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ecent days have witnessed many Western heads of state acting as pedagogues-in-chief, lecturing their populations that the nation is at war against an invisible enemy to which the majority has been seemingly oblivious and indifferent. We want here to explore the implications of this retreat from busy to empty streets, the retreat to the safety of individual abodes and what this indicates about public sociality and the sense of the urban.
The essay will unfold in two episodes. The first focuses on what we call bioterity, the ways in which the war against the virus extends austerity regimes into the very biological mechanisms of human existence, and where these mechanisms’ legitimate existence become further removed from a discernible social life. The current mode of governing the crisis in Italy will serve as the primary means to elaborate this notion. The second episode concerns the waning of the sensuousness of the street as a locus of circulation—of knowledge, affect, and capacity—and the performance of solidarity. It concludes with some ideas about how to think through a potential reassembling of social life in the time of this crisis.
Episode One: The New Austerity
An ever-present danger?
Responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Italian collective, Wu-Ming, highlighted the difference between the danger (pericolo) and the emergency (emergenza) structuring our current times and spaces. The pericolo is the immanent and potential threat, such as the one posed by the virus in its capacity to infect/affect our bodies. L’emergenza is what is built on and around that threat. It is a space that opens up from the danger of the given situation: a space that is molded from above and from below, through relationships of various kinds and strength, such as the ones operated by governments and state agencies (including Universities), economic and financial powers. But it also entails mundane acts of participation in the micropolitics of that space of emergency. Pointing out the generative power of that space to restructure everyday life can be seen as a way of negating the necessity of action in face of a given pericolo. But as commentators such as Wu-Ming are signalling, being vigilant on how a space of emergency is arranged - and on its implications - is as important as washing our hands to stay alive in the times that we currently inhabit.
A processual notion of ‘inhabitation’ here is key. Our subjectivities are constituted through regimes of governance, historical baggage, social stratification, and everyday fluctuations, interactions, and assemblage (Bondi, 2005; Guattari, 1996; O’Sullivan, 2012). When the terms of the everyday change, our bodies are put under stress and have to adjust. This process is as contested and political (Haraway, 1991) as it is unconscious. The covid-19 space of emergency instantiates unprecedented stress, positing questions around its long-term effects, and the ways those will (re)assemble modalities of interaction, control, and self/collective affirmation. At the same time, l’emergenza offers also the opportunity to imagine autonomous and liberatory ways of inhabiting its spaces.
A key factor in how we currently inhabit is austerity. As a domain of interventions, affections, and governance key to the neoliberal project, austerity produces subjects that are more easily controlled to extract capacities, knowledge, labour and income streams from them. Life under precarious conditions and permanent crisis has become the norm, re-structuring the ways of dwelling everywhere, as evident, for instance, around matters of housing (Madden & Marcuse, 2016; Rolnik, 2019). Through movement restrictions, increased job precarity and overall policing of social interaction, it seems evident that the covid-19 emergency is an extension of austerity technologies. But what exactly does this emergency bring to the fore? How does such an extension intersect with the normalized repression we currently inhabit? These are early days, and our direct experience of these matters is limited to the cases of Italy, Germany, the USA and the UK, but peculiar traits are already evident and worth highlighting.
The current space of emergency distinguishes itself for its scale and pace—think of the diffusion of unprecedented restrictive measures from China to Italy, Iran, Spain and beyond. But there is more. At its core, that emergency space is structured around a biological framework, that is, it is structured around the need to control the flow of certain kinds of biological circulations across bodies in space and time. From Canguilhem and Foucault (1989; 2016) to Franco and Franca Ongaro-Basaglia (2013), to the debated work on biological citizenship of Rose and Novas (2005), many have discussed how biological/health grounds can be used both to govern and to organize demands for resources and rights. Sparke points out how the relationship between neoliberal economics, austerity politics and biology leads to the restructuring of and production of new forms of ‘biological sub-citizenship’ (2017). Here, austerity measures are embodied and lead to the definition of specific bio-inequalities and related subjectivities. But covid-19 poses a different challenge.
The current space of emergency is not only about the effect that austerity has on health, its management, and the rise of sub-citizenship. There are also signs of a diffused, beyond-health, form of austerity (l’emergenza) founded on a health concern (il pericolo). This process goes hand in hand with the creation of sub-citizenship, for instance allowing the stigmatization and social control of travellers from Wuhan, Iran and Italy, which of course intersect with Northern-Westernized racial attitudes towards these different ‘Souths’. But at the same time, l’emergenza is about using ‘health’ as a gateway to non-biological domains that are accessed rapidly and efficaciously precisely because of the biological foundation of emergency. This is a form of biologically-structured austerity - or what we provisionally call bioterity - that can strengthen old processes of governmentality. In other words, the affective capacities of current measures *might* foster subjectivities that not only desire their own repression (Deleuze & Guattari, 1977), but willingly look for it in the name of perceived safety. If it is clear that those subjectivities have been in the making from a very long time—through neoliberal and reactionary manoeuvring around labour / housing / terrorism—the biological grounding of the current austerity measures gives it a new spin.
The novelty brought forward by the covid-19 space of emergency lies in the starting point of its measures. Bioterity founds its perceived mode d'être at the virological level: a plane of intimate biological circulations that exceed individual perception and experience. On that plane contestation is difficult, not only because it encompasses the subject, but also because its boundaries are guarded by the custodial truths of medicalized science. This double detachment - from a circulation exceeding the self, and the bordering operated by science - opens a space where appropriation and extraction can be fast and quick. The opening of such a space is, of course, not accidental, which is why we align it to a broader lineage of austerity politics that, now, not only intersects with long-standing racialized banishment (Roy, 2019), uneven urban developments (Harvey, 2012), and neoliberal management of environmental disaster (Vincanne, 2013), but founds renewed life in the fight against pandemic death. Here, bioterity allows the a-symmetrical relationships between global-exploratory flows and everyday life to work smoother and faster (Hardt & Negri, 2019).
In protecting ‘life’ against a virus that ‘we’ cannot fight individually, colluding political and economic interests are rapidly gaining direct access to a level of shared bodily fright which provides for a unique vantage-point for a number of potentially reactionary, extractive makings. As in Fassin’s notion of “biolegitimacy—“the sacredness of life as such” (2009, p. 50)— how can the many say no to a space of emergency erected to protect their lives, and how, more crucially, will they unlearn and contest the dwelling praxis they have been subjected to in the meantime?
Some concrete expressions of bioterity are already evident. From the Italian case, one witnesses the intensification of structural relegation and subsequent violent silencing and, the restructuring of economies of work combined with the rise of post-biological precarity. Beyond the illustrative and paradigmatic cases of homeless people denounced for their wandering around the streets of Milan, against the current blockade imposed by the national government, the management of prisons is a clear example of the first category.
Where does the prison begin and end?
In order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the Italian Ministry of Justice suspended family visits and meetings with social workers for inmates in most jails. The policy (enacted on the 7th of March) was the first and only addressed specifically at jails, where no other measure was put in place. No masks or hand sanitisers were distributed, and inmates were simply told to maintain distance from one another—in a carceral system composed of 189 institutes designed for 50,000 people, where 61,200 live (with an overcrowding rate of 120%). On March 8th, and in the following days, inmate revolts against the policy started in dozens of prisons across the country - most notably in Foggia, Avellino, Bologna and Modena. After three days of struggle, the body count rose to 14, all inmates. Some prisons, like Modena, were severely damaged, leading to the transfer of inmates to other cities, furthering overcrowding. All deaths have been classified as ‘overdoses’—claims that inmates abused substances taken from prison infirmaries during the revolt. Most deaths are racialized. Nine of the ten deaths registered between Modena and Bologna occurred in individuals of North African origin, with three awaiting their first judicial hearing.
In this context, a feasible response to the virus would have been to decrease the number of inmates through a pardon for minor crimes, as adopted in Iran, or through the suspension of incarceration for those awaiting their first hearing (which taken together will account for about 10,000 people currently jailed in the country). The distribution of adequate prevention kits, as well as the pre-emptive use of Skype and other remote platforms to facilitate communication with families, would have also eased tensions. As inmates’ associations correctly point out, blatant disinterest, lack of care, and the generalized acceptance of what some have called ‘penal populism’ prevented these measures from being adopted.
In the aftermath of these revolts, The Ministry of Justice, testifying in front of the Parliament, reduced these actions to a “criminal act,” stating that “Italy will not back away in the face of illegality.” No mention was made about the root cause of the unrest. Far-right politicians such as Giorgia Meloni and Matteo Salvini have called for “exemplary and severe measures” for the rioters. The general public has largely ignored the issue. A week after the events, no further news can be found on any of the major national media outlets. Investigations of the real reasons for the deaths seem to be postponed, let alone publicly discussed.
The sense of emergency and grandiose acts of responsibility, invoked by Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on daily Twitter or Facebook videos, does not leave room for much else because it is about defending the objective truth of intimate life for the many (Fassin, 2009). In this context, the disinterested responses to the revolts of the incarcerated are not only effects of the crisis (‘there are more important things to think about right now’), or the evident expression of the racialized orderings of life. They mark, above all, the starting point for a new austerity founded on an immanent biological imperative, which will outlast its immediate instantiation. For the ones who rebelled during the rise of bioterity – having the guts to fight against the austerity imposed on them in a moment in which everybody was intimately, biologically, asked to be responsible and savvy – the future can only be bleak. The post-covid landscape, that is, the space where bioterity will largely unfold, will likely be populated with new norms of containment—the “iron fist” invoked by Salvini—to avoid similar episodes from happening again.
Who will work and how?
The restructuring of economies of work is a second, diffused, effect of these early days of biological austerity. Interviewed around the Coronavirus crisis, Rome’s controversial mayor expressed her solidarity with those losing their jobs in the informal economy (il lavoro in nero) because of the current restrictions on population movements. Ridiculed by the mainstream media, Virginia Raggi has shared a concern felt and lived by many of our working-class friends and relatives in the country. How do these workers cope, in the utter impossibility of going on with their life, being cut off also from the few available financial resources dedicated to formal workers? And most importantly, how will they continue to work post-emergency, when tight controls are likely to remain in place in a country where almost 13% of the GDP is based on informal jobs?
Arguably, bioterity measures are not only reducing the possibility of a public debate around these issues now but are also preparing for more stringent controls on the conduct of work (perhaps on the basis of the data collected during the ‘crisis’). This is most evident in the ways big multinationals and universities have been piloting remote (or ‘smart’) working schemes en-masse on the eve of the outbreak. When Italy still had no containment zone, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft in the U.S. were launching large-scale office closures. The effects that these measures will create, undermining place-based solidarity and interaction and enhancing the capabilities of remote digital control, are likely to protrude well beyond the current space of emergency.
Given this atmosphere, our second episode will focus on possible more progressive and judicious responses to these spaces of austerity based on what seems to be lost in our experiences of collective life, and what might be triggered anew.
Michele is an ethnographer interested in radical dwelling praxis. He is one of the editors and founders of the Radical Housing Journal, editor at City and corresponding editor for Europe at IJURR.
AbdouMaliq Simone is Senior Professorial Fellow at the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield and Visiting Professor, African Center for Cities, University of Cape Town.