This episode features Sandro Mezzadra, who’s written extensively about borders and migration, as in a book he co-authored with Brett Neilson titled “Border as Method.” Sandro talks about struggles that surround the contemporary proliferation and mutations of borders, and the processes of bordering that extend beyond physical walls.
Image credit: Still frame from Oliver Ressler’s “Emergency Turned Upside-Down”
Click here to display the episode transcript.
a Maria: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is a Maria. In this episode we speak with Sandro Mezzadra about the processes of bordering that extend far beyond the walls we usually think about when we speak of borders. Sandro is a professor of political theory at the University of Bologna and has written extensively about borders and migration, such as in a book he co-authored with Brett Neilson titled “Border as Method.”
Before we begin, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.
Kaif: Repression has ramped up inside prisons across the so-called U.S., as several departments of correction have imposed a wave of seemingly unrelated lockdowns over the last month. On April 17th, the St Louis Correctional Facility in Gratiot County, Michigan was put on lockdown after 50 imprisoned people broke out in fights over the course of three days. All state prisons in Mississippi were put on lockdown on April 20th, with the department of corrections citing only “security concerns” as a justification. The lockdowns bar visitation, commissary, and outdoor recreation for inmates among other repressive measures of containment and punishment.
On April 15th, riots broke out at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. Seven inmates were killed and 22 seriously injured in what’s being described as the worst incident of prison violence in modern South Carolina history. South Carolina’s prison system, long known for its uninhabitable conditions, is one of the deadliest in the country. It took 4 hours from the beginning of the violence before emergency medical personnel were able to get in the facility and treat inmates.
On April 16th, imprisoned people at the Wynn Unit in Huntsville, Texas went on hunger strike in response to being put on lockdown. Prior to the lockdown, the unit was put on medical restriction due to a norovirus outbreak, and prison staff were blocked from entering the unit. As last reported from inside, 22 inmates were on hunger strike.
Alejo: I am Alejo, here with a Maria and you are listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement building project based in Detroit Michigan. Today our special guest is Sandro Mezzadra, who is an Associate professor of political theory at the university of Bologna. We will be talking with him about borders, something he’s written quite a bit about. Welcome Sandro and thank you for joining us.
Sandro: Thank you for inviting me.
Alejo: So Sandro, let’s get started, you written extensively about the function of borders and bordering…
Sandro: I did.
Alejo: …in contemporary capitalism to which will get to soon. But before we get there we wanted to begin by asking you about a traditionalist struggle that has influenced you greatly. This tradition called “operaism””, in italian or workerism and sometimes also referred to autonomous marxism or simply autonomism. Can you tell us a little bit about this tradition and how it has influenced your work? Specifically about how you think about borders and migration?
Sandro: Well, this tradition has been crucial to my own political training because I joined the so called autonomist movement in Italy when I was a kid. It was not that unusual in the end of the 70’s in Italy to become politicized at 15/16 and this was also my experience. To put it very shortly, Italian workerism has always emphasized the relevance of struggles writ large–not only explicitly political struggles but also behaviors and practices of workers, and more generally, subaltern people. And this has been very important for me when I first encountered migration in Italy. Italy has a very peculiar history as far as migration is concerned because in the 1980’s the country became a country of immigration after having been (for more than a century) a country as emigration as any American citizen knows. So immigration, immigration from North Africa immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa, immigration from Latin America, was something new for us at the end of the 1980’s.
I grew up in Genoa–a quite important industrialized port city in the Northwest of Italy–and the city in which I grew up was a white city. Suddenly we realized that the city was not white anymore — that there were new people around us — that the city itself was changing in a quite dramatic way. And so I started with comrades and friends to think about migration from the angle of workerism, in a way emphasizing the whole set of practices and behaviors that constitute the subjective side of migration and started to think of what we came to define a bit later — in terms of the “autonomy of migration.” But the real point that for me that constitutes the connection between my own training in workerism and my political and also theoretical work on migration is precisely this idea to look at migration taking its subjective dimension as the crucial viewpoint.
Ayana: We are here in Detroit, in the Rustbelt so to speak, the Black-led class struggle in the late 1960s, created some of the most radical organizations of the moment, such as, the league of revolutionary Black workers. And, these struggles were happening simultaneously alongside the struggles of workers in the automobile factories of Northern Italy. What is the relation between the work of Black radical thinkers such as C.L.R. James and James Boggs and Italian workerism?
Sandro: Well, this relation is really important, although it is not well known. C.L.R. James, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, DRUM… were crucial sources of inspiration for Italian workerism, as well as sociological investigations in factories, particularly in Detroit that 1950s were pointing to specific worker’s behaviors that were not directly political, like absenteeism, showing that these behaviors were, in a way, expressing a refusal of the workers with respect to factory discipline. So what I was saying before about this attempt to expand the very notion of struggle—beyond the worker is traditionally understood as struggle also in the Marxist tradition– took the reality of factories and workers experiences in a city like Detroit as a crucial source of inspiration. Later, such experiences as the ones that you were mentioning were particularly important for Italian workerist activists in order to get a different kind of perspective on the development of Black Power in the U.S. This connection between Black Power and Black workers struggles was really very important for us. But let me say something more. The question so effectively raised by organizations like DRUM, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, which means of the question of the relation between class and race became really important for us in the framework of the dramatic transformations produced by migration since the late 1980’s, as I was saying before. Because in the history of workerism, the problem of race was not directly posited until that transformation.
To be more precise, we had a kind of similar problem already in the 1960’s in Italy. Because worker struggles in Northern Italy that you were mentioning were basically struggles of migrant workers. Which kind of migrant workers? Internal workers. Workers from the south of Italy. You may be familiar with the “Southern Question” and its relevance in Italian history–this huge divide an industrial North and an underdeveloped South. So this problem that was discussed in Third Worldism in the 1960’s as a problem of the relation between the North and the Third World was in Italy an internal problem. Since the late 1960’s there was a dramatic wave of migration from the south to the north. Everywhere in the world– mass industrialization, Fordism, was associated with migration. And in Italy this migration was internal migration from the South. Migrants from the South were facing racism both in the northern cities and in the factories. It was the politicization of this new generation of workers from the south that spurred the exceptional cycle of workers struggles that we experienced in Italy since the 1960’s. So the question was not posited, framed in terms of race but the problem was there. And the experience of the Revolutionary Black organizations in Detroit, in a way, already spoke to the Italian experience.
Alejo: So Detroit is a city, like most American cities, of many borders — along racial and class lines as we’ve been talking about just now. Going along with that, I mean, when we speak about borders we think of a wall. A wall that stretches across thousands of miles across lines, in Palestine, in the so called United States, or somewhere else. But in your writing with Brett Neilson, however, you want to sort of move away from thinking about the border solely as a wall. Why is that that we should move away simply about thinking of the border solely as a wall and what are its political consequences for today?
Sandro: Well, of course, moving away from thinking of the border simply as a wall doesn’t mean to forget that there are many walls–along international borders but also within urban spaces. So we take very seriously this kind of proliferation of walls that we have been witnessing over the last years. And we take very seriously the necessity to struggle against these borders. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the border has many manifestations that cannot be reduced to the materiality of a wall. I can say, in a very simple way, that I first discovered the relevance of borders participating in struggles of migration in Genoa in the early 1990’s. It is participating in struggles of migration that I discovered, for instance, that the color line started to be drawn across urban spaces that historically had not been shaped by the color line. So this is a much more elusive kind of border that can also materialize in something similar to a wall but has much wider implications. Moreover, I think that focusing our imagination on the wall leads us to lose sight of other aspects that are constitutive of any border and, first of all, of the challenge that movements of migration posit to the border. What we tried to do with Brett in the book you were mentioning is to look at the borders from the viewpoint of people on the move, of people that challenge the stability of the border. And if you start to take this point of view, then, even walls become more flexible and maybe less intimidating.
Alejo: Yea, so, in a way also, what this implies–this flexibility of the wall, this mobility of the wall–implies also that it’s not simply an instrument of exclusion as well, right? This is also something that you talk about and write about as well. There is a continuity of the wall, and the border, as something that both includes and excludes. So can you tell us about sort of this dual function of the border as something that both includes and excludes? As well as its importance for thinking about borders?
Sandro: Yes, thank you for asking this question. I mean, it’s apparent that borders exclude. It is apparent that this exclusion often takes terrifying forms. You know, death in the deserts, across the U.S.-Mexico border. Thousands of people drowned in the Mediterranean in the last few years. So, never forget about this. And let’s continue to struggle against this. At the same time, there is a need to keep in mind that borders also shape the forms of inclusion. My friend and comrade, Nicholas De Genova, has written extensively on Mexican migration to the US from this point of view showing that the border performs crucial functions of inclusion even through illegalization of migrant bodies and labor. And this is something that we have been able to show, also, with respect to Europe; meaning that, independently of the effectiveness of the image of “fortress Europe,” what has happened over the last 20 years is that, more than the walls of a fortress, the European border regime has established a kind of system of dikes that have facilitated processes of what we call differential hierarchical inclusion. I repeat, also in Europe, even through illegalization of migrant bodies and migrant labor. This has important implications, of course, for the experience of these migrants, but more generally, for the reshaping of citizenship and labor markets across different geographical scales — in Europe as well as in the U.S. (always keeping in mind that Europe and the US have completely different histories of migration). But nevertheless, it is possible to trace analogies to listen to resonances between these different kinds of landscapes. And let me add just one more point that is more general. Over the last couple of decades, there has been a tendency of critical thinking of activism to focus in a quite exclusive way on exclusion. On the struggle against exclusion. Of course, we have to continue this struggle, but we don’t have to forget that also inclusion has its violent discriminating sites. So we have to, gain the offensive again and to extend our critique and our activism beyond the territories of exclusion.
Alejo: So following this last line of thought, you were mentioning — of course, thinking of borders as both exclusion and inclusion– then what do you make of the calls of many activists in Europe and United States and other parts of the world for the abolition of borders?
Sandro: I have participated for many years now in “no border politics.” I have participated in the organization of no border camps and no border actions. This is the background of our engagement with the topic of the border. Let me say that I am a bit weary of the emphasis on the abolition of borders when this emphasis is framed in merely normative terms. Meaning that there must be no borders in our ideal world. I am more interested in this dirty and world. In the real world. I am more interested in the struggles that surround the contemporary proliferation and also the mutations of borders. And of course, in these struggles there is a tension toward the abolition of borders but I think that this material tension is not as interesting as the imagination of a world without borders.
Ayana: So the border is not only a wall, but a machine; it’s a method that has the capacity both to exclude as well as include. And we often think of prisons and the penal system, more broadly, solely as machines of exclusion. They define, so to speak, who is part of society and who is not, particularly here in the United States, across racial lines. So the danger with this, of course, is that inclusion means being part of a society that continues to police and punish certain gendered and racialized bodies, even outside prison walls. So given this situation, how do you see the “border as method” working in relation to the prison or to the carceral more generally?
Sandro: That’s a very good question. Of course, this question must be answered in different ways with respect to different situations. The U.S. situation is kind of peculiar in this regard, although it is also driving the development of the carceral in many parts of the world. It is something obvious that prisons have a kind of function of exclusion, of bordering and containing bodies within walled spaces. I would ask whether it is possible to analyze a process of mass incarceration–as the one we are confronted with in the United States– from the angle of the contribution that this process makes to the reshaping of the society. I think that it is crucially important to keep an eye open on the relation between these walled spaces and a society writ large. It is crucially important to contest the kind of effect of segregation that is part and parcel of the carceral, particularly in front of conditions of mass incarceration. So, which is the kind of labor, for instance, that is performed in prisons? Which is the kind of functions that prisons perform with respect to the reorganization of urban spaces? For instance, in Detroit? In the rustbelt? These are, for me, very important questions that lead us to widen a bit the scope, to widen a bit the perspective, with regard to the analysis and the contestation of the carceral.
Ayana: Well, thank you so much for your work and for joining us.
Sandro: Thank you, thank you very much.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: Andres, a Maria, David Langstaff, Catalina Rios, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity