Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Social Control and a European ‘Demos’ between Covid-19 and Racism



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Guest post by Dario Melossi. Dario is Alma Mater Professor of the University of Bologna and Distinguished Affiliated Scholar of the Center for the Study of Law and Society (UC Berkeley). After a law degree in Bologna and a PhD in sociology at UC Santa Barbara, he was an Associate Professor at UC Davis until, in the mid-1990s, he went back to Bologna. He has published The Prison and the Factory (1977, with Massimo Pavarini), The State of Social Control: A Sociological Study of Concepts of State and Social Control in the Making of Democracy (1990), Controlling Crime, Controlling Society: Thinking About Crime in Europe and America (2008), and Crime, Punishment and Migration (2015), plus more than 200 other publications. He has been Editor of Punishment and Society and he is now the Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of Criminology. In 2007 he received the “International Scholarship Prize” of the Law and Society Association and in 2014 the “European Criminology Award” of the European Society of Criminology. His current research concerns the process of construction of deviance and social control within the European Union, especially with regard to migration processes. This is the sixth installment of the Border Criminologies themed series on Crimmigrant Nations organised by Maartje van der Woude and Robert Koulish.

The idea of “social control” developed, within American social sciences, in the first half of the twentieth century. It was at the same time linked to the overcoming of the traditional European concept of “the State” and to the advancement of a mass democratic society of which the U.S. was (in the first half of the twentieth century) the primary example (The State of Social Control). Could some of these concepts be applied to the current conditions of the European Union? The very limited social and cultural development of a united Europe—best exemplified by the lack of a common language— has made it basically impossible for the EU to decide on issues as challenging of its (purported) traditions as the question of migration. The same may be happening now with Covid-19 and the danger of a depression that the measures adopted in order to contain it may have triggered.

In 1993 the German Federal Constitutional Court went very close to sanctioning the Maastricht Treaty as unconstitutional for lack of the basic requirements of democracy asked by the German Basic Law – a feature of such want being the lack of a real European “public sphere (‘On the "Constitution" of the EU’). Again a quarrel emerged recently between the Federal Court in Karlsruhe and the European Court of Justice about the policies of the European Bank (Decision of the GFCC). The background was the policies of financial support of the countries most harmed by economic difficulties, economic difficulties that the pandemic has further enhanced and emphasized. That quarrel came very close to questioning the basic architecture of European Law, i.e. the binding nature of European law over national law (a superordination that, however, only a minority of “European” citizens would recognize or even know about, I surmise). The European Commission has proposed to raise 750 billion euros on behalf of all members to finance their recovery from the economic collapse brought on by the virus (A €750 Billion Coronavirus Recovery Plan). It would be the first time that the EU would raise such a large amount of common debt in capital markets, taking the E.U. one step closer to a shared budget. Will such a plan go ahead? What would truly take in order to get it passed through 27 national governments and their parliaments?

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What would be the adequate quality and amount of “social control” necessary to support such an important and truly European decision? What would it necessitate in order to create a common mind, a consensus, able to carry such a decision? There is here of course a specific sociological problem, i.e. the need to overcome the traditional, Parsonian, concept of social control as a “response” to a purported original deviance, according to some kind of Hobbesian phantasy of homo homini lupus (on this and what follows once again see The State of Social Control ). Within the much more interesting and dynamic Chicagoan milieu in the beginning decades of last century, instead, social control and deviance were both features of competing, plural, conflicting Simmelian social circles, reference groups, plural social organizations. Such view became particularly apparent with so-called neo-Chicagoans, i.e. the labelling theorists, people like Edwin Lemert and David Matza. In their view, and especially in the view of the most interesting and deepest thinker they all had in common, George Herbert Mead, social control is the power of bringing together, toward a unity, the motley realities of languages, minds, cultures, and credences. Social control, democracy and language seem therefore to be crucially and inescapably related.

It is indeed remarkable that, in spite of the supposed internationalization of capitalist systems, we are still facing the reality of national capitalisms and national working classes unable to reconnect in a single reality. The economic crisis triggered by Covid-19  has only emphasized the dangers of such fragmentation and “Brexit” looms threateningly on the horizon for the EU as a whole. Under the pressure of the various national publics Europe may be utterly unable to pull together and face the challenges ahead. The lack of a European leadership is probably what is most striking today. We should therefore turn our hopes from the action of elites to that of social movements – properly European social movements. In nineteenth-century emerging nation states, such as Italy and Germany, the development of a national consciousness was the result of social and cultural movements, such as Idealism and Romanticism. Within such movements, a new insurgent and innovative language was created, a language that permeated history, poetry, novels, music, in a continuous exchange with political orientations such as Liberalism, Republicanism, or Socialism.

In 2005, American sociologist Kitty Calavita published a beautiful book about immigration and the law in Italy and Spain, where she showed the strict connections among processes of social marginalization, racialization and criminalization (Immigrants at the Margins). Later on, at the time of “Arab Springs”, migrant labour was almost entirely replaced by refugee labour (‘The Refugeeization of the Workforce’). With Covid-19, the migrants and refugees’ isolation has become, if possible, even more dramatic. Recently, an African migrant from the Ivory Coast, Aboubakar Soumahoro, walking in the steps of famous Southern syndicalist Giuseppe Di Vittorio, has tried to organize the African “refugee” – workforce in the fields of Southern Italy and rescue them from ghettoization and what it amounts to forms of “slave” labor. He has published a book, Umanità in rivolta. La nostra lotta per il lavoro e il diritto alla felicità which could be roughly translated as Humankind Revolting. Our struggle for work and the pursuit of happiness. I do not think that the Jeffersonian citation is there just by chance. If well-intentioned democratic elites, such as those sitting in the German Constitutional Court, really value democracy, then they should probably worry about that increasingly large section of the European working class which is completely left out of any European so-called Demos. Could it be perhaps that those who will contribute to build a new democratic Europe are, among others, those who may want to remind us, “old Europeans”, especially in these days, that racism is by no means only an American prerogative? Those who have nothing to lose but their chains – as in Marx’s proverbial phrase? 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Melossi, D. (2020). Social Control and a European ‘Demos’ between Covid-19 and Racism. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/06/social-control [date]

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