Norms in the Margins and Margins of the Norm

The Social Construction of Illegality


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Abstracts Panel 4

Panel organizers: Armando Cutolo (University of Siena, Italy) and Stefano Boni (University of Modena e Reggio Emilia, Italy)

Illegality and Order in Contemporary Youth Practices and Mobilizations

The panel engages with the ethnographic exploration of a set of social dynamics having illegal and/or informal character, with specific reference to practices undertaken by youths who seek outside legal and/or formal frameworks alternative strategies for self-promotion, emancipation, access to rights, citizenship and consumption, or for the manifestation of their political agenda. In these settings, illegality can be understood as a constitutive and necessary character in strategies conceived by social actors as a way to oppose or at least limit State control and intrusion, or as altering power balances in favor of the excluded and of their moral economies. These can take the form of practices of resistance such as those termed 'weapons of the weak' by Scott: tax evasion, hoarding of products, attempts to become invisible to state control in the search for economic autonomy. But the contestation of a legal order can also take the form of sabotage, trafficking of illegal merchandises and drugs, armed attacks to State or private industrial structures. At the end of the spectrum, we  find mobilizations assuming more explicit character, leading to open contestation of State powers and of the juridical order in the form of riots, insurrections, attempts to overthrow the government through military confrontation.
The claims and the imaginary mobilized may evoke citizenship, land reform, 'real' democracy, social justice, the refusal of foreign imposed austerity measures. The upheavals call into question the State's monopoly in the production of norms that, by definition, acquire legal validity. Youth illegal mobilization calls into question, moreover, the governmental apparatuses and the state-run institutions -such as the educational, the judiciary, the public health systems- that are constituted, and presumably governed, by legally sanctioned norms which are formally inclusive, at least for 'the citizens', but that may in fact generate exclusionary effects. Whether in some instances the youth's organizational forms attempt, with more or less genuine intentions, to promote horizontal, participated and inclusive political practices, they often end up constructing hegemonies, hierarchical relations and norms reproducing logics and dynamics similar to those that were presented as unacceptable and countered. Nonetheless, in spite of the heterogenesis of their intents, in many activities eluding, contradicting or countering the legal order we can identify a desire to realize “here and now” another  order,  a will to adhere to other (moral, political, juridical) norms.  We can identify, in other terms, a bundle of social forces imagining and leading to -another- order, tending to produce or enable political and juridical discontinuity within historical processes. Moreover, recalling (and reverting the reactionary orientation of) Carl Schmitt’s political philosophy, and bringing to their extreme expression the political implications of these forces, we can identify an expression or a will to “constituent power”  -as it happened in the Arab Revolutions.
Here that our theoretical concerns intersect some of the philosophical and critical researches on sovereignty that have influenced political anthropology in the last decade. These researches have enabled us to think of sovereignty and juridical systems as apparatuses capturing social and individual life within the order of law, implying on the one side “the normal structuring of life relations” (Schmitt), but on the other producing and defining an “outside” which is constitutive –as exception- of the same order (Agamben). It has been observed that in late modernity the awareness of such logic has become globally explicit and shared, undermining the legitimacy of juridical orders. What we are interested in is the interpretation of youth illegal activities and/or mobilizations against legal orders as the result of the ideological and practical possibility of situating explicitly oneself in an “outside”, defined in a congruent way with one’s own (generational, social) position. From this “outside” new forms of sovereignty (by mobilizations, militias, gangs) and thus new norms and orders, following other moral economies, may be imposed in the public space. Our efforts is to single out their political and subjective dimension altogether, creating an intellectual space for understanding these social phenomena out beyond their (il)legal definitions.


  • Stefano Barone (University of Siena,Siena, Italy)
    Revolution and Constituent Power in Tunisia: from Informality to Communitas

    Against every stereotype of the so-called “Arab street”, described either as the field of political apathy or as an irrational powder keg, the sociologist Asef Bayat has tried to examine under a new light the social life in MENA countries using the frame of Nonmovements. Nonmovements are the (mostly unaware) collective result of individual actions that the Arab dispossessed carry on in order to gain survival space in despotic societies: by indulging in illegal/informal activities and the abuse of public resources the urban poor challenge their oppressors, broadening their freedoms through a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary”. The recent phenomena of unrest in the whole region, mediated as “The Arab Spring”, forced us to completely reformulate the problem of civil society and politics in the Middle East, even if stereotypes, exaggerations and Orientalism have not been fully eliminated. Anyway, the political mobilization didn't substitute Nonmovements as much as it integrated elements of that informal struggles in the body of constituent power: in this shape, the distinction between the constituent power born of Tunisian Revolution and institutional politics of transition was a qualitative one, which produced an ongoing tension and the failure of “the street” to completely transform leaderships and formal political processes. However, alongside with this tension, another relation between constituent and  constituted power was established: a “side effect” of Revolution, seen by many of my (young) informants as the most important part of it, was the development of “neighborhood committees” in the days after the flight of Ben Ali, in order to defend individual properties and the common space form the attacks of thieves and reactionaries. Tunisians described this moment as a newfound harmony with people who were strangers, their character of neighbors notwithstanding: the face-to-face social environment became a real “community”, whom I interpreted as Turnerian communitas, momentarily healing the divisions and conflicts which were deemed to be the permanent substance of Tunisia. Victor Turner has seen communitas as a state of common life which recurs during liminal stages: transitions, in individual as well as social life, are the place for the momentary construction of horizontality, and for a different representation of society, which is now seen as a whole, forgetting its segmentations. The ideas of liminality and communitas well represent the first phase in Tunisian transition to democracy, the “non-constituted” phase in which institutions and formal powers were not fully in control, at least on a local scale. We can see the harmonic, horizontal relations of that days as an occasion for constituent power, an alternative order experienced on the level of everyday life and praxis rather than on the strictly political, confrontational one (which had been the field for the protests against Ben Ali and re-appeared later, in the street activity which paralleled and defied the formal order of transitional politics). Localized communitates mirrored, at the same time, the resurgence of national pride and unity: against the classic theories of Nationalism, in the Tunisian case the imagined community was not constructed on the basis of the face-to-face community, but the latter was cemented by the symbols and rhetorics of the whole Nation. In those days, the discourse on the Nation became an apparatus producing political subjectivation and emotional identification inside lived communities, expressing the constituent power of Revolution and delineating another form of relation between the street and the State.
  • Moussa Fofana (University of Bouaké-Abidjan, Ivory Coast)
    Illégalité et parcours d’insertion sociale pour jeunes ex-rebelles en Côte d’Ivoire

    En septembre 2002, la rébellion qui éclate et occupe la moitié nord de la Côte d’Ivoire jusqu’en 2011 a permis, sur fond de violence, l’émergence et l’instauration d’un nouvel ordre politique, économique et social porté par les acteurs jeunes. La rébellion dénommée à l’origine MPCI (Mouvement patriotique de Côte d’Ivoire), avait justifié son action par la volonté de ses dirigeants de mettre fin à l’exclusion ethnique dont les ressortissants du Nord seraient les victimes. Le mouvement insurrectionnel qui dès lors avait bénéficié de l’enrôlement massif de jeunes combattants originaires du Nord, s’est par la suite transformé en « force d’occupation » à travers la mise sur place de structures politico-économique d’administration de la zone occupée. Les jeunes qui ont contribué à ce système illégal de substitution à l’administration étatique selon leurs différents profils ont développé des agendas variés d’insertion sociale au cours du rétablissement de l’ordre étatique. Ils sont aujourd’hui, après la crise violente, officiers de police, de gendarmerie, enseignants, agents de santé, fonctionnaires dans les régies financières de l’État etc. Toutes ces fonctions ou carrières professionnelles normales sont le  produit de l’illégalité qui pendant dix ans a prospéré aux côtés d’un État affaibli. Comment se sont construits les parcours atypiques de ces jeunes ? Comment l’engagement dans une organisation criminelle assure la réintégration sociale en marge des normes admises? Notre proposition fait une excursion dans l’ancienne organisation rebelle et redécouvre les trajectoires sociales suivies par certains ex-rebelles. Elle s’appuie d’une part, sur des données d’enquêtes ethnographiques retraçant le parcours des jeunes anciennement associés à la rébellion et d’autre part, sur l’analyse des mutations politiques, économiques et sociales de la société ivoirienne de la crise de 2002 à nos jours.
  • Kojo Sebastian Amanor (Institute of African Studies/University of Ghana, Ghana)
    Legality, Livelihoods and Expanding Global Timber Markets in the Ghanaian Forest Sector

    This paper explores and contrasts definitions of legality and political struggles to control resources articulated around legal and moral issues in timber and charcoal production in the Ghanaian forest sector.
    During the 1990s the timber sector in Ghana was restructured under economic liberalism and the promotion of free markets, export-oriented growth and environmental sustainability.  This resulted in major transformations in forest tenure and the redefinitions of legality in which concession systems were extended into farmlands, farmers denied of rights to timber trees, and livelihoods around chainsaw felling of timber made illegal. Yet informal sector timber operations continued to survive since the new forest codes made few provisions for urban demands for timber. Informal sector production was now carried out under clandestine conditions in which organised crime became dominant as small-scale rural producers were forced to retreat from timber production. Policing of timber was carried out by an alliance of state security forces and chiefs, who were given an economic interest in timber through rights to royalties, which were denied the farmer.  Attempts to create transparency resulted in a redefinition of tenure and legality, but also created a new illegality with powerful political connections.
    In contrast, within the charcoal production sector, which largely supplies the national urban market, local youth were in the same period able to win new spaces for livelihoods through the manipulation of global environmental rhetoric. Charcoal production in Ghana is confined to the transition zone, where the existence of a fire climax ecotone and many trees that have some resistance to fire produces trees with ideal slow burning properties for the manufacture of charcoal. Before the 1980s, charcoal production was largely dominated by migrants from northern Ghana. During the 1980s youth within the transition zone began to take up charcoal burning, as they experienced difficulty in gaining access to good agricultural land and poor prices for crops.  However, charcoal resources were controlled by local chiefs, who gave out large concessions on farmers’ fallow land to migrants. To gain access to charcoal resources, local youth had to win recognitions of rights to fallow resources and trees.  This led to frictions and tensions between local youth and migrants. During the late 1980s, as global environmental concerns gained increasing visibility, district assemblies began to facilitate environmental debates and byelaws including concerns about the environmental destructive nature of charcoal burning.  Local youth began to pressure chiefs to renege on charcoal contracts with migrants and to chase migrants away for destroying the environment.  The local youth then moved into charcoal production. These changes resulted in chiefs losing valuable revenues from migrants for charcoal production. The chiefs responded by then introducing bans against charcoal burning for destroying the environment. These bans were used to gain access to rents from youth, since they were relaxed as soon as youth made payments. A complex politics over control and legality of charcoal production now exists with alliances between chiefs, district assemblies, the Forest Service and NGOs to control production, the flow of rents and to create new spaces for commercial producers involved in export production.  The paper explores the shifting political allegiances at the local level, rhetoric about environmental regulation, political organisation, and various interests that play out in the definition of regulation and legality in the forest sector, contrasting timber and charcoal resources.
  • Armando Cutolo (University of Siena, Italy)
    Street Parliaments of Côte d'Ivoire. Oratory and Apparatus among the jeunes patriotes in Abidjan

    In April 2001, Ivorian northern militias backed by French army took control of Abidjan and captured the President Laurent  Gbagbo. The ultranationalist jeunes patriotes who supported him against his opponent Ouattara and against the international institutions, fought for him in the final clash and were military defeated. They presented themselves as the defenders of the Republic and of the Ivorian Nation, and at the same time as the continuers of a struggle for decolonization which should have brought the country to “second” and this time “real independence”.
    In the years of the Ivorian crisis, claiming a “regeneration of the nation” (K. Arnaut) and a new citizenship based on autochthony, these youths went through processes of political subjectivation (R. Banegas) where access to modernity (R. Marshall-Fratani, A. Cutolo), to wealth and to renegotiation of intergenerational relations (J.-P. Chauveau) were at stake. Their imagination of a new, re-founded nation and their claims of recognition as its defenders and patriots, was expressed through the creation of militias, associations and “institutions” of informal or paralegal character, managed and structured following moral economies sometimes leading to illegal (and in some cases criminal) practices, and producing a competitive field (the so-called “patriotic galaxy”) of hierarchical statuses, relations of force, in perpetual turmoil.
    The paper explores, as a case study, the relations of power and the competition for informal and illegal resources in the management of “La Sorbonne”, an important public parliament created by the patriotic movement in the heart of Abidjan. Through the analysis of its split in two distinct arenas (Sorbonne Solidarité and Sorbonne Nationale), controlled by two different (and rival) associations and leaders (Nado Clément and Richard Dakoury), it is shown how, through the patriotic stance, the imaginaries, the desires  and the moral economy of marginalized youth were brought into the Ivorian public space.
  • Stefano Boni (University of Modena e Reggio Emilia, Italy)
    Legal Hyper- Invasiveness and Anti-Legal Practices in Contemporary Italy

    In Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, legislative intervention by various local administrations, State bureaus, national government and the EU, was drastically intensified over the last decades. An enormous, complicated and increasing number of norms has sough to regulate various economic activities, ranging from cheese production to house construction, from the slaughtering of animals to all forms of trade. An increasing number of objects – for example, cars' seat belts, helmets, heating systems, electrical appliances, doors, etc - needs to be standardized and certificated. Since 2008, the use of public spaces has been more strictly regulated by city halls and increasingly policed. Moreover, demonstrations of public dissent have increasingly been criminalized through new laws and the massive use of scientific devices to punish offenses. This silent and pervasive attempt to scrutinize and place under legal control an unprecedented number of domains is often carried out through low-key bureaucratic intrusion and presented as neutral technical improvement rather than as a political decision. Legalization often evokes consumers' security, the necessity to promote high standards and public decorum to justify its invasiveness. Nonetheless, the contemporary normative initiatives have clearly damaged what is self-managed, free of charge, small-scale, aimed at self-production and obtained through relatively simple technology while promoting large-scale production and business for the market.
    Illegality has been a long-term feature of Italian society, especially in some domains and some regions: the Italian State has been known to apply its legal principles in a partial and inconsistent fashion. There has always been sectors of the Italian population – especially amongst the poorest and richest sections of society – which have operated at the margins of legality or beyond them. I focus here on a relatively small social circuit of rural Tuscany – with links to other similar groups throughout Italy - that operates at the margins of legality in many ways. This informal network of relations, based on egalitarian mutual help, partially undermines lawful standards in its daily practice, both by dodging long term and legal jobs and by adopting unauthorized consumption practices. Moreover governmental legitimacy is undermined in its ethics, by adopting a staunch critique of political parties and governmental institutions. The unlawful is defended as a conscious moral and political choice aimed at undermining the invasive state apparatus and thus can be termed anti-legal as it expresses the will to operate not only outside but against the State. Through first hand ethnographic experience, I illustrate practices and values, as well as successes, difficulties and contradictions. This circuit that only a few years ago was evidently segregated, with the increasing difficulty of large sectors of the Italian population to stay within the legal framework in times of economic hardship, is expanding and acquiring increasing support and legitimacy.





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