Commentary. The pandemic has opened up a conflict worth bringing out into the open: “necessary” work must only be that which has been reconverted into material production to meet a social and collective demand and to safeguard health.

Labor is outside the market

From the point of view of capital and the business institutions representing it, the suspension of individual labor and consumption is too radical and intolerable. And it is equally intolerable from the point of view of the European Union as it has been built so far, bound by the dominance of a few central nations and the German ordoliberal ideology. Especially at a time when it must be decided whether to disburse the so-called Recovery Fund, and the government of Italy, the country most affected by COVID-19 and most in need—as well as in need of showing itself ready to resume all productive activity at all costs—is even coming to ask for “non-reimbursable” funding for the first time.

This is how the so-called “Phase Two” is starting, under the threat of this double blackmail. It places an immediate weight on the conditions for the resumption of activities, those tied to forms of socialization, those involving services—starting with the public health services that had been formerly disparaged and have now suddenly become “heroic”—and those involving work that is considered directly productive. It is a weight and a danger that falls on the shoulders of the workers and the trade unions and on the democracy that lives in the open spaces, as a reopening is planned that says nothing about the schools, but privileges “enterprise” as a privileged interlocutor.

Why is this reopening happening on May 4, which has already brought 2.8 million workers back into production, despite the fact that the real signs of a slowdown of the current pandemic are barely visible, while the number of contagions is increasing? (And what social distance will actually be maintained in the factories, in transport, and with no provision for reduced working hours due to exposure to risk?) True, the number of cases and deaths is going down, but only as a result of the harsh social distancing measures decided a month and a half ago.

And this time, the whole virologist world is predicting a resurgence of the pandemic where it has already manifested, but also in areas that have only been weakly affected so far. And the hundreds of deaths a day in the northern regions—with factories spread across interregional areas—are not to be downplayed. Above all, it has been forgotten that there is no widespread health protection, after decades of cuts to public health: we are without mass-distributed protective devices and without enough test swabs for mass coverage, without cluster investigations on contagions among the population, without serological tests on antibodies—and the “contact tracing” technology without swabs is useless and only manages to be intrusive.

It has also been forgotten that, in almost absolute silence—broken, however, by workers’ strikes—more than 15 million workers have continued to work in these two months in which the pandemic has been spreading, a “forced” labor in factories and in the countryside. All the while, between one task force and another, the mythical concept of “exceptional work” has developed, and we discovered that manufacturing weapons and F-35 fighter-bombers was part of the “exceptional” supply chain aimed at waging wars, whose activity never stopped, just as the many “essential” factories, like ILVA, which have devastated the environment and public health did not stop either.

So, on the one hand, we have had and we will continue to have the “necessary” work done, perhaps remotely and for the international market—but including the production of death. And this includes the mad dash to reopen production activities to better fight the competition, in slices of the market that will be at risk of overproduction.

On the other hand, in these two months of contagion, care work has become recognized, no longer only in the restricted sphere of the family but in society generally. And the entire sector of illegal work, from day laborers to migrants and riders, has finally acquired “dignity.”

Therefore, there is an underground conflict that the pandemic has opened up and that is worth bringing out into the open: “necessary” work must only be that which has been reconverted into material production to meet a social and collective demand and to safeguard health, as dictated by the Constitution.

How can this be accomplished? By starting to consider labor itself as outside the market, reinventing the rules of its redistribution and guaranteeing—in a time in which the numbers regarding mass poverty are skyrocketing—a basic income capable of protecting every employed worker, but also every unemployed one: not only from the damage of the pandemic, but also from the need and blackmail of having to work.

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