We will go back to a new normality. One that allows us to move beyond capitalism. Dismantle colonial structures of oppression. And live in inclusive societies. During the first months of the global pandemic, the lockdown provoked utopias, dreams for radical change. Neoliberalism is over, announced a respected senior scholar at one of the many webinars that kept us busy over spring. We see the first signs of its collapse, she insisted. Shops, bars, cafes were closing, the consumption on which capitalism relies was no longer possible. We have entered a new age of solidarity, predicts another colleague. While people were dying, some in intensive care units, others in elderly homes, yet others alone at home, academics (at least in my circle) were romanticising the revolution. Whilst the media announced the cut of thousands of jobs, there was an academic aestheticization of the lockdown on Zoom, Teams, Skype, WhatsApp, Messenger, Jitsi and other technologies. For many critical commentators, a new world was already emerging from the ashes of old capitalism, one that was imagined to be more just and equitable.
For several weeks, this optimistic diagnosis corresponded with what I was experiencing. In our little Italian town this new reality was palpable. No trace of the plundering of supermarkets that had happened in other European cities. People bought only what was necessary, shared food, donated money, helped where necessary. Lists were pinned up on the streets with volunteers willing to bring food to elderly people or infected neighbours. WhatsApp groups were created to share information, to stay in touch and take care of each other, even if only remotely. Of course, I wrote about how we had been reported to the police. But most of our neighbours had been nice to us. Such as when our neighbours warned us not let our children play on the balcony, as the streets had been cleaned with a toxic substance. Or when a woman we had never seen before broke the lockdown rules to bring us a big bag of toys for our kids to play. It was not exactly the type of radical new world that was announced by some of my colleagues, but it was a first step towards something different.
In mid-May, after almost three months of hard lockdown, the Italian government announced that the country had to reopen, now. Capitalism had to restart. Immediately. Chop, chop, we had to prepare for the arrival of tourists, tourism being the main source of income for the entire region. The climate in town was surreal. We went from an apocalyptic mood made of long silences, empty streets, and broadcasted invitations to have faith in the grace of god (god will safe us!), to an incredible, hectic, disorder and noise. I remember that initial feeling, sitting outside one of the many cafes in town, the crowds over me felt overwhelming. As if I had been waking up from a long dream. People frantically on their phones, trying to find out the conditions of the reopening. How much distance do guests need to have on the beach, in restaurants, in the stores? 2 metres, 1 metre, no 1.5, no no 1 metre. And then installing plexiglass. Workers and costumers need to be protected. Who produces plexiglass? Where, at what price, in what forms, how quickly? Signs signalling distance between people had to be produced. Roads had to be repaired. Hotels and holiday apartments to be refurbished. Walls painted. Gardens and green areas taken care. Playgrounds restored. Restaurants cleaned. Chop-chop. Capitalism cannot wait. While social scholars continued theorising the arrival of a new, more just normality, people around me could not wait for the old normality to come back.
I was living in two separate worlds. The virtual one, in which academics around the world celebrated the end of capitalism, and my immediate surroundings where people were ready for, and indeed celebrating, the relaunch of capitalism. Colleagues were talking of ‘radical hope’, putting faith in people’s abilities to imagine more positive futures beyond the seemingly possible, which felt increasingly distanced from the concerns, anxieties, desires, longings, needs, understandings of the people I was surrounded by. Had we lost the capacity to listen to people? Had the communicative technologies, which allowed us to keep thinking the social together, but from a safe distance, enclosed us in a silo? Altered our capacity to perceive and understand the world surrounding us?
My greengrocer was sure about it. Capitalism is back. He had suffered during the lockdown. The harvesting of vegetables and fruits had been complicated by the police forces who patrolled the fields. People had been consuming less, and he remained shouldered with his products. Do you want some asparagus? Artichokes? Take some bananas for the children. I need to throw them away, he used to tell me. But now, capitalism is back, and is stronger than before. Since the reopening, people consume double, he explained. Tourists come earlier, and in masses. Not from abroad, we do not want them, he clarified. They bring the virus! But Italians, who have had enough of the lockdown and need to enjoy the reopening, cherish freedom! Michele, our real estate agent, agreed, capitalism is definitely back. I had brought him the rent in cash (no bank transfer, cash please!), when he asked me to look at several properties he had left in his portfolio. Do you want to buy a house? Against all expectations, he smiled, people are starting again to buy property. Houses, apartments, studios, rooms, commercial locations. During lockdown his face had become darker and darker. He was so desperate, that he had let us move into a bigger apartment even though it was absolutely forbidden by confinement rules. It cost us several visits from the local police forces, but that allowed us to offer our children a little garden to play and him to get a provision in times of absolute depression. People believe in the future of capitalism, he smiled. Real estate remains a secure investment. He had heard about me growing up in Switzerland. Watches are another excellent investment he told me. By showing me his wrist, he added, I possess four Rolex. As soon as airlines start flying again, I want to leave for Geneva and buy a couple of new ones.
I was confused. Is this the new reality we had dreamed about? Many people around me seemed to be happy about these changes. Some people I had met were on social benefits, but many others were struggling with unemployment or poor business during lockdown. Now that we were getting back to normal, was any chance of radical hope over?
By mid-June, the unprecedent force in which capitalism reopened had damaged the very infrastructure it is sustained by. The pipes struggled to satisfy the augmented demands for drinking water from households and storekeepers. It had to be rationed, two hours maximum per household. Some got water in the morning. Others at lunch or in the afternoon, and yet others only got water in the evening. People were not sure whether climate change was behind this, of whether farmers had simply started diverting water from the pipes. Increased vegetable production needs more water. Usually this doesn’t happen until August, people panicked. And rubbish, everywhere, mountains of rubbish. The mayor had announced that the landfills were already full. There is no place for additional waste. Please recycle, she ordered. When we are not able to get rid of the waste, the mafia here help us manage our problems, one of the fishermen I met at the beach told me. They put the waste everywhere. In the woods, under the soil, in the sea, along the highways.
The infrastructure’s collapse was accompanied by the collapse of workers’ bodies. Two gardeners had been called in to refurbish the green spaces near our flat. One of them, Vincenzo, told me that they usually carry out this work in Spring, when the sun is soft, and the wind refreshes you from the fatigue. The sudden reopening, however, was forcing them to do the work in a week, and under extreme heat. The tourists are arriving, he explained, we need to be quick! Intensified consumption I came to realise, had a double meaning. For some it involved increased desires for enjoyment. For others it means the increased wearing of their bodies. Accelerating the speed of capitalism after lockdown has made some richer, both in terms of the accumulation capital and the accumulation of pleasure, and others even more exposed to its oppressive potential.
These divides, of course, are not new. I had just forgot about them, too busy with spending time on social media and dreaming of a new world. Some of my new friends had warned me that during the tourist season people would stop speaking to each other. Even your most intimate friends avoid you if they see you on the street. For the working population, every sort of sociality is put on hold, to allow the body to do what capitalism wants it to do, work! And indeed, our neighbours, who have a bar facility situated on the town beach and during the lockdown had always been very outgoing and nice, stopped talking to us. When she saw us on the street, her eyes immediately avoided crossing our look. But at the same time, her face turned grey and her eyebags darker and darker, just like the face of our landlord during the lockdown. You can see how people get literally consumed. Either they lose weight, or then they become fat. Their skin changes. Some get sick. Ivona, a Serbian woman we used to meet in the children’s playground avoided us too. She was now back working as a cleaner in the tourists’ apartments. We saw her again on the beach a couple of weeks after the reopening. She had lost weight and could not stop smoking.
Capitalism consumes bodies, it also stabilizes hierarchies. While many of those families who before the pandemic had been able to live a decent life (acquire property, eat in restaurants, go to the gym, buy cars) continued, after the opening, to benefit from their privilege, the crises has led people who either started with nothing, or lost everything in the pandemic, into conditions of servitude, subjecting their bodies to intensified forms of exploitation, oppression and violence. Such as Ivona, who despite being in a full-time job, struggled to make a living. When we finally managed to exchange a couple of words with her, she was desperate. I clean 12 hours a day. Everyday day, including Saturdays and sometimes Sundays too. But I still do not manage to pay my rent, she added. Ivona had travelled Europe in search of a better future. She wanted to move back to Germany where, according to her, salaries are higher. She was, however, scared to take her son out of this current context. To expose him to a new language. This constant back and forth had to stop at some point.
It seemed to me that the forms of inequality which many of us had been describing before the lockdown had not only rapidly returned, but also intensified. Ivona’s case was clearly not unique. It sufficed to redirect our attention away from academic dreams of change, to discover a division of labour informed by an apartheid system subjecting people to unequal regimes of violence and exploitation. In the agricultural industry for example, foreign workers (many of them from eastern Europe and Africa) had been separated from local workers to protect the local population from the spread of the virus and were obliged to labour without the support of expensive security measures, subjecting them to an increased risk of infection and death. In the construction sector, black workers were illegally employed to work day and night and serve the fast refurbishment of capitalism’s infrastructure. Caregivers, many of them from East Asia, were employed to take care of kids and elderly people while parents and relatives cherished the rediscovery of consumption and enjoyment, or in some cases, as workers also having to serve the relaunch of capitalism. While many were welcoming the return to work, only a couple of kilometres south from where I lived, others were shot for protesting the labour conditions this new normal had subjected them to.
No revolution. But rather the hardening of an existing capitalist model which is based on exploitation and oppression. Capitalism is back, stronger than ever before. This should not surprise us. The past crises should have taught us that capitalism always manages to come out stronger in moments of depression. Crises allow the system to get rid of its weaknesses. To eradicate its inefficiencies. To remove its surplus of humanity. To justify widening the wealth gap and perpetuate models of exploitation. Academics know this. We have studied this, written papers on it. Maybe we thought that dreaming utopia would suffice to induce change. That hoping in a radically different future would be enough for a new world to emerge. Had we been blinded by the clapping on the balconies, the acts of solidarity, the slowing down of consumption, radical hope? Had we started in the magic of optimism, in the power of positivity? Positive psychology? A self-fulfilling prophecy, or prediction that causes itself to be true?
I am writing this, three months after the reopening of capitalism. The curve flattened for a while, but now in Italy, as in many other places around the world, the numbers of infections and deaths are rising again. The authorities have decided that, this time, freedom cannot be sacrificed, capitalism needs to keep on going, at all costs. Work, consume, invest, grow! These are the keywords broadcasted by national media. We are back to normality. A new normality? Academics are back to normality too. We have stopped meeting in webinars, and none of us talk anymore about an imminent arrival of utopia. The dream is over. Radical hope has lost its currency. Like every fashion, this one passed too. Utopia and hope have been replaced by new more fashionable concepts. For sure, for many of us, dreaming utopia involved practicing it. Not just an intellectual exercise. But an active fabrication of this radical new world. But when looking back, I realise that us academics just woke up from a bad dream, a disconnection from the world surrounding us, an enclosure in the silo of social media. We were the lucky ones who had been advised by our employers to do our work through our desktops. To protect our bodies. To rethink our modes of researching the social, of interacting with people, of constructing knowledge. Stay home. Now that the pandemic is back, us academics need to ensure we do not fall again into a lethargic dream, but remain attentive to what happens around us. We all need to keep dreaming of a radically different future, but let’s do this in a way that allows us to remain connected with the weight of the world, the social suffering, with people’s consumed bodies, and disillusioned dreams.