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Page 1

Living in dignity in the 21st centur y

In the early 21st century, poverty, impoverishment and inequalities are increasing across the European
continent. These phenomena not only weaken the social cohesion of European societies, they also violate
human rights, including social and civil and political rights, and question the functioning of democracy. How
can people living in poverty make their voices heard in polarised societies, where more than 40% of assets
and 25% of revenues are held by 10% of the population?

This guide is the result of two years of collective discussion held within the framework of the project "The
human rights of people experiencing poverty”. It was prepared with the assistance of many individuals and
organisations, including people living in poverty, researchers, associations and representatives of public
authorities. As well as off ering a critique of the current situation, analysing inequality and poverty through
the prism of human rights, democracy and redistributive policies, the guide also invites the reader to explore
the possibilities of a renewed strategy to fi ght poverty in order to restore a sense of social justice. It makes
proposals that aim to overcome the stigmatisation and categorisation of people, opening pathways of
learning to build well-being through sharing, avoiding waste and by enhancing public awareness around
the principle of human dignity as a human right for all.

€49/US$98

http://book.coe.int
Council of Europe Publishing

The Council of Europe has 47 member states, covering virtually the entire continent of Europe. It seeks to develop
common democratic and legal principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference
texts on the protection of individuals. Ever since it was founded in 1949, in the aftermath of the Second World War,
the Council of Europe has symbolised reconciliation.

www.coe.int

ISBN 978-92-871-7567-0

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Page 2

Council of Europe

Living in dignity in the 21st century

Poverty and inequality
in societies of human rights:
‡ the paradox of democracies

PROVISIONAL VERSION

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108 109

groups affected by poverty and general insecurity. Their styles of action vary: requisitioning of em‑
pty housing, strikes by undocumented workers (in the catering, building and cleaning industries),
or occupation of official premises (job centres, for example). Some manage to attract support from
political organisations and trade unions, while others do not. Some result in legislative initiatives;
others run out of steam or disappear only to re‑emerge at a later date, like the so‑called “riots”
that have recently blown up in Greece, Britain, France and Italy on grounds that were specific to
each case but which all gave rise to clashes between citizens (often, but not always, from the most
disadvantaged groups in society) and the police, and to acts of destruction. These actions are not
directly political in nature and are often treated as ordinary offences, “sub‑politics”, and so on. Yet
the almost perfect correlation between the places where they occur (and where those who take part
in them live) and the “deserts” of voter turnout and party membership ought to raise questions as
to their political significance. We should remember that popular uprisings in town and country
were the usual course of action before the organising of the working‑class movement imposed a
more structured range of action, particularly through strikes and demonstrations.21

Immigrants are a special case for, as we saw regarding rights, they experience a specific form of
exclusion (or differential integration), which sometimes looks like apartheid at the European
level. Depending on their legal status – the worst case undoubtedly being that of an individual
“in an irregular situation” – such people may be obliged to disappear completely or partly from
the public sphere, where their voices are hardly ever heard. The principle of democracy, which
implies participation in the choice of rules to be followed, therefore seldom applies in their case:
they are denied a vote almost everywhere, and when they try to organise to make themselves
heard by other means, speaking out is nevertheless harder for them than for other people.

The “right to rights”, Judith Butler suggests,22 is not a right that can be enshrined in law or a state’s
constitution and therefore not a right that can be laid down or granted by the state. On the other
hand, there are situations where this obscure, unobtrusive, “right” comes to light: when those who
are denied it take action to claim it. The example given by Butler is of the 2006 street demonstrations
by undocumented Hispanic immigrants in Los Angeles, where the protesters sang the US national
anthem in Spanish, violating the principle of “one language for one people” that every nation‑state
basically seeks to establish. Maybe this example is drawn from too conventional a field of action: indi‑
viduals who make themselves visible in a sphere that has hitherto disregarded them, proposing a new
and inclusive “we”, and who, by showing themselves in public, declare their presence to be a right.

But there are also rather less conventional ways of making one’s presence felt in the public sphere.

Action by immigrants in Rosarno, Italy

“We are workers who have had to leave Rosarno
because we claimed our rights. We were working
in inhuman conditions. We were living in disused
factories with no water or electricity. Our work was
underpaid. We would leave our sleeping quarters
every morning at six and not return until eight in the
evening, and all that for 25 euros, which we didn’t
even get the whole of that amount …. We couldn’t
expect any help; because we are invisible and do not
exist for the authorities in this country, it would never
have come. We showed our faces; we took to the streets
to proclaim our existence. People wouldn’t see us.
How can someone demonstrate who doesn’t exist?”23

On 7 January 2010, in the small town of Rosarno in
the Italian province of Reggio Calabria, the seasonal
African workers employed to pick oranges and tan‑
gerines, having suffered further intimidation from
gunshots when leaving work, entered en masse the

main streets in the area and staged a revolt, dama‑
ging cars and road signs, assaulting some passersby
and knocking over dustbins. In the following days,
the police arrested some immigrants, but were
nevertheless unable to prevent local residents
from engaging in a veritable manhunt. The Interior
Minister’s response was to bundle all immigrants in
the area away to detention centres. Having accused
undocumented immigrants of being responsible for
these acts of violence, he then realised that many of
them actually possessed residence permits. At the
end of January, having arrived in Rome, a number of
these immigrants set up an action group and at their
very first meeting decided to publish a statement
headed “Tangerines and olives are not heaven‑sent”,
in which they explained the reasons for their revolt:
exploitation akin to slavery, derelict buildings or
disused factories as sleeping quarters, caporali24
who drastically reduced their already meagre daily
pay, occasional gunshot intimidation and, generally,
total social and political invisibility.

21 See Thompson E.P. (1963), op. cit., and Farge J. and Revel J. ([1988] 1991), op. cit.
22 Butler J. and Spivak G.C. (2007), Who sings the nation-state? Language, politics, belonging, Seagull Books, London.
23 “I mandarini e le olive non cadono dal cielo”. Statement from the meeting of African workers of Rosarno in Rome (Italy, January 2010), www.

storiemigranti.org/spip.php?article680, accessed 14 December 2012.
24 A caporale is a person who recruits workers, takes them to their place of work and extorts a pay‑off from them at the end of the day.

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Often “the one who speaks when s/he is not to speak, the one who part‑takes in what s/he has no
part in”25 does not respect constitutional rules for speech and “partaking”. His or her speech, which
will inevitably be conflictual, may take the shape of a silent gesture and his or her “part‑taking” of
illegal forms of behaviour. This action is not necessarily meant for the public space of the polis; it
circumvents and turns upside down the rules that define this citizen as “poor” and “having no part”.

“How can someone demonstrate who doesn’t exist?” ask the “African workers of Rosarno”. This
is a loaded question that begs the equally loaded question: how can men and women not exist
who work, produce goods and services, sleep and eat and whose lives and bodies intersect with
public space? This is not just a question of visibility. Focusing on this aspect alone would mean
running the risk of answers (suggesting, or at least seeking, possible areas of action) based on old
criteria that are no longer enough to provide a complete picture of reality. In today’s world, the
dividing line between scope for action and “silencing”26 is not entirely congruent with that between
public and private space, or even between an area of free movement and one of close confinement.
Non‑existent lives – such as those of the “African workers of Rosarno” who, after having demons‑
trated, ask how they could have done so since they did not exist – occupy the same space, albeit
in a state of suspension, a state of limbo, as existent lives. To fail to see their revolt as a means of
action able to mould the disparate stakeholders into a single unit through improvised subversion
of their state of limbo, their invisibility and their non‑existence, would amount to reproducing
the “order” of the polis within those “walled democracies,”27 whose walls are often the lives and
bodies of individuals. This is an order where the only course of action available is to make a vague
appeal to human rights – rights that, as we have seen, seem not to be guaranteed by any form of
sovereignty, whether that of the nation‑state or that of today’s many and various political set‑ups.

The question of spaces for living and working is therefore central to the relationship between de‑
mocracy and poverty. The apportionment and hierarchical organisation of space is a consequence
of the tensions and power struggles within societies. Over the past few decades, Western cities
have managed their spaces and the lives within them mainly on the basis of defensive principles
advocated by one section of the population and based on a misconception of security, a miscon‑
ception reflected in policy choices the roots and consequences of which will be studied below.

3.2. “Security”, poverty and space

25 Rancière J. (2001), “Ten theses on politics”, Theory & Event, Vol. 5, No. 3.
26 A commonly used term in post‑colonial criticism.
27 Brown W. (2010), Walled states, waning sovereignty, Zone Books, New York.

Page 214

214 215

Lydia PROKOFIEVA – Institut d’Etudes Avancées de Nantes, Russia

Diane ROMAN – Université François Rabelais, Tours, France

Emilio SANTORO – Università di Firenze, Italy

Federica SOSSI – Università di Bergamo, Italy

Fernando de SOUZA BARBOSA – Università di Firenze, Brazil

Ilona TOMOVA – Institute for Population and Human Research, Bulgaria

Yannick VANDERBORGHT – Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis, Belgium

Trade unions
Henri LOURDELLE – European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)

International organisations
Åsa NIHLEN – World Health Organisation

National institutions
Vanda R. ALVES PACHECO – Ministry of Labour and Social Solidarity, Portugal, and CDCS of the
Council of Europe

Ole KJÆRGAARD – Rådet for Socialt Udsatte, Denmark

Local institutions
Sonia BAUDCHON MATIAS - Camara Municipal de Covilhã, Portugal

Ansis GRANTINS - Domes administr�cija Salaspils, Latvia

Françoise COULOT, Lydia MEYER, Safiétou BAH - Mairie de Mulhouse, France

Giusti MANISCALCHI and Audrey NOEL - Observatoire Local de Cohésion Sociale de la Ville de
Charleroi, Belgium

Prim�ria Municipiului Timi�oara, Romania

Giuseppe CACCIA – City Council Venice, Italy

Page 215

Living in dignity in the 21st centur y

In the early 21st century, poverty, impoverishment and inequalities are increasing across the European
continent. These phenomena not only weaken the social cohesion of European societies, they also violate
human rights, including social and civil and political rights, and question the functioning of democracy. How
can people living in poverty make their voices heard in polarised societies, where more than 40% of assets
and 25% of revenues are held by 10% of the population?

This guide is the result of two years of collective discussion held within the framework of the project "The
human rights of people experiencing poverty”. It was prepared with the assistance of many individuals and
organisations, including people living in poverty, researchers, associations and representatives of public
authorities. As well as off ering a critique of the current situation, analysing inequality and poverty through
the prism of human rights, democracy and redistributive policies, the guide also invites the reader to explore
the possibilities of a renewed strategy to fi ght poverty in order to restore a sense of social justice. It makes
proposals that aim to overcome the stigmatisation and categorisation of people, opening pathways of
learning to build well-being through sharing, avoiding waste and by enhancing public awareness around
the principle of human dignity as a human right for all.

€49/US$98

http://book.coe.int
Council of Europe Publishing

The Council of Europe has 47 member states, covering virtually the entire continent of Europe. It seeks to develop
common democratic and legal principles based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other reference
texts on the protection of individuals. Ever since it was founded in 1949, in the aftermath of the Second World War,
the Council of Europe has symbolised reconciliation.

www.coe.int

ISBN 978-92-871-7567-0

M
ET

H
OD

OL
OG

IC
AL

G
UI

DEPREM
S2

4
0

4
1

2

C
o

u
n

cil o
f Eu

ro
p

e P
u

b
lish

in
g

Livin
g in

dign
ity in

th
e 21st cen

tu
ry

M
ethodological guide

PREMS 240412 GBR 2600 Vivre en dignite 7567 Couv .indd 2-3 09/07/13 15:14

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