The following interview was conducted in the summer of 2020, as the acute crises of the spring passed into the mordant and interminable temporality of spikes and plateaus, of a school year inaugurated with more prayers than convincing plans. What exactly happened and what is to come both remain obscure, but glimmers of clarity return when we attend to the actual practices of living instead of the de-legitimized grand narratives pushed by the chattering classes. To this end I reached out to Andrea Muehlebach, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto whose philosophically rich ethnographic work speaks powerfully to the COVID era. We discussed Northern Italy, the site of her excellent book The Moral Neoliberal and the earliest COVID outbreak in Europe, how the pandemic fits into a larger story about the changing face of citizenship, and how infrastructure helps us get a better handle on historical change.
MICHAEL SCHAPIRA: I thought you were the perfect person to talk to for this Quarterly for a number of reasons—your past work on “ethical citizenship,” your familiarity with northern Italy, your more recent work on infrastructure, and my belief that anthropologists are always fun to talk to. But you’ve also written an article entitled “Time of Monsters,” which is roughly our theme for this Quarterly (we put “time” in the plural). The term comes from a Gramsci quote, which Žižek translates as “the old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” The more common (and more accurate) translation is, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Translation accuracy aside, they point to two conceptually different readings of “the crisis”—Žižek’s monsters point to some kind of agency and personification, the traditional translation puts more emphasis on the temporality and specificity of the interregnum and the impersonal forces of history. Which version of the Gramsci quote would you privilege in thinking about the current crisis?
ANDREA MUEHLEBACH: If we remind ourselves of the etymology of the original term, monstrum, in Latin, it becomes quite clear that the definition of monstrum in the classical sense is not entirely distinct from that of symptom. The monster was always thought of as an omen or a sign or a portent of something to come, or of some underlying misfortune. So the monster was also, in its original definition, kind of like a sign or a signifier—just like a symptom. So, both resonate with each other in unexpected ways. You have to look beyond the monster itself in order to understand what it actually means.
So, I think the Gramsci quote is really good because it helps us to read history symptomatically, to not be fooled by surfaces. You have to look to the underlying disease. Trump is a really good example here of how we need to depersonalize our critique. As much as the personal critique is necessary, he is a symptom of a greater, underlying malaise. I think the Black Lives Matter protests have made that very clear. These are ongoing, longer forms of structural violence and systemic dispossession that have erupted in this figure at the moment. How do we undo not just Trump, but these longer structures? That’s why Gramsci is good, because he very explicitly points to the underlying malaise.
But then again, the monster imagery is also useful because it reminded me of these many reports that have come out recently about the unequal distribution of wealth on the planet. Sometimes it’s very useful, politically, to say that there are twenty-six people on this planet who have as much wealth as half of the world’s population. These twenty-six people have names, we know where they live, and we know how they make their money. I love this kind of strategy that points out these bestiaries of the contemporary—these are the baddies. There are plenty of people who will say it’s much more complicated, that there exists a racial capitalist system that generates these figures, but I still think for political purposes it’s useful to point to the monsters as well. Or the one hundred worst corporations that are responsible for 70 percent of all global warming. It’s good to have a list like that.
When I think through the world, it’s problems, the question of politics, then tacking between the one and the other is a very useful exercise. Holding those two—the monster and the symptom—at the same time is a good political idea.
If we stick with the theme of interregnum, there seems to be a difficulty in locating the death of the old regime and the enthronement of something new. For example, you’ve written about the “refugee crisis” of 2015, which could be seen as drawing to a close a prior regime of liberal humanitarianism. You’ve also written about struggles against the privatization of water infrastructure, and one could see that neoliberal trajectory as marking its own crisis with no shortage of morbid symptoms. We are also living in the unresolved aftermath of the 2007–8 financial crisis, the cascading aftermath of the second Iraq war, to say nothing of climate catastrophe, the decline of belief in democracy, etc. Are there any examples that stand out from your fieldwork of people navigating the confusing temporality of “the crisis,” or the interregnum with no clear beginning or easily foreseen end?
I’ll try to answer the question from the very particular perspective of infrastructure, because as you’ve noted, I’m currently working on the crisis of infrastructures and their austerity-induced underfunding in Europe. In fact, this is the debate at Ontario schools right now, where one of the problems with going back to school is that our infrastructures are so dilapidated that there are children, especially in lower income neighborhoods, where the rooms that they are taught in don’t even have windows. They can’t go back into unventilated rooms under pandemic conditions. So, I can talk a little bit about the temporality of crisis, but mostly from the perspective of water infrastructures.
One thing that I learned is that thinking in terms of linear histories, or thinking in terms of beginnings and ends, is not useful. Rather, the politics in and around water infrastructures are best thought of in terms of a recurrent, recursive, and almost circular pattern, rooted in repeated histories of accumulation by dispossession. Many water infrastructures—be it Mumbai, Berlin, or Naples—were originally built by British investors around the 1860s. These infrastructures very quickly didn’t do the kind of work they were supposed to do. There were all sorts of problems having to do with private investment—with speculators essentially, who were looking at vast wealth they could extract through this infrastructure and which was funneled through joint stock companies in London. There were cholera epidemics, there were political upheavals because the water was too expensive, and shareholders in London had to be appeased. Very quickly these private, speculatively built infrastructures were re-municipalized in the early 20th century and stayed public for large swaths of the last century.
A lot of this public municipal infrastructure was then privatized again from the 1990s onwards—a move that’s again been followed by a wave of re-municipalizations in the last decade or so—Berlin, Paris, Naples, and many others. So when I think about the temporality of crises, it’s from the vantage point of this Polanyian to and fro, this double movement when it comes to who manages and who takes responsibility for these water infrastructures. What I learned from the water activists is that no political project around water—especially water!—and its equal distribution is ever going to be finished or uncontested. The water movements that I am writing my book about practiced this constant vigilance because they have a very astute sense of history and its constant returns—speculators wanting to sink their capital into infrastructures then as they do now. The people I met cultivated a sense that you can win a battle, but the war is ongoing and long durée. It will be around for as long as capitalism is around, and for as long as investors are committed to generating value by speculating on these vital resources and infrastructures. Some battles have been won, and I’m documenting some of them in the book I’m currently writing.
There are interesting stories to be told about the long durée of these extractive mechanisms. One of the corporations I write about in my book is Suez, one of the two big corporate water players in the world—it’s a French corporation. Suez goes back to British and French colonialism in Egypt, the dispossession of farmers from their land, the building of plantations, and the concomitant structures that were needed, including complex watering systems as well as the Suez Canal, to water plantations and move all of these goods through. Tens of thousands of slave laborers were mobilized in the construction of the canal. And at the end of the day it was really the starving Egyptian farmers who had to pay for the enormous debt that the Egyptian state accrued through the loans it acquired from French and British investors to build these plantation infrastructures.
What’s interesting here, and what allows insight into the recurrent temporalities of history and crisis, are the similarities that exist between the debt-mechanisms instituted today with the financialization of infrastructure and the mechanisms of dispossession that occurred in the past in places like Egypt. Suez is still around and richer than ever. They are even using the same contractual forms that were central to these processes of dispossession. The legal tactics that were important in the mid to late nineteenth century are very similar today. The long durée of the way in which corporate predation has worked is quite disheartening. The stability of that system, once you actually trace it, is quite remarkable. But activists know that. They know what capitalism does and that for now it’s around, so whatever victories there are, you have to be vigilant. That is what I mean with non-linear thinking. It’s not going to be over unless the system is profoundly revolutionized.
It strikes me as especially brazen that they are still calling their corporation Suez.
I know. I knew that Suez and Veolia were the two biggest water corporations today. This is maybe my lack of historical imagination, but for the longest time I didn’t associate that older Suez corporation with the contemporary Suez. Of course, the Suez Canal was also celebrated as this great achievement of modernity and was inaugurated with great fanfare. But its dark history of violence and dispossession can be known if you just scratch the surface. Rosa Luxemburg wrote about it very interestingly in her book on imperialism. She tells a story that can be told today about all big corporations that have a 150-year-old shelf life or longer. They all participated in these violent histories of what was essentially theft. Many relied on slave labor, whether it was black slave labor in the US or Egyptian slave labor in the case of the Suez Canal.
Maybe we can transition to talking about your work on citizenship and its bearing on pandemic politics. You did your fieldwork for The Moral Neoliberal in northern Italy, the earliest and one of the hardest hit regions in Europe during the first wave of the current pandemic. I have a few questions about the specific conditions of this region and, just as it did in your book, what it might say more generally about citizenship and modes of governance.
First, could you describe briefly the transition from social citizenship to ethical citizenship and the attendant rise of the Third Sector? This will help contextualize the ways that the pandemic is intersecting with forces reshaping conceptions of citizenship that were already well underway.
Social citizenship has been theorized by many theorists. I was inspired by Jacques Donzelot and Robert Castel, who define social citizenship as something that tied together social formations through the bureaucracy and the infrastructure of the Keynesian welfare state. It hinged on labor and employment and the concomitant rights that flowed through employment in what was then still an industrialized system. Citizens were bound together by certain rights and duties, but this was all mediated by labor and the state. Feminists have of course argued that the system was very exclusionary because it hinged on the breadwinner model where the idea of a social wage flowed through the heteronormative (and white) male breadwinner figure. Many people have remarked on how exclusionary and imperfect this model was. But at the same time there was a certain infrastructure of rights, like pension rights and stable employment that were guaranteed to a segment of the population.
Ethical citizenship was something that I saw rising in northern Italy in the 1990s into the 2000s. It had to do with larger structural transformations that were happening everywhere in Europe. On the one hand there was the precarization of labor, the dismantling and rollback of basic welfare provisioning, and the withdrawal of the state from basic services. But most importantly, there was the hailing of citizens into a certain kind of ethical and moral stance and everyday practical activity simultaneously—a way to bind citizens to the collective good through responsibilized and highly moralized ethical action, but in ways that allowed for the state to de-responsibilize itself. You could thus see very clearly that neoliberalism was never just an economic or political project, but also a profoundly ethical one. In my case I was looking at volunteer, Third Sector, and NGO organizations that were explicitly hailed into being as “civil society”—an eminently (neo)liberal figure that emerged as playing an important role in reconstituting the social fabric that was now fraught with anomie and loneliness.
Ethical citizenship is a reconstitution of the public as a moralized whole. It is not necessarily rights based, but based in many ways on obligations, as in: “we all have to do our part to make society a better place.”
In Italy the family has always been a welfare provider, so it was still going to be important. But the 1990s and 2000s came with a strong emphasis on the nuclear and heteronormative family as the crucial ingredient to the workings of the state and society. In America that would be the neoconservative argument around family values. There was an iteration of that in Lombardy as well. Melinda Cooper has written a book called Family Values on this profound interconnection of neoconservatism and neoliberalism and how they really can’t be disentangled.
What’s so interesting about ethical citizenship and the hailing of citizens into this moral subjectivity to contribute to their community is that you have the production of an obligation that is meant to have an emotional attachment, and then the lockdown condition prevents you from discharging that obligation. What were you thinking, given your past work and past conversations in this geographical area that was particularly hit, about how ethical citizenship was put under a specific kind of strain during the pandemic?
Those guys that I worked with, my beloved volunteers in Sesto San Giovanni, have aged by fifteen years since I first met them. They were already older when I met them—maybe between fifty-five and sixty-five—but now fifteen years later they are part of that very endangered and vulnerable age group. So they were all under lockdown and weren’t engaged in much of the volunteer work that I had known them to do constantly. That said, what was interesting for me to see was that even when under lockdown conditions, they were still, even if minimally, continuing their solidarity work. You could still leave your home to deliver things like books or shop for the elderly. The solidaristic networks they had built for decades—beginning as Communist factory workers and later as volunteers in the retracting welfare state—had left behind a social infrastructure that they could, minimally at least, still draw on.
What I saw continuing to occur in Lombardy and San Giovanni is what we saw playing out all over the world. Neighborhood and community groups mobilizing frontline action workers in places as disparate as India and South Africa, delivering food packages and medical necessities to the poor. In South Africa this huge COVID coalition made all these survival packs for people in settlements. They mapped district households and rallied around the homeless—all of this was entirely community led. It reminded me of Rebeca Solnit’s book A Paradise in Hell, written ten years ago about how disasters produce these collectivities, that these are often moments of great altruism, generosity, and resourcefulness.
The concomitant half of this is what the state has been doing. There is obviously not one single answer, but there are different ways that it has appeared. In April I was communicating a little bit with Melinda Cooper. We were marveling at how out of nowhere these austerity-ridden governments from Canada to Australia—less so the US—but Italy, Germany, and places that had for so long talked of nothing but “balanced budgets” are going into debt to magically come up with emergency payments for people who have lost work. We are now at a different stage a few months forward, where in Canada at least the emergency response benefit is petering out and it’s completely unclear what will happen, especially for people who don’t qualify for unemployment insurance.
I don’t know whether you have any well worked out ideas about this, but I was wondering why northern Italy was such an affected region—whether there were certain material or political factors that led that to it being such an affected region. I know there is a lot of traffic between there and China because of manufacturing, but whether this retrenchment of the state and austerity measures played a factor, or whether family patterns of people living in close proximity played a factor?
I do have a few thoughts. I find it very hard to make general pronouncements about what exactly happened there, but first I wanted to say something quickly about the China question. There are significant Chinese communities in many Italian regions, and one thing that I found extremely interesting is that the Chinese communities there had very low infection rates, precisely because they knew exactly what was coming. Despite the racist attacks like we see in Italy and the US (the “China virus”), the actual data shows that, at least in Italy, Chinese communities had lower infection rates than Italian communities because they really had their acts together.
In terms of why northern Italy . . . there was a report that was just published, and the finger pointing and holding accountable of authorities is beginning. There are going to be a lot of bitter fights going forward. What we do know is that Italy had a pandemic plan that it put into place in 2006 and never updated. So now people are saying that fourteen years later, despite repeated calls from authorities including the World Health Organization to update the plan, it just wasn’t prepared. It was compounded by the demographic situation. Northern Italy has one of the highest numbers of elderly people living at home in the world. So you have that double whammy of bad preparation and lots of elderly people living at home.
There is an anthropologist at University College London, Carlo Caduff, who is also a public health specialist. He has written a very interesting article called “What Went Wrong?” One of the things he says is that China initially implemented what appeared to us as a very authoritarian form of lockdown. Wuhan was shut down. But if you do the math, China is a country of 1.4 billion people. The lockdown actually only affected 4 percent of the population of China. What happened then, was that this model of lockdown was transported from the provincial level in China to the whole of Italy. The Italians were the first to lock down their entire nation. This model of people not being allowed to leave their homes at all on a national scale was something that Italy pioneered, and it had all of these terrible domino effects. Germany locked down, then France locked down, then Canada locked down, and so on.
Carlo Caduff would argue that the total lockdown model was actually a mistake. He argues that what should have really been put into place is a very good testing and tracking system from the get-go. Rather than relying on these massive, large scale projections and hypothetical scenarios, policy makers should have placed more emphasis on pandemic preparedness, which essentially means having a good tracking and testing system in place. There are a number of places where that happened. For example, a number of African countries had a good tracking and testing system in place. Caduff would say that we were only counting the number of ventilators and assuming that Europe would be fine, but Europe didn’t do quite as well as we thought.
There is a moment in my first book when I documented sitting in a social service office and people were coming in, appealing to the state for help with their elderly father or mother or neighbor, and the first question that these people were asked—and this was in the mid-2000s—was “Does this person have family?” If the answer was “yes,”—no matter who the family member was, no matter how poor, how incapacitated, how incapable—the state wouldn’t help people. That was the model, the need to center the family in the welfare system. This model, which is neoconservative, very deeply Catholic, and hinges on this fetish of the nuclear family or the extended family that takes care and provides welfare functions to the elderly, this system that they had built up then completely collapsed during the lockdown. You had all of these old people who were unsupervised or unmonitored who died alone.
In The Moral Neoliberal you noted attempts to make the immaterial (the moral sentiment of properly relating to the needs of others) manifest itself materially (volunteering or doing charitable deeds to fill in for services abandoned by the neoliberal state). Your more recent work is much more focused on materiality, in particular on water infrastructure in Europe and various schemes for its privatization. However, this is also related to the immaterial force of financialization, which, as you write, leverages the “radical depletion of public funds [to create] the conditions for private investment in public assets—including vital resources such as water.” As an anthropologist, how do you go about finding the right ethnographic locale for investigating phenomena that not only have this complex material/immaterial dimension, but also involve some very broad transformations in political life?
Because you are distinguishing between the material and the immaterial, I wanted to note that for us as a discipline, it’s hard not to think of the material world as always mediated symbolically. It’s always rendered meaningful through practical activities, and anthropologists have always been interested in this question. People are constantly doing things in the world, and they are constantly accompanying this doing—whether it is making families, making kinship, making power relations, making rituals—with metapragmatic commentaries. On the one hand I appreciate the turn towards materiality in the social sciences, but as an anthropologist, I think about how the material world is always mediated by human meaning-making. The material and immaterial are always pro-constituted. Beth Povinelli in Geontologies just wrote this great piece on how signs and objects and the doing of meaning are always entangled. We go into the field with that assumption, that those two dimensions are not really separable in human life.
So how do I go about finding this? Well, I expect to find it, always, because that is what humans do. With my current book I went to Europe because I noticed that there were all of these interesting water protests going on. I wanted to see what people were doing and saying—that combination of the material and the immaterial. The chapter that I am writing right now is actually about high-water bills. The water bill itself is the most material and concrete manifestation of a financialized public water utility. You can think about finance in abstract ways as derivatives, but you can go to the very tail end of the world of derivatives, where shares in a utility are traded in global markets. At the tail end of this global and seemingly abstract system you have a household head who is unable to pay a water bill because the newly privatized water utility is raising the price of water at a very steady rate. For me the question is, what does the bill mean and why are people in demonstrations going on the street, holding this bill up in the air, and burning it publicly? From there, from the perspective of anthropological analysis, it’s all context and the very careful work of discerning layers and layers of meaningful context, and of showing how a burned bill is the material manifestation of a universe of critique launched against financial debt-economies.
The key however is that it’s not only abstract finance and these unseen, invisible, secret forces that people are very aware of and critique. They are also at the same time extremely angry at the local politicians who sold off their water utility. Here it becomes very concrete. My mayor, who is living at this address in this town, agreed in this vote to raise prices. There are all these scales and levels of predation that people are very aware of and are very good at making these abstract (or immaterial) forces very concrete, very material, very alive—in the form of the price on a bill, in the form of a politician who voted yes at a particular moment, in the form of a politician who now suddenly sits in the higher echelons of a water corporation. They track these material effects of finance, and then mobilize against it.
But we anthropologists start on the ground, and it was only after many years that I then learned all these layers of meaning that are attached to these very concrete manifestations, these highly localized infrastructures of finance.
What seems to link this new project and your prior work—and you’ve mentioned this a bit already—is the politics of austerity. We are in such a contradictory moment where politicians are tipping their hands and saying that there is definitely more austerity to come, after austerity as an ideological movement has really exhausted itself. You have populist movements across the spectrum and the growing consensus that austerity doesn’t work. Even on its own terms it isn’t a coherent ideology, as we see in the pandemic when budgets are no longer a concern. Wildly speculating, what is the afterlife of austerity when politicians can’t think past it, but it no longer has the same purchase on populations?
This is a great mystery to me. To put it polemically, there is no such thing as austerity right now. Look at the corporate bailout that just occurred in the last few months in America. It’s trillions of dollars . . .
. . . For the cruise ship industry.
Exactly. It’s not just the banks, but non-financial corporations. This money is there. It’s really a repeat of what happened in 2008, except that it’s greatly magnified. Robert Brenner just wrote a piece in the New Left Review about escalating predation. There is so much money around for big corporations.
As an anthropologist, it’s so hard for me to predict what will happen. It’s very difficult to speak of hope or being buoyed by certain political movements, but I’m very buoyed by colleagues and friends of mine who are involved in the Debt Collective, which originally emerged in Occupy Wall Street, but hopefully will gather even more support and will be able to organize more, as the indebtedness of households, which was already terrible before the pandemic, is going to go through the roof, not only in the US, but in Canada as well. Their recent book Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay is a good example of the kinds of activism that has been happening around debt—the politicization of debt.
The question of rent and the right to housing is also going to accelerate. There are a few cases that I find interesting. Next year in Berlin they are having a referendum on a private housing corporation called Deutsche Wohnen. The city of Berlin sold tens of thousands of previously city owned housing units to this company in the late 1990s. Since then, rents have gone through the roof, and there will be a referendum on whether the city should or could, essentially, expropriate this housing corporation. So there are some very interesting debates about re-nationalization, re-municipalization, and expropriation going on not just in the water sector, but in the housing sector as well.
Those are to me some of the movements that we should be paying close attention to. But otherwise, the aftermath of the pandemic for me, I don’t think anyone really understands where this will go. I’ve done what many people have done. I’m sticking to my very particular projects, sticking with the water stuff, and also locally with activist groups.
That leads naturally to the question I telegraphed before we formally started the interview, which is the role of theory during this time, or whether you’ve found yourself less interested in high theoretical conversations during an exceptional period like this. I’m thinking about the Agamben affair early on, but also thinking about the interval between when I first initiated this interview in May and now in August and how different the situation looks.
Since you graciously read my book you know I really like theory and philosophy, but as an anthropologist my primary loyalty is to the ethnography itself. I’ve found that, at least for me now, ethnography has taken a forefront—what people are actually doing, saying, struggling for and about.
That said, just recently I was able to read Rosa Luxemburg’s work on imperialism and I thought it was really enlightening. I’m doing all the theoretical reading that everyone else is doing these days in light of recent events. I’ve finally gotten around to reading Cedric Robinson’s chapter on fascism and black anti-fascism. I think there is a real problem in high theory intervening in these world revolutionizing moments. It can go really wrong. I think Agamben is at his best when he writes a long book about the Catholic Church and the eleventh century. I love that stuff. The Franciscans and the heretics, that’s where he’s at his best. At the same time, the vitriol that was launched against him after his piece on the pandemic was a bit mystifying to me—I don’t quite understand it and found it quite oedipal. I think it was very obvious that he wasn’t entirely wrong and the ways in which this crisis could be used for authoritarian means was spot-on. That was already on the horizon, and that he said it was useful insofar as he pointed to the difference in scale when it comes to health versus ecological crises, and to how health crises, however global, nevertheless allow for states to restate territorial powers and territorial might in very nineteenth- and twentieth-century ways—through police, borders, and authoritarian force.
There was a lovely piece that was just co-written by four or five anthropologists where they explicitly argued against this desire to have something to say about the current moment. They argued that anthropology is a slow science and anthropology is at its best when we take our time and recognize that whatever appears as totally revolutionary must be embedded within the already ongoing crises that people have experienced and endured for a long time now—people of color, racialized people, Indigenous peoples, workers, women. If we insist on theorizing the present through shot-gun analyses, we risk pointing to monsters rather than symptoms; events rather than chronicity. We should all learn to listen and wait a little bit more.
I don’t plan to write anything about the pandemic. But I did listen into a webinar that was held by a bunch of private water corporations about what will happen to the water sector in light of the pandemic. Of course, they said that the pandemic only proves that the private sector is ever more needed for water provisioning because the public sector can’t manage this resource that is essential for public health. There is little sense of crisis there.
The markets are high as they’ve ever been.
Andrea Muehlebach is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy (2012) and is currently writing a book entitled A Vital Politics: Water Insurgencies in Europe.
Michael Schapira is an Interviews Editor at Full Stop.