A couple of days’ ago, the Sicilian regional government announced that they will be sending the army in to police the crisis. It was also announced that jogging is being banned, even alone and at a safe distance. Only a few voices are bubbling up from our quarantined underground about this authoritarian turn, this “self-coup” as an older comrade puts it. I have often wondered about the difference between oppression and repression but now it seems all too clear: oppression is when the army beats back the crowds, repression is when you stand on the balcony wondering if you’ll see the tanks rolling in. The disbanding of all assembly would make – or is making – the development of any authoritarianism much smoother, and a collective webchat hardly substitutes for this.
This exterior repression is accompanied by an inner one: it’s as if we’re catching up (or down) with the new generation of tablet-addicted babies, whose self-development happens through selfies. Despite the silence outside, my head is ringing with news reports and the jangle of commentary; I find slow-reading difficult under these conditions and, likewise, writing. I usually take a walk to straighten out my thoughts, so I now find getting words down much harder. I took a quick trip to the butcher, but the atmosphere on the street was deader than the meat. I felt naked without a face-mask.
It’s raining outside – there has been very little rainfall this year – and the church on the other side of the small park is blaring out an evening mass into the mist.
Time folds in on itself. Last time I spoke about the 24/7-ness, but there are a couple of other things about time I want to describe. First, there’s a very personal, intimate folding in: the mind turns back to old friends, memories that reform and remould, recollections of other crises; the harsh re-organization of all social life clearly forces a reflection back on all relations, on your social nature, dragging with it an accumulation of intimate particular narratives while also thrusting them into the present and flattening them out. I’ve become a general, marshaling the troops of my sociality.
On the other hand, there’s the time of contagion, watching other countries catch up with Italy. The countries ‘behind’ us – China and Iran – don’t give out information I feel I can trust. I don’t really know what’s going on there in the same way as I do about the countries ‘ahead’. It’s like looking into a crystal ball I don’t believe in, seeing the future while also saying ‘nothing is this predictable.’ The digital scry. This is compounded by the huge gap that has arisen between my friends in Italy and the UK: people with similar political orientations are begging their governments to act while here in Sicily the state response is sending shivers down us.
This gap is a time-gap. Countries go through their phases: the hand-washing phase, the anal hygiene phase (toilet roll, dog pooping), oral fixation (face masks), crowdfunders, the last piss-up, mass return to family homes, latency. I’m increasingly convinced that there is no vast difference between the approaches of different governments. The idea of ideologies and strategies gives too much credit to how much control a capitalist government has in a situation like this. There’s a certain (though incomplete) inevitability to how things pan out due to the prior balance of forces. My Anglophone friends seem to be very up-to-date on pictures of coffins and exhausted doctors in Northern Italy, along with an imprecise understanding of our lockdown. What the Anglophone world seems unaware of it that huge numbers of people – particularly in the North of Italy, where mass contagion has spread with horrific results – are still going to work. The map of contagion very neatly fits onto the map of factories and logistics centres. Distribution and production still continues, and there really can be very little doubt that this is one of the causes of the virus’s slaughter.
This asks a very big question about the organization of work within a capitalist economy, one which we are all understandably trying to avoid, consciously or otherwise. On the one hand, you can defend certain paid jobs as being useful to society, whether as part of the ‘real economy’ or ‘key workers’, and various shades between. But this leaves out a large sum of production and distribution of arguably un-necessary or luxury goods nevertheless necessary for the functioning of any capitalist economy. The Italian state has a necessity to continue creating value in order to have any basis to its economy. Capitalists do not want to watch all their profits burn away and the state is not prepared to oppose these capitalists in order to stop the contagion; at least, they are not prepared to do so yet. Unfortunately, until the state stops being capitalist, the capitalists will send people to work, and the contagion will continue to spread. The horrible truth of this is that in order for distribution to continue – i.e. for us down in Sicily still to have our supermarket shelves restocked – we need people to be mortally exploited in general, and to die in Lombardy specifically. Of course this always was the case, as anyone producing designer trainers in South-East Asia or cocoa beans in West Africa can tell you and indeed has been telling us for some time now.
A final note on helicopter money. The economic demands being raised in one country are being met in another, and I keep thinking: “careful what you wish for, things might get so shit that your enemies grant you it.” The very premises of a demand for a ‘universal basic income’ are by now out-moded; the proposal was based on the (already shakey) assumption of continued automation and increasing productivity. The point at which governments are prepared to pay a general, emergency wage to laid-off workers or put a moratorium on mortgages or rents is the point at which these premises have fallen away. States are making these proposals because in some way they feel they have no choice, and unfortunately not because labour suddenly won out over capital, but because all liquidity is about to dry up.
Perhaps it’s clearer now why sending troops because of an occasional jogger is causing me to lose some sleep.