The effect this is having already on society at every level is momentous
I thought it would be worthwhile putting down a few scattered thoughts in English for my friends watching the Italian state’s reaction to the pandemic from afar.
At home last week, we had an improvised lunch (rice and mafe) that represented the effects so far of the panic: a school teacher, home all day because of the school closure, and a friend who usually works in a Chinese general store, closed – his first day off in months. (For the full labour analysis, there was also me: a freelancer, still working from home, so I ate quickly; and our fourth member, who works occasional shifts at a foster home). That was a week ago, and we were joking about the panic measures and the recourse to the state of exception. We went ahead with the anti-racist assembly and demonstration on Sunday nevertheless; even a few days ago, it felt like we were through the worst of it, with a sigh of relief, as if the social psychosis was dying down.
Then yesterday a government decree was issued on the closure of ALL public events of any kind. The closure of schools, businesses and cultural spaces generated and expanded through a kind of business logic of denying individual responsibility and the fear of litigation. No one wants to take responsibility for an agglomeration of people, so the order went down from government (“it’s up to the headteachers to decide if a school remains open or not”) got pushed back from the roots (“I can’t take personal responsibility if someone falls ill”) and crystallized again up at the top: the government ordered a top-down closure of, well, everything. The process took a couple of weeks of communication, responsibilities, an improvised sense of duty to ripple up and down various hierarchies, but the result has been the state as the final arbiter of all responsibility, or the final denier: no one can take responsibility, so no one can do anything.
This hit up against the strange authoritarianism of experts: no one has any idea what to believe, whether we’re facing an elaborate hoax or if everyone over 70 will be dead in a month. But the lowest common denominator in this complete lack of trust is closure. Where there is no responsibility and no trust, there can be no community – and so the natural result, like a technology of communal destruction, is complete individualism. The state stepped in and rubber stamped the dissolution of society.
All the schools and universities are closed from this morning for the next ten days at least, and with the Easter holidays only a month away, it seems quite likely that the closures would continue after that. The effect this is having already on society at every level is momentous: children stay at home, so workers stay at home as well. First it was the Chinese restaurants and general stores that closed, now its closure everywhere. Flights cancelled, tour groups cancelled; frantic appeals from restaurateurs and anyone in the tourism sector, who are the first to be hit by all the cancellations, already hemorrhaging liquidity. But more than this: productivity is now going to collapse in all sectors for at least a month. Even if productive and logistics centres return to normal after a few weeks, all administrative processes are blocked and in slow motion. A few examples: prison visits are all cancelled, and lawyers visits have been halved; judges enter courtrooms with masks and many stay at home; an emergency law has extended processing times for all sorts of permits and applications; council offices are closed due to lack of staff. All of this is already having a huge knock-on effect on the economy, you can feel it already – people cancelling trips, changing their spending habits. Just imagine the effect on the ports. This morning there was a queue at the bank…
The word ‘welfare’ was originally coined in opposition to ‘warfare’: following the warfare state of the 1940s, it was time to return to supporting society. Today feels like the reverse process. Over a decade of destroying public services in Italy means that the hospitals are completely unprepared for a crisis of this kind. The capitalist state would rather risk an economic depression than face the consequences of a national epidemic without any public health services – an equation which gives you a feeling of how decrepit health services are here. But the health crisis aside for one moment, an economic hit to Italy on this scale – and to Southern Italy most of all – will be catastrophic.