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The political spectrum in Europe is currently undergoing a dangerous shift towards the far-right, with nationalistic agendas and populistic discourse charming the masses, a shift dictated by underlining fears over the risks of globalisation, and the associated social and cultural instability of recent developments in migration trends.

Growing radicalisation of political views seems to inspire and to reinforce an equally radical attitude towards difference, experienced both at an interpersonal level, and a structural level. More clearly, the restrictive binary of centre – periphery is revived, in a symbolic (at the least) attempt to reassert the legitimacy of Western values as central to Western society. The European Ghetto is, now as much as ever, a testimony to this rise of marginality as social and cultural condition.

Historically linked to the persecution of the Jewish population in Europe, and with systemic racism in the USA, European ghettos maintain cultural aspects of social exclusion, as they are highly regulated spaces. Denmark, for instance, drafted in 2010 a Ghetto List, updated in 2015 to include all areas defined, by the same list, as ghettos.

To be considered a ghetto, the area must respond to three out five points of classification, referring, among others, to low income and high rates of criminality. One point reads as follows: “The number of immigrants from non-Western countries, as well as succeeding generations from non-Western countries exceeds 50% of the local population.” A non-ethnic background is thus officially linked by government policy to other negative aspects of the ghetto: poverty, high crime levels, unemployment, urban decay.

From the series Factory on the Meadow, by Cyrille Weiner

We can read this through the Foucauldian concept of “biopolitics,” and make the pertinent observation that ethnic (sometimes implicitly religious) bias becomes a regulatory force in the hand of the state, somehow responding to similar historical features of state racism. Ethnicity is translated into difference, regulated discursively and spatially. There is a very fine line between manifesting difference and manifesting deviance, and by submitting ethnicity and criminality to be common traits of ghetto residents, the state installs physical and symbolic borders around spaces that Foucault, again, would call “heterotopias of deviance.”

Despite these regulatory actions, the state does not dictate that individuals must reside in particular areas according to race, ethnicity, or income. So, how is it, then, that ethnically and racially loaded clusters form at the physical or symbolic margins of Western cities?

While working at The Centre for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology – CP³-Origins, physicist Rudy Arthur looks at an application of the Ising Model in sociology. Speaking of the “agent based model,” Arthur notes: “An early example of such a model from the field of sociology and demography is called the Schelling model. We reduce people to a single decision – move house or stay put. We disregard all the reasons other than one: ‘Are my neighbours similar to me?’ We then simulate a group of people moving house based on this decision with two or more types of people. The key finding is that even if people have only a slight preference for similar neighbours, this is amplified on the global scale, generating highly segregated neighbourhoods.

The results of such studies are highly suggestive rather than definitive. I would say the main finding of this model is that segregation and ghettos can form spontaneously. Though observations of segregation can be the result of history or policy they can also be the result of individual action.”

Arthur developed a programme that considers the number of neighbours, number of different neighbours and the level of intolerance, in order to measure the diversity of social clusters. The findings are somewhat grim: “For quite tolerant agents the final “diversity” measured by checking how many neighbours of the same type each agent has is relatively low. If the segregation phenomenon occurs, and the fact that the agents are made extremely tolerant does nothing to increase diversity, proves mathematically that society can never improve.” Arthur’s findings describe, with a touch of whimsical pessimism, a dystopia. However, it is not seldom that our surrounding realities come to correspond to this description, challenging humanity’s ability to improve itself.

Words: Elena Stanciu