Existential Damages: The Injury of Precarity Goes to Court

Peer Reviewed

Mirko Torresani , "Mobbing." October 27, 2004 via www.fotomiktor.com.

Psychological workplace harassment, called “mobbing,” can include vicious bullying but also practices normative within neoliberal labor regimes. It has become an urgent problem in Italy and led to the creation of a judicial category: “existential damages.” Why acknowledge workers’ existential injury during a period marked by the precipitous loss of their safeguards and value? Awarding existential damages displaces the locus of agency from the cause of economic conditions to their effects: from labor policy and norms to the disordered social relations among workers. Obscured are frictions within Italy’s uncoordinated political apparatus and how workers’ injury is enacted and maintained.

Editorial Footnotes

In this original article, anthropologist Noelle Molé studies the phenomenon of "mobbing" in Italy. Mobbing is a type of harassment in the workplace that includes anything from bullying to the blatant use of employees as scapegoats, as well as social exclusion and isolation. The use of mobbing by employers has become increasingly problematic in Italy, so much so that workers who bring charges against their employers are being awarded "existential damages," an entirely new category of damages in the Italian court system. Molé demonstrates that mobbing includes not only traditional forms of labor harassment, but also the absence of labor itself. In a society where considerable emphasis is placed on stable employment as a marker of success and self worth, a lack of labor can be more dehumanizing than other forms of emotional and physical harassment. As Molé concludes, mobbing represents the "strange void" of a society where individuals are taught to identify work as the culmination of success and self and are then stripped of the potential for actualization. Indeed, the emergence of the unprecedented judicial category of "existential damages" is reminiscent and indicative, according to Molé, the excesses of late capitalism and a new definition of the limits of "normal" labor.

Wikipedia, "Provinces of Veneto."

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of related articles on labor, including Peter Benson's "El Campo: Faciality and Structural Violence in Farm Labor Camps" (2008), Yan Hairong's "Neoliberal Governmentality and Neohumanism: Organizing Suzhi/Value Flow through Labor Recruitment Networks" (2003) and Paul Eiss's and David Pedersen's Introduction: Value of Values (2002). Additionally, Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles that focus on issues within Italy, including Elizabeth Krause's "''Empty Cradles and the Quiet Revolution: Demographic Discourse and Cultural Struggles of Gender, Race, and Class in Italy" (2001)Mia Fuller's "Building Power: Italy's Colonial Architecture and Urbanism, 1923–1940" (1988), David Horn's "Welfare, the Social, and the Individual in Interwar Italy" (1988), and Andrea Muehlebach's "On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy" (2011).

About the Author

Noelle Molé is a cultural anthropologist whose works explores the production and institutionalization of knowledge and the process through which knowledge becomes embodied and affective. She is interested in how what we know and how we experience the world make and remake each other under conditions of late capitalism. Her first book, Labor Disorders in Neoliberal Italy, theorizes and traces the institutionalization and circulation of “mobbing” (il mobbing), a psychological workplace harassment, in the northern Italian city of Padua. In the late 1990s, mobbing, often used for strategic downsizing, generated a national response: hundreds of mobbing clinics and hotlines, a new occupational illness, and a new legal injury designated for mobbing: existential damages. By analyzing the legal and medical apparatus assembled around mobbing, Labor Disorders uncover the politics of a state in transition: from a welfare state governing a highly protectionist labor economy to a fragmented state managing a neoliberal labor market and ramped up legal regime. Within this context of paradoxical political flux and heightened economic and existential uncertainty, and specifically for the subjects who identify as victims and victim advocates, mobbing becomes a way in which social actors negotiate and contest—judicially and somatically—neoliberal governance and precarity.  

Her second book, provisionally entitled Paratruths, project probes Italy’s renaissance in belief in the occult and supernatural and its opposition: a national organization of self-avowed scientific “skeptics,” The Committee for the Investigation of the Paranormal. I explore how this belief in and against the paranormal and the occult is affected by a much larger epistemological crisis in making truth claims: a loss of faith in modern forms of witnessing, grounding claims, and making evidence. The project seeks to examine “skepticism” along a spectrum with paranoia, as both demarcate a continuum of doubt capable of being recognized in shades of rationality and irrationality. The research also wrestles with psychiatric diagnosis as a related knowledge practice, and, especially in the case of paranormal beliefs, one that must distinguish between the real and the imagined just as much as it patrols the borders between rationality/irrationality and normal/pathological. How do psychiatric institutions and practitioners respond to, classify, and treat paranormal believers as individualized and pathological? Finally, Paratruths compares how late capitalist anxieties within a Catholic context as opposed to Protestant context give rise to beliefs in and against the occult.  

Molé is Senior Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.

Additional Works by the Author

Molé, Noelle. “Trusted Puppets, Tarnished Politicians: Humor and Cynicism in Berlusconi’s Italy” American Ethnologist (forthcoming).

Molé, Noelle. Labor Disorders in Neoliberal Italy: Mobbing, Well-being and the Workplace. Indiana University Press, 2012.  

Molé, Noelle. “Hauntings of Solidarity in Post-Fordist Italy.” In Anthropology Quarterly Vol. 85.2 (2012): 371-396, 2012.  

Molé, Noelle. “Precarious Subjects: Anticipating Neoliberalism in Northern Italy’s Workplace” American Anthropologist, Vol. 112.1 (2010): 38-53.  

Molé, Noelle. “Living it on the Skin: Italian States, Working Illness.” American Ethnologist 35.2 (2008): 189-210.

Multimedia and Links

“One in two Italians are Mobbed,” begins the service on Italian morning television program, “Una Mattina” September 2011 (in Italian) 

2004 film “Mobbing: Mi Piace Lavorare” (in English)

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What is an example of "mobbing"? Are there any famous cases of "mobbing" in the United States (or your state or country)?

2. What types of safeguards are in place to prevent and treat mobbing in Italy? Are these present in North America (or your state or country) as well?

3. Do you agree with idleness, isolation, and/or boredom being included under the definition of mobbing?

4. The author argues that mobbing and the feeling of being victimized results from the "exacerbation of fear and aggression about losing stable work," which is highly valued and prioritized in Italy. Is this mentality, that stable work is necessary to psychophysical well-being, prosperity, and success, shared by other cultures?

5. How does Molé relate mobbing to neoliberalism. Do you agree with Molé's conclusions?

Related Readings

Dowling, Emma, Rodrigo Nunes, and Benn Trott. "Immaterial and Affective Labour: Explored." Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organization. 7.1 (2001): 1-7.

Edwards, Phil. "The Berlusconi Anomaly: Populism and Patrimony in Italy’s Long Transition." South European Society and Politics. 10.2 (2005):225–243.

Hacking, Ian. "Making Up People." In The Science Studies Reader. Ed. Mario Biogioli. Pp. 161-171. New York: Routledge. 1999.

Jones, Erik. "Wheelers Dealers: Silvio Berlusconi in Comparative Perspective." Journal of Modern Italian Studies. 14.1 (2009):38–45.

Leymann, Harold. "Mobbing and Psychological T error at Workplaces." Violence and Victims. 5.2 (1990):119– 126.

Weston, Kath. "Political Ecologies of the Precarious." Anthropological Quarterly Special Edition: Post-Fordist Affect. 85.2 (2012):429–455.

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