Corona in a class society

Posted on 10. април 2020


Miha Blažič, better known by his stage name N’toko, is a Slovenian rapper and lead vocalist of Moveknowledgement. His excellent text has been re-published from his blog in the leading Slovenian weekly magazine MLADINA. Thanks to Marko Stamenkovic for translating it to English (and I further translated it into Bulgarian). Here it is:

The outbreak of an unpredictable virus quickly leads us to the great shared realization that „we live in a society“. As is usually the case in crises, this has brought to the surface all our bad qualities (distrust, accumulation of goods at the expense of others, stigmatization of the sick, racism towards foreigners…) as well as all the good ones (solidarity, responsibility to others, mutual communication…). If nothing else, the virus has washed away the latest libertarians from the internet, who persuaded us not long ago that market forces would solve all humanity’s problems. Strong public health, reliable institutions and a state-led allocation of emergency goods are suddenly popular ideas again. I will write more about the macro-effects of the crisis in the coming days, but for the moment, I would like to address a few words about the problem of social responsibility in the current situation.

If, like me, you spend time in the internet bubble of the Ljubljana media guild, you certainly have not overlooked the many calls for responsible behavior. „Everyone has to do their part to fight the virus. Everyone has to follow the instructions and self-isolate.“ Thus, a series of individuals and businesses quickly concluded with government action, proudly stating that they were staying home. I will not lie, this collaboration between institutions and self-organized individuals is admirable. There is something really poetic about building a sense of solidarity through isolation and caring for one another in ways that we give up on some common issues. But at the same time, we must not overlook that this circle of „responsible citizens“ is, for the time being, a fairly closed entity that does not know exactly what to do with people outside its milieu. A place of widespread solidarity is, therefore, among many, a kind of petty bourgeois paranoia, when every unquantified, non-disinfected, unmasked and untested person is treated as a potential killer who irresponsibly spreads a deadly disease. One of the key divides between „responsible“ and „irresponsible“ people is often their class affiliation.

The thing is not overly complicated. For people in certain industries, „acting responsibly“ means working from home, reading a book, watching series, and browsing the timeline – things we do anyway. For others, responsible behavior is an even more stressful endeavor, as they are promised a loss of revenue and will depend on uncertain government benefits – not knowing what it will mean for their businesses and projects. However, for a large part of Slovenian labour, responsible behavior is completely unthinkable, since their income is measured by the number of hours they physically devote,*  the number of clients they serve, the number of events they carry out… Hundreds of thousands of people work through temporary contracts, student referrals and self-employment. They cannot take leave and sick leave, they cannot stay at home with their children, they are not entitled to any state compensation, and many are not even recorded in the (non) employees’ records. It is much more irresponsible for them if they do not raise money for bills, rent and food by the end of the month. The cost of living for their families remains the same despite the virus.

We must therefore also understand the resistance to the closure of institutions and the cancellation of public events in this light. They are not only opposed by greedy capitalists. Quarantine is not just a temporary lifestyle adjustment for people, it is a direct survival threat. And when we consider the low chance of infection with a relatively curable virus, or the fact that we will run out of revenue, we are more likely to be threatened. This also entails a psychological reaction to ignore the epidemic, underestimate it, or label it a conspiracy. Our desire to continue working needs to be rationalized somehow.

Add to that a social aspect that should not be ignored. Members of the urban middle class, with their inner value of privacy, find it much easier to adapt to the thought of being alone for a while – home privacy is a fetishized life ideal anyway. In the meantime, many other social groups find it more difficult to distinguish between private and social spaces. Go to a retirement home,** a rural family setting, a workers social housing area, a Roma settlement,***  a single’s home or asylum home, and try to explain to people that they should stay in their room for a few weeks and browse the net. These days I have spoken to a huge number of people for whom isolation is not possible at all, and even more who cannot understand upper-class panic because they have much worse concerns in their lives and have survived disasters bigger than a viral illness.

Are all these people irresponsible? Can all those who do not take the virus equally seriously be treated as the doctor who returned to his job directly after his skiing holiday in Italy? Of course not, they can only be held responsible in the context where the company puts them. If anything, the uncoordinated response to the crisis shows that certain conditions are needed for social responsibility. Solidarity is not only a moral imperative, but the result of structures that connect us to a common social project. When the state privatized a large number of companies and outsourced services, it abandoned the leverage of jointly coordinating economic activities that concern us all. When it threw thousands of cleaners, administrators, repairers and janitors out of full-time employment and forced them into self-employment, she put an obstacle to solving common problems. By promoting self-employment and agency recruitment of young people, it has taken a decisive blow to the integration of a new generation of workers into shared social planning. When it shifted housing policy to the market, it prevented any community settlement of housing issues. When it wiped out 26,000 people, it permanently cut off a portion of the population from the basic services of the country in which they work. It does the same with today’s persecution of undocumented persons and restrictions on the rights of foreign workers. It does the same thing by shrinking social programs and alienating the elderly. All of these people had to build their own networks and communities – we are not surprised if the moralizing of the Ljubljana media pundits on Twitter does not touch them in the least. A joint social project, both at global, European and Slovenian level, has just been decomposed.

If we have to look for the culprits, then it is more productive to point the finger at the state leaders and operators of the capitalist class who, by their example and actions, are making a fool of our individual efforts. Before getting angry with your neighbors, take a look at the behavior of Trump, Bolsonar, Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, or Chtistina Lagarde, and evaluate who is really irresponsible. In the long run, however, we need to be aware that if we do not begin to re-establish the conditions for social solidarity, resolving the crises of the future will look significantly different. Today’s break in the queue for the last piece of toilet paper is just the beginning… tomorrow we might be scrambling for urgent medicines and hospital beds. All this can serve as a caveat to what happens when a state breaks down uniform rights systems and allows for the stratification of workers. Without the solid connection built by the system of regular employment, public services and infrastructure, and all-inclusive transnational projects, individual civic responsibility will quickly turn into a survival struggle for all against all.

The annotations are not part of the original:

* Let me connect this text to the Bulgarian context. We learned of at least several enterprises which stayed open and forced hundreds and thousands of workers to continue labouring daily, in close proximity, and without any safety equipment. Most notorious is the strike of the frightened workers of the Japanese plant „Yazaki“ in Yambol.

** We don’t have to go to a retirement home. These days it became plainly evident to everyone how maladapted to staying at home are our senior citizens. Here is just one of the many FB posts on the topic:

Working people 20 to 60 years old:
*wearing masks, measuring their temperature, keeping track of how many surfaces they’ve contact with, wash their hands seven times a day, sign documents not to leave their homes, so that they can protect the senior generation*
The grannies: The weather is nice, a walk refreshes you, and also, I heard that the toilet paper might be running out at the shops!


*** The response in Stolipinovo, the segregated neighbourhood of Turkish and Roma where I work, surprised even me! There people are used to spend a lot of time out of their crowded homes, but there – many of them do not go out any more. Here is a video still from 18th of March footage by a local.

Posted in: Anthropology