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As if it were Yesterday

Chronicles of the psycho-deflation #3

March 26th 

Snow—I wake up around 10AM and look out, the roof is white, the snow is thick. Surprises never end.

An article by Fahrad Manjoo (How the US ran out of masks) speaks of a disturbing, almost incomprehensible topic: American healthcare workers as well as the Italians obsessing over the lack of sanitary material such as face masks and ventilators.

How is that possible? Manjoo wonders—he generally writes articles on technology—how is it possible that an ultra-modern country, the most powerful country in the world, that produces invisible planes flying at supersonic speeds able to shoot without being spotted by the enemy antiaircraft, how is it possible that the same country cannot provide protective gears to all the paramedical personnel and physicians who are engaged in this mass health action to save as many people as possible from death?

Manjoo’s answer is simple and creepy: “The answer to why we’re running out of protective gear involves a very American set of capitalist pathologies — the rise and inevitable lure of low-cost overseas manufacturing, and a strategic failure, at the national level and in the health care industry, to consider seriously the cascading vulnerabilities that flowed from the incentives to reduce costs.”

So, 80% of the masks come from China. None of those countries professing the theology of market and competition produces masks. Why would they when they can invest in products that generate high profits? Low cost objects better be produced in countries where labor costs are very low.

Manjoo writes that there are only 40 million masks available in the United States, while doctors are expected to need 3,5 billion masks to face the epidemic in the upcoming months. Thus, the greatest military power in the world has only 1% of the masks it needs. Companies that could start producing this very simple and rare object say that it would take a few months to set up for the mass production. Enough for the virus to turn any large American city into a lazaretto.

A theory is circulating on the web, according to which the virus was knowingly produced by American soldiers to target China. If that was the case, we would have to admit that the American army chaps are quite improvident. Day by day, the growing feeling is that the United States of America will be the country where the epidemic will do the most damage.

March 27th

Around 11AM I took off and headed to the pharmacy. It has been two weeks since the last time I left the house.

It was drizzling a little, but I was wearing a black hood over my head. I walked along via del Carro, then I crossed piazza San Martino, and noticed the queue in front of the supermarket in via Oberdan. I walked along via Goito, and crossed an incredibly deserted via Indipendenza. I crawled into via Manzoni, and eventually took via Parigi and reached the Regina Pharmacy, where I had requested my medicines for asthma and hypertension, which are starting to run low in my cabinet. Only a few people in the streets. In front of the pharmacy there were five people queuing. All of them were wearing masks, some green, some black, some white. A two-meter-distance kind of silent dance.

The European Union smells rotten. It smells of avarice narrow-mindedness and inhumanity. Ever since summer 2015, when we all witnessed the arrogance and cynicism, in the humiliation show enforced by the Eurogroup on Alexis Tsipras and the Greek people and their democratically expressed will, imposing devastating measures for the life of the country. Ever since, I think of the Union as dead, as well as of its leaders as mean ignorant people—incapable of thought and sentiment.

The violence that broke out against migrants since the very same year, along with the closure of borders, the creation of concentration camps, the refugees handover to the Turkish Sultan and Libyan torturers, all have convinced me that not only the Union Europe is a failed project, but that the European population, in its overwhelming majority, is incapable of taking responsibility for colonialism and consequently ready to accept concentration camp policies, in order to protect its miserable prosperity.

But today, during this meeting in which all the European countries representatives had to discuss the Italian proposal to share the economic load of the health crisis—it seems to me we’ve passed any level of decency.

Confronted with the proposition to issue the so-called coronabonds, or in any case to resort to unlimited intervention measures that do not turn into debts for the weakest countries, the representatives of Holland, Finland, Austria and Germany responded awfully. What they more or less said was, in short—we postpone everything for fourteen days. Let’s see when the epidemic will affect the Nordic countries as violently as it did in Italy and Spain. We will talk about it again then. Otherwise we can forget about it.

These are not the exact words uttered by Mr. Rutte the Dutch and his buddies. But that’s the reason for this procrastination. 

Mr. Boris Johnson was tested positive: he caught the virus. His health minister too. Since it’s a little tacky to joke on somebody else’s misfortunes, I’d rather not comment. It’s enough to remind you that Johnson himself said about ten days ago—“unfortunately many of our loved ones will die” bringing forward the theory according to which half a million people would have to die for us to allow our immune system to provide resistance to the virus. A natural selection, a philosophy inherited from Hitlerian Nazism by Tatcherian neoliberalism, a philosophy that has been ruling the world over the past forty years.

But sometimes, it doesn’t work like that.

March 28th 

In the bluish darkness of an immense and empty St. Peter’s Square, the white figure of Francis stands under an illuminated large tent. He speaks to a people that’s not there, but listens to him from afar. He spreads his arms and reaches out to the colonnade that embraces Rome and the world. His speech is impressive, from a theological, philosophical and political point of view.

He says this scourge is not a punishment from God. God does not punish his children. Francis has made of mercy the mark of his papacy, from the first public statement I made, after the ascent to Peter’s throne, in an interview published in La Civiltà Cattolica.

If this is not a divine punishment, then what is it? Francis replies—this is a social sin we committed ourselves. We have sinned against our fellows, we have sinned against ourselves, against our loved ones, against our families, against migrants, refugees, the poor and precarious workers.

Then, he adds, we were fools to believe we could be healthy in a sick society.

At 11AM, my cousin Tonino, who’s also a doctor (is everyone a doctor and I never noticed before?), phoned me to ask how is it going, with his ever-panting voice, and he told me again one of those jokes he was always famous for in the family—“qui gatta ci covid” (gatta ci cova is an Italian expression for “being up to something.”)

March 29th 

Peo is a friend to me, a companion, he is also a doctor and has been my doctor for many years. He has repeatedly dealt with my often poor health. When I went to his clinic, where there was always a kilometer-long row of patients of all sizes and colors, I waited for hours before being received, until he visited me, pronouncing diagnoses as deep as poems, as precise as scalpels, he always suggested multiple libertarian treatments.

When he retired about six months ago, he left for Brazil where his partner and two older children live, and where he was working at the turn of the century. A few weeks ago, suddenly, he returned to Italy where his youngest son Jonas lives and was about to graduate (eventually he did graduate, but on Skype).

Peo had planned to leave soon after, but he remained trapped as everyone else. Now he lives alone in a small apartment in via del Broglio, and this morning he came below my window and called me. I looked out from the balcony and chatted for a few minutes. Then he trotted away.

The Portuguese President Antonio Costa held a press conference to respond to the Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra, who during Thursday’s bankruptcy European Council demanded that a Commission would launch an investigation into the (obscure?) reasons why some Countries say they have no budgetary margin to cope with the coronavirus emergency, despite the fact that the euro area economy has been growing for seven years. Hoekstra did not mention names, but the reference to Italy and Spain was evident, as the most affected EU countries so far, as well as leaders of the “group of nine” in support of Eurobonds. Thus, what Hoekstra wants is basically a trial against those countries where the pandemic has hit the hardest.

“This speech is repugnant within the context of the European Union,” said the socialist leader at a press conference. “And I say repulsive because we were not prepared, nobody was prepared to face an economic challenge as we saw in 2008, 2009, 2010 and the years that followed. Unfortunately, the virus affects us all equally. And if we do not respect each other, and we do not understand that in the face of a common challenge we must be capable of a common response, nothing has been understood of the European Union (…) This type of response is absolutely irresponsible, it is a repugnant meanness that completely undermines the spirit of the European Union. It is a threat to the future of the EU. If the EU wants to survive” concluded Costa, “it is unacceptable for a political leader, from any country, to give such an answer.”

I got a letter in the mail. Inside there was a postcard and inside the postcard, unsigned, there was a small piece of hashish. Maybe it’s from someone who read my first psycho-deflation report, where I said I was going to run out. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

On the newspaper stands, the photo of the president of Albania, Edi Rama.

With a gesture of great nobility he sent thirty doctors from his small country to Italy. He accompanied them to the airport where, surrounded by these big guys dressed in white overalls, he gave a speech in Italian. He said that rather than having his doctors staying in Albania as reserves, they could come here, where help is most needed. He also found a way to mention that Albanians are grateful towards Italians (he’s being too nice) for having sheltered and welcomed them in their most difficult years, and therefore they are happy to come and help us, unlike others who, despite being much richer than us, turned their backs.

Bravo Edi, good old friend of mine.

I first met him in Paris in 1994, he was living in my friend’s house.

Back then he told me that he had studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Tirana, and recounted a very funny episode. As a student, in the days of Enver Hoxha’s absolute autarchy, he wanted to see the works of this famous Picasso he heard much about. The director of the academy took him to his office, locked the door and pulled a book from a shelf, opened it on the pages dedicated to Picasso, and holding the book in his hands he showed the young man the very secret works he wanted to see.

In Paris, Edi Rama was a painter, he went to the subway at night, tore up advertising posters and painted on them. I have one of his works at home where a greenish foot crushes a multicolored microphone. Post-techno surrealism.

Then in 1995 he came to Italy, when I was working at the consortium of the University compound. So I invited him to give a lecture in the great hall of Santa Lucia. A lot of Albanians came and there was a big mess, everyone was talking at the same time, but when Edi took the floor and everyone was silent.

Edi returned to Albania immediately after, at the time of the 1996 insurrection that followed the financial collapse caused by the Pyramid scheme, and back then, the returned exile became minister of culture.

He invited me for a visit. I went to Tirana with a Russian plane. Being at the airport was like being at the market, old women dressed in black who welcomed their children and husbands with great gestures, animals, shoutings—a crazy din. Outside there was a black car with blue tinted glass waiting for me.

We crossed the city, back then all gray, almost ghostly. In the following years, after Edi became the mayor, they repainted all the walls in different colors.

The black car with blued glass took me to the ministry of culture where Edi was waiting for me.

The ministry was totally empty. Nothing, not even chairs to sit on, just dust and corridors painted in scraped off yellow paint. Edi was waiting for me in an empty room dressed as an English explorer in Africa, with white canvas knee-length trousers paired with a jacket with large green pockets.

We hugged each other, then he apologized for the somewhat bare environment—do you know what is my budget? Zero comma zero zero. The Albanians were damned poor, but there were many well-educated cosmopolitan creative people. But—Edi told me—Veltroni has promised me that he will send me some money—I hope he sent some for real.

He hosted me in a proletarian house of a friend of his, where they smoked pot all day. I spent a wonderful week in Tirana, I met a bunch of guys from Tuscany working for a volunteer organization. Then I took a bus and left Tirana to visit the city of Berat, the city with the five hundred windows. During the trip, a guy invited me to visit his home, and showed me his two/three Kalashnikovs he kept under his bed.

I’d like to go back to Berat, but sometimes I wonder whether I will be able to travel in the future ahead of us. I confess that it is the question that in these quiet days torments me most.

Alarming images come from India, following the lock down enforced by the government. Long lines in front of banks, massive columns of people leaving cities to return to their village. Especially those who had occasional jobs now find themselves in conditions of total misery. The thirty year-long neoliberal dictatorship has created the conditions for social precariousness, and physical and mental fragility everywhere.

Sooner or later a Nuremberg trial will be needed for those like Tony Blair, or Matteo Renzi and Norendra Modi. The neoliberalism they have inoculated in our cells has caused destruction on a  deep level, it has attacked the very root of society—the linguistic and psychic genome of collective life.

March 30th

Micah Zenko writes on the Guardian that the spread of the virus is the largest intelligence failure in American history. Every day the news coming from New York is more dramatic. Governor Cuomo makes decisions that explicitly contradict any of Trump’s claims.

The rift between the Presidency and metropolitan centers of power gets deeper by the day.

A New York Times editorial caught my attention, Roger Cohen’s The silent spring. The article is a piece of civil literature with some lyrical hue. But it is above all a wake-up call to the United States’ political (as well as health) future:

“This is the silent spring. The planet has gone quiet, so quiet you can almost hear it whirling around the sun, feel its smallness, picture for once the loneliness and fleetingness of being alive.

This is the spring of fears. A scratchy throat, a sniffle, and the mind races. I see a single rat ambling around at dusk on Front Street in Brooklyn, a garbage bag ripped open by a dog, and experience an apocalyptic vision of vermin and filth.

Scattered masked pedestrians on empty streets look like the survivors of a neutron bomb. A pathogen about one-thousandth the width of a human hair, the spiky-crowned new coronavirus, has upended civilization and unleashed the imagination.

From my window, gazing across the East River, I see a car pass now and then on F.D.R. Drive. The volume of traffic reminds me of standing on the Malecón, the seafront promenade in Havana, a dozen years ago and watching a couple of cars a minute pass. But that was Cuba and those were finned ’50s beauties!

It is time of total reset. In France, there’s a website to indicate to people the one-kilometer radius from their homes in which they are permitted to exercise. That’s one measure of everyone’s shrunken worlds.”

Then, after some successful lyrical revelation, Cohen gets to the point. And the point is rather interesting, when we think that Cohen is not a Bolshevik, but an enlightened liberal thinker, far from any Sandersian socialism.

“The technology perfected for the rich to globalize their advantages has also created the perfect mechanism for globalizing the panic that sends portfolios into a free fall.

Do things differently at the other end of this scourge, some mystic voice murmurs, do them more equitably, more ecologically, with greater respect for the environment, or you will be smitten again. Next time the internet will collapse. The passage from real world to virtual world to no world will then be complete.”

At this point Cohen sinks his blade:

“In an election year, it has been impossible to witness the mixture of total incompetence, devouring egotism and eerie inhumanity with which President Trump has responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and not fear some form of corona-coup. Panic and disorientation are precisely the elements on which the would-be dictator feasts. The danger of an American autocratic lurch in 2020 is as great as the virus itself.

This is Trump’s world now: scattered, incoherent, unscientific, nationalist. Not a word of compassion does he have for America’s stricken Italian ally (instead the United States quietly asks Italy for nasal swabs flown into Memphis by the U.S. Air Force). Not a word from a United Nations Security Council bereft of American leadership. Not a word of plain simple decency, the quality Camus most prized. In their place, neediness, pettiness and boastfulness. The only index Trump comprehends is the Dow.”

In the same newspaper, however, I read that the consensus for Trump has never been so high: the majority of Americans, and especially the people of the second amendment, those who keep weapons in their homes, are on his side, they feel reassured by his arrogance.

Dark premonitions linger on the American future.

April 1st

On the Institute of Network Cultures website, the Amsterdam-based research center founded by Geert Lovink, I read an article by Tsukino T. Usagi, The Cloud Sailor Diary: Shanghai Life in the Time of Coronavirus, a report of the last month in Shanghai told by a precarious young man in an introspective and raving style. It reads as such:

“I went out on a trip to the waterfront facilities the day after the official news came out and confirmed the outbreak. The view of the Huangpu River was clouded by heavy smog. Beautiful. Toxic. An apocalyptic vision indeed. 

In the evening I started feeling unwell. It might be a cold or a flu, I thought. The next day I went to work as usual. My illness got worse. Symptoms included having fever, dry throat, and difficulty in breathing. Exactly what was described about the Coronavirus infection in the news. ‘Is this how I’m going to die?’ I had fears. I didn’t panic though. I began to reconstruct scenarios in my mind, going through what could have caused the symptoms: I was riding the subway with a full car of unknown passengers. Some of them might have carried the virus. A colleague of mine had been coughing in the office for three weeks. Everyone had been exposed to the germs she coughed into the air. Then we hung out together. The air was so polluted. It was terrible. I heard someone coughing all the time. It was a bloody windy day. My lung was about to explode while sitting on the ferry crossing the river. Before the Coronavirus, the smog and the wind could have the chance to kill me, too. How come when I’m looking at the air now, I see only the threat of corona? Have all the other threats just disappeared? 

The COVID-19 has worked on our perception of the air. Since throughout the most polluted season of the year almost every household was in quarantine, the smog and other environmental issues seemed to be removed from the public’s sight. Yet outside of view, every problem persists. The costs are yet to be seen and be dealt with. The post-quarantine trauma needs to be healed but will not disappear quickly from the individual psych-scape.

(…) Human civilization runs on a perpetual motion machine geared up by serendipitous reproduction pipelines. The global reproduction factory has no headquarter. It is the most de-centralized infrastructure, most purposeless and most controlled. India is globally known as a reproduction factory of cheap IT labor whose contribution to Silicon Valley and other tech regions has been underestimated. These days scientists are researching new ways to overcome death anxiety. The world will prefer mechanical babies to human babies one day. Everyone will start uploading consciousness to the ubiquitous cloud. It will not prevent human extinction from happening.”

April 2nd

San Francesco da Paola. My name day.

“The voice is the wedge that breaks the silence out there and inside the digital desert” my friend Alex writes to me, at the end of an enigmatic very dense meditation.

In another message, Alex tells me about Radio Virus, broadcasting from the deterritorialized laboratories of Macao, Milan. “Too bad it broadcasts so little” says Alex. Let it play more, listen to it here.

Meanwhile, controversy flared up between the Lombardy Region and the central government, about who should be held accountable for what. It is no surprise that cynical masters like Renzi and Salvini keep on doing their job, namely to speculate on others’ misfortunes in order to get visibility. But this is an unnecessary discussion at the moment. Not only because in the peak of the pandemic, it is obviously better to focus the attention on what needs to be done rather than to take it out on those who didn’t do what they were supposed to. Above all, because the real responsible are not those who are trying to operate in an objectively difficult situation, in these recent months.

The responsibility belongs to those who, during the last ten years, and actually during the last thirty years, from Maastricht onwards, have imposed privatization and cuttings on labor costs.

Thanks to this policy, the public health system has weakened, intensive care units were made insufficient, the territorial health facilities have been definanced and reduced in number, and small hospitals forced to close down.

At the end of this story we will try to blame some official or manager. The left will blame the right and vice versa. Let’s not fall into the trap. It is necessary to be radical otherwise. The right and left are equally responsible for the devastation produced by the shared neoliberal dogma.

Above all, it will be a matter of moving resources towards public health and research. It will be a matter of finding out where resources are currently located; of dramatically cutting military spending, divert that money to society; of expropriating without compensation those who have appropriated public goods such as highways, rail transportation and water supplies; of redistributing income through property taxation.

This program must consolidate, extend and expand to involve associations, people, institutions.

April 3rd 

I began to read the monumental A History of the American People by Paul Johnson, a very nationalist right-wing historian, an apologist for the American mission.

I try to reconstruct the threads that have woven American civilization, as that canvas is rapidly crumbling—at least it seems to me.

It began after September 11, 2001 when Bin Laden’s strategic genius and the tactical idiocy of Dick Cheney and George Bush pushed the greatest military giant of all time into a war against itself, the only one it could lose. It lost it and continues to lose it, to the point that this internal war (social, cultural, political, economic) will end up destroying the monster from the inside. Since 2016, the United States has been on the verge of a civil war.

Now it seems like Trump is preparing to win the election. Half of the American people like him, more or less. The same half that in recent days has rushed to buy weapons—as if it didn’t have enough.

The other half (such as the FBI, a part of the army, the state of California, the state of New York, and several other states, and especially the big cities) are terrified, offended by the President’s aggressions, and today they feel abandoned to the virus fury, which hits harder in the large cosmopolitan concentrations and perhaps less in the Midwest villages.

Trump said he will not be kind to those governors who have not been kind to him. Indeed, California does not receive any medical aid from the central state. So I wonder why California shouldn’t then refuse to contribute to the federal state budget.

In a country where the job market is a ruthless and unregulated jungle, ten million workers became unemployed within three weeks. Ten million—and it’s just the start.

I don’t know how things will evolve of course, but I believe that after a pandemic that will have the most devastating effects in America than anywhere else, because of the private and individualist culture—a wedding invitation for the virus, something huge will happen.

The second amendment people vs large cities, and vice versa. A non-homogeneous secession war?

While I was reading La Repubblica on the toilet this morning, I saw his photo on a rod on page 3, amidst a list of the 68 doctors who died while doing their job in the raging epidemic.

Valter Tarantini was the most handsome of the section D at the Minghetti high school. Certainly, the most beautiful, there was no competition: blond, tall, bright eyes, always smiling ironic cheerful and careless, he liked me despite my sulky look and the fact I was reading Marx’s Capital, or maybe that was the reason why he liked me. We were classmates in second and third grade. Me and him, Pesavento and Terlizzesi were sitting in the back row, an anarchoid quartet—all of us were very different but nonetheless friends.

Valter lived in a good bourgeoisie house on the fifth floor in via Rizzoli 1, right in front of the Garisenda tower. I often went to his house in the afternoon to explain some bits of philosophy to him because he didn’t want to read the book by Ludovico Geymonat, he had better concerns than Hegel and Kant—he liked girls quite much, and he said he wanted to be a gynecologist, and he really did it—imagine what a fool. He was a doctor in Forlì, and he is one of the sixty-eight doctors who died doing their job.

Damn, as I saw his tiny photo I got a lump in my throat. Dr. Tarantini was seventy-one year old but from the photo you can see that he was still beautiful, with a kind yet contemptuous smile. Since our final exam in the summer of 1967, I have never seen him again. Now I’m sorry, I feel like crying, because ten years ago, I didn’t go to the schoolmates reunion, and I know he asked about me. I never saw him again but I do remember him as if it were yesterday—the dumbest sentence I could come up with. “As if it were yesterday” …but when I think about it, last time I saw him was fifty-two years ago instead, and never saw him again until this morning, in my toilet, in a small photo on the third page of La Repubblica.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi is a writer, philosopher and cultural agitator. His book Futurability was published in Italian by NERO in 2018.