Monday, 14 January 2013

From the ‘moral question’ of the communists to ‘legalità’ of the NGOs: transparency and anti-mafia rhetoric in contemporary Italian activism (published in: Re-Public, issue "Contested transparencies" -see:

Theodoros Rakopoulos – From the ‘moral question’ of the communists to ‘legalità’ of the NGOs: transparency and anti-mafia rhetoric in contemporary Italian activism In this article, I briefly explore the historicity of the political claims to transparency and the articulation of legalist and moralist mobilisation in Italy. I problematise the morality-based political discourse by looking at its ethico-political foundation, its hegemony in Italian society and some of the discontents it constitutes. I shall argue that it forms continuities with the historical ‘euro-communist’ Italian Left, in apparent contradiction with its agents’ commitment to ideas of memory that contest politics at large or allow for reactionary interpretations. I shall also briefly refer to the judiciary’s role in the context of moralisation politics. Recently, transparency-aimed ‘social movements’ in Eastern Europe have brought forward claims for a ‘clean public life’ (Holler & Shore 2005). The Palermo civil society has been a leading conduit in anti-corruption politics since the ‘80s, as local advocates of a middle-class movement against the mafia argue that ‘clean polity’ is a fundamental democratic principle and a ‘citizen’s right’ (Jamieson 2000; Schneider & Schneider 2000). Reactions to revelations on links between the Christian Democrat (DC) ruling party and Cosa Nostra have contributed to the coinage of a key-term of increasing relevance: ‘legalità’. The endorsement of the civil society mobilisation around ‘legalità’ has rendered the term the ideological backbone of Libera, the biggest NGO in Italy in terms of membership, comprising many smaller organisations. The association’s main aim is ‘the struggle against the mafia’. Libera agents mobilise active citizenship through civic participation in an attempt to ‘reclaim the state’, contributing to the reproduction of the state on the ground by emphasising ‘its’ relevance and affirming ‘its’ presence. Libera’s most tangible contribution to transparency policies was lobbying the government to vote for law 109/95, imposing all assets of arrested mafiosi were confiscated and rendered available to local communities for free usufruct. Throughout my ethnographic fieldwork among Sicilian antimafia activists, I never met a Libera sympathiser with right-wing sympathies: members (overwhelmingly volunteers) are usually young left-wingers. Historically suspected for mafia collision due to the DC’s shadowy alliances that offered the party a ‘pool of votes’ in Sicily through mafia patronage (Ginsborg 2002), and currently connected with Berlusconi who openly disregards the country’s judicial system, ‘the Right’ is often frowned upon in legality-oriented activist circles. An idea of the Left? The moral question However, the commitment to preserving the ‘cleanliness’ of administration has hardly been within the political scope of the European Left. How does a seemingly ‘reactionary’ term (promoting the law’s enforcement) has come to be a totem of the Italian Left? Viewing it as an indigenous notion, -what anthropologists call an emic category- renders its historicisation possible. Libera’s foundation in 1995 comes right after the informal establishment of the Second Italian Republic and follows its development closely. Since then, NGOs adhering to Libera stress the centrality of ‘legality’ as a matter of governance, a focal point of administration and a linchpin of everyday life. The restructuring of the Italian political apparatus after the 1992 investigation known as Tangentopoli (literally: Bribesville), affected every aspect of party politics. It contributed to the demise of the First Italian republic, in the midst of the revelations of countless bribery cases in the heart of the country’s political life. Interestingly, the idea of a Second Italian Republic, (unlike the French institutional reconstruction, implying new Constitutions) entails a moral restructuring: a regeneration of ethics, manifested in the formation of new parties. The Italian ruling political class was severely damaged from the developments: the Socialists and the DC because of the proliferation of information on briberies involving MPs; the Communists because of the tide of change that had just swept across Eastern Europe. In fact, as Glasnost shows, radical regime change was largely implemented through political transparency idioms. The judicial, transparency-centred operation ‘clean hands’, led by the Milanese magistrate Di Pietro, brought down a system of governance rather than ‘a Republic’. The legalist discourse that triggered this Italian institutional makeover resonates today in NGO activism. It is a telling detail that many Libera members today are supporters of the Italy of Values party, led by Di Pietro, who turned politician after the personal acclaim he experienced through Tangentopoli. However, the political momentum of morality and transparency cannot be reduced to a specific moment. The current antimafia and ‘legalità’ discourse hail from a strictly political past: struggling against corruption has been a historical impetus of the Communist Party (PCI), a focal point of its policy and a constitutive aspect of its political philosophy. The civil society’s ‘legalità’ rendered intimate to the ‘90s middle classes those structurally transformative ideas crafted by the biggest Western European communist party in the ‘70s. The process of fusing ‘a certain ethics of the Left’ into political activity and organisation had been a battle of ideas internal to PCI members. It was solidified in what its general secretary, Enrico Berlinguer (1972-1984), codified as ‘la questione morale’: ‘the moral issue’. The discourse of the party, albeit purist, echoed Gramsci: members pursued hegemony on the ground, through practices that allowed for an intact political praxis, dissociating all communists from the patronage and clientelism of what Berlinguer called ‘the regime’: the DC in power. The communists saw themselves as benign forces of good, as the ethical voice in a corrupt public life; Pasolini wrote the PCI was an ‘ethical island’ in a corrupt Italian sea. The PCI managed to render the moralistic discourse its hegemonic political monopoly – and in that respect the berlinguerian legacy has been successful. Its legalism and calls for ‘cleanliness’ however allowed for an uncomfortable political kinship with the purist rhetoric of the neo-fascists, also allegedly unaffected from corruption and commited to eliminating the mafia, seen by the far right as challenging a strong centralised State since the time of Mussolini (Mack Smith 1983). The ‘moral question’ has been co-articulated with the ‘80s anti-mafia movement, which it has fertilised. Monopolising morality/transparency as PCI political tools implied that the movement developed as an adjunct to communism; but with its collapse and the PCI transformation, the ‘moral question’ gave way through the ‘90s to ‘legalità’ as a hegemonic drive towards a polity uncontaminated by obscure factors. In that respect, the ‘moral question’ was a PCI hegemonic idea inherited to contemporary Italian political discourse, as it aimed at bringing all ambiguous political agents (such as the mafia) to the surface, rendering ‘the State’ transparent. Employed by left-wing purists, ‘legalità’ is hence currently used in ways that emulate and reproduce the moral question of the late ‘70s. Neoliberal transformations: from party to NGO and the judiciary However, there are two discrepancies in its deployment correlated through the ‘active citizenship’ neoliberal discourse that has transformed transparency activism. Firstly, as it happened with Berlinguer’s policy, legality’s purism is equally evoked on the right of the political spectrum: but this time it is a diffused call to employ a no-quarter legalism in everyday life. In that respect, the mirror image of an idiom of the Left in Sicily is used by racists in Northern Italy. Legalità’s impetus is used as an expression of Italian purity against immigrant and Roma communities thought to be ‘criminogenous’, especially in Lombardy and Veneto. The ronde (‘watchmen’) phenomenon is fundamentally the call on the citizenry to safeguard, in makeshift patrols, the safety of the streets. It might recall Mussolini’s black shirts, but in fact is a profoundly neoliberal policy: it asserts the celebrated moral voluntarism and community spirit of the ‘active citizen’ who shoulders responsibilities that a rolled-back state has left behind.[1] Legality’s progressive hegemonic discourse then becomes a contested issue itself, in that its applicability can lead to reactionary practices, in mobilising the agenda of ‘taking state services in our hands’. The shift of the state’s law enforcement responsibilities, channelled through transparency and morality idioms, encourages forms of vigilantism and the proliferation of violence in fusing the codified legal order with arbitrarily perceived moral codes of conduct. Secondly, ‘legalità’ claims to transparency have been disconnected from class-based drives of democratic integration of the subordinate, as with the ‘moral issue’ politics. Unlike the politicisation of moral discourse by the PCI followers who appealed to a parliamentary force, NGO activists today express their commitment to clean politics outside political affiliations: legalism becomes a technical, not a politicised discourse. Appeals to ‘legalità’ on both sides of the contemporary political spectrum, interestingly, involve more the judicial order (generally deemed uncontaminated) than the executive or parliamentary ones, prone to corruption due to the systemic patronage means through which they are constructed. Legalità’s historical embodiments are the ‘men of institutions’, seen as operating beyond the potentially corruptive grasp of legitimacy through the vote. The heroism of magistrates escorted by the police in the pursuit of transparency and the chirurgic detachment of the Italian public life from the mafia’s brokerage is celebrated in Libera’s communiqués and centre-left newspapers alike. Claiming examples of policemen, army officials and, especially, judges assassinated by Cosa Nostra, Libera narrates an antimafia history made of ‘those who gave their lives fighting the mafia and for a clean democracy’. March 21st is institutionalised as ‘the day of memory and commitment’ to these principles, marked by a commemorative demonstration in a different city each year. Libera therefore promotes an iconography of dead heroes, sacrificed for a legalist, clean public life. The assassinated magistrates Falcone and Borsellino offer examples of figures ‘above parties’ who confirmed and reformed a political legacy of justicialism, legalism and public ethics without being spoilt by the ‘corruptive forces of the democratic game’. Berlusconi’s shadow on contemporary Italian politics resonates this mistrust on the parliamentary routes towards ‘clean public life’ (Lane: 2005). He was voted as the first PM of the proverbial Second Republic in 1994, (in the South as part of the ‘Pole for Good Government’ coalition)[2] with the historical momentum to lead Italy to post-Tangentopoli transition through honesty. NGO legalist mobilisation evoking figures ‘outside politics’, reflects the popular disappointment with this development. Celebrating the magistratura democratica (the democratic judiciary) instead is the last resort of activists disenchanted with the institutions: the only apparatus that remains trustworthy and continues the moralist legacy seem to be ‘committed’ judges, in popular discourse called tute rosse (red suits). Crafting a list of heroes who sacrificed for the republic in fighting against the mafia emphasises the ethics of legality as a political guiding principle, seen as civic duty bonded to an impossible to fulfil reciprocity. The historical transformation of transparency politics from the ‘moral issue’ (a politicised discourse identifiable with a strong party) to the diffused ‘legality’ that contests politics reveals neoliberal shifts, the individualised direct law enforcement of the ronde being its darkest shade. In terms of left-wing NGO politics, the depoliticising effects of what Ferguson has dubbed ‘the anti-politics machine’ (1994) turns transparency, from an aspect of democratic participation to a commitment to institutional figures who lie outside everyday politics by definition: the law enforcement appointed servants, such as judges. Transparency’s depoliticisation might be a main reason for the reproduction of Berlusconi in power throughout the Second Republic. Interestingly then, by exposing the term legalità to the civil society of ‘associationism’, the politicised acuteness of the term suffers an enduring disarming. The fervent embracement of the term across the spectrum of everyday politics (its banalisation) moreover, implies in this case an ‘open’ term that has become apparently hegemonic, in that it is employed by virtually everyone. This all-encompassing application of the idea, includes Berlusconi’s constant appeals to ‘popular justice’ with reference to his own case and ‘restoring order on the streets’ in regard to the ronde. The moralisation of political discourse however, has spared one level of state activity that, as mentioned above, attracts popular attention and enjoys the remaining trust to the public institutions: the judiciary. Berlusconi’s fierce attacks to magistrates, whom he has tellingly branded ‘communists’ in a number of occasions, might suggest that the perceived depository of the Republic’s morale lies with them. Di Pietro’s ‘Italy of Values’ party has established itself as the main centrist power of the country, while incumbent magistrates themselves, especially those of the Anti-mafia judicial bodies, often acquire a ‘public voice’.[3] Many have become recognisable figures with increased popularity among left-leaning newspapers. Discourses employed by such magistrates make them resemble more like sociologists (with a Weberian belief to an ideal-type state and a sympathy to class) than technical figures. In that respect, this convergence of the judicial with the political, especially in times of Berlusconi and of rising mafia activity in the country, might reflect the taking over of the political discourse by legalità, a term that as an informant told me, appears ‘bureaucratically neutral’. These configurations open up new political (or post-political?) meanings to transparency, as Berlusconi seems to currently be in front of the biggest judicial challenge of a career that coincides with the Second Republic’s history. Notes [1] Τhe appropriation of the term ‘community’ by New Labour has led to not dissimilar legalistic policies such as “neighbourhood watch” in Britain. [2] Good governance’ is a World Bank buzzword. [3] See, for instance, publications such as Lodato and Grasso 2001, a volume that includes ‘engaged’ interviews of the national procuratore antimafia Piero Grasso by a leading left-wing journalist. References – Ferguson, James: The anti-politics machine : “development,” depoliticization, and bureaucratic power in Lesotho / Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c1994. - Ginsborg, Paul: Italy and its discontents : family, civil society, state, 1980-2001 / London : Penguin, 2003. - Haller Dieter and Shore Chris: Corruption (edited by): anthropological perspectives /.London ; Ann Arbor, MI : Pluto, 2005. - Jamieson, Alison: The antimafia: Italy’s fight against organized crime/ New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. – Lane, David Stuart: Berlusconi’s shadow : crime, justice and the pursuit of power / London : Penguin Books, 2005. – Lewis, David and Mosse, David (edited by): Development brokers and translators: the ethnography of aid and agencies / Bloomfield, CT : Kumarian Press, 2006. - Lodato, Saverio and Grasso, Piero: L’antimafia invisibile: la nuova strategia di Cosa Nostra / Milano: Mondadori 2001. - Mack Smith, Denis: Mussolini / New York : Vintage Books, 1983.