“A Science of Destruction”: An Interview with Gigi Roggero on the Actuality of Operaismo

Angelo Verga, Untitled

This interview with Gigi Roggero, conducted by Davide Gallo Lassere, makes up the appendix to Roggero’s most recent book, L’operaismo politico italiano: Genealogia, storia, metodo (Italian Political Workerism: Genealogy, History, Method). 

Davide Gallo Lassere: Operaismo, the Italian political workerism of the 1960s, was amongst other things characterized by its rediscovery of Marx against Marxism. Can you explain what that means? 

Gigi Roggero: Operaismo is a Machiavellian return to principles: it is a return to Marx against Marxism, against its tradition of determinism, historicism and objectivism. Operaismo isn’t a heresy within the Marxist family, it is a rupture with that family. The operaisti defined themselves as Marxian and not Marxist, a bit like the elderly Marx, who declared, “Je ne suis pas marxiste.” However, this return to principles wasn’t aimed at building a new orthodoxy based on a correct reading of the word of the prophet, as had been attempted by the various heresies (such as the Trotskyists and the Bordigists, who, ennobled by Stalinist persecution, had often paradoxically ended up attacking Stalin as deviating from the line of a linear historical development traced once and for all by Marx). The operaist reading of Marx wasn’t only against Marxism, but in a certain sense critical of the limits and the blind alleys in Marx himself, stretching and forcing his words to make their ambivalences explode, looking for weapons with which to attack the factory-society of contemporary capitalism. 

Unlike previous workerisms (such as councilism) or contemporary ones (such as those of a Christian or populist kind), Italian operaismo didn’t glorify workers and proletarians: it wagered on the possibility that there was a force in them that they could mobilize against themselves, not to extend but to destroy their own condition. It was therefore a workerism against work, refusing a naturalized subjectivity imposed by the capital relation. It was a workerism based on the irreducible partiality of the point of view, on an autonomous partisan autonomy that needed to be built. 

In their rupture with universalism, with Marxism, and partly with Marx, the operaisti centered question of subjectivity, or rather – as Alquati called it – counter-subjectivity. This was a subjectivity that wasn’t only against capital, but also against the capital within us. 

The operaist inversion must be understood in light of the irreducible partiality of the viewpoint: first the class, then capital. Capital is not the subject of History, it is not that which does and undoes, that which determines development and the conditions for its own overcoming. Rather, history is non-teleological, and at its center is class struggle, its power of refusal and its autonomy. 

DGL: Mario Tronti undoubtedly made a significant contribution on this point…

GR: With Tronti class stopped being a merely sociological and descriptive concept, becoming an entirely political concept. Class doesn’t exist naturally, or rather it exists in the nature of capital as a taxonomy of the social segments available within the labor market. There can be proletarians without a proletariat, workers without a working class. Class is not a question of stratification, but of counterposition. It is struggle that produces class as a partisan collectivity: class means class antagonism. As Tronti says: there is no class without class struggle. 

This is one of the issues which requires both a use and a stretching of Marx: we should use his historical works, which show the proletarians became a class on the 1848 barricades; and should stretch the (ambivalent) Marx of Capital, whose first volume shows that it was struggles and not bourgeois legislation or enlightened capitalists that determined the reduction of the working day. It is interesting to note that CLR James came to the same conclusions as the operaisti in the same period, in his 1966 and ‘67 lectures, now collected in the book, You Don’t Play with Revolution: if the bosses could make us work all day without resistance or conflict, they would. This must be remembered by those who complain today about free work, who call for the redistribution of wealth as a moral principle and who think that a “citizens’ income” is a question of productive rationality. Only struggle can force the bosses to pay up, the salary represents the spoils of war. With all due respect to the left, if one side doesn’t fight, the other will take no prisoners. 

We can also use the third volume of Capital, which is famously cut short at the unfinished chapter on class. In Workers and Capital Tronti ironically notes, “every now and then someone, from Renner to Dahrendorf, has a grand old time of completing what had remained incomplete, and what results from all this is libel against Marx, which should, at a minimum, be punished with physical violence.”1 Already in Chapter 50 of Capital, vol. 3, “Illusions Created by Competition,” Marx writes that it isn’t competition that regulates the price of labor but the price of labor that regulates competition. By arguing that it was struggles that determined capital - first the class, then capital – the Italian workerists showed that interpreting capital starting from the point of view of capital was an ideological projection. When people today say, “It’s what the markets want,” they remain within this projection. In the unfinished chapter on class Marx only makes a few points, but they are nevertheless quite important. He says that it is not just income that creates a class, or simply your location within production relations, much as these obviously determine the material base upon which the question of class is founded: class is created by struggle which breaks with the abstract democratic unity of the people. It is created when the ‘indivisible people” break into “enemy camps.” As Tronti writes, “when the working class refuses politically to become the people, it in fact opens up the most direct path to socialist revolution.”2 One is divided into two, the non-recomposable for capital becomes the possibility of recomposition for the class. The class disappears as a merely social aggregate and becomes an antagonist subject irreducible to the unity of the general interest, which is the interest of capital. It is this assumption of workers’ partiality that forces the capitalists to aggregate politically, to overcome their own contradictions, to discover themselves as a social power, collectively using the power of their enemy to develop and leap forward. Any illusions of a peaceful evolution disappear for reformists on both sides. The mask of democracy falls to reveal the true face of the relationship of force between the two conflicting powers: no longer labor and capital, but laborers and capitalists, class against class, force against force. 

Operaismo is a thought of refusal and a thought of the negative as the foundation of communism. What deepens the contradictions of the enemy is good, what resolves them is bad. The contradiction isn’t resolvable within the organic composition of capital, that is in the relationship between variable capital and constant capital, but must be made to explode in a conflict between the organic composition of capital and class composition, or rather, in the relationship between the articulation of labor-power and the production of subjectivity. The operaist reading of Marx starts from this and then heads off in a direction that is distinct from and opposed to Marxism. 

DGL: You referred to class composition. Can you clarify how operaismo worked politically with the class composition of Italy at the time through the practice of workers’ inquiry?

GR: In recent years workers’ inquiry and coresearch have been much talked about, perhaps even too much, in the sense that it would be better to talk about them less and do them more. Often comrades think of inquiry as a specialism, a rhetoric, or as a confirmation of the things that we already do (given we’re precarious, if we do a self-inquiry our point of view will be the point of view of the precariat!). Nothing could be more pointless. Coresearch is actually an autonomous political process taking place together with the production of counter-knowledge, counter-subjectivity, and counter-organization, in which the counter-use of the capitalist means of production (in which specific skills are included), also leads to their transformation. The militant is always looking for something that they don’t yet understand, a possible force to make the contradictions explode, something that already exists but that they can’t yet see. The militant is either restless or they are not a militant. 

In the 1950s and at the beginning of the 1960s, when Alquati and his comrades began carrying out conricerca, the workers and the factories had been politically abandoned. In a sort of unconscious Frankfurtism, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) held that the working class was now irreversibly integrated into the capitalist machine. And so a vicious circle was created. The PCI – which had chosen to follow the middle classes and the”‘Italian road to socialism” (a road without revolutionary class struggle) – asked the factory militants if anything was stirring, and they confirmed the line at the top, saying that there was no possibility of revolutionary class struggle amongst the workers. Immigrants from southern Italy who had been inserted into the production line, who a few years later would become the “mass worker,” were seen by the PCI and trade union militants at the time as passive and alienated opportunists. However, the operaist militants, when talking with these young “new forces,” revealed real ambivalence in their behavior: it was true that they often voted for the reactionary trade unions, but that was because they didn’t feel represented by anyone; they didn’t take part in the strikes because they thought they were useless. The operaisti showed that even their passivity was potentially more effective as a form of struggle. And very soon their outsider status at work turned into refusal and insubordination. What’s more, these southern Italians who had immigrated into the industrial metropoles of northern Italy bore little resemblance to their representation in leftwing literature and cinema, of victims laden down with cardboard boxes, needing our tears and sympathy. On the contrary, they were a potential force, bringing with them new behaviors and cultures of conflict foreign to the traditions of the workers’ movement institutions, which now co-managed exploitation in the factory. Enough with the tears, with talking about the needs of the victim, with the culture of the left: the revolutionary militant searches for strength, not weakness. That’s why we say operaismo is a communist experience that breaks with the Communist Party and which is foreign to the culture of the left. 

But this search for force is never based on ideology or on the satisfaction of its own identity, but is always a political wager rooted within a historically determined class composition. 

DGL: Dealing with class composition means posing the subjective problem of political recomposition. What is meant by recomposition? Is it more about synthesis or rupture?

GR: Adding to what I said earlier, we could now say that there is no class struggle without class recomposition. First, though, we have to know what we mean by class composition, and to understand the relationship between technical composition and political composition, that is between the capitalist articulation of labor-power in its relationship with machines and the formation of the class as an independent subject. Technical composition and political composition don’t provide us with a static picture of the different elements, of labor-power as totally subordinate to capital on one side and the class as totally autonomous on the other. They are both processes that are crossed with conflict and with the possibility of rupture and overturning, because both operate within the social relation of capital as an antagonistic relation. There is no conciliatory dialectic between these two processes, just as there is no synthesis and symmetry. The central or most advanced subject for capitalist accumulation isn’t necessarily the central and most advanced subject for struggle, as was thought in the social communist tradition, and as was often implicitly taken up in analyses of so-called “post-Fordism”. There is no reproposing of the Marxist relationship between class in itself and class for itself, mediated by an idealistic class consciousness that must simply be revealed. As we have already said many times, subjectivity – the base and the stakes of class composition – is not consciousness. Subjectivity isn’t revealed, it is produced. Capital produces it, and so can struggles. 

Political composition always implies a double process: recomposition for our own autonomous ends and the decomposition of the ends of the enemy. Recomposition isn’t a summary of things as they are, but their transformation into a process of rupture with the current situation towards the construction of a new one. Recomposing themselves in the rupture, the different elements are subverted, their essence is changed, their original function overturned.

Capital also continuously decomposes, composes, and recomposes, that is it continuously destroys and transforms, in what it calls innovation. Capital primarily responded to the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 70s not with repression, but with innovation. Innovation is an inverse revolution aiming toward a profound change at what Alquati called the medium and base levels of reality,3 able to reinforce the reproduction of the high levels, that is the accumulation of dominion and capital. This change bears the marks of conflict with its enemy, the proletariat, which has now been deprived of the possibility of rupture, subsumed and turned towards systemic ends. For example, capital responded to the struggles against salaried work and workers’ and proletarians’ flexible autonomy with increased precariousness. Starting from the 1980s and 1990s, in the height of neoliberal development, there was, on the one hand, those who called for the return to the shackles of a permanent job, forgetting that these shackles were something which workers and proletarians had previously refused and fought against, and that the new situation bore the marks of this conflict; and on the other hand, those who mistook innovation for revolution, fantasizing that social cooperation had become fully free and autonomous, leaving capital as nothing but a parasitic shell. Neither saw the continuity of and the possibility for antagonism, and thus both assumed the separation between the two classes had already happened: for the former this meant the impossibility of liberation, for the latter that liberation had already taken place. Both are ideological positions, both are impotent, forgetting the problem of revolutionary rupture. And neither see the central issue of class composition as a process that is continuously crossed with conflict. 

DGL: On this subject, Romano Alquati – who was very important within operaismo, although underrated in Italy and almost unknown outside of the country – talked about “organized spontaneity.” What did he mean? 

GR: The configuration of class composition and recomposition that I have outlined here mainly come from Alquati. To put it briefly, there is no operaismo without Alquati, although Alquati cannot be reduced solely to the workerist experience. Often he’s seen as the “inventor of coresearch,” an identity he refused by saying that militants had always done coresearch: he did coresearch because he was a militant. He argued that it was like saying that if I put on shoes to cross a street full of stones it meant I had invented shoes. There was obviously a paradoxical exaggeration in this, because coresearch as we mean it today, or which we are attempting to reinvent, is founded above all on Alquati’s contribution and on the collectives built by him to put it into practice. However, it is true that defining him simply as the inventor of coresearch limits his contribution to the 1960s and his important writings on Fiat and Olivetti. Alquati is more than that. His research within and against “the university of the middle class” in the 1960s was fundamental, foreseeing the emergence of the social worker and the intellectual proletariat. Between the 1980s and 1990s he developed a complex model of the functioning of capitalism which he called the “modellone” (literally the “big model”), aimed at the revolutionary macro-objective of rupture and escape from capitalist civilization. In that period Alquati showed extraordinary foresight on themes, issues, and questions (from hyper-industrialization to the centrality of the reproduction of human capacity) that today have proved to be decisive. 

His definition of “organized spontaneity” emerges from coresearch undertaken in the flesh and blood of the workers’ struggles of the 1960s. The workers’ movement traditions understood there to be a division between the cult of spontaneity and the fetish of organization, or saw them as operating within a dialectic following stages of development: first there is spontaneity, then there is organization. Alquati definitively broke with this dialectic and proposed an apparent oxymoron: at Fiat there was no external organization that produced conflict, but neither was it simply spontaneity that created it. A sort of “invisible organization” had been created through which the workers communicated, prepared struggles, scheduled their attacks and blocked the factory. It was this invisible organization that posed itself as the avant-garde of the recompositional process, while the party militants were left behind, following hesitantly and in fact often acting as an obstacle. 

Going beyond the specificity of those struggles, the question of organized spontaneity allows us to correctly locate this relationship in political terms, to distinguish spontaneity from spontaneism – which makes it into an ideology – and organization from mere management. The two terms of the relationship are never separated and opposed: spontaneity has to feed organization and organization must take place within spontaneity. We could say that workers’ autonomy is organization that reflects on its own spontaneity, and spontaneity that reflects on its own organization. And the party (in a way that is radically different from its current use and meaning) is the subject that continually recomposes the relationship between spontaneity and organization, between negation and macro-ends – which are precisely the issues that remained unresolved in the workerist experience and in that which followed it. 

DGL: In your writing you often refer to the “method of the tendency”: what is that exactly?

GR: This method is central, and, perhaps more than most, often misunderstood. Some figures stemming from operaismo interpreted the tendency in increasingly mechanistic terms, as if the lines of capitalist development directly handed us subjects capable of social transformation. So instead of being a rupture with technical composition, political composition became its product. This mechanism, which was a simple ideological inversion, was identified as an ontology: the subjects produced by capitalist development were considered to be ontologically revolutionary subjects. And so, in order for their analysis to work, they had to forget the issues of class composition, of relationships of force, of processes of struggle through which subjectivity forms and breaks with the process of capitalist subjectivation. 

From the revolutionary point of view, tendency doesn’t mean the objectivity and linearity of the path of history, and doesn’t have anything to do with foreseeing the future. It’s best to leave meteorologists to predict the rain, as militants we must create storms. And obviously tendency doesn’t mean the irreversibility of the process, which is the dogma at the base of the innovationist and accelerationist religions. On the contrary, seeing as it is founded on and moulded by relationships of force, the process can be continuously interrupted, deviated and overturned. So tendency means the capacity to grasp the possibilities for an oppositional and radically diverse development within the composition of the present. Tendency is like prophecy: it means seeing and affirming in a different way something which already exists virtually. 

In brief, tendency means anticipation. It is the capacity of grasping the terrain of antagonist possibility within the ambivalences and ambiguities of the existing composition, subjectivity, and behavior. Tendency means a political wager. The wager is not about throwing a dice, nor about making a scientific forecast, but about choosing a path. It is about identifying a line that doesn’t exist but could. It is a materialist wager, within and against the existing force relations. Without a political wager there is no politics in a revolutionary sense, but only the administration of what exists, or rather the techniques of institutional politics. 

In the mid-1960s, writing on the issues of education and the university, Alquati said that coresearch was needed so as not to simply be following on the tail of the movement: “research aimed at foreseeing and anticipating, not at ideologically rationalizing what has already happened gradually, which “spontaneously” happens when the mass “moves”. The problem is complex: finding a strategy needed to guide, and a political direction that is able to anticipate according to a strategy. There is no point turning up too late.” The militant must take the risk. The important thing is to act within and against the materiality of the existent, and not – as often happened in what is called “post-operaismo” – within one’s own individual fantasy and against collective possibilities. 

DGL: To the two best known names on an international level – Mario Tronti and Toni Negri – can be ascribed two varieties of operaismo which you refer to as “katechontic” and “accelerationist.” Through figures like Romano Alquati or Sergio Bologna, however, it is possible to identify a third theoretical and political paradigm within operaismo, which we could define as “compositionist.” Why is it important to deepen that line of research?

GR: It is through this paradigm (defined here as compositionist, though you could easily use another term) and its introduction of the decisive element of subjectivity, that operaismo was able to break the partially closed system of Marxian logic, which risks remaining trapped in explanations of how to produce and reproduce the iron cage. Subjectivity isn’t formed deterministically from material location, neither is it formed separately from it: as we have already seen, subjectivity is linked to struggle, that is to the potential capital has to shape it and to the possibility of behaviors and forces that are formed against capital. Using coresearch and acting within class composition to bend it in an antagonist direction means continually centering political initiative on the relationship between process and subject. Put simply: in a process in which the relationships of force favor capital, the subject will be primarily shaped by it; in a process with different relationships of force, a different subject will be formed. To say that the subject is shaped by capital, as happens at present, doesn’t at all mean there are no possibilities for conflict and autonomy. Alquati talked about an “unresolved residue,” unresolvable, that is, for capital, which he attributed to the active human capacity on which capital must continuously feed to make its system work. We could even say that there is a potential structural asymmetry between the two classes: while capital needs the proletariat, the proletariat doesn’t need capital, and in the end neither does it need itself as a product of that social relationship. This is the irresolvable contradiction for capital from which the permanent possibility of antagonism derives, which assumes forms that are expressed differently at different times, and in some periods remain implicit. 

Antagonism can’t be messianically awaited, nor imagined by beginning from what we want - like the theorists of the multitude, who, when the proletarians didn’t behave in the way they would have liked them to, intellectually ran ahead on their own, deciding, to paraphrase Brecht, that if the multitude doesn’t agree, then we should appoint a new one. But militants must dig (with concepts even before using their hands) in the ambivalences and the ambiguities, in the “dirt” of real behaviors: not to glorify them in a populist manner, but to search for a politics in them at the level of their intrinsic forms and expression, to find something virtual that has not yet been transformed into a collective act. For example, before becoming an explicit and collective form of opposition and negation, the refusal of work was incarnated in fragmented refusals on an individual level. There isn’t a necessary path through developmental stages from an intrinsic politics to an explicit politics. Instead the path must be built through processes of organization, coresearch, the power of the militant wager. We could say that the search for an intrinsic politics is the search for a space between the abstract potentiality of antagonism and its overt expression; it is the space in which behaviors can take different or even opposing directions; it is the space in which the process can be concretely deviated, steered, interrupted and overturned. It is the space of militant intervention. 

The problem, then, is that both the “accelerationist” and the “katechontic” paradigm (the katechon is, in Pauline theology, the force that holds back evil) end up assuming the temporality of capitalist development and deriving from it both class composition and its revolutionary possibilities. In the first paradigm we simply need to accelerate the development of the new technical composition to transform it into a political composition, in the second we need to retain the force of the old political composition to fight the technical composition. Both risk considering development at a level of abstraction that loses contact with the medium range, the level at which there is a concrete possibility of rupture and overthrow. But the method of the tendency that interests us is not about identifying an “objective” development, but about posing the problem of interruption and deviation, that is of the accumulation of force to construct recompositional processes. This force is accumulated as much in acceleration as in holding back, and its strength in one or the other depends on the period and above all on the struggles that determine resistance and that propel us forward. Thus it is from the point of view of class composition, its potential autonomy and its possibility for revolutionary transformation, that we must evaluate the possibilities of acceleration or of holding back. 

But in Negri’s accelerationism, tendency becomes teleology. The process of organization, conflict and rupture that takes place within the relationships between technical composition, political composition and recomposition leaves space for an immediatism - an immediate translation of technical composition into political composition. He ends up ignoring the process and immediately identifying the subject as ontologically free and autonomous. He doesn’t realize that the subject is not in fact free and autonomous, but profoundly marked by capitalist subjectivation. Only by grasping the ambivalences and bending them in an antagonist direction can we be opposed to ourselves as capitalist subjects. Only through the process of struggle can the subject win their liberty and autonomy. Negri has the intellectual vice of not measuring his categories according to militancy within and against reality, but measuring reality according to his categories. The autonomy of political philosophy follows the autonomy of the political. Nonexistent victories are proclaimed, hiding what is actually resignation to defeat. It’s sadly paradoxical that someone who had talked about the hegemony of the “general intellect,” ends his journey in the conceited solitude of the individual intellect. 

DGL: Operaismo has often been accused of being developmentalist… 

GR: In some ways that’s justified, mainly in its evolution as “post-operaismo”, in which tendency became teleology. However the rhetoric against development that has become so widespread in recent decades is as problematic, or maybe even more so, because it often ends up assuming moralistic and class traits, by which I mean traits of the other class. It is quite easy to support degrowth whilst sipping on a cognac in your comfy office in the Sorbonne… Not all positions against development are reducible to degrowth, but even the best of them, those most interested in struggles, risk mirroring their polemical object. In fact, in both developmentalism and anti-developmentalism the real point is lost and both become rather ideological: one imagines the revolutionary subject in everything that is produced by the development of capital, the other imagines it in everything that precedes capital or that is illusorily regarded as being “outside” of that development. One option is so much inside that it forgets to be against, and so ends up getting sucked into the jaws of an impossible reformism, the other invokes a powerful attack from the outside, trusting itself to an unrealistic spontaneism. Materialism without revolutionary will slips into determinism; revolutionary will deprived of materialism slips into idealism. Whether we like it or not, we are inside development and its chaotic contradictions, and so we must analyse it in a similarly ambivalent and conflictual manner. We must understand how much counter-subjectivity and antagonistic possibility are created and destroyed within development, how much they are created and destroyed in resistance or in the act of propelling the process forward. The counter-use of the process means not only using tools produced by development for other ends, but doing this by diverting them, transforming them and creating new tools. Seeing as being within isn’t a question of individual desires or existential experience but is simply the hard materiality of the social relationship which we are fighting, the point is how to be against. 

So the dialectic between developmentalism and anti-developmentalism, acceleration and degrowth, modernity and anti-modernity, is situated within the point of view of capital. Capital is composed via acceleration and holding back; it destroys the composition of its own antagonist and recomposes the fragments that are produced according to its developmental needs. So the problem for the militant is how to think development from the point of view of our real or potential side, to retain the elements that impede the destructive acceleration of the capitalist innovation that impoverishes us, and to accelerate the elements that produce a rupture in the enemy, enrichening subjectivity and autonomy on our side. 

To understand the task of the militant, we can use Churchill’s metaphor of the plague in reference to Lenin. We must hold back the force which spreads the plague in our own body and accelerate the bacteria produced by class struggle in the body of our enemy. There is a relationship between the two movements, but it is never symmetrical, linear in time or teleological. Conflict must therefore function as a plague in the enemy and as a vaccine for us, a controlled inoculation of poison to reinforce our organism. But often the opposite happens: conflict becomes a plague on our side, the source of useless divisions, and a vaccine for the enemy, therefore for capitalist innovation. 

DGL: So we come to the figure of the militant, which you write about in your book Elogio della Militanza (In Praise of Militancy). Who is the militant? What is their role and why are they important? 

GR: Various answers to this question can be found in what we’ve already said, because militancy isn’t a particular element: it’s our point of view, it’s our form of life, it is what we are, what we say, what we think. Militants are by definition those who put their whole life at play. This truth takes on different forms in relation to the historical period, to class composition and to organizational processes. When at the turn of the millennium militants followed the Anglo-Saxon and American fashion of calling themselves activists, this concession wasn’t simply linguistic, it was also structural. They lost their incommensurability with figures such as that of the volunteer, who represented the general interest and so the reproduction of the existent. The militant is a divided subject, they continuously produce the “us” and the “them,” they take a position and enforce the taking of sides. They separate in order to recompose their own side. They are primarily a figure of negation, because they refuse the existent and fight to destroy it. Starting from negation, they produce collective ends and new forms of life. 

Too often, mainly in difficult phases like this, we hear comrades complaining about the absence of struggles or satisfying themselves with struggles taking place elsewhere. This depression and euphoria mimic those of the financial markets, bubbles of enthusiasm and voyeurism appear and disappear at the speed of a tweet. But historical phases aren’t good or bad: they are spaces within and against which we must locate ourselves organizationally. They can’t be judged on the basis of our desires, but must be fought on the basis of what we need to do. We mustn’t fall into the bipolar chronicling of struggles and the lack of them, swaying between the euphoria of the football fan and the depression of the spectator, between an unmotivated sense of defeat and unjustified proclamations of victory. We must free ourselves from this way of thinking if we want to be up to the challenges of the present. The most important phase for the revolutionary militant is precisely when there aren’t any struggles. When struggles are already happening, it’s too late. We must anticipate in order to organize and to steer, not observe in order to tell and describe. And we should also add that often when there are struggles – we are speaking of the Italian context – putative militants don’t know what to make of them because they don’t fit into their schemes, and even end up blocking their development. Let’s neither depress ourselves by gazing out on a flat horizon, or be allured by the waves of a stormy sea: let’s try instead to gather the invisible eddies that move beneath the apparent calm. This is today’s task, our “what is to be done.”

DGL: We now come to the categories forged by “post-operaismo” that, as you have showed, risk leading to the false immediacy of translating technical composition into political composition… 

We must free ourselves once and for all from the ideology of the post, that beginning from the 1980s and 1990s has kept us gripped in the vice of a false choice between those who say nothing will ever be the same again, and those who say everything will remain the same. Both are mistaken. Using the conceptual tools of Alquati’s modellone we can say that on the high levels of reality (those of the accumulation of dominion and of capital) nothing has changed, on the intermediate levels of reality there have been significant changes, on the base levels of reality things change very quickly. Research is needed to understand permanency and change, where things change and why, what spaces of antagonistic possibility are opened up. Instead, the ideology of the post- claimed there was a new and continually renewable world; this is the world depicted by the rhetoric of innovation, which is in fact the rhetoric of contemporary capitalism, a rhetoric which also organizes the concrete materiality of capitalist counter-revolution. 

Some of those who assumed the ideology of the “post,” claiming to be taking up the operaist legacy, imagined the class to be the objective result of the real or supposed transformations of capital (although class was a term that was banned for a certain period in a sort of decree imposed by the innovationist apparatus). The issue of class composition, and the political processes of countersubjectivation and transformation were repressed, and along with them the rupture with capital and within class composition. They no longer spoke of a class against itself but of a class that magically becomes autonomous and can only be recognized in its autonomy. We no longer needed to break with capital, but only to take exodus from it (and even those that saw themselves as strongly critical of and opposed to Negri, sometimes ended up reaching similar conclusions). Although stemming from the refusal of labor, some parts of so-called “post-operaismo,” paradoxically ended up giving life to a sort of immaterial and cognitive “laborism,” in which they forgot the fundamental difference between capitalist competences and knowledge on our side, between valorization and self-valorization, between the wealth of accumulation and the wealth of struggles. The problem derives from the idea that an already free cooperation exists with respect to which capital is only a parasitic agent, and that labor has become “common” (which is something we could only agree with if this “common” is understood to be exploitation and abstract labor commanded by capital). 

The term “post-operaismo” was coined in Anglo-Saxon and North American universities in an attempt to capture the power of operaismo, to depoliticize it and abstract it from conflict and class composition, to render it good for academia and the political economy of knowledge, and no longer good for struggles. This then became “Italian theory” which differentiates itself from “Italian thought.” In turn this will become “Critical Italian theory,” then “Critical Italian thought” and so on to the bad infinity of a theory that’s decoupled from class composition and class struggles, moving from university conferences and desks to become solidly embedded in the valorization and reproduction of capital. 

The 1980s and 1990s saw an increase in theorizations and analyses later collected under this academic definition of “post-operaismo.” These analyses attempted to overturn the annihilating - and complementary – images of the end of history and pensée unique. The polemical objective was, and remains, correct, but it’s practical development was often lacking. Some of these conceptual efforts were problematic from the beginning, for reasons that I touched on briefly before - above all the idea that political composition automatically derives from technical composition; others have been extremely productive and can continue to be so as long as they are rethought within the changes that have taken place in the crisis, and as long as “post-operaismo” is no longer considered to be a complex model. But if we don’t start again from the beginning, finding new political instruments, we risk going backward, ossifying categories, transforming them into dogmas, making operaismo into something that it never was: a school and not a movement of thought. Seeing operaismo as a school of thought would open up its entire theoretical and revolutionary system to attack. However irrelevant the academic critiques were, it would move the debate towards defending concepts rather than making them useful for struggles. It would risk dragging everything into political marginality. In a recent political seminar a comrade rightly noted that young people don’t leave home when their parents chase them away, but when they can’t take it anymore. The house of “post-operaismo” is no longer productive for our revolutionary tasks and so we will try to complete that original move that operaismo carried out with respect to Marx: the Machiavellian return to principles, that is, to Marx, against Marxism. Now the task is to return to operaismo against its “post,” or at the very least in a way that is radically critical of that which no longer works, or of that which never worked. If we do that, then we retain what is useful to us, and rethink the roots of the rest. 

DGL: For example, given the processes of the stratification and industrialization of labor, is cognitive capitalism still a useful category? 

GR: It is better to talk about the “cognitivization of labor” in order to, on the one hand, clearly differentiate from the obscure category of immaterial labor, and on the other hand to insist on the process of the global reorganization and hierarchization of the forms of production and exploitation in a period in which knowledge is becoming increasingly central to the accumulation of capital, thus avoiding slipping into the identification between cognitive labor and subjects defined in a sectorial sense, or rather into an opposition between manual laborers and intellectual workers, and imagining the supposed most advanced point of the technical composition (the knowledge worker) as the most advanced point of struggle. And so any idea of a progressive linearity must be fought against: the cognitivization of labor also means the cognitivization of exploitation and measure, and the cognitivization of hierarchies and tasks. 

We should stress that the global economic crisis has accelerated the processes of stratification and differentiation that were already taking place in contradictory forms and with different levels of intensity in different sectors and in different parts of the world. Taking up Alquati’s line, Salvatore Cominu speaks of the industrialization of cognitive labor: competences, functions, and professionality, previously deemed inseparable from the person and the social cooperation in which they took place, are now subjected to processes of real subsumption within the production of goods and of knowledge, of services and of consumption and reproduction time, etc. As has always happened in the industrial system, this is simultaneously the expropriation of knowledge and the strengthening of its combined form. But it is a strengthening for capital accumulation, which increases social cooperation while feeding on human capacity, incorporating it into the Marxian automatic system of machines. With the cognitivization of labor, homo faber has become sapiens and homo sapiens has become faber. At least in part, cognitivization and banalization go hand in hand. 

Starting from Alquati’s research on the university in the 1970s, sapere vivo was used to define the new quality of living labor in a historically determined way, or rather social knowledge’s tendential incorporation within living labor. This doesn’t mean simply pointing out the central role assumed by knowledge and science in contemporary forms of production and accumulation, but means looking at their socialization and their incarnation in living labor. In the 1970s this socialization came about through struggles, through the refusal of labor, through reappropriation, through workers’ autonomy: this was the “social worker” (operaio sociale) as a political rather than a technical figure. Today, more than forty years on, the relationships of force have been inverted: socialization takes place primarily in a forced way, starting from capital’s needs. Knowledge is neither good nor neutral in itself, as many on the left think: it is the fruit of a relationship of production, therefore a relationship of conflict and of force. It is a commodity like others, with its own peculiarities that can be grasped, inverted and counter-deployed. In the passage from the “social worker” to the cognitive laborer, the subject was incarnated technically and disincarnated politically. The “social worker” was transformed into an actor of innovation and precarity. It continued to be social, it stopped being a worker.

It is from this point that we must begin again, within and against the present. Our hypothesis, perhaps overly forced and simplistic, is that in the crisis today the recomposition of the destructured middle class and the hierarchized proletariat in the process of the “cognitivization” and reproduction of active human capacity could be the functional equivalent of the alliance between workers and peasants in the crisis of the First World War. We say “it could be” obviously because whether it is or not depends on us, on a potential us, on an us that isn’t limited to what we currently are. If we don’t have the capacity to recompose ourselves, the middle class and the proletariat will be susceptible to reactionary alternatives, or at least they will reproduce themselves as fragments created by the government of the crisis. Today more than ever we must move within the ambiguity of the process with a unilateral point of view, with extreme tactical flexibility and a tough strategic rigidity: better the messiness of the real than the purity of ideology, better to dispute the social territories of the conflictual materialist right than to take up preaching with the faint-hearted idealist left, better the problems of militant coresearch than the useless security of activist selfies. To use the words of the poet, “where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

DGL: More than a hundred years have now passed since the Russian Revolution, in what way did operaismo in the 1970s use Lenin and how can reflecting on the Leninist experience still be useful today? 

GR: When a terrified Churchill described Lenin as a plague bacillus transported in a sealed German truck he involuntarily supplied us with an extraordinary definition of what a revolutionary militant is: a bacteria carrying the plague. And Lenin committed himself to organizing this bacteria. Marx showed us the mechanisms of the capitalist machine, the question – which would return in operaismo, and which we must keep in mind in our militant practice – is how not to remain trapped in this mechanism, how to break the closed circle. Where to hit it, how to spread the plague, in what way and at what points we can destroy the enemy, starting not from the laws of the movement of capital, but from the laws of the movement of the working class within and against capitalist society. This is where we see both Lenin’s continuity with, and his overturning of, Marx. 

The historicist and objectivist Lenin faithful to stages of development that has been handed down to us by Leninism is a complete misrepresentation and must be abandoned. Throughout his life Lenin continuously tried to force, interrupt and overturn the development of capital, or rather to impose revolutionary will within and against history. In his debates with the Russian populists, Lenin didn’t say that the development of capitalism in Russia was necessary and desirable, he said simply that it was a fact. The battle carried out by the revolutionary nardoniki was lost, the war remained to be fought. Given this they needed to look for new forms of expression of revolutionary subjectivity and build adequate forms of organization. This is Lenin’s wager: the industrial proletariat, although seen as being in a “corner” by the populists of his day (who had betrayed the legacy of revolutionary populism), were, in tendency, the front line, “the vanguard of the whole mass of toilers and exploited.”4 Is this tendency destined to be realized thanks to the inevitable laws of the movement of capital? Of course not: only the struggle decides destiny. Everything else remains imprisoned in managing the false certainties of the present. We need to choose, we need to make a wager, we need to dare: “Whoever wants to depict some living phenomenon in its development is inevitably and necessarily confronted with the dilemma of either running ahead or lagging behind.”5 There is no middle way, he argued. That was the case in 1905 and again in February 1917; it is only the “tail-ists” who could think those were bourgeois revolutions and that the proletarians had to wait their turn, had to wait for historical development rather than struggle to hand them socialism and then communism. This is nonsense! We need to be within the revolutionary movement, break its linearity, steer it towards other ends. We need to leap over the stages of development, overthrow the potential of the possible against the misery of the objective. This is the only way to have a revolution against Capital, breaking Marx’s vicious circle. 

The most significant lesson Lenin taught us was that revolutionaries must be prepared for every opportunity, without thinking that they will fall from the sky and transcend the materiality of historical dynamics, organizational continuity, and the patient construction of relations of force. We must methodically create the conditions of possibility to seize the opportunity, to grab the lightning bolt with our bare hands. This is about rethinking the relationship between process and event, or rather duration and leap, in a completely different way: for the simple continuity of the process without the discontinuity of the event leads to objectivism, while the pure discontinuity of the event without the continuity of the process leads to idealism. This is how the Bolshevik leader took the will inherited from the revolutionary populists and stood it on the legs of historical materialism, extracting the historical materialism of Marx from the iron cage of objectivism. 

If we need to forget the Lenin of the Leninists, we also need to forget the Lenin of the anti-Leninists, which in the end amounts to the same thing. Because both reduce him to something he never was, a grey functionary of organization. They forget that in his organization Lenin was almost always a minority, because ultimately a revolutionary always takes a minority line: a minority that isn’t minoritarian, that isn’t the ideology and representation of a marginal identity, but instead has a hegemonic vocation. “Should we dream?” he imagines asking the party’s central committee, to which he replies, yes, because when there is a rift between dreams and reality, when you act materialistically and work conscientiously to realize those dreams, when “there is some connection between dreams and life, then all is well. Of this kind of dreaming there is unfortunately too little in our movement.”6 Just as then, so today, we need to rediscover our ability to dream and to give organized form to that dream. With all due respect to the evolutionist Leninists and those who call themselves anti-Leninists, this is the main lesson of Lenin’s What is to Be Done?. And this is the Lenin that – in a sort of Alquatianism ante litteram – continually critiques the cult of spontaneity as much as the fetish of organization. Spontaneity isn’t always good and isn’t always bad, there are moments in which it is advanced and moments in which it falls behind. In periods of struggle or insurrection, often it is spontaneity that imposes an offensive terrain while organization falls behind and needs to be rethought at that level, on that terrain. In other periods spontaneity disappears or is shaped by the order of discourse of the enemy. Then, organization must reopen paths to its antagonistic development. 

This is more or less the Lenin that, in different ways, emerged from the better bits of operaismo (I recommend, for instance, Factory of Strategy: 33 Lessons on Lenin by Toni Negri). The limit is that their important attempt to take Lenin’s method beyond Lenin isn’t accompanied by an adequate plan of organizational reinvention. It often ended up repeating something which couldn’t be repeated, that is the specific solutions given by Lenin. And when faced with their inevitable failure, there was a repression of the still relevant problems that Lenin had posed regarding the mutable relationship between class composition and forms of revolutionary organization. 

DGL: A final question: in what way should we study the past to modify the present, or, put differently, produce theory with the aim of organizing struggles?

GR: Following on from what we were saying, let’s make one thing clear: the past never tells us what to do in the present. It shows us errors not to be repeated, limits to overcome, wealth to reinvent. It sends us questions, not answers. And it tells us what we must take revenge for. But how can this be done? This question is asked by every generation of militants. If we want to take on a political legacy we shouldn’t transform it into and celebrate it as an empty testimony, we must set it alight, transform it into a weapon against the present. Otherwise, it’s useless. Operaismo, Marx, and Lenin, are for us a partisan political style and a political method. They are not those represented in academic philology, or by the “post-workerist” Marxist and Leninist catechism - these can be abandoned without shedding a tear. The problem for militants is to appropriate tradition without reverential cults and without hypostasizing it: rethinking its wealth, criticizing its limits, discarding that which is no longer useful. That’s what Lenin did with Marx (and also the revolutionary populists), and that’s what the operaisti did with Marx and Lenin. And at the same time we must take up what is useful in the thought of our enemies: as Tronti said, better a great reactionary than a small revolutionary. 

That’s why it’s a problem that at the international level operaismo has been reduced to so-called “post-operaismo”, and largely to the Negri of Empire. We are not interested in questions of intellectual property or of branding – we leave the copyright disputes to the family members of the deceased. What is interesting for us is political usefulness. And it is precisely this reduction of operaismo that deprives many militants of the possibility of exploring the submerged Atlantis of figures like Alquati and thus of finding weapons that are today completely indispensable.

The revolutionary method of operaismo taught us that we need to study that which we want to destroy: capitalism, and the capital that is within us. Those who fall in love with the object of their analysis, so they can reproduce the roles they have acquired within its society, abandon militancy and pass into the enemy camp. It’s not even worth calling it betrayal, it is simply their incapacity to break the separateness of their own condition. Those who choose the individual path will die alone. That which distinguishes the militant is the hatred for that which they study. The militant needs hatred to produce knowledge. A lot of hatred, studying the core of that which they hate most. Militant creativity is above all the science of destruction. So political practice is either pregnant with theory, or it isn’t political practice. We need to study in order to act, we need to act in order to study. And to do the two things together. Now more than ever, this is our political task. 

And we need to teach ourselves to create political methods: it is here that counter-subjectivity is produced in a real rather than ephemeral way, adopting a way of thinking and reasoning that is not standardized (how much conformism there is in the theoretical and practical ambits of the so-called “movement”!), capable therefore of autonomously constructing responses adequate to different situations, able to flexibly modify hypotheses and behaviors beginning from the rigidity of collective ends. The task of autonomous education is to create a common method of reasoning, as well as a transformation and calling into question of the specific procedures through which this method is expressed. This can’t be trusted simply to individuals, but must be organized collectively. 

Educating for what? To rediscover the power of the wager. A materialist wager, a revolutionary wager. A wager on the possibility of transforming the capitalist crisis into a revolutionary crisis, and even before that, of transforming the crisis of political subjectivity into an urgently needed leap forward. To ape that which was there before would be grotesque. Instead we need to study it, to turn it towards our current problems. Autonomy is the continuous readiness to subvert what we are, with the aim of destroying and overturning the existent. It is the construction of a collective perspective of force and possibility beginning from the radical liberation and transformation of the elements that make up the present. This is why autonomy lives in the revolutionary method, not in the slogans of radical merchandising. We need to dare to make a wager, dare to act, dare to have a revolution. Isn’t this, after all, what we live for? 

– Translated by Sarah Jones

References   [ + ]

1. Mario Tronti, Workers and Capital, trans. David Broder (London: Verso, 2019), 233.
2. Tronti, Workers and Capital, 57.
3. The concept of “levels of reality” is a reference to Alquati’s model, his synthesis of the capitalist system. This system is organized hierarchically according to different levels of reality: on the high levels we have the accumulation of dominion and capital, the macro-ends of the system, and on the base levels we have the daily functioning of the system in its immediate and concrete expressions. All of this hinges on the medium level, where we have activity, transformed into labor. This model isn’t a simple summary of the existent, and neither is it structuralist: it is rather, Alquati’s attempt to synthesize the processes through which the whole capitalist system functions, to be able to identify its different dynamics, its ambivalences and its contradictions, thus the possibilities of conflict and of counter-subjectivity, of rupture and escape. To speak of levels from the point of view of the forms of antagonistic organization doesn’t mean imagining a simple overturning of the dialectic of the capitalist model, or re-proposing a symmetry between technical composition and political composition. It instead means attempting to call into question the capitalist hierarchy without ignoring its potential for the stratification and production of subjectivity, that is without limiting ourselves to a sterile testimony of a horizontalist ideology. In a system of social relations that are vertically hierarchical, horizontality is always what is at stake in conflict, never its starting point. The medium range – situated between the levels of abstraction above and the levels of reality below – is the place in which it is possible to consolidate processes of counter-subjectivity, ensuring struggles at the base affect the high levels. For this reason it is the place in which the political revolutionary militant is strategically rooted.
4. V. I. Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, in Collected Works, vol. 3 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 585.
5. Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, 325.
6. Lenin, “What Is To Be Done?,” in Collected Works, Vol. 5 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1961), 509-10.

Authors of the article

is a militant in the Hobo collective, is part of the editorial board of Commonware, and is an autonomous researcher. Among his various books and essays, he is author of The Production of Living Knowledge (Temple University Press, 2011), Futuro anteriore and Gli operaisti (DeriveApprodi, 2002 and 2005), Elogio della militanza and Il treno contro la Storia (DeriveApprodi, 2016 and 2017). This interview makes up the appendix to his most recent book, L’operaismo politico italiano: Genealogia, storia, metodo (DeriveApprodi, 2019).

is a researcher at the Sophiapol of the Université Paris Ouest, has written articles in international scientific journals, and regularly collaborates with several Italian and French blogs on social and political theory. He is part of the Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes.