Sovereignty and solidarity: Politics of place in Italy’s northern borderland

Research groups - Monetary Sovereignty
Start of project: September 2019

The Susa Valley, in northwestern Italy, is an Alpine valley stretching from Turin to the French border, home to 60,000 people. Since the 1990s, it has been the stage of one of the most long-standing internal confrontations in recent Italian history, as plans to build a high-speed rail line between Turin and Lyon (known under its Italian acronym TAV) have been met with constant opposition from the local No TAV movement. This infrastructure project, which includes a 50 km-long tunnel beneath the Alps and across the border, is a strategic priority for the Italian state and the European Union, part of the EU’s ambitious plan to build a trans-European railway network that would one day connect Glasgow to Palermo, and Lisbon and Helsinki. But for many inhabitants of the Susa Valley, the tunnel has raised significant environmental and public health concerns, as well as the prospect of a radically different future for the territory itself. Thus, the No TAV movement has protested the project and resisted its construction since the very beginning. In the process, it has articulated over the course of thirty years an environmental politics that also asserts the values of the place, the landscape, and the social life of the valley as values that have been placed under threat because of the TAV.

Starting from the opposition between these two views of the territory, this ethnographic research project addresses the question of territoriality in the Susa Valley today, and seeks to investigate how territoriality is constituted through social relations in the valley. In other words, the research will make an original contribution by documenting ethnographically
how territory is negotiated, contested and claimed in political struggles to instantiate
competing visions of the valley. Even thirty years on, the Turin-Lyon line continues to be one of the most divisive projects in Italy and in Europe, and it has been the stage for several open confrontations between No TAV activists and the Italian state, including most recently during the summer of 2020, when hundreds of young activists flocked to the valley to lend support to the movement. During this most recent mobilisation, activists came to enact a specifically ecological politics, drawing on ideas and discourses developed within the recent Fridays for Future mobilisations, and framed through the lens of care, which is a topic that has come sharply into focus since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. As on many previous occasions, the Susa Valley is showing itself as a site of remarkable experimentation for grassroots political movements.

Beyond the social movement dynamics of the Susa Valley, the controversy over the Turin-Lyon train line has also been reignited at the level of national and supra-national governance in Europe. In May 2020, the European Court of Auditors published its report on Europe’s trans-border infrastructure projects, and the Turin-Lyon line received a damning verdict, which was later echoed by the mayors of Turin, Lyon and Grenoble, the three cities most directly involved in the project, and who have now publicly come out against it. And yet, despite this verdict, the strategic priority that is given to this project remains virtually uncontested within the mainstream of Italian politics. Indeed, as public discussions begin to take place in Italy over how to invest the €209 billion that will come from the coronavirus recovery fund, the Turin-Lyon line remains one of the most commonly cited infrastructure projects to receive the earmarked European funding.

Moving across the issues of social mobilisations to discussions relating to European governance and investment, this project will remain ethnographically anchored on the question of territoriality, and will investigate how the territory is produced and reproduced at different and often competing levels of scale. In terms of concrete methods, the main body of research will be done through long-term participant observation in the valley and qualitative interviews. In addition, there will be a non-fieldwork component of the research which will address the larger history of infrastructure in Italy and in Europe, as well as the political-economic issues at stake in the Turin-Lyon infrastructure project. In this way, this project will pay close attention to the imbrications between infrastructure, sovereignty and politics that are at play in the case of the Susa Valley, highlighting the crucial role of the territory of the valley as a site of social relations, not only among human actors but also between humans and non-humans. Approaching these questions ethnographically has the potential of leading to some very fruitful interdisciplinary contributions which may be relevant to a variety of different fields, from social movement studies to European studies to citizenship studies, not to mention social anthropology and sociology. This research project will result in a doctoral thesis that will be submitted to the Department of Anthropology at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.