A dispatch from Alex Foti, writer and activist based in Milan
[This dispatch is part of a series: read the previous ones here.]
Nothing can never be the same. Nothing must never be the same. While the former is often repeated by pundits in these weeks of house arrest, the latter really is the assumption that is prodding radical movements on climate and precarity into action to flesh out a post-covid society. As with every plague, (surviving) labor commands higher market power and is harder to find than capital. The Pikettian imbalance of four decades of rising capital share over income is finally being reverted. The new SARS virus is doing what wars and depressions have done in the history of capitalism: reset the scales and counter the inegalitarian bias built into private accumulation.
While the zooming class adapts to a remote economy, the knowledge class is in fact largely irrelevant in the war against the pandemic, simply because they are not on the ground. As Branko Milanović notes, the health, logistics, food sections of the precariat are those indispensable for the survival of the Motherland, while non-vital manufacturing and services are taking the brunt of the self-induced economic coma. It’s the millions people laid off because of sharply reduced market demand that are feeling the pain and could be a major problem for political stability, just like the insurgent viral precariat that is manning the trenches and strikes not to be reduced to cannon fodder. White collars are irrelevant today, they are paid and acquiescent: it’s pink collars and blue collars that matter for our collective survival, just like virologists and epidemiologists, and unlike CEOs and industrialists.
In Milano and elsewhere, movement activists were the first putting sneakers on the ground in the huge surge of mutualism that is changing the way society looks at anarcho-autonomists and could be the embryo of a post-covid political society; certainly it is going to be form of permanent counterpower. Brigades of Volunteers for the Emergency (this their name) are in fact semi-public social workers that carry masks, food, medicaments to stranded old people and secluded single mothers. With 10,000 dead (and counting) in Lombardy alone, the pandemic here is a tangible reality, just like in Madrid, Paris, New York.
Wildcat strikes have hit Amazon and other chains both in the US and Italy and rest of Europe. Union-buster Jeff Bezos had to rise the wage (he had already gone to 15 bucks an hour before the crisis) to lure precarious workers into working for him as e-commerce has of course exploded. Couriers, riders, drivers, warehouse attendants are indispensable labor, more often than not scantily protected against infection by their employers. In fact, the Bergamo holocaust was partly due to the League’s reluctance to shut down its metalworking industry (same has happened in Brescia). The Milano wave has especially hit senior citizens in nursing homes, where often health workers where prohibited from wearing surgical masks “not to scare our guests”. Wherever Covid took hold due to arrogant stupidity, it was extermination for the eightysomethings in public care.
When we finally emerge from the lockdown in May, what will happen to social conflict? Higher wages for nurses and gig workers are inevitable, as well as the normalization of UBI to counteract Covid’s depressionary effects. As Trump put it: “We’re paying people to stay home; how’s that??”. However in movement’s radios and chats many are arguing that, in order for things not to ever be the same, there’s gotta be social and political revolution, because for the first time since 1917-1919 capitalism could really be overthrown, as it no longer commands the loyalty of most of the population. Increasingly, capital looks like a death cult. The climate crisis as well as FFF and XR mobilizations have made it clear that fossil capitalism is ecologically unsustainable. The Covid crisis has highlighted the basic fact that financial capitalism is hostile to human life. Are the brigades our workers’ councils? You bet 😉 One thing is fairly clear, though. With the socialist illusion of Corbyn and Sanders gone (as we predicted in Theory of the Precariat), what’s left for the left is mutualism, syndicalism and, especially, dual power. The environment is recovering, now it’s time to recover collective agency and seize power.