The state is back. Since we moved to this little town in Southern Italy, it has become blatantly apparent that the old brutality of the state is still very much present, more than I, and academics in my field, realised. There are no reported Covid-19 cases here. Nor in the neighbouring towns. But police and military forces (the carabinieri) are still patrolling the streets, preventing people from leaving their apartments – however small and miserable these apartments may be. The new rules of confinement are broadcasted through big loudspeakers which are installed on the rooves of police forces’ cars. Free movement is restricted only to cases of absolute emergency, and for those who are still allowed (or forced) to work and serve the cause of capital and the nation. Provision of food (only the essentials) needs to be reduced to the minimum. The degree of control that the ‘state of exception’ is imposing to individuals is unprecedented, at least under post-fascist Italy.
Transgressions of the rules are punished with a €3000 fine. The first time I heard this (we are spammed with information about the rules at least three times a day, every day), I thought my tinnitus was playing games with me. Three thousand euros. This is three times the monthly salary of an adult in this town, for those who have a salary. The price of three months’ rent. An annual mortgage. Wuuao. I initially assumed that this was an empty menace. The menace of an oppressive father who in case of necessity is not able to or willing to exert the threatened punishment. But the state is serious. People get fined. Despite the absence of infected cases, the town is strictly surveilled. Helicopters fly overhead. High in the sky, but we can hear their noise. Police patrols are posted at the edges of the two main roads through which the town can be reached. Each car entering and leaving the municipality is controlled. A police patrol checks the minor, smaller, inner town roads. The speaker at the radio explains that police forces use drones to prevent gatherings. We know that Italians don’t follow the rules, he justifies. My family and I feel lucky. Cars are not allowed to enter the old town where we live. The roads are too tiny. And drones, we have not seen any drones. Helicopters yes, but drones no.
The state is back. Perhaps it has never disappeared. Throughout the last decades academics like myself have learned to think that the state had gone, that it had been made redundant by a new model of societal co-existence. People must take care of themselves based on the principles of individualism, freedom, and self-responsibility. Big transnational corporations were the new world leaders and welfare states were being stripped away. The market rules us. Covid-19, at least in this little town, makes me think that we have been wrong. The state is back. And it is not just that the data on our movements, social relations, and bodily conditions are being sold to the state and remobilized as a technology of control in the fight against Covid-19. The state is back in its more simple, violent form. Perhaps it has never gone. Perhaps our privilege as middle-class, white academics has allowed us to become invisible to the gaze. To navigate its oppressive presence. Even to challenge its authority and violence. But the state is here, and its powerful.
My three-year-old son wants to move. To use his body. He needs some fresh air. He has energy, a lot of energy. The old town is empty, depopulated. Most of the inhabitants have moved to the big cities further north, where there is work. Tourists will arrive later in the year, during the warm season. And in any case, they won’t be allowed to come with the national lockdown. Only old people are left. Many hide in their homes. Others sit on their balconies. Let’s go out. We take a ball that we bought just before the prime minister had ordered the lockdown, and leave the building. I know a small court, just around the corner that is perfect to play.
Shoot, my son shouts. Shoot. I got distracted by a moving curtain. I thought I had seen a shadow behind a window. I realise that we are surrounded by balconies and windows and walls. I feel observed. But there is nobody. Only my son, and me, and our ball. I try not to get distracted again and try to look relaxed. It’s his first time outside after weeks. I don’t want to disappoint him. Wuff wuff, a street dog barks. We had noticed his faeces in the middle of the court. It must be his territory. Wuff, the dog barks again.
Let’s go home, papa. My son takes the ball in his hand and moves towards the apartment. He must have felt my anxiety, or was it just the dog? I feel observed again. This time I recognise the face of a man behind a semi-open window. I make a gesture. Salve (Hi). While these tiny roads of the old town protect us from the patrolling eyes of the police, it is impossible to pass unnoticed. The vigilant eyes of the state are replaced by the curiosity (or fear?) of our neighbours. The old town is a labyrinth of houses and narrow streets. A panopticon where everybody sees everybody, or at least everybody expects to be seen by others. Only those walking on the street can’t see people at the windows, sometimes because of the reflecting light, and sometimes the curtains and shutters cover their faces.
We have been reported. Polizia Municipale (municipal police). Someone is knocking at the door. Polizia Municipale. There are two officers at the door. When did you arrive? What are you doing here? My son cries. He had never seen a police officer at our door before. Go over there to Mommy. He felt my anxiety again. What is your name? You are not the owner, right? What are you doing here? The officer shouts at me. Where are you from? When did you arrive? You must notify your presence immediately. Why haven’t you done this yet? What is your nationality? My passport says that I am an Italian citizen. But your children? They speak German, why? I am nervous. My voice trembles. We were regularly stopped by the patrolling police forces in town. Too different was our behaviour, our clothes, our way of relating to our kids. Our language. Where are you going? Walk faster. Go home. Don’t stop. We were repeatedly approached by policemen, especially my wife, who doesn’t pass as someone being from here. Too pale-skinned. But this is different. You need to notify your presence to the authorities. Why did you not come earlier? Have you been in quarantine? For how many days? You need to stay home. Don’t move.
It turned out that a neighbour had called the police notifying the presence of a foreign family. Every foreigner is suspicious here. Is dangerous. Nobody is infected. The virus can only be imported from outside, people kept repeating. Don’t host foreigners, not in your private house, nor in tourist facilities. The mayor had circulated clear instruction through a WhatsApp message sent to all residents. Even worse if German speaking. At this point everybody had heard that it was a German businessman who had brought the virus to Italy. No Germans. You need to go home. Will they send us back? But where to? To the UK, where I work? To Switzerland, where my wife and kids are registered? But the borders are closed, flights are cancelled. Movement impossible. I feel anxious. Panicked. Terrified.
My bodily reactions made me think of my father and his way of behaving when encountering police forces. I had always wondered why he used to react to policemen with what I perceived to be an exaggerated deference. Stop being submissive, I used to tell him. Since then, I had learned to encounter police force with a challenging attitude. Stop being submissive. I never showed any form of empathy for his deference. Now I feel ashamed by my arrogance. I think back about his stories. About that one, when in the late 1970s the Fremdenpolizei (migration police) used to search my father’s room to find evidence to deport him. Seasonal workers had to leave the country before the expiry of their work permit. But at that time, in Switzerland, people from our Italian hometown used to stay and work, informally, hidden from the state’s watching eye. Had these police encounters left bodily traces? Permanent anxieties? I also think about the new migrants, those who I have met in my research in spaces dedicated to the detention, disciplining, and control of displaced people, and for whom these violent police encounters had become part of their normality. Those with no passports, no money to escape, no place to go, no home. Had they also been as scared as we had been? Had their bodies also been trembling? Had I been experiencing what others experience on a daily basis. Where are they now? What are they doing? Are they scared? My thoughts digress.
The state is here. I am sure about it. Even if we had already celebrated its funeral. It’s here with all its violence and obsession with control and regulation. It has probably never gone. We have theorised its disappearance, its dissolution. I have pretended to be immune to its power. But it is here. I feel its presence. It is visible. It affects us. It’s in our bodies. It acts through our bodies. Through our anxieties and desires. Through our memories. It’s inside the people who shout at us, who stare through the window, who report us. We have been wrong. The state is here. We are the state. It scares.