UNDER A THOUSAND VOLCANOS
An embodied defence of the universal basic income.
We have settled into a short term rental flat in Madrid, after almost a year of intense travel. My work, tightly linked to politics, has taken us all over the world. January (or whatever) started in Kurdistan, where we travelled by bus. After that, my partner went to work in a weed farm in California. We managed to reunite again in Perú, where I'm from. We were flirting with the unrealistic idea of buying a cheap piece of land somewhere where the sky and the water were clear, only to soon face the fact that all those places were being savaged by free market laws too. His back, shoulder and arm were injured due to the monotonous movements he performed ten hours a day for those three months in the farm and his body smelled like cannabis. For a number of days, he seemed confused and numb and did little apart from walking to the coast to swim.
We'd chosen a path that was not meant for us, working class nomads, far from careerists. We wanted to change the cultural field and the art scene. We wanted to transform them. So we concluded that it was somehow necessary to go back to the metropolis, to the inflated rents, the polluted skies and the unceasing nothingness of the 5G waves banging on our windows while we made love or read or cleaned the toilet. Days before leaving Lima we read something about Covid-19 in the news, but it still seemed far away.
Both back in Madrid, near July, lockdown was still rigid, but we managed to escape the summer heat by going to the river when we could. I was really worried about money and how fast everything seemed to be changing. During the first wave, I had lost so much weight, first working in a supermarket and then nursing an elderly man day and night, bathing him, changing his diapers, holding his hand while nightmares haunted him at dawn, until my job became just to provide the morphine he needed, until his passing. My partner, on the other hand, picked the worst time possible to get his act together and had so much energy to pursue the career he never thought he deserved until then. He just needed to get out of the chaotic mess that Isabel Ayuso, the right wing president of the community of Madrid was causing. So, despite the fact that we had poor German skills and barely any network, we moved to a cute and not too expensive flat that we found against all odds in Berlin.
"We became cleaners, despite our long journeys as researchers in the cultural and artistic fields, and spent our days vacuuming and dusting books on matters of social justice from the shelves of bourgeoisie families."
I never meant to live here as I always missed the communitarian base of activism I was part of in Spain and Latin America, as well as the closeness, the affection. Of course, I was aware of the existence of many collectives, but there was always the language gap. More like an abyss. As non German speaking migrants, we had to settle with what we had always heard of as “unqualified jobs” that are only now starting to be known as “essential jobs”, and thanks to feminism and union struggles — claiming that without cleaners and domestic cooks life simply does not move — as “care work.” We became cleaners, despite our long journeys as researchers in the cultural and artistic fields, and spent our days vacuuming and dusting books on matters of social justice from the shelves of bourgeoisie families. Against all I’ve learned through feminist discourse, my cis male partner was experiencing a harder migration shock because, we learned the hard way, he looked “too Arab” to be Spanish from the German point of view. One day, as we were getting ready to spend four hours straight ruining our backs cleaning with organic products, one of our clients handed a Black Lives Matter sticker to him. We exchanged blunt stares and I blurted something pathetic like “Yeah, migrant lives matter too.” The client replied: “Of course, all lives matter.” Not the view I share, but I wasn't there to debate but to mop and polish so I didn’t discuss it further.
At first, we calculated working something like 30 hours a week to be able to continue with our personal projects, pay our bills, and in my case, keep sending money to my pensionless parents in Perú. Soon, it became obvious that this was a long shot for our bodies. Cleaning is about performing repetitive movements that cause a great deal of pain and tension after a while, even when stretching and working out before every shift. Six hours in an office doesn't equal six hours cleaning in any possible way, either in terms of financial retribution or physical effort. So, we had to settle with a lot less money than we had budgeted to live, hoping that we could get a subsidy from the state till we master the language.
It was not my first time working in cleaning. I'd done it in Spain when I first arrived, really young, knowing no one, learning that my higher education meant nothing without a network. But even so, having this free pass to enter the intimacy of people because of being willing to confront their undesired traces of presence in this world remains strange and fascinating. There were a few times when me and my partner cleaned together. At the end of those shifts we would just sit on the couch absorbing the light and the vibrations of the place, considering the objects, feeling the otherness that filled the space. I mean, we really felt like ghosts, going in and out of people's lives. More than once we thought of Iron 3, a movie about a couple of nomad squatters, and joked about how much Kim Ki Duk would love the screenplay of our lives. But as time passed every day seemed more and more equal to the latter and our projects started to dry out, replaced by hours of exhausted sleep and numb stares through the window.
We were entering deep winter and strict lockdown measures when our bathroom pipes broke and the Hausmeister made us know that we could not use the shower or bath until the plumbers came to examine the situation. Three weeks passed, in which we heard nothing from our landlord. Knowing barely one or two people in our area and with all gyms closed, showering after a long day, two days, three, four or five days of hard physical work escalated quickly from difficult to plain nightmarish. Finally, a few days after Christmas, the guys showed up and with no mercy for our souls and bodies informed us that they would proceed immediately to dismantle the bathroom and kitchen. By then, a friend had lent us the keys of his flat while he visited his girlfriend abroad. He said that we could use his shower and also asked us to clean his flat for better money than the company we worked for had offered us. While the toiler was ripped off the floor in our rented apartment we ended up spending more and more time in the flat we were supposed to just clean, until one day I went to buy vegetables and fruit and decided to go straight to our friend's house instead of ours. I wrote a message to my partner asking him to bring our most beloved possession, a projector. That meant we'd just decided to move there.
Our landlord, once fully informed of what was taking place in her property, seemed annoyed by the fact that we expected her to get involved in any stage of the situation. She offered, from her Lisbon getaway, to reduce 50 euros from the rent. By then, one month and a half had passed without a proper bathroom in the apartment. One of the things that we asked for was support to open the door to the workers as we needed to go to work. As a matter of response, she ironically pretended to be confused by the fact our company didn't allow us to work remotely.
"Isn't this the pinnacle of cognitive capitalism? When you find yourself so immersed in it that it becomes impossible to grasp the idea that bodies – fingers, legs, and lungs – are still necessary because they seem too inconvenient, too slow, too much to handle and maintain."
Our friend’s bed in the apartment faced twin windows against which we would direct the light beam of the projector. There we were, under his sheets, pressing our cheeks against his pillows, watching that scene in Stromboli where the men of the island fish the tuna communally and drag the huge animals to their boats with bare hands. The woman that Bergman plays watches the scene also, but horrified, as if all this rawness of incarnated existence is unbearable to her cultured, western, rational soul. She reminded us of our landlord, skeptical of the fact that there are still things that only human hands can take care of. I mean, isn't this the pinnacle of cognitive capitalism? When you find yourself so immersed in it that it becomes impossible to grasp the idea that bodies–fingers, legs, and lungs–are still necessary because they seem too inconvenient, too slow, too much to handle and maintain.
Bergman’s character, though, had an alibi for her distrust and almost repulsion to embodied humanity. Let’s say, it seems understandable that a woman who just escaped Nazi extermination feels overwhelmed when being confronted with the physical display of flesh and muscle performing the daily struggle for survival. After all, what lies on the bottom of such a workforce is the immense and indisputable vulnerability of the human body thrown into existence. The sea, the enormity of the creatures ripped off the waves and above and under the ubiquitous presence of an active volcano, are all ruthless reminders of human frailty, of mortality.
But what are we, humans of the Anthropocene, of late capitalism, escaping? What do body and nature mean to us, and what do they mean to the working class, the middle class, the upper class?
All these polite, nice people whose houses I'm almost as familiar with as mine, who pay me to bend, kneel, stretch and push for them, stay motionless next to their phones or computers day after day. Do they feel their own bodies like I feel mine? Sometimes, after performing close to 40 tasks, they point at a fugitive crumb on the floor and I crouch one more time. It does feel violent, more and more, as if the classic class struggle model is being overlapped by another one that separates individuals according to chances to escape their bodies into the digitalization of life or remain trapped in them. These individuals carry on their backs not only the dead weight of bodies that are being torn apart by care labor, but are also excluded from the wonders of all kinds of medical discoveries and vaccines, held at the borders after walking and swimming across those same forests and oceans we want to save, not knowing how they feel with their sore bare feet and their cold naked skin.
And this is why I wasn't surprised at all when I discovered that the fancy, cool vegan drink that most of my clients consumed instead of milk had been sold to the “vulture fund” Blackstone, the same Blackstone that has invested in agro-industrial land in the Brasilian Amazonia to grow soy that is sold to chicken and pig mega-farms in China, and also the same Blackstone mega-landlord, that owns thousands of houses in London, Stockholm, in a number of cities in the United States and in Madrid, the city where I've spent months and months bouncing from temporary flat to temporary flat. This is how home and office intersect, leaving embodied existence behind.
All that being said, many of us don't aspire to earn our subsistence through the reduction of ourselves to eyes and fingers, but I do wonder why we let an hour of care labor be worth less than an hour of all other paid jobs. On top of that, what are we going to do when some robot is able to do it without getting tired or demanding labor rights? There are some ideas sparkling here and there that sometimes seem to point to the way out of this intricate labyrinth. The one that presents the most studied set of arguments in its defence is the universal basic income.
A huge part of working class feminist fights, back in Spain, has been to claim that domestic and care labor are not separate matters and to recognise maintenance as work of care. It is all part of a very conscious struggle to put life back in the center, or, as we say in Spanish: “Poner la vida en el centro.” Care and essential workers stand in the way of cognitive capitalism and for that reason only we have a fundamental role in insurrections and political imagination to come. That's a fact. But let's never forget that those who are the most desperate to feel safe and invulnerable are also more willing to give up on their humanity, rather than their cash.