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Virus populism and “decorum” policies: the long wave before the #pandemic

Italy March 23, 2020. To understand some of the phenomena that are affecting public and private space at this stage, we interviewed Wolf Bukowski, writer and guest blogger on the Wu Ming website, Giap, and author for Edizioni Alegre of the book La buona educazione degli oppressi. Piccola storia del decoro (2019).

Originally published by Project Info. Translated by Enough 14.

In the first of your recent articles written for Giap, you clarified how the depoliticization of public space and the adherence, even of a good part of “critical thinking”, to the order of government discourse on the health crisis open the way to a sort of “virus populism”. What are the phenomena that most characterize it in the “hydrophobia” of this emergency?

I coined that expression on the one of “criminal populism”, which is the hyper-simplified and distorted use of crime data in political and media discourse. Three important categories of criminal populism are spectacularization (through television programs on crimes with plastic models, financial reconstructions of crimes, etc…), destasticization (the irrelevance of statistical data collected on criminal phenomena ed) and, third, the abandonment of the “re-educational” element of punishment.

Well: the same television broadcasts have dealt with the virus in the usual way, often, as I have written in a message, “injecting doses of fear directly into the vein of the spectators”; the statistical data on the virus are treated with the same cynicism, deprived of any background, proportion and context; and finally there is also the paradigm of “neutralization” (used explicitly by Vincenzo De Luca) towards those who have absolutely non-threatening behaviors, such as walking outside respecting distances.

“Neutralization”, in criminal discourse, is the exact opposite of the constitutional duty of “re-education”. A communication on the epidemic made in this way is toxic, just as the one on crime has been for decades. With such a communication it is really difficult to imagine an afterlife that is not made of the eternal emergency.

Another phenomenon we are witnessing is the militarization of media and institutional narrative. The example of the video of the corpses transported by military means at night in Bergamo recalls that almost ineluctable link between death and war which the West had – fortunately – long since set aside. How does this type of narration and symbology feed itself and how can we put it into crisis?

Militarization precedes the virus; we have had trucks on the roads for decades now, and after the 2015 attacks we have got used to much worse. The role of the military had gradually become that of kidnapping selfie sticks or chasing those who travelled in the the subway without a ticket. So nothing new: if social problems (poverty, micro-illegality) become military problems, it is almost inevitable that it becomes a health problem on the scale of the coronavirus.

I do not know what tools we could use to put this militarization back into historical perspective, not to be dazzled by presentism. And also to recognize the “desire for war” underlying and excrescent with respect to any need for “containment of contagion”.

Going backwards, there is a clear continuity between the current “pandemic governance” and the securitarian ideology that has been among the cornerstones of neoliberal governance, particularly in the last decade. Do you think it is possible that – in an unprecedented situation like this one – a saturation point and a break in this trend could be created?

Its too soon to make predictions! Certainly there is a tightening on itself of the securitarian ideology, evident for example in the game at the launch on the lockdown measures. The government says “don’t go out except in this and this case”, and then the governor or mayor issues orders to further reduce the margin of freedom, and this without any health reasoning, but only to do institutional pissing, to mark the political ground. So that we can say, afterwards, “hey, I saved you too!”, perhaps with the ban, I know, on cutting wood for self-consumption.

This puts institutional relations in crisis, of course, but as long as this crisis is absorbed by the social body, until then, the political class can ignore the problem. Then the saturation point will come, but I do not see any radical political subjects capable of grasping it and managing it, at the moment; it is possible that saturation will become visible and speak out on the margins of society, perhaps in the southern or migrant subproletariat, in rural or other realities that I do not foresee. The informal workers, for example, widely criminalized already in the (criminal, that is) policy of “decorum”, are crashed by this crisis, and are non-existent in public discourse.

In recent days a short circuit seems to have emerged between the defence of the “right to health” and that of individual freedoms. A dichotomy that is perhaps the result of a compartmentalization of thought that, in recent years, has not even spared the movement. How can we find a dialectic between these two themes, which is able to direct “critical thinking” at this stage towards an analysis, and therefore an action, with a long breath?

I would not reduce it to “individual freedoms”, because “collective freedoms” are perhaps even more at stake (the distinction is in fact more formal than substantial). I do not have a solution, which is why I have spoken of a “virus paradox” whereby, if we accept everything that is passed off as “virus containment”, we will not be able to act collectively to get the appropriate health services to cure this and the next epidemic, not to mention the end of the ecocide that generates epidemics – because this will certainly not be the last one.

Leaving the paradox involves some risk. How much risk is conceivable to take? This is precisely the space for moral and political reflection.

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