The breakdown of European assumptions – dispatches from Italy

The breakdown of European assumptions – dispatches from Italy

Matias Nestore

As I sit down to write this piece, in my family home in the Orcia valley, Italy is entering the second week of full lockdown due to the relentless spread of COVID-19. The streets around me have grown quieter and quieter in the past weeks, though this is not a stark change in an aging Tuscan village, one that has seen its youth progressively flee to cities or abroad in search of opportunities. Yet, at the same time, the people in the area are among the luckiest, being able to enjoy the views of the countryside and access to its local products.

The situation in the rest of the country is as diverse as Tuscan streets are quiet.  As videos of Italian balconies filled with impromptu musical performances pervade twitter feeds and news worldwide, the roofs of prisons across the country are crowding with protesting convicts, denouncing the poor sanitary conditions of their overcrowded confinement. This has led to a peak in violence, a rise in the number of deaths among the prisoners and injuries among the police. Talk of the violence in prisons has spread through the country, bringing people to rethink their assumptions about the ways prisoners should be treated, and often sympathising with their concerns.

It is as if the COVID-19 crisis has given voice to one of the most silenced issues of our society, the improper treatment of prisoners, and woken our ability to understand their concerns, now that we are all under lockdown.

As the Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, was explaining the economic measures to be taken during the crisis, the comment section of the government’s Facebook livestream started filling with people’s concerns: businessmen concerned about their profits, employees being made redundant, and illegal day workers desperately trying to find ways to survive. Again, a rare instance in which different strata of Italian society have been faced with the same issues, worries, and sometimes desperation.

The COVID-19 crisis has permeated the existing economic inequalities and social injustices of the country, highlighting the fragility of a number of socio-cultural assumptions that have dominated our country in the past four decades. First, the assumption that crises of this sort can only affect ‘under-developed’ or ‘Southern’ countries. Second, the neoliberal idea of individual self-sufficiency. And finally, the blind belief in the strength of the market to magically address our social and economic concerns.

The first stages of the COVID-19 crisis have highlighted the tendency of Italians to dismiss the possibility that what was happening in China could ever affect our working and social lives. It was as if a developed industrial society could not possibly be affected by the same ills as Asian or African countries. The ‘Northern denial’ phase has seen hashtags such as #milanononsiferma (Milan does not stop) going viral, highlighting the resilience of the most economically  propserous city of the country. Today, Lombardy is facing the highest number of cases and deaths in Italy.

The French historian Fernand Braudel explains how the capitalist world division has developed, with peripheral regions feeding the centre of the global markets, where the centre depends on the labour and sacrifice of the periphery, and the periphery suffers from the ‘laws’ set by the centre’s needs, experiencing cycles of economic crisis and dependency. The major mistake of Western societies was eliding an already false economic immunity with the conception that ‘advanced’ industrial societies had become resilient to any sort of threat.

This bubble was first burst by the insurgence of ISIS cells and homegrown terrorist violence in the hearts of Europe’s urban centres, and now by the threat of COVID-19. The key difference between the two being that while the roots of the former could still be ideologically returned (falsely) to their Middle Eastern origin, the spread of the virus is one that allows for no alien enemy to be identified.  Italians had to recognise the falseness of the ‘Northern’ assumption, and Matteo Salvini’s tweets on stopping immigration and closing down what he calls ‘ethnic’ food stores seem less and less relevant as the crisis progresses.

The idea that individuals are self-sufficient and can thrive in any situation thanks to the market was also one that also started to crumble as the days of the COVID-19 crisis passed. Forced to spend their time at home, citizens had to rely on each other’s solidarity to get by. Free online services have been provided by the most diverse sources, from personal trainers leading workout sessions on their rooftops, to authors reading and commenting on their work aloud on a Facebook livestream. A plurality of initiatives have emerged, showing the brightest and most creative side of Italian solidarity. Similarly, services are being provided to our societies’ most vulnerable members and those who face the highest risk of being affected by COVID-19. A virtuous collaboration between local governments, third-sector volunteers, and mass-distribution companies is making sure every citizen is granted access to food products and pharmaceuticals.

These examples of civic cooperation are starting to uncover a truth that had been masked in the past four decades – the fact that we all live in a society and not just in an economy.  The blind belief in the power of the market to address our social and economic problems is being reconsidered in light of the ways in which, without government intervention, the crisis would have reached unbearable heights by now. As the ECB’s highest representative, Christine Legard, states that “it is not in the function or mission of the ECB” to help a country in crisis.

The Italian government acts in the name of its constitution, and one of its most fundamental elements, that of the role of the state in securing the health of all its citizens. Moreover, the role the state will play in the economic recession that will face the country in the coming months is gaining more and more importance. This will highlight the crucial function that state intervention and constitutional rights play in the development of a society, and the risks entailed in arguments in favour of limiting states’ power in favour of economic forces.

As the days of the lockdown go by, I hope that the events which are unfolding during this crisis will take a more structured form, with civic cooperation, the importance of the state in facilitating that cooperation, and a recognition of our hitherto societal privilege gaining weight in Italy’s common sense. A crisis of this sort had not been part of the country’s memory for at least three generations, and despite all of the suffering that it has and will cause, I hope it will lead to a change in the way in which we reflect on our privilege, both in terms of being immune to threats and also in terms of having a state and a constitution which grant us public health and, despite its countless faults, economic subsistence.

Solidarity and civic cooperation are playing a crucial role in helping people get through this critical moment of the crisis. It is a spirit that can go beyond the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in the hands of social scientists, policy-makers, and civil society to harness the cultural shift that this crisis could trigger for a world in common.


Matias Nestore is a young researcher, working in the sociology of education, sustainability, and territorial inequalities. His experience and work combine research in urban and rural realities, both in the UK and Italy.  He holds an MPhil in Education, Globalisation and International Development from the University of Cambridge and is currently working in education research, and cooperation and sustainability in the Mediterranean region.