In Italy’s ‘war on corona’ authoritarianism as well as labor struggles are exploding. The latter brings to the fore the question of what and who is of systemic relevance, and hence “esstential” for overcoming the crisis and rebuilding the world afterward. Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki discuss this key issue of the SILENT WORKS project with the scholar-activist Niccolò Cuppini.
One could say that the current pandemic – structured and operating like a network – is a logistical phenomenon. For this reason, some argue that the pandemic can only be ‘combated’ if one meets it on the very ground of logistics, reminding us that logistics is a minor art of war – e.g. the work of supply to and around the battlefield. This line of argument enables projecting the dream of frictionless capitalism – with logistics at its core – onto the emerging market to ‘wage war against pandemics.’ This dream of frictionlessness presupposes that ‘things simply work’ – as if operated by an artificial intelligence – rather than that ‘someone actually works to make things work.’ Before we go into these issues, let us start where one could say this story begins: in March 2020, several governments, including France, declared ‘war on corona.’ In Italy, the first and most pre-eminent European laboratory of the pandemic, war itself was not explicitly declared. One could say that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was more managerial about the challenge, instead declaring rule by decree, a style of governance that is said to allow “quick, unchallenged promulgation of law by a single person or group, and is used primarily by dictators, absolute monarchs and military leaders.” How can this difference be explained?
Italy has been the first epicenter of the pandemic in the “West”, and the country slowly slipped into the crisis rather than experiencing an instant shock. This circumstance generated a gradual approach by public institutions, media, unions, and in the scientific debate on how to deal with the emerging pandemic. Hence, the growing social danger of the virus was initially perceived ‘at the bottom of society’ (where, for instance, Volunteer Emergency Brigades emerged) rather than in a top-down configuration. Then, in a second phase, the authoritarian, military imaginary about COVID-19 came into play. In the course of this, so-called “emergency procedures” were adopted according to the “coronavirus decree” announced by Conte, first with regard to the North of Italy and then to the entire country.
What happened when the management of the crisis became a top-down matter?
A turning point was the images of an impressive column of military vehicles crossing the heart of Bergamo on March 17th, transporting corpses that Bergamo’s cemetery could no longer contain. After that moment, many politicians started to call for total curfew, tanks in the street, drones, all sorts of surveillance, abolition of privacy and increasingly severe penalties for those who did not stay at home. In this context it is important to note that the deployment of a police-military dispositive is a practice but also a rhetoric, intending to transfer “guilt” to individual subjects, while freeing those in power from any responsibility.
The authorities can also be said to free themselves from responsibility and accountability by mobilizing the self-explanatory and self-evident appeal of a state of emergency. ‘Everybody can experience the disaster as given, so nobody has to ask why the head of state is reverting to extralegal measures.’ Authoritarianism appears just as self-explanatory and self-evident as the threat it claims to combat. How did Conte make use of such mechanisms?
After a sort of “state of exception” was officially declared in mid-March, a securitarian mobilization started with a great emphasis on police controls in the street, the use of the military corps to guard the cities, and so on. However, it is remarkable that, apart from these “visible” aspects, the more profound transformation in the power dynamics was resorting absolutely to complete management of the crisis by the executive power. The power of the legislative has basically been suspended due to the ‘corona crisis,’ and for many days the national and regional governments were the only actors on the field. Rule by decree was the legal instrument adopted to define all institutional procedures.
This is not a novelty. In the last decade the balance of public powers has progressively moved toward the executive side and law decrees have often been implemented. Yet, these tendencies exploded during this crisis. Another aspect to consider is how the Prime Minister uses the media. Giuseppe Conte quite often uses Facebook live streaming to communicate the government’s decisions, even if these decisions are not yet contained in official documents. This direct link between a leader and the population echoes a period of war during which verticalization of the decision making process thrives.
‘National security’ is a major objective of authoritarianism and exceptional politics alike. However, ‘national security’ seems to be contradicted by the fact that Italy’s primary health care and basic supply need to be upheld through extensive networks that are not limited to the quarantine zone borders of hot spots like the Lombardy region, that in fact often extend beyond the boundaries of national territory as such. How do these contradictions play out in the public debate, e.g. with regard to primary health care and basic supply need?
It is possible to sketch two poles in the public debate about these “contradictions.” On the one hand, there are people maintaining that the pandemic has definitely shown the unsurmountable limits of the form in which contemporary economies are shaped. In other words, they declare the end of so-called globalization, pointing to the need for a re-nationalization and stricter control over national boundaries. On the other hand, it has been said that global value chains are the problem and the solution at the same time. That is to say: it is quite evident that the pandemic first developed in the North part of the country because it is the territory most interconnected and entangled in the global economy, but at the same time those thinking in this direction maintain that the solution can only be found at the global level.
From my perspective, the two poles contain both truth and misleading elements at the same time. I think we should criticize and go beyond this opposition, one that somehow again proposes the dichotomy that has shaped the political arena in the last years – the opposition between a sovereign/populist side and a neoliberal globalization approach. At this juncture, I cannot go deeper into this debate, but what can be said, for example, is that what both approaches tend to conceal is the fact that in the last ten years all governments (from the right to the left) have supported radical cuts to public health care and de-invested in research, two aspects that need both “local” and transnational responses.
How did workers respond to this paradoxical and conflictual scenario?
There were and still are a great number of struggles. The first step of these worker struggles during the ‘corona crisis’ was a reaction in the field of what could tentatively be named ‘social reproduction work,’ which is usually invisibilized but was the first to pay for the crisis situation. Here, I am referring to people working in childcare, elder care, and healthcare on the one hand, and in cleaning, maintenance, and repair on the other. Then, a radical cycle of riots occurred within the Italian penitential system. More than 25 jails erupted, with prisoners occupying the jails and destroying some parts of them. This rebellion was violently repressed, and 16 people died. It was a sort of thermometer for the ‘corona crisis,’ with heat emerging from the lowest sector of society. The second step was the massive spontaneous wave of strikes in factories and different workplaces, mostly in Northern Italy. The third step, concentrated in the South, was a social fibrillation that took the form of some attempts to take goods from supermarkets without paying for them. Within this context, workers in the logistics sector mobilized since the beginning.
At the end of March it was announced that Italy is ‘shutting down all sectors of production’ – making it look like all sectors of the economy would now be switched to ‘sleep mode.’ Tellingly, there is no mention of logistics, which is not reducible to the production sector, as it is primarily about circulation, last but not least in the realm of basic supply. How does the orchestrated shutdown – supposedly of Italy’s entire economy – block out this particular economic dimension of the ‘war on corona’?
Confindustria (the general confederation of Italian industry) and the government did not want to shut down workplaces. Workers who suffered from a sanitary situation that was becoming ever more difficult had a different opinion and went on strike. It was an extraordinary mobilization that finally led to “the blocking of production.” The crucial point of these struggles is that this conflict led the government to act in terms of declaring the shutdown of production, with the exception of what was labeled “essential services.” The very definition of what should be considered “essential” became the front line of this conflict.
In the first moment its definition was really extensive, but it was reduced after the pressure of the unions. What is remarkable is that logistics, from the first moment, was considered “essential”– and still is. Therefore, the logistics sector is still at work, even if a “silent” struggle made by mass absence from workplaces and temporal interruptions of logistics chains is ongoing. So logistics has finally become visible to the general public as a crucial vector for capital reproduction. However, in Italy there are still millions of workers going to their workplaces, and the rapid proliferation of “smart working” conditions is another element to be analyzed.
If workers in Amazon warehouses and supply chains are nowadays forced into compulsory labor that is even more ‘dull, dirty, and dangerous’ than before the pandemic, then this dark moment also opens up new opportunities to expand on the strikes within and against logistics companies such as Amazon. Could you dwell on the strikes and struggles in Italy’s logistics sector during the ‘corona crisis’?
Worker struggles in Northern Italy have been taking place for many years before the ‘war on corona’ transformed the logistics sector into the open secret of the ‘last-standing’ economic domain in Italy. In these many years of struggles within the logistics sector, workers have accumulated power. This power made it possible that all the logistics companies – like TNT, DHL, UPS – were disrupted by strikes and mass absence from work.
A slightly different situation occurred in the companies of the “new metropolitan logistics,” or “last-mile logistics,” such as Amazon and the platforms for home delivery (Deliveroo, UberEats, Glovo, etc.). Here, worker struggles and worker organization are more recent and erratic. Some strikes happened in Amazon’s fulfillment centers, though without a strong effect, while as far as I know this has not happened on digital logistical platforms. However, I think that the brutal work intensification and the health risk posed to workers in these contexts is somehow nurturing an awareness among workers at these companies about their own role. This awareness is in turn mirrored in a broader public awareness about the systemic relevance of these workers. That is to say: it is becoming clear that working here is not a “gig job,” but an essential job for capital reproduction. Therefore, it is possible to hypothesize that this logistics branch will also be shaken in the future by new mobilizations.
Is there something new in the current worker struggles in Italy’s logistics sector? ‘New’ in the sense that this extreme situation either brings new aspects to light or accelerates the evolution within this force field of power?
I think it is possible to hypothesize some main tendencies emerging within this crisis. The confirmation of the cruciality of logistics to the system and of the (actual or potential) counter-power of logistics workers will lead to capital’s restructuring within the sector, with different tools: investment in technology and automation; new forms of bargaining and a selective repression of some worker organization; an acceleration in the use of digital platforms as forces of intermediation that are becoming the concrete infrastructure of everyday life; an – at least partial – change in workers’ social composition (the strategic role of logistics will probably attract new segments of the labor force); an increased form of concentration/monopoly of logistics companies.
However, I think that even within this scenario of radical transformation of the logistics sector on the capital side, logistics will remain a strategic terrain of organization and conflict from the class struggle perspective. In these weeks, some organized rank and file unions in the logistics sector are becoming more receptive to social issues and more willing to grant workers greater public recognition. The hypothesis of ‘logistics becoming a hub’ through connections with heterogeneous social and workers struggles remains an intriguing political option.
Speaking of the power structure underlying the logistics sector, we would like to address the role of so-called ‘cooperatives.’ How can economic practices endow the ‘things simply work’ fiction with the appeal of a seemingly uncontestable formula of capitalism? How are cooperatives circumscribing the struggles in the logistics sector in Italy during the ‘corona crisis’?
The system of cooperatives is the main managerial tool through which big and small logistics companies have precarized labor. Quite a paradoxical toppling. Cooperatives used to be the socialist form of self-organization of workers and peasants. Now they act as an intermediary between the workers and companies, and as such have become an instrument for management to divide and discipline the labor force. Since cooperatives are often undermined by organized crime syndicates, their mediation enables particularly ‘ungovernable’ and ‘unaccountable’ forms of management and discipline.
At the end of the day, cooperatives are first of all an institutional arrangement. That said, logistics struggles in the last decade clashed directly with this system, somehow “regulating” it within the framework of new power relations. And an ambivalence emerged: if in the first struggles workers used to see cooperatives as their primary “enemy,” they then discovered that direct employment by logistics firms also has many disadvantages (less “freedom” of the workers). So, at the moment, we could say that logistics is passing through a transitional phase in terms of labor force organization.
However, the ‘corona crisis’ has somehow “verticalized” the conflict: new actors (the national government, the management of multi-national companies that usually delegates to their local branches, public security agencies) are on the field, and it seems that organized crime actors and the small cooperatives are “silent” at the moment.
In her book “The Deadly Life of Logistics” (2014), the political geographer Deborah Cowen suggests that logistics has come to shape war and trade. Here, logistics are considered the main realm in which, on the one hand, corporate and military strategy and tactics, and, on the other, grassroots counter-strategies of disruption are organized. Against this background, it is necessary to return to exceptional politics, because exceptional politics are increasingly deployed in realms such as special economic zones and corridors to optimize the ‘flows of capital.’ In what sense are the exceptional politics deployed by the Italian government during the ‘corona crisis’ creating a framework in which the contemporary entanglement of war and trade can be recalibrated in the name of logistics once again?
Even if the link between logistics and war is unquestionable, I opt for a more heterogeneous set of genealogical trajectories of contemporary logistics. In other words, I think that focusing only on the command and control side of the logistics evolution blocks out many histories of struggles, rebellions, and also of a desire for freedom contained in the logistical attempt to move that also need to be taken into consideration when we discuss contemporary logistics. In this sense, I think that the angle through which it is more productive to look at exceptional politics here is not to focus on the exception itself, but rather on ‘the light of normality’ that exceptional times ‘switch on’.
In this sense, a series of logistical processes will probably become more visible and tricky: from the implementation of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative in Italy to the logistical management of migration in the Mediterranean; from energy supplies through transnational corridors managed by Russia to big European projects of infrastructural connectivity; from the territorialization of multi-national logistics companies like Amazon to the implementation of a logic of “special economic zones” in some ports of the North or in some agricultural areas in the South; and so on and so forth.
But I do not think that exceptional politics in itself will radically transform all these processes connecting war and trade in the name of logistics. It is the whole framework of capital reproduction that is going to change. Again, not because of exceptional politics, but due to a set of latent contradictions that have exploded during the ‘corona crisis.’ The current “state of exception” was not declared as an act of power, but as a reaction to a condition that no power was equipped to manage. As Carl Schmitt famously stated, the sovereign is he who is able to decide on the state of exception, not within the state of exception. We are living in exceptional times, but I think that the development is completely open. Things can move in many different directions.
About SILENT WORKS
The SILENT WORKS project is dedicated to excavating forms of labor that are buried under present regimes of AI-driven capitalism. Find all details and up-to-date information on the SILENT WORKS project here: https://silentworks.info
This interview has been published first time the 6th of April 2020 on Mediapart and it is available here.