Italians Need Measures to Stop COVID-19, But They Need Income Support, Too

Faced with soaring case numbers, the Italian government has imposed tougher restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. Yet as millions face a miserable dilemma between personal safety and financial ruin, protesters have begun to defy the curfew — a sign of the fraying social consensus behind shutdown measures.

Lockdown protests on Friday, October 23, in Naples, Italy. (Potere al Popolo)

“Fascists and mafia behind anti‑lockdown riots in Naples,” boomed London’s Times. Or, as Vice put it, “Italy’s Anti-Lockdown Protests Turn Violent as Far-Right Take to the Streets.” There definitely have been some far-right militants involved in anti-lockdown protests, which began in Naples on Friday October 23 — especially as they spread the length and breadth of Italy. But with Italians again subject to nighttime curfews and bans on social gatherings, is it really true that Mussolini nostalgics and mafiosi are driving events?

Some good sense came from Roberto Saviano, interviewed for liberal Italian site Open: in Naples, at least, such forces were “scum trying to latch onto the desperate situation.” The region’s governor, Vincenzo de Luca — now famous abroad for his ranting videos ordering Neapolitans to stay at home — is keen to give the impression of a hardman imposing discipline on a recalcitrant population. But “order” without security is no such thing, for the millions left in the lurch by the lack of measures to deal with the social crisis.

Both Italy and the protests are varied. La Repubblica described both fascists and far-left social centers trying to ride the wave of the Naples protests. But Saturday’s demonstration there, prominently calling for income guarantees, was much unlike others voicing denialism. Different still was Wednesday’s protest by restaurateurs in Rome; many loudly heckled Lega leader Matteo Salvini for trying to exploit their lobbying effort for his own Trumpian cause. In smaller cities, even center-left mayors have addressed similar peaceful daytime gatherings.

Broadly, two main elements are involved. Most important are small-to-middle-size business owners and the self-employed, in many cases unable to sustain their fixed costs and facing financial ruin. The early 6 p.m. closing time for bars and restaurants has cleared Roman streets; duly getting a takeout from one of the capital’s most popular pizzerie at 10:30 p.m. last night (a locale normally able to pack out 200 square meters daily), I was told that they had sold twenty-one pizzas all evening.

Empty streets are seen on April 6, 2020 in Bergamo, Italy. Marco Di Lauro / Getty

But many protesting small businessmen also bring with them their workers, cruelly bound to their employers’ fate. The cassa integrazione scheme tides over the regularly employed with up to €1,000 a month. But Italy also has 3.7 million black market workers, particularly concentrated in Southern cities like Naples, and in the tourism/hospitality and home care sectors. Perversely, with their bosses “no longer needing them,” these precarious workers, paid cash in hand, are left especially defenseless. Added to these, on the protests, is a certain contingent from the long-term unemployed, hopeless, and bored.

The protests’ common slogan, “You close us down, you pay us,” is voiced from a business owners’ standpoint — and paints the lockdown as a mere government intrusion on “normal life.” But this isn’t only something employers think. For want of state-guaranteed income or rent cancellation, workers also need a paycheck in order to get by. Housing and heating and phone costs haven’t disappeared; this is also the reason why millions in low-paid service and office jobs, not yet locked down, are still boarding crowded trains to get to them.

If many speak of “taking their chances” — putting their own income and free time over the public health drive — this sentiment is also fed by blatant contradictions within the lockdown measures. For anyone with kids in school, who jams onto the metro each day, or who works in a warehouse with dozens of others, and then is told they can’t get a beer from a shop at night or sit in a park because these activities “spread coronavirus,” the rules appear absurd. For the very people most liable to infection, the call to obey this kind of instruction is patently at odds with what they are daily compelled to do.

In such a context, left-liberal denunciation of demonstrators — seeing only “fascist” scarecrows — serve as an alternative to doing anything to shape the wider political situation (never mind challenge the market logic behind the protests). Most of the ex-Communist left more or less reluctantly supports the incumbent Democratic-Five Star government, but the more drastic polemical interventions have come from autonomists. This milieu has polarized between generic distrust of state power (painting the lockdown as biopolitical tyranny) or else using the specter of “white male rage” to dismiss protesters.

A waiter serves customers on June 18, 2020 in Bergamo, Italy. (Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images)

Such culture-warrior bromides reflect a curious distance from the material realities — and choices — today imposed on most working-class Italians. Already before 2020, one-third of young Italians were neither in education, employment, or training; an absolute majority lived with their parents. Schematically, a forty-year-old living in her childhood bedroom, earning sub-€10-per-hour wages (like 40 percent of Italians), and now jobless and curfewed, would seem unlikely to draw inspiration from left-wing circles with neither a recent record of achievement nor even the ambition to represent the majority of Italians.

The Naples protest on Saturday, with a strong presence by small far-left party Potere al Popolo, did call for income guarantees — a decisively important measure. Yet media-political discussion of the protests has instead settled into the usual binary between “experts” prescribing “tough medicine” and various types of “anti-political” complaint. Particularly ironic in this context is the tendency in liberal media (visible also during France’s gilets jaunes protests) to grant free publicity to far-right forces by crediting them with ownership of demonstrations that express what are widespread grievances.

To go back to the beginning, to say that the far right is “exploiting” the crisis is itself a kind of consolation, putting things safely back in a culture-wars box and the historic fascist/anti-fascist divide. But underlying these small protests is a mounting social powder keg. Italians’ widespread cynicism toward institutions bears not the assertion of popular democratic spirit (“the government is wrong; we know what is best for Italy”) but rather the sense that, faced with a fraying social fabric, each individual will have to look out for themselves.

This also marks something of a shift from February–March, when Italy was hit by COVID-19 before other Western countries. Then, there was a shutdown on all nonessential economic activities (if not always well enforced) and a certain mood of collective resilience. Speaking to Italians this summer, you’d think they’d been wounded by foreign media claims that the first wave was somehow their fault — and that they were now especially keen to follow the rules. But as the crisis again deepens, such notions of civic-mindedness are clearly crumbling, and the coming dark evenings under curfew augur bleak months ahead.