A New Humanism? Then Open the Ports to the Immigrants

After receiving the mandate to form a new government, the old and new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose Five-Star Movement (M5S) is now entering a coalition with the Partito Democratico (PD), declared: ‘This is the time for a new humanism’. Read the comment by Luciana Castellina.

The first reason why I am for forming a second Conte government as quickly as possible is to disembark those poor people crowded together on the NGO rescue ships who were at risk of drowning. I am fully aware that to call the new executive that is being assembled ‘bad’ is euphemistic and also that to base our decisions solely on how it will treat the immigrants is insufficient for judging the question of the new government as a whole. And yet for me, at the moment, it is sufficient because in that word ‘solely’ are the lives of those women and those kids and babies who look at us through the television screen terrorised but also stupefied at our meanness.

There is little time left to save them as well as those who we know will continue to arrive despite the risk they know they are running. And I know that any other solution to our government crisis – a return to the previous team, or the very long electoral campaign with probably even worse results – would mean a death sentence for them.

I say this although I am dumbfounded by Toninelli, the former Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation, and Trenta, the former Minister of Defence, (both M5S) lining up with Salvini’s diktat in the very last hours of serving in office, observing a ‘discipline’ all the more inexplicable that precisely these two ministers seemed initially not to be in agreement with the decreto sicurezza bis (Security Law 2, which allows the government to interpret NGO rescue ships as engaged in ‘clandestine immigration’);[1] but that was really only a conflict of jurisdictional authority. And I am also dismayed by the silence precisely on the issue of immigrants in Conte’s first speech as the new Prime Minister.

Despite all this, I believe that in the end, at least regarding this problem, there will be a rupture with the policies of the first Conte government. After all, he spoke of a ‘new humanism’ after receiving the mandate to form a new government. Then let him open the ports to shipwrecked immigrants. But even the harsh indictment levelled at Salvini in the Senate – a speech that was in many ways astonishing for a hall like this (and which in fact shocked foreign observers of every political tendency) – was meant to guarantee a turn away from what has been the most characteristic feature of Salvini’s policies: ‘closed ports’.

You will say that mine is a catchpenny optimism, that putting immigration policy before other more important things is not right. But, excuse me, what is it that is important and good in having recourse to the vote? Only those who have a pretty meagre conception of democracy could think that it is good and decent for the country to give the floor to the voters now. Representative democracy, provided for by our Constitution, is emptied of meaning if it only means voting every few years on the part of a socially and culturally shattered society like present-day Italy where those intermediary organisms no longer exist that guarantee a channel of communication between citizen and institutions, that are equipped to articulate a ‘we’, to read one’s own condition through a class grid (which is indispensable in order to understand the meaning of political proposals), to grasp the complexity of the problems.

In the First Republic this role was played by the large mass parties; today these indispensable organisms for democracy no longer exist, along with other forms of organised democracy that are still absent. In these conditions an electoral campaign does little to reinforce democracy, still less the one that would occur now with part of the electorate having abruptly shifted – and only out of confused protest – to political formations that have only just appeared, with the other half having taken refuge in abstention.

I certainly do not want to say that voting is useless, but I do not want us to dupe ourselves into imagining that the nasty, violent, coarse face-off that would take place, dictated by uncontrollable social media and unbearable TV chat shows, would strengthen democracy. The greater danger is precisely a formal use of the rules of democracy to bury it. History has shown this.

There is much to do in reconstructing the conditions for a less barbaric confrontation, and the sooner we start getting involved, giving this goal the priority it deserves within the political agenda, the better it will be. But we must commit to reconquering the society that we have lost and not stay obsessed by the idea of being in government.

What will this second government be? I hear many people repeating (most recently the philosopher and former social democratic mayor of Venice Massimo Cacciari, even though he at first seemed to be of the opposite opinion) that this is an ‘indecent operation’. Of course none of this is forthright. But frankly there is little forthrightness around now, and I do not see what species of better government could emerge from the immediate vote that is being invoked even assuming it could ward off a dangerous assertive and massive victory for the League. No one is in a position to provide a decent government for tomorrow.

Therefore we need, without illusions, to accept this compromise between a Partito Democratico – certainly with little credibility due to what it has been for a long time about which it is far from being self-critical – and a Five-Star Movement full of contradictions, arrogance, and ignorance, but which – let’s not forget it – garnered a large part of the left electorate in the last elections. Out of rage and distrust, ‘because there needs to be a  shake-up’ – as I heard many people tell me during the electoral campaign. (Maybe Five-Star’s contradictions could have exploded earlier and more advantageously if the PD had immediately tried the operation it is now forced to accept). Now, freed from the burden of the League, these voters, far from seeing Italy’s political framework called into question (the hoped for ‘shake-up’), are watching the party they voted for proposing a Prime Minister who seems to have just left Piazza del Gesù (the old headquarters of the Christian Democrats). He has even gotten the traditional and generic approval of the US!

It all depends on our knowing how to use the time given us to make the government’s contradictions more clearly visible (which are not only between Grillo and the PD but crosscut both parties even more deeply) and to politically, socially, and culturally reassemble a really alternative formation. Whether Salvini, who already seems considerably diminished (leaders like him win only if they look like winners), manages to use the weakness and mixed signals of Conte No. 2 (and to profit from the current partly first-past-the-post election law, which tends to award huge majorities to right-wing coalitions) for an even more sweeping victory, will greatly depend on the extent to which we can deploy ourselves, we who fortunately are a larger segment of society than electoral data registers.

originally published at: Il Manifesto, 30 August 2019


[1] The captain of an NGO rescue ship can be fined from 150,000 to one million euros and also arrested. If the ship is sequestered the state can use it, sell it, or destroy it. The second part of the law has provisions permitting a loose interpretation of what constitutes resisting arrest during protest demonstrations and of what constitutes a dangerous object (any stick). If one is viewed as wearing a headpiece that makes one difficult to recognise, this is also grounds for severe penalties. There is no wording requiring the presence of an emergency situation or a serious threat that needs to be demonstrated. The Law is considered tougher in certain respects than the 1931 Police Law enacted under the fascist regime.