“As never before, our community must unite and form a chain to protect the most important good of all: life. Should only one block of this chain break, we would all be exposed to far more serious perils.”
It was almost midnight on March 20 when Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte pronounced these solemn words during a televised speech by which – visibly exhausted – he announced the temporary shutdown of ‘non-vital’ productive activities across the country.
Being the first and worst hit county in Europe, this was not the first emergency measure. But all previous measures had failed to delay the spread of the virus. Paradoxically, the government had demanded all citizens to stay home whilst at the same time allowing industry to operate normally, so exposing workers to the virus and the risk of spreading it further. One could observe a positive correlation between the areas most affected by the virus and the location of manufacturing industries in Italy. Trade unions had been demanding their shutdown for at least two weeks, and Italian were angrily sharing the hashtag #chiudetelefabbriche (‘close the factories’) on twitter. Facing a rapid spread of the virus, Conte finally yielded to their demands.
Trade unions had been demanding their shutdown for at least two weeks… angrily sharing the hashtag #chiudetelefabbriche (‘close the factories’).
It was a life-and-death matter, the Prime Minister suggested. But was it? When the list of ‘non-vital productive activities’ was published on 22 March, it turned out that the category did not include a number of dubious activities – among them the production of F-35 fighter jets. Overall, the list did not reflect what the PM had agreed in the negotiations with social partners. In response, trade unions called a general strike on 25 March, whilst Confindustria, the powerful Italian industrial lobby stirred things up by asserting that “the shutdown ha[d] to be reconciled with the demands of production”. Former PM Matteo Renzi launched a campaign in their support, insisting that “schools and factories had to be reopened immediately”. In the meantime, Italy was counting its thousands of victims and hospitals in the North confessed they were no longer able to accept everyone in need of care. Eventually, the Italian government was compelled to revise the list, although many non-vital productive activities continue unhindered to this day, without any reasonable justification.
Former PM Matteo Renzi launched a campaign in their support, insisting that “schools and factories had to be reopened immediately”.
The paradox at the heart of the Italian strategy to deal with coronavirus is not an Italian exception. It echoes a familiar contradiction between claims of governments around the world publicly saying they are putting the health of citizens before everything else, and the reality of millions of people having to turn up for work in non-vital sectors of the economy. In the United States, President Trump declared on 10 April that “he faces the biggest decision [he has] ever made”, stuck between bankers, corporate executives and industrialists who are “pleading with him to reopen the country as soon as possible” and medical experts who are begging for an extension of the lockdown. World leaders are saying they are waging a war against coronavirus but their actions reveal a rather different conflict: one between life and profit. It is a deeper struggle between two antithetical logics: the logic of the State vs. the logic of Capital.
State vs. Capital
The State needs people to be alive to construct the mythical social contract with them. The legitimacy of the State rests on its capacity to protect human life indiscriminately, without attaching a particular value to whether one is ill or healthy. But this stands in contrast with what Capital demands. Capital differentiates between useful and useless, more and less productive human beings. It is interested in human life as long as it serves the maximisation of profit: people have value in the measure that they produce and consume. The irreconcilable approaches of State and Capital vis-à-vis human life may be mystified in times of relative normalcy, but cannot avoid being laid bare in times of a global pandemic. The battle between them is inevitable, and the public character of it is perhaps as important as the battle itself.
Capital differentiates between useful and useless, more and less productive human beings.
But this is not what we have been led to believe. Capital by definition portrays itself as a victim of the State. Without the arbitrary intervention by the State, the Capitalist mantra goes, we would all live in prosperity. In fact, under the guise of anti-State rhetoric, Capital has captured the vital functions of sovereignty, without however revealing its face. It has manoeuvred the State from behind and seized sovereign powers without taking the moral responsibility that is constitutive of sovereignty. Capital is the actual deep state. Especially after the end of the Cold War, the invisible penetration of Capital within the State has led to astronomical accumulation of private wealth by the few, at the cost of welfare.
Whilst many today decry the fact that the use of emergency powers by governments to cope with the coronavirus can endanger democracy in the long run, we may forget that – over the last decade only – capitalist forces have mobilised a series of ‘economic emergencies’, suspending democratic politics with the primary aim of advancing legislations in their favour: tax cuts, corporate bailouts combined with austerity measures and the dismantling of labour protections. The widening inequality gap worldwide is just one visible expression of State capture by Capital.
Coronavirus has not changed this situation. Companies are working hard to turn the healthcare crisis into a business opportunity. They have sold hand sanitizers which normally cost 1,5-3 euros for up to 70 euros, and some have even argued that the coronavirus vaccine should not be accessible to all, but subject to the peremptory law of supply and demand. But it is precisely the open disregard that Capital shows for human life that forces the State to fight back.
The real question concerns which crisis we should prioritize now: the health crisis or the economic crisis. The battle is on. The state of healthcare emergency cohabits with the denial of such an emergency. As the example of Italy elucidates, the biopolitics of the State that is imposing lockdowns and preventive restrictions intermingles with the necropolitics of companies and big corporations that are forcing workers to endure the magic of business as usual, willing to sacrifice their lives on the altar of profit maximisation.
The biopolitics of the State that is imposing lockdowns and preventive restrictions intermingles with the necropolitics of companies.
But the State cannot succumb to the logic of Capital, unless it would be willing to forgo its own legitimacy. This is irrespective of regime type. It concerns the raison d’être of the State as an institution and the unique prerogatives that only the State has historically been able to arrogate to itself. The brutal capacity of the State to penetrate and regulate the lives of individuals rests precisely on the common interest for the preservation of human life that, although for very different reasons, the former shares with the latter. Capital instead puts human lives into commodified hierarchies and treats bodies as human machines.
The power of exposure
There is however an ironic paradox here: the more Capital penetrates the State, the more it renders itself vulnerable to public exposure. By putting in question the very essence of the social pact, Capital creates the structural conditions for docile bodies to turn into rebels and demand a different State. This has been after all the case with the major revolutions of the modern era, from the French to the Russian revolution. And there is no better lesson than this one that anti-capitalist forces can draw from history in this particular juncture.
Italy provides again a good example. Recent investigations into the failure of the healthcare system to cope with the coronavirus pandemic have put the spotlight on the dramatic effects of neoliberal measures on what was once celebrated as the ‘best healthcare system of Europe’. Reports have revealed that health spending cuts, over the last 10 years only, amount to more than 37 billion euros. Combined with a massive privatization of medical services, these cuts have drastically reduced intensive care beds, amongst other things. Overall, Italy had 922 intensive care beds per 100.000 inhabitants in 1980. This number dropped to 535 in 2013 and – shockingly – to 272 in February 2020. Put under the scrutiny of the public eye, these data are sparking unprecedented outrage and demands for a policy U-turn. Neoliberal measures, for decades implemented by stealth, are now widely seen as an assault on public safety. Their moral cost is surging – and rightly so.
Neoliberal measures, for decades implemented by stealth, are now widely seen as an assault on public safety.
Most crucially, people are now realising that coronavirus is not the only ‘invisible’ enemy in this war. As factories are becoming ‘minefields’, alongside the front line of hospitals and chains of food production and distribution, the only real conflict is the one between social classes. Exposure of the brutality of capitalism in this pandemic constitutes the first concrete opportunity since the end of the Cold War to alter the balance of power between capitalists and workers in favour of the latter, to reverse decades of austerity measures and the structural – not exceptional – dehumanization of the working class by Capital.
By mobilising the state of emergency to reaffirm the equal value of all human lives, workers now have a historic possibility to reclaim an interventionist State to reinstate and uphold the right to a dignified – not just bare – life. Whilst some ‘non-vital’ industries in the North of Italy are now trying to reopen their doors before the end of the shutdown imposed by the government, nurses have responded that, should that happened, they will go on strike together with workers. Paradoxically, by staying at home, from the cramped space of our apartments we have an opportunity to gain political space within the State to the detriment of capitalist forces, and finally be able to unmask the true face of ‘the invisible hand.’
An earlier version of this article has appeared on March 29 in Italian in the daily newspaper, Il Manifesto.