Capitalist Faultlines and Subterranean Resistances: Traces of Struggle in the Work of Ferruccio Gambino

Ben Shahn, TV Antennae (1953).

The following interview with Ferruccio Gambino was conducted over a series of meetings in Padua in April and May 2019. It includes discussions that, apart from serving as a point of entry into Gambino’s important body of work and political trajectory, illustrate the depth of his commitment to militant inquiry. The scope of the questions posed, taken with the precision and intensity of Gambino’s reflections, makes this conversation particularly valuable for anyone interested in the politics of radical solidarity and its renewal today. What might such a project look like? Gambino helps us see the force this question obtains when working-class confrontations against exploitation erupt on a larger plane, and what is at stake in those instances (it would be more appropriate to say periods) where they do not. Indeed, if we think in terms of Gambino’s own itinerary, we can glimpse a unique attempt to render these confrontations and practical acts legible in an expanded register, to push them “against the grain” of more provincialized concerns, and to enlarge the sphere of attention paid to class struggles past and present. Collective aspirations, even if they are often submerged or subterranean, always exist. 

These aspirations over the course of the 1960s and 1970s in Italy, broadly communist in orientation, have attracted much attention in the last decade. What has gathered considerably less interest, however, is their connection to a broader international dimension, expressed by a small but cohesive grouping of revolutionaries who sought to analyze working class struggle not from the perspective of its potential stewardship, but in the concrete expression of its needs. Gambino was a part of this cohort beginning in the 1960s, though its origins can be traced back much farther. It is in his early encounter with particular internationalist current that the elaboration of such an experience begins to come into view.1 

After completing his dissertation on Joseph Conrad, Gambino traveled to the United States in 1966, where he was first exposed to the “ecologismo” of Murray Bookchin, at the latter’s apartment in New York City. In Detroit, subsequently joined his lifelong friend and mentor George Rawick in the Facing Reality group, while his introduction to Marxist-Feminism came, at the behest of Jessie Glaberman, through washing dishes at the end of their meetings.2 Back in Italy, under the impact of the explosive events of the late 1960s, Gambino’s initiatives in Potere Operaio contributed to clarifying what was at stake internationally, articulating distinct resonances with other sites of struggles, however remote they may have seemed. These various strands and layers are still present in his thinking today.

Gambino gives priority to adopting the longer view of history. Despite the persistence (not only in Italy) of an overwhelming forgetfulness, he accentuates the lessons that movements – like the trans-Atlantic struggle for black freedom, or those internationalist currents in the European left which drew inspiration from it – continue to transmit. Attending to the process of transmission of ideas, strategies, and struggles can then become, under the right conditions, a kind of lesson in its own right. Perhaps this accounts for why much of his speech here has a certain pedagogical quality, and why his teaching has had such a profound effect on generations of students at Padua (where he is often referred to simply as “maestro”) and beyond. This is owed, in part, to the vigilance of his memory, which does not so much guard the experience to which he was privy as to keep it open, capable of thinking with the present. 

The perspective of the longer view also makes possible a serious inquiry into the history of work: within the capitalist mode of production, long hours, wretched conditions, and high rates of turnover constitute the rule, a veritable law of development. What is often obscured even as it is conceded in the dominant forms of analysis (historical and otherwise), is the weight of this perennial misery. Marx’s quip about the production process, where “no admittance except on business” is permitted, remains taken for granted but now often functions as a positive prescription, rather than a particular ideological blindspot. As a counterpoint to this historical amnesia, conformism, and seclusion, Gambino offers an important corrective: a serious consideration of working conditions irreducibly requires workers themselves, who possess the capacity to modify this terrain (or irrevocably alter it), as much as they are shaped or subordinated by it.

If it has been the latter image that has held sway in recent memory, it need not continue to be. In a recent essay with Devi Sacchetto, Gambino asks, “Where are the fault-lines in this landscape of widespread subjugation?”3 While this question is posed to the histories of slavery and servitude in what they call, “the shifting maelstrom” of the global economy, it is clear the question resounds in the contemporary moment. For Gambino, the answer remains the same as when he first discovered it in the thought of C.L.R. James: in the “everyday resistance” of waged and unwaged workers, that is, in human subjects. Because of the diverse experience of the production process, the sequences of accumulation that are extended and intensified globally by capital, we must first of all view this processes expansively, in a multilayered fashion, seeking to understand potential openings today through the actions of those who resist as well as the robust or tenuous links they make with others. What forms of resistance, then, are on the horizon today? 

For Gambino and Sacchetto, struggles over the mobility of labor are not new historical phenomena, either: 

What has proven socially and politically decisive is the message conveyed by those who resist the vortex of a productive process that sees capital striving to maximally de-subjectivise the labour-force, turning it into a mere carrier of the capacity for work: from the fugitive-slave in the Americas to all those whose struggle against the dictates of capital-accumulation has taken in the form of migration. Those typically considered “normal” or “economic” migrants are quite capable of ‘shaking the tree’ and upsetting the social conditions in which nonmigrants exist. Today as in the era of the fugitive-slaves, the strongest expression of individuality coincides with the most powerful manifestation of collective action. It is within this nexus that the possibility of overthrowing the barriers of discrimination is situated.4

The question, again, is how to see the possibility of individuality and processes of individuation beyond the denial of subjectivity in a given labor régime, in legal and extralegal force, and collectivity outside of prevailing representations of victimhood, to which the state serves as guarantor. Fortunately, there are numerous precedents. In From Sundown to Sunup, George Rawick, to whom this image of a collective “re-subjectivized” is tied, examines the particular “network of communications” that prepared the ground for emancipation and fundamentally transformed American society, namely those built by slaves, fugitive or not.5 Elsewhere, Gambino reminds us that in the United States, “it took the black people slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, peonage, ghettoization, and urban revolts in this century to put the two words ‘capital’ and ‘wages’ irreversibly together, and to open a new stage in the struggle of the wageless against the state as collective capitalist.”6 This was neither a simple nor guaranteed development, but an admixture of countless battles over the content of self-determination, one that, irrespective of its permutations, is very much still ongoing.7

It would seem, therefore, that the question of movement is always on the table, however dormant or inoperative in a given setting; though its visibility and potential efficacy may be only a part of the story. As he states in the interview, moving from “the territoriality of the working class to its mobility” is thus not simply a belated conceptual shift, an alternative standpoint on the part of theoreticians of the workers’ movement, but a strategic advance against the longstanding counterattack mounted by multinational capital. While one of Gambino’s central concerns has been reframing the field of possibility of workers, the collective “underground or overground streams of unrest” that continue to call into question the prevailing organization of work, his multinational orientation to this history and subjectivity serves as a novel intervention in Marxist scholarship, and Italian workerism in particular, emphasizing these lines of contact and action. Over the last five decades, this has illuminated a number of different pathways forward.8 

It is no secret that the economic and political command of migrant labor is today, just as it came to be for Gambino in the 1970s, of paramount concern. This theme is present, for instance, in his investigation of shopfloor dynamics at British Ford Motor Company plants during the 1960s and 1970s, where resistance to speed-ups and the disciplinary hierarchy of the wage took the form of insubordination among West-Indian migrants. It also appears in Gambino’s more recent work on the interconnection of labor regimes in firms like Apple and Foxconn today -- where the demand for coltan mining has ensured that the history of electronics in China will be “written in letters of blood in Africa.” Gambino has extended his focus on the latter domain to questions around the ecological contradictions of capitalism. As shown by his work in co-translating the book Dying for an iPhone (Morire per un iPhone), Gambino holds open the prospect that a real limit to these mechanisms of human and environmental degradations might one day be imposed from below.9

Students of “operaismo,” and whatever afterlives its reception continues to produce, would do well to take heed of one of Gambino’s most persistent “workerist” (Gambino himself is somewhat ambivalent about such designations) demands: that we seriously consider the self-activity of proletarians, their orientation within and beyond the workplace, as well as the on-going practices and desires that seek, through an array of means, to resist or escape the most brutal and banal impositions put forward by capital. This is no simple prescription, a potential supplement to an otherwise sound analysis. For Gambino, it is the very presupposition of political thinking, and its impulse is thoroughly materialist. We are inevitably led back to the ways in which the conditions of production, the conflictual terrain of work and the rhythm of the working day, are themselves navigated. In the absence of such an analysis, as Massimiliano Tomba and Riccardo Bellofiore argue, “attention to the real characteristics of capitalist restructuring, to the effective and efficacious modes of political intervention against the class of workers, is missing as well.” Left with “a total blindness to what is authentically new in contemporary capitalism,” profoundly disarming conclusions will follow.10 

If we look beyond the hazy subject of the multitude, Gambino’s propositions can help us to see working-class activity unfold once more in networks of solidarity, however embryonic or short-lived. He indexes other threads in workerism that have largely been neglected or isolated, but deserve to no longer be. In this interview, one begins to get a glimpse of a number of figures rarely encountered in Anglophone accounts on the subject. Here names like Luciano Arrighetti, Mario Dalmaviva, Gianfranco Faina, Licia de Marco, and Augusto Finzi occupy diverse (generationally as well as regionally within Italy) but central roles, articulating alternative organizational frames that extend working-class struggles into new domains. The formation of a different kind of power, like the Workers’ Committee and Autonomous Assembly at Porto Marghera with whom Gambino was closely associated, serves as one such model. In challenging the terms of the working day, the division between mental and manual labor (as well as the patriarchal division of labor), and the noxiousness (nocività) of working conditions and their dramatic effects on working class communities, they sought to clarify a competing social and intellectual reality, the legacy of which deserves to be reconstructed.11 

These innovations in militancy, however, came at great cost. Many Italian radicals faced heavy sentences in the April 7th proceedings of 1979, and were for years held at high-security prisons like Asinara, Rebibbia, and La Spezia. Gambino, who was spared in the early 1980s only by going into exile, was presented with a quite different punitive dilemma, first in the United States, and then Mitterrand’s France (where it was not uncommon to encounter undercover Italian police). He once told me that returning to Italy in the mid-1980s was like stepping into a cemetery, a profoundly disorienting experience given the events of the preceding decade. But even cemeteries have a way of preserving traces of another time. A different development, as it happened, was already underway. One of the first people Gambino sought out upon his return was Primo Moroni, who served as a kind of radical bridge figure between a melancholic landscape and an alternative tradition of militancy. With the development of projects like altreragioni in the early 1990s, some of these former energies were rekindled for a new era among a generation of young intellectuals, many of whom are still active today. These circuits of political knowledge – one can call them political cultures, systems of struggle, grassroots communication lines – are never permanently closed. 

Though the movement in which gave rise to these pursuits took place has in many respects ended, the aspirations which animated it have not. What lessons might be learned through a more thorough examination of the links established there today? These connections are all present in this interview, offering what I take to be a useful point of departure for thinking through this complex history, in Italy and beyond, once again. The possibility of a real intervention into the vast landscape of contemporary exploitation, however, should not be discounted in advance. Gambino, ever attuned to future prospects, continues to search for openings: “Once mobilization proves that it can be done, it becomes possible elsewhere.”

References   [ + ]

1. See Nicola Pizzolato, Challenging Global Capitalism: Labor Migration, Radical Struggle, and Urban Change in Detroit and Turin (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013); see also Pizzolato’s 2013 article in Viewpoint, “The American Worker and the Forze Nuove: Turin and Detroit at the Twilight of Fordism.”
2. See the interview for the Futuro Anteriore project, Intervista a Ferruccio Gambino,” July 10, 2001. For an account of similar episodes in the group, see Martin Glaberman’s introduction to the collection Marxism for Our Times: C.L.R. James on Revolutionary Organization (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999).
3. Ferruccio Gambino and Devi Sacchetto, “The Shifting Maelstrom: From Plantations to Assembly-Lines,” in Beyond Marx: Theorising Global Labour Relations of the Twenty-First Century, eds. Marcel Linden and Karl Heinz Roth (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 89–119, 97.
4. Gambino and Sacchetto, “The Shifting Maelstrom: From Plantations to Assembly-Lines,” 118-9.
5. George P. Rawick, From Sundown To Sunup (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972), 107. See also Ferruccio Gambino, “George Rawick in Europe: A Remembrance,” in George Rawick, Listening to Revolt: Selected Writings, ed. David Roediger and Martin Smith (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 2010).
6. Ferruccio Gambino, “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Proletariat in Black Reconstruction,” in Dirk Hoerder, (ed.) American Labor and Immigration History, 1877–1920s: Recent European Research (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press 1983, 43–60.
7. See Paolo Carpignano, “U.S. Class Composition in the Sixties,” in Zerowork 1 (1975), for an analysis of the profound impact black freedom struggles had on class recomposition in the late 1960s. From the new forms of insubordination in factories and the streets, unfolding outside of existing union channels, to the struggle against work-discipline undertaken by organizations like DRUM, FRUM, and ELRUM, the militancy of black workers informed theorizations of class composition in Italy during this time. Carpignano suggests that the fight over social income – detached from any notion of productivity – pointed towards a particularly salient instance of “workers’ autonomy.” Nixon’s “New Economic Policy” and the broader capitalist initiative to supplant these working class rebellions, he argues, were at root a counterattack on this form of recomposition. See also Ferruccio Gambino, “Regolare i proletari, trasformarli i poveri,” Primo Maggio 2 (October 1973-January 1974): 47-51.
8. Ferruccio Gambino, “Afterword: The Early Outsourcing of the Electronics Industry and Its Feeders,” in Jan Drahokoupil, Rutvica Andrijasevic and Devi Sacchetto (eds). Flexible Workforces and Low Profit Margins: Electronics Assembly Between Europe and China (Brussels: European Trade Institute, 2016), 234.
9. Gambino, “Afterword: The Early Outsourcing of the Electronics Industry and Its Feeders,” 233. See also Ferruccio Gambino and Devi Sacchetto, “Prefazione all’edizione Italiana: Una nuova palestra della ricerca sociale,” in Pun Ngai, Lu Huilin, Guo Yuhua, and Shen Yuan, Nella fabbrica globale: Vite al lavoro e resistenze operaie nei laboratori della Foxconn (Verona: ombré corte, 2015), 7-14.
10. Massimiliano Tomba and Ricardo Bellofiore, “On Italian Workerism,” 2008; this text is now included as “Afterword to the Italian Edition” in the second edition of Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Struggle and Composition in Italian Autonomist Marxism (London: Pluto Press, 2018).
11. See the booklet accompanying the 2004 documentary, directed by Manuela Pellarin, Porto Marghera: The Last Firebrands.

Author of the article

is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of California Santa Cruz.