Listen to the Episode — 55 min
Clara: The Ex-Worker;
Alanis: An audio strike against a monotone world;
Clara: A podcast of anarchist ideas and action;
Alanis: For everyone who dreams of a life off the clock.
Clara: Dear listeners, comrades, friends:
We hope this finds you in good health—physically, mentally and emotionally, politically, individually and collectively.
Alanis: These are strange, strange times. And we at the Ex-Worker podcast want you to know that we’re here, we’re here with you, and we’ll get through this together. Since we, like many of you, are more or less cooped up in our homes doing our best to stay connected and remain engaged through this global pandemic, we’re taking the opportunity to revive this podcast and use it as a way to keep in touch with all of you.
Clara: This is the first of what we expect will be many episodes to come in the coming weeks, months, or however long we find ourselves in this situation. We really want to encourage all of you to reach out, in whatever medium makes sense for you. Let us know what’s going on where you are, how you’re doing and what you need, and your thoughts about what kinds of experiments we can undertake together—even at a distance—to promote liberation in these most challenging of circumstances.
Alanis: No one can predict from here what direction the social crisis prompted by the virus will take. On the one hand, we see some of the worst examples of impending fascism: police rounding up homeless people and establishing curfews; the militarization of all sorts of aspects of everyday life as well as political rhetoric; Nazis taking advantage of the empty streets to spew racist graffiti and attack immigrant, queer, and left-wing spaces; borders closing and bans on all public assembly, and so forth and so on.
Clara: But on the other hand, some possibilities are opening up that would have seemed unthinkable weeks ago. Neoliberal capitalism has been dealt a deathblow from which it might never recover. The notion that all people are entitled to health care regardless of ability to pay has become universal, and insistence on our unrestricted right to housing and utilities is growing, as freezes on evictions and utility shut-offs go into effect. Strikes have broken out, often wildcat walk-offs or sit-downs, among workers at shipyards, post offices, public transit systems, call centers, agricultural plants, Amazon warehouses, and tons of other workplaces. Prisoners are striking, rioting, and at times escaping, and in some places being released; mainstream groups have called not only for emptying the jails but a moratorium on all arrests. And perhaps most importantly, a profound spirit of broad social solidarity is taking hold all over the place, with mutual aid networks forming and a sense of care and appreciation for neighbors and employees challenging our conventional apathy.
Alanis: None of these things, neither the terrifying nor the inspiring, should be taken for granted. At the moment, we’re all scared, uncertain, unprepared—our friends as well as our enemies. But as we settle in for what may be a long process of adjusting to social distancing, quarantine, and isolation, we have an unprecedented opportunity to organize in an environment in which nearly anything could be on the table. It’s the closest thing to a clean slate we’re likely to ever have in our lifetimes—let’s take advantage of it. Our hope is that this humble podcast can play some small role in that process as we adapt, grow, and resist together in the weeks and months to come.
Clara: One of the challenges in trying to participate or intervene during this particular moment is that, even moreso than usual, everything is changing SO quickly. We’ll do our best to keep up with developments and to get you news and analysis and interviews that can be of use to you as promptly as we can. Even so, bear in mind that some of the things we share, particularly statistics or time-sensitive updates, may be out of date by the time you listen, so be sure to follow up on the CrimethInc. website or elsewhere to get the latest.
Alanis: In this episode, we’ll start off with an overall analysis of the pandemic and some initial thoughts about how we can respond as anarchists, including the text “Surviving the Virus: An Anarchist Guide.” We’ll talk about what this pandemic means as a crisis for capitalism, the totalitarian threat posed by state mobilization against it, and our thoughts on modes of resistance that can challenge centralized power while still keeping the virus at bay.
Incidentally, if English isn’t your first language or you’re in touch with others who might find it useful, you can find that text translated into German, Spanish, French, Greek, Indonesian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, and Turkish through the links on our website.
Clara: We’ll also share part of a report we received from anarchist comrades in Italy, one of the areas hardest hit by the virus, called “Against the Coronavirus and the Opportunism of the State.”
Alanis: And we’ll wrap up by reflecting a bit on the Ex-Worker podcast project and asking for input from all of you about our path forward together as we navigate the crisis and the new terrain of resistance in the coming months.
Clara: Of course we know that one of the biggest things on the tip of everyone’s tongue right now is the prospect of a widespread rent strike starting April 1st. That’s important enough that we’re devoting an entire episode to it, including manifestoes, interviews, and even a history of the rent strike as a tactic; stay tuned for that. In upcoming episodes we’ll also be featuring interviews with anarchist health care workers on the frontlines of the crisis, more analysis and history, and plenty more.
Alanis: As usual, you can always find a full transcript of this episode along with all the relevant links and references on our website, crimethinc.com/podcast. And we hope you’ll be in touch with us—by email to podcast[at]crimethinc[dot]com, or on social media via the CrimethInc. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts.
Clara: Huge thanks to everyone for tuning in. Now let’s get started.
AGAINST THE VIRUS, AGAINST THE STATE
Alanis: From one side, our lives are threatened by a new virus; from the other side, our freedom is menaced by nationalists and authoritarians intent on using this opportunity to set new precedents for state intervention and control. If we accept this dichotomy—between life and freedom—we will continue paying the price long after this particular pandemic has passed. In fact, each is bound up in the other, dependent upon the other.
Clara: At this point, the strategy of the authorities is not aimed at protecting people from the virus so much as controlling the pace at which it spreads so that it doesn’t overwhelm their infrastructure. As in so many other aspects of our lives, crisis management is the order of the day. Our rulers don’t intend to preserve the lives of everyone affected by the virus—they already wrote off concern for the poor long before this crisis began. Rather, they’re determined to preserve the current structure of society and their legitimacy within it.
Alanis: In this context, we have to be able to distinguish between two different disasters: the disaster of the virus itself and the disaster wrought by the ways that the existing order responds—and does not respond—to the pandemic. It will be a grave mistake to throw ourselves at the mercy of the existing power structures, blindly trusting that they exist to save us. On the contrary, when our rulers say “health,” they mean the health of the economy much more so than the health of our bodies. Case in point: two weeks ago the Federal Reserve allocated $1.5 trillion to prop up the stock market—$500 billion for the banks—but even now most US citizens still can’t get tested for coronavirus.
Clara: In trying to preserve the health of the United States economy rather than directing resources towards preserving the health of human beings within the US, Trump is giving us an explicit lesson in the ways that capitalism is fundamentally hazardous to our health. Not even the wealthiest of the wealthy can isolate themselves completely from a virus like this, as illustrated by the circulation of the virus in the upper echelons of global power. In short—the prevailing order is not in anyone’s best interest, not even those who benefit from it most. On a global scale, industrially produced climate change has already made this situation very familiar. Some have even hypothesized that, by reducing pollution and workplace accidents, the industrial slowdown that the virus has brought about in China is saving lives as well as taking them.
Alanis: Liberals and leftists are responding by criticizing the failures of Trump’s government, effectively demanding more government intervention and centralized control—which Trump, or his successors, will surely wield for their own benefit, not only in response to pandemics, but also in response to everything else they perceive as a threat.
Clara: Fundamentally, the problem is that we lack a discourse about health that is not premised on centralized control. Across the political spectrum, every metaphor we have for safety and health is predicated on the exclusion of difference (for example, borders, segregation, isolation, protection) rather than the aim of developing a positive relationship with difference (for example, extending health-care resources to all, including those outside the borders of the US).
We need a way of conceiving of well-being that understands bodily health, social ties, human dignity, and freedom as all being interconnected. We need a way of responding to crisis based in mutual aid—that doesn’t grant even more power and legitimacy to tyrants.
Alanis: Rather than placing blind faith in the state, we must focus on what we can do with our own agency, looking back to previous precedents for guidance. Let no one charge that anarchistic organizing is not “disciplined” or “coordinated” enough to address an issue like this. We have seen over and over that capitalist and state structures are at their most “disciplined” and “coordinated” precisely in the ways that they impose unnecessary crises on us—poverty, climate change, the prison-industrial complex. Anarchism, as we see it, is not a hypothetical blueprint for an alternate world, but the immediate necessity of acting outside and against the dictates of profit and authority in order to counteract their consequences. While the current models of “addressing the pandemic” that states are carrying out are based on top-down control that nevertheless fail to protect the most vulnerable, an anarchist approach would focus chiefly on shifting resources such as medical care toward all who require them, while empowering individuals and communities to be able to limit the amount of risk they choose to expose themselves to without tremendous negative consequences.
Clara: There are precedents for this. We recall the famous Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta returning to Naples in 1884, despite the threat of a three-year prison term hanging over his head, to treat a cholera epidemic in his hometown. Surely our ancestors have theorized about this and taken actions that we could learn from today. Just a few years ago, some anarchists set themselves the challenge of analyzing how to respond to the ebola outbreak from an anarchist perspective. We’re asking you to think and write and talk about how to generate a discourse about health that distinguishes it from state control—and what sort of actions we can take together to help each other survive this situation while preserving our autonomy.
SURVIVING THE VIRUS: AN ANARCHIST GUIDE
Alanis: Surviving the Virus: An Anarchist Guide
The pandemic is not going to pass in the next few weeks. Even if strict confinement measures succeed in cutting the number of infections down to what it was a month ago, the virus could resume spreading exponentially again as soon as the measures are suspended. The current situation is likely to continue for months—sudden curfews, inconsistent quarantines, increasingly desperate conditions—though it will almost certainly shift form at some point when the tensions within it boil over. To prepare for that moment, let’s protect ourselves and each other from the threat posed by the virus, think through the questions about risk and safety that the pandemic poses, and confront the disastrous consequences of a social order that was never designed to preserve our well-being in the first place.
Clara: Longstanding anarchist forms of organization and security have a lot to offer when it comes to surviving the pandemic and the panic it is causing.
Alanis: Form an Affinity Group
Clara: The prospect of quarantine tells us a lot about how we were already living. Those who live in close-knit families or joyous collective houses are in a much better situation than those in broken marriages and those who have big empty houses all to themselves. This is a good reminder of what really matters in life. Despite the models of safety that are represented by the bourgeois dream of nuclear family home ownership and the US foreign policy that reflects it, togetherness and care are much more important than the kind of security that depends on fencing out the whole world.
“Social distancing” must not mean total isolation. We won’t be safer if our society is reduced to a bunch of atomized individuals. That would neither protect us from the virus nor from the stress of this situation nor from the power grabs that capitalists and state authorities are preparing to carry out. As much as the elderly are at risk from the virus, for example, older people are already dangerously isolated in this society; cutting them off from all contact with others will not preserve their physical or mental health. All of us need to be embedded in tight-knit groups in a way that maximizes both our medical safety and our collective capacity to enjoy life and take action.
Choose a group of people you trust—ideally people you share day to day life with, all of whom share similar risk factors and levels of risk tolerance. For the purposes of surviving the virus, this is your affinity group, the basic building block of decentralized anarchist organization. You don’t necessarily need to live in the same building with them; the important thing is that you can cut down your risk factors to those you all share and feel comfortable with. If your group is too small, you’ll be isolated—and that will especially be a problem if you get sick. If your group is too big, you’ll face needless risk of infection.
Talk with each other until you arrive at a set of shared expectations as to how you will engage with the risk of contagion. This could be anything from total individual physical isolation to remembering to use hand sanitizer after touching surfaces in public. If you are able to minimize your risk factors for exposure to the virus outside your group, within it you can still hug, kiss, make food together, touch the same surfaces. The important thing is to agree about the level of risk you are collectively ready to tolerate, adhere to a set security protocol, and communicate clearly when a new risk factor arises.
This is what anarchists call security culture—the practice of establishing a set of shared expectations to minimize risk. When we’re dealing with police repression and the surveillance of the state, we protect ourselves by sharing information on a need-to-know basis. When we’re dealing with a virus, we protect ourselves by controlling the vectors along which contagions can spread.
It’s never possible to avoid risk altogether. The point is to determine how much risk you are comfortable with and conduct yourself in such a way that if something goes wrong, you won’t have any regrets, knowing you have taken all the precautions you deemed necessary. Sharing your life with an affinity group, you get the best parts of both caution and conviviality.
Alanis: Form a Network
Clara: Of course, your affinity group alone won’t suffice to meet all your needs. What if you need resources that none of you can safely access? What if you all get sick? You need to be connected to other affinity groups in a network of mutual aid, so that if any group in the network gets overwhelmed, the others can come to their aid. Participating in a network like this, you can circulate resources and support without all needing to expose yourselves to the same level of risk. The idea is that when people from different groups within the network interact, they employ much stricter safety measures, so as to minimize additional risk.
The phrase “mutual aid” has been thrown around a lot lately, even by politicians. In its proper sense, mutual aid does not describe a program that provides unidirectional assistance for others the way a charity organization does. Rather, it is the decentralized practice of reciprocal care via which participants in a network make sure that everyone gets what they need, so that everyone has reason to be invested in everyone else’s well-being. This is not a matter of tit-for-tat exchange, but rather an interchange of care and resources that creates the sort of redundancy and resilience that can sustain a community through difficult times. Mutual aid networks thrive best when it is possible to build up reciprocal trust with others over a long period of time. You don’t have to know or even like everyone else in the network, but everyone has to give enough to the network that together, your efforts create a sense of abundance.
The framework of reciprocity might seem to lend itself to social stratification, in which people from similar social classes with similar access to resources gravitate to each other in order to get the best return on the investment of their own resources. But groups from different backgrounds can have access to a wide range of different kinds of resources. In these times, financial wealth may prove much less valuable than experience with plumbing, the ability to speak a particular dialect, or social ties in a community you never thought you’d find yourself depending on. Everyone has good cause to extend their networks of mutual aid as far and wide as possible.
The fundamental idea here is that it is our bonds with others that keep us safe, not our protection from them or our power over them. Preppers who have focused on building up a private stockpile of food, gear, and weapons are putting the pieces in place for an each-against-all apocalypse. If you put all your energy into individual solutions, leaving everyone around you to fight for survival on their own, your only hope is to outgun the competition. And even if you do—when there’s no one else to turn those guns on, you’ll be the last one left, and that gun will be the last tool at your disposal.
Alanis: How We Relate to Risk
Clara: The appearance of a new potentially lethal contagion forces all of us to think about how we relate to risk. What’s worth risking our lives for?
On reflection, most of us will conclude that—all other things being equal—risking our lives just to keep playing our role in capitalism is not worth it. On the other hand, it might be worth it to risk our lives to protect each other, to care for each other, to defend our freedom and the possibility of living in an egalitarian society.
Just as being completely isolated is not safer for the elderly, trying to avoid risk entirely won’t keep us safe. If we keep strictly to ourselves while our loved ones get sick, our neighbors die, and the police state takes away every last vestige of our autonomy, we will not be safer. There are many different kinds of risk. The time is probably coming when we will have to rethink what risks we are prepared to take in order to live with dignity.
This brings us to the question of how to survive all the needless tragedies that governments and the global economy are heaping upon us in the context of the pandemic—not to mention all the needless tragedies they were already creating. Fortunately, the same structures that can enable us to survive the virus together can also equip us to stand up to them.
Clara: Surviving the Crisis
Alanis: Let’s be clear: totalitarianism is no longer a threat situated in the future. The measures being implemented around the world are totalitarian in every sense of the word. We are seeing unilateral government decrees imposing total travel bans, 24-hour-a-day curfews, veritable martial law, and other dictatorial measures.
This is not to say that we should not be implementing measures to protect each other from the spread of the virus. It is simply to acknowledge that the measures that various governments are implementing are based in authoritarian means and an authoritarian logic. Think about how much more resources are being poured into the military, the police, the banks, and the stock market than into public health care and resources to help people survive this crisis. It’s still easier to get arrested for loitering than to get a test for the virus.
Just as the virus shows us the truth about how we were already living—about our relationships and our homes—it also shows us that we were already living in an authoritarian society. The arrival of the pandemic just makes it formal. France is putting 100,000 police on the streets, 20,000 more than were deployed at the high point of the gilets jaunes protests. Refugees in need of asylum are being turned away along the borders between the US and Mexico and between Greece and Turkey. In Italy and Spain, gangs of police attack joggers in empty streets.
In Germany, the police in Hamburg have taken advantage of the situation to evict a self-organized refugee tent that had been standing for several years. Despite the quarantine, the police in Berlin are still threatening to evict an anarchist collective bar. Elsewhere, police dressed in full pandemic stormtrooper regalia raided a refugee center.
Worst of all, all this is occurring with the tacit consent of the general population. The authorities can do virtually anything in the name of protecting our health—right up to killing us.
As the situation intensifies, we will likely see the police and the military employing increasingly lethal force. In many parts of the world, they are the only ones who are able to gather freely in large numbers. When police comprise the only social body that is able to gather en masse, there is no word other than “police state” to describe the form of society we live in.
There have been signs that things were heading in this direction for decades. Capitalism used to depend on keeping a massive number of workers available to perform industrial labor—consequently, it was not possible to treat life as cheaply as it is treated today. As capitalist globalization and automation have diminished dependence on workers, the global workforce has shifted steadily into the service sector, doing work that is not essential to the functioning of the economy and therefore less secure and well-paid, while governments have become increasingly dependent on militarized police violence to control unrest and anger.
If the pandemic goes on long enough, we will probably see more automation—self-driving cars pose less threat of infection to the bourgeoisie than Uber drivers—and the displaced workers will be divided up between the repression industries (police, military, private security, private military contractors) and precarious workers who are forced to take on great risk to make a few pennies. We’re accelerating into a future in which a digitally connected privileged class performs virtual labor in isolation while a massive police state protects them from an expendable underclass that takes most of the risks.
Already, billionaire Jeff Bezos has added 100,000 jobs to Amazon, anticipating that his company will drive local stores everywhere out of business. Likewise, Bezos won’t give his Whole Foods employees paid leave despite the constant risk they face in the service sector—though he is giving them a $2 raise through April. In short, he still considers their lives worthless, but he admits that their deaths should be better paid.
In this context, there is bound to be revolt. It is likely that we will see some social reforms aimed at placating the population—at least temporary ones to mitigate the impact of the pandemic—but that they will arrive alongside the ever-increasing violence of a state that no one can imagine doing without, insofar as it is misunderstood as the protector of our health.
In fact, the state itself is the most dangerous thing to us, as it enforces the drastically uneven distribution of resources that compels us to face such imbalanced distributions of risk. If we want to survive, we can’t just demand more equitable policies—we also have to delegitimize and undermine the power of the state.
Clara: Strategies of Resistance
Alanis: Towards that end, we’ll conclude with a few strategies for resistance that are already getting off the ground.
First and maybe foremost are rent strikes. Since we’ll be devoting an entire episode to this, we’ll skip over this critical tactic right now, and look at some of the other modes of resistance that could flourish in this new pandemic landscape.
Clara: Labor and Transit Strikes
Alanis: Hundreds of workers at the Atlantic shipyards in Saint-Nazaire went on strike recently. In Finland, bus drivers refused to take payments from riders in order to increase their safety from contagion and protest against the risks they are being exposed to, showing in the process that public transit could be free.
If ever there was a good time for the embattled and precarious working class to show strength through strikes and work stoppages, this is it. For once, much of the general population will be sympathetic, as the interruption of business as usual can also diminish the risk of the virus spreading. Rather than seeking to improve the individual circumstances of particular employees through wage increases, we believe the most important thing is to build networks that can interrupt business as usual, disrupt the system as whole, and point towards the revolutionary introduction of alternative ways of living and relating. At this point, it is easier to imagine the abolition of capitalism than to imagine that even under these circumstances, it could be reformed to serve all of our needs in a just and equitable manner.
Clara: Prison Revolts
Alanis: Revolts in Brazilian and Italian prisons have already resulted in several escapes, including mass escapes. The courage of these prisoners should remind us of all the targeted populations that are kept out of public view, who will suffer the most during catastrophes like this.
It can also inspire us: rather than obeying orders and remaining in hiding as the entire world is converted into a matrix of prison cells, we can act collectively to break out.
–fade in “Trouble in the Rainy City” under this outro paragraph–
Clara: And… what else? This is where we need you, listeners, to keep us posted on what you’ve seen or participated in or heard about wherever you are. Particularly if you’re not still working a service or transit job, or in a prison that you can break out of, what creative ways can you imagine to push back on state and corporate power at this moment? Online and social media strategies, hacking, countersurveillance techniques; DIY production, decentralized mutual aid; prisoner solidarity; solo actions; new forms of care and kinship; theorizing and strategizing, study and political education, taking inspiration from history; producing alternative culture, music and art and theater and fiction and comics and whatever else; shifting the discourse to insist on a fundamental right to all of the basic necessities of life without permission from the state or participation in the wage economy; creative coordinated but physically dispersed collective protests like the hundreds of thousands of Brazilians who bang pots and pans at the same time from their houses and balconies against the Bolsonaro regime; anything! Sometimes being forced to operate within tight constraints can unlock the most fabulous creativity. Let’s do it! Email us at podcast[at]crimethinc[dot]com and tell us what you’re doing or what you’ve got in mind.
ON NATIONALISM, XENOPHOBIA, AND COVID–19
[e74 – nationalism]
Alanis: As of when we recorded this podcast at the end of March 2020, the United States has now surged to the top of the list among countries around the world in terms of number of cases, with somewhere between 100 and 140 thousand confirmed infections.
Clara: In this as in all other matters, we should pause and ask why we should focus on the nation-state as our unit for counting and evaluating everything. Even though it’s largely national health departments that collect the stats, it’s clear that different cities, regions, subpopulations, and so forth have radically different levels of infection and exposure. Given that this is a global phenomenon, and that any successful effort to combat it has to involve coordination and cooperation across national borders, we should make sure that in the way we talk about the virus we don’t inadvertently make nations and borders seem necessary or logical or natural in any way. That’s true not just about disease but about pollution and ecology, animal species, weather, economics and resources, and of course human relationships, too. If there’s one lesson we should all be learning from a crisis like this, it’s that nation-states and their borders are arbitrary and meaningless in terms of the most important problems we’re facing today.
Alanis: Which makes it all the more insane how reactionary politicians are trying to exploit the virus panic to prop up their nationalist agendas. I’m thinking in particular of Trump’s absurd effort to rebrand COVID–19 as the “Chinese virus.” He claimed that all the resulting accusations of blatant xenophobia and racism were just more liberal media whining, since global pandemics are always named after the places they originate, like the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918–19. Of course, as people quickly pointed out, that pandemic most likely originated in Kansas, soooo so much for that idea.
Clara: Incidentally, do you know why that pandemic was labeled “Spanish Flu” despite it originating in the US?
Alanis: Uh, no, why?
Clara: Well, it’s interesting. So in 1918 the US had just entered World War I and was fighting with France, the UK, Japan, China, Italy, and various other countries against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. So all of these countries had intense press censorship in place at the time, and severe repression against anyone who said, did, or reported on anything that those governments construed as hurting the war effort or the country’s morale. So when the disease started spreading through troop movements and sickening thousands of people in the US, France, the UK, and Germany, those countries’ governments wouldn’t allow the newspapers to print anything about it—which as you can imagine led to thousands and thousands of deaths that could have been prevented if folks had known about it and been able to act to protect themselves earlier. But Spain was a neutral country during World War I and so didn’t have the same press censorship, so when thousands of people started to get sick, the media reported it, and so global media picked up the story and termed it the Spanish Flu. So it’s not that the disease started there, or was even more widespread or deadly there relative to other countries; it’s that the rest of the countries where it struck hardest were so blinded by militarism and state control of the press that they pretended like it didn’t exist and that it was a “foreign” issue.
Alanis: Xenophobia and nationalism are deadly, quite literally.
Clara: It’s true.
Alanis: Well, even though we don’t recognize the legitimacy of any of these borders, the stats we have are broken down that way. After the US, the largest number of cases—and by far the highest number of deaths of any country—is in Italy. As of now there are over 90, nearing 100 thousand confirmed cases and over 10 thousand deaths. Given how intense the impact of the disease has been in Italy, we’re particularly interested to hear from our comrades there to see what we can learn. On March 12th we published a text written by anarchists in northern Italy describing the situation there, particularly in the city of Milan, with an introduction putting it in context for us here. To check out the full text, you can visit crimethinc.com.
AGAINST THE CORONAVIRUS AND THE OPPORTUNISM OF THE STATE
Clara: Against the Coronavirus and the Opportunism of the State: Anarchists in Italy Report on the Spread of the Virus and the Quarantine
Pandemic Diary, Milan: Love in the Time of Corona
Alanis: 1918–1920: Already shaken by the First World War, the world faced a more insidious foe: Spanish flu, a catastrophic pandemic that infected 500 million people, killing as many as 50 million or more—twice the number of casualties as in the War.
2020: COVID–19, a new pandemic infection, is spreading all over the world. Here, we’ll focus on Italy, asking a couple of questions about how to face COVID–19. The first step is to refuse to take the corporate media narrative for granted and—above all—not to give in to the prescriptions and impositions from above, all of which are getting more and more oppressive.
We begin from the most obvious facts. This outbreak highlights the need for international solidarity and cooperation so that people can join forces to cope with the difficulties and achieve common goals. But in the current system—in which every nation takes advantage of others’ tragedies and every “crisis” paves the way for profiteering—that’s not possible.
However we approach the question, we arrive at the same conclusion: capitalism and imperialism point out the need for a radical shift from the current state of things.
But let’s step back and concentrate on Lombardy, going back to the day that the Italian government signed the first Decree attempting to control the spread of the infection.
February 16th: today, the Italian government signed the first decree attempting to control the spread of the infection.
Milan, 7 pm: The worry that all schools and gathering places will be closed spreads quickly, along with a panic that takes hold among people, creating pseudo-apocalyptic moments. Supermarkets are stormed as if we were on the brink of war, people buy huge quantities of breathing masks and hand sanitizer (thin paper masks have become a totem representing safety), we hear screams, we see people weeping, we experience mass panic.
Following the rumors about restrictions, Milan, the great Milan, the city that never stops, was paralyzed with fear. But it only took a few hours to return to life. In fact, the morning after the announcement, what was stirring all over the city wasn’t fear of the virus but fear of not being able to live the “Milano da bere”—the fast-paced, fashionable, boozy social life that has defined popular images of the city since the 1980s. Bars and pubs were closed from 6 pm to 6 am—clearly, the viruses clock in to work at night like proletarians on graveyard shift. Restaurants were not—apparently, you get ill if you drink, but if you eat, the virus, on the contrary, respects you. At the same time, we saw the closure of all schools, universities, and other gathering places.
Late February: a week passes and Milan, this provincial wannabe New York, doesn’t stop. Likewise, the virus advances, causing further panic. There are more infections, more deaths—even if, granted, the victims include many older people suffering from existing cardiovascular diseases. Once again, everything is locked down—schools, cinemas, theaters, kissing and hugging—but not bars, restaurants, malls, or public transit. Meanwhile, the city’s mayor tries to give strength to the poor Milanese afflicted by this appalling virus that preys by night and only if you meet for drinks. Employing his beloved social networks, he posts a video with the hashtag #MilanoNonSiFerma (Milano Doesn’t Stop), a flashy marketing ploy sponsored Union of Italian Catering Brands. Within days, the mayor backs out of the statement he had initially issued, instead serving up a false narrative based in xenophobic class rhetoric.
The virus isn’t the heart of the emergency. The real emergency, patient zero of this “cosmopolitan” city, is the economic precarity that inflicts despair upon its exploited workers. Now we are forced to fight not only against the rising cost of living but the new form of “smart working,” which has never been used before in Italy, but will surely become next year’s trend to further exploit through subcontracts and outsourcing. Many employers in Northern Italy’s red zones are forcing their employees to take sick or administrative leave while others must endure awful schedules in worksites without any sort of security measures. Just to give you an idea, from January 1 to February 6 this year, there have been 46 workplace deaths.
In short, there have been three stages, which we can summarize as follows. The first stage, now impossible to maintain, is to conceal the problem. The second stage is the so-called “media terrorism” that is still in progress, wavering and oscillating between mass panic and illusory calm. In the third stage, the current one, dramatic changes are imposed in society under the cover of a combination of panic and social consensus. Meanwhile, decrees are introduced that will have a considerable impact upon our future, denying us the right to protest, to go on strike, to gather on our own terms.
According to the Prime Minister’s decree, additional restrictions and measures to contain the virus in Lombardy will be extended until April 3. We will need special permission to travel in and out of a region and also within it; people are urged to self-quarantine; all schools and universities are closed—we all know studying is not important, so why not seize the opportunity to drag parents and students, already exhausted from years and years of budgetary cuts, into the mess? Bars and restaurants can remain open from 6 am to 6 pm as long as customers can keep a distance of at least one meter between each other; theaters, gyms, ski resorts, and discotheques are shut down, but all major sporting events can take place behind closed doors (that’s Italy—you can’t live without football); all public gatherings are banned; no weddings and funerals; medium-sized and large malls are shut down, but only during weekends and bank holidays.
In short, fear of contagion is sparking mass panic and, in the name of security, these new restrictions dangerously restrict freedom. Every right is increasingly restricted or denied, amidst the mass panic and social isolation of millions of people.
Meanwhile, former Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, the right-wing populist and anti-immigrant politician, complained that the government didn’t block boats loaded with migrants, wondering if the government had underestimated the coronavirus by “allowing the migrants to land.” He wants to close Italian borders to migrants, but keep the borders open towards the United Kingdom—just days before the decree was signed, he was able to go to London, challenging all common sense, spreading his nationalist and racist thoughts across Europe—the plague that precedes coronavirus.
Now we must ask ourselves some other questions that may be hard to answer. The first one is how we should react to what’s happening, taking into account all the objective difficulties connected to the bans (for example, punishments for violators including up to three months in jail or fines of $225), the continuous “media bombing,” the feeling of constant uncertainty.
On one hand, we see an over-emphasis on individual responsibility, especially for those suffering from the coronavirus, and on the other hand, the state using the excuse of an emergency to impose new rules. They don’t talk about drastic cuts to public hospitals over the last ten years, about the situation of workers in the front line (especially, doctors, nurses, and the like), about the negative effects on the health sector—such as the interruption of regularly scheduled medical examinations including dialysis and the treatment of diabetics and others with serious medical conditions, who have seen their minimal rights denied by the diversion of economic efforts towards this “emergency” without ever taking them into account. Hypocritically, Italian politicians—the same ones who attacked the public health sector and its workers—heap praise upon our public health system, never mentioning all the profit-driven privatization.
So what will happen now? What will be the historical consequences of these “emergencies?” In recent years, we can see clearly that a set of repressive rules has been created in Italy that didn’t disappear even when each “emergency” ended, whatever type of emergency it was.
In this country, the creation and exploitation of emergency has created serious problems for us. On the pretext of making war on the Mafia and so-called “terrorism,” the authorities passed “special laws” expanding maximum prison sentences to allow for life without parole. Likewise, earthquakes have served as an opportunity to introduce anti-social regional laws on the pretext of opposing “looting.” The earthquake in L’Aquilas illustrates this—even if, in that case, they had to face a very combative grassroots response.
Likewise, the “anti-hooligan special laws” that, since 2006, started addressing the most “unpresentable” part of the movement (from the point of view of the police), the organization of youngsters from the poorest suburbs, often prone to fighting against the police and to breaking the rules they impose. Those laws were supposed to target “dangerous hooligans” from organized football clubs, but in the years since they were passed, they have been used to repress strikes, mobilizations, and pickets as well. We can see the consequence in political struggles that are targeted with fines and the well-known “daspo,” an order banning access to sports events that has also been imposed in a “preventative” form against other targets without even going through courts, with the pure arbitariness of the police. The anti-repression slogan “special laws: today for hooligans, tomorrow for the whole city!” is relevant here, too. First, they’ll target us, but eventually they’ll extend control to everyone.
But this kind of repression can also generate revolt. In response to the government taking away a variety of prisoners’ rights (including visitation and recreation), prisoners rioted. As of March 9, more than 50 had escaped in the riots, though six more had been killed. Criminal trials were continuing even during the outbreak, though prisoners are prohibited from attending, supposedly out of fear they will contract the virus and spread it to those trapped in the prison system.
Despite all the threats and risks, on the first day of the national lockdown, a few dozen protesters converged on the empty streets of central Rome outside the Ministry of Justice to elevate the demands of prisoners across the country in revolt.
March 11th: New stricter measures have been imposed on those who violate quarantine, who now can be charged with “manslaughter against public health,” while those violating quarantine who exhibit COVID–19 symptoms such as fever and cough, causing the death of elderly people or subjects at risk, could be charged with “voluntary manslaughter” and jailed up to 21 years. The same applies to those having contacts with COVID-positive people and maintaining social relationships or working with them without taking the necessary precautions or inform the others.
March 12th: Everything except malls, drugstores, and convenience stores are closed for two weeks. We are on lockdown and the quarantine isolates us from the world. Call me a catastrophist, but what comes to mind is the fate of Prince Prospero hiding in his fortified abbey:
Edgar Allen Poe: “And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night. And one by one dropped the revelers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”
—The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe
Alanis: But we will survive, despite the quarantine imposed upon us.
March 13th: the whole of Italy, brought to its knees, finally seems to be moved by a rebellious spirit. We are not talking about the singing flashmob scheduled for today at 6 pm—the call to go out on your balcony to sing and play music, to let the world know that “we can do it” and that everything will be all right. This is something else. “Irresponsible strike,” say the masters. Safety measures are lacking in the workplaces, say the employees. “We are not expendable”—”We are not cannon fodder.” These are the chants coming from Italy’s factories. From north to south, unions and workers are making a show of force and stirring things up with spontaneous strikes calling for measures to safeguard health. That, at least, is something.
ABOUT THE EX-WORKER, AND AN APPEAL
Clara: So that wraps up our first episode on the current global pandemic and how anarchists are understanding and responding to it. But before we let you go, we want to take a moment to reflect on this podcast that you’re listening to, and to ask you for your thoughts as we move forward into the next phase of our activity.
Alanis: As you’ll know if you’ve been a listener to the various CrimethInc. podcast projects over the years, our audio efforts have taken a variety of different forms. Most recently, after winding down the Hotwire a year and a half ago and releasing our first full-length audiobook, No Wall They Can Build, last spring, we took a hiatus for some months and then returned with a spree of episodes about revolt and resistance elsewhere in the world, with episodes about Greece, Rojava, and Chile. Over the years we’ve tried to adapt the project both to the needs of the broader anarchist movement and media landscape, the desires of our listeners, and the limits of our own time and resources. Now, we’re entering into a time when a lot of us are going to be stuck at home with our phones and computers, and despite the limitations on our ability to connect face to face, it’s critically important for us to be connected and staying vigilant about how the pandemic is reframing power across the world. So we’re going to do our best to bounce back and provide y’all with the best coverage that we can.
Clara: But even as we focus on the urgent immediate political issues at hand—pushing back against the rapid advance of totalitarianism, supporting and freeing prisoners and detainees who are at extra high risk, figuring out the risks and possibilities presented by the collapse of global capitalism—we don’t want to ignore how critically this situation is impacting all of us on a personal level. Social distancing, quarantine, isolation—these things are brutal on our mental health, our emotional connections and relationships, and our sense of community. So we want to make sure we’re here for all of you in the best way that we can be.
So tell us—what do you need most? What would be helpful for you in this moment, in terms of anarchist media? Is it news and updates? International coverage? Interviews? Inspiring tales of resistance? History? Fiction? Someone to read audiobooks or zines to you? A communication network, a sense of dialogue? Something consistent and reliable on a regular schedule, or just as much content as we can produce? Please, reach out and let us know. We might be here for a while, and we want our efforts to speak to where you’re at and what you’re feeling.
We never really know who all it is that listens to the Ex-Worker. But one of the things that is most meaningful to me about being an anarchist is the sense of camaraderie and comradeship that I share with other people who, all in our different ways, have devoted our lives to “the beautiful idea,” as they say. Anarchy, as I see it, is a relation of care and mutual exchange outside of authority that can exist anywhere, through any medium, and appears any time people resist domination and work together for a freer world. While we don’t assume that global revolution will break out because of people listening to podcasts, we do take this seriously as an project through which we can live our anarchist values. So please, help us do that by reaching out and letting us now what we can do that would be meaningful and resonate with you. You can reach us by email at podcast[at]crimethinc[dot]com or via CrimethInc’s social media; please reach out and let us know!
Alanis: And while we’re at it, we also want to give a shout out to the other sibling anarchist media projects we love and want to promote, too. The Final Straw continues to put out awesome weekly shows throughout the crisis; It’s Going Down has got great ongoing coverage, including their This Is America podcast; Rustbelt Abolition Radio and Kite Line have produced episodes focusing on the situation of prisoners during the pandemic; Rebel Steps has produced a new rent strike episode; and our friends at SubMedia continue to produce excellent video work. You can find all of these and a lot more through the Channel Zero Network, a collaborative effort of over a dozen anarchist media projects. Links to all of these are in our show notes at crimethinc.com/podcast, along with the transcript from this episode.
Clara: So that’s it for this episode. Thanks to all of you for listening. Please take care, stay healthy, stay rebellious, and be in touch! We’re keeping all of you in our thoughts.