In last weeks many of us have been wondering how to pursue political and syndicalist activity. We have already found ourselves taking difficult decisions, whether or not to cancel initiatives, demonstrations, strikes, rallies, assemblies and public meetings, even under the threat of a possible ban by the authorities. What is happening can have a significant impact on the reality that we are living in. At the same time as the actual health risks, the ongoing emergency process around the coronavirus issue raises very important questions in political terms.
Ever since the first news about the spread of the virus in China, the main representatives of the parties sitting in Italian parliament have been taking advantage of the emergency, instrumentalising the situation. This is nothing new. It’s the so-called „politics of the emergency“, the condensation of political confrontation around urgent issues that dominate the newspapers and give rise to the most popular hashtags, with sensationalism, with violent language, proposing total and impossible solutions. The public debate moves from emergency to emergency, there is that of the earthquake and that of security, there is the cold emergency and that of waste, there is the emergency of potholes in the street and finally that of the coronavirus. Sometimes they are real problems, sometimes they are artifacts, but that is not important, because these politicians certainly do not want to really solve people’s problems. Instead, they want to create the hot topics on which to beat their opponents and consolidate consensus. But beware, it’s not a question of quackery, incapacity, ignorance, it’s a power struggle.
Because communication is often only a battleground. Emergency, especially when it’s not only told but is also formally recognized by law, as in the case of floods, earthquakes, disasters and health emergencies, creates great „opportunities“. With extraordinary government high committee, contracts, consultancy, financing, smarter procedures, fiscal measures, bonuses, social security cushion, very attractive positions of power are created on an economic and political level. Every state of emergency requires a greater concentration of power, and for this reason it is accompanied by an intensification of the struggle for power.
Just in the last few weeks there has been a tough confrontation between the central government and the regions led by the centre-right, which had immediately applied drastic measures. A conflict inside state’s institutions about jurisdiction, authorities and measures to employ that also touched on constitutional aspects. On 24th of February, the President of the Council of Ministers Giuseppe Conte – the leader of the Government – went so far as to say that he was prepared to remove powers from the regions in the health sector, which was possible in extraordinary cases under Article 120 of the constitution. While the next day tensions had almost blown the „control room“ between government and regions. In this context, while the newspapers were talking about a possible government of national unity by Salvini and Renzi (right party of Lega and former members of center left Democratic Party) Salvini himself went on 27 February to meet the President of the Republic Mattarella and request his intervention. Already the next day Renzi denied this possibility. Evidently some political agreement had been found to deal with this first phase. This little theatre, with its vehement statements, draconian measures, appeals to unity, seems to be driven more by political needs than by health needs.
From the following week, on 4th of March, there has been an effective increase in the number of cases and the contagion has also spread outside the regions of northern Italy. Conte started to issue a series of decrees which, in the space of a few days, severely tightened the restrictions, obviously also affecting the freedom of demonstration and assembly. The President of the Ministerial Council Decree (DPCM) of 4th of March 2020, provides for suspension of lessons in school, universities and any other teaching activity, and provides for restrictive measures valid for the entire national territory until 3rd of April. This decree also suspends „demonstrations, events and performances of any kind, including cinematographic and theatrical ones, held in any place, both public and private, which involve crowding of people such as not to allow the respect of the interpersonal safety distance of at least one meter“.
This measure follows two communications from the Strike Guarantee Commission (state authority that controls the compliance of strike laws) that effectively suspend the right to strike for the coronavirus emergency. The first communication of 24th of February was a general invitation to suspend all strikes from 25th of February to 31st of March, which blew up the expected school strikes on 6th of March. The second communication of 28th of February explicitly called for the suspension of the general strikes called for 9th of March for the global days of feminist struggle on March 8 and 9. This was in fact a specific strike ban for March 9, which forced most of the unions to withdraw the call, only Slai Cobas kept the strike going with the risk of heavy penalties for the union and the strikers.
On the night between 7th and 8th March, a new DPCM of 8 March 2020 is issued with immediate effect and provides for very strict measures. Article 1 extends the so-called „Red Zone“, which also provides for a ban on entry and exit and moving – except in emergencies and obviously for work – within the territory of the entire Lombardy Region and 14 provinces of Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Veneto and Marche. Article 2 increases the restrictive measures on the national territory, totally prohibiting demonstrations: „The demonstrations, events and shows of any kind, including cinema and theatre, held in any place, both public and private, are suspended“.
Between 9 and 10 March, finally, a new decree was issued, the DPCM 9th of March 2020, which extended to the entire national territory, including the islands, all restrictions, including restrictions on travel and moving out of the houses, allowed only for reasons of work, health emergency and necessity. In addition, „all forms of assembly of persons in a public place or open to the public is prohibited throughout the national territory“.
[New DPCM issued the 11th of March provided for lock down of many types of shops and activities, like restaurants, cafes, bars. The decree provide that all the employers must equip workers with hygienic protections and organize the working place to avoid infection, but this is not respected in the most of cases]
While with the DPCM 4th of March we were literally one meter away from the suspension of freedom of assembly and demonstration, with the discretionary power of authorities to ban all initiatives, with the DPCM 9th of March we arrived at a total ban on all forms of assembly until 3rd of April. The ambiguous formulation of the decree leaves ample power for interpretation to the authorities in charge of public order. Moreover, after decades of anti-strike measures, we have reached the definitive suspension of the right to strike. These decrees immediately had a devastating effect, already with the first DPCM 4th of March, few days before the March 8 demonstrations organized in many cities by the local nodes of NonUnaDiMeno and other feminist groups had created extreme confusion. In many cities, in a situation already marked by fear fuelled by the media around the coronavirus emergency and real fears about health risks, which made it more difficult to participate in the initiatives, the government measure led the local assemblies to cancel many demonstrations and moments in the streets. In many places, however, even if it was not possible to keep the demonstrations were organized sort of rallies, performances, initiatives in the streets, somehow resisting the measures and fear.
These rules could already change in the next few hours, be further tightened, or be accompanied by new measures, the situation is still quite confused, however, at this time until April 3 all forms of demonstrations and meetings are arbitrarily prohibited, with the unquestionable justification of public health, and all movements, also individual, considered unnecessary are punishable. What will happen to the many territorial struggles, labour disputes, local protests, the most radical mobilizations, if these measures have already had such a strong effect on the demonstrations of 8th March, on a day of mobilization at international level that in recent years has been able to assert its legitimacy? How is it possible in such a context for those who have to continue to work, for those who are locked up in prisons, for those who have to resort to medical treatment for other reasons, for those who have no home or access to hygiene services, for those who live in unhealthy or precarious housing, for all those who suffer arrogance and blackmail of speculators and profiteers, to organise themselves, to assert their rights, to obtain decent conditions, to create forms of solidarity? We are in a situation in which the state of emergency gives the government more power, in which the President of the Republic calls for ‚discipline‘ and ‚responsibility‘, in which demonstrations and meetings can be banned almost arbitrarily, in which the right to strike is suspended. This is a very dangerous situation.
Just think of the military approach that has been chosen to deal with the situation in prisons, the riots that have broken out in 27 prisons throughout Italy make it clear that a part of the population of this country, almost 61,000 people live in overcrowded and hygienic disastrous conditions. That is why they are asking for only one thing in this situation, freedom, through a pardon or amnesty. For now, the state has responded with the riot squads, the notorious GOMs [special antiriot squads of the police force of the prisons], and the army. At the moment there are 11 deaths [now 15] among the prisoners between Modena and Rieti, for causes still to be ascertained, but over which the responsibility of the State and its apparatus is evident. Outside of the prisons there were also relatives of the prisoners and solidarity groups surrounded by police. This simple presence outside because of emergency decrees of the government can be considered illegal.
It should be noted that since the first weeks of the emergency, there has been talk of recession, of economic crisis. In fact, many production sectors in Italy and around the world are affected by the consequences of the coronavirus emergency, and now some local administrators are proposing a temporary cessation of production activities. But we know very well what the refrain of the recession means for millions of workers, layoffs have already started, many term contracts for precarious workers will not be renewed, those who work on project contract or under the black economy do not receive a salary, sacrifices are required, when it goes well there are few social benefits, but not the full salary. But that’s not all, there are those who are really happy of this situation and would like to take the opportunity to intervene in more depth on employment relations, with „experiments“ aimed at restricting the rights and freedom of those who work. In an article published by Repubblica [one of the main Italian newspapers] on 24 February, Mariano Corso, head of the Observatory on Smart Working at the Politecnico di Milano, says: „in addition to the coronavirus, we must also eradicate a virus that is our inability to work efficiently, overcoming the thought that only presence in the office is a guarantee of results“. Therefore, while strikes and demonstrations are suspended, layoffs and exploitation are certainly not suspended, nor are the claims of managers held back. On the contrary, they can say that „Milan doesn’t stop“ [to say that economy can’t stop] while they ask for more public money and leave a few thousand precarious workers at home.
It was precisely with the same refrain of the recession that less than ten years ago the government led by Monti decided one of the heaviest cuts in public health funding in recent decades, and in 10 years 37 billion euros have been taken from the National Health Service. There is a real risk that the economic crisis linked to the coronavirus emergency will lead to a new season of „sacrifices“.
When they ask us to take a step back in the name of collective responsibility, they are only mocking us. Who is responsible for the dismantling of public health which, in addition to eliminating many of the structures in charge of prevention, has drastically reduced the number of beds in hospitals, and even led to the closure of health clinics and hospital? Who is responsible for the spread of respiratory diseases caused by serious air pollution, harmful production and unhealthy living and working conditions? Who is responsible for the fact that many people considered to be at risk from the coronavirus are still forced to work and cannot retire?
It is the institutions, parties and industrialists who have destroyed our health service, who have caused an increase in chronic respiratory diseases, who keep us in unemployment or nailed to work into old age, it is they who are now asking us to be responsible, to make other sacrifices and not to protest.
Another aspect of this emergency to consider is the scar it will leave in society. Suddenly Italy is immersed in a climate of „war“. Not only and not so much for the militarization of the quarantined areas, but for the hammering political and media communication that since the first days has polarized the attention on the whole territory of the country. The daily bulletins that in the evening present the bill for the dead, infected and cured of the day soon became routine, accompanied by news about government measures and appeals for discipline, respect for hygiene recommendations, responsibility, and telephone numbers to report possible cases. While some of the implications of this period will only be seen later, others consequences are already evident. In this context the State seems to be the sole guarantor of public health, against infection, against death, against chaos. This image is even more emphasized by those who exalt the Chinese model, or even dust off Hobbes to call for a strong State or a dictatorship as the only solution. In reality, the state has presided over the dismantling of the public health structure and by its very nature is more concerned with meeting the demands of industrialists and large owners than with protecting the health of citizens. Furthermore, over and above the question of the actual effectiveness of restrictive measures aimed at limiting infection, on which I have no competence to comment, the authoritarian approach taken with drastic measures applied blindly and uncritically can be disastrous in the event of errors of assessment. At the same time, the refrain „stay indoors and let us take care of it“ triggers a very dangerous process of deresponsibility and infantilization in the society. The sense of powerlessness and impossibility of influencing is very high in front of this emergency, and it makes us neglect the importance of individual and collective choices and initiatives from below. These measures can contribute to further disintegrating the social relations, demolishing all forms of individual and collective self-defence, making people lose all confidence in their ability to react at the social level. Authoritarianism cannot replace solidarity, awareness, individual responsibility, collective confrontation, which in these situations can represent indispensable forms of prevention. Just think of the fact that forms of self-organization that are emerging in many cities can also be considered illegal, such as forms of solidarity for the delivery of food, for support to those who lose their jobs or do not receive their wages, or other simple but important activities for survival.
The responsibility that is pressing at the moment is not to wait, with discipline, closed in on itself, for the government to resolve everything, perhaps going to work anyway because the recession is just around the corner. Our responsibility is to keep alive and strengthen the networks of solidarity so that they can be tools for all the exploited and oppressed in this context, at health, social and political level.
It is important to discuss and reflect on the situation, both to be able to face collectively, consciously and in solidarity the health risk, and to prevent that state and bosses take advantage of the emergency really silencing any form of opposition in the streets and any form of syndicalist activity in the working places. In times like these, it’s important to reaffirm the freedom to strike, to demonstrate and to assemble against the government’s repressive measures. Because it’s important, without neglecting health risks, to maintain the spaces of freedom and political viability, and to strengthen the existing networks of solidarity and mutual support. Also to ensure that when all this is over we don’t have to face a worst reality than the virus itself.