determinism, to human/environmental rights, then environmental conflicts will be continually relegated to a small but necessary side-effect of the fallacious “sustainable development” models proposed by free-market environmentalism.


Filed under Development, Environmental Rights, Human Rights, Latin America