Following up my earlier posts on COVID I’d like share a long interview (in Chinese and Italian) with Zheng Ningyuan on the website sconessione precarie, a web platform of precarious workers based in Italy. Ningyuan is a Chinese artist and co-founded founder of the WUXU group. During the current crisis he founded the 4xDecameron project to share reflections and thoughts on the quarantine between Italy and China.
Ningyuan’s interview offers a spectrum of how COVID may transform people’s lives fundamentally in the shadow of currently adopted containment measures. One important aspect concerns what Biao Xiang, in another article, calls the deep transformations to our current “mobility economy“. In line with previous observations about the rising oligopoly of retail businesses and the current global re-dimensioning of commodity trade (particularly of food products), Ningyuan reveals a few rarely highlighted aspects of the Chinese crisis response. Rising difficulties in the food supply chain during the lockdown have inspired the Chinese government to stimulate digitalised buying platforms like (Alipay) e Tencent (WeChatpay), for example. On the one hand, such online distribution has compensated the perceived inefficiency of physical retail shops and centralised logistics. But it also generates an acceleration of control mechanisms over people’s everyday mobilities through increased web surveillance. Finally, it leaves millions of non-resident citizens such as informal migrant workers and homeless people, literally, off the grid. During this current epidemic, for example, the Chinese government has strengthened the so-called “health code (健康 码)” system in order to monitor the biological status of individual citizens in order to avoid possible threats to public health. This system can directly limit our very sense of being mobile, Ningyuan concludes, because it further blurs the boundary of who and what is determined a risk to the preservation of biological life as an object of government intervention.
One of the major challenges ahead is exactly to foresee how the biological governance of post-COVID life will further enhance this digital extractivism of our everyday mobilities – in which China is observed to be prime developer and commercial leader. In line with Ningyuan’s interview, Biao Xiang writes how the COVID-19 epidemic and the subsequent responses are particularly impactful because they abruptly halt what we may call a “mobility economy” -while also transforming it in different ways. Comparing the Chinese government reaction to the 2003 Sars crisis and the current COVID epidemic, he concludes that that the control of mobility is no longer specific to controlling the chain-like mobility of rural-urban migrants and the way they are presumed a risk to society. Today, the government is consolidating what Xiang calls a serious of grid reactions: residential communities, districts, cities and even entire provinces act as grids to impose blanket surveillance over all the residents, minimise mobilities, and enforce isolation. Such reactions are following a trend of proliferating labour mobilities, whereby people are constantly moving between homes and jobs -a situation that is pushing this differentiation, rhyzomatic government response. Several autocratic governments are already experimenting with social network technologies today to control mobility in the post-COVID phase. it remains an open question how these technologies will also include the “off the grid” informal workers and non-residents who remain or do not remain valued as key assets to maintain current levels of welfare.
Further to my previous post about Brussels some days ago, two apparently unrelated analyses appear to confirm my observations about the reasons behind IS expansion. According to terrorism expert Hassan Hassan, the strategy of hitting targets in Europe, far removed from their operational bases in the Middle East and Northern Africa, is increasingly unrelated to the loss of terrain they are experiencing in the latter. On the contrary, the attacks in Paris and Brussels show how IS is trying to take control over former Al Qaeda networks by aligning and associating themselves with the latter’s militants.
In an unrelated analysis, Scott Atran -an anthropologist working in France and the UK- warns not to underestimate the ideological traction of the IS Caliphate. In the poor neighbourhoods of Casablanca and Tetuan, as in the Parisian banlieus, he and his colleagues encountered a widespread acceptance, if not a sharing, of IS values as well as the brutal violence committed in its name. Despite some of the factual mistakes in Atran’s text (which are discussed in part on the Aeon forum) the key message is valid and lays in what Edmund Burke, in a different context, calls the attraction for the sublime -or the fascination to fight for a glorious and unifying cause.
Far from being miserable paupers, or a rejected Lumpenproletariat (as Diego Gambetta showed for other historical examples), IS suicide bombers not only share this fascination, but they are also ready to make the ultimate sacrifice in favour of this greater good as well as for their group of companions with whom they share intimate relationships (Atran talks about a fusion of identity in this regard). In this sense it does not come as a big surprise that the large majority of IS recruits are mobilised through their proper families, the French centre against religious radicalisation (or CPDSI) reveals. Rather than more police and camouflage on the streets, therefore, what might be needed instead are closer contacts with such families at risk as well as community leaders. In their unwillingness to also address the socio-psychological causes of this terrorist (or, as Atran provocatively says, “revolutionary”) struggle, European leaders continue to play into the cards of the IS military leadership, which is becoming increasingly apt in exploiting this diminishing grey zone between the sovereign life of post-modern (neo)liberal democracies, and the killing of this life in the name of revolutionary sacrifice…
I’ve been willing to write something about Brussels for a while now, but somehow I missed the words. Other than the tragic loss of 32 lives, the wounding of many others, as well as the fact that the attack took place in Belgium, where I was born, in an airport where I’ve passed dozens of times, a metro I regularly took, perhaps the most sobering aspect of the 22 March attacks has been the widespread resignation with which they have been received. Contrarily to Paris and New York, there were no patriotic speeches on the rubble of crumbled buildings; and few were the propositions to ‘smoke out the terrorists’ from their ‘caves’ and hideouts.
One reason might be the awareness that the neuralgic centre of the attacks lay a few miles from where they took place this time. In that respect, it’s been ironic how Brussels, and Belgium by extension, has quickly acquired the epithet of the ‘failed state’ in quite similar ways Afghanistan or Somalia continue to be described by some conservative think-tanks like the Fund for Peace. Driven by almost revanchist undertones (for example in these reflections by Tim King and former war reporter Teun Voeten for Politico), Belgium’s dysfunctional federalism is taken as a mirror for the ‘lawlessness’ and rising radicalism in the Brussels neighbourhood known as the terrorists’ headquarters. Such analysis not only glosses over the systematic institutional hypocrisy with regard to the city’s, admittedly, major problems (which are confronted with the usual mix of militarisation and social neglect) but it also mistakes such wider social unrest for the jihadi’s personal motivations. Besides the fact that Belgium still produces more foreign fighters than any other European country, one must not forget that none of the attackers (neither of Paris nor of Brussels) were interested in radical Islam until very late before they decided to dedicate themselves to the armed struggle. Observers, like Olivier Roy and Fabio Merone, who know the wider recruitment basis of ISIS in Europe a bit, all agree that the religious extremism of these young people is nothing more than anger dressed as Islam. Otherwise how do you explain that Abdelsalam Salah was “drinking beer and smoking joints” a few weeks from the attacks of the Bataclan, as some of his friends recalled in front of the cameras…
In that respect I much more preferred a report by l’Espresso (unfortunately not translated into English) which places the reasons for this rage in the socio-cultural divide between first and second generation immigrants, and the fact that immigrant youth risk to see their host country and their parents as traitors of a failed life project (or, as one foreign fighter explained to his mother shortly before he left: “If I had blond hair and be called Jacques I would most likely be sitting at my comfortable job at the commune, but with my Arab name I can’t even find work as a street-sweeper”). Even if this sounds absurd for the majority of muslim youth in Belgium, ISIS has become very apt at exploiting the projects of revenge that germinate in a life enmeshed with boredom, frustration and petty criminality for a minority of them in very similar ways as the Camorra has taken grip over its strongholds of Scampia or Castelvolturno in the Italian de-industrialized South. With the only difference that ISIS does not (just) promise money and power but also paradise. Feeling rejected by their homes, organised violence provides for these youngsters a new family in many respects -awkward as it is.
But BXL22M also forces us to consider more seriously the changing geography of global warfare these days. Besides the risk of urban conflict strategic think thanks warn for (of which Brussels has been another prominent example the last few days), global jihad cannot be limited to a war ‘in the borderlands’, but it also comprises a wider structural basis in the many de-industrialized cities of the North that continue to germinate frustration and revenge. How to connect these dots will be an important task for the future, as will be the challenge to avenge right-wing extremism that is rising at equal pace.