Gattopardi and cheap labor

Reflections from Italy on the wicked problem of unregulated and unregulatable immigration into Western Europe.

by Gaia Baracetti

I could never understand what animal exactly the gattopardo was supposed to be. A leopard? A cheetah? A mythical beast? For sure, none of those roams my country. But I, like most Italians, always understood the meaning of the adjective gattopardesco. It refers to someone who is pretending to change but deep down remains the same as before, and does so out of opportunism in order to maintain a position of power and privilege in a world that is entering a new phase.

For those wondering whatever big cat can be associated to this kind of very specific behaviour, the answer is: none. The term actually comes from Il Gattopardo, the famous novel by Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (note that a lowercase di in an Italian surname usually indicates nobility, while the uppercase Di does not), later adapted into a star-studded movie by another aristocrat, Luchino Visconti. The titular character, prince Fabrizio Salina, is a member of the Sicilian landed aristocracy; like the author’s, his family’s coat of arms features a crowned gattopardo, which also works in the story as a metaphor for power and fierceness.

A leopard (Panthera pardus) in South Africa. Photo: Chiara Lo

Sicily has produced some of the best Italian literature, but also the most pessimistic, with its recurring themes of the futility of idealism and rebellion, societal pressure on the individual and resignation to injustice. In Il Gattopardo, the young aristocrat Tancredi fights as one of Garibaldi’s volunteers during the tumultous times of the Risorgimento, the 19th century Italian wars of national liberation and unification; to his worried uncle don Fabrizio he explains: “If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change.”

If I am to give an update about the current Italian government and its immigration policy, I want to begin with this quote. Whether it’s actually true or not, it symbolises a recurring theme in our history and self-image. It might be misleading: many things have changed in Italy over the last couple centuries. But if we consider the quote’s context, it becomes fitting to this particular situation. For as Tancredi understood, some historical changes are unstoppable no matter how much one might wish otherwise; adaptation, not resistance, is the only way to ride the wave and come out on top.

Upper classes survive when they understand and do this; when they know how to pander to popular worries and aspirations while they look for ways in which their privileges can be preserved in a changing world. And this is why a right-wing government was always going to pretend to do something to stop mass migration, which disproportionally affects the lower classes, while implicitly reassuring their most monied supporters they will keep profiting from it – that things will stay the same.

When Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Fratelli d’Italia “won” the Italian elections, I wrote for TOP an explanation of what I believed was one of the major factors affecting the results: the exasperation of many Italians with out of control mass migration. One regret I have is not making it clearer that I thought that, in spite of her bombastic statements of intent, she wasn’t actually going to do much about it. I don’t like to engage in what in Italian we call processo alle intenzioni, that is judging people on what we think they are going to do, rather than what they actually do.

Meloni still insists she will do something, but I think it’s pretty clear at this point that she will not. Even if she was honest about her intentions, and I think she mostly was, her hands are tied – by the other parties she shares the government with, by international norms, the European Union, the business lobbies, the Vatican and finally public opinion.

Giorgia Meloni’s most famous policy proposal in this respect was a “naval blockade” of Italian coasts – that was never going to happen. The most she’s done is some confusing action with boats carrying migrants that has made it slightly harder for them to offload their human cargo rapidly. This has gotten us into a diplomatic row with the French government, which is constantly trying to offload unwanted migrants onto its neighbours, but displays outrage when Italy does the same (France, with a migration and segregation problem of its own making, is also a bit of a cautionary tale for us).

Without going into the many specific solutions suggested or tentatively implemented by European countries, ranging from deporting migrants to Rwanda to paying them to go back home to building barbed wire fences with police on the “in” side, the problem is that if any Western government was actually serious about stopping mass migration it would have to engage in policies so harsh, so unflinching, so deadly, actually, that public opinion, the courts, the media, religious and thought leaders would simply not allow them – in Western Europe especially. Not only that: a significant portion of public opinion is in favour of letting people come in as much as they want to.

The debate flared up in February 2023 after the shipwreck in Cutro, in the Southern region of Calabria – over seventy people lost their lives, including many children. The usual charade of finger-pointing followed. Was it the fault of the government? Of the ruthless human traffickers who cram people onto boats and abandon them at sea? Of the lack of legal paths to immigration? Of the Wagner group? (A minister has even said this, and why not? It’s not like Russia and Belarus haven’t used migration as a weapon already…).

I must admit that, hearing about the shipwreck, I felt anger even more than sadness. This keeps happening – not just to Italy, or Greece. The Mediterranean is a shared sea, small, crowded, diverse, a sea that has always been a bridge more than a wall. And now our beautiful Mediterranean has become a watery graveyard. This has to stop. But how?

Letting everyone in is out of the question. Pakistan alone has almost four times the population of Italy, Bangladesh almost three times (these countries and Afghanistan are where many migrants are currently coming from). Africa as a whole has about twice as many people as Europe, and a much higher average birth rate. Europe is tiny. And crowded already. And internal migration from vast, wilder Eastern Europe to the wealthier West is cramming even more people into the most densely populated areas of the continent.

Letting people die like this is unacceptable, too. But those seem to be the only two options. The often cited counter-argument, that we should let migrants enter Italy as they don’t intend to stay here, but want to move further North, is both cynical and not entirely true.

The only humane option to stop the tide would be to encourage family planning and contraception in the overpopulated countries these people come from. Population and human rights activists should do as much as they can to encourage such policies – but the results will be seen in decades, while we also need to do something now. Repatriations, especially with financial incentives, are a great idea in theory, but in practice the numbers are risible. You don’t spend your whole family’s savings, get into debt, risk your life leaving your country with sky-high expectations, only to come back home with just a paltry sum in your pockets. Some do, but not many. Their governments don’t seem too keen to have them back, either – it’s not like they have a shortage of young people.

Some propose processing applications somewhere else in order to let in only the “genuine” refugees. But this opens up a whole new can of worms. We assume that genuine refugees are only those fleeing “war and persecution”, and so many have figured out that they can get a permit by claiming to not get along with their home government, or to be homosexual or (another popular trick) a minor. Not only does this make a mockery of the system, it could also reduce the chance for genuine change at home, when the masses leaving are this large. Perhaps more importantly, the distinction between war and economic refugees makes no sense. The two are often related, and to the people experiencing them, unemployment and poverty can be deadlier than war.

A final option is paying countries, such as Libya, Turkey or Tunisia, to stop migrants from coming in – however they deem fit. This costs a lot of money, makes us vulnerable to endless blackmailing and exposes the hypocrisy of our human rights rhetoric. Would it be better to do the dirty work ourselves?

Lampedusa was just a very remote outpost when Il Gattopardo was written. Nowadays, the island and its crystal beaches are a popular destination with foreigners of two kinds: tourists and migrants.

Migrants arriving in Lampedusa. Photo: Vito Manzari

Migrants especially. According to the latest data, the number of migrants reaching Italy by boat this March was double the number from the same time last year, with hundreds or even thousands reaching Lampedusa in a single day.

This is embarassing for Giorgia Meloni. She is still refusing to admit defeat. The government says they have a plan – but what’s the plan? The same as it’s always been: to punish human traffickers while implementing quotas for legal migration to supply the labour our businesses need. To share migrants with other European countries – that do not want them, either.

With limited, mostly cosmetic variations, this has been the policy ever since I can remember – no matter what government was in office. If you are one of the migrants affected, minor variations in the law can turn your life upside down, but in the greater scheme of things, the situation doesn’t change. It cannot change: we are addicted to cheap labor. We cannot live without the people some of us look down upon or pretend to want to keep away.

The focus on the boats and the horrible spectacle of human desperation drowning or making it to the coast at the roll of a dice is only the tip of an iceberg of massive global inequality and slow descent into first complacency, and then chaos. There are many other, less dramatic ways migrants reach our country. Some walk in, get caught, and are then released. Others use legal means. EU citizens can come here easy. No one has ever seen people from China on a boat, or crossing mountains on foot – and yet there’s hundreds of thousands of them in the country.

Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric: migrants are welcome in Italy. It’s not just because we have a big heart. They are propping us up, us and all our illusions – of social justice, progress, and prosperity.

Italian businesses big and small, as well as wealthy private individuals, have come to rely on cheap labour, and this is an addiction that is extremely hard to break. Everywhere we go – from farms to restaurants, from private houses to factories, from nursing homes to popular resorts to trucks picking up the garbage – we are catered to and cleaned up after by immigrants.

I’ve been doing research for a book that took me to famous holiday destinations. Everywhere, the guests merrily walking in the sunny streets speak German, or English with American or British accents, or Italian, while the workers speak their own languages: Latin American Spanish, Eastern European Slavic, Chinese, English or French or Italian with African or South Asian accents.

Same as everywhere in the wealthier countries (and this includes oil-rich Arab states), the locals do not want to do certain jobs anymore. They are unprestigious, low-paid, hard and demanding. Like everyone else in a similar situation, Italians have been raised and trained to prefer less useful but high-status and well-paid employment to anything the immigrants do. Actually, even not working is considered better than taking one of those jobs.

Journalists keep accusing employers of not finding native workers because of the poor pay and exploitative conditions they offer – which is true, of course. But many of them aren’t doing this to fatten their pockets (some definitely are), but rather because paying people more would put them out of business fast. Things could be different, of course, but this would require a radical overhaul of our entire economy and even of globalization itself. A complete rethinking of class relations, lifestyle expectations, trade deals, the price we pay for things, and safety and environmental regulations.

Who would want to preside over such a revolution?

Giorgia Meloni thinks she has a strategy: she wants to force Italians to take the migrants’ jobs by cutting benefits and convincing women to enter the workforce. But she also wants them to have more children. And she wants businesses to have cheap labour. And she forgets that Italians, like everybody else, also have the option of migrating if what their country offers is not to their liking. Most importantly, she is not willing to go against big business. And big business wants cheap labour, period.

Not only is this system unjust – it is also extremely short-sighted. These foreign-born men and women might accept for the time being to tend to cows or pick tomatoes or work in dangerous construction jobs or care for our elderly – but they are here precisely to make sure their children will not have to. Their kids will study in Italian schools and have aspirations similar to those of their “Italian” peers – perhaps with an even stronger motivation, knowing what their parents went through so that they would have a better chance in life.

So we will continue to need new waves of desperate migrants to fill menial jobs, while environmental problems will have gotten worse due to population growth.

How might this end? An example we have from our own history offers a possible answer. The Roman Empire was doing the same thing we’re doing now: letting in people from the periphery and settling them in groups to work the land, or recruiting them into the mighty Roman army. This worked out for a long while, until the migrants – they called them barbarians back then – were so numerous inside the borders that they began to rebel or take over, or became so numerous outside the borders that their attacks were more and more successful. Historians give many reasons for the Roman Empire’s collapse, but no one would deny that the mass movement of people played a role in exhausting its defences and undermining its internal loyalty and cohesion. Societies that keep trying to prop up an unsustainable system and refuse the necessary radical reforms are doomed to collapse.

Eventually, I looked it up: the gattopardo is apparently a serval, a wild cat from the continent of Africa, which is actually closer to Lampedusa than Europe is. With the African anticyclon bringing heat, drought and even Sahara sand to my rapidly desertifying country, human mass migration from the African coast, and warm-weather species such as the cattle egret making themselves at home in more Northern latitudes as the climate changes, I sometimes feel that the pendulum has swung back again. Instead of Europe moving to Africa, Africa is moving to Europe, in one of the recurring cycles of history as things both always change and always stay the same.

A serval (Leptailurus serval). Photo: ErRu
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16 thoughts on “Gattopardi and cheap labor

  1. Thank you Gaia, this brings out one of the issues related to Overpopulation
    Migration will not solve the problem of Overpopulation, only the educated and well to do will be able to migrate
    Why don’t the economists understand the benefits of a smaller population

    1. Thanks, that’s another point I should have made! The very poorest, or those who are starving or in immediate danger, often can’t flee or can only reach the neighbouring countries, which sometimes are struggling themselves.
      Too many things to say about such a big and complex subject.

  2. Economists think that people exist to service The Economy. They believe the only point of life is to make The Economy grow. Their Economy is just a bonfire of resources that they need more and more people to stoke with more and more fuel from further and further away, just to try to make their bonfire the biggest. From space, the fires and lights are starting to make a planet shine like a star: a dying star.

    Oeconomics and oecology, started out, as their names imply, as ‘housekeeping’. As with almost any good thing, greed and the human instinct to multiply even if it means driving out or cannibalising the neighbours, always wins out over science and parsimony. While the consciencious are labouring to lay in stock for the future, the physically stronger fight their way to the ‘top’ and then want a bigger bonfire. The workers are too busy working to stop them.

    Only science and good leadership can save us, but everywhere, as George Washington warned, ‘the baleful spirit of party’, has prevented true democracies from ever forming, and turned government from a basic housekeeping exercise, into just another tribal competition to be ‘king of the hill’. The media has turned this into just another sport to report the latest results on, and the public’s natural tribal instinct has been turned to just stopping the other side from doing anything at all.

    So the tragedy of the only species to have evolved the ability to be aware of the balances that keep the world suitable for its survival, is that the instincts of the majority are still as self centred and rapacious as they have been since they were purely wild animals.

    The leopards are still in charge and they cannot change their spots. They will soon be burned and forgotten by creatures suited to the hothouse world we made them.

  3. Dear Gaia, thank you for your kind, thoughtful and thoroughly depressing analysis, which I will send to receptive, even possibly non-receptive, friends and family members. Best wishes, Hugh.

  4. Superb overview Gaia. What the French call a “cri de coeur”, but a cool and rational one. Laying out all the problems like that, all in one go, might assist us to admit that there is no solution that mankind can provide, or even dream up in theory. All too often we indulge in what Britons call “salami-slicing” – chopping up the overall problem into little bits so that we can pretend to have some hope of solving a small part of the general (and global) predicament. But “solving” one part always seems to mean making another part worse. It is now beyond doubt that we have already entered the Sixth Mass Extinction of species (flora and fauna). A few species do survive Mass Extinctions – which ones will they be this time? We do not know. Darwin and his colleagues thought adaptability was the key to species survival – but when changes are fast and furious, species find it hard to adapt enough or at least fast enough. And there is evidence that some species which stubbornly did not adapt – ferns and clams, for instance – have survived previous Mass Extinctions. Bacteria, viruses, algae and other tiny life forms are also likely to be more invincible than more complex creatures. But no-one really knows, just as no-one seems to know WHY Darwin spent 40 years of his life studying earthworms, often to the complete exclusion of other creatures towards the end of his life. He seems not to have known himself, it was just an obsession.
    What we do know, is that having the courage to face up to and describe the sheer size of the problem is producing some fine writing and videos from you and many other people – so thanks to them, humanity is collapsing with dignity at least. Some of the fine writing and film may survive everything, you never know, and some humans may also survive to marvel at it like we marvel today at some very ancient examples of human writing and creativity. Human creativity is paltry compared with Nature’s – but it is still pretty impressive.
    If humans could survive on their own without other animal species, I for one would not mind too much – I cannot have conversations with other animals, or do anything much with them and their very basic forms of communication. If only one could live on music and the vast botanic world, for instance, what a wonderful world this would be. Sorry Darwin, but even earthworms leave me cold.
    But of course I am wrong because humans are wholly dependent on millions of other animal species and the habitats which sustain them – and many or even all plants also depend on animals for their survival. This is really the first lesson we all have to learn, even if we are farmers. Farmers are liable to create monocultures of both animals and plants these days with the aid of technology, and also to use up too much groundwater.
    In England the government asked all citizens not to mow their lawns during May, to give insects a chance of survival. There has now been an explosion of all sorts of annoying little insects and of course, people are blaming “No Mow May”. Hallo – could it be the warming climate (the hottest UK June since records began, e.g.), plus the absence of things that eat insects? And what about the crashing numbers of insects overall, which “No Mow May” will do little to redress? I do like humans as I said – but really, some of us need to get a better understanding of what it is that gives life to us. It is certainly not our lawnmowers, ingenious though they are.

    1. Even if something was of no use to us whatsoever, it would still have a right to exist in its own right!
      I’ve heard about the backlash to “No Mow May”, unfortunately. In Italy no one has dared ask people not to mow – to me, the sight of the pensioner sitting on his mowing tractor, going up and down his oversized lifeless private lawn for hours and drowning down in motor noise the singing of birds, is a little encapsulation of everything that is wrong with our society.
      It breaks my heart every time, in the apartment block where I live, the gardeners come and proudly raze all the beautiful flowers to the ground, congratulating each other when they’re done. I politely told them once what I think. Besides, the only insect you don’t want, mosquitoes, is the only one that doesn’t go away when they cut the grass.
      I for one enjoy the abundance of insects, with the exception of the really big gross ones I still struggle with but those aren’t to be found in grasslands, anyways. More importantly, is anyone questioning why we need so many lawns in the first place? I understand the appeal of a house with a garden, of course, but lawns are one of many luxuries we might need to question in the future and find a more sustainable substitute for.
      Darwin and his obsession with earhworms is discussed in the book “Dirt. The erosion of civilizations” by David Montgomery. Highly recommended!

      As for animals – yes, we can have conversations with them, if we are prepared to change the way we communicate. There are of course huge barriers that will never be completely overcome, but we are an intelligent species and we can learn their language. One of the rewards of being a mini-farmer, as I am, has been to be able to learn and figure out the language of animals, to the point that a little flick of the ears or widening of the nostrils sounds like a word spoken to you by a fellow human.

  5. This essay makes vivid the unavoidable dilemmas of immigration policy in an overpopulated world. But we need to remember that even in a morally complicated world, there are better and worse public policies.

    The best policy solutions will always be context-dependent. But I don’t think societies will come close to finding them unless they make an equal place for justice and sustainability.

    In reading some very smart philosophers writing about these matters, I’m struck by their implicit view that as long as we get the ethics right, sustainability will take care of itself. But the evidence is mounting that humanity is far into ecological overshoot, and the harmful consequences of this in the 21st century could rival the great moral catastrophes of the previous one.

    1. “as long as we get the ethics right” – have they ever agreed, in thousands of years of philosophy, about what “getting the ethics right” even means? Isn’t sustainability also part of ethics?
      Ethics are also context-dependent. Challenging limits made sense in the 18th and 19th century; now that we’ve seen where that took us, we need to think about life and our place in this world in a new way.
      Which is also an “old” way. It’s not like societies of the past didn’t know about the consequences of overshoot and human arrogance…

      1. Sustainability should be part of ethics. It’s often given lip service these days. But in practice, its an afterthought at best.

  6. Un bel testo, complimenti. Sono un po’ deluso della Meloni per il cui partito avevo votato. Penso che gli italiani, o almeno molti italiani, l’avessero votata soprattutto nella speranza che fermasse l’invasione dell’Italia CHE DURA ORMAI DA DECENNI e non accenna a calare, anzi dopo l’arrivo della Meloni gli sbarchi si sono raddoppiati o triplicati (altro che blocchi navali!). Ma siamo sinceri: la “fascistella della Garbatella” (così la chiamano gli ex-post-para comunisti) non può fare molto, tanto che si appella all’Unione Europea, poverina. E l’UE apprezza la fascistella che oggettivamente si muove bene, non ha ancora fatto gaffe fatali, anzi è più papale del papa, un’atlantista sfegatata, ci manca solo che vada a combattere per l’Ucraina. Però bisogna avere comprensione per la poverina. Il perché della sua impotenza a frenare gli sbarchi ce lo spiega Veneziani in un suo pezzo, La Matrioska, che copio qui sotto.
    Comunque è impossibile non pensare che ciò che sta accadendo in Europa (africanizzazione e islamizzazione) sia voluto “in alto” (dalle famose elite). Avete mai sentito il signor Bergoglio, in arte Francesco I, parlare o almeno accennare alla salvezza dell’anima, la vita eterna? No, in dieci anni di pontificato non ha fatto che parlare dei migranti, del dovere (cristiano immagino) di accoglierli, di accoglierli proprio tutti (ma non in Vaticano, si capisce, la superficie è di appena 0,5 km2). Ah, ha sdoganato anche la sodomia e l’adulterio, addirittura il peccato (Dio nostro padre è infinitamente buono e perdona tutti). L’unico vero peccato “che grida vendetta al cospetto di Dio” è erigere muri e non accogliere i migranti. Aprite porti e porte e anche i vostri portafogli. La Terra è di tutti, una sola Terra, una sola Umanità. Certo, come no, giustissimo, Abbattiamo i muri, cancelliamo le frontiere, aboliamo gli eserciti (già che ci siamo anche la polizia perché i cosiddetti delinquenti sono in realtà vittime della società e bisogna riaccogliere anche loro nel consorzio umano).
    La vedo dura o nera. Ma forse ci salverà l’IA.

    1. Sostenere l’Ucraina è secondo me l’unica cosa giusta che la Meloni ha fatto finora. Che poi fosse il contrario di quello che si aspettavano i suoi sostenitori, vero, ma lei lo aveva detto ed è colpa di chi l’ha votata senza informarsi bene, e poi, come dico nel testo, ci sono cose che si può solo far finta di voler cambiare, se si vuole avere il potere in Italia. Almeno per ora.


    Però più passano gli anni e più si restringe l’arco dei cambiamenti possibili attraverso nuove maggioranze e nuovi governi. Perché ogni governo nasce già imbottigliato dentro un ferreo sistema che non consente margini di manovra.Come figurare questo sistema? Come una matrioska. Avete presente la bambolina russa che dentro di sé ne ha un altra più piccola, e poi ancora un’altra e un’altra, di dimensioni sempre più ridotte? Beh, il potere oggi è una matrioska. Quando hai vinto le elezioni, superando tutti i fuochi di sbarramento, le campagne e le manovre e le demonizzazioni, gli agguati e le sorprese giudiziarie, non devi illuderti di avere le chiavi del potere. Anche se eri outsider, oppositore radicale, alternativo, magari populista e sovranista, alla fine devi entrare nella matrioska, di cui sei – da neonata al governo– la bambola più piccola.
    Dunque, la bambola del governo è dentro la bambola degli assetti istituzionali, la presidenza della repubblica, la magistratura, la burocrazia, i poteri contabili e collaterali. Quel potere, a sua volta, è dentro l’unione europea, i suoi vincoli di bilancio, la sua corte suprema e le sue direttive, il reticolo delle sue norme e dei suoi divieti. E ancora, la bambola europea è dentro la bambola atlantica, vale a dire il potere militare della Nato, l’influenza del Pentagono e della Casa Bianca, i vincoli internazionali. E la bambola atlantica è dentro un sistema economico-finanziario transnazionale, una rete globale di mercato e di controllo, di comunicazione e di indirizzo. Senza dire che la matrioska deve tener conto di una serie di bambole extra-istituzionali, agenzie di rating, colossi social e mediatici, cupole sovranazionali, centri di pressione, sistemi di sorveglianza e di monitorizzazione. Insomma il potere è come una matrioska, e la bambola non può andare per conto suo, non ha autonomia e indipendenza, è dentro, compressa, in quella serie di involucri istituzionali e funzionali, di oligarchie e di obblighi, in un sistema che non si può scardinare.

    Marcello Veneziani

  8. There we go:
    Almost half a million new people to come in and work in agriculture, industry, fishery, or as drivers, carers, electricians and plumbers.
    This is on top of people coming to Lampedusa (and other places), three times as many as last year.
    Migration aside, it’s a sad fact of our democracy that you never really get what you voted for, and this of course doesn’t apply just to the right.

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