Commentary. The semantic fraud that is Italy’s ‘citizenship income’ has birthed a new idea to push people into ‘civic assistant’ roles, patrolling the streets and beaches as a kind of morality police enforcing social distancing.

‘Civic assistants’ would be victims of Italy’s forced labor regime

The idea of using the recipients of the citizenship income for “socially useful work” doesn’t come from Minister of Regional Affairs Francesco Boccia. In launching this project of “civic assistants,” the latter was inspired by the law passed by the Lega-M5S “Conte 1” government, which set up the semantic fraud of the so-called “citizenship income.”

This is not an unconditional basic income—while the current “citizenship income” should certainly be transformed in this direction—but rather a subsidy linked to the obligation to work from at least 8 up to 16 hours per week for the local authorities for an 18-month period, which can be renewed.

In addition to the “public utility projects” (PUC) launched in January 2020, we could now see these people being given the task of controlling how people are respecting “social distancing”—a morality police keeping watch over those who are observing the rule of viral citizenship: “If you love Italy, keep your distance,” according to Prime Minister Conte’s recent saying.

The distribution of this social relations police will be decided by Civil Protection, which will set quotas according to the needs of municipalities and regions. Individuals could take part in this project on a voluntary basis from June, for a period of three months and three days and a maximum of 16 hours per week. It is currently unclear whether the “recruitment” of these “assistants” will involve employment centers, “navigators” and the whole social prosthetic machinery designed to “activate” the poor in a labor market disintegrated by the recession. This system is still suspended due to the pandemic. But it wouldn’t be surprising at all if it were to be restarted for this purpose.

Those who are outraged at the idea of “civic assistants” who would curtail individual freedoms should reflect on the fact that these “volunteers” themselves were created by a law that has set up—for the moment only at the formal level—a forced labor regime justified in the name of the good of the “community.” In what way would this use of the recipients of the “income” be any different from the one proposed by the Ligurian governor Giovanni Toti on May 20: to make them work as “stewards,” distinct from lifeguards, on the beaches? Toti has attacked the “civic assistants” proposal because they do not have the necessary “competence.” But what “competence” would make those who receive an “income” able to work as “stewards” on a beach?

Those on paid leave and those who receive social support could also end up as “civic assistants.” Instead of doing something about the problem that paid leave doesn’t allow them to live with dignity, as it should be equal to 100% of the regular salary, supplemented with other forms of social protection and support, some are thinking about employing these people in a job that could put them in direct conflict with social gatherings. This is hardly any kind of “social utility.”

And this is a recurring proposal: for years we have been talking about a “minimum citizenship work” to be imposed on long-term unemployed people or those who are considered to be “in debt” to the “community” and are deemed to have to “donate” free work. Under the pretext of “volunteering,” we are faced with a conception of care work featuring forced self-denial, interpreted as a free, performative and uncompensated offer, including monetary, featuring qualities and moral attitudes such as good manners, “smiling,” “being reasonable.” In case these are not forthcoming, the unfortunate civic supervisor should call the police and authorities.

The association between the “income” and allegedly “useful jobs” confuses this subsidy with a salary. After years of calls for free work in the public administration, today there is a tendency to specify that the use of “voluntary” work in the place of contracted work should not replace hiring, which, however, remains blocked. Does the Municipality of Rome have a shortage of gardeners? It’s not possible to hire them, but in the meantime, the recipients of the “citizenship income” are working for free. If they refuse, they lose their subsidy.

The same problem also arises in the “Relaunch Decree” as regards agricultural work. The government wants to employ these people in the fields. This involves a contract for no more than €2,000, but the continuity of the “income” is ensured. The clarification was necessary because otherwise, labor exploitation would have been turned into out-and-out serfdom.

In these proposals, the “citizenship income” is considered an element of social blame, to be expiated by the obligation to work, often either for show or as a substitute for the regular workforce. The dominant classes are speaking of a growing “social anger” in Italy. The serious problem is that they’re failing to realize that today, they are the ones who hate the poor and the precarious.

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