Workerism Beyond Fordism: On the Lineage of Italian Workerism

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The system of thought that has come to be called “Italian workerism” is not an organic system. Nor is it contained in any fundamental text, any sort of Bible. It is instead composed of different theoretical contributions from some militant intellectuals who founded the journals Quaderni Rossi and Classe Operaia.1 Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Toni Negri and Romano Alquati are the ones who laid the foundations of the system, and others, such as Gaspare De Caro, Guido Bianchini, Ferruccio Gambino, Alberto Magnaghi, made essential contributions on specific themes, such as historiography, agriculture, migration, and territory, which completed the horizon of workerist thought, giving it the impression of an internally coherent “system.”

Workerism and Fordism

Workerist groups developed in an historical period in which there seemed to be no alternative to mass production in capitalist societies, where big companies were able to obtain large economies of scale. The large factory, in which thousands of workers always carried out the more simplified operations, while the machines took care of the more complex ones, seemed to be the culmination of a historical process that originated in the rise of industrialism. Mass production was the best way to produce cheap goods that could be bought by everybody, above all by the very workers who produced them, even when these goods were as complex as a car. Thus, the conditions for realizing the irreplaceable counterpart to mass production – that is to say, mass consumption – were created. This was such a perfect and well-functioning system that even communist countries ended up adopting it. Actually, the communist revolution had triumphed in countries where this system was still very imperfect, underdeveloped, or even non-existent. It therefore fell on the governments emerging from the revolution to perfect the development of mass production by organizing it in big Kombinats, industrial complexes with thousands of workers, and also by extending it to agriculture. In the West this system was called, for convenience, “Fordism,” because it found its most complete practical and theoretical application in the organization of the automobile factories of Henry Ford. The idea at the base of workerism, obviously borrowed from Marxian theory, was that the large factory with its thousands of workers could become a large fertile terrain for a revolutionary project, and shift from the site of mass production to a space liberated from capitalist oppression. Capitalism had to be caught right where it lived, the walls of its home becoming the bars of its prison. The Fordist assembly-line had to become the training field where the worker could develop a revolutionary subjectivity, and become the mass worker. As you can see, the primordial idea of workerism was the mold, as inverted footprint, of Fordism. Without a social organization like that of the Fordist factory, workerism would have had difficulty elaborating its revolutionary project; the mass worker formed as a class in a productive system with particular technological characteristics, and was one with this system, which provided his means of subsistence. The mass worker was first and foremost a wage earner. The structure of his paycheck was composed of a fixed part, the base wage, and a variable part, linked to productivity. There were also items that corresponded to contractual gains like pace with inflation, family allowances, overtime, production bonuses, compensation for night work and hazardous work, etc. The organization of Fordist production was not only the dominant system within the factory, but also projected its rigid structure onto society, onto urban and suburban mobility, housing settlements, shopping hours. Thousands of workers left the factories early in the morning after working the night shift, while many others were already outside waiting at the gates to enter for the first morning shift. This was the best moment to distribute and spread the flyers of Classe Operaia and Potere Operaio. These flyers were almost always written according to directions given by the workers of those same factories, after a long labor of “co-research,” a dialogue and exchange of opinions and information between militant workerists and factory workers. Workerism therefore was in all respects the inverted image of Fordism, it was one with Fordism, lived in symbiosis with it. Workerism without a Fordist society, without mass production, without the mass worker, did not seem imaginable.

With the death of Fordism, workerism also had to die. Post-Fordist society, the society of information, where the tertiary sector and finance, precarity and independent labor prevail, had to be incomprehensible to those who formed their theories under Fordism. Workerism seemed destined to die out slowly as the figure of the mass worker became ever more marginal in Western societies. However, this has not happened: the militants, activists, and intellectuals who shared the workerist experience were better able than others to capture the characteristics of the new capitalist formation, which for convenience we call “post-Fordist.” As a matter of fact, of all the organizations and extra-parliamentary groups operating in Italy, the heirs of workerism are the only ones who have tried, sometimes with success, to elaborate a new theory of liberation viable for post-Fordist society, the only ones who have succeeded in following the evolution of capitalism from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs, producing compelling analyses and political practice with wage labor and non-waged labor. How was this possible?

The Role of Intellectuals

First of all, we must remember that workerism has never been a simple restatement of anarcho-syndicalism or Linkskommunismus. The workerists never believed that the capitalist system, besieged by increasingly extended industrial conflicts, with an increasingly aggressive working class, prepared to block production and any activity belonging to employment, would collapse as a result of a prolonged and irreversible general strike. This utopia did not belong to the workerist tradition, even if the techniques of industrial conflict that workerism sought to promote were those of anarcho-syndicalism. Workerism has never been indulgent to simplifications, to easy slogans – at the cost of appearing to be an exercise in intellectualism, at the cost of being accused of an excess of abstract thought. First of all, workerism never claimed to be able to “teach” workers the life of revolt or revolution. On the contrary, the workerist practice of “coresearch” meant simply that militants must “learn” from the workers and listen to them, but always maintaining the role of intellectuals, who were able to transmit the tools of thought and analysis which could be useful to the worker who intended to undertake a collective journey of liberation. Workerism always refused the populist attitude, very common among the militants of extraparliamentary groups of 1970s Italy, of disguising oneself as a worker, of wearing overalls to appear like the workers, hiding with shame one’s bourgeois origins. On the contrary, those who had the fortune of being able to study, go to university, have at their disposal the tools to enrich their own knowledge, and develop critical thought; those who had the fortune to study abroad, learn languages, and more closely understand capitalist thought; those who had the fortune of studying the history of the workers’ movement, Marxist thought, had the duty of improving these tools of knowledge to the maximum extent, of reaching the highest levels of scientific production, and of putting their knowledge at the disposal of all, and in particular the workers. Intellectuals must see themselves as cells of a service infrastructure.

Because of this attitude, workerists were often treated with contempt. They were disparagingly called “the professors” – but in reality, even when the principal exponents held academic roles (from Negri to Tronti, from Alquati to Gambino, from Bianchini to Magnaghi), they did so as a political mission; they always conducted research as a form of “coresearch,” always used the same language in their scientific publications as in their works of political propaganda. The guiding principle of their intellectual life was always to be true to themselves, rather than splitting themselves into professors by day and militants by night, or on weekends. And in fact they were the only ones to be imprisoned or expelled from the university. Repression brought them down selectively.

The Working Class as a Complex Organism

From what has been said, it is evident that workerists dislike schematism and simplifications. On the contrary, aware of the extreme complexity of capitalist reality, they developed an in-depth analysis, taking into careful consideration both its more manifest as well as its less obvious aspects. We could say that they had a great appreciation for the enemy, knowing it to be a refined power, brutal and seductive at the same time. To underestimate the enemy would be a stupid move, leading to certain defeat. The first aspect of the capitalist system they considered was technology. The decisive impulse was given by Raniero Panzieri with his innovative reading of Marx’s “Fragment on Machines,” published in the first issue of Quaderni Rossi.2 Technology is labor embodied. It plays an ambivalent role, because it “liberates” the workers from work, but at the same time “submits” them to more rigid forms of control. Technology has the power to shape a certain type of labor-power, to determine some of its characteristics, and can also have a specific influence on its way of thinking, its culture, and therefore its political action. Workerism says that technology has the power to determine the “technical composition of the working class.”

Let’s give an example. In the auto factories of the 1970s, there were departments in which the worker had an individual relationship with the machine he operated, knew all its secrets, was able to “prepare” it, to equip it, and was very proud of this knowledge, which was also the source of his small power. These were specialized workers with a strong consciousness of their own roles, and were considered the so-called “labor aristocracy.” These workers were in general the most combative; most of them were communist, and considered being communist a natural consequence of their being the most specialized, the most qualified, not only with regards to the machine assigned to them – a press, a turn, a cutter, a welder – but with regards to the entire productive cycle. They knew the factory like the back of their hands, and were therefore able to organize improvised strikes and blockade production, closing the focal points of the cycle. They passed on their knowledge to the younger workers but, at the same time, had a strong sense of hierarchy. They felt that a strongly differentiated wage system was justified – the younger workers had to climb the ladder of specialization step by step.

In other departments of the factory, on the other hand, there were assembly lines, that is, a type of technology which does not permit an individual approach, where workers, male and female, could be employed without any qualification. In Milan at the beginning of the 1960s in the electromechanic factories, where work on the line was often not as heavy as in auto, in the assembly departments women were employed as generic workers, obviously paid much less than the machine operators. This working class was the one that workerism defined as the “mass worker,” with a mentality very different from the specialized workers of the labor aristocracy, and therefore with opposite demands: equal wage increases for all, abolition of individual piecework. Demands which had to sound like blasphemy to the ears of the old communist workers who were toolmakers on individual machines.

What happens when, in the 1980s, the factory disintegrates and information technology gradually spreads, eventually taking over? What happens when the factory worker, more or less specialized, more or less “mass,” is partly replaced by robots, partly laid off because production has relocated to emerging countries? What happens when workers lose their social force, the communist tradition is thrown into the sea by the left parties, and the working class is no longer a political subject?

What happens is that that world of labor adapts itself to the new technologies, is molded by the new technologies. Those who come from the workerist experience find themselves equipped with the intellectual tools necessary to understand what is happening. Just as before, when they observed the relation between the specialized worker and the individual machine, or between the mass worker and the assembly line, they now observed the relation between the personal computer3 and the subject using it. This meant comparing two totally different modes of working, the Fordist mode, framed in a rigid organization involving thousands of people amassed in specific spaces, and the mode of solitary work, without a specific working space, where the subject is able to determine its own rhythms and has permanent access to a universe of potentially infinite information.

At first glance the worker on a personal computer is puzzling. Is this person liberated? Does this person have a greater degree of liberty than the worker enslaved to the assembly line? Apparently, yes. Is this a person with power? Power of negotiation against the employer? As much power as the workers who could collectively shut down production and deal with management? Apparently, no; indeed certainly no. Social power is obtained only by coalition; the individual by itself is always subaltern. As Michel Serres says, “connectivity has been substituted for collectivity.” The worker does not live together with other workers like him, face to face; workers are connected with other workers, knowing not their voices but only their email addresses. Does the mass of information that can be obtained via the internet give them greater power, a greater capacity of negotiation, with respect to the worker who, enslaved to the machine, had no possibility of accessing the world of information?

No, it does not confer greater power – the only advantage in comparison with the employee, factory worker, or clerical worker, is that of being able to use this information to live as an independent laborer, as “unwaged.” Just a few observations on the nature of post-Fordism were enough for the old workerist to understand that capitalism had made an enormous leap forward in the capacity to control labor-power; the new subject, which still has no name, lacked, above all, the possibility to organize collectively, to negotiate with the employer, indeed to even know who the employer was – himself or some other person? To imagine a path of liberation it was necessary to start over again, while maintaining, however, the point of departure, the one that everyone thought was outdated: the problem of work. Is it still possible to imagine a path of liberation starting from work? Is it still possible to see in the person in front of the personal computer a worker, or must this word “worker” – lavoratore, Arbeiter, travailleur, trabajador – be removed from our vocabulary, because it belongs to an already faded epoch, the Fordist epoch?

The Idea of Work in Post-Fordism

The power of the workerist theoretical elaboration consists, as we have said, in confronting the complexity of the problems, in getting to the bottom of things, averting simplifications and shortcuts. The most illuminating example can be seen by observing how workerists dealt with the concept of “working class.” For most political militants in the 1960s and 1970s the term “working class” was a kind of mantra, an all-encompassing magic word. Just referring to the “working class” was enough to be considered a member of the “Left,” of the workers’ movement, to be considered a communist. For the workerists, on the other hand, the working class was an unexplored universe, extremely differentiated and complex, or, better, the point of arrival of a very long process, fraught with obstacles, in the course of which labor-power became aware of its own role and its own strength, and appeared on the scene of society as a protagonist, not as an appendage of the system of capitalist production. As I wrote in one of my essays on workerism:

The collective work that the workerist group undertook in direct contact with the world of factory-production aimed at penetrating the various levels that make up the system of productive relations: the sequential organization of the productive cycle and the hierarchical mechanisms spontaneously produced by it, the disciplinary techniques and techniques of integration elaborated in various ways, the development of new technologies and processing systems, the reactions to the labour-force’s spontaneous behaviour, the interpersonal dynamics on the shop-floor, the systems of communication employed by workers during their shift, the transmission of knowledge from older to younger workers, the gradual emergence of a culture of conflict, the internal division of the labour-force, the use of work-breaks, the systems of payment and their differential application, the presence of the union and of forms of political propaganda, risk-awareness and the methods used to safeguard one’s physical integrity and health, the relationship to political militants outside the factory, work pace- control and the piecework-system, the workplace itself and so on.4

The person in front of the personal computer, as a laborer, that is, as a person who yields a determinate intellectual product to third parties in exchange for remuneration in order to survive, must present the same, if not greater, complexity. Let’s begin with the simplest things. For example: what form does this remuneration take? The old form of the wage or the form of a professional fee? Is he paid by the hour or by the project? Is there a working time? The fundamental parameters for defining a laborer are the wage and the hours. His privacy, his personal existence, his everyday life, his consumption, his relationships, his standard of living are determined in whole or in part by these two parameters. It is a very materialist vision, crudely materialist, to which the ideology of modernity opposed the theory that what matters in the individual is not his material conditions but his personality, his character, whether he is an optimist or a pessimist, sociable or surly, seductive or disagreeable, inclined towards leadership or service, effusive or silent, confident or shy, whether he has “character” or not. But, on closer inspection, the crudest materialism is less misleading than extreme subjectivism, than sterile and illusory individualism, which are, on closer inspection, ideological dispositifs which have the purpose of dissolving the notion of “labor.” The modern conception of labor contained within the ideology of modernity is that it is no longer human activity exchanged for the means of subsistence, but an activity in which the individual externalizes his own personality, knows himself better, almost a mystical encounter. “Labor is a gift of God,” I heard one day from a leader of a Catholic union. Labor does not belong to the world of commodities but to that of human psychology. From this ideology emerges the idea of labor as a “gift” of the individual to the collectivity, and the justification of “free” labor, badly paid or unpaid.

White Collar and Knowledge Worker

What name should we give the person in front of the personal computer? We acknowledged the name imposed by the dominant ideology, “knowledge worker.” It seemed useful because it contained the word “worker” and therefore no one could deny that we were dealing with a person whose essence is defined by work. We began to wonder about this definition. Could it resemble the white collar worker of Fordism? The analytical tools we could apply came from the analysis of the technicians of production, which had appeared already in the first issues of Classe Operaia and then became a constant of workerist theory and practice. The more complex, the more sophisticated technology became, the greater the importance of labor-power devoted to technical knowledge. Capitalism incorporated within its productive processes an ever greater scientific content, mass industrial production was made possible by the existence of research laboratories in universities and specialized units in factories. These technicians could be represented as a new class, which could have had an analogous development to the working class. Already in the history of the workers’ movement, during the revolutionary movements of the councils at the end of the First World War, the “brain workers”5 played a positive role and were considered by early communists an essential component of the revolutionary class. It is not a coincidence that workerism, during the student revolt of 1968, was more widespread in the science departments than in the humanities. But the person in front of the personal computer could not be banally defined as “white collar” because labor in this case is not constituted only of subordinate labor, of waged labor, but rather of many self-employed laborers who provide their services, even if they only have one client, working at home or in “coworking” spaces or in Starbucks. The white collar worker shared the spaces of the factory with the manual laborers, had similar working hours, had everyday contact with the problems of production. We faced an anthropological mutation, not only a sociological one. If we had had to think only in sociological terms, we would have had to say that the clear division between classes that the Fordist system had determined was no longer recognizable in the information society and therefore our parameters would have to change. But our point of departure would have remained valid, namely the conviction that technology has an extremely strong effect on the life and mentality of the subject that uses this technology to stay in the world, to work, to earn a living, to communicate. Our interest, our analysis, had to concentrate on the figure of the knowledge worker and investigate the characteristics intrinsic to this multitude that was forming the new middle class, a social aggregate that by now no longer shared the values of the old bourgeoisie, that no longer had the capacity to exploit others because it still did not understand how to not exploit itself. The extraction of surplus value has now transferred ever more from the productive to the financial sphere – the enormous inequality of income that increasingly accumulates in capitalist society, the progressive impoverishment of the middle class, are better explained by analyzing the dynamics of finance than those of mass production. On this terrain, too, workerism could show its superiority, because, unique among the components of the protest movements of the 1970s, it confronted the problematic of monetary policy and large international financial flows, above all with the work done by the editorial staff of the journal Primo Maggio.

The Italian Case

In the end, perhaps the decisive reason for which workerism was easily able to understand the nature of post-Fordism was its Italian origin. Among all the advanced capitalist countries, it was Italy that brought forward the disintegration of the large factories in the most radical manner. Italy was the vanguard of the so-called “decentralization of production,” with the fragmentation of firms into so many small and minuscule handicraft enterprises. Within a decade, from 1980 to 1990, Italy became the country of “industrial districts,” areas specialized in specific production, above all in low value-added production (textiles and garments, leather and footwear, home furniture), characterized by the presence of small and medium-sized enterprises. The system of decentralization of production has two advantages over the Fordist factory: decreasing the costs of production and reducing the risks of industrial conflict. Some of these processes are outsourced, often to the same workers who have been transformed into artisan suppliers, and the number of employees drastically decreases, reducing the wage bill and the effect of trade union demands.

We are halfway between Fordism and post-Fordism, or, if you like, we are in the presence of a post-Fordism “from above.” The advantages of this system also allowed the formation of large multinational firms, like Benetton and Luxottica. The industrial districts spread particularly in the regions with strong social control, in Catholic Venice and communist Emilia-Romagna. The Italian Communist Party embraced the ideology of decentralized production as a “capitalism with a human face,” sustainable because conflict-free. The principal goal of a civil community seemed to be, after the decade of strong clashes and class conflicts, that of social peace. The intellectuals who came from the workerist experience immediately captured this transformation, which was also heightened and radicalized by the protest movements of 1977 – which represented with the thematics of subjectivity, the environment, the refusal of regulated, disciplined, regimented work – a kind of post-Fordism “from below,” a desire for liberation which was not afraid to turn against the working class itself. Since the first large restructurations of the auto enterprises (Innocenti di Milano, 1974-5) with the massive use of layoffs and unemployment insurance, workerists closely followed these transformations. The analysis of the decentralization of production was one of the central themes of journals like Primo Maggio and of university research groups, particularly in the architecture department of Milan, where Alberto Magnaghi taught.6 They were not the only ones – indeed many university departments, in Venice, in Emilia-Romagna, in Tuscany, in the South, were following with interest the transformations of the Fordist model.

The difference was that in the analysis of the groups which maintained the heritage of workerism, the decentralization of production was seen as an attack on the unity of the working class, as capitalism’s vengeance for the defeats of the “Hot Autumn,” while the other groups of researchers saw in decentralization only a new frontier of capitalism, with many positive implications. This was the period in which Toni Negri promoted the Autonomia movement and theorized the emergence of the “socialized worker.” Therefore, the perception of these changes, as an expression of an epochal change, were, if I may say, immediate. The movement of ’77 seemed for a moment to glimpse the possibility of liberation in post-Fordism, but it was only a momentary burst. The following year the armed struggle groups opened fire and reached the peak of their action with the kidnapping of Moro (March 1978). One year after, April 7, 1979, the wave of arrests of all of the militants of the dissolved Potere Operaio began. There was no longer any “liberated path to post-Fordism.” The change in the paradigm of capital bore only and uniquely the signs of class vengeance.

Workerism and the New Generation of the 1990s

For a decade the workerist mole gave up digging. In reality the “Golden Years” of workerism had already ended long before. For Tronti, Asor Rosa, Cacciari and others it had already ended before 1968, with their entry into the PCI. For Negri and other comrades it ended probably with the dissolution of Potere Operaio.7 There was never an open discussion of the historical periodization of workerism: there is no doubt regarding its date of birth, but there has never been agreement on its date of death; besides, a political theory, which is also a cognitive methodology, never dies as long as there is someone who considers useful its analytical instruments and its practical consequences.

So we can indeed speak of a “post-workerism,” meaning by this the resurfacing of an interest in its paradigms among a new generation of militants and researchers born at the end of the 1970s and who at the beginning of the 1990s were 20 years old. The journal Primo Maggio was without doubt a cultural initiative which explicitly drew from workerism. Its publications stopped in the autumn of 1988 with issue 29, but it was in its last years, under the editorial leadership of Cesare Bermani and Bruno Cartosio, that it started working with a group of young people, who would then have an important role in the critique of post-Fordism and in attempting to organize precarious, cognitive labor, within the social centers.8 Others threw themselves headlong into computer science and digital culture, contributing to the creation of an Italian area in the cyberpunk and hacker movements, having as a first point of reference the Libreria Calusca of Primo Moroni in Milan, which was also the central engine of distribution for Primo Maggio. Raffaele “Valvola” Scelsi and Ermanno “Gomma” Guarneri9 would be among the founders of the journal Decoder and then of the publishing house Shake, which played a fundamental role in the diffusion of the “civilization of computers” and digital culture. They, together with Rosie Ficocelli, Paola Mezza, and Marco Philopat (who later founded a proper publishing house), belong to that new generation profoundly influenced by workerism, who would undertake original and innovative political paths. Others had the founders of workerism as teachers and therefore put their teachings to good use, like Devi Sacchetto, student of Ferruccio Gambino, or Emiliana Armano, student of Romano Alquati, who today is among the most active researchers at an international level on the thematic of precarity.10

This new generation, born and raised in post-Fordism, used for its theoretical development and as a venue for its first productions of essays and reflections the journal Altreragioni, launched in 1991 in the climate of political tension caused by the Gulf War, from the initiative of some among the first participants in Classe Operaia, Quaderni Piacentini, and the Ernesto de Martino Institute. Michele Ranchetti, one of the most important Italian intellectuals of the postwar period, historian, essayist, editor, painter, poet, musician; Franco Fortini, poet, writer, literary critic, already close to Quaderni Rossi; Edoarda Masi, sinologist, librarian, essayist, participant in Quaderni Piacentini together with Sergio Bologna; Ferruccio Gambino, Pier Paolo Poggio, Lapo Berti, Guido De Masi, Cesare Bermani, Bruno Cartosio, Primo Moroni, Giovanna Procacci (all names which were also found among the participants of Primo Maggio), and others launched the journal Altreragioni which was immediately approached by a new generation that had been influenced by workerism. One of these is Andrea Fumagalli, who in the following years, together with his partner Cristina Morini, would represent a theoretical and political point of reference for the movements of the “precariat” and the “cognitariat.” After the first issues, the journal would be edited by Ferruccio Gambino and Giovanna Procacci, while Sergio Bologna, Primo Moroni, Lapo Berti, Christian Marazzi, Pier Paolo Poggio, Mavi Defilippi, Marco Cabassi and others started another initiative which had a certain importance in collecting the workerist heritage, the Libera Università di Milano e del suo Hinterland (LUMHI). Two of the central themes of its cultural activity: the struggle against historical revisionism and the definition of the social subjects of post-Fordism. From the activities of LUMHI arose in copublication Shake-Feltrinelli the collective work which represents a turn in the post-workerist analysis of class: Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione. Scenari del postfordismo in Italia (Second generation self-employment. Scenes from post-Fordism in Italy), edited by Sergio Bologna and Andrea Fumagalli.11 It was 1997, the old and new generations had found here a common terrain of dialogue and analytical production.

The theories and research of some ex-militants of workerist groups on the condition of the modern person in post-Fordism and in the debt economy found a wide response also on the international level, which is the case for example with Maurizio Lazzarato, who graduated from the University of Padua, where he had among his professors Toni Negri, Ferruccio Gambino, Luciano Ferrari-Bravo, and Sergio Bologna. The new generation also dealt with the history of workerism, and began to write it on the basis of the testimony of its principal protagonists.12 From abroad, not only from Italy, came other contributions which, reflecting on the history of workerism, also drew from it, as in Steve Wright’s Storming Heaven,13 a cultural and political balance sheet. Today the principal source for the original documents of workerism is the series Biblioteca dell’operaismo (Library of Workerism) by the publishing house DeriveApprodi in Rome, founded by one of the comrades of Potere Operaio, Sergio Bianchi.

One case study of the passage from an industrial Fordist society to a society of advanced tertiarization in a neighborhood of Milan was analyzed in Sabina Bologna’s documentary Oltre il ponte. Storie di lavoro (Over the Bridge: Stories of Labor).14

The Role of the Libreria Calusca in Milan

At this point it is necessary to bring into focus the very important role Primo Moroni and his bookstore, the Calusca, had in creating a bridge between the workerist culture and the new generations.15 The bookstore, during the 1970s and 1980s, played a role that is difficult to classify within the traditional parameters of cultural organizations. It was a place of encounter, of convergence, of dialogue between different political tendencies, but with a marked sympathy for the workerist current, for various anarchist strands, and Situationist and internationalist tendencies. As you can see, traditions and trends, very different from each other, or even conflicting, were welcomed and found refuge (in hard times) in this extraordinary place, because of the exceptional personality of its owner, Primo Moroni, a man of great culture and even greater sensitivity to cultural innovation, though without any university education. Former music hall dancer, former book salesman, son of Tuscan restaurateurs who migrated to Milan, he grew up in working-class neighborhoods where the small local criminal underworld had ways and codes of honor very different from those of the mafia, where people probably stole from the rich to give to the poor, the latest offshoots of those Milanese criminal gangs that at the beginning of the past century populated the Ticinese neighborhoods and lived in symbiosis with the “tenement houses,” with the industrial proletariat and the traditional artisans strongly influenced by socialism. Thieves, robbers, drug dealers, independent prostitutes, burglars, forgers lived next to the furrier, to the printer, the electromechanical worker, the cooper, the carpenter, and formed an amalgam very resistant to the mentality of the bourgeois society. They were the components of a unique proletarian culture which defended its prerogatives and recognized the practices of illegality and expropriation. Around this world arose myths and legends, and from it arose a Canzoniere that in the ’60s and ’70s came back into fashion, above all in the protest movements which exalted many forms of illegality.

Primo Moroni was capable of dialogue with both the last traces of this world and the intellectuals of Classe Operaia. He recognized in workerism the most innovative system of political thought, he was fascinated with it, just as he was attracted by Situationist thought. When in 1973 we presented him our project Primo Maggio, he immediately recognized the wealth of ideas and scientific rigor, and became publisher and distributor of the journal. When, after 1971-72, the first urban guerilla actions began and the Red Brigades and other armed groups made their appearance, Primo Moroni did not hesitate to carry in his bookstore and disseminate their publications and writings; when the prisons began to fill with comrades who militated in the extra-parliamentary groups, Moroni’s bookstore became a focal point for sending reading materials to the prisoners. It was thus that the journal Primo Maggio gained a wide diffusion in the prisons (around 500 copies per issues were sent to the prisons at the request of the prisoners). All this activity of course ended up leading investigators and the police to start considering Primo Maggio a journal affiliated with terrorist groups, and only thanks to the decisive stances of some members of the editorial committee, even towards Toni Negri, was it possible to dispel the identification of our journal with the groups of Autonomia or with the armed groups.

In the ’80s and ’90s the whole youth counterculture of the new generations that were part of the digital era had the Calusca as a point of reference. In the meantime, the bookstore had also become a relief agency for old militants who were serving many years in prison, above all to those without any support, without organizations of reference, who had lost everything, house, family, work. We often saw these people, often ex-workers or at any rate of proletarian origins, getting out in Milan, perhaps after 20 years in maximum-security prisons, and not knowing where to go for help, arriving at the Calusca to ask for a loan for a train ticket, to go to the graves of their parents, who had died in the meantime, in some hamlet in the South. In Primo Moroni they always found proletarian solidarity. His bookstore gathered together the survivors of the workerist culture, the youth of the social centers and the cyberpunk movement, the veterans of the armed struggle but also many people with genuinely democratic sentiments, university professors, professionals, teachers. The Calusca was a kind of “disenfranchised zone” where diverse people and milieus that never had any contact between them encountered and respected each other. Primo Moroni was a great storyteller; he didn’t write much, but gave many interviews and testimonies. Without Primo Moroni workerism would not have reached the young generations of the digital era.

Post-Workerism and the Unionization of the Self-Employed

The specific character of workerist thought is its strict adherence to reality, its constant relation to action, to militant practice. The writings of the workerist tradition are not intended merely for reading or for propaganda; their scientific rigor is not intended for academic assessment, their message is a purely political message, it must produce action, mobilization, conflict, confrontation. The analysis must not remain pure analysis, it has no meaning if it remains at the stage of analysis, however sophisticated. The analysis can even be partial, insufficient, but must produce mobilization, must awaken consciousness, must put in motion subjective dynamics that lead people to protect and defend their rights, their own dignity, at the workplace and within relations of work. The theories contained in the volume Il lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione were harshly criticized by academic sociologists, and with some reason – but, at the same time, these pages found resonance among those who were beginning to move on their own behalf in order to constitute union representation for the self-employed. And so it had to be. If the academic critique managed to contemptuously define our analyses of self-employed labor as “unusable,”16 we don’t care much – we take notice, but what ultimately matters to us is that our analyses are understood, assimilated, and shared by those living under the conditions of self-employment, by those who depend for their survival on non-salaried independent labor. These people have been able to use our theories and have thus refuted the academic critique.

At the end of the ’90s in the United States and at the beginning of the new millenium in Italy, many associations for the protection of independent, freelance workers were founded. Historically, these workers, on either side of the Atlantic, have always been excluded from the welfare state and from labor laws because they are considered “enterprises.” Since these professional roles, which exploded in the era of information technology, belong socially to the “lower middle class,” the identification with entrepreneurship rather than labor has been a heavy legacy of their bourgeois culture.17 The union organizations of employed workers have never taken them into consideration, have never considered them as subjects making up a part of the world of labor. Only very recently, in the past two years in Italy, the CGIL union, fearful of seeing the representation of these social groups, which have begun to self-organize, escape their grasp, has begun to create work groups dedicated to professionals and to the self-employed.

Post-workerism succeeded therefore in capturing this transformation in the world of work, succeeded in giving a collective body of thought to the self-employed – by making them aware of their identity as workers, it demonstrated the absurdity of considering a person as an enterprise (the one-man/one woman business).18 An enterprise is always a complex organization of cooperation between several people with diverse roles for the creation of profit in exchange for wages. What are the principal demands of the self-employed? First of all the recognition of their right, as citizens, to public assistance in case of illness, to unemployment benefits and tax treatment equal to employed laborers.19 The pressure that the associations for the defense of the rights of the self-employed have exercised in Europe in the last five years have attained some results, in particular the statement of the European parliament in January 2014 which affirms that all citizens have the same rights independent of the labor they perform.20

On the other hand the unionization of freelance workers in the United State has assumed a much greater amplitude, thanks to a woman named Sara Horowitz, who in the last years of the ’90s created the Freelancers Union (FU) which today counts almost 250,000 members. Thanks to the financial support of many private foundations, the FU has constituted an Insurance Company which offers to its members financial coverage and assistance in case of illness.21

In Italy, the association that has adopted post-workerist analysis is the Associazione Consulenti Terziario Avanzato (ACTA), founded in Milan in 2003, which is unfortunately still very small, though recognized as a sister organization by the Freelancers Union.22 ACTA is also a member of the European Forum of Independent Professionals, of which it holds the vice-presidency.23 If in the history of the wage earners’ movement, unionization was always accompanied by adhesion to socialist ideas, in the unionization of the self-employed apoliticism prevails.This is also because the Left is no longer a political force in Europe. In Italy, for example, which had the strongest Communist Party in the West, there is no trace of Marxist-inspired social thought, if not in social movements that are not represented in Parliament. The Democratic Party, which is in part the heir of the old Communist Party, and which over the years has changed its name several times to try and erase the traces of its Marxist origins, is now a political formation that completely espouses the neoliberal doctrines of the financial lobbies. Being apolitical does not mean not having political views, but means not identifying with the parties represented in Parliament.

Conclusions

Workerist thought has proven that it can renovate itself, and that it can interpret the great transformations in society and in new forms of work. But the hopes of workerism, the moral, political, and social values for which it had fought, were brutally challenged and marginalized, almost erased, by the neoliberal thought of the post-Fordist era, and in particular by the Italian ruling classes of Catholic, socialist, and liberal origins. The systematic persecution of Potere Operaio militants, sometimes more obsessive than the repression against the urban guerilla militants, and the marginalization of workerist thought in the cultural and academic scenes has not succeeded, however, in preventing the new generations from recognizing in this thought a useful tool for liberation. The ruling classes who fought workerism with stupid obstinacy are the same ones who have today dragged Italy into this miserable state, both from the economic and from the civil point of view. The 40% youth unemployment rate is perhaps not the most serious aspect of the poverty of the new generations; the precarious working conditions of millions of people, the low wages, the unpaid internships, in addition to the lack of protection, are equally, if not more, serious. If this mass of humiliated citizens eventually finds the strength to rebel, workerist and post-workerist thought will once again spread widely, and might have a long life.

Translated by Asad Haider, Salar Mohandesi, and Fulvia Serra


  1. For those who participated in the birth of workerist thought, writing its history is not easy. One always always runs the risk of forcing a subjective take on it. This article should therefore be read as a testimony rather than as a historical reconstruction. It might be because of my professional bias, but this is not the first time that I have tried to write the history of workerism in the form of testimony, see Sergio Bologna, Workerism: An inside View. From the Mass-Worker to Self-employed Labour, in “Beyond Marx: Theorising the Global Labour Relations of the Twenty-First century,” Marcel van den Linden and Karl Heinz Roth, eds. in collaboration with Max Henninger (Leyden-Bostom: Brill, 2014), 121-143; the Italian text was published in L’altronovecento: Comunismo eretico e pensiero critico. Vol. II: Il sistema e i movimenti, Europa 1945-1989, Pier Paolo Poggio, ed., (Milano: Jaca Book, 2011), 205-222. The most complete work on the history of workerism is Giuseppe Trotta and Fabio Milana, L’operaismo degli anni Sessanta: Da “Quaderni Rossi” a “Classe Operaia,” introduced by Mario Tronti (Roma: DeriveApprodi, 2008), with a CD of the entire run of “Classe Operaia.” 

  2. Raniero Panzieri, “Sull’uso capitalistico delle macchine nel neocapitalismo,” in Quaderni Rossi 1 (1961): 53. English translation: “The Capitalist Use of Machinery: Marx versus the Objectivists,” trans. Quintin Hoare, available via libcom.org. 

  3. Translator’s Note: “personal computer” in English in original. 

  4. Sergio Bologna in L’altronovecento, 205-206; the English translation can be found in Beyond Marx, 122. 

  5. Translator’s Note: in English in the original. 

  6. These analyzes have been published for most part in the review Quaderni del Territorio, founded by Alberto Magnaghi, and lasting from 1975 to 1979. A new edition of the notebooks that Magnaghi wrote from 1979 to 1982, during his detention in the prisons of Milan and Roma, has just been published, Un’idea di libertà, with a preface by Alberto Asor Rosa and a postface by Rossana Rossanda (Roma: DeriveApprodi, 2014). 

  7. “The Italian operaismo of the 1960s starts with the birth of Quaderni rossi and stops with the death of Classe operaia. End of story.” Mario Tronti, “Our Operaismo,” trans. Eleanor Chiari, New Left Review 73 (January-February 2012), 119. 

  8. Cesare Bermani et al., La rivista “Primo Maggio:” 1973-1989 (Roma: Derive & Approdi, 2010), which includes a DVD of every issue of the review. 

  9. See his contribution to number 22 of Primo Maggio, autumn 1984. 

  10. We must not forget the important contributions of Luciano Ferrari-Bravo, who participated in the activities of the workerist groups from the beginning; some of his writings were published in the volume Dal fordismo alla globalizzazione: Cristalli di tempo politico, preface by Sergio Bologna (Roma: Il Manifesto Libri, 2001). 

  11. The volume was jointly published by Shake-Feltrinelli in 1997 in Milan. 

  12. Futuro anteriore. Dai ‘Quaderni Rossi’ ai movimenti globali: Ricchezze e limiti dell’operaismo italiano, Guido Borio, Francesca Pozzi, and Gigi Roggero, eds. (Roma: DeriveApprodi, 2002). 

  13. Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 2002). 

  14. DeriveApprodi has recounted how it was born and how this project was realized in “Dalla classe operaia alla creative class. Le transformazioni di un quartiere di Milano” which is in also included in the DVD with the documentary, 39 minutes long, with English subtitles. 

  15. Calusca is the name of an alley that leads to the Piazza Sant’Eustorgio in the Ticinese neighborhood of Milan, its origin deriving from the expression in dialect ca’ lusc (“shady houses,” brothels). The bookstore then moved about a hundred meters forward, to the Corso di Porta Ticinese, and next to via Conchetta, on the Naviglio Pavese, where it still exists within a social center. Primo Moroni died of cancer in 1998, a profile of him was published in volume 77 (2012) of the Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani of the Enciclopedia Treccani. 

  16. See in particular the review of Paolo Barbieri, of the University of Trento, for the Cattaneo Institute. This critic was particularly revolted by “Dieci tesi sul lavoro autonomo di seconda generazione” in the volume edited by Bologna and Fumagalli, Il lavoro autonomo, 13-42. 

  17. Translator’s Note: “lower middle class” in English in original. 

  18. Translator’s Note: “the one-man/one woman business” in English original. 

  19. An analysis of the process of unionization of the self-employed in Dario Banfi, Sergio Bologna, Vita de freelance. I lavoratori della conoscenza e loro futuro (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2011), particularly the last chapter. 

  20. 2013/2011 (INI) – 14.01.2014 Texte adopté du Parlement Lecture unique. 

  21. See www.freelancersunion.org. The site is the most effective instrument of propaganda and information on the activity of the associations of the self-employed. 

  22. www.actainrete.it. Translator’s note: “sister organization” in English original. 

  23. www.efip.org. Joel Dullroy, an EFIP activist who lives in Berlin, has launched a campaign for a freelance movement this year: www.freelancersmovement.org.  

Author of the article

participated in Potere Operaio and Primo Maggio. He now works as a freelance consultant on transportation and logistics.