The Renaissance of Workerism (Operaism)
Part Two of a Trilogy
In the last Wildcat, No. 64/65 (March 1995) we published part one of an article on workerism that we expected to have a follow-up. It examined in detail (and it is still worth reading!) the origin of the concept of "worker inquiries" and the first experiences with them at the beginning of the 60s in Italy. In the mid 1990s, books had been published on workerism in West Germany and in Italy in the 60s and 70s. At the same time, the discussion turned on Karl Heinz Roth's book, Die Wiederkehr der Proletarität (The Return of the Proletarian Condition). We wanted to use his theses on the convergence of worldwide class relations and the arisal of a world working class as the starting point for a militant investigation. But Roth's idea of the "proletarian circle," composed of academics, left unionists and base initiatives, failed. After that, there was no need for workerism for a long time on the left.
This changed when Michael Hardt and Toni Negri's book Empire appeared. Since then, "workerism" has again been in the debate. Paradoxically, this revival involves people who don't refer to "class" or revolution any more--thus both of the threads that always made workerism interesting for us are missing: the concept of class composition and the efforts toward worker investigation.
What's Fascinating About Empire?
The new interest in "revolutionary theory" comes from two directions: the abrupt end of the "new economy" and the sharp development of the crisis have brought the postmodernist theorists back to the ground of (capitalist) reality. The new movement understands capitalism as something material again, as the exploitation of people, and wants to learn more about it. It wants to change the world. Empire serves them both: it orients itself toward the "militants" and it fascinates the postmodern theorists; it analyzes and it creates hope.
The book makes connections that many had long forgot. It shows that globalization, the new ruling system, new production methods and the new wars belong together, and that there is a counterdevelopment for every development. Although the control over life and death, exploitation, poverty etc., must be addressed, Empire radiates optimism. It is a great story, the virtual figures of the mass worker, the social worker, the poor, the migrant, the immaterial worker--struggling step by step against the beast, which is always trying to take over these struggles, and is always recreating itself. But at the end it will be hollowed out, and collapse in on itself.
With its poststructuralist vocabulary, Empire spins the workerist thread further, as Negri has been doing since the 70s. Apparently, the book makes materialist connections between mode of production and mode of revolt, in that it construes a new subject out of the global movement, out of the worldwide stream of migrant workers and the organization of work in the advanced capitalist areas: the "multitude" or the "mass," to which each and all can feel they belong. But the periodization of capitalist development and class struggle is no real analysis. If Negri pretends that the period in which "the mass worker" was the "driving force" of struggles that brought capital to crisis, then that is only his attempt at legitimation, in order to cover his new theory's rear flank. Neither originally nor correctly, he claims a new mode of production: post-Fordism. To this a new (post-Fordist) subject is subordinated: the "immaterial worker" or "affective worker," who is now supposed to compose the most advanced sector. Factory work is seen to grow worldwide, but to no longer play the determining role for capitalism and thus for struggles against it in the first place. Already Negri's concept of the "mass worker" is a pure parody, as though it had ever been a homogeneous subject. He also places it far back in history--as though struggles in the factory had no meaning anymore. Thus the book fits in well with the ideology of neoliberalism, which in the last several years has quite successfully crowded out collective behavior. Hardt and Negri wrote their book at the height of the "new economy," which they, together with other ex-workerists (Marazzi!) took for a new stage of capitalism, in which the law of value was no longer valid and value could be created out of nothing. If capital is no longer based on labor, the end of labor can't be far off.
In Empire, Negri also steadfastly continues searching for (the way to) communism in the activity of today's humanity itself--we think that's correct. He refuses to project revolution and the communist society into a far-off future or in some outside. Liberation can only be achieved inside the world, and post-Fordism has no outside any longer. But in order to strengthen this idea of immanence, he gives up antagonism. He sees in collective labor of the "immaterial worker" the self-production of a subject. In the search for a theoretical point of reference he ends up affirming early-bourgeois Dutch society as the foundation of democracy (Spinoza). With that, the concept of the "multitude" stands diametrically opposed to the "workerist" concept of "class composition." With Empire, workerism, which once hurled its radical critique of capitalist machinery against the advocates of "development of the forces of production," has arrived at the end of its history: in place of analysis, it puts the belief in, among other things, a technical development that will lead to communism--or has it already?
Some see workerism's turning point as early as 1971, when Negri's current put itself on the side of armed struggle. Others see it in the theses on a new subject--the "socialised worker"--which Negri put forth in the mid-70s when a youth movement erupted in Italy, which broke with the old worker's movement: students were becoming "social workers" and thus "the subjects" of the new epoch. These political theses allowed the (student) movement to present itself as the new class composition, and to ignore the composition of the class movement. It was an inversion of the concept of "class composition."
The Search for the Subject
Revolutionary Marxism after WWII has attempted to answer three questions: the question of the subject, the question of the class (which is also the question of who can revolutionarily change the world, and where a collective subject constitutes itself that can set this process in motion), and the question of their own role in the revolutionary process. We find workerism's answers most interesting, then and now.
On the question of the subject, there are essentially three answers: the apology for the nineteenth-century bourgeois subject of civil society (Frankfurt School), the denial of the subject (structuralism, mainstream modern Marxism), and the concept of class composition.
The concept of class composition criticizes false materialism, which derives class struggle from the existing equal economic position of workers in capitalism. Simultaneously it is a critique of a philosophical class concept, which presents the class as a pure antagonist, as a subject that rebels and takes sides for itself, regardless of existing conditions of production. Class composition builds a bridge between subjectivity and material conditions. Marx did the prep work in his "Theses on Feuerbach," in which he recognized human activity as something material. Therefore, the subject cannot be sought one-sidedly in the material independent of humanity, nor in an ideal independent of the material, but rather only in the co-incidence of the changes in humanity itself, its activity and thinking, with the changes of circumstances ("immanence"!).
The answer of the workerists was more fruitful than the two others, because they were developed directly out of running struggles: the class struggle didn't work from outside "on capital," but it constituted the capital relation. The class struggle expressed itself not only in a historical chain of conflicts, struggles and uprisings, but also in the accumulation of capital, in its "organic composition," as Marx called it.
To the question what role we can take in this process, Marxism-Leninism gave an explicit answer: the organization into cadre parties, apart from the working class, but with the claim to be bringing it the correct "class consciousness." This basic idea survives to this day, always popping up.
Contrary to that stands the position of the council communists, who deny any thought of a "special role" for left activists in class struggles, any "intervention from outside." They see their own role in merely putting information at the disposal of the workers ("mailmen").
The class-composition critique of the bourgeois subject can be formulated like this: the only material foundation on which one can speak of a subject is class composition. That is, it has to do with a collective subject that constitutes itself under the conditions of a determinate mode of production in struggle against the capital relation. Any material analysis of the subject must therefore go through the analysis of class composition. Whoever wants to revolutionarily change society must put themselves in relation to class composition.
Workerism: From Method to Theory to Philosophy
The concept of class composition was developed in Turin in the first worker investigations. The goal was to ascertain, with the workers themselves, the conditions in the factory, the behavior and the political subjectivity of the workers at a particular historical moment. At the beginning, there were no categories for it outside those of sociology, which had to be criticized or turned inside out. In time, a very precise new terminology was developed, which didn't remain a tool of mere stock-taking, but which could be dialectically turned in the moment of struggle. Class composition was the central concept which played an important role not only in the analysis but later also in agitation. It took on wholly different meanings according to which adjective is used with it, or who uses it. Three levels of meaning can be distinguished:
Immediately it signified the social class structure or even the "technical composition" of the class. That's no sociology: rather, hidden in that is the thesis that to a certain "technical" or "organic composition" of capital accords a determinate "technical composition of the class," concerning, e.g., qualification, background, age structure, etc. That refers on the one hand to machinery and the organization of labor in the shop--whether it requires a particular qualification (skilled metalworker) or can be done by a peasant, according to which stratum of workers should be recruited. Quaderni Rossi--the journal around which the Turin research project grouped--however, didn't just go from one particular factory and its work process, but always made the connection to the valorization process and to the "capitalist plan." The cooperation of workers in the actual work was investigated, but attention was also focused on the reproduction of this class composition, the family, home, leisure time, and how the workers saw themselves--in the then-current speech, "with respect to the unity of factory, society and state." While the "technical composition of the class" wants to capture exactly that part of the class on which capital wants to base its accumulation process, the "political composition of the class" defines the materially determinate character of its antagonism: its behaviors, its culture of struggle. This is only possible starting from the struggles.
The second meaning of the concept "class composition" or even "new composition" is the anticipation of developments and struggles, organization and "political leadership." From the unexpectedly strong participation of the unskilled "mass workers" in the strike movement at the beginning of the 60s in Turin, and their more radical form of struggle, one unlocked an "autonomous will" of the movement toward "new composition, as a need of the political will toward unification." The expression "class composition of the mass worker" contained the political thesis that the mass-worker struggle in that period assumed political hegemony for the whole class.
The third level on which the concept was used was the political unification of the class, overcoming the atomization of the worker and inner divisions: the "new composition." This task was then assigned to "the party." Whoever threw "class composition" into the discussion in the 70s meant an avant-garde concept. Because workerism or "worker science" indeed meant one was "starting out from the side of the workers," but one didn't mean "self-organization" of the workers. The intellectual or the party is the bearer of worker science, even if they were only given the task of tactics, while seeing the "strategy" in the class.
Negri's "class composition of the socialised worker" was the political anticipation of an expected development of the class struggle through armed actions. With that, workerism had left its material point of reference. The concept of class composition was used like a master key, with which each situation could be explained and turned around, just like dialectical materialism had earlier practiced it.
These arguments are not about pure "theory," but rather a practical political relationship to the working class, in order to be able to intervene in the class struggle. The character of such intervention was the object of fierce debates even in the first years. The oscillation between a concept of worker autonomy that set forth the self-activity of the class independent of parties and unions, and the recourse to an avant-gardist concept of organization (were it entrism, as with the CP, or new cadre parties) characterised the current from the beginning.
In spite of that, the group around the journal Quaderni Rossi, by means of a very precise analysis of the labor organization in the factory, the behavior of the workers, and capitalist valorization, was in the position at the beginning of the 60s to carry out a very critical up-to-date analysis. And they attempted to contribute their direct observations on the character of the workers' struggle to a political reading of Marxist writings, in order to overturn Marxist orthodoxy. Out of this reading arose important analyses on the capitalist character of machinery, and on the modern factory as the despotism of capital.
In many discussions, these early workerists were far ahead of their time, and they attempted to anticipate developments like the change of the factory town into the "factory society," or the incorporation of the whole territory into the capitalist valorization cycle. They analyzed the so-called tertiarization of production as extended proletarianization. Out of these analyses different conclusions were drawn. While Tronti held only the factory to be the battlefield for the working class, which subordinated all other struggles in society, Panzieri had a much more traditional understanding of the connection between the working class and the other social struggles. While the earlier libertarian component of the group saw themselves only as "mailmen for the workers" and supporters of their struggles, another component sought to establish the structure of a new party or to renew the CPI.
That the revolts in the Italian factories were so strong had to do with the special situation in Italy in the mid-60s: a capital in crisis, based on automobiles and light industry, that wanted to manage its new accumulation cycle on the basis of intensified exploitation of the workers alone, without any new investment in machinery; the collision of proletarians out of the peasant south with factory discipline, racist superiors, despotic managers and unions who did not take them seriously. For all these reasons the workers' struggle in Italy took the form of a rebellion against factory work, which overran the old union-mediated forms. Whoever can't find any positive content in work and only experiences it as drudgery struggles directly against work. This historical "struggle against work" is depoliticized, when we understand it as a natural-given aversion to work.
The party Potere Operaio saw in the 1969 struggle for higher wages the co-incidence of an economic and a political struggle: if the workers are always pushing for higher wages, they would drive surplus-value production into crisis. There was no compensation in terms of work for the "political wage"; it was simply a question of power. The historic experience that in 1969-73 the workers kept on struggling even though capital was in crisis, was thematized as the decoupling of wages from the reproduction of capital. But you cannot deduct generally valid theses from historical experiences of struggle. This only leads to dogmatism and a "philosophy of the working class."
The Struggle of Two Powers
The workerist crisis theory was originally based on the investigation into historical crisis cycles in which one could make out the connection between workers' struggles and the crisis of capitalism. They had analyzed the crisis since the mid-60s correctly as brought about by workers' struggles, but they made a historical commonplace of it. Because it attempted to explain everything from this schema, workerism rigidified in the 70s into a bad dialectic: attack of the workers, counterattack of capital, restructuring, class recomposition. This manner of viewing the class struggle as a ping-pong game has been dragged out through the workerism at the beginning of the 60s, over to American workerism à la Zerowork, and up to the --Empire«, which is being fought by a "counterempire."
Until 1973 it was easy to interpret the world according to this schema. With the drastic retreat of open workers' struggles in the years afterward, it became harder. Many Wildcat editorials from the 80s are evidence of such efforts to conclude an underground class struggle from the reaction of capital. In order to keep on assigning the offensive to "the class" and to interpret capital's attacks as reactions, the "underground struggle" and --antagonistic behavior« were stressed, such as: refusal of labor, absenteeism, fleeing the factory, the flight into self-employment and illicit work.
All these attitudes made life hard for the capitalists, and made exploitation more expensive. But if we see everything on one level, we cannot grasp the character of the --struggles«. The daily dirty war, the union wage bargaining, persistent refusal to work for less than a certain wage, are something other than the step out of the everyday, the collective break with the dominant rules.
The view of class struggle as the struggle of two independent powers who confront one another like total strangers leads to two false conclusions, which only at first glance contradict one another diametrically. On the one hand, the revolutionary subject is sought fully outside of capitalist valorization, romantically illuminated in its revolutionary immediacy over against the machine-formed logic of capital. On the other hand, it allows the derivation of phrases like "stalemate in the class struggle" or "class deals," an auxiliary formulation mainly of American workerists, in order to explain to themselves the stagnant phases in the class struggle; the class closed some sort of trade with capital, in which more income would be exchanged against good conduct.
But capital and labor do not exist independently from one another, in different spheres. Capital is daily produced by the working class; it does not exist without it. The production of capital is also the reproduction of the working class. The working class is a part of capital.
Worker Inquiry as an Alternative to the Concept of Class Consciousness
Workerism has been history for more than 20 years, it cannot be continued without disruptions. The discussions in the meantime have left behind the (council communist) mailman concept as well as the (Leninist) avant-garde concept. But for an up-to-date militant research, the concept of "class composition" is still the most suitable. The class won't let itself be fixed by definitions from the desktop. And the revolutionary subject can't be found in moralistic projections.
The composition of the working class in Europe has changed a lot since 1960. Through the movements of migration, an immensely accelerated recomposition is occurring, characterised by many internal struggles--which is no different from forty years ago, when West Germany became a "Mediterranean country." Simultaneously, the workers know more about the world than one could imagine forty years ago. They have a completely different education, are multilingual and able to communicate, know other countries. For many things they don't need a union, nor a party leader, nor any (more) intellectuals, but are in a position to organize themselves.
So one can no longer perpetually and unhistorically update workerist theses (like refusal of work by the mass worker).
Today there is again a whole series of investigations, but most lack a productive interconnection of theoretical penetration, empirical collection, and political praxis, which was typical of the early Quaderni Rossi. On the one hand you have investigations which above all want to buttress already existing theses, where it is already clear what the result will be. Often such "self-inquiries" are searches for identity, the confrontation with one's own work situation, in order to be able to call oneself an example of the "cognitariat." On the other hand there are groups who make partially good investigations, but who stick an inflated theory to it, so that neither relates to the other.
How can we maybe make things better?
More on that in the next issue.
Some links to english texts:
Steve Wright: Storming Heaven. Class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, Pluto Press 2002(Chapter 7 can be found at the Web in an earlier version: Negri's Class Analysis: Italian Autonomist Theory in the Seventies)
Raniero Panzieri: The Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx Versus the Objectivists' (Quaderni Rossi, Nr. 1, 1961)
Raniero Panzieri: Surplus value and planning: notes on the reading of 'Capital' (1964)