Workerism Beyond Fordism: On the Lineage of Italian Workerism


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, 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.


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 

  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 The site is the most effec­tive instru­ment of pro­pa­gan­da and infor­ma­tion on the activ­i­ty of the asso­ci­a­tions of the self-employed. 

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

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

Author of the article

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