Moni Ovadia, The Working Class in the Age of Coronavirus

Another Italian intellectual, Moni Ovadia (actor, singer, musician, and theatrical author) writing on the coronavirus. Once again, focusing on the Italian case but concluding with a provocative (and intentional?) allusion to Mao’s famous question about the issue of political solidarity. This was originally published in Il Manifesto, on March 12.  

I’ve devoted my life to striving for the highest possible level of intellectual honesty and coherence and rebelling against injustices and abuses. I have always taken the side of the exploited, the harassed, the victims of discrimination, the last ones, and I have fought with all my strength against the inequalities generated by the logic of privilege, which is the source of all depravation and crime, even in a society that deems itself “civil.”

Even in those self-styled “democratic” societies, if the principle of equality does not rule, we have neither democracy nor liberty. These days, large swaths of the world are afflicted by the coronavirus pandemic, and our country is suffering with particular intensity. Like millions of other Italians, I am self-quarantining at home; I keep a safe distance even from my family; I don’t go out; I obey the rules issued by the government, even if I am “anti-government” by vocation (including being against those governments for which I voted). I practice the principle of maximum responsibility.

It is a paradoxical but life-saving attitude for those of us in the profession of culture and thought. Under such dramatic conditions, as a citizen, I decided to place my trust in the government of Prime Minister Conte, believing in the equity of the adopted measures. Then I discovered that the executive decree, point 6, comma d (concerning productive activities), says: “[workers] must follow anti-contagion safety protocols, and where it is not possible to keep the recommended 1-meter inter-personal distance, they should adopt instruments of individual protection.”

Which instruments? The masks that are nowhere to be found? Or that are sold at black market prices by criminals who speculate on panic? And this came after we were all told that the function of the mask was not to protect ourselves from contagion but to protect those who work in close quarters with infected people?

Why are workers left unprotected or under-protected? Why is the right of protection from contagion not automatically extended to workers? Why are protests, strikes, and tough statements from the unions required to put this issue on the agenda?

It is because the working class is treated as a pariah caste. Now that logistic has become crucially important, even the ultra-proletarianized workers of this sector, who are subject to indecent rhythms and conditions, are part of the class which is the backbone of the productive economy.

And now, when the entire country needs to be made safe, industrial workers are once again our last thought as we determine who has the right to safety in the workplace. The working class has been a founding pillar of every great democracy; its culture, which takes labor not only as a source of livelihood but as the condition for personal and social dignity, has inspired the most significant conquests of advanced societies.

Recently Claudio Magris [novelist and essayist] described a trip to the legendary Lenin steel factory in Danzig [Gdansk ], which has now been transformed into a museum to commemorate Solidarnosc, the political and union movement that contributed to overthrow the regime of so-called “really exiting socialism” in Poland. This great writer from Trieste recounted that visit: “I saw, plastically, the twilight of the working class. And it’s a catastrophe, because it has been the only class which, as such, carried the universal.” When the coronavirus pandemic has run its course and disappeared from our horizon, we will have to redefine the priorities on our political and social agenda, learning from the lessons it will have taught us.

We will have to re-learn to build communities and societies, re-learn to respect the values that are rooted in a substantial democratic identity, and not in a democratic rhetoric floating over the chaos of opinions, on the magma of the fighting narcissisms of a ruling class devoid of any authority. It will be necessary to re-learn how to respect those who build and not those who quack, to respect the working class as a constructive force which resides at the center of democracy.

In conclusion, let me ask one last question: what are 30,000 US troops, armed for war, doing in Italy and Europe, moving around without any sanitary precautions? I will answer with a whatsapp message I received yesterday: “China sent us 1000 ventilators and 100,000 masks/ the EU sent us a 100 billion bill for its banks/the US 30,000 marines ready for war. Maybe it’s time to rethink who our ‘friends’ are.”


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