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Massimiliano Tomba: Insurgent Universality and the Question of Human Rights

Passive juridical citizen or agentic human being? This was one of the political and ideological tensions explored by Massimiliano Tomba, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Padova, in his presentation ‘Insurgent Universality’ on November 6th at the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) seminar.

Passive juridical citizen or agentic human being? This was one of the political and ideological tensions explored by Massimiliano Tomba, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Padova, in his presentation ‘Insurgent Universality’ on November 6th at the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) seminar. The room was filled to capacity with faculty and students eager to hear Professor Tomba speak, and on his birthday no less (Happy Birthday!).

Dr. Tomba presented two starkly distinct notions of human rights, as inscribed in the French Revolution’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and in the far more radical reworking of this document in 1793, the latter never officially adopted in France. Dr. Tomba explained that the 1789 declaration instantiates a type of juridical “universalism,” in which individuals have rights (e.g. life, liberty, property) that are protected by governments, but which have “limitations,” and can easily be suspended in the interest of “public order and national security,” economic interest, war, or states of declared emergency. In contrast, the 1793 declaration, written by the Jacobins, specifies no limits, instead writing that these freedoms “cannot be suspended, forbidden, nor limited.” The 1793 document emerged from an ongoing process of what Dr. Tomba calls insurgent universality, embodied in the radical praxis of slaves, women, and the poor during the French and Haitian Revolutions.french rev

While the 1789 document safeguards the natural right to “resist oppression,” it also regards resistance to the law as an offense, as the law is taken to be the direct expression of the people’s will. The 1793 declaration does not take this for granted, however, averring that the law must be the expression of the will of the people. Furthermore, one of the most radical articles in the 1793 declaration states “When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.” Here, any portion of the people (not just elected representatives) can act as “representatives” of the whole people by rebelling on their behalf. Dr. Tomba argued the poor, women, and slaves at the time did not merely claim the privilege to belong to an unjust order, but rather practiced “disbelonging” to “disorder” the existing unjust order. This is an example of people acting as “citizens” beyond the narrow legal boundaries of “citizenship,” as bestowed by the state.

Dr. Tomba concluded his lively talk by emphasizing that the 1789 framework sees people as passive subjects who lack agency and whose “universal” rights need protecting. On the contrary, the 1793 declaration promotes agentic praxis that may transcend the state and current political order. Given our current crisis of formal democracy in the US and globally, Dr. Tomba suggested that we think about this insurgent “path less travelled” (which is hardly mentioned in post WW2 thinking). In the wide-ranging question and answer session following the talk, discussion took up Marx’s interpretation of related issues of political, social, and human emancipation, as well as questions about the praxis involved in movements like Occupy Wall St., and even the question of animal rights and agency in relation to humans. One important part of the discussion was the question of the Reign of Terror in France as being related to the 1793 way of thinking. Dr. Tomba pointed out that the radical 1793 declaration was actually one of the first casualties of the Reign of Terror, as the new bourgeois state forcibly curtailed liberties amidst the foreign and civil war in France.

Reflection on “How to Pick Apples: Colonialism and Citizenship in the Formation of Puerto Rican Migrant Farm Labor”

In a presentation at The Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) on Thursday, October 2nd, professor Ismael García Colón shared with the audience the first results of his ongoing research…

A fascinating collection of interviews, documents, and reports on rural workers from Puerto Rico in the United States, “How to Pick Apples: Colonialism and Citizenship in the Formation of Puerto Rican Migrant Farm Labor” is part of a book project on the experiences of Puerto Rican farmworkers in the United States. In a presentation at The Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) on Thursday, October 2nd, professor Ismael García Colón shared with the audience the first results of his ongoing research.

Instead of looking at Puerto Rican farmers only from the perspective of transnationalism and migration policies, García Colón considers the group as part of the history of U.S. farm labor. The contrast between Puerto Ricans (as U.S. citizens) and guest workers from countries such as Jamaica and Mexico (frequently holding H-2 visas) raises questions of labor policies, state-formation, and practices of citizenship.

Professor García Colón focused on the lives of Puerto Rican apple pickers in the 1960s and 1970s, but the evidences presented suggest that some fundamental questions can be extended to Puerto Rican rural workers in the United States, in general. How conflicting classifications of nationalism, and citizenship impacts labor relations? What are the rights and working conditions of U.S citizens and guest workers, and in what category Puerto Ricans fit (in theory and in practice)? How Puerto Rican and U.S. governmental policies relate to everyday forms of labor relation? And what role nationalism plays in such dynamic?

The presentation began with the narrative of a New England apple grower who fired a group of Puerto Rican workers who complained about working conditions, wages, and working benefits. García Colón suggests that the episode is part of “a series of escalating events that accelerated the demise of Puerto Rico’s farm labor program.” He goes back to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952, which reaffirmed to Puerto Rican U.S citizenship, a status granted in 1917 as a result of the Spanish-American War.

The brief history of U.S. migratory policy towards Puerto Ricans is the first step to understand how U.S. colonialism (the author uses, here, Eric Wolf’s concept of structural power) shaped Puerto Rican migration. It is interesting to notice that the author reinforced the application of the term “migration,” instead of “immigration,” during the presentation. García Colón claims that transnationalism is not enough to understand how Puerto Ricans participated of U.S. legal and political structures. It is necessary to smoke out the limits of citizenship, and how apple growers and other workers perceived this group.

Ismael Garcia-Colon: “How to Pick Apples – Colonialism, Race, and Citizenship in the Formation of the Puerto Rican Migrant Farm Labor Force in the United States”

The ARC Research Praxis Seminar Series Presents Ismael Garcia-Colon: “How to Pick Apples – Colonialism, Race, and Citizenship in the Formation of the Puerto Rican Migrant Farm Labor Force in the United States”

The ARC Research Praxis Seminar Series Presents

Ismael Garcia-Colon
How to Pick Apples – Colonialism, Race, and Citizenship in the Formation of the Puerto Rican Migrant Farm Labor Force in the United States

Thursday, October 2, 2014
4:00pm – 6:00pm
ARC Conference Room
Room 5318
The Graduate Center, CUNY

Ismael-Garcia-Colon

Ismael García-Colón
Associate Professor of Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work, College of Staten Island

Ismael García Colón is a historical and political anthropologist with interests in political economy, migration, and Caribbean, Latin American and Latina/o studies. García Colón is the author of Land Reform in Puerto Rico: Modernizing the Colonial State, 1941-1969 (University Press of Florida, 2009). His publications have also appeared in Latin American Perspectives, CENTRO Journal, and Latino Studies. His research explores how development policies formed and transformed modern subjectivities in Puerto Rico during the mid-twentieth century. He is currently writing a book on the Puerto Rican experience in U.S. farm labor and its relation to the formation of the colonial state in Puerto Rico, the political economy of agriculture, and the discourses and practices of deportation and citizenship.