Alessandro Volpi – Erasmus for the disadvantaged

The Erasmus Programme is commonly seen as a positive development in Europe. One hardly hears any criticism. Thus we found this piece so interesting. It is by Alessandro Volpone, editor at Senso Comune, a partner website of BRAVE NEW EUROPE.

Cross-posted from Senso Comune

Translated and edited by BRAVE NEW EUROPE

Like many young Europeans, I too participated in the Erasmus exchange programme. Three months later, I would like to reflect upon this experience. I shall remain as general as possible, in which the subject is – to quote Marx – a simple “character mask”, so that nobody is insulted.

What does Erasmus represent? First of all, Erasmus is a bubble, a very funny bubble: imagine you are  thrown in the middle of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of people from all over Europe in a place that is not a place, with no responsibility to the people around you, being able to screw, drink, take drugs and do all those things that everyone likes. All this in an infrastructure, created in a series of places dedicated to facilitate this type of life. Who would not like this? And this must be said without moralism of any kind, without the slightest condemnation.

Spending time in bubbles is not in itself something negative, the attractions in a park where the child is brought on Sunday is for him a bubble, but the child knows that on the next day his routine awaits him at school. In short, the bubble burst s, however the child  is prepared for it. This is not the case with Erasmus, where a propaganda system convinces you that this bubble is your future, because you belong to the Erasmus Generation. Obviously you – since you are in a theme park – want to believe it, thinking that the university in the province where you spent the last years of your life can only be a distant memory and that you will spend the next few years of your life in hundreds of these bubbles around the world.

Unfortunately bubbles eventually burst for most of us. For those who cannot join that small cosmopolitan elite that allows them to continue to travel the world, to become increasingly international etc … there is a brutal re-territorialisation, with the sense of defeat attached to be returned to the same life as your loser cousin who never left the country. Alternatively, there are two other possibilities where the Erasmus promise is fulfilled but in a dystopian form. There are the almost winners, who will spend years and years travelling the world between unpaid internships or paid a miserly wage, always a step away from their aspirations, so that paradise turns out to be hell. Finally there are those who don’t even have a place to fail, who will have to immigrate to escape hunger, and not the hunger of Steve Jobs, but the hunger – even if relative – of the poor. What matters is that you are convinced that participating in this fight against the social massacre is the only possibility (an existential TINA), that being in one place is a failure and that the immigrant has a wonderful future ahead of him.

Someone talks about Erasmus as a form of post-modern military service; there is some truth in that definition, but only partially. The military has the aim  of disciplining, but it does so through repression, a rigid discipline that presupposes a certain harshness of life. Erasmus works without doubt better because it acts exactly the opposite: it trains one to desire, to pursue aspirations that will often be disregarded by reality, but which in the meantime serve to convince you to adopt the behaviour necessary for the reproduction of the system.

In this sense, the metaphor used by Raffaele Alberto Ventura in his “Theory of the Disadvantaged Class” referring more generally to education is much more pertinent:

“The problem is that school aims to inculcate values and habits of the middle class without worrying about them conflicting with the present and future material resources of the students: that is, it teaches us to “think like the rich and live like the poor”. In the same way, Duke Des Esseintes, in À Rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, enjoys bringing a poor young man to the brothel, accustoming him to vices that he cannot afford and then abandoning him to his condition to make him suffer and turn him into a thief, or rather a murderer. In the case of the education system, the objective is more limited: to transform the student into a consumer, who will tend to save as little as possible in order to ensure a lifestyle similar to that promoted by the school and university.

Beyond the general context of the Ventura theory in Huysman’s book, I would refer to Thomas Fazi’s criticism, this metaphor helps us to understand what Erasmus represents in its ideological-social function: to inculcate aspirations that cannot be maintained in order to push us into that game of social massacre that is the competition for the few places in the only life that seems worthy of being lived: that of the cosmopolitan elites.

The consequences that we must draw from this discourse are obviously not reactionary, nobody here wants to limit the circulation of knowledge. The Erasmus project is a value to be preserved whatever the destiny of the EU, and perhaps even to be made more universal. What we can do for the disadvantaged class in Erasmus, is to make the most of this project without falling into the ideological trap of the Erasmus Generation. Leo Longanesi, one of the most brilliant Italian writers and journalists of the last century, said: “I eat tinned American meat, but the ideologies that accompany it I leave on the plate.”

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