interview with Stefano Allievi. Sociologist, Professor of Sociology at the University of Padua) by Claudio Paravati. Director of Confronti
We Will Return to Our Travels: the book seems to be born from the need to think about the world after COVID. We will return to travel… because we have had to stop traveling! Is this the reason for the book? The need to think, to understand, what is happening?
I designed the book in full lockdown, reflecting on human mobility and migration, themes that have accompanied me for decades. The paradox of COVID was this: that we had to stop moving, and shut ourselves into our homes, because COVID, the virus, started to circulate, forcing us to stay still. But being forcibly still has become the ideal condition for reflecting on our nomadic normality. On the one hand, we realized how much useless mobility we practiced: “smart working” (which is phrased more simply as working from home, not necessarily smart) made evident the uselessness of so much commuting and so many trips for meetings – a situation from which we will never return. But we also came out of a period of absurd acceleration in the movement of all things: information, money, goods, but also people. We think only of migration, but every year the records were shattered related to tourism (which in recent pre-COVID years had grown at a faster rate than world trade!), to transnational flights (one hundred thousand more per year in the pre-COVID era). We moved more for reasons related to work, entertainment, culture, or even just because we don’t know what to do, and it seems to us that going elsewhere gave meaning to our time. On the other hand, the inability to move has made our physical and psychological need to do so evident: and this made me reflect a lot on our propensity for nomadism, in its various forms, and on the needs associated with it. My reflection—picking up the history of humanity from its origins, sociological theories on mobility, to books by modern nomads like Chatwin—started from there.
Guarantees, gender, generations: the three “Gs,” the three fractures of inequality that are deepening today in the midst of the pandemic.
This for me is a way of explaining that the reasons for mobility, with the pandemic, have not diminished. On the contrary, it has itself produced further inequalities between guaranteed and unsecured, between genders, and between generations. And it has aggravated the previous ones, setting the conditions for migration, in particular, to resume in a big way. And for our country I think more of departures than arrivals, of outgoing migrations than of incoming ones, which have already been predominant for some years, even if few realize it. There will be other types of checks—health passports will temporarily become more relevant than national ones, which has an interesting symbolic significance. But the history of migration – and of mobility for other reasons (we are already preparing for new Expos, world championships , Olympics, fairs and other global events in attendance) – is not over, and on the contrary, it will soon see new accelerations.
The book sounds like a hymn to think deeply about movement; migratory movement being only one of its forms. Movement, as history, as biography, as founding myth…. It is as if it were necessary to rethink the very nature of movement in depth, in order to talk about it again. Is that so?
Yes, it is. We usually think of movement in watertight compartments: migration, tourism, commuting, holidays, freight transport, as if they have nothing in common. Instead they are part of the same global social phenomenon, and of the same propensity. Movement spans from the exit from Africa of the Neanderthals and then of the Sapiens to the expats; passing through colonizations, invasions of conquest, voyages of discovery, transnational trade, the Stories of Herodotus and The Million. It spans from mythology—in the epic of Gilgamesh and Odysseus, without forgetting Aeneas, a fugitive of fate and the foreign founder of the Italian homeland—to the sacred books—from the expulsion from the garden of Eden, the first push factor, to the Exodus and the itinerant preaching of Jesus, from the wanderings of the Buddha to the Hijra of Muhammad with whom Islamic history is born, passing through the missionary propensity and the role of pilgrimage in religions. Human history is a history of mobility. If we only existed for 24 hours, we would be nomads for 23 hours and 55 minutes, sedentary and urbanized for almost 5 minutes, with a resumption and overwhelming acceleration in the last few seconds, thanks to technical factors such as lower cost, the higher speed and safety of travel, the reduction of”alienating” consequences thanks to the development of communication technologies, the exit from poverty of ever-wider sections of the world. After all, as Pascal said, “our nature is in movement: absolute rest is death.” And Robert Park, founder of the Chicago school of sociology, added that “the mind is an accidental product of locomotion.” Our way of reasoning and reading the world is inextricably linked to mobility. Our movement is not even limited to planet Earth, by the way. In recent decades, we turned towards space.
At one point You write that “in our society everything changes, because you can choose, but if you can choose, you have to ask yourself questions, about the meaning and ‘why’ of your choices, and analyze the options available, to find the answers. The amount of uncertainties with respect to certainties has increased exponentially.” Are we facing a change of speed then? If the context becomes more and more “performance”… will it not present a bill on people’s health?
Having to choose, no longer assuming that things have only one answer—like the one that comes to us from the past, from traditions, from parents—is certainly a stressful activity. Nonetheless, it is the condition of our own freedom and autonomy, which we would not gladly surrender. It is not easy to find an orientation, a compass, instructions for use. And yet this is the human condition today, and it will be increasingly so tomorrow. This opens up extraordinary margins for social experimentation. Sometimes even disturbing. But full of potential. I am not afraid of the increase in the options available. The only thing that scares me is our refusal to manage complexity and its variables. But it can be otherwise. And it seems to me that the younger generations are understanding this.
If you were a legislator—as you write in a chapter of the book—what would you do, if you had the political power to make it happen? Summarize the main points for us.
I wanted to put a chapter on migration management proposals, very detailed, because it is often said that it is easy to criticize (or even just analyze), more difficult to do, to manage. But there is nothing inevitable in what happens. In the past, states dealt with it more. Since we closed the borders to regular migrations, irregular ones have increased exponentially. So it is a question of starting over from what we already did in the past, improving it and adapting it to the times and new migrations. In the book some guidelines are indicated in detail, chapter by chapter: from the agreements with the countries of departure to the integration policies, and the advantages, much higher than the costs, including economic ones, are listed. For details, refer to the book. However, it is important to pass the message that migrations can be managed, and that this is beneficial for everyone. Saying that you are against it and doing nothing is not an option. We can manage everything, from technological innovation to the pandemic, from education to industrial policies. It would be very strange if we couldn’t manage migration, which is no more complex than other issues. If it does not happen it is out of inability or ideology, not out of impossibility. I want to show an alternative, rational and viable path, based on rationality and not only on feelings, on mutual benefits and not just on rights.
“We will return to travel the streets of the world” is a title that warms the heart, gives us hope. Your penultimate book was titled The Spiral of Underdevelopment, which is anything but optimistic as a title. The two books actually resemble each other: they are chapters, so I would describe them, of the same perspective. Data, analysis, acknowledgment of reality, search for interpretations and even proposals to manage, change, improve. Are you drawing upon optimism or pessimism? Help us understand.
It is true: the two books complement each other, and it is no coincidence that they refer to one another many times. The previous book tried to frame population movements (immigration and emigration) by linking them with each other and with demographics, education level of the country, and the labor market. Because phenomena cannot be understood in isolation, but in their reciprocal interrelationships. And, yes, the result was quite pessimistic, especially compared to the country’s ability to get it right (all of this happened before the Draghi government, the PNRR, the partly unexpected backlash of Europe). The analysis remains very topical, in capturing the country’s structural inequalities and weaknesses: the ability to react has nevertheless improved (it is no coincidence that the subtitle was “Why Italy has a future (like this)“: if it goes on like this, precisely, if you do not change). In this last book I wanted to place migrations in the more general context of mobility (human, goods, money, ideas…). The method is the same, applied to different variables. This was the only case in my life where the title was born before the book. We were unable to move, literally closed in the house. I wanted to try to think about how long it would last, and what would happen next. Thirty years of studies on these issues led me to give a reasoned answer, not at all illusory. We will keep moving. But in a new way. Perhaps with greater awareness.