It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote – not because there are no updates to give, but too many. Officially we’re under the same kind of quarantine still, but I feel like I’m coming out of it. This isn’t only psychological: ten days’ ago, our group got authorization from the council to go down to the homeless shelter (almost entirely West African men) with a couple of friends to see how things are going, and over the past few days we’ve also been distributing supermarket vouchers to people, and raising money to do it. Our work as an anti-racist group is exploding as we try and fill in for the state’s absence. Thankfully the contagion in Sicily has remained controlled and extremely limited – but the Italian South is utterly, completely unable to deal with the economic turmoil that has begun.
The atmosphere on the streets is more relaxed – we’ve become used to this new normal: the billboards of a happy stick family pleading you to “stay at home”, the occasional roadblocks to check your papers, the eerie silence. In the bakeries and supermarket, there are still security measures, distancing, gloves, masks – but the etiquette of this dystopia has been defined, we all know the new rules, who can bend them, who has to stay rigorously within them. For many of my friends it will come as a surprise that the racial dimension of this is not what you’d expect: here poor Blacks are generally allowed to bend the rules, because it’s recognized that confronting the problem (providing material support, dealing with linguistic barriers) isn’t worth the effort most of the time. Police can also bend the rules of course: a friend says she was told to put her mask back on by a group of carabinieri who all had their masks slung round their necks.
There aren’t soldiers in the streets however, and in truth the roadblocks are few and far between. Yet while the authoritarian turn didn’t come, we have become depoliticised. Unlike the past couple of years in Italy, there is no real divide in mainstream, televised politics, only the advice of scientists, graphs, decrees. There is very little debate. In parliament there is some discussion about Eurobonds and income support, essentially tax cuts and a range of bonuses for laid-off workers. This, however, has to reckon with the proletarian wreckage of unregularised work, freelancers, exploitative contract systems and the great swathe of unrecognized work, from care-work to fruit-picking. A far cry from universal income, and of course quickly followed by a proposal to create 200 billion Euros of state-guaranteed business loans.
For a few days, news went round about semi-politicized supermarket actions, the contours of which were difficult to navigate: people refusing to pay for trolleys full of goods, Facebook groups encouraging mini-riots. Proletarian expropriation? Mafia stitch-up? Right-wing fear mongering? Perhaps a little of each; certainly there has been a spate of burglaries. This does, however, seem to have provoked a second stage of support, this time attempting to overcome the historic ‘Southern Question’ by letting local authorities set income thresholds for the support and invent systems to circumvent dynamics of fraudulent claims. Here in Palermo, this means that non-residents should be getting some form of distribution of goods, while the official residents will need to download an app with €100/week to be used in supermarkets. A month into the quarantine, however, and not a cent has arrived, which means that civil society in the very widest sense – from international NGOs to parish churches, from communist groups to police barracks – is trying to fill in for the time being, without knowing when or if the state will ride in. Our own group has been making lists of migrants who need help, but really we could just draw a circle on the map around certain streets or neighbourhoods, shade it in and say ‘everyone here’.
This city is characterized by poverty; indeed, there have been historical moments when Sicily has defined what poverty looks like. There is a low level of literacy, dependency on physical forms of organization rather than the internet. The wonderful Italians in their beautiful piazzas don’t rely on Acado shopping deliveries and Ubers. We never had Uber. Whenever I go back to London, I’m always struck by how everything whirs and beeps, more and more every year. To put this another way: neither the state nor the private sector in Sicily has the capital to atomize its consumer base; it needs large physical groupings of consumers to distribute goods. We are not an automated society. A certain layer is used to Amazon and internet banking, but the vast majority is not – and these are the people that support needs to reach. It doesn’t have the fixed capital (i.e. software) nor does it have the human capital (technicians). Local councils haven’t hired staff since before the crash of 2008; a large proportion of people working in government at all levels have only the most rudimentary understanding of how to use a computer. Massive public sector cuts don’t just mean there’s a limited capacity for patients in the hospitals, it means there’s a very limited capacity for supporting the unemployed and exploited. In an economic crisis driven by a lack of demand, we lack the ventilators to oxygenate capitalism’s new blood supply.
The historic lack of state infrastructure is matched by the fiscal composition of the class. A significant proportion of the working class of Sicily – like so many other peripheries – is not on the books; they do not pay tax; they do not receive income support. For better or worse, changing this cannot happen in the span of three days. Or more precisely, given that we’re all used to curve diagrams now: the rate of growth of state registration cannot keep up with the exponential curve of an empty stomach.
What makes this process particularly sharp in the South is that global capitalism relies, and has always relied, on export, luxury goods, international trade and property speculation, i.e. on all the forces of Palermo’s more recent upturn – tourism, gentrification, high-level agricultural export. The current crisis forecloses all of this reliance on export and transnational capitalism, and what can substitute for it is far from clear. There can be little doubt that the profits of these processes came off the back of exploitation in the field, streets and bedrooms. But the question is soon becoming what new forms of exploitation will be ushered in to fill this gap.