Autochthony

La Lega Nord political party in Italy has a long history of exclusionary policies. Therefore, their new slogan Contro I profughi, or against the refugees, should come as no surprise. During the 1990s, the party wielded the term Padania to make claims to an autonomous northern Italy that would effectively excise what they viewed as the corrupt and lazy southern Italians from partaking in the riches wrought by the industrial north. Nowadays the leader of the party, Umberto Bossi has invoked autochthony to clamor for political privileging of Italians over Arab immigrants and refugees.

As Peter Geschiere elaborates in his book The Perils of Belonging, the etymology of the term autochthony can be traced back to Ancient Greece. The Athenians prided themselves on their homogenous demographic, which was unique among the rest of the immigrant founded Greek polies. The term that was used to refer to being born from the land where they lived was autochthonous and Geschiere, among others, claims that this is what preconditioned their propensity for demokratia. While the reality of this is contested by a number of scholars, the myth of Erechtheus by Euripidies is used to illustrate the underlying connotations of the autochthonic concept in Athens. King Erechteus disappears in a chasm Poseidon makes through the Akropolis and remains forever locked in the earth. Inherent in the coinage of the term autochthoon is both a connotation of indignity and chronic-ity according to Vincent Rosivach. “Throughout this book this double meaning will come up time and again: the autochthon as prestigious first-comer but also as primitive or even prehuman” (11).

The main point of Geschiere’s work is to point out how these claims of belonging to the soil are often seemingly self-evident empty categories and while they have great emotional appeal and while those who politically manipulate them often have great electoral success, they elude any ability to clearly define who are autochthoons. Or in other words – don’t believe the hype.

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